Category: Historic Preservation

The C Is for Crank’s Most Popular Posts of 2019

As we close out the year here at The C Is for Crank, here’s a look back at the year’s most widely-read posts—the ones that grabbed readers and got them sharing and talking.

Although the year’s most popular posts span the gamut of topics—from a local media scandal to the legal battle over the Showbox to efforts to track homeless people using biometric scans—one theme that unites almost all of these posts is that they were reported exclusively here at The C Is for Crank. In most cases, if I hadn’t reported these stories, no one else would have. That’s one reason I urge you to support this site by kicking a few bucks a month to help me keep doing this work. When you provide a financial contribution to keep this site going, you’re directly supporting an independent media outlet free from ads, sponsored content, or influence from corporate backers.

In addition to helping me make a living as an independent journalist—a rarity in today’s contracting media landscape—your contribution today will make it possible for me to expand and improve the site in the coming year. (More on that soon). So if you’re one of the thousands of readers who visit this site regularly and if you learned something you wouldn’t have known otherwise, consider taking the next step and becoming one of the hundred of individual contributors who make my work possible. Just $5, $10, or $15 a month—or a one-time contribution—makes a huge difference.

Thanks for your support, and happy 2020.

1. Homelessness Agency Director Suspended, Investigation Launched After Racy Drag Show at Annual Conference (Exclusive)

Earlier this month, King County’s coordinating agency on homelessness, All Home, hosted a topless drag performance by a formerly homelessness trans woman at their annual conference. The performer, who came to Seattle from Spokane to speak about her experiences as a formerly homeless trans woman of color, did not get paid, although an emcee encouraged conference attendees to throw dollar bills at her as tips. The show raised questions about consent (some attendees said they were not warned about the overtly sexual nature of the performance) and what All Home had been thinking. Participants at the midday conference included representatives from both Muslim and Christian religious groups that provide services to homeless King County residents.

Since this story ran on December 12, All Home acting director Kira Zylstra stepped down from her position. According to King County, an investigation is ongoing.

2. “You Uppity F*cking Bitch”: The Response to the Viral Public Comment Video Was Predictable and Avoidable 

Richard Schwartz, a perennial public commenter, broke a basic city council rule when he used the council’s public comment period, at which comments are limited to items on the council agenda, to rant about cyclists going “too fast” in the bike lane on Westlake Ave. Council member Debora asked Schwartz to stay on topic, but he refused, demanding extra time and assailing the other council members for failing to pay rapt attention to his off-topic rant. The video went viral on right-wing media, which portrayed Schwartz as a victim of an imperious council woman who thought she was too good to pay attention to the common man.

What happened next was predictable: Emails and calls poured in from across the country, unleashing a torrent of racist and sexist abuse against Juarez and every woman of color on the council, including women who were not even at the meeting. More hateful emails were addressed to Teresa Mosqueda, who was not at the meeting, than to Mike O’Brien, who was.

3. Showbox Building Owner Terminates Lease Amid Preservation Discussions (Exclusive)

The fate of the Showbox in downtown Seattle was a recurring theme this year, as the owner of the building duked it out with music fans who opposed plans to redevelop the building as a 40-story tower. Although the city council had just adopted new zoning rules intended to encourage precisely this kind development—dense housing—downtown, the council became the club’s most ardent defenders, “saving” the nondescript two-story building by including it in the Pike Place Market Historic District and subjecting it to the same strict controls designed to save the farmers’ market across the street in 1971. 

The owners of the building sued, noting both the zoning change that made their planned development possible and the fact that the building had only been a rock club for short stretches of its existence, mostly in the 1990s. A legal battle is still ongoing, but in the meantime, the owners announced that they would terminate the lease held by Anschutz Entertainment Group, the multinational entertainment corporation that actually owns the Showbox brand, when it ends in 2024.

4. City’s Outreach Partner Disengages from Navigation Team as City Removes More Encampments Without Notice (Exclusive)

As Mayor Jenny Durkan ramped up homeless encampment sweeps and directed the Navigation Team to shift its focus toward removing “obstruction” encampments (eliminating the requirement that the team provide advance notice or offers of shelter and services), the city’s longtime nonprofit outreach partner, REACH, decided it could no longer participate in encampment removals. Among their reasons: Homeless encampment residents had begun associating the outreach workers with the police who lead encampment removals, making it difficult for these social-service workers to develop trust with encampment residents.

After the story ran, REACH implemented a geographically based approach to encampment outreach, and Durkan expanded the Navigation Team to include two new “system navigators,” city employees who are supposed to take the place of REACH workers by offering shelter and services to encampment residents during sweeps. Judging from the tiny percentage of Navigation Team referrals that actually lead to shelter, and the even tinier number of Navigation Team contacts that lead to referrals in the first place, the “outreach and engagement” part of encampment removals has a lot of room for improvement.

5. Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers” (Exclusive)

Mayor Durkan asked the Human Services Department to study mandatory biometric screening of homeless shelter and service clients, using fingerprints or other biometric markers to track the city’s homeless population as they move through the homelessness system. The idea, the mayor’s office said, is to create “efficiencies” that improve on the scan cards currently used by some Seattle shelters, and to reduce duplication of data across various shelters.

Privacy and homeless advocates recoiled at the idea of digitally tracking homeless people, on the grounds that biometric scans are invasive and likely to keep some potential clients (or, as the city calls them, “customers”) from seeking shelter and services—particularly people with mental illnesses that cause paranoia, domestic violence survivors, and undocumented immigrants. Internal memos indicate that HSD staffers are also skeptical; one staffer suggested that Durkan had “probably just heard about a cool thing” and was not trying to solve any actual problem. I’ll be following up on this story in early 2020, when HSD sends its report on biometrics to the mayor.

6.  Where Is Durkan’s $195,000 Cabinet-Level General? “Out and About,” According to His Schedule (Exclusive)

This story was based on a public disclosure request I filed about Durkan’s cabinet-level “director of mobility operations coordinatigron,” Mike Worden—a retired Air Force officer who insisted that city employees refer to him as “General Worden” or simply “The General.” Worden was a runner-up for the job of Seattle Department of Transportation director, a position filled by a series of interim leaders through most of Durkan’s first two years and finally filled by Sam Zimbabwe from Washington, D.C.

City insiders questioned why Durkan needed both an SDOT director and a mobility operations director, and city outsiders wondered what it was, exactly, that Worden did. The answer, according to his schedule? A lot of “out and about time,” much of it apparently riding buses and trains around the city. In addition to “rid[ing] buses, light rail, or the [S]ounder to talk to transit drivers and riders,” a Durkan spokeswoman told me, “Sometimes Mike goes to traffic pinch points or other points of observation to watch traffic, incident responses, traffic clearing, traffic officers, etc.”

After I broke the story about Worden’s schedule, the mayor announced he had “completed the foundational work” of coordinating post-viaduct traffic operations and removed funding for his position from her 2020 budget.

