1. Plans to build a 14-story hotel across the street from the north First Avenue entrance to Pike Place Market are now in limbo after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-1 to designate the three-story Hahn Building a historic landmark last week. The board previously rejected applications to landmark the building twice, in 1999 and 2014, and commission staff recommended against a landmark designation this time, “as it does not appear to have the integrity or the ability to convey its significance as required.”
The Hahn Building, which served as a single-room occupancy hotel for low-income workers, was completed in its current, three-story form in 1907, making it one of the older buildings in the area and one of dozens of SROs that used to operate downtown. (The original one-story building was finished in 1897.) One At last week’s landmarks board meeting, landmarking proponents argued that its history and proximity to Pike Place Market qualified it for historic status.
Photographer and writer Jean Sherrard called the building a “vital hinge in the market’s front door” and “a transitional step down from the tall buildings that fill the downtown core behind it.” Landmarks commissioner Jordan Kiel, who cast the lone vote against landmark status, countered that “being landmark-adjacent does not make you a landmark,” calling the heavily altered Hahn a “background” without “a significant impact to the city as an SRO.”
Residents of the Newmark condo tower, which sits directly to the east of the Hahn, have heavily supported the landmark effort, creating an online petition and GoFundMe to support their efforts. If the hotel is built, many of these condo owners would lose their views of Puget Sound to the west. Newmark residents also supported efforts to “save the Showbox,” which sits on the same block and was going to be developed as an even taller condo building.
Landmark status does not prevent a building from being demolished, but it’s one factor that a city hearing examiner will consider when deciding whether to approve a master use permit for the proposed new hotel. The developer can also appeal the landmark’s board decision to the hearing examiner.
2. Over the next year, the Seattle Department of Transportation plans to replace all its license-plate readers—cameras that track cars and buses through traffic, producing data that SDOT uses to determine real-time travel times and improve things like signal timing—with cell-phone-tracking censors made by a company called Acyclica. The sensors, which will be embedded in utility cabinets along a handful of major arterial streets, track people’s location by identifying a specific code, or address, associated with their cell phones.
Although the city has been using Acyclica’s technology on a smaller scale since 2014, the 2017 surveillance ordinance requires the city to periodically review surveillance technologies for compliance with the ordinance. Last week, the city council’s transportation and utilities committee discussed Acyclica in the context of a city audit on license-plate readers. Several council members brought up concerns about the new technology, including the possibility that it can be used to track individual Seattle residents or by law enforcement.
SDOT says this is impossible; Acyclica does not hang on to individual people’s cell-phone data, SDOT staffer Adiam Emery told the council. “The data just blows through,” Emery said. However, privacy advocates have argued that there’s no way to guarantee Acyclica isn’t holding on to the data and using it for some other purpose, potentially in combination with other data, because the company (which was acquired by a company called FLIR Systems in 2018) doesn’t have a contract directly with SDOT; it functions as a subcontractor for a hardware firm that actually holds the contract with the city.
“Without a contract, there wouldn’t be contractual restrictions about how that personal data is used, and Acyclica would be able to sell that location data to third parties on its own or bundled with other information like license plates or facial recognition data,” ACLU-WA’s Technology and Liberty Project Manager Jennifer Lee told PubliCola. “If there aren’t restrictions about how they can use that data, they can sell it to other companies or share it with law enforcement.”
SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson said the department “is actively pursuing a direct procurement and data governance contract with Acyclica’s parent company,” FLIR, and “remains steadfastly committed to the privacy of our residents.”
But privacy advocates caution that it’s up to public officials to make sure departments are taking privacy concerns seriously and are willing to address problems that arise, even if that means modifying or abandoning technologies that are already in place. “When departments present technologies they already use, they aren’t incentivized to acknowledge the privacy risks of the technologies—they want to keep using them,” Lee said.
Bergerson says SDOT needs to have some way to track people’s movement along city streets “to provide the public with accurate travel times, and our traffic planners with a clearer sense of traffic patterns and congestion improvement options.” Google Maps, he said, won’t cut it. So far, the city’s surveillance ordinance has not been widely used to restrict or ban technologies—and, as PubliCola’s reporting on an SPD officer’s use of banned facial-recognition technology revealed last year, the ordinance is only as effective as the city’s enforcement of it.
Editor’s note: This story originally attributed a quote from Jennifer Lee to a different privacy advocate. The story has been corrected with proper attribution. PubliCola regrets the error.