Category: Density

Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?

by Josh Feit

It’s mayoral election season. And once again, Seattle’s intransigent ideological factions are seeking the candidate who most aligns with their agenda. As candidates vie to consolidate support, this makes for entertaining political contortions.

On the candidate side in recent races, this has been embarrassing (Tim Burgess trying to be cool by setting up headquarters on Capitol Hill in 2013); disingenuous (Mike McGinn assuring people he wasn’t going to fight the tunnel in 2009); or awkward (Cary Moon trying to woo Nikkita Oliver supporters in 2017.)

On the voter side, things can be even rougher. For example, who the heck is a YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) voter supposed to support when Seattle’s dominant factions—KUOW yuppies turned Make-Seattle-Great-Again stalwarts, KEXP Gen-Xers turned provincial populists,  and “Seattle is Dying” KOMO voters—frame the debate.

I wrote a YIMBY manifesto last week (short version: Build multi-family housing in single family zones, support small business in every neighborhood, preserve cultural spaces citywide, and establish civic services across Seattle, all overlaid with an accessible, seamless transit and pedestrian network.)

But since urbanist Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda isn’t running for mayor, things are a bit tricky for upzone-infill-Green Metropolis nerds like me, who want a departure from the same old “downtown” vs. “neighborhood” mayoral campaign season script. (And p.s., the Seattle Times vs. Stranger divide isn’t much of a guide anymore; their standoff lost meaning when both publications went for testosterone socialist Jon Grant over Mosqueda in 2017’s citywide council contest.)

Race is going to be a major factor in 2021, which you’d think would help the YIMBY cause. After all, YIMBYs have put exclusive single-family zoning on notice; allowing more affordable multi-family housing in single-family zones is the number one YIMBY agenda item, if not obsession.

But nope. Both the KEXP and KUOW factions (which include Millennials too, by the way) think developers are akin to Trumpists (um, aren’t the anti-development voters the ones with the keep-people-out pathology?) That contradiction aside, thanks to widespread anti-developer sentiment, the pro-housing position that’s central to the Yes-in-My-Back-Yard voter will undoubtedly get suffocated by easy anti-gentrification soundbites.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this: Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods. The NIMBY fear-mongering argument reminds me of Trump showing video of riots that happened during Trump’s presidency and saying: “This is Joe Biden’s America!”

Since the contours of Seattle politics make it hard for candidates to run on the pro-neighborhood-housing, pro-neighborhood-business, pro-transit, pro-rights-of-way (plural), pro-nightlife, and pro-harm reduction agenda, what’s a YIMBY to do?

If there’s one thing establishment and populist candidates always agree on, it’s that allowing development in single family zones is inimical to Seattle’s character. This is your moment YIMBY. Step in and step up for a pro-housing agenda.

Well, there’s conceptual apartment buildings architect Andrew Grant Houston, aka “Ace the Architect,” a young, Black and Latino, queer, 100% YIMBY candidate, who has stunned everyone with his early fundraising ($60K raised, according the most recent Seattle Ethics and Elections reports).

Some of Seattle’s most visible bright lights, big city advocates have contributed (at least nominally) to Houston’s campaign, including: former mayoral candidate Moon, Futurewise executive director Alex Brennan, Share the Cities activist Laura Bernstein, Urbanist blog writers Ryan Packer and Doug Trumm, Seattle disabilities/transit advocate Anna Zivarts, and Mosqueda herself, though Mosqueda donated much more to council colleague and mayoral candidate Lorena González. (Houston is currently Mosqueda’s interim policy manager at City Hall.)

Houston, whose campaign website vision page says Seattle should operate on a 24/7 basis (I agree!) and that personal vehicles should no longer exist in Seattle by 2030 (I want to agree?), is on the board of a revamped Futurewise, the environmental nonprofit that’s leading the cause of urban density in the state legislature right now.

Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

There is also recently announced candidate Jessyn Farrell, a former progressive state rep from North Seattle who used to head up Transportation Choices Coalition, the premier pro-transit advocacy non-profit in the state. She currently works for Nick Hanauer’s left-progressive think tank, Civic Ventures (which, full disclosure, is a contributor to this site). As a legislator in Olympia, from 2013 to 2017, Farrell was vice chair of the House Transportation Committee and led the 2015 legislative fight for Sound Transit 3’s authorizing legislation.

For Farrell, an urban planning progressive, transit goes hand in hand with housing. She was instrumental in adding amendments that A) tied the authorizing legislation to a commitment from Sound Transit to contribute $20 million to an affordable housing fund and B) helped activate the agency’s transit-oriented  development policy; the TOD legislation has helped create, or put into the housing pipeline, 1,500 affordable units near transit stations to date.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?”

Queen Anne Project Approval, Delayed for Years, Illustrates Issues with Seattle’s Design Review Process

By Erica C. Barnett

In a three-hour meeting Wednesday night, Seattle’s West Design Review Board approved the design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment building in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood, capping off several years of debate over virtually every element of the project, from the placement of flower pots to brick colors to the number of doorways that will open into the 50,000-square-foot urban grocery store.