7. Election Crank: Facebook Rules Catch Up With Moms For Seattle; Burgess’ Left-Baiting Rhetoric as Subtle as a Hammer and Sickle

This year’s city council elections were notable not only for the astonishing amount of outside money spent to promote a mostly unsuccessful slate of candidates, but by the emergence of new independent groups attempting to influence Seattle races. In the August primary, Moms for Seattle and People for Seattle stood out for their willingness to mislead voters with manipulative mailers. Moms, whose largest contributor was a Bellevue charter schools advocate, was busted for running Facebook ads that violated the company’s (ostensible) ban on political advertising, and for Photoshopping trash and tents into images of playgrounds in an effort to scare voters into choosing law-and-order candidates. People for Seattle, founded by former city council member and mayor Tim Burgess, bombarded the city with mailers associating the candidates they opposed with socialist firebrand Kshama Sawant, targeting candidates in every race (including Burgess’ former colleague Lisa Herbold) with incendiary rhetoric.

In the end, the only Moms/PfS-backed candidate who won was Alex Pedersen—Burgess’ former council aide.

8.  KIRO RV Reporter Out, Big Money Swamps Seattle Mailboxes, and Where Is the 2019 Parking Study? (Exclusive)

After right-wing radio host Dori Monson and former city council candidate Ari Hoffman encouraged listeners to make a point about homeless people living in RVs by buying up derelict RVs, filling them with trash, and parking them, locked, in front of council members’ houses, it appeared that someone had done just that, parking a trailer in front of council member Lisa Herbold’s West Seattle home. Without bothering to look into the details, Monson assumed his listeners had heeded the call, and encouraged them to show up at Herbold’s home to join the “protest.” Monson singled out one man who vandalized the trailer with “Dori for President” graffiti for particular praise, running video of the vandal in action and praising the “protest.” His station, KIRO Radio, also sent a reporter, Carolyn Ossario, to the scene. Upon arriving at what she also called the “protest,” Ossario entered the trailer and posted video of herself commenting snidely on its contents.

Within a day, it became clear that the trailer belonged to a family who had planned to move into it until it was broken into and vandalized. They had not realized that Herbold lived in the adjacent house. Instead of apologizing, Monson doubled down, inviting the family onto his show and handing them a “hunski” from his money clip that he said should take care of all the damage. The station fired Ossario for entering the family’s trailer without permission; Monson suffered no apparent consequences.

9. Durkan’s Comms Director To Depart; Mayor’s $250,000 General Submits One-Pager on What He Does All Day; and HSD Expects Long Contract Delays (Exclusive)

This Morning Crank grab bag featured the news that Mayor Durkan’s communications director, Mark Prentice, was leaving the city; an effort by Durkan’s office to justify spending $195,000 on Worden in the 2020 budget (among his listed job duties: Implementing a “Lean/Six Sigma initiative throughout the city”); and news about significant delays to human services contracts after HSD decided to disband the office that ensured that contracts were accurate and legally compliant earlier in the year (a story I also reported exclusively).

10. Exclusive: Times Reporter Rosenberg Resigns In Wake of Harassment Allegation (Exclusive)

When a New York-based freelance writer published a series of sexually explicit (and unsolicited) Twitter messages she received from Seattle Times real-estate reporter Mike Rosenberg, the Times limited its comments to a brief statement and did not assign a reporter to cover the allegations—a break in longstanding media tradition of newspapers reporting on themselves. The paper’s silence led to weeks of internal and external speculation that Rosenberg would not face serious consequences for his actions. Finally, on June 11, I learned that Rosenberg had resigned. The Times confirmed his departure with a statement calling his actions an isolated case that was “not reflective of our culture.”

Afternoon Crank: Showbox Landmarked, “Freelance Bill of Rights” Booster Uses Freelance Labor

1. The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously last night to designate the downtown Showbox building a historical landmark, after dozens of speakers spoke in favor of the move using the usual combination of hyperbole (one speaker compared the two-story building on First Avenue to “the manger where Jesus was born), cheeseball sincerity (the crowd sang backup while singer Mark Taylor-Canfield went way over time with his “Save the Showbox” song), and insistence that the building, which has been heavily altered throughout its history, is an “irreplaceable” cathedral of music along the lines of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville or Carnegie Hall.

Jack McCullough, the attorney for the Showbox building owners, argued during his presentation opposing the landmark nomination that the “history” that “Save the Showbox” proponents want to preserve took place in very recent history, during the late ’90s, rather than in the preceding 60 years, when the building was heavily altered and frequently shuttered. “If we were sitting here 20 years ago would we be having this conversation?” McCullough asked rhetorically. “The building had been a pastiche of other things for the past 60 years. … Really, what we’re talking about here is what has occurred in this reconstructed building in the last 20 years.”

The vote was a foregone conclusion—one board member, Russell Comey, showed up with a poem he’d written that began “Showbox forever” and bowed to the applauding audience after the vote—but the future of the Showbox building is not.

Although many of the (unanimously pro-landmarking) public commenters made a point to mention Duke Ellington’s stint there during the segregated 1940s (according to the Seattle Daily Times archives, Ellington played at several other clubs in town during that decade, including the Civic Ice Arena and the Palomar), many of the speakers also inadvertently proved McCullough’s point, by name-dropping bands that played there during the grunge era, like Soundgarden and Nirvana. “That thing you’re feeling is a combination of hopes and dreams, milestones and history,” one commenter told the landmark board. “It’s impossible to replicate these kinds of spaces.”

The vote was a foregone conclusion—one board member, Russell Comey, showed up with a poem he’d written that began “Showbox forever” and bowed to the applauding audience after the vote—but the future of the Showbox building is not. As I reported  last month, the owners of the building (who originally planned to build apartments on the property, which the city recently rezoned for that explicit purpose) have terminated Showbox operator AEG Presents’  lease when it ends at the beginning of 2024,  and recently won a major victory in their lawsuit challenging legislation that put the Showbox building inside the Pike Place Market Historical District, severely restricting its future use. Landmarking places controls on the building, but not on its use; a landmarked building can still be torn down or used for a different purpose. To “Save the Showbox,” at this point, will likely require a group to raise tens of millions of dollars to purchase the land from its owner, who has valued the property at around $40 million. Historic Seattle, which has expressed an interest in buying the property, has not yet indicated how or whether it plans to raise that kind of money.

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2. Shaun Scott, a Democratic Socialists of America member running for city council in District 4 (Northeast Seattle), has proposed a “freelancers’ bill of rights” that would guarantee  new rights to independent contractors and gig workers, including a written employment contract, pay within 30 days, portable benefits, and a ban on non-compete clauses guaranteeing that they won’t work for a competitor within the same market. “Gig economy workers deserve the same rights as unionized employees and laborers in traditional fields,” Scott said in the announcement.  In addition to the issues that would be addressed by the “bill of rights,” freelancers also pay both employer and employee taxes, usually pay for health care out-of-pocket, and don’t have access to unemployment benefits or L&I compensation. (Full disclosure: As a freelancer, I know all of this from experience.)

