Category: Development

Tunnel Option Back on the Table? Plus: Updates on Homeless Authority and Vaccinating Unsheltered People

An example of a lot in West Seattle that went up dramatically in value after a developer built a 300-unit apartment complex on site.

1. At Sound Transit’s system expansion committee meeting today, agency staff will present new numbers showing a greatly reduced cost differential between the elevated and tunnel options for light rail between Ballard and West Seattle, according to multiple sources. Previous cost estimates indicated that any tunnel would be far more expensive than the agency’s preferred elevated options, adding well over a billion dollars to the cost of the project; if the difference turns out to be negligible, a tunnel alignment would start looking better and better.

Sound Transit’s preferred alternatives for the Ballard-to-West Seattle segment include both elevated and tunnel options, but the tunnel has always come with an asterisk: The agency will only consider building it if tunnel supporters can find third-party funding to pay the difference.

Last week, Sound Transit released new cost estimates showing that the Ballard-downtown-West Seattle alignment will cost between 53 and 59 percent more than the agency estimated in 2019, due primarily to increased property acquisition costs. As PubliCola reported, the most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment.

Joe Gray, Sound Transit’s director of real property, said in an interview Wednesday that Sound Transit based its new property value estimates on the past several years of property sales in the neighborhoods along the alignment, without regard to the development potential of individual properties. For example, a vacant parking lot that is zoned for nine stories of residential development would be assessed not at the potential value of the future apartment building, but on the actual sales price of comparably zoned parking lots in the area over the past five years. If someone buys that parking lot and puts a 300-unit apartment complex on it (see image above), the difference in value becomes an unanticipated cost.

“It’s an estimate, because we only have the data that’s out there,” Gray said. This could be one reason the West Seattle estimates went up more dramatically than those for Ballard—”it’s a hot market,” Gray said, and the large number of property sales is reflected in Sound Transit’s higher estimates for that area. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that the difference between the cost increases in West Seattle and Ballard “is due to the property development currently underway in the area.”)

An alternative approach would be to pick a different cost escalator—one based on the likelihood that West Seattle and Ballard will continue to grow, particularly along the light rail alignment—and come up with new, higher estimates based on that assumption. But Gray said that would require assumptions Sound Transit is not prepared to make; after all, “the bottom could fall out” of the real estate market. “We wish we had that crystal ball to say that growth is going to continue in the commercial and in the industrial [sectors], but we just can’t,” he said. “We have to go to on what the property is [worth] today. We don’t guess.”

That approach—basing cost estimates on recent sales—is conservative in the sense that it doesn’t assume huge spikes in property values without direct evidence. In another sense, though, it could actually be risky: By assuming that property values will basically stay on their current trajectory into the indefinite future, even if their underlying zoning is designed specifically to encourage development that will dramatically increase its value, Sound Transit may be ensuring that it will have to come back with new, higher estimates year after year.

For now, the Sound Transit board and staff will consider a more immediate question: What will happen to the West Seattle-Ballard line? One possibility is that the new line (which is actually three separate segments, any of which could be built on its own) could be truncated or delayed. Another is that Sound Transit will give the tunnel options a closer look. Property values have less of an impact on tunnels because they just don’t require as much property acquisition. But tunnels can go over budget, too—and some of the new costs revealed last week have nothing to do with property values.

2. After numerous delays, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to hire a director—which the agency calls a “CEO”—and is interviewing four finalists for the job this week. As part of that process, the candidates will be meeting separately with members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people that has three representatives on the regional authority’s implementation board. The idea, board member and Lived Experience Coalition founder Sara Rankin said, was to bring these marginalized people closer to power, in this case by giving them a chance to sit down with the potential leaders of the new agency.

