Category: land use

Morning Fizz: An Unprecedented Amendment, A Senate Shelter Compromise, and Surprise! Shelter Costs Money

King’s Inn in Belltown

1. A proposed amendment to the Seattle City Charter that would (in theory) force the city to fund thousands of shelter beds or housing units and reinstate encampment removals is unusual in more ways than one.

First, the obvious: Instead of declaring a state of emergency or using some other rhetorical mechanism to sound the alarm on homelessness, the charter amendment—which will be on the ballot in November if supporters gather 33,000 valid signatures to put it before voters—establishes a specific goal: 1,000 new “units” of “emergency or permanent housing with services” in 2022.  (Emergency housing is shelter, which is obviously much cheaper and easier to stand up quickly than permanent housing units.)

Second, and perhaps more impactful in the long term: The amendment attempts to use the city’s charter—Seattle’s constitution—to dictate specific budget and policy priorities, which are usually the subject of legislation, in perpetuity. In addition to the 2,000-bed mandate, the amendment would require that, in all future years, the city will spend at least 12 percent of its general fund revenues on human services, and that the city pay for “full restoration of general fund support for the Department of Parks and Recreation to facilitate repair and restoration of parks.”

Supporters of the amendment have argued that these permanent mandates establish ongoing priorities for the city: Homelessness, human services generally, and parks “repair and restoration” are important priorities that need to be enshrined in city law. But a look at past charter amendments illustrates just how unusual, if not unprecedented, this proposal is.

The majority of charter amendments over the years have been put on the ballot by the city council itself; most of them involve governance changes or tweaks to the language of the charter itself. For example, in 1977, a successful amendment changed the name of the city’s “Governance Counsel” to “City Attorney”; in 2006, voters approved an amendment that eliminated 1946 language requiring the city to physically “post” ballot proposals (in addition to publishing them in the newspaper.)

A look at past charter amendments illustrates just how unusual, if not unprecedented, this proposal is.

Other city-generated charter amendments have been more substantive, but still limited to the realm of governance, not policy: In 2007, the city council was so annoyed by then-mayor Greg Nickels’ decision to hold his State of the City address at a Rotary Club luncheon, they put an amendment on the ballot requiring the mayor to “deliver” the address at City Hall. (Subsequent mayors got around this requirement by holding the speech elsewhere, then physically or virtually “delivering” the text of the address to the council at its regular meeting the same day.)

Amendments that originate with citizens have followed a similar pattern: Even those that have proposed substantive changes, such as three different proposals to institute district elections, have dealt with the way the city is governed, not legislative priorities. In addition to districts (which finally passed in 2013), Seattle residents have proposed amendments that would institute ranked-choice voting and elections through proportional representation. There appears to be no precedent for the council or citizens imposing preemptive budget requirements or mandating legislative policy through the city charter.

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2. Earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office rejected a proposal by the Public Defender Association to operate a hotel-based shelter at the Executive Pacific Hotel on the grounds that it was far too expensive. The program, which would have cost about $28,000 per room, would have been modeled on the successful JustCare program, which moved more than 100 people from encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels around Seattle. At the time, the mayor’s office set a hard spending cap of $17,175 a room.

Fast forward to last Monday, when the city held a press tour at the new, Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn shelter in Belltown. The total price for room? Around $23,000, according to CSC staff. The $5,000 difference per room between the King’s Inn shelter and the one the PDA proposed would have amounted to about $750,000 total at the Executive Pacific—a fraction of the overall $8.3 million contract for that hotel, which eventually went to the Low-Income Housing Institute.

The two hotels will be funded largely from federal Emergency Services Grant funding. As PubliCola has reported, Durkan’s office has consistently declined to use federal FEMA dollars to pay for hotel-based shelters, as other cities have done.

3. The senate Ways and Means Committee passed HB 1220—a bill that updates the Growth Management Act (GMA) to require cities to plan for and accommodate low-income housing and shelter as part of their comprehensive plans.