It was somewhat surprising, then, to learn that instead of hiring his campaign staffers on a permanent basis and offering them all those benefits, Scott himself is using independent contractors for much of his campaign work. Scott says his staff are all paid “at least $16 an hour” and are currently “in the middle of unionizing, having just submitted their letter of recognition asking me to recognize their bargaining unit in affiliation with the Campaign Workers Guild.”

It was somewhat surprising, then, to learn that instead of hiring his campaign staffers on a permanent basis , Scott himself is using independent contractors for much of his campaign work. Scott says his staff are all paid “at least $16 an hour” and are currently “in the middle of unionizing, having just submitted their letter of recognition asking me to recognize their bargaining unit in affiliation with the Campaign Workers Guild.” (The election is on August 6.)

Scott says that all his campaign staffers are paid “at least $16 an hour,” that the two full-time campaign workers have vacation benefits, and that “everyone is eligible for transit and data reimbursements that will hopefully become even more robust after demands are presented and we agree on a contract.” Scott’s campaign finance reports only show one expenditure on transit (a $10 Sound Transit light-rail ticket), and none for data reimbursement or cell phone costs. They do include more than $2,200 spent on Lyft.

“Campaign work can be just as grueling and uncertain as freelance work in the arts, tech, and journalism,” Scott says. “If progressive campaigns can’t support their own workers, they will be in no position to truly advocate for the broader labor community.”

Morning Crank: Showbox Operator Doesn’t Own “The Showbox”; Hair-Touching Times Columnist No Longer Columnist

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Image via HistoryLink Seattle.

1. One wrinkle in the news, which I reported yesterday, that Showbox building owner Roger Forbes has terminated the venue’s lease: Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the Showbox, doesn’t own the rights to the name “The Showbox”—Forbes does. (Through an LLC that he controls, Forbes registered the trademark in 2008, and renewed it again last year). That means that Forbes retains the ultimate authority over who gets to use the Showbox name, which is also associated with both the Showbox SoDo (a larger venue on First Ave. South, owned by Lyle Snyder of Mercer Island) and “Showbox Presents,” which promotes shows at other venues, such as McMenamins Crystal Ballroom in Portland.

If Forbes develops the Showbox property before the end of AEG’s lease, in January 2024, the trademark will reportedly revert to AEG. If Forbes retains the trademark and the venue at 1426 First Avenue continues to operate after 2024, it could always revert to one of its previous names, such as the Kerns Music & Jewelry Company; the Talmud Torah Hebrew Academy Bingo Hall; the Happening Teenage Nite Club; or, perhaps its original name: The Show Box.

Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the Showbox, doesn’t own the rights to the name “The Showbox”—the building’s owner, Roger Forbes, does.

2. Andres Mantilla, the director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, says the city is not—contrary to what some council members and public commenters suggested yesterday—considering the addition of more properties along First Avenue to the proposed expansion of the Pike Place Market Historical District. Rather, Mantilla says, DON’s consultants (engineering firm AECOM and PR firm Stephenson & Associates) are studying other properties inside the boundaries of the original proposed expansion (which would have also “saved” a strip club, two parking lots, a new hotel, and a Starbucks) “for context.”

“What’s currently on the table is the study of the Showbox,” Mantilla says. “Any expansion on the table right now would be limited to that. There’s overlap with [the] properties” in the original proposed expansion area, but “the analysis is not meant for any sort of particular inclusion of those properties” in the historical district, he says.

That’s news to the Friends of the Market, who assumed the city’s consultants would be looking at other potentially historic properties along First Avenue for possible inclusion in the historic district. Friends of the Market president Kate Krafft, who testified in favor of landmarking the Showbox building at a meeting of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board last night, told me she had expected the city’s consultants to contact the Market to discuss other buildings that might be appropriate for including in the historical district, but hadn’t heard from anyone at the city. (The landmarks board voted unanimously to nominate the structure for landmark status, a process that is separate from the legislation expanding the Market to include the Showbox property. Read all my tweets from the meeting here.)

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“I was under the impression that they were going to have a cultural resource specialist and that they would look at the rationale” for expanding the Market based on the historical properties of each property, Krafft said in an interview yesterday. The Friends of the Market oppose the current zoning on First Avenue, which allows buildings of up to 44 stories, like the one originally planned for the Showbox site. Krafft says historic designation wouldn’t preclude new development—it would just preclude new development that doesn’t fit in with the Market.

“Historic districts evolve,” she said. “Seven new buildings have been built in the district since 1971 and they’re in character with the district.” As for parcels included in the original proposed boundary expansion area that aren’t historic—like the two surface parking lots, or the modern, glass-walled Thompson Hotel on First and Virginia, or the Deja Vu Showgirls strip club—Krafft says they could be considered “non-contributing” properties and grandfathered in. But to do that, she says, “we need a thorough study”—and one does not appear to currently be forthcoming from the city.

3. In the wake of a widely publicized incident in which she asked to touch (and then apparently did touch) the hair of a young African American artist, the Seattle Times’ longtime metro columnist Nicole Brodeur has lost her weekly column and been reassigned to a new role covering “newsmakers” as a general assignment reporter.  Lindsay Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Times, confirms that Brodeur is now a GA reporter and that her column has been “retired.”

Crosscut and the South Seattle Emerald reported on the hair-touching incident, which the artist, Alexis Taylor, wove into an installation called “Black Among Other Things,” in May. Taylor, Crosscut reported, was “assigned to write a profile on a local journalist for a journalism class” at Seattle University. “She reached out to Brodeur more than a year ago, after the columnist apologized for writing a story about Columbia City that was called racist.” In that column, Brodeur opined that Columbia City had been a dangerous “pass-through” zone until white-owned places like Molly Moon’s, Rudy’s, and Pagliacci moved in. (In a followup column that began, “Sometimes being called a racist is just the jolt you need,” Brodeur interviewed several people of color who are quoted in a way that implies they praised her just for trying to improve).

The Columbia City columns weren’t even the only times Brodeur wrote pieces that could be considered racially insensitive. After a 2010 incident in which security officers stood by and did nothing while an African American girl was beaten in the downtown transit tunnel, Brodeur wrote a column titled “Parents, Get Ahold of Your Kids, lecturing parents of color (“there’s a racial element here that I think needs to be acknowledged”) to “set some rules for decency and public behavior” for their kids and keep them from “running wild.”

