Category: neighborhoods

Sponsors of Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Emphasize Statewide Affordability Crisis

Image of a four-unit apartment building
One Salient Oversight at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

In response to rising housing costs and increased homelessness statewide, the state legislature is considering an unprecedented number of bills that would influence the ability of cities across the state to set local policy around housing, density, and land use. 

Among the proposals introduced so far: A bill that would eliminate most minimum parking requirements near transit stations; one cutting local design review boards out of the approval process for residential construction; one streamlining permitting; one allowing residential lots to be split into multiple lots so additional units can be built on those lots; and one reforming condominium laws. Many of these bills have already had a public hearing and are headed toward committee votes—extremely fast work compared to past years.

House Bill 1110, introduced by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) and Rep. Andy Barkis (R-2, Olympia), is taking center stage as a retooled version of similar legislation, HB 1782, that never made it to the House floor last year. This year’s bill would require cities to legalize sixplexes within one-half mile of frequent transit. It would also allow fourplexes as a base level of density in areas in and around Seattle and Spokane, and in towns and cities with more than 6,000 residents elsewhere in the state.

This so-called “missing middle” bill would attempt to add a level of density between single family homes and large apartment buildings currently absent from many Washington cities.

Last year, opposition from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), a lobbying group for cities, helped prevent HB 1782 and other housing bills from advancing; the group argued that zoning changes that preempted city rules would take away local control and impose “one-size-fits-all” regulations on cities across the state. In 2023, legislators hope to bypass that criticism by focusing on the impacts of high housing costs.

“I feel more confident this year because we’ve been doing a lot of coalition building and a lot of work to talk about the real causes of our housing shortage and crisis,” Bateman said. During its first hearing last week, elected officials from Olympia, Bothell, Everett, and Burien turned out to support the bill, with much less direct opposition than last year.

Supporters also say they’ve done work to broaden the coalition that supports the bill. The AWC, unlike last year, is not currently opposing HB 1110, but is pushing to water down changes to single-family zones to only include triplexes, and to not impact every lot within a city.

Another bill, introduced by Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), focuses on loosening restrictions on density directly around transit stations, preserving traditional single-family zoning in wide swaths of cities across the state. That bill may prove an easier political sell compared to opening up single-family areas to increased density, particularly in the state senate, where there are fewer Republicans ready to partner on housing bills.

“As I talk to my constituents, I’ve got folks in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, that are really wary about missing middle [housing]” housing, Liias said, referring to moderately dense housing that’s affordable to middle-income earners. In contrast, Liias said, “when I talked about transit-oriented development, virtually everybody’s in agreement that we should be siting more housing next to transit. That’s a much more consensus perspective.”

The local control issue may still be a hurdle, though. Rep. Spencer Hutchins (R-26, Gig Harbor), who sits on the housing committee, suggested during a meeting with the Gig Harbor city council earlier this month that even if he agrees with a policy change on housing, he might still oppose it on principle. “I will be looking at things through the lens of, making sure that we are protecting the ability of our local governments to represent their local citizens well, and not have Olympia run roughshod over cities and counties,” Hutchins said.

Rep. Bateman doesn’t give a lot of credence to the local control argument. “Currently what cities are doing is, they’re limiting what private property owners can do with their property,” she said. “You don’t have the freedom to make your own decision about adapting to the market, responding to what the market need is. People want more diverse housing options.” 

This year, Democrats are trying to zoom out on the issue of housing and focusing on multiple aspects of the state’s housing crisis. The Democratic caucuses in both chambers have begun referring to three “pillars” that lawmakers will attempt to tackle around housing this session: Increasing public subsidies for affordable housing, passing tenant protections for renters, and loosening restrictions on housing supply that are limiting growth. 

The first housing “pillar” is clearly a priority for Governor Jay Inslee, who is pushing to raise the state’s debt limit to fund $4 billion in investments in housing over the next six years. That proposal, even if lawmakers approve it, would need to go to voters statewide in November, adding an extra level of uncertainty. 

The sheer number of housing bills this session  is itself a strategy to avoid a repeat of last year, when almost no housing bills made it past legislative deadlines. “It’s one thing to say that one bill can’t solve all the problems, but it’s another thing to actually have a whole bunch of other bills that are working to solve these challenging areas that make it more difficult to build housing,” Rep. Bateman said. 

ryan@publicola.com

New Sound Transit Options Would Move Future Light Rail Station Out of Chinatown-International District

One of the options for moving the planned new Chinatown-International District light rail station, near city and county buildings, would allow transfers between all the light rail lines, through an underground connection to the existing Pioneer Square station, but it would not provide a direct connection to Sounder and Amtrak trains.

By Lizz Giordano

After facing heavy criticism from many within the Chinatown-International District over a new light rail station, Sound Transit is considering new options that would move the station out of the neighborhood.

The agency is now studying a location north of the CID, a block from the existing Pioneer Square Station near the King County Courthouse. This proposal would place the new station just to the east of 4th Ave, between Jefferson and Terrace Streets. Another potential location would put the future station along 6th Avenue S, just north of the current Stadium Station and Greyhound Bus Station.