The process for approving the development has dragged on for more than three years, as Queen Anne Greenways’ Mark Ostrow has meticulously documented on Twitter. Barrientos Ryan is the third developer to take a crack at the site, after community groups rejected plans by two previous developers.

Delaying the project, which will replace an outdated one-story Safeway and a large surface parking lot, has added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the cost of the project so far, an amount that accounts only for the cost of redesigns, sketches, and studies of changes suggested by the DRB. Delay typically adds significant costs to projects themselves, as the cost of labor and materials tends to go up, not down. This makes housing more expensive, and contributes to the city’s ongoing lack of affordability, as Seattle’s ongoing population growth forces renters to compete for a limited number of apartments.

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The building, which will replace an existing Safeway with a large surface parking lot, will add more than 320 new apartments to the neighborhood, including 30 that will be affordable under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation. (Barrientos Ryan will contribute another $6 million to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.) It will also include a 2,000-square-foot public plaza, outdoor seating, a mural, and four additional pedestrian entrances to mimic the appearance of many small sidewalk-facing storefronts.

At Wednesday’s public hearing and at previous meetings, neighborhood residents pleaded with the board to move forward with the project. “I have thoughts about the design elements that have just been discussed in the last 70 minutes, but I’m not going to offer them because the only thing I want is for the Design Review Board to move forward,” Queen Anne Community Council member Justin Allegro said. “Design review shouldn’t be about appeasing a few neighbors who show up but about the whole neighborhood,” another commenter, Joshua Whitney, added.

SO MUCH BRICK

Design review was not originally intended to give neighborhood residents effective veto power over every element of a project. Over the years, though, it has turned into a tortuous process, one where individual preferences for Juliet balconies or garage-style rolling windows can hold up an entire project for months or years. Design review is frequently used as a cudgel to prevent projects or impose personal preferences that aren’t really about design at all—such as mandatory parking and whether people living in apartments have air conditioning or washers and dryers in their units.

Seattle’s design review process, it’s important to know, isn’t inevitable or—as public commenter Whitney put it—”a natural law.” And we don’t have to abandon all community control over building design to prevent development from being hijacked by individual residents who oppose housing or just have strong personal opinions about design.

In Portland, design review is done by a single, seven-person commission, made up primarily of professionals with experience in design, engineering, construction, and development, along with one representative of the general public. In contrast, Seattle’s eight neighborhood design review boards have five members each, all from the neighborhoods surrounding the projects they review.

Anti-Development Group Dissolves, Green Lake Grinches Call for Sweeps, Impact of SPD Transfers Still Unknown, and More

No, I didn’t sign. Screenshot via change.org petition.

1. When Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in September that he would transfer 100 officers from the department’s specialized units to positions on patrol, Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland told PubliCola that SPD would be “closely monitoring [case closure and workload] data for any potential negative impacts” of the transfers. At the time, the department didn’t specify when it would begin monitoring the effects of the staff transfers, which were completed on October 1.

According to SPD public affairs officer Valerie Carson, the department still hasn’t started tracking those effects. Instead, she told PubliCola, the department will start evaluating changes in specialized units’ workloads and case clearance rates in the new year. Carson said that the department chose not to start the assessments immediately after the transfers took effect to “ensure we are looking at true trends instead of spurious results from a few weeks of data.”

As PubliCola reported in September, the transfers did not shift officers away from the specialized units identified by the City Council for downsizing or elimination, which included the harbor patrol and the mounted unit. Instead, Diaz transferred officers from the department’s Community Policing Team, domestic violence unit, and intelligence unit. The transfers from the domestic violence unit—which effectively eliminated the team assigned to investigate elder abuse—sparked concerns within the King County Prosecutor’s Office and local domestic violence and elder abuse nonprofits, who argued that reducing the number of detectives investigating domestic and elder abuse could overwhelm the already-overworked specialized units and undermine the trust of survivors.

A random online petition demanding that the city uproot homeless people from a wealthy North End neighborhood might not be cause for concern, except that the last major sweep of a North End homeless encampment was preceded by a similar petition.

2. Happy new year—now get the hell out of “our” park.

That’s what a group of Green Lake grinches are saying to dozens of unsheltered people trying to survive the winter in tents around the popular park, via a petition demanding that the city “act now to protect people, parks, and our shared environment” by sweeping the area. The petition is sponsored by “We Heart Seattle” and several “save our parks”-type groups, as well as the Green Lake Community Council.

The petition language is a familiar combination of faux-environmentalist concern about feces contaminating the lake (described as one of “our most environmentally sensitive waterways”) and performative hand-wringing about the health and safety of the people sleeping in wretched conditions on its shores.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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Like previous petitions demanding sweeps, this one presents a clear moral choice: Allow people to live in (and ruin) a public park, or offer them access to the “thousands of clean, warm, and hygienic indoor spaces [that] are available in King County.” This is not actually an option. There are, certainly, more than a thousand shelter beds in Seattle, but all but a handful are currently occupied; they aren’t just sitting vacant, waiting for recalcitrant homeless people to agree to occupy them.

The document also asserts, fancifully, that there are “thousands” of properties in King County where it would be simple to set up new “tiny home villages, Pallet shelters, and sanctioned tent communities.” In reality, these options are expensive and can take months to site and open, thanks largely to neighborhood opposition from groups like the ones sponsoring the petition.

