Sawant calls City Hall hearing for struggling 23rd Ave businesses — UPDATE


Sunday, SDOT canceled the Valentine’s Day work planned for 23rd and Jackson at the request of the corner’s Flowers Just 4U

District 3’s councilor is cranking up pressure on the City of Seattle to further help small businesses beleaguered by street construction on 23rd Ave. City Council member Kshama Sawant will bring together City officials and businesses owners for a hearing Tuesday morning to discuss what else can be done to help the struggling merchants.

“It’s primarily to listen to what troubles they are facing in a detailed manner,” Sawant said. “I want the Council and the Mayor’s office to understand this is not a fringe issue.”

Business owners slated to attend include Sara Mae of 701 Coffee, Justin Gerardy of Standard Brewing, Nop Zay of Mamas Cafe, and Saad Ali of 99 Cent Plus. Some have said their business has dwindled to a trickle as the 23rd Ave overhaul has diverted traffic and pushed pedestrians off sidewalks.

The road construction project spanning Montlake, Capitol Hill, and the Central District will transform 23rd Ave 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 the overhauled street will undoubtedly be a long-term asset for the area, the planned phases of the construction have stretched out and put the blocks of 23rd Ave where work is currently focused into a longer than expected period of challenged access and closed intersections.

Mae has been the leading force behind organizing 23rd Ave businesses to pressure elected officials to do more to help. After weeks of posting about the problems on social media, the City responded with a Mayor-directed plan for more assistance. The Office of Economic Development will be providing a $102,000 grant to the Central Area Collaborative to bolster marketing for the area and business support — but not direct mitigation payments to area businesses.

The CAC says it will also use the city funds to study a tax relief program for developers that rent commercial space to small businesses in the Central District. “I am looking forward to building on previous community efforts to ensure that the culturally- vibrant Central Area thrives economically for all its neighborhood members.” said CAC’s Hayward Watson in a statement.

Businesses in the area want financial mitigation to help them stay afloat during the construction. Cash relief would not be unprecedented, even though officials say city policy prohibits it. Fifteen waterfront businesses were offered a chunk of $15 million to close during the reconstruction of the seawall. SDOT says it was an exception because the project required all access to the businesses to be removed.

The Mayor-directed plan also calls for SDOT to reorder its construction schedule to reopen 23rd Ave between Jackson and Yesler in March, one to two months earlier than currently planned. SDOT will also introduce a variant of the Construction Hub program that has been utilized to help improve conditions for businesses around Pike/Pine.

The new attention to the plight of small businesses in the area has created a more flexible construction schedule for the project. Sunday, SDOT canceled the Valentine’s Day work planned for 23rd and Jackson at the request of the corner’s Flowers Just 4U so the shop could better serve its expected swell of holiday customers.

Still, Sawant says the City should strive to do more. “Our position has to be that were not against infrastructure improvements but we don’t want development that causes displacement,” she said.

Mae and others have called for direct cash assistance, something officials say is out of the question as City policy prohibits it. Sawant has cast doubt on that rationale, citing an exception that was made for waterfront businesses during the seawall reconstruction project.

While it won’t help 23rd Ave businesses in the short term, Sawant is also cooking up a potentially groundbreaking plan for commercial rent control in Seattle. Sawant believes the current statewide ban on rent control may only apply to residential properties.

Sawant also continues her flight to add $10 million to the City’s $7.6 million emergency homeless package and has called a “People’s Assembly” on February 27th at City Hall. The assembly will feature speakers and a series of workshops on issues like a millionaires tax and tenants rights.

Meanwhile, the second-term councilor says she’s not considering jumping into the 43rd District state House race or the 7th Congressional District race. “I am extremely focused on my duties as a City Council member,” she tells CHS.