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On Wednesday, the board approved another informal meeting—this one with representatives of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban cities that are members of the authority. The SCA, which includes Renton, Kent, and other cities that are often at odds with Seattle and King County’s approach to homelessness, reached out to ask for the “informal meet and greet,” as former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak put it. “If this body is going to be successful, there has to be some sharing and some building of trust, so I would be in favor of finding a way to do this,” Chelminiak said.

Board member Simha Reddy, a doctor who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness, supported the motion for a different reason. “It’s important for the candidates to know what they’re getting into.”

3. During a press conference announcing a city-led effort to vaccinate people living in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities on Tuesday, PubliCola asked Mayor Jenny Durkan whether the city had any plans for reaching the thousands of unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people experiencing homelessness during later vaccination phases. Homeless people who “live in or access services in congregate settings” won’t get their turn in line until Phase B4 unless they’re over 70 (Phase A2), and the current list of phases does not include any guidance at all about people living unsheltered, who may spend little or no time in congregate settings at all.

Durkan’s response was nonspecific. “That is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the county and the state,” she said, adding that “that phase is in robust planning” by city and county officials. “Some of those people live in congregate settings, like permanent supportive housing, and so setting up systems to get them vaccinated will be easier than those who are unsheltered.”

This is probably an understatement. Because the vaccine must be administered in two doses, unsheltered people who receive the first shot must “keep a record of their vaccination status and when they need to follow up for a second dose,” according to the CDC. Then, after hanging on to that piece of paper for nearly a month, they have to follow through on schedule. How Seattle and King County will track down unsheltered people who fail to show up for their second vaccination appointments remains unclear.

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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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?”

City Promises Handover of Central District Fire Station for Innovation Center, But Many Questions Remain

Seaspot Media CEO and 37th District state house candidate Chukundi Salisbury.

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Last Friday, the city’s Department of Neighborhoods made an announcement on its blog that came as a surprise even to its beneficiaries: After years of inaction, the city would finally transfer control of the decommissioned Fire Station 6 in the Central District to the Africatown Community Land Trust for redevelopment into the William Grose Center for Enterprise and Cultural Innovation, a long-planned incubator for Black-owned businesses. The development could include meeting rooms, technology labs, and maker spaces, along with up to 20 units of housing for young adults. 

“There’s very few spaces that we walk into as African-Americans where we know we’re loved,” said Seaspot Media CEO Chukundi Salisbury, a Democratic candidate for 37th District state representative and advocate for the Grose Center project. “Walking into the Liberty Bank building,” an affordable-housing development built through a partnership between Africatown and Capitol Hill Housing, “I feel loved, and I feel welcome, and that in itself is an achievement—just to walk in and not feel out of place, to feel that this place is for me.”

Eventually, the Grose Center could be one of those places. For now, though, the groups who have spent five years pushing the city to hand over the disused property are still waiting for the keys.

“We were surprised by the announcement,” Africatown executive director K. Wyking Garrett said during a press conference outside the fire station Monday. “We found out via social media, like many others, but we’re encouraged and think it’s a step in the right direction toward the overall goals of the King County Equity Now Coalition.” The fire station was one of several properties identified as future sites for Black-run enterprises by the King County Equity Now Coalition, which includes Africatown, the Black Community Impact Alliance, Black Dot, and other community groups.

The city’s announcement came after weeks of negative headlines for Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who have been criticized for using force against mostly peaceful protesters on Capitol Hill, and one week after thousands of people rallied in front of the fire station in support of King County Equity Now’s demands. The department and mayor have resisted calls to make larger, more systemic changes demanded by protesters, chief among them defunding the police, redirecting funds to Black-led, community-based organizations, and releasing people arrested during demonstrations against police violence.

