City responds on 23rd Avenue mess

Mayor Ed Murray just held a press conference to announce a number of steps that the city will take to improve matters related to the 23rd Avenue construction project — including mitigation funds for small businesses.

Murray said that there were three steps they were taking related to the project:

  1. Establishing a $650,000 mitigation fund to provide financial aid to small businesses impacted by the project;
  2. Revise the project plan to make it more efficient and to reduce impacts to the community;
  3. Address the accusation that the project is a deliberate attempt to “gentrify” the neighborhood and displace the existing businesses — many of which are minority-owned — and local residents.

Murray began by admitting that the city government is far too siloed, and because of that it does a poor job of communicating between departments and to the general public about what is happening. In this case, SDOT did a poor job of communicating about the delays in the project and its intended response of taking on multiple phases simultaneously, and it didn’t work closely enough with Department of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Neighborhoods to have a two-way dialogue with the community about impacts. But he did say unambiguously “It’s clear that the businesses need help.”

The details of the mitigation fund are a bit complex. The Washington State Constitution prevents city dollars to be given (meaning as a gift) to businesses, but there are no such restrictions on state or federal funds. So the city has identified $650,000 in federal funds it can use for business impact mitigation: $400,000 from federal community development block grants, and $250,000 from new market tax credits. The fund will target “micro-businesses” of 5 employees or less (a restriction on the source funds) who can demonstrate a need. A business can use the funds for operational expenses or for improvements to their business location. The exact eligibility rules will be firmed up over the next two days so that they can take it to the City Council, which must approve the plan. They hope to do that quickly and get the program up and running in the next few weeks (they need a few weeks to make sure they are doing it correctly and legally). Their estimate is that the 20-30 most vulnerable businesses will qualify for mitigation funds.

SDOT Director Scott Kubly laid out several changes to the construction project itself:

  • They will be using offsite locations to store materials, rather than along the streets;
  • They will have private parking lots for contractors’ employees, thus freeing up more parking along 23rd Avenue for customers of local businesses;
  • They will make customized, individualized signs for businesses rather than the generic “businesses are open” signs spread down the corridor;
  • They will re-sequence aspects of the project, tightening up work zones opening up more blocks to 2-way traffic, potentially working north-south instead of south-north in order to give the businesses in the middle of the construction zone a break;
  • they will be more restrictive about when they entirely close a block to traffic;
  • they will look to accelerate the entire project (though it is still projected to finish in February of 2017).

Murray felt strongly that the project, planned and set in motion before he took office, is important and serves a need. But he wants to take a step back (without stopping the project) to ask “Is this project inherently racist?” That will involve a deep conversation with the neighborhood to look at the impact and whether its design inevitably leads to displacing the existing businesses and African-American residents in favor of gentrification. Murray intends to use the city’s Racial and Social Justice Initiative Toolkit to direct the conversation, and he feels confident that it will give a definitive answer. He committed that if the conclusion is that the project hurts the community, rather than helping it, he will “shut it down.” But he also emphasized that for him it’s important to be asking whether we continue to invest in major infrastructure upgrades to all neighborhoods in the city, versus leaving some of them the way they are — maintaining their current character but less well maintained than other parts of the city.

When asked what key learnings this situation has provided, Murray reiterated his earlier comment that he is amazed by the extent to which the city government is siloed. He is trying to address it by centralizing planning, and looking to projects such as the Lake City construction as opportunities for reinventing the process — including how the neighborhood is involved and in the loop at every step. He also said that the city is learning that when embarking on major infrastructure upgrade projects it needs to understand the nature of the neighborhood, the nature of the businesses in it, and what the city can do for them.

“Road projects are going to happen,” Murray said, “and we need to get better at them.”

UPDATE:  Here’s Mayor Murray’s statement.