UPDATE: The 23rd Ave session will be part of Tuesday morning’s full council briefing:

  • 23rd Avenue Construction – Community Impacts(Kate Joncas, Mayor’s Office; Brian de Place, Street Use Director, Seattle Department of Transportation; Brian Surrat, Office of Economic Development; Gerald Hankerson, Main Street Alliance and NAACP; John Stewart, Feet First; Justin Gerardu, Sara Mae Brereton, Nop Zay, Saad Ali, Local Business Owners)
    10:10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

You can tune in here.

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UPDATE 2/16/16: The City Council’s session with 23rd Ave business owners faced challenges from the start in simply making enough space at the table for everybody — from 23rd and Cherry to City Hall — involved.

“As the NAACP has said, we want development without displacement,” Sawant said, introducing the session and emphasizing that she supports the infrastructure improvements in the area. She also said she believes that City Hall staff have been doing their jobs but that Seattle’s approach to this kind of construction project needs to change.

“We have to discuss the double standard,” Sawant said, referencing mitigation funds made to waterfront businesses. “We know what’s happening here. It’s part of a bigger project of gentrification.”

Nop Zay

Nop Zay

Kate Joncas of the Mayor’s office said the the City’s law department considered the possibility of mitigation funds for 23rd Ave businesses and decided the impacts would not be as severe as on the waterfront.

Joncas suggested the City Council schedule a briefing with the law department to get further clarification on how that decision was made, though some Council members were already convinced that direct cash assistance or loans should be made available.

“The businesses have a right but they have no remedy. The remedy is mitigation,” said Council member Debora Juarez.

Sara Mae read a statement and said her family is on the brink of homelessness while criticizing the supposed phasing of the construction work. Mae revealed a meeting with Mayor Ed Murray on Saturday in which he reportedly said that something had clearly gone wrong with the project.

Construction has also stalled a planned expansion of Standard Brewing, according to owner Justin Gerardy. 

“You’re killing us. We can’t survive,” a local jeweler said.

“We need everybody, please wake up and help the small businesses,” Nop Zay of Mamas Cafe said through tears.

Council president Bruce Harrell said the briefing would be the start of sorting out the issue in future committee sessions.

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17 thoughts on “Sawant calls City Hall hearing for struggling 23rd Ave businesses — UPDATE

    • Credit where due, this is better than her first response which was to encourage us to walk down 23d, and support the businesses. I’m afraid that anything short of financial assistance is going to fall short, and it may be that no amount of money will be enough. I hope SDOT will give more consideration to collateral damage the next time it decides to close a major thoroughfare for months on end.

    • I’m not a fan but you know what, she is doing exactly what she should be– advocating for her district. I applaud her on this.

    • @Richard- What’s wrong with you and others who feel these businesses provide a service you value with patronizing them? The reason they are struggling is lack of business so please do more than just advocate others fleece the public tax coffers. Literally thousands and thousands of viable businesses have to deal with construction every year and survive. Remember, we are already spending tens of millions on a project that is intended to help 23rd Ave businesses. The viable businesses see this as an opportunity while those with no plan see this as an avenue to a bailout for poor decision making.

    • As per yours: 1. There’s something wrong with me. 2. The businesses that are struggling aren’t viable. 3. Helping these businesses would be fleecing the public tax coffers. 4. We’re already spending tens of millions of dollars.

      1. There very well might be something wrong with me. I can’t speak for the “others.” 2. No one has indicated these businesses were not viable before their business was disrupted. 3. Fleece is deceit. I see a hand extended for help, not deceit. 4. So? Spend some more.

      I do, however, see how avaricious capitalism rules, even with a socialist district rep.

  1. Horrible reporting. This isn’t a hearing. This is going to be held at Council Briefing. Stop pumping up what she does. This isn’t fucking Congress. Council doesn’t hold hearings.

    • Well, this isn’t journalism. It’s an opinion blog, so it reflects the attitudes / biases of its authors pretty openly. But it does have lots of helpful info, even if the “reporting” is totally biased. But — remember, old-fashioned “journalism” was pretty biased too, just less openly. Lots of stuff covered on this blog is not covered elsewhere. For example, the business owners on 23rd get their issues out here, not though “journalism”.