On another occasion, she wrote an uncritical single-source column about a pair of First Hill pizza shop owners, the Calozzis,  who claimed to have been victimized repeatedly by deranged, heroin-addled patients at a nearby methodone clinic. Some facts Brodeur failed to mention included the pizza shop owner’s long, colorful, and sometimes violent history of conflicts with neighbors, business rivals, and just random people that included a number of shocking racial incidents. A Vietnamese America neighbor who sued the Calozzis for damaging his property said Jennifer Calozzi called him a “gook,” and the mother of a student who attended school with the Calozzis’ son accused Jennifer Calozzi of going on an N-word-laced  “tirade the likes of which I have never seen nor heard before in my life.”

Times spokeswoman Taylor did not respond directly to a question about whether Brodeur had been demoted due to the hair-touching incident. “It is not uncommon for us to assess the best use of our resources and change focus of the staff,” she said.

Showbox Building Owner Terminates Lease Amid Preservation Discussions

Earlier tonight, the city council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee voted to extend a temporary expansion of the Pike Place Market to include the Showbox, with new council member Abel Pacheco abstaining. Tomorrow afternoon, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board will hold a hearing on a proposal to designate the building—which was deemed inappropriate for landmarking back in 2007—as a historic landmark.

Perhaps more consequential for the future of the Showbox, however, is the fact—being reported for the first time here—that the owner of the Showbox building, Roger Forbes, has terminated the Showbox’s lease.  In a letter written in April and obtained exclusively by The C Is for Crank earlier today, Forbes’ representative, Eric Forbes, told the Showbox’s owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group, that he is “writing to advise you in advance that your lease of the Showbox at 1426 1st Ave. in Seattle will not be extended or renewed at the expiration of its term.”

AEG’s lease on the Showbox expires in January 2024, and includes a clause that allows the owners to end the lease early if they decide to develop the property. That was the plan until council member Kshama Sawant got wind of a proposal to build a 44-story apartment building on the property last year and launched an effort to “stop corporate developers” by “saving the Showbox.” In the months since, “Save the Showbox” has turned into a polarizing rallying cry, pitting a mostly white, middle-aged crowd of music fans and historic preservationists against urbanists who want more housing in dense neighborhoods (and downtown is the city’s densest). Those same urbanists point out that the council voted just two years ago to upzone the Showbox building for precisely the kind of development Forbes proposed, and is now trying to walk back that decision.

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In addition to the various efforts to landmark or otherwise designate the building as historic, the owners are also locked in a lawsuit against the city, which is scheduled for trial later this year. Late last month, the city and the building’s owners filed motions for summary judgment—the city seeking dismissal of the case, and the owners seeking to void the Market expansion ordinance. King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi will hear oral arguments from both sides on Friday, June 21.

Also last month, the nonprofit group Historic Seattle expressed their interest in buying the building from the current owners, asking them to put their lawsuit on hold for a year while the group cobbled together funding from philanthropists. In exchange, Historic Seattle offered to call off its efforts to landmark the Showbox. It appears that those conversations, too, are deadlocked.

If Forbes holds on to the property, the Showbox will have to close down or move by the beginning of 2024 at the latest. Two events could change that timeline. In the first scenario, the landmark effort and the effort to permanently expand Pike Place Market and subject the Showbox building to the Market’s restrictions on development could fail and Forbes could sell to a developer as originally planned, shortening the timeline. In the second, one or both of the preservation efforts could succeed and Forbes could decide to sell the property, either to Historic Seattle or another group that has not yet emerged. Both those scenarios involve a lot of hypotheticals. Forbes has said he’s open to a serious offer, but he has also made it clear what kind of offer he considers “serious”—something right around $40 million, the amount his ownership group was set to earn from the sale to Onni, the Vancouver developer that had planned to buy the building, and the amount for which he originally sued the city.

Another fact worth considering is that Forbes appears to be fired up at the idea that AEG is working against the owners of the Showbox building by working behind the scenes to support the “Save the Showbox” effort. “From discovery in the litigation to which the City is a party, it has come to light that the City in part became an advocate for the business interests of AEG, a major corporate entity,” the letter says. “Through various efforts, it also appears that Historic Seattle acted at the behest of AEG.” And every Showbox employee who shows up to public hearings in a Showbox shirt and talks about the need to save the Showbox is, of course, an AEG employee.

In a letter to committee chair and “Save the Showbox” advocate Lisa Herbold this past Monday,  Forbes’ attorney, John Tondini, wrote that every council member who has discussed the Showbox legislation with AEG, its employees, or Historic Seattle should recuse himself or herself from voting on the historical district extension, and that “any councilmember who has voiced support for retaining the current use of the property or met with local music group promoters, artists and the like, is not a neutral, unbiased decision maker and should step aside and not participate.”

Also today, Herbold mentioned that Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Department of Neighborhoods (which is overseeing the study of the Pike Place Market expansion, which was supposed to be complete in March) argued in public comment tonight that the city should add more properties besides the Showbox to the Market expansion—raising the specter of an earlier proposal that would have put most buildings along First Avenue from Virginia to Union Streets inside the Market. (I wrote about that proposal, which would have imposed strict controls on what kind of businesses would be allowed in buildings within the expansion boundary, whether they could be remodeled, and how and whether they could be redeveloped, last August). It’s unclear which specific properties the preservation advocates want to include in the Market.

The legislation to extend the Market expansion goes to the full council next Monday.

 

Dueling Motions Filed as Both Sides Prepare for Preliminary Hearing in Showbox Case Next Month

The owners of the Showbox building on First Ave. downtown filed a motion for partial summary judgment in its ongoing case against the city today, seeking to void an ordinance passed last year expanding the boundaries of Pike Place Market to include the two-story, unreinforced masonry building, which also houses a pawn shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a pub.

The motion argues that the ordinance, which halted the owners’ plans to sell the land to the Canadian apartment developer Onni,  violates the land owners’ due process and equal protection rights and constitutes an illegal spot rezone of a single property, and seeks to have the ordinance overturned immediately, whether or not the case goes to trial.

Back in 2017, as part of the pro-density Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the city council upzoned the Showbox property, along with others on First Ave, to encourage housing development downtown. The original plan for the property—a $40 million, 40-story apartment building—was exactly the kind of building the new zoning on First Avenue was meant to facilitate. When the plans became public, however, music fans—joined by council member Kshama Sawant and her supporters, who tagged Onni as a “greedy corporate developer”—rallied to “Save the Showbox” and the city council adopted legislation that prohibited the owners and Onni from moving forward with their plans.

The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building. AEG’s lease expires in 2021, and the company is under no mandate to renew.

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Also today, the city of Seattle filed its own motion asking a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the city council was within its rights to call “a brief time-out to preserve the status quo in light of news of the Showbox’s potential destruction” last August. That “time-out,” which was supposed to expire in July ,has since been extended another six months. Among other claims, the city’s motion argues that because the Pike Place Market extension doesn’t change the underlying 440-foot-high zoning (it just prohibits any changes to the existing, two-story building and the use of the building as a live-music venue  without the approval of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission), it doesn’t constitute an illegal spot rezone.

