Seawall rebuilding could undermine waterfront businesses

SEATTLE - A project aimed at protecting Seattle's waterfront could end up hurting business there - at least in the short term.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a $290 million bond measure to rebuild the seawall. But business owners are afraid the construction will drive tourists away.

The reasons are obvious. During most of the year, it's chilly and rainy in Seattle. Consequently, waterfront businesses ring up more than half of their sales during four summer months - between June and September.

"September is very important," says Gerry Hall, manager of Seattle's Great Wheel.

But now, September is in jeopardy.

"The city's going to begin rebuilding the seawall next year," says Tom Rasmussen of the Seattle City Council.

The city agreed to stop construction during June, July and August - knowing that the noise, mess, and traffic hassles would hurt summer tourism. But the city's new draft plan calls for construction to restart in September, after Labor Day.

"September is probably one of our busiest months. As we all know, that's the summer of Washington," says Hall.

The seawall project is all about timing.

First, there's the tourist season, then they have to work around the salmon spawning season. Crews cannot work during sensitive times of year or they might hurt the fish. But they have a hard and fast deadline, because they have to be done with the first phase of the seawall before the viaduct is torn down in four years. That's a lot to fit in to a small window.

"Everything has to fit together in terms of timing, otherwise it will cost us a tremendous amount," says Rasmussen. "It will be incredibly inconvenient as well."

Everyone agrees that the 70-year old seawall must be be replaced.

"It's a project that definitely needs to be done. We definitely need to work on our infrastructure," says Hall.

The seawall supports Alaskan Way and its businesss by keeping the water out. But it's eroding and may not survive an earthquake.

"We do not want to have a disaster on our waterfront," says Rasmussen.

But business owners worry how they'll survive years of construction during one of their busiest times of the year.

City leaders say they'll keep working with business owners about the timing of the construction.