A random online petition demanding that the city uproot homeless people from a wealthy North End neighborhood might not be cause for concern, except that the last major sweep of a North End homeless encampment was preceded by a similar petition. (The more recent removal of tents from Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill was sui generis and hard to untangle from the park’s status as a long-term protest zone). In May, the city’s Navigation Team removed a large encampment from the Ballard Commons after neighborhood residents circulated a petition that allowing people to live in the park was inhumane and created an environmental hazard. Since then, the tents have returned, and nearby encampments have continued to grow.

The Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), a group of single-family housing advocates that spent years fighting against modest density increases in and around Seattle’s densest neighborhoods, has disbanded.

3. One thing the “plenty of shelter” crowd may not realize, in addition to the negligible nightly vacancy rate, is that there are currently no low-barrier shelters in Seattle where adults can walk up, wait in line, and get a bed for the night. The last such shelter, a Salvation Army-run coed basic shelter at City Hall, closed late last year after being partly redistributed to Fisher Pavilion, at Seattle Center. Both the City Hall and Fisher shelters were replaced by a 24/7 enhanced shelter in SoDo, which requires pre-registration and is not currently taking referrals.

The city has no plans to reopen either location on a long-term basis—partly because shelter providers are stretched thin already, and partly because they want to keep both sites available in case they need to open emergency winter shelters. Except in unusually cold or snowy years (like the winter of 2017-2018, it’s rare for the city to provide people a place to go specifically to escape winter weather, by design: The city’s winter-shelter protocols, which haven’t been updated in nearly 20 years, call for opening emergency shelters only if the weather dips below 25 degrees for multiple nights, or if there is snow accumulation of more than an inch. Continue reading “Anti-Development Group Dissolves, Green Lake Grinches Call for Sweeps, Impact of SPD Transfers Still Unknown, and More”

Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos

1. PubliCola has learned that the city is in conversation with the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel to provide temporary housing to hundreds of unsheltered Seattle residents using federal COVID relief dollars. The hotel is one of at least two in or near downtown Seattle that the city hopes will serve as way stations between homelessness and permanent housing. The city has pledged to fund as many as 300 hotel rooms for 10 months; the plan is to move people quickly from living on the street to either permanent supportive housing or market-rate apartments, using temporary “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office would not confirm that the Executive Pacific, which has 155 rooms, is under consideration for the program. “The City is in negotiations with a number of hotels and it would be premature to announce any possible locations as that may impact those ongoing negotiations,” Durkan’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, said. 

The city contracted with the Executive Pacific early in the pandemic to provide rooms for first responders. As PubliCola reported, most of those rooms remained vacant while shelters continued to operate at full or nearly-full capacity.

2. At a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board last week, representatives from the Hawkins Company, a recruiting firm hired to help identify a director for the new agency, said they they expect to start “preliminary candidate screening” by early December, with a goal of narrowing the list down to between 5 and 8 candidates by the end of the year. The official application period ends in less than two weeks, on December 4.

Given the high qualifications for the position, and the challenges of running a joint city-county homelessness agency with dozens of constituent cities with competing views about homelessness, it seems likely that the Hawkins Group could face some challenges in recruiting 5 to 8 fully qualified candidates for the position. Since the city of Seattle and King County itself are the most prominent partners in the new authority, I reached out to the offices of Mayor Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine for comment.

“We are confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Constantine’s office did not respond. Hightower, speaking for Durkan’s office, said the mayor is “confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates” and that Hawkins is “well on their way to the goal.” Hightower noted that Hawkins recruited the executive director for the LA Homeless Services Authority, and reminded me the “the Mayor is part of a group of decision-makers” at the county authority. However, Durkan and Constantine, as the executives of the county’s largest city (and the biggest financial contributor to the authority) and the county itself, are indisputably the most prominent of those decision makers.

3. Throughout the budget process that wraps up this afternoon, freshman city council member Alex Pedersen has promoted an anti-development agenda that will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to his 2019 campaign. And although most of the slow-growth amendments, provisos, and statements of legislative intent Pedersen proposed this year didn’t pass, it’s worth taking a look at them together to imagine what their impact would have been if they had. Collectively, Pedersen’s proposals would have placed significant new process barriers in the way of housing in Seattle, including new reporting requirements, new fees, and new regulations making it harder for land owners to remove trees on private property. 

Here are just a few of the land-use amendments Pedersen proposed as part of this year’s budget process. Except where noted, these measures did not make it into the final budget. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos”

Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric

By Mike Eliason

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly referred to the “15-Minute City” concept as a way of recovering from COVID-19. In the September 19 Durkan Digest, the mayor said she had directed Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development  to “explore the concept of a ’15 Minute City,’ as a potential framework for the next major Comprehensive Plan.”

The 15-Minute City is a sustainable cities concept developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, an advisor to several government and non-governmental agencies, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The concept is a city of complete, sustainable, connected neighborhoods, where every daily need can be met within a very short distance. The goals of a 15-Minute City include coordinated mobility, increased solidarity between residents, improved well-being, greener cities, more access to open space, rapid improvements to residents’ quality of life, and mitigating climate change.