Neither the city’s nor the Showbox owners’ motion includes much that’s substantively new, but they do lay out some of the arguments that both sides are likely to raise if the case goes to trial.

One point that has not come up in previous court arguments is that if the reason people want to “Save the Showbox” is to preserve live-music venues (as opposed to, say, preserving a nostalgic set piece for people who miss how Seattle used to be in the ’90s), then they ought to be arguing to “save” the Triple Door, or Tula’s, or El Corazon—the latter two already threatened by redevelopment, and the former at risk by virtue of its prime downtown location.

For its part, the city is now arguing that the ordinance—which effectively prohibits the development of the prime downtown site as housing and preserves it as a two-story music venue in perpetuity—”is beneficial, not detrimental to the community and is consistent with comprehensive planning goals and policies.”

King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi will hear oral arguments from both sides at 10am on Friday, June 21.

 

Anxious About Durkan’s Decision, Council Members and Housing Advocates Scheduled Last-Minute Press Conference on Density Plan

Image via City of Seattle

For months, advocates for a denser, more affordable city have been waiting with gritted teeth to see how Mayor Jenny Durkan would put her imprint on the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which was developed under her predecessor, Ed Murray. The plan, which has already been implemented in a handful of neighborhoods, allows more types of housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings—in more parts of the city, including 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Given Durkan’s somewhat spotty record on key urbanist issues—stalling bike lanes downtown and in North Seattle, siding with housing opponents on the Showbox, and delaying the First Avenue streetcar—density advocates worried that any changes Durkan made would only water down the proposal.

Last week, it looked like the advocates were about to get the bad news they were expecting: Durkan, under pressure from the city attorney’s office, was reportedly poised to call for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to examine the plan’s potential impacts on historic resources (like the Admiral Theatre, above)—an additional layer of process that would have added months of delay and created new avenues for MHA opponents to appeal the plan, perhaps into oblivion. Instead, MHA advocates wanted the city to limit its additional historical-resources analysis—required by an otherwise favorable ruling by the city’s hearing examiner last November—to an addendum to the final environmental impact statement, which would require only a 14-day public comment period and could not be challenged. The ruling marked the conclusion of a yearlong appeal by single-family neighborhood activists, who argued that MHA should not go forward because of its supposed negative environmental impacts.

The city attorney, whose spokesman said he could not comment on any legal advice the office provides to the mayor, reportedly expressed concern that doing an addendum, rather than a full SEIS, could open the city up to legal liability.

Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about whether she initially leaned toward recommending the more arduous, time-consuming EIS process. But representatives from the Housing Development Consortium, Vulcan, the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority, and several city council members were apparently concerned enough about the potential for more delay that they planned a press conference this past Friday morning at Sound Transit’s Union Station to encourage the mayor to move forward quickly with the plan.

According to a planning email obtained by The C Is for Crank, pro-MHA city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office billed the event—officially a kickoff to Affordable Housing Month— as an opportunity for participating organizations “to speak directly with members of the press about the importance of moving MHA forward by March… and why you and/or your organization is excited to support this legislation that has been years in the making!” In addition to Mosqueda, council members Rob Johnson and Lorena Gonzalez were scheduled to speak.

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And then, without notice, the press conference was called off. One participant says they showed up to find no one there. Mosqueda would not comment on why the event was canceled; nor would Johnson, the chairman of the council’s land use committee and a longtime vocal MHA proponent.

However, sources inside and outside city hall who spoke on background say that Durkan met last week with a coalition of MHA advocates, including developers whose plans would be impacted by more delay, who strongly urged her to go with the less onerous addendum option. As, indeed, she ultimately did: The city’s Office of Planning and Development will publish the addendum on Thursday, eliminating one of the last potential roadblocks to MHA’s approval. At some point between now and March, the council will approve the plan (with amendments) and a companion resolution, which could call for mitigation plans to protect historical resources inside the MHA boundaries.

The mayor’s office provided a statement about the decision to move MHA forward:

Mayor Durkan believes the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements are critical to building more affordable housing while ensuring that our fastest-growing neighborhoods can be vibrant, livable places for the next generation. In November 2018, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled that the environmental analysis of MHA conducted by the City adequately addressed the impacts of the proposal with the exception of the analysis of historic resources. As required by the Hearing Examiner’s remand, the City has been working diligently to conduct a thorough environmental review of historic resources, and this week OPCD will publish the addendum in order to move forward on a path for the City Council to pass MHA this Spring. Understanding appellants have challenged MHA every step of the way, the City will continue to successfully work to increase development capacity and support affordable housing requirements.

If MHA does move forward in March, it will mark the end of delay tactics that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing, worth an estimated $87 million, over the year that MHA has been locked up in appeals. It will also represent a significant moment in the Durkan administration—a decision to move forward, rather than delay, a program that will create a significant amount of new housing despite the fact that it’s controversial with the single-family homeowners who helped the mayor get elected.

It’s not clear exactly why Durkan made this decision when she did—whether, for example, she was swayed by the specter of a big press conference starring three council members, Vulcan, and the county’s largest affordable housing coalition, or by direct appeals from developers themselves. But tensions were reportedly high at City Hall right up until Friday, after Durkan decided to support the fast-track option— if you can say that a process that has taken nearly two years is on a fast track.

Afternoon Crank: Density Opponents Sharpen Their Pencils, City Seeks Consultant for Quick-Turnaround Showbox Review

1. As the city council begins what could—could—be the final round of discussions about the Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal (the plan, in the works for two years now, would upzone 6 percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas and require developers to fund new affordable housing), density opponents are sharpening their pencils.

The Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), which blocked the plan for a year with environmental appeals, produced a list of proposed amendments to the plan that would effectively gut the proposal, by forcing the city to charge developers to pay new “impact fees” to offset the perceived negative impacts of new housing, instituting minimum parking requirements for new developments, quadrupling the fees developers would pay toward affordable housing under the ordinance, and rolling back many of the zoning changes entirely.

The proposed amendments include things like increasing tree canopy requirements (thereby reducing development capacity) in low-income neighborhoods; changing the definition of “family-sized” housing to exclude two-bedroom apartments; requiring large open spaces or even yards for new multifamily developments; and reducing the MHA rezones to reflect the affordable housing targets in existing neighborhood plans, which did not contemplate the massive population growth nor the rise in inequality that Seattle has experienced over the last ten years.

SCALE’s Toby Thaler, who argued the group’s case against MHA before the city hearing examiner, did not respond to an email with questions about the document. While some of the amendments the group is proposing are obviously fanciful—no one is seriously talking, for example, about blowing up the “Grand Bargain” with developers by requiring them to fulfill 50 percent of their affordability requirements with on-site housing—they could serve as a kind of Overton window (or, if you prefer, opening gambit) for the upcoming discussion about neighborhood-specific changes to the plan, which begins next week.

