Seattle's South Park residents desperate to resolve bridge issue
The South Park Bridge is scheduled to be closed this summer and South Park business owners say they will be seriously hurt or put out of business altogether by the move.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The South Park Bridge has its own Facebook page, where one poster wrote: "I bet if all of us panhandled for one day a week at all of the freeway onramps/offramps in Seattle for the next three months, we could potentially raise a good portion of the money to build a new bridge!!"
People of South Park are considering desperate measures now that their signature bridge is scheduled to close June 30 — permanently, unless King County, which owns the bridge, comes up with at least $100 million to replace it.
The bridge's unsafe condition is not news to the 4,000 people who live in South Park on the Duwamish River in South Seattle. But that doesn't make survival any easier for businesses that rely on bridge traffic to bring customers.
Posted next to the bridge is a handwritten sign: "Do Not Close The Bridge."
"This place will be a ghost town. I don't think I will survive," said Gurdev Singh, who owns the South Park 76 gas station and an attached Subway sandwich shop on 14th Avenue South.
People come to his businesses to buy drinks, chips, cigarettes and gas, he said. "We're going to be completely shutdown."
Singh has owned his service station since 1995 and employs 12 workers. He said that when the bridge closed for a week in February, he lost 70 percent of his business.
Maria Porco in January opened her Via Vadi coffee shop, the first sit-down espresso place in South Park. She doesn't know if she can stay open. "It's pretty scary," she said. "There's not a lot of options for us. This will be a dead-end."
Her mother owns a pizza restaurant next door on 14th Avenue South, and she also said she can't imagine what will happen if King County closes the bridge.
The rickety bridge crosses the Duwamish River and provides a vital link between East Marginal Way South and Highway 99 in the city's Duwamish industrial area.
About 20,000 cars and trucks cross the 78-year-old bridge each day, and if it closes, many of those vehicles will be diverted to First Avenue South Bridge, causing potential backups, according to a county analysis.
With the South Park community on one side of the Duwamish River and Boeing Field on the other side, diverting traffic to the First Avenue bridge could add 20 minutes to the commutes of South Park Bridge users, which includes Georgetown and Boulevard Park residents.
Linda Dougherty, the county's roads director, knows there will be a huge impact on the neighborhood if the bridge shuts down. "This is a big change," she said. "Not anyone wanted it to happen in this way."
The problem is, the bridge's concrete is failing and the piles weren't sunk into solid footings. The 2001 Nisqually earthquake also caused major damage, requiring $740,000 in repairs. The Federal Highway Administration has given the bridge one of the worst safety rankings in the state, worse even than the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct.
A roads-and-transit ballot measure in 2007 would have replaced the bridge, but it failed. In February, the federal government rejected King County's request for $99 million in stimulus dollars to pay most of the replacement cost for the bridge. Instead, $30 million was awarded for a competing Seattle project to transform one-way Mercer Street into a landscaped, two-way boulevard.
The county has hired consulting company HNTB to look at the bridge to see if there's any way it can remain open. That report is due next month.
But Dougherty doesn't expect the prognosis to change. "It's highly unlikely they would disagree, given what we at King County know about the bridge," she said. "The responsible thing is to move ahead and plan for the closure."
She said the county decided to close the bridge June 30 because hot weather causes more problems with the metal grating on the bridge's opening and closing mechanism.
What's changed, said Dougherty and those in the South Park Community, is other government agencies realize how serious the situation is. The governor's office has said it supports the bridge project. The Seattle City Council sent a letter to County Executive Dow Constantine supporting a second application for federal stimulus dollars and will explore other funding options. And Port of Seattle staff have suggested the Port would donate land for new bridge footings, worth about $500,000.
Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park neighborhood association, said her worst fear is the bridge closure will force businesses to close. Residents also worry about increased response times for police and fire services.
"But I'm encouraged," she said. "We have federal people paying attention, and state people paying attention, and the city paying attention. People finally believe the bridge will have to close. We know we have an understanding this is something that requires a regional response."
But even if the county found $100 million tomorrow to replace the bridge, that wouldn't keep the old one from closing June 30.
Dougherty said the county is planning meetings with businesses on how to help and promote them after the bridge closes. She said that although residents can drive around the closure, businesses are stuck.
"Maybe there's some potential to bring folks together and talk about ways to promote the businesses to Boeing employees and others to encourage people to shop and dine out in the South Park neighborhood," she said. "We feel a strong obligation."
Bill Pease, president of the South Park Bridge Committee, worries that many of the businesses won't survive.
He said most of the South Park businesses get money from the Boeing lunch crowd, across the river, and with the bridge gone, that would probably add a half-hour to the trip, which likely won't keep the workers coming.
"When the county said it would close June 30, it was like a kick in the stomach. At this point, we're in a no-win situation," Pease said. "If we knew a new bridge was funded, we could gird our loins and find a way to make it for two years."
Bill Owens, who owns a business that sells pet supplies, just signed a three-year lease for his South Park store. He said that when the bridge shut down for the week in February, he had one customer. "This cuts business by 90 percent," he said. "When I signed my lease, I was told the bridge was going to be replaced, it just needed the federal funds. I understand it's clearly dangerous and has to shut down.
"I feel cheated and lied to, and I hold the authorities accountable for it."
Owens went on to list the Mexican restaurant, the grocery store, hair salon and laundromat that share his corner on 14th Avenue South and South Cloverdale Street. "I expect all to close in six months," he said.
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or email@example.com
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.