23rd Ave construction has immigrant-owned businesses on the brink

Abodolloh Zay (front) chops vegetables at First Cup Coffee as his mother, coffeeshop owner Nop Zay, does the books. Their business has dropped significantly since the start of road construction on 23rd. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Abodolloh Zay (front) chops vegetables at First Cup Coffee as his mother, coffeeshop owner Nop Zay, does paperwork. Their business has dropped significantly since the start of road construction on 23rd. (Photo by Venice Buhain)

Nop Zay opened First Cup Coffee 12 years ago in an octagonal drive-through kiosk in front of the Post Office at 23rd and Union.

Her place was welcomed by a community that needed coffee and a quick bite to eat, and had soon earned the nickname “Mama’s,” “Because everyone calls her Mama,” said her son, Abodolloh.

“When we first opened, I didn’t have a chance to eat lunch,” Nop Zay said. “I would have my kids come and do this after school.”

But since the start of the big overhaul of 23rd Avenue last summer, Zay says her business is barely hanging on. Some days, she earns less than $20.

“We don’t get a lot of drive through,” said Abodolloh Zay. “Not a lot of foot traffic.”

Twenty third has been torn up for months, as construction spread over a mile of the Central District’s main thoroughfare. The construction has impacted the normal entrances and exits to parking lots and storefronts. The businesses are still open, but much of the northbound traffic has been detoured to Martin Luther King, Jr., Way.

Now the businesses in the area — many of whom are owned by people of color and immigrants — say that their concerns about access were ignored at the start of the project.

Barber Daniel Abaynhe (right) finishes up Tracey D. Watkin's hair at Update barber shop on 23rd, as barber Adal Shimelis chats with them. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Barber Daniel Abaynhe (right) finishes up Tracey D. Watkin’s hair at Update Barbershop on 23rd, as barbershop owner Adal Shimelis chats with them. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

For a time, said Adal Shimelis, owner of Update Barbershop, construction vehicles were parked directly in front of his shop on 23rd at Cherry St.

“We’ve lost all of our walk-in business — and the majority of our business is walk-in,” Shimelis said.

Tracey D. Watkins, who came in recently for a haircut appointment, says small business owners like Shimelis depend on loyal customers that will see them through rough periods.

“I understand that [construction crews] have to work on the street to make the community more accessible,” said Watkins, who is a small business owner who lives in a different neighborhood. “You have to support these businesses. Be patient in looking for parking.”

The two-year project, which started last summer, will reduce the number of lanes from four to three, repair sidewalks and widen them, install new streetlights, update traffic signals and replace a 100-year-old water main. The current phase of the project, from South Jackson Street to East John Street costs $31 million. The city projects the total project to be $43 million.

Following an accusation by Seattle King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson at a city council meeting that the project was designed to shut down minority businesses, Mayor Ed Murray announced that $650,000 in federal grant money would be redirected to help the businesses in the district and said the city would conduct a racial equity analysis for the road project.

Business affected by the street project also can apply for deferment of taxes and utility payments, according to the city.

Business owners along the corridor have received 28-page application packet for the assistance and staff members from the Office of Economic Development in Seattle are visiting the business owners in the corridor to ensure they get enough help navigating the process, said department spokesperson Joe Mirabella.

City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant also spoke to business owners at a recent meeting at the Ethiopian Community Center.

“I understand the city had a few conversations with businesses [before the work started], but I don’t believe we had the right conversations where we actually communicated what this project was going to be like and understood how your businesses operate,” O’Brien said.

Sawant told business owners that the fight is against gentrification.

“We don’t want important infrastructure to be an excuse for displacement. Yes, we want better infrastructure, but we want that for our people,” she said.

But businesses worry that $650,000 divided among the dozens of businesses along the corridor might be a drop in the bucket — and a little too late. Nop Zay says in the past few months, it has cost her money to keep her coffee stand open.

“We’re not getting back anything,” she said. “I have my bills, too, that I need to pay.”

“You’re trying to compensate us ten, fifteen, twenty grand?” Abodolloh Zay said. “That’s how much we’re in over our head already.”

He says what his family really needs is for customers to come back through the door.

“They want to know how they can help us?” Zay said. “It’s kinda like, just finish the project.

Reporter Goorish Wibneh contributed to this report.

Abodolloh Zay serves a drink to a drive-through customer at First Cup Coffee. Fewer cars have come through during the months of construction. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Abodolloh Zay serves a drink to a drive-through customer at First Cup Coffee. Fewer cars have come through during the months of construction. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

Correction: The number of years that First Cup Coffee has been on 23rd has been corrected.

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