The new station is part of the West Seattle-Ballard light rail extension that will add two new lines through downtown Seattle. The first new line will start at the Alaska Junction in West Seattle and head east to SoDo—eventually connecting to Everett via an extension that’s now set to open in 2032. The second will run from Ballard to SeaTac Airport and Tacoma via downtown, the CID, and SoDo, with service estimated to start in 2039.

Participants in Sound Transit’s public workshops, who included residents, business owners, and representatives from community groups and social service agencies, suggested the new locations to the agency after the Sound Transit board instructed staff to conduct further outreach after many in the neighborhood objected to the alternatives Sound Transit laid out in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), released earlier this year.

Locating the station in the Chinatown-International District, rather than near the stadiums or in Pioneer Square, would enable direct transfers between light rail lines, Sounder commuter rail, and Amtrak long-distance rail.

Those alternatives included building along 5th Avenue in the middle of the CID, consuming several blocks of the historic district, or on 4th Ave, a disruptive and costly option that would include rebuilding the viaduct under the heavily used road. Both alternatives included deep (180-foot) and shallow (80-foot) tunnel options.

Cathal Ridge, Sound Transit’s executive corridor director, said there are trade-offs for each of the new alternatives that would push the station out of the neighborhood. The new CID station is supposed to connect the communities around it and serve as a regional transit hub for light rail and other transit modes. Locating the station in the CID, rather than near the stadiums or in Pioneer Square, would enable direct transfers between light rail lines, Sounder commuter rail, and Amtrak long-distance rail.

The northern location, near city and county buildings, would allow transfers between all the light rail lines, through an underground connection to the existing Pioneer Square station, but it would not provide a direct connection to Sounder and Amtrak trains. Plans also show a deep station at 103 feet below ground, another drawback to this location.

The southern site, sandwiched between 4th Avenue and Airport Way, wouldn’t offer direct transfers between any of the other rail lines and would leave riders in a very inhospitable walking environment. Current plans show a station 115 feet underground. For comparison, the U District Station near the University of Washington is 80 feet below ground.

During the most recent outreach meeting, in December, Sound Transit did not discuss the heavily criticized 5th Ave options, nor the deep station alternative along 4th Avenue. Transit advocates said a 180-foot-deep tunnel on Fourth Ave. would create a poor rider experience, because it would take several additional minutes to access the underground station.

In a push to keep the station off 5th Avenue, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation recently added the entire CID to its Most Endangered Places list.

“A station along 5th Ave exacerbates displacement of local, long-standing businesses and their employees while placing yet another major construction project within a community that has endured an inequitable burden from such projects in the past,” Huy Pham, the Trust’s director of preservation programs, wrote in an email to Sound Transit in December.

“At this time, our call to action is to have Sound Transit take the 5th Avenue option off the table, while they conduct a thorough analysis of 4th Avenue impacts,” Pham told PubliCola.

Along with the new options, Sound Transit is also considering an even shallower tunnel on 4th Ave—40 feet deep instead of 80.

Ben Broesamle, the operations director for the transit advocacy group Seattle Subway, doesn’t want to see the station moved away from the CID, and supports a shallower, less disruptive 4th Ave. Tunnel. “If Sound Transit is still interested in building a new tunnel that serves transit riders, they should take a hard look at a very shallow 4th Ave station for the CID,” Broesamle said.

“If you’re not too concerned about the cost, the disruption, all of that, you might say, well, 100 years from now [the CID] might be the best place .But people do care about what’s going to happen in the next 10 years. That means a lot to people.” Peter Nitze, president and CEO of Nitze-Stagen

Peter Nitze, president and CEO of the real estate investment firm Nitze-Stagen, sees a lot of benefits of a new station closer to the King County Courthouse: Moving construction out of the heart of the CID and helping redevelop the area. While also saving Sound Transit money by eliminating the need for a midtown station, part of the downtown segment in the Ballard extension located near 5th Avenue and Columbia Street, a few blocks north of the proposed north of CID site.

Nitze-Stagen is redeveloping land on the corner of 7th Avenue and Jackson and has a minority ownership in a parking garage near Union Station. If Sound Transit locates the new station along 4th Avenue, the garage would stand to lose about 200 parking stalls, or about 20 percent of its capacity.

“If you’re not too concerned about the cost, the disruption, all of that, you might say, well, 100 years from now [the CID] might be the best place,” said Nitze. “But people do care about what’s going to happen in the next 10 years. That means a lot to people.”

Sound Transit discarded other ideas brought up during community workshops, including building the new station in the Lumen Field parking lot or just south of Royal Brougham Way. The agency said that these alternatives either presented technical challenges or the location didn’t meet the goals—connecting neighborhoods and serving as a regional transit hub—of the new station.

