South Park Bridge: Business owners’ fears as closure date nears

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.

13 Replies to "South Park Bridge: Business owners' fears as closure date nears"

  • Sargon Bighorn April 6, 2010 (11:38 pm)

    The bridge is 80 years old and not safe. Business and people here in America will suffer. Remember, 1 Billion dollars a week is spent in the Near East defeating “The bad guys”. Washington state has a 3 week budget deficit (in national war spending terms) and can’t see it’s way out. The Federal government has all the money it needs to destroy and then rebuild bridges across the Euphrates river, but can’t find the money to rebuild one here in the states. Excuse me, I have a very distorted view of things. I’ll try harder.

  • Iggy April 7, 2010 (8:42 am)

    Seems like they could wait until the Westbound Spokane St. ramp to the West Seattle Bridge (slated to be closed in May) is reopened. Can just imagine the traffic nightmare with two routes to West Seattle gone if the South Park bridge closes.

  • ltfd April 7, 2010 (10:25 am)

    “It’s not just a footbridge — it’s a critical corridor of jobs and economic opportunity.

    Sorry. The feds were obviously convinced by the City of Seattle’s Mercer Street beautification/Vulcan give-away/traffic capacity-lowering Tiger Grant application, as compared to the wording accompanying the Tiger Grant application for the South Park Bridge funding.

    Mercer Street messification wins over bridge replacement.

  • archie April 7, 2010 (12:49 pm)

    There’s no way that the SP bridge would have received TIGER funding even if Seattle had not applied for the Mercer grant. Those grants were awarded to progressive projects, not basic infrastructure needs. Stop blaming Mercer/Seattle for bringing federal money to this region. I blame King County’s dismal roads budget.

  • MJ April 7, 2010 (1:26 pm)

    Well done Briana. Great article about a horrible situation. What a mess for the business owners in South Park. Can’t imagine what sort of response plan Tarleton could possibly announce at the end of April that can “guide” business owners through the economic consequences of bridge closure…losing upwards of 70% of their income.

  • Meghan April 7, 2010 (3:37 pm)

    What an awful situation these people have been thrust in to. How can our government not somehow have the money to replace something as basic as a community bridge? Can you imagine if this were a bridge in Belltown or Bellevue? Somehow I think it’d get re-built, don’t you? But since it only affects working class people and a large immigrant community (and their livelihodds), it’s OK. Of course, if it fell down and killed a few people, a new one would be built immediately. Disgusting.

  • Nancy April 7, 2010 (6:52 pm)

    Safety is certainly a huge issue and while I like this old bridge, if it were to fall then the community who uses it would be crying about why it was allowed to happen. I believe that there is a solution albeit not a perfect immediate solution and some would have to forfeit some of what they currently enjoy but maybe only temporarily. Is it possible for the Army Corps of Engineers to put a temporary bridge in place until a plan is made for a new bridge? Of course, it would have to allow shipping traffic. I don’t know but it seems to me that if everyone was to put their heads together a plan could be developed. Perhaps, it would be informative to find out how other communities have dealt with similar situations. My two cents.

  • aunteesocial April 7, 2010 (11:59 pm)

    Recently 14th Street was improved, throughout the whole length of South Park business district. This impacted the businesses all along 14th, but now the street is wider, the sidewalks much nicer, street lamps are up and even some artistic embellishments at either end of the roadway. I’m not sure if this was a King County, or Seattle improvement project, but to close this bridge, without a solution in sight, it doesn’t make sense. Why were these improvements made only to cut the legs off of South Park???
    I drive on this bridge every day and live very close by and use this bridge to get around, it always has a lot of traffic. Diverting all of this to First Ave bridge- already crowded, is going to be a joke.
    In addition, when you have a bridge, it is a WAY OUT. What if? What if there is a natural disaster, what if the First Ave Bridge is compromised? How are people going to get the heck out of town?
    Closing this bridge, without a replacement, is going to destroy what is a struggling, but striving and sweet community. Maybe there is not enough tax revenue or potential votes to make it worth while?
    Please drive through South Park and have a coffee, grab a burrito at one of many good restaurants or the taco wagon, or a beer and burger at Loretta’s. This is a sweet little community and it is trying to get better each year. A friend of mine opened a pub there and this will cut out business, but who cares??
    I drive for work based in a nearby business park, and am on this bridge a few times a day. This is a great route and it is not without a lot of traffic. To channel it all to First Ave is a joke. But it’s just South Park, so WHO CARES????
    Each business in South Park has a sign up asking to not close the bridge. Will someone go there and ask these business owners why they feel this way?
    MONEY? Oh that. Yeah, I’ve heard this is a good reason to screw over an entire community. Why build a nice library there (which there is one now)? Why improve the streets and sidewalks (which they just recovered from months of construction)? Why do that and then close the main thoroughfare????
    Sorry for the ranting, but this is just a mean joke to these homeowners, business owners and taxpayers who use this route for business.
    Bet you a dollar that crime increases there, without the fluidity of traffic (that frequents the grocery stores, mini-marts, restaurants, repair shops, yacht repair, tire stores, pet businesses, coffee shacks, and Sea Mar facilities), just watch the crime go up with a new ghost town. I don’t want to win that dollar, but am afraid I will.
    Whatever, it’s just South Park, right?