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The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Organizers of Monday’s press conference said they wished they could bring reporters inside the vacant building to see the space, but they currently have no way to get inside. Nor has the city proposed a funding plan for upgrades to the building or begun to work on the zoning changes that will be necessary to convert the property into a community center with on-site housing

Asked what the concrete steps the city has taken, other than last week’s announcement, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said, “Over the past two weeks, Mayor Durkan and City leaders have met with dozens of black community leaders representing a broad range of interests, including transferring city, county and state properties to community based organizations. Mayor Durkan supports these efforts. After meeting with groups last week, [deputy mayor Shefali] Ranganathan committed to working with community stakeholders… to move forward on next steps and the process for the transfer of FS6. The City looks forward to creating another strong community partnership to carry this project forward.” 

Africatown board member Isaac Joy noted Monday that Durkan is “getting a lot of pressure right now to address racial inequity in Seattle. … I don’t want to give her too much praise, because it shouldn’t take much organizing, it shouldn’t take thousands of Black people being in the streets, endangering themselves in the middle of the pandemic, to get the mayor to transfer over property that has been sitting vacant,” Joy said.

Funding for the redevelopment would come, in part, from the city’s Equitable Development Initiative, which was created five years ago to support community-led development in areas with high risk of economic displacement, like Rainier Beach and the Central District. The Grose Center was one of the first five projects identified in that process, but like others, including the Rainier Valley Food Innovation District, has not moved much beyond the planning stages.  

The Grose Center is named after William Grose, a Black businessman who purchased 12 acres of land from Henry Yesler in 1882 that eventually became the heart of the Central District. Garrett said Monday that the building would be not part of a “historic district,” but would serve as a “living memorial that will pay honor to the past” while creating opportunities for the Black entrepreneurs and innovators of the future. “We anticipate this being on an accelerated timeline, and we will continue to press for that, to ensure that we get the key, we get the title, and that we move forward on this project,” Garrett said.

Council Vote Allows Stalled Housing Projects to Move Forward Without Usual Lengthy Review

Not Seattle.

After more weeks of debate than any other piece of emergency legislation to come out of the COVID crisis so far, the Seattle City Council voted this morning to ease the requirement that certain developments go through the lengthy full design review process, allowing dozens of buildings that were already in the process pipeline to continue moving forward. The legislation died last week for lack of seven votes (the requirement for emergency legislation) but was brought back this afternoon with a new amendment from council member Tammy Morales, who initially voted against the bill on the li grounds that it would expedite gentrification in historic districts like the Chinatown/International District and the Central District.

Public comment, which returned last week, was split between people who insisted that streamlining design review, even for a few months, would lead to the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods and the decimation of urban forests, and those who argued that building housing was critical to the city’s recovery. Several speakers who opposed the bill said that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections “can’t be trusted” and suggested that city land-use bureaucrats were hellbent on scraping single-family lots of trees and vegetation to build dense, “unaffordable buildings” in the middle of their single-family neighborhoods.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Last week, Morales proposed an amendment that would have eliminated a provision allowing city staff, rather than historic district and landmark review boards, to approve changes in historic districts. That amendment failed, and Morales voted against the legislation, along with Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen. This time, she came back with a more narrowly tailored amendment specifically prohibiting any online meetings of the city’s International [District] Special Review District on the grounds that the community includes many people without access to technology and translation services. That amendment passed, and Morales voted for the final bill, calling her vote “my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.”

Council member Andrew Lewis proposed an amendment, which failed to pass, that would have halted work on three projects that are participating in the city’s Living Building pilot program by requiring them to continue through the full design review process. “Living buildings” get some extra height and density in exchange for being built to high environmental standards, but like other buildings that receive height bonuses, they tend to be controversial among traditional neighborhood groups. Lewis said he had heard concerns from “the community” that allowing these projects to shift to administrative design review, which doesn’t require in-person meetings but does allow public feedback, would lead to inferior buildings. The amendment failed despite an assist from Herbold, who encouraged Lewis to reiterate his reasons for believing that projects shouldn’t shift from full design review to a less process-y process midstream.