As an architect deeply committed to decarbonized buildings and livable cities, I would gladly welcome a massive shift to a system this transformative and sustainable. However, Seattle’s next major Comprehensive Plan update won’t be adopted until 2024—meaning it would take over a decade to be realized. A framework that delays the transformation cities need to adapt to climate change (and COVID-19) for this long is neither climate action nor a path to economic recovery.

Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours.

Mayor Hidalgo, arguably one of the most visionary mayors in the world today, ran—and more critically, won—on a platform of massive ecological transformation during COVID. The ‘ville du quart d’heure‘ was a critical component of this. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris installed 50 kilometers of pop-up bike lanes within a few weeks of that city’s COVID-19 lockdown in preparation for recovery. More recently, Hidalgo announced Paris’s iconic Rue de Rivoli will be car-free—permanently. The city is transforming streets from spaces for cars to places for people and nature, with plans to replace 72 percent of on-street parking spaces with public squares, playgrounds, and pedestrian and cycling zones.

I am a huge fan of pedestrian zones. These are urban spaces where cars are generally not allowed, with exceptions for deliveries, accessibility, or resident access. They can vary in size from a single block to entire neighborhoods. In European and Asian cities, they are being expanded to areas outside downtown neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Mayor Durkan, Seattle still has no fully realized pedestrian zones. The closest the city has come is low-traffic “Stay Healthy Streets,” which, under Durkan’s leadership, are located mostly in single-family neighborhoods, far away from businesses, parks, and apartments. Meanwhile, bike lanes were delayed for years or eliminated completely to appease motorists, resulting in unsafe streets. The Mayor’s proposed budget for 2021 also includes cutting tens of millions of dollars for safe streets and nonmotorized transportation. This is not climate leadership. Continue reading “Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric”

Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?”

Alex Brennan: Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution

By Alex Brennan, Futurewise

During normal times, the case for moving into an efficient apartment in a dense urban neighborhood close to work, instead of a suburban house with a long commute, is compelling and logical.  For starters, the short commute means valuable extra time at home.

Meanwhile: You don’t need your own private yard because you can walk to the park. You don’t need a big apartment because the coffee shop down the block is an extension of your living room. Being out and about in the neighborhood is part of what makes urban life great. You run into people you know, and you come across all sorts of people you don’t know.

But now the coffee shop is takeout only. Crowded streets and parks require a masked, distancing dance, especially for elders or others at high risk. And for those of us who have switched to virtual work from home (it’s important to remember that many essential workers must still commute), we are now stuck in that apartment. Maybe we squeezed in a little work desk next to our bed or added it on to the kitchen table, but that roomy house an hour from the suddenly shuttered downtown office suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions.

Since the pandemic upended our lives in March, people have been asking me if (or in many cases telling me that) the pandemic portends the end of cities and density. And I get it. Living in the city right now is hard. The pandemic surfaces old associations between cities and disease. And there are some signs in New York and San Francisco that those who can afford to move are leaving for the suburbs.

I’m not here to predict the future, but I can tell you I’m not giving up on density. To explain why, I think it’s important to start by clarifying what is not happening.

First, density is not increasing your chances of getting COVID. In King County, for example, the densest zip codes have the lowest positive test rates and some of the lowest death rates. Globally, some of the densest cities in the world—Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei—are models for preventing the spread of the pandemic. (The concentration of top medical facilities certainly helps.)

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Second, we are not experiencing the end of agglomeration economies, the enigmatic force that brings businesses and jobs closer together. Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions. Amazon just leased another two million square feet of office space and announced they will have 25,000 jobs in downtown Bellevue by 2025—right across from the soon-to-open downtown Bellevue light rail station. Facebook just snatched up the headquarters office that REI let go—adjacent to the soon-to-open Spring District light rail station. And while perhaps struggling at the moment, Boeing isn’t going to start building airplanes on Zoom.

Beyond unpacking misperceptions about disease and jobs, it is important to think about the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic, the recovery that we want, and the important role dense, mixed-use, walkable cities can play.

Protecting rural areas. It might seem counterintuitive, but urbanism starts with respect for rural lands.  Remember the first time after lockdown that you left your home and went for a hike in our beautiful mountains? Remember what a blessing it was to have the great outdoors so close? Building up in the city allows us to protect our wild places and our working farms and forests. If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Climate Change.  The pandemic has taught us that we need to be better prepared for shocks, and there is no bigger shock coming than climate change. Are you angry that our leaders let our public health infrastructure waste away in good times? Well you should be furious about our inadequate efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change. This year’s toxic smoke is only the beginning if we don’t act now.

If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Dense communities are one of the best tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (Washington State’s largest source of emissions) by shortening travel distances and encouraging walking, biking and transit over driving alone. Dense cities also allow us to grow without building suburbs out on the forest’s edge, reducing human exposure to the destruction of climate-exacerbated forest fires.

Health. That increase in walking, biking, and transit, over sitting in the car, improves outcomes for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Those two conditions also happen to be two of the biggest risk factors of dying from COVID-19. But it’s not just about COVID, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US (diabetes is the seventh) and both ailments diminish the quality of life of millions more. Dense, walkable urban neighborhoods that incorporate physical activity into daily life are a big part of the cure.

