A few years ago, Frank Taylor moved his barber shop to First Hill, after being displaced by redevelopment at 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street. Then he was sidelined by prostate cancer and frequent medical treatments. Afternoon traffic stinks. Yet he’s still serving customers who manage to drive or walk to Madison Street.
Now he and the neighbors worry about another hardship, when city contractors this month start tearing up Madison to build the RapidRide G Line bus corridor voters approved in 2015. Eventually they’ll reach Taylor’s block between Terry and Boren avenues.
The $133.4 million project is designed to serve 12,000 daily riders, on a direct line from First Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Way East, to be completed in 2024. Buses would arrive as often as six minutes apart at peak times, using bus-only lanes. Riders might save five minutes per trip.
The job requires breaking pavement, pouring new concrete that withstands 45,000-pound buses all day and replacing crumbling sidewalks. The Seattle Department of Transportation promises to communicate and maintain access for walkers and drivers, but past road rebuilds plagued small merchants on 23rd Avenue, and when Sound Transit added train tracks to Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.
“They don’t care nothing about these businesses, that’s how I feel. It’s going to be chaotic,” Taylor predicted, between electric razor strokes near a young man’s ears.
“People are having a tough time as it is, with the COVID. Now you’re throwing this in here, and some of these guys aren’t going to make it.”
Four businesses and two supporters on Taylor’s block, between Boren and Terry avenues, have written Mayor Jenny Durkan to request subsidies for losses during construction.
“A failure to act will result in the loss of many beloved businesses. If we as a city are to honor our dedication to equity and inclusion, the City Council has failed to respond to our original petition for relief and we turn your office to act now,” the letter says.
SDOT held a groundbreaking Sept. 30 with Federal Transit Administrator Nuria Fernandez, whose agency provided $80.5 million in grants. Construction begins this month at First Avenue downtown, and on Madison near Seattle University.
The city hasn’t announced a date to reach the 1000 block, in front of Frank’s Barber & Beauty Salon, where merchants might have a few months before jackhammers arrive.
“That’s good,” said neighbor Thanh Thu Le, co-owner of Pho Saigon, who is not prepared for noise and dust quite yet. Her clientele of nurses and other medical staff from Swedish and Virginia Mason medical centers prefers to sit inside rather than buy takeout.
“The construction will make it really hard. They want to sit down and relax. We’ll keep open, but I don’t feel like we’ll get full of customers like before,” Le said. But she said she believes the RapidRide line will improve her customers’ travel options in the long run.
Mikell Baccus, of Anderson’s Comfort Footwear, wonders if his shop’s clients, including seniors with foot injuries, will still be able to reach the shop by sidewalk or whether relatives will find a place to drop them off nearby.
SDOT promises “in most cases, a walkway will be maintained on at least one side of the street.”
Cars will be detoured to just one lane each way in construction zones. Curbside parking will be permanently removed from crowded blocks to create room for bus lanes and stops in the center of the road.
Taylor guesses 55% of his customers drive. Others use ride-hailing services, walk from nearby apartments or ride a bus.
The Madison merchants’ letter seeks payment for “quantifiable costs” such as lost sales, and higher parking costs as curbside space is reduced.
In the mid-2000s Sound Transit promised exceptional sensitivity to the ethnically diverse community along MLK Way, but work lasted a year longer than planned, and even triggered utility outages. The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund provided marketing aid plus millions in “business interruption” grants when merchants proved through monthly receipts they lost income. Some moved away or folded.
A decade later, the city’s 23rd Avenue rebuild project hindered small businesses in the once Black-majority Central Area. Then-Mayor Ed Murray’s administration said it couldn’t offer relief money, but political heat grew, including an NAACP complaint about gentrification, until the city set aside $650,000 in small-business aid.
Taylor said he was among several merchants who received $25,000 each. “People had to just go through a maze,” to get to his shop and some customers suffered asthma flare-ups, he recalled.
SDOT says it’s not planning to compensate Madison Street businesses. “The Washington state Constitution prohibits the gifting of funds from government to a business or private party,” a spokesperson said. The agency called the 23rd Avenue payments “a onetime use” of federal grants that serve low-income populations.
Chukundi Salisbury, a former state House candidate from South Seattle, suggests the city build an ongoing fund for merchants harmed during public projects and that lawmakers ease the state’s restrictions.
Though project officials “sell the dream” that more travelers will enrich small shops, Salisbury said his experience is that “the transportation-industrial complex, the planner folks, are interested in lines on a map, movement of the cars.” His barbershop near light-rail construction in Rainier Valley went broke, and empty lots and shops remain, Salisbury said.
Seattle’s economic-development department encourages merchants to consider consultant help and low-cost loans. Durkan’s staff pointed to the city’s new $4 million small-business stabilization fund, through which firms can seek $5,000 to $20,000 in federal dollars for COVID-related loss.
Some travelers on First Hill this week were unaware or just reading about the project from SDOT signs plastered at intersections. Some are eager to use a quicker Madison bus line.
“I would probably consider using public transit again,” said Jess Hancock, a hotel guest-services representative, who said she drives instead of taking a 45-minute, two-bus trip from Queen Anne.
About 70% of Virginia Mason Medical Center staff use transit or carpools. “We want to improve and increase transit to First Hill,” said facilities director Betsy Braun. Besides the G Line, she said Metro should preserve local Route 2 on Seneca Street two blocks north, to assure easy access for seniors or other patients who need a bus stop next to the hospital entrance.
The medical center owns the 1000 Madison block, where eventually the master plan would replace old retail storefronts with a hospital building up to 240 feet high.
East of the hill, SDOT will rebuild the whole Madison Street intersection at Martin Luther King Jr. Way East. Three layover lanes will be added for bus drivers to rest in the valley, then return westbound.
Six trees will be removed there next to Coven Salon’s windows. There’s risk of losing clients from as far as West Seattle, if traffic delays worsen, said Misha Pavesich, customer relations manager at the salon. One worry is sidewalk access for people in wheelchairs and walkers, she said, because only one ramp from Madison leads to the hair salon.
“It’s already not an ideal situation,” Pavesich said. In the long run, bus improvements will help the salon’s clients and staff who ride transit, she said.
Outside Vito’s restaurant on Madison, a food delivery driver was adapting to the already-tight spaces, by unloading in a Ninth Avenue no-stops zone, after a parked car blocked the load zone. Floor manager Stephanie Loose said her regular customers are resilient, and will still reach Vito’s front door.
“We’re trying to be positive about it all. But construction is construction and Seattle is full of construction, and people are aware of it,” Loose said.