As amended by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Lynnwood), the bill also prohibits cities from using zoning rules to block transitional and permanent supportive housing in residential areas or areas where hotels are allowed, while simultaneously limiting the areas where cities are required to allow emergency shelter to “zones”—a term that is not clearly defined—within one mile of transit stops. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: An Unprecedented Amendment, A Senate Shelter Compromise, and Surprise! Shelter Costs Money”

Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?

by Josh Feit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery

Public right-of-way isn’t just for cars anymore.

by Josh Feit

In a recent opinion column for the Seattle Times, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith and Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes published “7 ‘must dos’ for downtown Seattle’s recovery,” a prescription for renewing downtown after the pandemic. Their list is premised on the idea that, “Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region.” In other words, downtowns make the city go.

I like a lit-up downtown as much as anyone, but their column represents pre-pandemic thinking. The focus on “saving downtown” that’s emerging right now (most recently as a nascent local campaign issue) is a revamped version of a bygone Seattle policy agenda dressed up as urbanism; while it appears to be about bright lights and big cities, following this fussy narrative will simply drag us right back to where we’ve always been stuck: In a mindset that promotes suburban seclusion within the city itself.

There are certainly some important ideas on Smith and Scholes’ list, especially their calls for a robust transit system and for keeping shovels in motion on major infrastructure projects (which repeats the mass transit shoutout). Additionally, two of their seven agenda items, which I see as intertwined—activating public space and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop—are also smart.

But these concepts are more urgent and relevant in the rest of the city; promoting them as downtown ideas runs the risk of reiterating and re-instituting a false dichotomy that has set Seattle off course for decades: The old-fashioned idea that downtown, not the rest of the city, is the only place for growth and energy.

The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

What we’ve actually learned during the past year not spending much time downtown is this: neighborhoods are the magic quadrants of cities. I don’t mean this in the trite, anti-downtown tribalist way of the old neighborhood movement, which saw every public-private partnership as some elitist conspiracy to crush the Wedgwood Community Council and rob the city of its authenticity. What I mean—as I’ve documented before—is that the past year has energized business districts outside the city center and alerted us to a new Seattle model. The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

Our past strategy of channeling city action to core neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill has prevented density in other sectors of the city, which has led to a housing shortage, and thus untenable housing prices. It also makes for dull neighborhoods.

The good news is: There are signs we’re moving in a new direction. Talk of sticking with outdoor street dining is already afoot. And just look at one of the key items on the DSA/Chamber list: “Completion of major infrastructure projects.” This item (unwittingly?) pinpoints where the real focus already is and should be.

Their first example? Light rail expansion. Well, light rail already exists downtown. The bulk of the expansion is coming to the non-downtown neighborhoods. Starting this year, that means the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. In 2023, that means Judkins Park (perhaps the most underrated and overlooked transformative capital project in the city!) After that, it means four stations from SoDo out to West Seattle and nine stations from the International District out to Ballard.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery”

Downtown Condo Owners Seek View Preservation Via Landmark Designation

Top to bottom: The one-story Hahn Building in 1902; present (pre-COVID) day; a rendering of the proposed 14-story hotel.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday, the Seattle landmarks board will hold its final hearing on the latest proposal to grant landmark status to the three-story Hahn Building on First and Pike Street, a former single-room occupancy hotel across the street from the Pike Place Market and just outside the market boundaries. The board has already rejected landmark status for the building, which now houses the Green Tortoise Hostel, a coffee shop, and a T-shirt store, twice—in 1999 and again in 2014—but that hasn’t stopped efforts to preserve the building, which stands just to the west of the 240-foot tall Newmark Tower condo building and its expansive views of Elliott Bay.

Unsurprisingly, owners of condos at the Newmark are behind the latest petition, which seeks to prevent the construction of a 14-story hotel that would block their views. And although the petition is couched in the language of historic preservation—it claims the Hahn building meets two criteria for landmark status, cultural heritage and neighborhood prominence—the effect of landmark status would be preserving the views of condo owners who have repeatedly dipped into their pockets to challenge the construction of any building to their west.

If the name of the building seems familiar, that’s because the owners also sought to “save the Showbox” building on the same block. The city zoned the block for a 145-story tower more than 20 years ago.

