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Updated Monday, December 10, 2012 at 01:01 PM

South Park faces long sewer project after bridge construction

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

When the downpours come, Catherine Grisez knows her South Park studio is about to flood because bugs suddenly scurry from the perimeter to the center of her metalworking shop.

It's happened so often in the past few years, she said, she can no longer keep the floods separate in her mind.

"I don't sleep when it rains," she said.

For other neighbors, sewage and stormwater explodes into basements and kitchen sinks, as the city's aging, undersized pipes become overwhelmed by runoff.

The situation is bad enough that Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) plans an $8 million drainage-improvement project for South Park. The goal is to double the size of the pipes to 24 inches along several blocks of 14th Avenue South and South Donovan Street.

But there's a catch. The utility says it can't start construction until mid-2014, just months after the long-awaited new South Park Bridge, which spans the Duwamish River, is scheduled to open.

Merchants, who have lost as much as two-thirds of their business since the decrepit bridge closed in 2010, say they want a breather, up to a year of steady traffic and returning customers before the city launches the drainage project.

But South Park residents who've experienced the flooding want the work to start as soon as possible, even if that means the digging starts soon after the bridge reopens.

"It's unconscionable that people have sewage coming into their basements. At the same time, businesses are trying to stay alive. We can't help one without hurting the other," said Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park Neighborhood Association.

Residents of this Southwest Seattle working-class neighborhood also are dismayed the city needs to dig up 14th Avenue South — again. After all, it was in 2008 and 2009 that the city spent almost $4.7 million to repave it, build new sidewalks and install art and street trees.

"Some residents are truly outraged," Cronn said. "Fourteenth is a major arterial and people are saying, 'They're going to tear it up again?' "

Utility officials said they did not know how bad the flooding was until 2010, when some families had to be evacuated from ground-floor apartments in a low-lying area near 14th.

However, records going back to 2005 identified 25 homes that experienced flooding or sewage backup.

The city utility now estimates there may be as many as 40 homes in the neighborhood that flood in heavy rainstorms.

"We'd identified it as an area of flooding, but we didn't know the extent or the frequency," said Sahba Mohandessi, a program manager with SPU.

Shana Doerr, who lives a few houses west of 14th on South Donovan Street, said the city has been responsive to the community as it plans the South Park drainage project.

But she said that wasn't the case in 2007 when 2 ½ feet of sewage and stormwater filled her finished basement where she has her TV/media room, a bedroom and a bathroom. When her insurance didn't cover all the damage, she filed a claim with the city.

"They told me no, it wasn't their fault, just a lot of rain. I think they're now realizing that was B.S.," she said.

South Park isn't the only neighborhood with recurrent flooding. The utility has identified 25 top stormwater projects across the city with an estimated cost of $100 million to relieve flooding, sewage backups, standing water and other drainage problems.

That doesn't include the potential long-range impact of the "100-year rainstorms" that now seem to strike every few years, said Andy Ryan, utility spokesman.

The city plans to tackle $40 million worth of stormwater projects over the next three years, Ryan said. It recently completed a $34 million project in Madison Valley, the scene of chronic flooding that took the life of a resident in 2006 after she became trapped in her basement by gushing runoff.

The South Park neighborhood is no different, residents say. Jose Vasquez, a University of Washington business graduate, planned to help run his parents' cybercafe on 14th Avenue South. But the cafe is often deserted in the afternoon and Vasquez says he's had to take a second job.

Vasquez says he grew up in South Park and it has flooded in places as long as he can remember. The language barriers may have hampered residents' ability to communicate with the city.

About 37 percent of the neighborhood is Latino and about 16 percent Asian, many of them Vietnamese, according to census figures.

Vasquez said many people don't know who does what in the city or where to call for help.

"Something else is wrong? Add it to the list," he said, describing the resignation of some residents.

Cronn, the neighborhood association president, said most of the shops and restaurants along 14th reported a drop in business of 60 to 70 percent since the bridge closed.

In November, the neighborhood association asked the city utility if it could speed up its timeline and complete the drainage work before the bridge is opened.

"Our businesses are holding on by their fingernails, hoping to survive," Cronn wrote the utility.

City Councilmember Jean Godden said she has also pressed the utility to do the work while the bridge is still closed. She's concerned that city departments coordinate their projects, so a street repaved four years ago doesn't have to be dug up again. "We need to have cooperation among our agencies. It's a misstep and we need to fix it."

Ray Hoffman, the director of the utility, told the South Park community in a letter last week that the project still must be designed and sent out for bid before construction begins. And it has to be built in the dry season.

"Even if we accelerate design today, we could not design it fast enough to construct the project next year. It is also risky to rush project design and construction because this can lead to cost overruns and additional delays in the field," he wrote.

If the drainage project can't be speeded up, some merchants are asking for more time before construction begins.

Gurdev Singh, owner of the South Park 76 gas station and adjacent Subway shop on 14th, said the city estimated that 22,000 cars used to cross the bridge daily. Now, he said, the traffic in front of his shop has "slowed to a trickle."

"Please," he said, almost pleading. "We're asking that the bridge be allowed to open before the street is torn up again. Right now, sometimes my bills are getting behind."

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.


JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
South Park has been without its bridge since June 2010. A new one is under construction, seen in this view down 14th Avenue South.




JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park Neighborhood Association, says businesses are "holding on by their fingernails."




JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Jose Vasquez says his family's cybercafe has experienced a major drop in business due to the closure of the old bridge.




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