A bridge too far? Magnolia business community blasts city over the 14-to-20 month closure expected for Alternative A span replacement

Sounding an insistent note of alarm and sometimes even despair for the economic health of Magnolia, prominent members of the neighborhood's business core on Thursday blasted Mayor Greg Nickels' choice of Alternative A for replacing the aging and decrepit Magnolia Bridge.

The alternative was chosen among the handful considered because it offered a way of reducing both the overall cost and the environmental impact of the large-scale construction project, according to a city press release sent out last week.

However, for the folks speaking out at the April 5 meeting of the Design Advisory Group (DAG), the crucial question was how Magnolia's business community was going to weather a bridge closure that could last up to 20 months. The conclusion among many of the project's critics - which included Magnolia Community Club president Vic Barry, Chamber of Commerce president Glenn Harrington and LaRoux Fine Apparel owner Alex Smith - was clear: it can't.

Project manager Kirk Jones, who presided over the meeting at the Magnolia Community Club, has estimated that shutting down the Magnolia Bridge would force roughly 14,500 daily vehicle trips onto the Dravus Street and the Emerson Street bridges, structures providing the only other access routes into a pinched-off Magnolia. Rejected alternatives that might have kept the Magnolia Bridge open for a longer period of time include Alternative D, a more expensive plan that would have closed the bridge for only six months to a year.

Several press releases sent out by the city, including a March 16 e-mail from the Department of Transportation, have claimed broad public support for Alternative A - a claim flatly rejected as propaganda by some members of the Magnolia community.

"When fiction gets into the public domain, it gets repeated," Harrington said. "The chamber never endorsed Alternative A. It never happened. The fiction that the Magnolia community supports Alternative A is just that - pure fiction.

"We never, never, never endorsed any alternative that had a 14-to-20-month down time," he added.

Arguing that customers don't like to go out of their way to patronize a business, Harrington warned that there are many businesses in Magnolia that couldn't survive a down time of two years. "This is a very serious concern for the business community in Magnolia," he said. "You're going to see in Magnolia a lot of vacancies.... There are going to be people who are hurt."

Eventually, Harrington added, residential values in Magnolia could be negatively impacted by the specter of "a sprinkling of survivors and a lot of boarded-up windows" in Magnolia Village and elsewhere.

Jones assured the approximately 35 people gathered at the meeting that the city is looking into several traffic-mitigation plans to ease the likely traffic snarls created by the closure. He admitted that the "big downside" of Alternative A is indeed a longer down time; however, he added, the city has been talking with the Port of Seattle about creating temporary detour routes across Port property. "We had a real good discussion," Jones said of a March 30 meeting with the Port. "There may be some mutual benefit to the Port and the city to putting these roads in."

Alternative A, which puts the new bridge about 100 feet south of the existing structure, saves the city between $20 million and $25 million over the other alternatives, according to a DAG press release. "We do have quite a bit of right-of-way costs," Jones said, referring to property that must be obtained from the Navy and Parks, as well as Anthony's restaurant. It's estimated such purchases will run somewhere around $30 million.

However, talk of savings fell largely on deaf ears. "Is it worth the savings to have a longer down time?" Harrington asked. "So think long and hard about supporting this substitute: are you really saving what you think you're going to save?"

Smith from LaRoux recalled the difficulties that ensued when the Magnolia Bridge was closed after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, which resulted in car trips of up to 90 minutes "just to get off the hill," she said.

"You're killing us," Smith said to Jones, adding that no amount of mitigation could save Magnolia businesses if the city goes with Alternative A. "The dollars you're saving are going to be the dollars you lose. You need to give us more help. You've kind of forgotten the Magnolia neighborhood."

She then raised the issue of potential disaster affecting the community, in which case "you're cut off in more ways than one," Smith added. "You're doing us a disservice; we expect better of you," she said to Jones. "We're not going away."

Barry accused the city of "blowing smoke" with all the upbeat rhetoric it's thrown behind Alternative A, which the MCC president has taken to calling Alternative "Z" for its apparent lack of a real alternative. "I took this as a big insult," Barry said of the city memo claiming the public "strongly supported" the alternative. "That's disingenuous. It's not fair."

Speaking to the "integrity of the process," Barry challenged the city first to test its mitigation routes before deciding on a course of action. "Any mitigation we have we need to have codified so it's guaranteed," he said.

Julie Szmania of Szmania's restaurant provided perhaps the most harrowing assessment of life after Alternative A, which she characterized as a potential catastrophe for Magnolia's business community. "When you close off the entire access [to Magnolia Bridge], the traffic literally dies in Magnolia Village," she said. "It's just going to be a disaster. For us to knowingly do this to ourselves is insane."

Szmania, who pointed out her restaurant has been in Magnolia for 16 years, said it's a "crying shame" that the community has allowed itself to be hemmed in by poor planning. "It's not an 'alternative' for us to be closed two to three years," she said. "There's no excuse. It's just ridiculous. This doesn't look like it's going to work for Magnolia."

The next public meeting about the Magnolia Bridge project is scheduled for May 11 at the Magnolia Community Club, 2550 34th Ave. W. For more information on the project, visit the city Web site at www.seattle.gov.

Magnolia News editor Rick Levin can be reached by telephone at (206) 461-1284 or by email at mageditor@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]