Staying Alive: Will waterfront businesses survive the seawall?

Alaskan Way merchants and the city wrestle with sticking to construction schedules and staying in business.
Crosscut archive image.

Some work is occurring along the waterfront now.

Alaskan Way merchants and the city wrestle with sticking to construction schedules and staying in business.

When making public policy decisions, policymakers would be wise to look forward and back. To always consider the precedent they may be setting and the many ways in which their decision can affect other outcomes down the road. In the highly complex Waterfront Seawall replacement program, we have a great example of how previous decisions and commitments — precedent — are affecting current projects.

The situation: Waterfront businesses are worried that they might not survive the three-year effort to replace the waterfront seawall. Of course, if the seawall fails, they won’t survive either. Which is why they have supported the project from the beginning.

In response to their challenge, in early May, of the project's Environmental Impact Statement, the city told waterfront business owners in meeting after meeting that there would be no construction during the summer months when they do the majority of their business for the year. They were assured that no seawall work would be done from June through September. Now, the city is closing the window: June through August.

Leaders on the waterfront are very aware of mitigation efforts for other projects. In particular, they point to Sound Transit’s light-rail project through the Rainier Valley. In that case, a Community Development Fund (CDF) was set up to help businesses survive the construction. Some would argue that the fund also greased the political skids for Sound Transit so that the agency could avoid the expensive option of tunneling through the Valley.

King County and the City of Seattle split the $50 million CDF fund. The county provided $7.2 million and Seattle gave a whopping $42.8 million. At the time, officials knew they were setting a dangerous precedent, but they also knew the Valley's light rail opponents weren't going to give up. If they wanted the light rail project to go forward, they needed to come up with the cash. And they did.

Fast forward to the EIS for the Seawall Replacement project. The Historic Waterfront Business Association is challenging that EIS because it does not adequately address mitigation measures that would prevent the possible loss of more than 1,000 jobs. In its appeal, the business association points out that, unlike other business districts, the waterfront has no back door. If they are cut off from Alaskan Way (the seawall runs between the piers and the street), waterfront businesses can't continue operating.

The concern from the city and project side is that if the seawall replacement is postponed, delays will snowball, pushing back the tunnel project, the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the relocation of a new Alaskan Way and the planned move of a major high pressure gas line from the west side of the Viaduct to the east side (on Western Avenue in Pioneer Square). Puget Sound Energy was supposed to have the gas line project completed before this summer, but the agency only recently got the permit from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

There was much fingerpointing and even a rare show of emotion from SDOT Director Peter Hahn at a recent city council meeting on the project. Hahn blames PSE for not fully understanding the complexities of the gas line project and for not taking into account certain technical issues regarding, among other things, a 100-year-old iron water main. Another issue slowing things down is the usual reluctance of one city department to engage another on design, given liability issues — yes, lawyers and precedent again!

This is why we often see the “give me a rock” phenomenon, which goes like this:

Permitting Agency: “Give me a rock.”

Permittee: “Here’s a rock”.

Permitter: “No, not that one.”

Permittee: “How about this one?”

Permitter: “Why do you keep bringing me these rocks?!”

Whomever we all decide to blame for the current stand-off, one thing is clear: There will be major construction this summer along the waterfront. And that's strike one for waterfront businesses that thought they'd be spared.

Will the ongoing appeal of the waterfront EIS delay the Seawall project and force the city to work through the summer months anyway? Because the viaduct project is driving the timelines, the waterfront businesses may be playing a risky game with their EIS appeal. But they are willing to compromise. Indeed, the appeal was more an effort to get the city's attention than anything else. The waterfront business assocation has since presented the city with a list of 45 possible mitigation measures. Some of them are quite creative, like designating off-site parking spots where tourists can be picked up by shuttle cart drivers, and enjoy interesting history lessons about Seattle and the viaduct project on their way to shop at the waterfront.

Some other ideas include the more standard measures like improved signage and construction walls, and a property tax exemption during the time of construction.

While we wait to see if the city can reach an agreement with the waterfront businesses, you can be sure that the Rainier Valley's Community Development Fund for light rail looms large in the discussions. That's a precedent that is difficult to dial back. It's doubtful that the city and county will do anything like that again, but it doesn’t mean business owners won’t ask for similar help when they're facing an uncertain future which may, at the end of the day, leave them out of work.

Negotiations between the city and waterfront business owners are ongoing and there is general understanding that delays don’t help anybody. And while it may be too late to ask the questions, let’s ask anyway. [But first, a disclosure: I endorsed Ed Murray for Seattle mayor]:

Considering that the seawall replacement was Mayor Mike McGinn’s No. 1 priority on his first day in office — recall a bike riding mayor holding a press conference at the Washington Street Boat Landing — why has it taken so long to issue the permit to PSE for that gas line relocation? Why have negotiations between the city and waterfront businesses dragged on for so long? Why wasn’t the mayor more personally involved from the outset?

Questioning the performance of leaders is what political campaigns are all about. With this election year's crowded field of challengers, you can expect many more questions about these and other issues that challenge and vex the city.

The remaking of the waterfront is going to be a long, arduous process. 

I’m reminded of another major project, the Third Avenue Bus Tunnel, and another politician who walked that route regularly, talking with businesses and troubleshooting problems as they arose. Ironically, the now-defunct Waterfront Streetcar bears his name and was one of his biggest passions. Former City Councilmember George Benson cared about the businesses that were struggling to survive the disruptions caused by the tunnel project. (Years later, Mayor Greg Nickels followed suit, regularly walking the light-rail route in the Rainier Valley.)

That's one precedent worth honoring. Let’s hope George Benson’s example, his precedent, isn't forgotten or discarded like his streetcar.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.