Cost savings. When the pandemic is over, governments and households are both going to have a lot of debt. Density is part of how we can have a great quality of life and save money. Dense development cuts down on infrastructure costs, requiring fewer miles of roads and water, sewer, electrical, and internet lines. Density makes fire, ambulance, and other response-time-based services more efficient. That translates into lower taxes or better services (take your pick).

For households, less driving reduces the second biggest household cost, transportation. And while density alone cannot solve our housing affordability crisis, when land is expensive, more efficient use of land reduces building costs.

Reviving Main Streets. Density isn’t just about the big city, it’s also important for small towns. Right now, locally owned small businesses are struggling more than ever. The foot traffic that they thrive on has been decimated by COVID-19. If we let these places continue to be replaced by online shopping and big box stores out by the interchange, our small towns will lose their heart, their sense of place, and their tax base. Allowing second-story apartments above shops, and duplexes and triplexes nearby, can help bring back the foot traffic that Main Streets need to compete.

Public life. Let’s return to where we started. During normal times, dense neighborhoods are places of community and connection, places to run into friends on the sidewalk or at the coffee shop, places for festivals and marches. Right now, unfortunately, we can’t enjoy being with other people this way, and that is hard. But I believe, after the isolation of the pandemic, we will emerge more hungry for public life than ever before.

The United States of America has the lowest-density cities in the world. This isn’t because we harbor a Jeffersonian love for the suburbs. It’s because federal policies like the interstate highway act and the VA and FHA home mortgage programs have promoted sprawl for decades. Local policies also play a role: It remains true today that most low-density development in Washington State would not be financially feasible if impact fees reflected the true cost of the associated infrastructure. At the same time, single family neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs would be transitioning to duplexes, townhomes, and lowrise apartments if the zoning allowed for it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, we will need to rebuild our country. Will we continue the policies of suburban bias that has guided the last 70 years or will we learn new lessons from the pandemic and create a more urban future?

Alex Brennan is the Executive Director at Futurewise. The organization’s current campaign, Washington Can’t Wait, is fighting to build more climate-resilient, equitable and affordable communities by strengthening the Washington State Growth Management Act. 

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

Trees currently cover between 28 and 33 percent of Seattle’s land, making us one of the nation’s greenest cities. But advocates for a new, stronger tree protection ordinance believe the city should go further to protect its canopy, by restricting tree removal in ways that could prevent new housing development in the single-family neighborhoods where most of Seattle’s large trees are located. In doing so, they have insisted that the only way to mitigate climate change is to take actions that prevent development in their exclusive neighborhoods—a literal example of failing to see the forest for the trees.

The city is currently considering amendments to the city’s existing tree protection ordinance that would add new protections for significant trees, create a “fee in lieu” of preserving specific trees that would fund new tree plantings elsewhere, and require property owners to replace any tree they remove that’s more than six inches in diameter, among other new rules. Advocates want the city to go further, by reducing the maximum size and number of trees that can be removed from vacant lots, for redevelopment, and by individual homeowners.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

One impact of greater tree protections would likely be less development in areas where density is allowed, including both urban villages (which were just modestly expanded under the Mandatory Housing Affordability act) and single-family areas where homeowners just gained the ability to build auxiliary units, including backyard cottages. Trees, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in areas of Seattle that are wealthy and white, and scarce in areas that are not; a 2016 city analysis found that in “census tracts with high numbers of people of color, tree canopy is as low as 11% while in areas with not many people of color there is 55% canopy cover.”

Given that disparity, it was hardly surprising that the people who showed up at city hall this morning to advocate for more stringent tree protections/development restrictions were people who identified themselves as residents of neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Ballard, and North Seattle. One by one, they came up to make their case. A group was given extra time to sing a song decrying development, and then a member of that group, dressed up as a tree, shouted “I am a magnificent tree! … Every tree counts, especially us mature trees!” into the microphone. A man said developers who were building “million-dollar townhouses and large apartment buildings” in his neighborhood probably go home to neighborhoods with “very nice trees.” A woman said that development and the resultant tree removal is destroying “opportunities for tire swings, hammocks, tree climbing, playing with sticks, cool spots to place your picnic blanket [and] piles of leaves to jump into.” And a man asked the council if they had thought about drivers, asking rhetorically, “When it’s hot, where do you want to park?” and argued that “you need the trees” to keep cars cool.

Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards.

All this absurdity was just the precursor for what will likely be a lengthy debate over the proposed new tree protections. None of the proposals are especially unreasonable on their face. But it would be a shame if, taken together, they made it harder to build housing for the people that are moving here, the people who already live here, and the people who are being driven out by housing scarcity. Continue reading “I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees”

The Year in Review: Defining Stories of 2019

Throughout 2019, I returned to some stories again and again, zeroing on issues like homelessness, equity, the influence of big money in local elections, criminal justice, and transportation. This isn’t a list of the year’s biggest posts—that’s over here—but a look at some of the themes that emerged on this site throughout the year. These stories include deep dives into the work of the city’s ever-expanding Navigation Team (a group of police and human service employees that removes homeless encampments), Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policies, the city’s retreat from its ambitious bike infrastructure plans, and the ongoing (d)evolution of the regional homelessness authority.