Housing advocates will want to keep an eye out for what citywide and block-by-block changes council members (and Mayor Jenny Durkan) propose, and whether those changes track with the proposals put forward by SCALE. (The amendments aren’t available yet, but I’ll post about them as soon as they are.) Durkan has said in the past that she believes “neighborhoods” should have more input into the city’s development decisions; whether that means acceding to homeowner advocates’ demands during the final stretch of the MHA debate will become clear in the coming weeks.

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2. The city will spend $75,000 this year (of $100,000 allocated in last year’s budget) on a contractor who will advise the mayor and council on whether the Showbox should become a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. According to the scope of work for the contract, obtained through a public records request, the contractor will “Review the historic significance of the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the PPMHD Design Guidelines related to the Showbox theater, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” According to a spokeswoman with the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, DON has not chosen a consultant yet, but remains on the schedule outlined in the work plan.

The contractor will have to get all that work done quickly; the city’s schedule calls for any SEPA findings to be published in March, with all the work wrapping up in April, and a council vote to permanently expand the historical district in June. Two to three months is a remarkably short time frame for a single contractor to conduct a full public outreach process, do a thorough environmental review, and draft legislation for the council to consider and pass. To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.

Under the city’s current schedule, the Showbox building would become a permanent part of Pike Place Market three months before a trial is scheduled to begin in a lawsuit the property owners filed against the city; that suit charges that the city violated the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires council members to remain neutral on so-called quasi-judicial decisions like historic district boundary expansions, as well as the owners’ First Amendment and due process rights.

The debate over the Showbox’s fate began when a developer, Vancouver-based Onni, filed plans to build a 44-story apartment building on the property, which the council had recently rezoned to allow just such a development. The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building, which is owned by strip club magnate Roger Forbes; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.

3. After pushback over the fact that its original “service area” was confined almost exclusively to  neighborhoods north of I-90 (including many north of the Ship Canal), Uber announced today that its JUMP bikes will be available in South and West Seattle. The company, which launched its bikesharing service in Seattle late last year, got some bad press last week when the Seattle Times reported that riders who left bikes outside the service area could be charged $25. (An Uber spokesman says the company has not imposed the fee on any riders.) Lime Bikes, Uber’s competitor, launched citywide in the summer of 2017.

The red outline on this map shows the new service area, which includes three of four “equity areas” (low-income communities and communities of color) designated by the city. The original, blue-outlined area included just one of the equity areas, which includes the Central District and a sliver of South Seattle that extends down to the Mount Baker light rail station.

This is hardly the first time a “sharing economy” company has decided to serve the wealthier, whiter areas of the city first. Six years ago, Car2Go launched with a service area that excluded the entire South End and West Seattle while serving areas as far north as Bitter Lake.

Morning Crank: Ruling Bolsters Housing Plan, Chides City for Failing to Do “Granular” Analysis Neighborhood Activists Demanded

1. Urbanists celebrated a ruling yesterday that could allow a long-delayed plan to increase density and fund affordable housing to move forward. The ruling by city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, which mostly affirms that an environmental impact statement on the plan was adequate, came in response to a challenge by a group of homeowners, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), who have long opposed the plan. The plan, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, would allow modest density increases in urban villages and urban centers, and would rezone six percent of the land current zoned exclusively for single-family houses—currently, two-thirds of the city’s land—to allow townhouses and small apartments. Developers who build under the new rules will have to include affordable housing in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund.

“This ruling is a step forward for more affordable housing in Seattle,” Durkan said in a statement. Meanwhile, Seattle for Everyone, the group that formed in 2015 to support then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, planned a celebration party and issued a statement, titled “Yay for MHA!” celebrating the ruling as “a win for affordable housing.”

We’ll see. Toby Thaler, the leader of the group that challenged the  Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), told the Seattle Times that he plans to keep fighting against the MHA legislation, although it was unclear in what venue (the courthouse or city council chambers) he intends to do so. (Thaler did not immediately return an email last night, but I will update this post if I hear back from him.) Meanwhile, the city will have to do more analysis of how allowing more density will impact designated city landmarks;  according to the ruling, the city failed to consider impacts on historic properties other than those on the National Register of Historic Places, which Vancil called inadequate.

“The more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.” — Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil

Vancil’s ruling also chides the city for failing to include detailed, “granular” analysis of the impact the zoning changes would have on individual neighborhoods in the environmental impact statement, and suggested that including this kind of analysis could have forestalled the whole drawn-out appeal. “[I]t is certainly the case, at least in part, that the choice not to tell a more detailed story of the City’s neighborhoods contributed to why the City faced a very protracted appeal and hearing process from representatives in many of its neighborhoods,” Vancil writes. “While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.”

Whether you believe that a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of the upzone’s impact would have made neighborhood opposition evaporate (dubious, given that challenging the EIS for a project is one of the most common obstructionist tactics in the Seattle neighborhood activist playbook), what’s undeniable is that while the upzones have been tied up in appeals, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing—and hundreds of units of market-rate housing needed for the thousands of people moving to Seattle every year—remained unbuilt.

“Unfortunately …  this appeal has cost Seattle at least $87 million worth of affordable housing that we could have brought in during the year since the appeal was filed,” council member Rob Johnson, who has led the charge for MHA as head of the council’s land use committee, said in a statement. (Johnson asked for this analysis last month). “Had we been able to adopt MHA across the city without this delay, more neighborhoods would be receiving the investment in affordable housing they need, and more families in our city would have an affordable place to call home.”

2. On Tuesday, Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan sent out a bombastic email blast (subject line: “Single-Family Rezone: Negotiation Rejected!”) announcing his intention to “proceed full-speed ahead in preparing and proving our case” against the city, in the ongoing battle over new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build basement and backyard units on their property.

The “negotiation” Kaplan’s email refers to is apparently a meeting he had on Monday with council member Mike O’Brien, who led the charge to liberalize Seattle rules governing backyard and mother-in-law units, about a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) concluding that the proposal would not have a detrimental environmental impact on the city. was sufficient to allow the long-delayed rules to move forward. The new rules, which would allow homeowners to add up to one unit inside an existing house and one detached unit in the backyard, subject to existing height and lot coverage limits, would produce about 2,500 additional units of housing citywide.

“Unfortunately, I must inform you that CM O’Brien has closed the door to negotiating.,” Kaplan wrote. “He relat[ed] to me unequivocally that the EIS spoke to all his issues leaving no room to consider any compromise.  He remains firmly entrenched in every line-item of his legislation to eliminate every Seattle single-family neighborhood without considering any important neighborhood, property, infrastructure or economic differentiations.  One-size-fits-all!” 

“In addition,” Kaplan’s email continues, “he shared his confidence that every councilmember firmly supports him and his legislation.  He left no door open and even told me directly that there was no reason for us to withdraw our appeal – nothing would change!”

