By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Some Triangle-area businesses are worried that the Fauntleroy Boulevard project has too much in common with the 23rd Avenue project on the other side of Elliott Bay.
That was one of the concerns voiced during the launch meeting for the new Fauntleroy Way Neighborhood and Business Association.
Not only did last Wednesday’s meeting draw about two dozen business reps and residents, it also drew the former City Councilmember who long advocated for the project – Tom Rasmussen – and the current City Councilmember who is somewhat shepherding it now – Lisa Herbold. (Both are West Seattleites.)
First, a bit of backstory in case you aren’t caught up on the recent “re-activation” of the project:
It involves the almost-half-mile stretch of Fauntleroy Way SW through the West Seattle Triangle, between 35th SW (the southwest end of the West Seattle Bridge) and SW Alaska.
The concept of turning it into a “boulevard” – with a green median – has been discussed for years (including during the Triangle Plan meetings in 2011). But the money for the transformation wasn’t budgeted until after Mayor Murray announced in 2015 that he was adding it to the second draft of the Move Seattle levy, which voters approved that fall. Late last year, SDOT declared the project officially “re-activated.”
Various existing groups had been talking about it. But none were based in the affected area – until this new group announced itself last month, issuing an open invitation to a launch meeting inside a commercial building that is in the heart of the project zone, 4480 Fauntleroy Way SW.
The building itself has gone through changes – a change of ownership less than three years ago, followed by a change in the businesses that are tenants there, with Rudy’s Barbershop and Realfine Coffee moving in, Diva Espresso, Maestro Motors, and A-1 Computers (the latter two moved to another building on Fauntleroy Way in The Triangle, about a block south) moving out.
But, its current tenants say, the changes they’re facing are far more dramatic. The current two-thirds-of-the-way-there plan shows 4480 Fauntleroy Way SW losing its off- and on-street parking spaces, since the city plans to build the project entirely in right of way, some of which has been long used by the businesses. And it changes many of the ways used to get to businesses along the stretch, including turning opportunities.
So the new association was born. “We felt a lot of businesses and neighbors were affected by this project, and we wanted to have a collective voice,” said Katie Trent from Rudy’s (which opened exactly two years ago today) as the meeting opened. She was joined at the front of the room by Julie Mierzwiak, a longtime West Seattle barista who opened Realfine as a longtime dream come true, and by two other Rudy’s reps, West Seattle manager Isabel Tirado and company executive Jeff Calkins.
Tirado picked up the backstory, with the city getting to “60 percent design” in 2014. Under that design, she said, “they are adding a lot of things, which means they are taking away a lot of things – street parking, businesses’ use of the city right-of-way … left turns … right-turn pockets.” She acknowledged that the city has said it’s doing new traffic studies: “We feel like SDOT is addressing a lot of the issues around traffic flow, but not addressing a lot of the issues around businesses, and that’s why we are here today.”
Calkins then brought in the example of 23rd Avenue in the Central District and Capitol Hill (here’s a CapitolHillSeattle.com story with a lot of background), work that lasted for more than a year and half, and has led to much angst among businesses in the area. Some businesses, Calkins said, reported losing half their revenue during construction and are “still recovering.” A barbershop there, he said, lost its five fulltime employees and is still trying to rebuild. As he noted, the city eventually offered some financial assistance to businesses – $25,000 each on average – while contending they would “be rewarded with more foot traffic.”
Logistics during the Fauntleroy work are a big concern, said Mierzwiak. “We’re not certain if the sidewalks will be accessible during the project to get to the businesses,” and the possibility that eastbound traffic will be rerouted to SW Alaska for at least a year – one of two options SDOT is considering, the WS Transportation Coalition was told last week – is worrisome too. “Heavy congestion wll cause residents to avoid the area … after construction, loss of egress and ingress opportunities … here we will lose our parking lot and street parking … leaving a small strip that comes up to our (front door)”
Mierzwiak grew emotional as she continued, saying she had searched for an ideal place, “on the right side of the road … on the way to WS Bridge … to capture commuter traffic,” and that she is still “ramping up” her business. “My focus with Realfine was to bring the community together and in 15 months I feel like I’ve done that …” She quoted a customer who said he’s been all over the world but had never been to a coffee shop where he heard someone telling the staff/proprietor someone “I love you” as they leave. “So this is really scary for me.”
Trent focused on whether the project plan had the right priorities. “We feel the project places too much on beautification, pedestrian, bike (facilities) … they’re calling it Fauntleroy Boulevard but it’s not Fauntleroy Boulevard, it’s Fauntleroy Way … it’ll be a nicer entrance to WS, we can all agree on that, but for businesses, it’s probably not in our best interests.
She read an e-mail from a businessperson who couldn’t be there, representing Elliott Tire on the north (westbound) side. The e-mail voiced skepticism that the city would maintain the “20 feet of trees (planned) to beautify the corridor,” and suggested a left-turn lane would be of more value.
Bob from Seattle Integrated Martial Arts, also on the north/westbound side of Fauntleroy, said that while his business is one that people could walk up to, there are other businesses in the area that are not walkable in nature. Dry-cleaning dropoff and tire-changing, for example.
Trent said, “What we believe as a group … is that the city should instead use the money to repave” the road. Crosswalks and signage, she suggested, could improve safety. A speed-limit change, too,, “if necessary … We’ve taken a lot of heat for not being concerned with pedestrian safety, that’s not where we’re coming from.”
The floor was opened for discussion/concerns, which included support as well as opposition.
One attendee who said he owns a business outside The Triangle said he foresees a “Montlake-like backup … all the way down the West Seattle Bridge.” He declared himself “an avid bicyclist, I plant trees for a living, but this is a place for cars.”
