Mitigation money is on the way for struggling 23rd Ave small business owners who have been calling for help to cope with a two-year overhaul of their busy corridor.
Mayor Ed Murray announced Wednesday afternoon he is creating a federally-backed $650,000 fund to help keep the doors open on businesses most at risk of closing. To qualify for assistance, businesses must have five or fewer employees and demonstrate the project has negatively impacted the business.
Murray also ordered a race and social justice analysis of the project to examine claims made that the project was a systematic attempt to displace minorities and lower income people. If it turns out the project was racist in nature, Murray said “I will shut it down.”
“This isn’t an issue of some people love it some people hate it,” Murray said. “This is a question of is this project intrinsically racist. Is it going to move the African American community further out of its historic neighborhood.”
The decision comes after weeks of complaints from business owners and growing calls for more to be done to protect businesses in the neighborhood. It also represents a significant backtrack for City Hall after officials repeatedly said the area’s merchants would not be compensated for business disruptions.
20 to 30 businesses are expected to qualify for mitigation funds, according to the Office of Economic Development. Other details, like how much each business will get, are still being worked out. City officials said the funds would be made available as soon as the City Council approves the plan. City Council member and District 3 rep Kshama Sawant told CHS she wants that to happen this week.
The road construction projects spanning Montlake, Capitol Hill, and the Central District will transform the street into a new configuration with a center left-turn lane and improve the pedestrian and sidewalk experience. The new layout will allow buses to pull completely out of the traffic lane at stops. Crews are also replacing a 100-year-old water main between E Madison and E Union. While supporters of the businesses have mostly said the investment in the neighborhood is welcome, problems with the timing and phases of the work have created an environment much more difficult to weather than was promised by the Seattle Department of Transportation.
“Obviously there have been problems with the implementation of this project,” Murray said.
City officials had previously said it was against City policy to offer direct mitigation funds to businesses. By using $400,000 of federal Community Development Block Grants already under City control, Murray said the City can avoid running afoul of those policies and the state constitution. The other $250,000 will come from the Seattle Investment Fund — a private corporation created by the City that manages fees generated through a federal tax credit program.
The money comes on top of a response pledged earlier this month involving marketing funding and better coordination with the city. Last week, Sawant called together a collection of local business owners and city staff to discuss the need for more work to solve the problems. Business owners included Mae of 701 Coffee, Justin Gerardy of Standard Brewing, Nop Zay of Mamas Cafe, and Saad Ali of 99 Cent Plus. Seattle King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson also attended the public meeting.
As part of Monday’s announcement, the Seattle Department of Transportation said it will be reevaluating how it can better phase the project to help businesses, and will work on securing off site locations for contractor parking and storing construction equipment.
The announcement comes after business owners began calling on City Hall to help them cope with the construction project that has choked traffic and forced pedestrians off of sidewalks. 701 Coffee owner Sara Mae helped lead the way to bring more attention to the issues. In January, she told CHS her coffee shop was seeing 70 or more customers a day. After the construction started, Mae said she was lucky to get 20 people inside the door. “My wife works full time, that’s only reason why we’re still open,” she told CHS.
Murray said he supports the decision of the previous administration of moving ahead with the infrastructure project, which is scheduled to be complete in February 2017. Sawant, who said she supported Murray’s action, had previously invited business owners to brief council members on why they needed mitigation funds.
“This is their activism that really brought this to bear,” Sawant said. “We helped generate the political will to do this.”
While the mitigation money might be enough for the small businesses of 23rd Ave to weather the construction project, larger challenges — and opportunities — are also on the way with a new wave of investment and development targeting the neighborhood.
— Kshama Sawant (@cmkshama) February 23, 2016
701 Coffee owner Sara Mae, one of the most vocal business owners in calling for mitigation funds, thanked they Mayor but said $650,000 would not be enough. “We need this mitigation money pronto,” she said.
That appears to be the plan. OED director Brian Surratt said the first checks would start arriving at businesses within weeks. By the end of this week, OED plans to have a place online where businesses can register to get regular updates on the process.
Surratt also urged owner to begin gathering tax and expense reports so the means-tested funds can be quickly distributed. OED is also planning workshops on the process and developing an intake form for businesses to file. Business not eligible for direct assistance may still be able to receive deferments on their utilities and business license tax.
Addressing concerns about organizations jockeying to be a fiscal agent for the fund, Surratt said the City would not seek a third party administrator. “Given the scale and estimated number of businesses, we feel like we can manage this internally,” he said.
The 23rd Ave corridor overhaul was scheduled to span 20 months in the first phase, broken into three zones. Outcry over the project took hold late last year when work on the second zone started before work on the first was finished. Kubly said it was due to a light pole contractor that failed to complete its work on time and was subsequently fired.
Rather than waiting for two-way traffic to open in the first zone before restricting traffic in the second, Kubly decided to keep the overall project timeline on track while making construction impacts more intense in the short term. City Council member Lisa Herbold told Kubly Tuesday morning the City should have consulted with local businesses first.
“A lot of times we’re faced with decisions that were made very quickly,” Kubly said
The 23rd Ave corridor has been notoriously unsafe for pedestrians. Prior to the 23rd Ave project, the City says there were 900 collisions in five years, including four fatalities.