“This will be my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.” — Council member Tammy Morales

And what about Herbold, who voted against the bill last week after her own amendment, which would have eliminated a provision that exempts affordable housing from design review for six months, failed? City rules prohibited her from bringing up the same amendment again (as they did with Morales’ unsuccessful changes), and she voted against the bill a second time, arguing that the affordable-housing exemption violates Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting cities from considering legislation that is unrelated to the COVID emergency. Council president Lorena Gonzalez, who said she had consulted on this question extensively with the city clerk and city attorney’s office, disagreed, and the legislation passed 7-2.

The upshot of all this is actually more significant than the last few weeks’ arcane finagling suggest. Dozens of projects, including affordable housing projects, have been on hold since Inslee’s order halted in-person public meetings, putting a critical economic sector in a holding pattern until the city decided what to do. Now, and for the next six months, these projects can get back underway. As Queen Anne Community Council board member Justin Allegro put it during public comment, “We don’t want to look back and regret that we missed out on huousing opportunities now just because we weren’t willing to trust our city employee experts to make design review decisions for the next few months.”

With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process

The Standard towers in the University District, one of dozens of projects caught in limbo when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of all public meetings.

Nonprofit affordable housing providers and other developers were alarmed when a proposal from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that would make it possible for their projects to move forward during the COVID crisis was abruptly removed from this week’s city council agenda. The legislation would allow projects to go through the shorter “administrative” design review process, in which projects are reviewed and approved by trained city staff, instead of the usual “full” design review, which involves public meetings and sometimes-lengthy deliberations. Similarly, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer would be empowered to approve or deny changes to landmarked buildings for six months.

The changes would last for six months, or until the city has developed a system for design-review and landmarks board meetings to take place online. Without a process for projects to move forward, land-use attorney Jack McCullough says, a lot of planned developments could be “dead in the water.”

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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 reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

“If we have to tell everyone who’s in the pipeline or ready to get in, ‘We can’t tell you when you’ll ever be able to move forward,’ people will mothball their projects. They may not kill them, but they’re going to say, ‘If there’s not a path, why am I spending money money on this?”

The council was prepared to adopt the proposal on Monday, but after an executive session at which the city’s law department reportedly expressed concerns that it could open up the city to appeals to the state Growth Management Board, the legislation was yanked from the agenda. (City council president Lorena Gonzalez was unable for comment Thursday, and a city council spokeswoman did not return a call.) On Thursday, after both for-profit developers and low-income housing builders raised a ruckus, it’s back on next week’s agenda.

The city’s eight design review boards are supposed to ensure that their designs are high-quality, comply with regulations, and are appropriate for the neighborhoods where they’re being built. (This process, of course, can be quite contentious and subjective.) Twenty-nine projects, totaling 3,500 new housing units, were supposed to get hearings between March 11 and May 4, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and another 30 were starting the community outreach process that precedes design review.  SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens says many of these projects will provide affordable housing funds through the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Program or include affordable units through the Multifamily Tax Exemption program. The 30 projects that were just starting out include four affordable-housing buildings.

Chris Persons, the head of Capitol Hill Housing, says he has two projects in the development pipeline, including one that requires approval by the landmarks board. “It’s stuck, but it could be resolved by this legislation,” Persons says. Continue reading “With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process”

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.”

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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”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: Andrew Lewis

Image via Andrew Lewis campaign.

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: District 7 candidate Andrew Lewis. Lewis, who got his political start as campaign manager for former city council member Nick Licata’s reelection bid in 2009, now works as an assistant Seattle city attorney.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): What is a recent vote where you disagreed with the current District 7 representative, Sally Bagshaw?

Andrew Lewis (AL): This isn’t a vote, but I do think the lack of attentiveness to a replacement for the Magnolia Bridge is one where I disagreed with council member Bagshaw. I went to the town hall in March of 2018 on the Magnolia Bridge, at the church over there near Magnolia Village, and there was not a single city council member there. Council member Bagshaw should’ve been there.