All this work has been made possible by readers who support the site and allow me to do this as my full-time job. If you’re one of the thousands of readers who use this site as a resource for news and analysis of what’s going on in the Seattle area, I urge you to take the next step and become a sustaining supporter by contributing a few dollars a month or making a one-time contribution today. Keep independent media alive in Seattle in 2020 by donating to the C Is for Crank. You’ll be glad you did.

Big Money Swamps Local Elections, Voters Say “Nah”

In addition to being the first major test of democracy vouchers (publicly funded vouchers that went directly to voters to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice), this was also the year when big corporations (most notably Amazon, which spent nearly $1.5 million on a Chamber-backed slate of candidates), former elected officials (Tim Burgess, who started the People for Seattle PAC) and conservative groups (most notably Moms for Seattle, which backed most of the Chamber slate plus too-conservative-for-big-business D5 candidate Ann Davison Sattler) spent millions to influence council races. In the end, the only business-backed candidate who won was former Burgess aide Alex Pedersen, whose anti-development views are more in line with socialist Kshama Sawant’s than with the Chamber’s.

Sawant, Predicting $1 Million in PAC Spending Against Her, Won’t Participate in Democracy Voucher Program

Big Business, Labor, and Activist Money Set to Dwarf Individual Spending on Council Campaigns

Fueled by Unprecedented Spending, Seattle City Council Elections Defy Easy Interpretation

Seattle Finally Upzones

Yesterday, the state Growth Management Hearings Board dealt what may be a death blow to opponents of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation, which modestly upzones the city’s multifamily areas and allows more housing in 6 percent of the city’s existing single-family land. For years, a group called SCALE (led, in large part, by new Alex Pedersen council aide Toby Thaler) has delayed the zoning changes, arguing that the new rules violate the state Growth Management Act and the State Environmental Policy Act. The GMHB’s ruling rejected every single one of SCALE’s arguments. The group (sans Thaler) can still appeal to the King County Superior Court, but the standard for consideration gets tougher the higher the appeals go.

I covered the MHA battle this year, along with a related debate over whether to make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units in their basements and backyards—a proposal that was also subject to delay tactics by single-family activists.

Takeaways From Seattle’s Upzoning Endgame

Morning Crank: “I Have Not Seen Any Speculative ADU Bubble”

Durkan’s Backyard Cottage Plan Would Have Kept Some Old Restrictions, Imposed New Ones

City Didn’t Know How Many Were Moving from Homelessness to Housing

Although Mayor Jenny Durkan frequently touted the fact that All Home’s annual one-night count found fewer people living outside, the city was forced to admit last year that they did not know how many individual people were actually moving from homelessness to housing as the result of their efforts. This admission came after I (and subsequently others) reported that the city was conflating the number of households that exited specific programs with the number of individual people leaving homelessness. The city eventually updated its numbers, but the city’s initial reaction—the director of the Homeless Strategy and Investment division suggested that the details were less important than the trendline—suggested a troubling lack of attention to detail for a “data-driven” department.

Fact-Checking the Homelessness Claims in the Mayor’s State of the City Speech

Evening Crank: “No Matter How You Look at It, It’s Getting Better”

Turmoil in the Human Services Department

As the Human Services Department prepared to cede control over its homelessness-related work to a new joint city-county authority, the itself was in turmoil, starting at the very beginning of the year, when council member Kshama Sawant held hearings at which HSD workers denounced Durkan’s nominee to lead the department, interim director Jason Johnson. Eventually, the council decided not to approve Johnson, infuriating the mayor, who decided to keep him on without a formal appointment. Also this year, an internal survey showed high dissatisfaction among HSD employees, a number of key staffers left and have not been replaced, and a pilot program to give people living in their cars a safe place to park at night was quietly scuttled by the mayor, who later ramped up efforts to crack down on “extensively damaged” RVs.

Tempers Fray Over Human Services Director Nomination

“Intentional Healing”: Council Members (Including Sawant) Grill Human Services Nominee

Survey Says: City’s Homelessness Staff Feel Unrecognized, Out of the Loop

Finally, a Regional Homelessness Authority 

After more than a year of efforts, King County and the city finally agreed on a plan to create a new regional authority that will oversee the entire region’s homelessness efforts. Sort of. The plan the county and city ultimately approved had little to do with the original plan, which was designed to insulate expert decision-makers from political considerations by putting authority over the new body in the hands of subject-matter experts, not elected officials.

Elected officials didn’t like the idea of losing power, and suburban elected officials especially didn’t like the fact that they did not have direct representation on the board overseeing the authority, so the plan was inverted to return most of the power to politicians and to give suburban cities five guaranteed representatives on the 12-member oversight board, despite the fact that suburban cities will not contribute financially to the authority. The new rules also bar the authority from ever raising money, a sharp departure from the recommendations of last year’s One Table process, which concluded that the region needed additional revenue to address homelessness.

