In the upstairs of Quinn’s pub on the corner of 10th and Pike, 10 Capitol Hill business owners sit in a circle, many of them quietly steaming. It’s Friday morning and french fries from the night before are still scattered on the floor. The men and women behind some of Seattle’s most recognizable businesses have been waiting for a proposal from the city that would help them through the neighborhood’s development boom. It hasn’t come yet, and now they’re aching to give city officials an earful.
Construction on the hill has been a challenge for small businesses. Some long-stable establishments — like Le Frock consignment, Sweatbox Yoga and Quinn’s — have run losses since Seattle entered its development boom. Le Frock manager Paula Lucas is not sure how long she can stay open.
Also in the Quinn’s circle are James Kelly from the Office of Economic Development and Wayne Gallup from the Seattle Department of Transportation. They represent Access Seattle, the city’s year-old interdepartmental program to help soften the development's blows on businesses. The program, says Kelly, has made a huge improvement in how the city responds to business owners caught in the middle of a changing city.
But despite the city’s best efforts, the speed of government has not been fast enough to ease frustrations. Business owners are feeling unheard and left out of the development conversation. Kelly is the messenger who must tell the Capitol Hill stakeholders that the city's proposal on helping them cope with development, which Mike Wells of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce expected to see last week, is still a few months out.
Kelly begs patience, but gets crucified nonetheless. For some business owners, recent experiences with the city might even be enough to sway which candidates they support in future elections.
If there was a syndrome for what Heather Staples, owner of Quinn’s, Restaurant Zoe and Uneeda Burger, is feeling it would be “construction fatigue.” Since 2013, Capitol Hill has been a constant work zone. It started with the overhaul of Broadway to add streetcar tracks and a protected bike lane. The work on Broadway has wrapped up (although the streetcar is still waiting for the actual cars), but Capitol Hill development hasn’t subsided. From Madison to Harrison Street, more than 40 developments are either in progress or recently completed. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, nearly 20 additional projects are in the planning or permitting phases.
In other words, the Capitol Hill boom remains thunderous.
It’s hardly a secret that construction is a nuisance for business, especially retailers. But to hear the owners speak, this period goes beyond nuisance. Sweatbox Yoga owner Laura Culberg has been in business for 14 years. Her sales peaked at $323,000 in 2011, just as the economy was finding stronger footing. But since construction surrounded her business, that number fell to $268,000 in 2014. Culberg is convinced this loss is a direct result of construction, saying the noise and smells are a huge deterrent to customers. “It should be growing,” she says of her business, pointing to the other yoga successes around the city. “That’s the trend for our business.” But, she says, if she were the sole breadwinner in her home, she’d have to close up shop.
Culberg says the Capitol Hill construction has been worse than the dot-com bust, 9/11 and the Great Recession. Her seemingly hyperbolic statement is a surprisingly unanimous sentiment, echoed by owners and managers of places as diverse as Hot House Sauna, Neumos, Pike Street Fish Fry, Sole Repair, the Juicebox, Wildrose Bar, the Ferrari dealership and even Golden Lasso, a marketing and research firm off Union.
Philip Shaw, president of Golden Lasso, says that, at first, there was almost nowhere for businesses to air grievances. “When we first moved in,” he says, “we were getting no response from anyone in the city except for one man who was responsible for noise ordinances.” When trucks idled outside the firm or entrances were blocked, Shaw says he was often told to call 911. Frustrations hit an all-time high when construction knocked out power in 2014 and no one knew where to turn.
Representatives from the city don’t dispute that communication with businesses was lacking early on. Brian Deplace has managed right-of-way permitting with the Seattle Department of Transportation since 2006. The problem, he says, was that Seattle transitioned very quickly from the recession bust to the current construction boom. The recession left SDOT, and really the whole city, understaffed, either due to layoffs or a freeze in hiring. Post-recession development took off exponentially in a way that few predicted and, says Deplace, “There were a lot of unforeseen conflicts with development.” Those included noise, traffic and pedestrian obstruction and occasional bad behavior on the part of private contractors. The city couldn’t keep up.
In an effort to improve communication and coordination between the city, businesses and developers, Deplace spearheaded the creation of Access Seattle. The program combines representatives from SDOT, the Office of Economic Development (OED), the Department of Planning and Development, Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities and more.
