Tunnel work cuts into waterfront business
Waterfront business owners are frustrated that the city and state haven't done more to ensure that Highway 99 tunnel construction, which has taken away valuable parking spaces, doesn't keep away customers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
When Ivar's Restaurants advertised the annual celebration of its founder's birthday by offering a second entree for $1.07 — the age Ivar Haglund would be if he were alive today — sales were up that day about 15 percent at restaurants and fish bars around the region.
Everywhere, that is, except on the Seattle waterfront, where business was down 35 percent from the previous year's birthday celebration, said Ivar's CEO and President Bob Donegan.
Construction of the new deep-bore tunnel along Alaskan Way has meant heavy equipment, temporary fencing, traffic rerouting and the loss of hundreds of parking spaces under the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
What frustrates Donegan and other waterfront business leaders is that they've been talking with city and state transportation officials about the coming construction for five years and have been holding emergency parking meetings since January.
"We've had lots of communication. What we don't see are results," Donegan said.
The state, which is managing the tunnel project, set aside $30 million to mitigate the loss of parking during the tunnel project and to ensure adequate parking when the project is completed in 2018.
But critics say the state has little to show for five years of planning and that the city has not taken the impact on business into account as it closes off streets and sidewalks and stages noisy and dirty construction work.
City and state transportation officials say they couldn't develop parking plans until the viaduct project was approved by voters and finalized in late August.
The complaints have reached the City Council, where Transportation Committee Chairman Tom Rasmussen said business owners can't be expected to be traffic cops and project managers, on the phone to the city every time there's a problem.
"SDOT and WSDOT are telling me this is a work in progress. My response is, 'You don't have a lot of time.' Summer is critical for the waterfront. If you can't get this right, these businesses might not hold on."
Ten furniture stores along Western Avenue have closed in the past three years, casualties largely of the recession, say surviving business owners. But those remaining say that just as their business was picking up, the traffic disruptions and scarce parking began hurting sales — by as much as 50 percent over the previous year.
Donegan, who serves on several city waterfront-planning committees, asked businesses to track their monthly sales and customer counts and report those to him.
At B&B Italia, a high-end showroom for luxury imported furniture, manager Eric Fassett said there have been more construction workers and police officers asking to use his bathroom than customers at times over the past few months as Seattle City Light crews rerouted utility transmission lines from under the viaduct into trenches along Alaskan Way.
At McKinnon Furniture on Western Avenue, which features a large showroom of handcrafted hardwood living-room and bedroom suites, a door counter shows that customer traffic is down about 20 percent, said co-owner Theresa Schneider. She called the start of construction this winter, as businesses were starting to rebound from the recession, a "double-whammy."
"I think there's a genuine desire to be helpful, but the sense of urgency isn't there," she said of what she sees as the city and state's failure to act on business complaints of disruption or on a parking-mitigation plan.
"Short term, how do we survive construction? Long term, what will we have in the way of affordable, accessible parking when all is said and done?" she asked.
About 3 million people visit the waterfront annually, with the majority coming between May and September, according to city figures. That number is expected to double when the viaduct is removed in 2016 and a new waterfront park is developed where Alaskan Way now runs, according to a city consultant working on the design.
There are big draws along Elliott Bay now such as Argosy Cruises and the Seattle Aquarium, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, and as many as 20 school buses a day.
Kimberly Farley, director of operations for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project for the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said the state and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) are close to reaching consensus with the waterfront business owners on about 10 strategies that include subsidizing the cost of parking in existing garages and improving signage for visitors. They also propose building as many as three new parking garages to serve Pioneer Square, the central waterfront and the aquarium.
She said the garages could be built in partnership with a private developer as part of a mixed-used project that would likely include retail and housing.
Transportation officials hope to brief the Seattle City Council about the plans by the end of June or early July, she said.
The state did tear up the former waterfront-trolley tracks and create 66 temporary parking places. But with tunnel construction wiping out hundreds more spaces near the stadiums, business owners say the parking that remains along the waterfront is even more heavily used.
The biggest issue
Hal Griffith, owner of Pier 57, is erecting a giant Ferris wheel (called the Seattle Great Wheel) on the edge of Elliott Bay in the hope that people will continue to visit the waterfront despite the tunnel construction.
Griffith called adequate parking "the single most important element for our future." He said waterfront visitors typically come in multigenerational family groups. They aren't going to walk blocks to get there, he said, and they don't take transit.
"I don't think the city understands the importance of parking to the people coming down here. If it's too difficult to get here, or they can't find a place to park, they might come once but they're not going to try it twice," he said.
Ivar's Donegan said discussion of a parking garage to replace lost street spaces began in 2007, when then-SDOT Director Grace Crunican identified a surface parking lot at Western and Seneca Street that she thought the city could purchase.
Five years later, Donegan said, nothing has been done to acquire the land.
"Do you think the cost of that lot has gone up or down?" Donegan asked.
Rick Sheridan, spokesman for SDOT, called the multiyear, $3 billion viaduct replacement project with its shifting construction sites, utility rerouting and roadway reconfigurations a "herculean project." But he said the city wants to work with waterfront businesses to address problems as they arise.
"It's going to be a concern for many years to come. We want to work with all the stakeholders to our full ability," Sheridan said.
City, state also stymied
The city and state's efforts to replace parking have met their own frustrations. Existing garage owners in the waterfront neighborhood already are making money on business commuters.
The garages are typically closed evenings and weekends and when the city approached owners, most weren't interested in staying open longer for short-term visitors, even with a state subsidy, Farley said. To date, just two garages have signed on to offer hourly parking at the same rate as on-street parking, currently $4 an hour.
Seattle Aquarium President Bob Davidson said he doesn't believe anyone at the city or state is focused on the long-term viability of waterfront businesses.
"There's been a tremendous amount of attention paid to the project's engineering and to the design of the waterfront when the viaduct comes down, but no one is charged with protecting the economic vitality of the waterfront," he said.
At McKinnon Furniture, Schneider said a typical scenario is that a husband drops off his wife and circles the block to find parking while she browses in the showroom. If he can't find parking, they trade places. Schneider said it's hard to make a sale when neither can stay. A pay lot across the street costs about $12 an hour.
"Parking shouldn't be that complicated," she said. "It needs to be accessible. It needs to be reasonably priced. If it's not, our customers can go somewhere else."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.