Long-Awaited Details of New Regional Homelessness Authority Announced, Though Many Questions Remain Unanswered

City, County Close to Deal on Regional Homelessness Plan that Ditches New Governing Body for “Interlocal Agreement”

As County Heads Into Homelessness Vote, City Council Considers Putting On the Brakes

“Nobody Thinks We’ve Gotten This 100% Right”: City Joins Regional Homelessness Authority

 

 

 

 

The Ever-Expanding Navigation Team

Mayor Durkan has repeatedly expanded the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and city staffers that removes unauthorized encampments and, in theory, “navigates” their displaced residents to shelter and services. The team came under fire this year for failing in that second mission, first in an audit that the Human Services Department denounced as “not factual,” and later when the city’s social services partner, REACH, decided to stop participating in encampment removals because it was hampering their ability to build trusting relationships with clients.

The biggest change Durkan made to the Navigation Team this year, though, was when she redirected them to focus primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments, such as tents in public parks, rather than on “72-hour cleans,” which require the team to provide advance warning and offers of shelter and services. Later, the city opted to train SPD bike officers to remove encampments even when the Navigation Team isn’t present. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Navigation Team rarely refers people successfully to shelter or services. Instead, most of the people they encounter “navigate” themselves to their next encampment.

More Encampment Removals, Less Notice? Durkan to Make Navigation Team Announcement

100 Officers Trained to Implement Anti-Camping Rules as Navigation Team Expands to 7-Day Schedule

Morning Crank Part 1: City Acknowledges Navigation Team Rarely Provides Services or Outreach

Most Navigation Team Referrals Don’t Lead to Shelter, Previously Unreleased City Data Shows

 

Crackdown on “Prolific Offenders”

Even before KOMO ran viral anti-homeless propaganda video, “Seattle Is Dying,” law-and-order activists like former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay were already building a case that something had to be done to address so-called downtown disorder—petty thefts, unsightly outbursts, and people exhibiting other visible signs of mental illness and drug addiction in the downtown core. In May, Lindsay released a report titled “System Failure,” which took a highly selective look at a list of 100 “prolific offenders”—a group of people, hand-picked by Lindsay, who have been arrested again and again for crimes such as theft and disorderly conduct downtown. The report  became a kind of source text for “Seattle Is Dying,” as well as the template for a proposal to deal with “high-barrier offenders” that would have expanded probation, created a new program “navigator” inside the jail, and implemented a new “case conferencing” system that could have resulted in additional criminal charges for people released from jail who failed to comply with its requirements.

Criminal justice reform advocates and city council members objected to the proposals, particularly the plan to expand probation, and reduced or froze funding for the plans. Still, the idea that there are “prolific offenders” downtown who must be addressed with a criminal justice response—as opposed to people with mental illness and addiction who could benefit from programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion—will surely persist in 2020, and could come up again when the mayor makes her third State of the City speech next month.

Morning Crank: The Council Takes a Closer Look at the “Prolific Offenders” Report

New Plan for Dealing With “Prolific Offenders” Substitutes Punishment for Harm Reduction, Advocates Say

As Council Seeks Funding for Successful Arrest Diversion Program, Mayor Proposes “Doubling Down on Probation”

Durkan vs. Cyclists

This was the year that cycling advocates went to war with Mayor Durkan, protesting her decision to eliminate a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE and cut a number of top-priority bike infrastructure improvements from the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, leaving south Seattle without a single direct bike connection to downtown. Durkan decided to kill the 35th Ave. bike lane after businesses and neighborhood activists protested that adding a lane for cyclists would eliminate too much parking and argued that cyclists could use a different route several blocks away from the neighborhood thoroughfare. The South Seattle bike lanes were cut to save money in the wake of Move Seattle Levy cost overruns. The city’s Bicycle Advisory Board recommended different cuts, and identified South Seattle as its top priority for bike infrastructure, largely on the grounds that the city has failed to adequately fund safe bike lanes in South Seattle for decades.

Although funding for a small piece of the south Seattle bike infrastructure, which the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board had identified as a top funding priority, was eventually restored, 35th Ave. was repaved without parking or a bike lane—a configuration that contributed to reckless driving and crashes almost as soon as it opened.

All this came just one year after Durkan opted to delay another bike lane that had been in the works for years—the planned Fourth Avenue bike lane downtown, which the mayor’s office said could interfere with bus mobility during light rail construction.

Mayor Kills Controversial Northeast Seattle Bike Lane; New Design Also Lacks Parking

Bike Master Plan Update: Fewer Protected Lanes, Longer Delays

“The Mayor Does Not Care About Bikes”: Advocates United In Opposition to Bike Plan Cuts

Durkan, SDOT Get an Earful from Advocates About Proposed Bike Plan Cuts

“I’m Here Because I’m Worried”: South Seattle Responds to Scaled-Back Bike Plan

Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Practices Debated

This was the year that critics of Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policies got serious about calling for reducing or eliminating fare enforcement, and some board members seemed receptive. Early in the year, board members questioned why Sound Transit still criminalizes fare nonpayment, pointing to King County’s own decision to revise its practices so that no one ends up in jail because they couldn’t pay their fare. A King County survey concluded that most “fare evaders” were people who couldn’t afford the fare; Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff responded by suggesting that reducing fare enforcement efforts might lower the agency’s farebox recovery, the amount of money Sound Transit gets from people who pay their fares.

