Tukwila Businesses Scatter as Justice Center Construction Begins

by Hannah Myrick

In a small office along Tukwila International Boulevard, Tawfik Maudah is preparing to move his business for the second time in less than a month.

Maudah’s car dealership, grocery stores, hair salons, and a travel company were among the 16 majority-East-African-owned businesses who scattered across Tukwila to make way for a new justice center as a part of Tukwila’s larger public safety plan. The businesses signed settlements with the city of Tukwila requiring them to relocate from their former community center on March 31.

The city has already begun construction of the new justice center on the newly abandoned lot at South 150th Street between Tukwila International Boulevard and Military Road South. The proposed two-story building fits into Tukwila’s larger Public Safety plan and would include a courthouse and new police station.

Maudah is far from alone. His is one of around 16 businesses in the area that lost their business locations to the planned justice center. Many have already moved, others closed, and all are adjusting to a new reality. But even for those who were able to find new locations, the displacement had deeper implications.

It moved several of them directly away from Tukwila International Boulevard, a busy and popular stretch of road that was a 20-minute drive from downtown Seattle and nine minutes to Sea-Tac International Airport. It also meant moving them away from customers and friends that were a part of their everyday.

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This displacement coincides with another just across the city’s border. Down the street, more business owners who are predominately East African continue to fight for their stores and restaurants as the city of SeaTac prepares to sell SeaTac Center, a two-story business hub and a major part of this commercial neighborhood and community. A new developer will develop a new commercial center on that spot, potentially moving or, at worst, shuttering more businesses in this area.

Taken together, the Tukwila and SeaTac displacements could scatter a community of East African and Muslim people who would come to this area for groceries and stay for a coffee, creating a symbiotic business core in which the owners were stronger together than apart.

“We wanted to be there every remaining day, minute, and hour.”

Maudah is the owner of Bayview Motor Club, a used car dealership which used to sit on the property he owned for seven years. He temporarily relocated to a small office to collect payments and stay in touch with customers, a space he shared with another community business owner, Adam Ashoor. Due to limited space, his cars stayed in a storage unit to the north.

He began moving to an office in SeaTac on May 3 when he found out his business license to sell cars was invalid due to a moratorium on auto sales in the Tukwila International Boulevard corridor. The moratorium places a ban on “auto-oriented commercial uses” in that area, limiting his options for relocation. He established his car dealership in the previous community space before the moratorium went into effect, but once he moved he was no longer exempt from the ban. He’ll be sharing his new space with an auto mechanic, where he will work on getting his license active again.

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The exterior of Maudah’s temporary office in Tukwila, Washington, as seen on May 2. He later moved to a location in SeaTac. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Maudah was one of the many business owners who stayed in the community center location until the day they were required to move on March 31.

“As a small business, you want to stay at your location as long as possible. It’s very fragile. You just move across the street and you might not have the same business,” said Maudah. “We wanted to be there every remaining day, minute, and hour.”

“There’s just not much space in Tukwila and SeaTac for these smaller businesses.”

In 2008, the city did a facilities study and found that many of their public facilities did not meet public safety codes. In the November 2016 election, the city proposed a bond and attached levy for no more than $77.4 million to pay for the justice center and three new fire stations, plus equipment. The measure required 60 percent to pass, and it did so by just 31 votes.

The city originally budgeted $28.6 million for justice center alone. As of January 2018 the cost soared to $68.5 million.

The city offered relocation compensation for the businesses that were displaced, depending on their size and type of business. In a settlement reached between the business owners and the City of Tukwila, business owners received a total of $1.5 million, said David Cline, the Tukwila city manager.

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Items line the shelves of Fresh and Green Market in Tukwila, Washington, on May 2, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

The city offered smaller businesses $50,000. A larger business like a restaurant, with more equipment to move and a larger footprint, would receive more, Cline said.

Maudah received $50,000 for his car dealership.  Abdi Adan received $185,000 for his grocery store called Fresh and Green Market.

Adan quickly used the money he received to begin construction on his grocery store on 146th and Military Rd S, down the street from the previous location. He spent around $40,000 to upgrade his freezers, $46,000 on electricity, and additional money on designing the space, fixing the floor, getting power, buying new refrigeration systems, demolishing and rebuilding part of the space and other costs that come with building a business anew.

“There are still bills to pay, but I did spend more than what they gave to me,” said Adan, who had been in the previous location for 10 years.