      So, okay, it’s not a hearing, it’s a briefing, and yes CHS is (as usual) presenting the story to put Sawant in a favorable light, regardless of the facts. Such traditional journalism as Seattle still has is of course biased against Sawant, so maybe if you follow both stuff like this and traditional news you’d get a somewhat more complete picture.

  2. City policy prohibits it unless there has been a Full Taking. Business is down 80%…that’s an effective closure. It’s open doors with virtually no customers.

    We had 13 customers today. Ms. Z up the street has 1 customer the other day.

    Surratt is offering so-called Enhanced Marketing…since the 12 months of marketing we have received so far in the form of Businesses Are Open signs are a complete flop. Surratt says he needs to figure out what customers would come to our businesses and where they are…Surratt, you should have had this stuff worked out already, you’ve had TWELVE MONTHS! Another 12 months of his sub-par work will more than assure the Culture, and Character of 23rd Ave Small Businesses will be wiped from the slate.

    Seriously, they are offering what’s called Technical Support now…you can’t make this stuff up! What exactly is Technical Support?

    Mayor Murray acknowledged to me in a face-to-face on Saturday that something has gone very wrong here. Now that he acknowledges it, he need to step up, own this man-made disaster under his watch, and take the only action that will give relief to all these businesses: Mitigation Money NOW.

    • Thank you for continuing the fight, Sara Mae. The city could do a lot more, including limiting the sidewalk closures and reroutes. I live over by 23rd and Jackson and I sometimes suggest to neighbors that we head up to 701 coffee, but the reality is that it is a pain to walk to. The sidewalks are closed in such a way that you have to cross multiple times even if you want to walk in a straight line up 23rd. It is a huge hassle and near impossible for many older people or people with disabilities. The whole intersection at 23rd and Yesler has been closed on and off, but I see many pedestrians making dangerous dashes across the street anyway (because waiting through the lights and taking a block detour does add up a lot of time.) Having the bus stops changed frequently is another problem that keeps me from going to businesses–sometimes the bus blows right past stops and we have to get off multiple stops later. I hope you receive the financial aid that you deserve. Please feel free to use my comments at the meeting tomorrow.

  3. No mitigation money whatsoever; that would set a horrible precedent and put taxpayers on the line for any of the countless mistakes and inefficiencies of government. It is unfortunate that this project has taken far longer than it should but this is yet another reason why government is not the best at getting things done.

    This should inspire us all to demand that our government relinquish some of its powers. Had this been a private infrastructure project that had to be accountable to a bottom line then it would have finished a year ago and there would be no discussion of mitigation funds.

    • I am not clear how this project would have been “finished a year ago” when it just started in June of 2015?

      Believe me that I have been frustrated by this project and the impact it has on the only main thoroughfare the connects the CD fully to neighborhoods both to the north and south. But hyperbolic statements do not really help either.

  4. So what if the “policy” in the past has been to not provide mitigation money for projects like this? CHANGE THE POLICY!
    It doesn’t have to set a precedent…..each project can be evaluated on its own merits, depending on location, how many businesses are affected, duration of the work, etc.

    • Bob, a huge goal of this project is to make 23rd more pedestrian and business friendly. We are spending tens of millions of dollars to help 23rd Ave businesses and comercial property owners. I have zero sympathy for at least one business that opened knowing full well a major construction project was about to begin. There is no reason the taxpayer should be supporting reckless decisions especially in a location that has proven to be nonviable to other businesses when this project was not a factor. If you want more money to flow into these businesses than get up and go patronize them and bring some friends.

  5. Do you people realize how prohibitively expensive infrastructure projects could become if the city was required to supplement adjacent businesses with cash? That sort of payment scheme could be so gamed it would become a poster child for government waste.

    Conceptually, the idea of compensation seems cool – and highly rational, but in reality it would be all about fraud, abuse, and the massive ballooning of project costs. I’m pretty sure that’s why at some point in Seattle’s history it was made illegal.

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