There was a room full of angry people who wanted to hear a plan. You know, they understand that the bridge is falling apart, and they understand that the bridge is going to have to be decommissioned. What they wanted was, you know, what’s the action plan, where are we going to do? And what I hear from a lot of the folks that I’ve talked to out in Magnolia is there has not been strong leadership from our district council member on that issue.

ECB: You’ve talked about a “one for one replacement” of the Magnolia Bridge. What do you mean by “one for one replacement,” and is there a breaking point for you in terms of cost?

AL: I do support a one for one replacement to the bridge that will meet the same level of service that the bridge currently provides to the city. For me, it’s about the impact that [tearing down the bridge] would have on public transportation—the 265 buses use that bridge on a daily basis. As I’ve gotten out to Magnolia and talked to folks who are in some of the more renter-dominated quadrants of Magnolia, I’ve actually been very surprised that there are corners of Magnolia that have a pretty high amount of housing density, and all of those communities are extremely dependent on bus service that goes between Magnolia and downtown. It would be extremely difficult to reroute those buses onto Dravus, onto Emerson, due to a lot of limitations of those entryways to Magnolia. So that’s what builds my sense of urgency for it.

Even though I say one for one, I do think that the new bridge should have some multimodal kind of components to it. I think we should have protected bike lanes or even grade-separated bike lanes on a new Magnolia bridge. I think that we could incorporate that into a new design of the bridge.

In terms of cost, I think that a lot of districts are going to have a similar conversation. As a region, what we’re increasingly seeing is a lot of our deferred infrastructure challenges are going to cost money and we’re going to have to figure out a way to meet those obligations through some kind of long-term bonding strategy.

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ECB: The National Guard is getting ready to move out of its armory property in Interbay, freeing up land there for potential development. One idea that’s being discussed is a hybrid industrial-residential model that would include housing mixed with light industrial uses. What do you think of that proposal?

AL: Preserving industrial lands within the Ballard Interbay industrial area is super important to me. I don’t want us to lose industrial land to gentrification that we’ll never get back, especially not industrial land that abuts the water. So whenever I look at a plan to redevelop or do something to property within the [Ballard-Interbay Manufacturing and Industrial Center], I always take a really careful look at it. I would be more hesitant to encroach on land that has historically been used for some kind of maritime industrial purpose.

However, while the armory is in the BINMIC, I don’t consider it historic industrial land. It’s been an armory for decades. It’s not like we’re displacing Ballard Oil or something. This is a publicly owned armory that happens to be in an industrial area. It is also really rare that we acquire plots of land that are this large that we can play with to get some kind of public housing. I think one thing we should be looking at doing is replicating the formula that we have nailed down with Fort Lawton, which I think is excellent project. There are some people who are saying that Interbay is the next South Lake Union. My preferred vision is that it be more like Georgetown where you have areas that are carved out for housing, and that housing be workforce housing.

“I think that what often happens is there’s at least a perception that the city comes into these conversations with a proposed route already in mind, and I think that contributes to a sense of polarization and to a sense of concern amongst business owners that they weren’t consulted, that they didn’t have a hand in shaping the route.”

ECB: Was the mayor right to postpone the Fourth Avenue bike lane, and would you push for completion of that bike lane?

AL: I’m not completely familiar with what the controversies are, if the businesses and neighbors have concerns specifically about the proposed route. One thing that I think we should be doing more of is having a process about protected bike lanes where we start with a Point A and point B without a proposed route in the middle. And then we start a process with the neighborhood, with the business owners, with the community, with stakeholders, in the biking  activism community and environmental groups. And we sit down and say, we got a Point A, we got a Point B,  how are we going to connect them? I think that what often happens is there’s at least a perception that the city comes into these conversations with a proposed route already in mind, and I think that contributes to a sense of polarization and to a sense of concern amongst business owners that they weren’t consulted, that they didn’t have a hand in shaping the route. Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: Andrew Lewis”