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.
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.”
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.
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.