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Originally published May 20, 2013 at 8:43 PM | Page modified May 21, 2013 at 1:40 PM

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Merchants sing blues over Seattle waterfront projects

Owners of the Highway 99 Blues Club, under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, fear that the nearby seawall replacement will drive away their clientele this fall.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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To get to the Highway 99 Blues Club, you take Alaskan Way along the waterfront, park beneath the viaduct and take the stairs down to the entrance.

The place cooks up New Orleans-style food and a “juke joint” atmosphere. The bands — and some customers — write their names on a “wall of fame,” right of the stage.

This fall, the $335 million, 2½-year Elliott Bay Seawall project will break up waterfront streets. Alaskan Way will be shifted inland, to run beneath the elevated viaduct. That detour also will remove more than 100 parking spaces within a couple of blocks of the club, operating owner Ed Maloney said.

He and founding owner Steve Sarkowsky say they don’t expect to still be in business when the seawall project is done. And if they are, another threat looms in 2016, when the old viaduct is torn down.

“Everybody here’s going to have issues, not just us,” said Sarkowsky. “There’s going to be casualties.”

City transportation staff reply they’re making the best possible decisions, which include providing a continuous north-south roadway. Street work will be suspended from Memorial Day to Labor Day, to aid the tourist season.

Angled parking spaces will be temporarily added between the blues club and the Seattle Aquarium by summer 2014, when the heavy machinery moves south to the next phase, according to the city’s plan.

“We’re going to maintain access all the time for the blues club,” said Jessica Murphy, the city’s seawall-project manager. The club might even gain visibility, she said, because the detour street will go right past the front door.

This road shift — squeezing a four-lane waterfront street into two lanes beneath the viaduct — will be similar to what the state Department of Transportation did at nearby Pioneer Square last year, for construction of the deep-bore highway tunnel.

The blues club’s sign is shown in state renderings of the completed tunnel project.

Merchants along the waterfront have complained, and they filed a legal appeal three weeks ago. They say the seawall’s environmental statement fails to deal with the potential loss of visitors due to parking and traffic disruptions.

In the case of the blues club, economic risks take a back seat to the potential cultural loss.

The Triple Door downtown also provides blues and jazz, and some bands overlap, but the Triple Door is larger and attracts bigger names.

Maloney said the Highway 99 Blues Club, open 200 nights a year, catches more bands on their way up and offers special shows, such as “Slide Guitar Monsters” this Saturday, where local players just come and jam.

“I think the Highway 99 Blues Club is one of the finest blues clubs in America,” said Eric Steiner, president of the Washington Blues Society. “It would be a significant setback and significant loss for our nation’s blues community, were the club to close due to construction downtown.”

A preliminary street closure the last weekend of April hampered attendance, Maloney said.

Normally there might be 200 fans each for Left Hand Smoke and Hot Wired Rhythm Band, but only 60 to 75 people showed up each night, he said.

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s summer reprieves won’t solve the problem because the blues club thrives in cool months, said Maloney.

Sarkowsky said the club took two years to site in 2005 and would be hard to move, needing a sweet spot with parking, population and proximity to hotels. “We’re a downtown club,” he said, but rents are high.

One help might be a “Blues Bus” or even a shuttle for the whole waterfront. “There’s not a great consensus that would be effective,” Murphy said. “A mom, grandmother, three kids and a stroller are not going to park somewhere else, get on a bus and come down.”

Local governments created a $50 million fund in the previous decade to offset Rainier Valley light-rail construction effects. That included loans, moving expenses, new buildings or cash subsidies to small businesses.

The seawall fund won’t be reimbursing businesses, but instead will conduct a broader marketing campaign.

“Our basic message is, ‘Come on down, the waterfront is still open,’ ” said Murphy. “We can still get people and vehicles through and where they need to be.’

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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