Four weeks ago, we covered two community meetings about the impending South Park Bridge closure. During both, local business owners hoped their stories could be told, before the bridge closure endangered their enterprises’ survival. We assigned this story to a student journalist in hopes of continuing to tell those stories.
Story and photos by Briana Watts
University of Washington News Lab
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
“No Cierren El Puente” signs fill the windows of restaurants and businesses along 14th Avenue South. They sit along the street corners and occupy reader boards. The signs read “Do not close the bridge” because the revenue of these family-owned businesses is dependent on the traffic that moves across the South Park Bridge, slated to be closed June 30.
“There’s no way we can survive this,” says Gurdev Singh, co-owner of the South Park 76 gas station and the connected Subway shop on 14th Avenue South.
With the South Park community on one side of the Duwamish River and Boeing Field on the other, the SP Bridge is one of two connectors. Diverting traffic to the other, the First Avenue Bridge, could add 20 minutes to the commutes of South Park Bridge users, which include West Seattle and White Center residents.
“The First Avenue Bridge will be a parking lot,” predicted Bill Owens, owner of Seattle Canine Outfitters.
Hungry Boeing employees come from the east side of the river in droves during the lunch hour, crossing the bridge. Owner of the popular Muy Macho Mexican Grill, Judith Herrera, says that regular customers won’t have time any more during their break to drop by for a chile relleno burrito. She estimates that the business from this weekday lunch group makes up 75 percent to 80 percent of her revenue.
South Park Espresso, just across the street, is in the same situation, says employee Michele Rose. A majority of the coffee customers stop for a cup o’ joe during their morning commute across the South Park Bridge or on their way home in the afternoon.
The South Park community didn’t know the decision had been made to close the bridge, without a plan to replace it, until February, according to these small-business owners. Previously, they said they always understood that King County would find the funds to rebuild, even if it took time.
“I signed a three-year lease on this,” said Seattle Canine Outfitters’ Owens. “I renewed my lease in January. Had I known in January, I probably wouldn’t commit myself to a long-term investment in this neighborhood.”
Like many other structures in the greater Seattle area, the 80-year-old bridge was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. It is now in such poor condition that King County says it is not safe enough to leave open through the summer, according to its Web site.
Earlier this year, the county’s request for federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant money to rebuild the bridge was denied. Linda Thielke, spokesperson for the King County Department of Transportation, noted the TIGER application process was competitive, but said any further comment on the rejection would have to come from the federal government. That doesn’t offer solace or solutions to the community; Singh said it feels like “our government, they don’t care.”
Maybe they just haven’t tried hard enough, some have suggested. “We haven’t put together a package that would be compelling enough in the past,” said Gael Tarleton, Port of Seattle Commissioner, of the federal funding applications. “It’s not just a footbridge — it’s a critical corridor of jobs and economic opportunity. Tarleton is referring to the hundreds of companies in the area that rely on the South Park Bridge and the jobs they create, key to economic recovery, which the TIGER grants are meant to boost.
Conversely, without money to replace the bridge, and with the old one now set to close, area businesspeople fear jobs will be lost. Many of the business owners along 14th Avenue South are frustrated that this is happening even though they pay taxes and ask for little help from the government, even working 13- to 14-hour days to support their families. “It’s a lot of jobs,” said service-station owner Singh. “With the Subway and everything, I have about 12 employees.” Including his own and his co-owners’ families, “that’s about 15 families, just with this business,” Singh continued. “And imagine how many other businesses we have in this area.”
Some also see the funding priorities as a class issue. The Mercer Street Project, at the south end of Lake Union, received TIGER funding needed to move forward at the same time that none was given to the South Park Bridge, a couple of business owners pointed out. That was a federal decision, not a local one, but the ethnically diverse and less-wealthy South Park community still questions whether its vital needs have been given a high-enough priority.
Tarleton says a response plan will be announced by the end of April to help guide South Park through the closure of the bridge and the economic consequences. Beyond this, she said she is very impressed with the level of community activism about the bridge closure.
Another competitive round of TIGER grant applications will take place this summer, and King County will again apply for money to help build a new bridge. But there’s less money available this time, so the amount sought will be smaller, and nowhere near the $120 million-plus that’s needed. So it will take federal, state, and local efforts together to piece together the funding puzzle.
For now, the South Park business owners said the best solution would be to at least leave the bridge open for limited hours or lanes past June 30, or until a temporary or portable bridge is constructed or a new bridge put up. They don’t believe they can manage even six months without the bridge.
“We’re very motivated,” said Thielke. “A lot of people have been coming forward.”
(BRIANA WATTS is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Lab)
NOTE: The county has video interviews with South Park businesspeople on its updated SP Bridge website. See them here.