Despite his current difficulties, Adan said the city was helpful expediting the permitting process and answering questions to see how they could help.

The city also offered a minimum $2,500 credit for fees and permitting to businesses who relocated within the city of Tukwila. Business owners have until January 1, 2020 to use the credit. The city also told business owners they could seek the help of the Small Business Development Center Directory at Highline College for additional assistance, said Brandon Miles, the business relations manager for the City of Tukwila.

The center is offering free help to the businesses facing relocation, such as marketing for a new customer base and figuring out a new financial model after the move. The center has had two businesses reach out to them for their services but is having difficulty finding property that is close to the customers they originally served.

“Part of the challenge of the businesses, is they had a very short period of time to make transition and that makes it difficult,” said Rich Shockley, the Executive Director of the Highline College program. “There’s just not much space in Tukwila and SeaTac for these smaller businesses.”

“It wasn’t just the business. It was the community.”

Several of the business owners from the old center have moved their businesses within a few blocks of the old location. However, even those who were able to relocate are finding it difficult to be apart from the community that was such a staple and attraction of Tukwila.

“Moving a business is really difficult. We had to throw away some stuff, we had to sell some stuff with a discounted price. We had to put some stuff in storage units,” said Adan. “It’s like starting all over again.”

Ten of the around 16 displaced businesses are operating in new locations, or are in the process of completing construction or securing their spaces, Miles said.

Other businesses had to close when they could not find an affordable space to relocate their businesses, including Muna Grocery, Riverton Heights Grocery and Deli, Redwan Aman’s beauty supply store.

Muna Grocery owner Muna Abadir and her son Aman had shared space in the same building for five years. They had begun the process of remodeling when they found out they would have to move.

“If they want to build the justice center they’re talking about, they have so much open land, but they’re targeting just to destroy over 20 small businesses in that area,” said Aman. “It wasn’t just the business. It was the community.”

Mehdi Jumale, the owner of Tawakal Market, had been in the former space since 1999 and was preparing to expand his store when he found out they would have to move. He is now working on building a new market in a storefront one street over, which he predicts will open in a few months. Although he says finding a space close was difficult, he did not want to be far from the previous location and customers who look to his store for community and specialty food.

“The biggest problem we have is, is this going to be a successful location? We haven’t moved very far, but again, all the businesses that surrounded us are not there any longer,” said Jumale. “It was good synergy we had going for over 20 years.”

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Plastic sheeting hangs behind the glass windows of new storefronts in Tukwila, Washington, on May 2, 2019. Mehdi Jumale is moving is moving into space on the bottom floor of this building. (Photo: Carolyn Bick0

This space in Tukwila housed private businesses but acted as a community center for many. Community members came to shop at the businesses, but they also heard about news from back home and could gather in a familiar space. Storeowners say it was more than a space to run errands, but a gathering place for many immigrant men and women, young and old, who socialized over coffee, food and familiar faces.

“There are people who went there just to hang out, to watch soccer games together, that’s how you meet everybody that now you don’t see,” said Aman. “It’s a place you built a memory, and that’s the sad part.”

“There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment”

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to work in good faith with a coalition of businesses to purchase land where they could relocate. There is one potential property at International Boulevard and South 146th Street, the former Traveler’s Choice Motel, which was seized in a police raid in 2013.

The same city employees who helped manage the settlement agreement are working with coalition of seven businesses, Maudah included, to enter into a joint venture to purchase property from the city. The businesses are working alongside attorney Serena Sayani to negotiate with the city for a letter of intent on the business terms in the settlement agreement, which can be included in a final purchase and sale agreement.

The space could allow these businesses to co-locate in an area that would help sustain their businesses and maintain the community, said Margaret Cary of MLK Party Working Families Party-Washington, an ally group that is assisting the businesses.

“The problem is nobody wants to leave until the last minute,” said Maudah. “From there to another location, it’s a new venture, you don’t know if it’s gonna work. It’s risky.”

Construction on the justice center began at the end of April and is projected to be open and occupied at the beginning of 2021.

Business owners lay in every state of building. While several businesses await a deal with the city, Jumale is constructing his grocery store across the street, and Maudah is in the process of looking for a second job.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment,” said Jumale.


Feature Image: Tawfik Maudah stands inside his office in Tukwila, Washington, on May 2, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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