On Wednesday, O’Brien put up a blog post responding to Kaplan’s email. (The post appears to have since been taken down.) In the post, O’Brien wrote that during their conversation over the weekend, “I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process.  Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable.  …If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing.  … Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.”

The email concludes with “a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications,” which, O’Brien says, represented “our friendly conversation as a divisive fight.  Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics.  As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.” 

Kaplan responded more warmly to comments Mayor Jenny Durkan made about the proposal over the weekend, at a community meeting on Queen Anne. According to the  Queen Anne News, when a constituent asked what should happen with the appeal, Durkan said “she’d like to get all parties in a room to hash out a compromise” rather than moving forward with the “litigation” process. (Kaplan’s challenge is currently before the hearing examiner, but litigation is an option if the hearing examiner rejects his argument that the FEIS is inadequate). Durkan, according to the Queen Anne News, expressed concern at the meeting that loosening the rules too much could “fuel a more expensive Seattle by letting people speculate on that land.” That argument—that “developers” will snap up single-family houses and turn the land into triplexes—is belied not only by the FEIS, which concludes, again, that the changes would result in just 2,500 new units citywide, but by the economic logic of development. To wit: If you’re a developer (or, as Kaplan and the mayor suggest, a “speculator”), are you going to build a house with a basement apartment and a small backyard cottage in a single-family zone? Or a 20-unit apartment complex in a multifamily area?

Kaplan did not attend the meeting with Durkan, but says that from conversations with another community council member who was there, “the take-away was that she [opposes] what I have called a one-size-fits-all rezoning of single-family throughout the city.”

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City Budget Roundup, Part 1: Soda, Short-Term Rentals, and Legacy Businesses

I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,

This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.

Sweetened Beverage Tax 

As I reported on Twitter (and Daniel Beekman reported in the Times), council member Mike O’Brien has expressed frustration at Mayor Jenny Durkan for using higher-than-expected revenues from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which is supposed to pay for healthy food initiatives in neighborhoods that are most impacted by both the tax and health problems such as diabetes and obesity, to balance out the budget as a whole. In a bit of budgetary sleight-of-hand, Durkan’s plan takes away general-fund revenues that were paying for those programs and replaces them with the “extra” soda tax revenues, which flatlines spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) aimed at reducing consumption of unhealthy food… like soda.

“The intent was pretty clear when we passed the legislation last year about how the funding would be spent,” O’Brien said last week. “What we saw in this year’s budget was [a proposal] that may have technically met the letter of it, but certainly not the spirit.”

O’Brien’s proposal would create a separate fund for soda-tax proceeds and stipulate that the city should use the money from the tax in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory board that was appointed for that purpose, rather than reallocating them among the programs the tax is supposed to fund, as Durkan’s budget also does. (See chart above). The idea is to protect the soda tax from being used to help pay for general budget needs in future years, and to ensure that the city follows the recommendations of its own soda tax advisory group.

Airbnb Tax

When the city passed a local tax on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, the legislation explicitly said that $5 million of the proceeds were to be spent on community-led equitable development projects through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative. This year, state legislators passed a statewide tax that replaced Seattle’s local legislation, but council members say the requirement didn’t go away. Nonetheless, Durkan’s budget proposal stripped the EDI of more than $1 million a year, redirecting those funds to pay for city staff and consultants, prompting council members including O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, and council president Bruce Harrell to propose two measures restoring the funding back to the promised $5 million level and creating a separate equitable development fund that would include “explicit restrictions” requiring that the first $5 million generated by the tax go toward EDI projects, not consultants or overhead.

“I think the mayor did this intentionally,” O’Brien said last week. “I don’t think she doesn’t like the equitable development initiative—I think she’s just struggling to make the budget balance—but this is a priority. We’ve seen with the sweetened beverage and the short-term rental tax that …  when we say we are going to impose a new revenue stream and here’s how we’re going to dedicate it, and then less than a year later someone says we’re going to dedicate it a different way, I think that is highly problematic on a much larger scale than just these programs.”

The council appeared likely to reject a separate, tangentially related proposal by council member Rob Johnson to exempt all short-term rental units that existed prior to September 2017, when the council first adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, from the new rule restricting the number of units any property owner could operate to a maximum of two. Currently, this exemption only applies to short-term rental units downtown and some units in Capitol Hill and First Hill; by providing the same exemption to short-term rentals across the city, Johnson said, the council could provide some certainty that the city would actually bring in $10.5 million in annual revenues, which is what the state projected and what Durkan assumed in her 2019 budget.

O’Brien, who drafted the original short-term rental regulations, suggested Durkan had jumped the gun by assuming the state’s projections were right before the legislation had even taken effect. “Typically, we try to be conservative when we have new revenue sources,” he said. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Belltown, said she had heard from constituents who bought downtown condos as retirement homes who told her their buildings have turned into 24/7 party hotels with few permanent residents. “The idea of opening this up just for budget reasons is disturbing,” Bagshaw said.”

Totem poles

Photograph by Rick Shu via Wikimedia Commons

As Crosscut has reported, local Native American leaders want the city to remove the totem poles erected in Victor Steinbrueck Park, because they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people who have long populated the area in and around what is now Seattle. Other totem poles in Seattle, including the Tlinget pole in Pioneer Square, are similarly controversial. Council member Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is sponsoring an item that would direct the city’s Office of Arts and Culture to address the issue—not by simply removing the offending poles (which is controversial among some historic preservationists and Pike Place Market advocates) but by reviewing and making recommendations about all the Native American art on all city-owned land in Seattle. In response to Juarez’s proposal, budget chair Sally Bagshaw cautioned that she didn’t “want to get bogged down” in a massive study if the problem of offensive or inappropriate art could be addressed on a case by case basis “when they come to our attention. Otherwise,” Bagshaw continued, “I can imagine someone [stalling the process by] saying, ‘Well, we haven’t looked at our 6,000 acres of parks.'”

Legacy Businesses 

In announcing a proposed $170,000 add for the legacy business program—a plan to protect longstanding neighborhood businesses by providing cash assistance and incentives for landlords to keep renting to them—council member Lisa Herbold called it the policy for which she is willing to “fall on [her] sword” this year. Previous budgets have provided funding to study such a program, but Herbold’s proposal this year would actually get it off the ground, by providing startup and marketing costs for the program. “Much like landmarks are a bridge to our city’s culture and history because of their physical form, sometimes businesses as gathering places are also a bridge to our city’s history and culture,” Herbold said.

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Critics have said Herbold’s proposal, like similar programs in other cities, could prevent the development of badly needed housing by saving struggling businesses out of a misguided sense of nostalgia.

