Tukwila immigrant businesses face displacement in police station plans

Tofeek Maudah, owner Bayview Motor Club on Tukwila International Boulevard, is one of many business owners affected by Tukwila’s plans to build a police station and courthouse. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh.)

Bayview Motor Club owner Tofeek Maudah has built up his used car dealership in “downtown” Tukwila on Tukwila International Boulevard and today he has about 600 customers.

But he said he and about a dozen other business owners on his block were blindsided when they learned just two weeks ago that city of Tukwila plans to use “eminent domain” purchase the properties where their businesses are located to build a police station and courthouse.

Eminent domain allows cities to force the sale of land determined to be necessary for public amenities, such as fire stations or roads. But while cities are required to pay the property owners fair market value for their land, nothing in the law requires any compensation to tenants who have businesses there.

Most of the businesses at the intersection of Tukwila International Boulevard and Military Road are tenants of the property.

“For me, this is a big problem,” Maudah said. “It will be very difficult for my business to relocate within this community. This is where I started my business and where my customer base is located. So If I leave [this property] …my business is gone.”

While the city has pledged to help the businesses relocate, Maudah said he will be hard pressed to find another chance to build his business in Tukwila. The city doesn’t give new outdoor car lot permits anymore and he can’t afford indoor car dealership business.

Maudah and several other businesses said they were given inadequate notice from the city that the properties that they rent were being considered for the new police station and courthouse.

And relocating the businesses also disrupts the sense of community that has built up around the businesses.

Abdi Adan, owns Fresh and Green Produce Market, which is on the same block as the Bayview Motor Club. He says many of the small business owners on their block are Somali Americans, which has created a sense of community.

“This is the first time, we hear [of the impending property acquisition],” Adan said, “it is very quick decision. We never had an input from the city: they never called us, they never told us.”

Abdi Adan, owner of Fresh and Green Produce Market, says the business district has built a community of business owners and customers, many of whom are immigrants. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh.)

One of three young Somali American brothers who addressed the Tukwila City Council at the meeting last week questioned if the “safety” in Public Safety Plan was irony, given the disruptive effect it will have on their community.

Maudah, speaking in a separate interview, agreed.

“They are not happy. They had done business here for so many years, family, friends and relatives.”

Despite affected Tukwila businesses scrambling to convince them otherwise, Tukwila City Council members unanimously voted last week in favor allowing the mayor’s office to use condemnation proceedings to acquire the land needed.

The police station and courthouse are part of a voter-approved a $77 million public safety bond measure that passed last year. The city plans to build three fire stations, and a justice center which will house the police department and municipal court.

The wide-ranging plan — which also includes public works facilities that will be paid separately from the voter-approved bond — addresses a 30-year backlog in providing police and fire services and city maintenance to match Tukwila’s growth.

The locations of the fire and police stations and courthouse were not determined on the ballot measure. The city has spent the past year determining the locations of the buildings, and city staff said the Tukwila International Boulevard location was determined recently, though the site selection process has been ongoing throughout the year.

On the night of the decision, Tukwila City Hall, equipped with translations services and audio visual, was indeed full and overflowing.

But despite the public comments from businesses that came out in force to address the Tukwila City Council, several council members said they had few options, and had to consider urgency, public need and costs.

Communication breakdown

The businesses first heard about the plan to acquire the block through a hand-delivered letter earlier this month, notifying them about the city’s intention to purchase properties on which the tenant businesses currently operate.

The letter from Derek Speck, the Economic Development administrator, read in part, that the city intended to assist those tenants affected by the threat of eminent domain during the transition, and the transition will take a year from acquiring property to organizing construction contracts.

While Southcenter Mall, on the other side of the freeway, is the area of the city best known outside of Tukwila, the area at Tukwila International Boulevard and Military Road also is a business district, and is home to many locally owned businesses.

Seok Choi (left), owner of Riverton Heights Grocery and Deli, speaks before Tukwila City Council with her husband Charles Chai at a meeting that was packed with community members. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh.)

Charles Chai, spoke for his wife Seok Choi, whose first language is Korean, who owns Riverton Heights Grocery and Deli on Tukwila International Boulevard. Chai said family was “stunned” when they learned about the plan through the letter. His landlord told him on the same day.

Chai said his wife has built a community with the area’s diverse residents during the nine years that the store has been in business. Now she stands to lose substantially with the city’s planned acquisition, he said.

Simon Castle, who has a truck repair and paint business, Heiser Body, that is also on the affected property, agreed with other businesses, saying he was caught off-guard.

Before the vote, Maudah had hoped the community would convince the city council to look elsewhere.

“There is so many other properties owned by the city they don’t even have to pay for,” Maudah said before the vote.

But city officials told him that the properties on Tukwila International Boulevard offer easy access to the highway and the planned fire stations, and the land in the business district is more suitable than other land. They pointed out that the area around Southcenter Mall happens to have softer soil making it less desirable in the case of an earthquake.

Before they took a vote on the plan, several city council members asked for details of the outreach and details of how to address the business owners’ concerns. Councilmember Kate Kruller asked city staff members about the extent of optional assistance to the affected businesses owners, and a staff member answered that the city has no legal obligation to help the tenants once the properties were acquired.

Councilmember DeShawn Quinn asked about the sufficiency of community outreach, the fairness of advisory committee recruitment process and questioned the criteria for selecting property location were met prior to the eminent domain vote. But Quinn ultimately defended the process, saying the council had to move forward on public safety decisions.

Staff members including, Speck, Cline and the city Communication Director Rachel Bianchi, told Quinn it was matter of record they did all as instructed by authorities.

Councilmember Joe Duffie questioned how the businesses had missed getting involved in the site selection process. Duffie said that the council had held multiple public meetings and open houses on the selections of all the sites and that the council had sought volunteers to sit on the committees.

“The thing of it is, we are here now to make a decision, to ask for a decision, and I’m hearing that you were not involved in this, and I can’t believe that,” Duffie said.

“We’ve got to make decisions now, and it probably won’t be good for everybody,” said Duffie, who is leaving the council this year after 35 years. “But we took this oath to serve you all and I want to always remember as I’m going out — as I’ve told the people — to remember that the council works for you all…. So, if you don’t inform us, then we have to do the best we can. And we asked for your all input.”

The city council unanimously approved the eminent domain plan, with Councilmember Thomas McLeod, saying that one community member sent him an mail expressing excitement about the proposal “finally” passing.

City officials said that the eminent domain process benefits property owners that otherwise wouldn’t be able to sell their properties. Cities are required to pay fair market value for the land they are condemning.

That’s little comfort to tenants, who have no such guarantees in law.

“Eminent domain is a government abuse, but if they can reimburse for what we paid for then that may be good,” Chai said.

But, despite the Tukwila’s pledge to help the business owners, Chai was not left reassured.

“From what I heard that may not happen,” Chai said. “So that is not good news.”

Seok Choi (left), owner of Riverton Heights Grocery and Deli, and her husband Charles Chai at their store. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh.)

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