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One of the debates that emerges in the competing narratives from landmarking proponents and opponents is whether the Hahn building contributes to the overall “feeling” of the Market. The landmark application features an image of the building at sunset, taken from some point several stories above the street, that highlights Elliott Bay, rooftops, and the neon Pike Place Market sign below. The competing narrative, from landmark opponents, presents the experience most actual Market visitors would have of the area—photos taken at street level, showing the Market sign and wide, cobbled streets, along with more recent additions like the City Target and the 55-story Russell Investment Building, constructed in 1988. (The Newmark Tower itself wasn’t built until 1991.)

Historic Seattle and a number of other preservation groups, including Vanishing Seattle, have bolstered the condo owners’ status as concerned, historically-minded citizens, promoting both a Change.org petition and a nonprofit, Save the Market Entrance, that were created by residents of the Newmark. Save the Market Entrance even has the Newmark listed as its address. Eric Lacitis of the Seattle Times first reported on the Astroturf petition.

The board meets tomorrow at 3:30pm to consider the landmark nomination. According to the “do not landmark” recommendation, “staff does not recommend designation of Hahn Building/Hotel Elliot at 103 Pike Street as it does not appear to have the integrity or the ability to convey its significance as required” by the landmarks preservation code.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

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.

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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.”

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

Unredacted Documents Reveal Initial Megablock Proposal Was for Ground Lease, Not Sale

A newly unredacted version of Alexandria Real Estate’s initial proposal for the Mercer Megablock shows that the winning bidder to buy the three-property parcel initially proposed a ground lease—not a sale—that would have included a $31 million initial payment, followed by annual rent payments that would have started at $2.6 million a year. Renting the land out under a long-term ground lease would have kept the 3-acre parcel in public ownership, but could have been less lucrative for the city, which ultimately sold the land to Alexandria outright for $138 million, plus a $5 million payment for future homelessness programs.

The original request for proposals for the site made it clear that the city “has a strong preference to structure the transaction for the site as an unsubordinated long-term ground lease” but would consider a sale. “The value differential that we saw was really, really large between what was being offered on the lease relative to the cash up front,” city budget director Ben Noble says.

Alexandria’s initial proposal estimated the net present value of a ground lease—that is, the amount those annual payments would be worth in 2019 dollars by the end of the lease term—at $69 million, for a total value along with the initial payment of $100 million. This was a bit more than Alexandria’s initial proposal to buy the land outright for about $98 million. Since Alexandria’s offer to buy increased nearly 40 percent, however, it seems likely that their best and final offer for a ground lease would have increased, too, raising the total value of the bid to a level similar to what the city will get from the sale. It’s unclear whether Alexandria’s best and final offer included a ground lease option; I’ve requested a copy of this offer from the city.

Alexandria’s unredacted proposal, which is being published here for the first time, includes a number of details that have not been previously known about the real-estate firm’s plans for the three megablock properties.

The document Alexandria originally provided to the city included extensive redactions that concealed all of the information about the ground lease proposal. The company also blacked out details about what will go in the planned commercial space (including a business incubator and conference center), the address of a project in San Francisco that the company is currently building (88 Bluxome), the amount of open space that’s included in an Alexandria project in Cambridge (2.2 acres), and the height of each floor in its proposed life sciences buildings (13 feet).

My request for the documents, filed on August 7, led to a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the mayor’s office, which responded to my questions selectively and incompletely. (I still have several unanswered questions, for example, about the way the mayor’s office handled both Alexandria’s “proposed redactions” and my request.) Initially, the city informed me that if I wanted the unredacted documents, the mayor’s office would exercise their discretionary option to inform Alexandria so that the company could seek an injunction to keep them secret, exposing me to the potential for “lengthy litigation.”

The project will include 730 parking spaces—more parking than most of the other proposals, except for one (from Touchstone) which called for a massive underground parking lot for 1,000 cars. Tishman Speyer’s proposal included just 50 parking spots.

The city did not respond to followup questions. Instead, more than two weeks after I made my initial request, the budget office informed me that an email from me that included the phrase, “I am interested in seeing the materials redacted in Alexandria’s proposal,” followed by a list of questions asking what the implications would be if I did make a formal request for the redacted information, constituted a formal request that would trigger the third-party notice to Alexandria. Continue reading “Unredacted Documents Reveal Initial Megablock Proposal Was for Ground Lease, Not Sale”