  • Neal Chism April 8, 2010 (9:44 am)

    How about we have the City of Seattle build a new east span, King County build a new west span, and have the Port of Seattle station two large work barges underneath to catch any construction debris that might fall in the river?

    You need the barges now anyway, wouldn’t want any of the old bridge falling into the water. Then some other poor agency manager would have to find funds to try and remove the wreckage from the PCB contaminated bottom soils for navigation safety reasons. (Probably an Army Corp of Engr. job.)

    This area is like a giant toxic Piñata where no sane manager or politician really wants to be the first one to poke too hard at and accidentally start the big cleanup job rolling, simply because no one can know exactly how big this effort may turn out to be.

    I refer to the Boeing Plant 2 issues next to the bridge and the EPA Superfund issues on the other side. The cleanup needs to start sooner rather than later because some of these structures are already starting to fall down. Look at the holes in the roof on Plant 2 as you drive over the South Park bridge going east.

    The South Park businesses and jobs are really threatened by the past pollution issues coming back to haunt, and I won’t ask questions like was there enough maintenance done for this structure all along? Every bridge does has a finite lifetime and we probably got pretty good use out of this one.

    However it does sound to me like the South Park Bridge replacement is going to have to serve as the catalyst that starts the expensive cleanup process going for the rest of the area.

    It is not going to be pretty either way, but waiting longer to start will not improve the situation.

    Just my opinion.

    Neal Chism
    Duwamish River Trash Picker Upper Guy, Engineer, and
    West Seattle resident.

  • Multi Modal Guy April 8, 2010 (1:45 pm)

    I’m happy to blame the Council’s support for the Mercer reconfiguration boondoggle for the failure to fund the South Park Bridge – even if one makes the argument that the South Park Bridge wouldn’t have been funded anyway (and I’m not convinced of that). The Seattle City Council has directed tens of millions of dollars in parking tax revenue to the Mercer Street project – monies which could and should have gone to more important projects such as the SP and Magnolia Bridges.

    So yeah, it’s quite fair to blame Hallivulcan and their Council lackeys for the impending closure of the South Park Bridge. Seattle voters would do well to remember their misplaced priorities during the next couple of election cycles.

  • sophista-tiki April 8, 2010 (5:52 pm)

    So isn’t the South Park Bridge and the Fremont Bridge aproximatly the same age??? and didn’t the Fremont Bridge go though major renovation within the last few yrs. WTF?!
    The Fremont bridge managed to continue on in service and the assorted agencies responsible for funding and the work managed not to just tear it down and cut off Fremont from the rest of the city. so WTF?! Even if the South Park Bridge is in horrible shape seems like they could be working on revamping it INSTEAD of just closing it then tearing it down. WTF?!
    aaand another thing……. Why does the Coast Guard have a more important say in all of this than the TAX PAYERS who actually live in South Park.

  • archie April 8, 2010 (8:41 pm)

    This bridge is run by KING COUNTY. Just because Seattle has their sh*t in order by repairing the Fremont bridge, renovating 14th ave, winning highly competitive federal grants federal grants etc, doesn’t mean they deserve the blame here. I work in south park and losing this bridge is going to kill my bus/bike commute. But blaming Seattle gets us nowhere. Begin by blaming the underfunded King County Roads Division.

    Also it’s worth noting that this bridge is not in imminent danger of falling. It’s danger is in breaking while opening/closing the draw bridge. Unfortunately for this bridge, water ways have right of way in this country so the bridge will be permanently open.

  • Neal Chism April 9, 2010 (7:52 am)

    Does not matter how the bridge breaks, the USCG will require that it remains open and that the structure be removed if it is not to be maintained.

    The 14th Ave. work was not so much of a “renovation”, as it was an effort to mitigate and reduce the PCB levels in the dirt likely coming out of the Malarkey hot spot area.

    Also an environmental impact statement (Draft) for any 16th Ave. bridge work is available at a link at the bottom of the wiki site:

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