In response to a question from council member Teresa Mosqueda about whether the program might allow businesses to relocate or reopen in new developments, Herbold said yes, citing the Capitol Hill writers’ center Hugo House as an example. However, it’s worth noting that the Hugo House is a nonprofit, not a for-profit business, and it was “saved” not by government intervention but by the  private owners of the old house in which Hugo House was originally located, who promised to provide the organization with a new space when they redeveloped their property.

 

Emails Reveal Council Drafted Pro-Showbox Talking Points; City Lawyers Expressed Concerns About Landmark Status Based on “Popularity”

Emails obtained by the C Is for Crank reveal the extraordinary measures city council members and staff took to promote legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, scuttling a planned apartment building on the site and prompting a lawsuit claiming that the council violated numerous state and city laws when they voted to effectively downzone the Showbox property from 44 stories to two. The emails also reveal that the city attorney’s office advised the council against pursuing landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue, and warned that making such a designation based on popular sentiment in favor of the Showbox, a tenant, could raise legal concerns about whether the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Among other machinations, the emails reveal that the city council’s public information officer drafted talking points for Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, who testified in favor of the legislation in early August, based on comments he made to an NPR reporter about the Showbox the previous week. Gibbard was listed as one of the “advocates” for the legislation in an email from the spokeswoman, Dana Robinson Slote, suggesting actions council members could take to promote the legislation; the advocates were listed in contrast to the “‘pain point’ players” in the debate, which included Onni, the developer that planned to purchase the land and build a 440-unit apartment building; Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson; and Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In the email, Robinson Slote writes,

Ben— Thanks for your time by phone yesterday. As promised, below you’ll find suggested talking points for Monday’s Full Council meeting. In short, I summarized many of the themes from an interview you gave in June this year, which seems to fit well with the Resolution and Ordinance CM Sawant will introduce to #SaveTheShowbox

Also as discussed:

• I’ll plan to meet you on the first floor of the City Hall lobby approx. 1230p (Lyft can bring you to the 5th Ave entrance), and feel free to call if I can help guide you here.

• We’ll meet first with Sawant for fewer than 15:00; and,

• Then I’ll take you to O’Brien (Ballard, Fremont) and Herbold (West Seattle), followed by Citywide elected Gonzalez & Mosqueda (and the remaining Councilmembers Johnson, Juarez, Bagshaw and Harrell) as time allows. Public comment begins at 2:00 p.m., so we can decide in advance if you’d still like to speak (and sign you in) or watch from the Green Room. Thank you once again for sharing your time and talent on this important occasion and for this critical cause.   

Slote then lays out a full page of potential talking points, many of which focus on Gibbard’s experience growing into middle age in Seattle after moving here and falling in love with the city in the 1990s.

Kshama Sawant and  her staff used private gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was run out of Sawant’s office.

Robinson Slote says she did not give Gibbard special treatment during the Showbox debate, and points out that the “talking points” she wrote for Gibbard were based on his own previous comments. Gibbard ended up writing his own testimony, which differed significantly from the draft  Robinson Slote provided. However, the council’s solicitous treatment of Gibbard—which also included shepherding him from council member to council member and offering to host him in the council’s “green room,” away from the general public, during the council meeting—is not the standard treatment accorded to most members of the public, who must line up to speak, write their own testimony, and sit or stand in council chambers along with the rest of the general public.

Also unusual is the fact that legislation sponsor Kshama Sawant and her staff used private Gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was largely run out of Sawant’s office using city resources. It is standard practice for elected officials and public staffers to use their city email addresses to do public business, both because this practice just makes sense (all the other council members and staffers who are cc’d on the email use their public @seattle.gov addresses for all communications), and because private emails can more easily be withheld from public disclosure. If a journalist or member of the public requests email communications from an elected official or government staffer, it’s up to that staffer to volunteer their private emails for disclosure; the city’s public disclosure officers have no authority to go searching through people’s private email accounts. Additionally, public emails are archived by the city; private emails are not.  Sawant and her staffers’ email addresses all use the naming convention Firstnameatcouncil@gmail.com.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett says the city’s ethics code is silent on the issue of whether city officials and employees are allowed to do city business using personal email addresses. The city IT department’s policy on use of city resources, however, does prohibit “The use of personally owned technology for conducting City business, where official City records are created but not maintained by the City.”

In another email, Sawant’s staff discusses the wording of a poster, ultimately produced by Sawant’s council office, urging the council to vote to “save the Showbox” by including it in the historic district. An early version of the poster included the suggestion to “Call in sick – go protest!”

The fact that Sawant and her staff, as well as Robinson Slote, were discussing how to influence the legislation could—if the inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is deemed to be a spot downzone of the property—give the owners of the property important evidence in their case that the council and staffers engaged in illegal “ex parte” discussions and failed to remain impartial on a zoning decision.

In another exchange that could help the Showbox’s owners make the case that the council intervened improperly on a zoning decision, the city’s own attorney cautions against seeking landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue. (The inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is different from landmark status, but the emails demonstrate that the city’s attorneys cautioned against such a political approach to historic designation.) In an email dated July 31, assistant city attorney Bob Tobin told city council member Lisa Herbold that it would be “premature” for the city council to “take the position that the [Showbox] qualifies as a landmark, without first allowing the (expert) Board’s process to play out, and without applying the standards in the code, seems premature at best. From a legal perspective it is preferable for the Council to consider the designation decision in due course, pursuant to City ordinances. And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.” The Showbox owners’ lawsuit, of course, claims precisely that the council’s decision to include the property in the Pike Place Market Historical District was “out of step with the founding of the Pike Place Market redevelopment and is the definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

The city’s own attorneys advised the council against making the argument that the Showbox should be granted formal landmark status because of its “popularity” with the public: “And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.”

One day after sending the email to council member about landmark status, Tobin responded to an email from Sawant staffer Ted Virdone, who had posed several questions about what would happen if the city included the Showbox in the Pike Place Market Historical District, rather than seeking to make it a landmark on its own. Virdone’s questions are in italics.

Hi Ted. Here is a quick response to your questions below, in red.

  1. Is it possible to extend the boundary of the historical district to cover a property if the property owner objects? I believe the answer is yes, as owners typically can’t veto regulatory measures.
  2. If the Historical District is extended to cover this property, could it effect this development, or would the develop be vested in some way that would trump the procedures of the historical district? I believe that vesting of such a project would likely occur at the time that the Design Review process begins (SMC 23.76.026), and I doubt that process has begun. If the district were enlarged before the projects vests, then the applicant would be subject to historic district regulations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Showbox would be preserved.
  3. Are there any other considerations we should be aware of? There likely are, but I would need more focus on your questions and goals. Bob

Five days later, Virdone’s boss, Sawant, introduced legislation to extend the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox and about a dozen other properties on the east side of First Avenue. After property owners ultimately objected, that legislation was scaled back to encompass (and effectively downzone) just the Showbox property. Less than a month after that, the owners of the Showbox sued the city, seeking $40 million in compensation for legislation that, they say, drastically devalued their property.

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