Kelly of the OED serves with Access Seattle as the liaison between businesses and the city. He communicates with owners and conveys concerns back to the city. He also moderates the monthly Capitol Hill stakeholder meetings, like the one in Quinn’s on Friday.
Kelly says Access Seattle has made a big difference so far. Since the program began, he says, the city has been better able to notify businesses of upcoming projects, facilitate conversation with developers and solve issues regarding parking and noise and air pollution. Most notably, Access Seattle put Wayne Gallup on the streets as a point person for businesses. He is available nearly 24/7 to explain what’s happening and why and to respond to complaints from owners.
Gallup, who has tattoos up his arms and neck, is a rockstar on Capitol Hill. Ferrari dealership owner Tino Perrina called him a “savior,” and credited him for single handedly keeping some businesses from going under.
But despite Kelly’s assurances that the city is listening to businesses and that Access Seattle has been successful, Gallup seems to be the only bright spot for the stakeholders sitting in Quinn’s.
It’s important to note that these business owners are not anti-development or anti-growth, as some neighborhood advocates might be. “We’re super pro-density,” says Wells of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. Where there are people, there is business.
The issue is that, amid all this construction, owners feel like developers are taking advantage of a system that lacks oversight. Heather Staples says the biggest thorns are the parking barricades that dot the hill. Developers often need to reserve space for their trucks and equipment. To do so, they apply for temporary no-parking permits through SDOT. However, the city only provides the permits, not the barricades themselves. SDOT lacks the staff to ensure those barricades are properly placed and, when the permits expire, eventually removed. “Right now,” says Gallup, “contractors can sort of sneak [the barricades] in.”
Additionally, permits are often granted in one-month blocks and apply 24/7, even if construction is only scheduled to last a week and during business hours. The only person owners can call to complain is Gallup. “We need more Waynes,” says Le Frock’s Lucas.
This is where there seems to be a fundamental divide between city and business. If Lucas or Heather Staples or Laura Culberg needed more Wayne Gallups, they’d hire them. But Gallup himself says, “In a city, you have to get approval for new positions, which means going through the city human resources department and so on.” In fact, Gallup says the very existence of Access Seattle is nothing short of a stroke of creative genius on the part of Deplace. Rather than wait for approval for new positions, Deplace borrowed manpower from elsewhere in the city to make what was essentially an unofficial department. Only after its creation did he get official approval.
Because of how much time it takes to staff up, the city is still playing catch-up from the recession. “We staff up,” says Deplace, “but volumes [of development] keep increasing. We’re head and shoulders above where we were.” But, due to the speed of growth, he would like to be head and shoulders above even that.
The mayor’s office asked Kelly and the rest of Access Seattle to talk to businesses and figure out what should be in an official proposal — something that would standardize communication with businesses in construction hubs. Among the priorities in that proposal, says Kelly, are communication, coordination and enforcement of rules. The city may also rework how no-parking zones are administered.
The Capitol Hill Chamber's Wells said they were promised a draft of that document this month. But Kelly says it won’t be public until the end of summer.
This is another example of the divide between bureaucracy and business. Kelly repeated that the mayor was doing his due diligence and wanted to get this proposal right. “You’ve got to give the process a chance,” he tells the room. “I’m asking for a little trust.”
But the stakeholders feel they should be allowed to see what’s in the proposal. “Trust is hard,” says Le Frock’s Lucas, “when you’ve already been stabbed in the back.”
And for a business, especially during the summer months, two more months is an eternity.
Heather Staples and her husband Scott (who is the creative force behind the food at Restaurant Zoe, Quinn’s and Uneeda Burger) voted for Mayor Ed Murray in the last election. But she’s become disillusioned. Next time around, she’s not so sure.
Staples said that some stakeholders were considering an appeal to the Seattle City Council, although she says she’s not sure to whom exactly. “People don’t hear us in City Hall,” she says.
Laura Culberg of Sweatbox, though, voices what seems to be the larger frustration with the process as a whole -- not anyone in particular. Even Kelly, who seems to bear the brunt of the frustration, is eventually spared by most of the stakeholders at the meeting, who acknowledge he’s doing what he can. What it comes down to is a perception that things aren’t moving as they should and that opinions are getting lost in the mix.
“It’s the whole city,” says Culberg. “We’re on a runaway train. I don’t know where we’re headed or what we’re doing.”
Correction June 17: Contrary to the sentiment of previous draft, Mike Wells maintains his support for the mayor.