A block-long trench has made it tricky to get to the Owl N’ Thistle on Post Avenue. It’s killing business. Seattle used to refuse to pay businesses to ease the effects of construction. But that’s no longer a firm rule. So the bar’s owner wonders, why can’t he get a little help?
It is not hard to see why business is bad at the Owl N’ Thistle Irish Pub — it is hard to get inside the popular Pioneer Square establishment.
Not hard, like it’s too crowded to get in. Hard, like it’s difficult to figure out how to get to the entrance and then it’s difficult to actually get there.
The entire block of Post Avenue, where the bar sits near the downtown ferry terminal, is currently a trench, maybe 10 feet deep, dug up for street reconstruction.
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The view from the pub is of chain-link fence, which blocks all but the most roundabout route to get to the entrance. It requires a 50-yard traverse along a narrow, fenced corridor of perilously slanted sidewalk.
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“This is the mother of all disruptions,” said longtime co-owner Jack Geary. “It’s hard to tell the place is even open.”
Business is down about 50 percent since the Post Avenue work started several weeks ago, Geary said. Instead of doing about $4,000 a day in sales, they’re doing about $2,000, he said. During prime lunch hour one day this week, about five of the pub’s nearly 150 seats were filled.
Down the block from the Owl N’ Thistle, Robert Whorton, owner of the Colman Building Barber Shop, said business was down at least 40 percent during the first couple of weeks of roadwork, before recovering this week.
And Joseph Kittay, owner of The Good Coffee Company on Post Avenue, said business is down by more than half since construction began.
“But I understand they have to do it,” Kittay said. “The streets and sidewalks were just going to pot.”
While Geary’s dilemma is more extreme than most, Seattle is awash in construction and its cascading effects. The city has a number of ways that it tries to ameliorate those effects on businesses. But they’re not always enough for businesses like Geary’s.
The Seattle Department of Transportation offers help with signage to, hopefully, let customers know that a business remains open. SDOT also does its best to make sure that people can still, physically, get to a business.
“It’s a regular feature of SDOT’s contracts with contractors that you have to retain access to businesses,” SDOT spokesman Paul Elliott said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out how to do that.”
The work on Post Avenue is a four-month, $2 million project that is expected to be done around the end of the year. The street, between Marion and Columbia streets, is technically a century-old bridge, with hidden timber beams supporting a concrete and asphalt roadway.
The bridge — as evidenced by that slanted sidewalk — has sunk over time. The project will replace the wooden bridge with compressed fill material and build a new roadway over that. It will fix the sloping sidewalk too.
“When it’s done it’s going to be nice,” Geary said.
In the interim, SDOT is working to build temporary “land bridges” to cross the trench, connecting pedestrians on the still-open west sidewalk to the businesses on the east side of the street.
But, for now, there’s just a big ditch.
“It’s killing us,” Geary said. His monthly sales-tax bill is due. And the hidden, recurring costs of owning a restaurant — utility bills, insurance, emptying the grease trap, payroll, pest control — don’t go away just because business is down.
Geary said his meetings with the city have been friendly and accommodating but haven’t led to much.
“We should be given a certain amount of compensation, if nothing else to meet payroll,” Geary said. “They say they don’t want to make a precedent, but they’ve already done that.”
Indeed, before last year the city had a policy that it did not offer mitigation money to businesses hurt by city construction, unless there was no access and the business had to shut down.
There’s also a state law that prohibits cities from giving local tax dollars to private businesses.
Instead, the city Office of Economic Development pays for advertising to let people know a business is still open and helps connect a business with loans from outside organizations.
Over the past year, the office has given business consulting help to 26 businesses and referred 24 for loans.
The city held firm until last year, when former Mayor Ed Murray bowed to public pressure and gave mitigation money to small businesses that were hurt by the city’s road work on 23rd Avenue, in the Central District.
“That was the standing policy for a long time,” said Joe Mirabella, a spokesman for the Office of Economic Development. “I don’t think that answer is accurate anymore; 23rd was a major exception to that rule that Ed Murray went with.”
The mostly minority-owned businesses on 23rd Avenue organized and appealed their case to the City Council. The president of the local NAACP accused the city of trying to push black-owned businesses out of Seattle.
Murray used federal grant money to get around the state prohibition on using local funds. Businesses with five or fewer employees and low incomes were given $25,000, out of a total pot of $650,000.
With about 25 employees — full- and part-time — Geary’s pub wouldn’t qualify for such an offer even if it were on the table, which it is not.
But he says his business is still tenuous.
He’s owned the Owl N’ Thistle for 24 years, serving fish and chips, burgers and happy-hour drinks to office workers, Seahawks fans and ferry commuters.
“We’ll see if we are able to meet our bills and if not we’ll just have to cut bait,” Geary said. “This is supposed to last until the new year. Will we?”