Nearby resident and community volunteer Nancy Driver, addressing Councilmember Herbold, declared the project “premature because do we know where Sound Transit is going to go? (Is the city) going to spend the money on this, and it gets torn up 10 years later?” when light-rail routing and station locations are settled.
Another attendee, saying she has lived in the area for 30 years but never heard about any public process on the proposal until now, agreed it’s “premature.” She thought the city should spend more time talking with the public.
Michael Taylor-Judd, who chairs the West Seattle Transportation Coalition – which spent much of its meeting the previous week on Fauntleroy Boulevard (WSB coverage here) – took issue with the term “premature,” noting “this was conceived 18 years ago (and) at one point was going to be built around 2010 … this is a long-gestating project.” And, he added, “not something conceived by SDOT at all – it was conceived by the neighborhood here … part of a neighborhood planning project .. that involved a whole lot of outreach.”
Another attendee said that may be so, but in 1999, when the idea first emerged, The Triangle was anchored by the Huling Brothers automotive businesses, where “now there are apartment buildings … and a whole lot more traffic.”
Another attendee suggested incremental implementation, maybe starting with 10 or 20 percent of the plan.
An area business operator suggested SDOT was citing inflated figures of bicycle traffic in the area, such as “500 bicycles coming by (while) one landlord counted 3 in two days.” He said the landlord in question tried to discuss concerns with someone from SDOT who, he said, just kept stressing “the traffic-calming effect” of the planned treed medians. He said city reps didn’t seem to care.
At that point, former councilmember Rasmussen stood up and said that current CM Harbold’s presence was proof “that people from the city care about what (you) have to say.” He said he’s a customer of some of the Triangle businesses, including Wardrobe Cleaners, and feels he knows the area fairly well, and that the project was planned to “fulfill the neighborhood’s vision (and) to make it a safer neighborhood. It’s a changing neighborhood,” with new residential units continuing to be added,” and evolving into a “more walkable neighborhood.” Fauntleroy Way is getting in the way of that as a “barrier and … dangerous street,” Rasmussen said, with SDOT needing to “hear how they can make it (safer) for everyone.” It shouldn’t be thought of “only as a commuter route,” he insisted. “A safer neighborhood is a better place … we want to support businesses but (also) want to recognize evolving residential neighborhoods.”
An angry attendee rose at that point to challenge Rasmussen: “Tell me what’s unsafe now. This is BS. I’m tired of politicians. There are crosswalks.”
Trent stepped in to reiterate that the “20 feet of trees” doesn’t seem necessary, and that being unable to pull up to businesses will put them at risk. “The businesses are new and we’re super-fragile. Most businesses fail within five years,” even without a challenge to their accessibility.
A longtime nearby resident and community advocate, Sharonn Meeks, picked up the theme of change. “Huling used to test drive its cars up our street. We lived through that. We made it through that. That biz scenario dissolved. That property was sold. We’re evolving into a residential neighborhood again. We need your businesses. We want you here. What I’m hearing is. You’re not losing your ingress and egres. What we have here is a bridge that takes you to highways. You’re passing, when you go over this bridge, neighborhoods on this side, that have been here since ’20s. You’re not losing anyting with this arrangement. What you’re gaining here is an opportunity that your businesses can grow on these ground floors. This building won’t be here forever. This corridor – 20 percent of the population of the city starts right here. … I think what we’re gaining here is the old sense of WS that we had when I got here. This is a great community. I appreciate all your opinions and I’m glad you came. I’ve worked on this since 1999. What we have here is not do it or not do it, (but) how do we mitigate the situation that makes you feel you’re still a part of the community, gets people to come to your business, whether you’re in this building or ground floor of an 8-floor building.”
Kandie Jennings, proprietor of Tom’s Automotive Service in The Triangle, rose to speak, saying “we’re going to have to embrace change.” But she also warned that she had something of a preview when a street near her business was closed for a while last summer and that left customers thinking her business was closed. She said it would be important to get the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce involved and the West Seattle Junction Association too, so that the area is speaking “with a unified voice.”
Then Councilmember Herbold spoke, saying not only do the business and residential “stakeholders” need to meet again, but that SDOT and the Office of Economic Development need to be working with them to help, to facilitate the conversation. She said she’s asked them to work together, as they (eventually) did with the 23rd Avenue project, which she called a “great example” of what collaboration could do.
She said she had only recently heard that some of the 60-percent-level design might be “revamped” since conditions had changed in the neighborhood since it was worked on three years ago. And she advised the organizers not to “consider that the (SDOT-stated) options are completed decisions … the department may have a preference, but you can influence that.”
Shortly thereafter, organizers wrapped up the meeting, promising to contact attendees by e-mail, and to work on a letter voicing key concerns: “We plan to stay active on this issue so our voices are heard.”
We checked in with the group’s leadership a few days later, and spokesperson Trent said they were still working on next steps, including “outreach to various City officials and departments with ties to the project. We also spoke with Lisa Herbold and anticipate setting up a meeting between our Association, SDOT, and her office in the near future, perhaps following one of the Walk and Talks scheduled for March 16th and 18th. We enjoyed the conversation between the diverse mix of project supporters and detractors and are energized to keep our efforts moving toward reaching a compromise among the various interests.” You can contact the group at FauntleroyWayAssoc@gmail.com.
Meantime, the city-organized Walk and Talks are open to all – we published the announcement last month; they’re each planned to last about an hour and a half, meeting at noon March 16th and 10:30 am March 18th, both starting from outside LA Fitness at 39th SW/SW Alaska. You can RSVP (optional) via links on the project webpage, where you also will find contact info for comments and questions.