Fare enforcement came up later in the year when Sound Transit’s own numbers showed that African American riders were far more likely to receive tickets for fare evasion than other customers. And an incident in September raised additional questions about whether Sound Transit officers were treating black riders differently than white ones, after a fare enforcement officer was caught on tape photographing the ID of a high-school student on her way to school on the first day of classes, when all high-school students were to receive free ORCA transit passes.

Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

Sound Transit Tickets Disproportionate Number of Black Riders, New Numbers Show

Georgetown Sobering Center Canceled, Sound Transit’s Tone-Deaf Fare Enforcement Tweet, and Seattle Times Loses Another African American Writer

 

Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings

Seattle’s “urban forest,” complete with single-family-only zoning and private driveways for private cars.

1. On Monday, new District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation transferring a small piece of land in Wallingford (or, as Pedersen called it, “East Fremont”) from the Finance and Administrative Services department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The land transfer will allow SDOT to extend a bus lane on N. 45th St. and speed travel times on Metro’s Route 44, which is one of the only east-west bus routes north of the Ship Canal. The Urbanist first reported on the proposed changes back in June. SDOT told the Urbanist that the spot changes, which also involve moving an intersection and converting a short stretch of 45th to one-way traffic, will improve travel times for nearly half of all Route 44 riders.

Pedersen said Monday that he was voting against the transfer because he had “gotten some feedback from residents of East Fremont” involving “access and traffic calming for residents.”

“East Fremont,” for those unfamiliar with fights over neighborhood nomenclature, is a part of Wallingford that the Fremont Neighborhood Council has long insisted is part of Fremont. Toby Thaler, the longtime head of the FNC, is now Pedersen’s advisor on land use and transportation.

Pedersen’s office responded to a request for comment by directing me to the video of the meeting. In a letter to a constituent, he went into slightly more detail, saying that his “concern with this project was the public engagement process, which could have benefited from more time to craft community-informed win-win solutions.” He added: “The ordinance was approved and my vote signaled to SDOT that it’s important for them to work to resolve issues from more than one angle.”

2. Pedersen took what seemed to be the opposite position on a different transportation project in his district‚ the redesign of Brooklyn Ave—arguing in favor of buses over a planned “green street” that will be too narrow to accommodate buses in the future. The redesign is part of the new University District light rail station.

At a briefing on the city’s Transportation Benefit District last Thursday, Pedersen asked two SDOT staffers if they had “heard about the bus lanes on Brooklyn issue,” then explained: “Brooklyn Avenue is going to be built too narrow to accommodate buses, and Sound Transit [is] worried if there are going to be any changes, if we try to widen it so it can accommodate buses, it’ll screw up Sound Transit’ schedule. … I don’t know if that’s something on the agenda to talk with Sound Transit about—to assure them that SDOT is able to get things done on Brooklyn.”

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Sound Transit’s plans for the new station include a “Green Street” on Brooklyn designed primarily for pedestrian traffic, with narrow lanes, a 20mph speed limit, and pedestrian improvements designed to drive car traffic away from the street and encourage bike and pedestrian traffic. Brooklyn is not currently a bus corridor. A group called U District Mobility, which includes a number of transit advocacy groups, has asked Sound Transit to widen Brooklyn to accommodate buses in the future.

In a joint statement, Sound Transit and SDOT told The C Is for Crank that the planning for the Brooklyn street design has been going on since at least 2014, when the city published the U District Green Street Concept Plan, and “the public clearly expressed that access to the station was a top priority.”

“Significant modifications to Brooklyn Ave NE would be needed to accommodate buses. While future revisions to the street may be a possibility after light rail opens, there is neither the time nor the funding for such revisions to be in place by the time the U District station is scheduled to open in 2021.”

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.”

3. Most council committee chairs have canceled their regularly scheduled meetings through the holidays, but Pedersen is making the most of his status as temporary chair of the land use committee, holding a special meeting to discuss the future of Seattle’s tree protection ordinance—a document that has galvanized activists ever since it first passed in 2001. (Pedersen inherited his chairmanship from temporary council member Abel Pacheco, who inherited it from Rob Johnson, who left the council in April. New committees and chairmanships will be announced in January).

The meeting  was billed as a briefing by “outside expert[s]” on the “need for and status of activity to implement Resolution 31902 concerning development of an updated Seattle Tree Ordinance.” The nonbinding resolution talks about the need to protect trees on single-family properties and to increase Seattle’s tree canopy to 30 percent of the city’s land area. (The advocacy group American Forests no longer recommends adopting percentage-based canopy cover goals and suggests providing density bonuses to developers who agree to plant trees.)

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.” One speaker called for a “moratorium on development” based on “primacy for trees,” and suggested “rewild[ing] areas too dense now for climate justice.” Another suggested that Seattle model itself after Cleveland, Ohio, which is “lapping Seattle” in terms of adding trees. This is true: Cleveland is “rewilding” the city—because the city is in decline; in order to cut down on blight, the hollowed-out city is tearing down thousands of houses abandoned by people who moved away. Continue reading “Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings”