23rd Avenue project: “These businesses are being choked.”

The big conversation at this morning’s Council Briefing was, as expected, the 23rd Avenue construction project. The briefing on the project, requested and organized by Council member Kshama Sawant (and in whose district the project resides), featured two panels: the first had several local business owners and a representative of the NAACP, and the second had Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas and representatives from the Office of Economic Development and the Seattle Department of Transportation.

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow; you can watch it yourself, and it’s worth doing so to hear the stories of the impact of the project on small businesses.

But here are the big take-aways:

  1. The $34.4 million 23rd Avenue project, covering 15 blocks between Madison and Jackson, is intended to improve safety for cars, pedestrians, bikes and pets. It was originally planned and approved to occur in three geographic phases to minimize the impact on the community.  But according to city officials, Phase 1 — which broke ground last July — ran into problems and fell well behind. The city decided to start work on Phase 2 simultaneously rather than wait for Phase 1 to complete, in order to prevent the end-date of the entire project from slipping out even farther. And “early utility work” began last October in the Phase 3 area. So at the moment there is major construction work happening along the entire length of the project site. One local business owner said “We have an entire corridor that feels like a war zone.”
  2. The delays and the simultaneous work on multiple phases has caused a major disruption to the local community — both residences and businesses. Most importantly, it has driven away customers from businesses. Some small businesses have seen revenue drops of 70-80%. And it has gone on long enough that several businesses — including some who have been there for decades — have exhausted their savings and are on the verge of going out of business.
  3. The city’s original plan for the project included some money for marketing programs to try to ensure that the community was aware that the businesses are still open despite the ongoing construction. Those marketing efforts have utterly failed.
  4. When the waterfront seawall project was planned, money was included as mitigation payments to businesses (both small and large) that needed to close during the construction because there would have been no safe and easy access to their storefronts. But the city did not include mitigation funds in the 23rd Avenue project, and is claiming that it is against city policy to do so.  This is leading to credible accusations of a double-standard, where larger, more powerful businesses in one neighborhood get help in ways that smaller minority-run businesses in the Central District cannot. Summing up the situation with both the disastrous project and the lack of mitigation assistance, The NAACP representative said “You would never do this to any other neighborhood in the city. Why would you do it to the Central District?”  (and he’s right).
  5. Even if the city’s original 3-phase plan would not have created enough disruption to create financial distress for local businesses, they are clearly not on that plan now (as Council President Harrell pointed out), and they have clearly created a significant amount of financial distress. Councilmember Juarez described the situation as “The business owners have a right but no remedy.” Harrell summed it up as “These businesses are being choked.”
  6. The city staff, though unwilling to phrase it as such, is obviously worried about creating a slippery slope where mitigation payments must be considered for every street construction project. There is “a long list” of them, as Council member O’Brien pointed out, and it would be a huge logistical and financial burden for the city to have mitigation payments for many or all of them.
  7. Nevertheless, it was clear that a majority of the City Council wants to look at mitigation to help the local businesses stay afloat. Council member Burgess asked directly whether there were legal reasons why mitigation payments couldn’t be done, but city staff refused to answer and redirected him to the City Attorney (who was not present). Council member O’Brien bluntly pointed out that the marketing program isn’t working, and rather than continue that program the funds should be redirected “in other ways that actually help.”
  8. The city staff had no good answers for anything: no explanation on how the project went wrong or how they were working to get it back on track; no ideas for how to give any sort of effective assistance to local business owners; and no thoughts on mitigation payments other than “it’s city policy not to do them.” They were very defensive, and didn’t volunteer much of anything to help other than repeating the things they are already doing that aren’t helping.
  9. Council members feel a strong sense of urgency and want to see action immediately, and Harrell reinforced that notion explicitly. Sawant, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee that oversees Seattle City Light, has already pushed SCL to agree to defer electric bill payments for any affected businesses in the 23rd Avenue corridor. Council member Herbold, who chairs the Civil RIghts, Utilities, Economic Development & Arts Committee that oversees Seattle Public Utilities, will try to do the same with SPU. Harrell called for a working session, and O’Brien will take up the project in his March 1st Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting (though that is far off, so don’t be surprised if a meeting is called much earlier than that since many businesses might fail before then). O’Brien said “There is a structural problem in how we plan our construction projects, that needs to get fixed, but we also need to address the immediate crisis.”
  10. There is a separate question about whether the project is living up to its Priority Hire goals to support the hiring of women, underrepresented minorities, and people who live in “financially distressed ZIP codes.” Deputy mayor Joncas quickly relayed a few figures that made it sound that the project was meeting the goals, but the NAACP representative claimed that from his observation the project is missing. There will be further discussion and followup on that — Council member Johnson in particular wanted more information.
  11. Very little got done this morning, other than airing issues and uncovering the lack of appropriate response from the city. But the Council is well aware of the issues — thanks to Sawant, who has done an admirable job of raising the public visibility of this problem.

UPDATE: I took a walk along the entire length of the 23rd Avenue project and took photos. Here is my report.