Maybe Metropolis: Pro-Housing Democrats Poised for Action in 2023 After Ousting Obstructionist Seattle Rep. Pollet

Finetooth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons

By Josh Feit

Before I get to last week’s quiet yet encouraging news out of Olympia—House Democrats removed single family zoning preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle) from his position overseeing housing policy—I’d like to review a couple of other recent, below-the-radar news items that provide context for why such a seemingly picayune parliamentary move in the state legislature matters for Seattle.

First, in October, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to okay a request from Wallingford homeowners to put hundreds of houses in Wallingford on the National Register of Historic Places; this week, the National Parks Service made it official.

Expect to see more and more attempts by “In this House” Seattleites to weaponize “historic” districts as a tool against reforming local land use policy that could otherwise increase affordable housing and density in Seattle.

Meanwhile, another quiet zoning decision reflected the opposite path: Last month, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the “unremarkable” (as Erica hilariously put it) two-story wood-framed Jai Thai building on Capitol Hill. The decision cleared the way for a new seven-story affordable housing development.

You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Unfortunately, these two decisions taken together ultimately reaffirm the prevalence of Seattle’s off-kilter city planning philosophy: Seattle confines multi-story density to the same neighborhoods over and over, while foregoing opportunities for new housing in the hefty majority of the city—75 percent— that’s currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Sadly, Capitol Hill’s density is a Catch-22 for urbanists: Enthusiastically adding units to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods provides fodder for the city’s redundant single-family zones to ward off reforms that could create new housing. This preserves the status quo: Skyrocketing housing prices. The Seattle area has some of the most expensive housing prices in the country, with median rents above $1,700 (over $2,200 in the Seattle region) and a median sale price of $810,000.

It’s no wonder King County says we need to build around 240,000 new affordable units in the next 20 years, or 12,000 new units a year. Currently, we’re nowhere close to that pace; over the last two years, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, the city averaged about 1,300 affordable units a year.

Thankfully, pro-housing folks are fighting to reverse this trend. Witness the long overdue progressive coup in Olympia. Earlier this month, under youthful, new leadership, the state house Democrats finally removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N Seattle) as chair of the pivotal House local government committee. As we have been reporting for years, Rep. Pollet has repeatedly used his position to kill pro-housing bills. (No surprise, The Urbanist has also called out Pollet for undermining housing legislation.) You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Initially, frustrated with Pollet’s history of watering down pro-housing legislation, the House Democratic Caucus voted in late November to shrink the scope of Pollet’s committee by moving all housing issues into the housing committee, whose chair, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Everett) supports urbanist legislation. Last year, for example, Peterson co-sponsored Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill, HB 1782, that would have authorized duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in residential areas within a half-mile of a major transit stops. It was one of several pro-density bills Pollet helped kill last year. 

The move to take housing policy out of Pollet’s committee was orchestrated by a new generation of Democrats who want to send a message that affordable housing (tied to density) will be a top priority in 2023.

Two weeks later—evidently not done sending their message—the caucus voted to remove Pollet as chair of the local government committee altogether, handing the reins to Rep. Devina Duerr (D-1, Bothell), another co-sponsor of last year’s failed density bill.

With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

The Seattle Times, whose editorial board shares Pollet’s preservationist POV, ran an editorial last week lamenting the leadership sea change by parroting Pollet’s go-to  “local control” mantra, claiming that pro-housing bills would prohibit local governments from enacting affordable housing requirements. That’s untrue. The bills that urbanists like Rep. Bateman support simply give local jurisdictions the option to allow multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods, leaving affordable housing requirements in the hands of local jurisdictions.

“If we’re really concerned with affordable housing,” Rep. Bateman told PubliCola, “let’s first acknowledge some basic facts: Single-family zoning is 100 percent displacing people and causing gentrification.”

This status quo—not the bogeyman of future development—constitutes a current threat to housing affordability. For example, existing policy not only squeezes supply by making most of the available land in Seattle off-limits to multifamily housing, it also encourages teardowns and McMansions. Rep. Bateman’s pending, more ambitious 2023 proposal will challenge that status quo by authorizing fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state—anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed.

Data show that even this modest increase in density improves affordability. Portland made fourplexes legal citywide two years ago and the first set of numbers indicates that they are more affordable to rent or purchase than duplexes, triplexes, or single-family homes. Additionally, Bateman said her legislation will create an affordability incentive with a “density bonus” that allows scaling up to sixplexes if two of the units are affordable to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.

On the state senate side, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) is cueing up legislation that would target upzones (more dramatic ones) specifically near transit hubs.

This is all to say, for more news that could end up having big implications in the coming year: Pay attention to the state legislature’s prefiled bills page and watch for new pro-housing legislation. With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

Magnolia Considers Suing Over New District Boundaries, Mayor Donates Auction Item to Exclusive Private School

1. Update on November 22, 2022: According to an email distributed by the Magnolia Community Council, the group “has made the difficult decision to no longer pursue an appeal” because the cost of doing so would be “prohibitive.” The group “will start planning for how we will come together to work effectively and efficiently for one community made up of two Council Districts,” the email said.

Rumors were flying this week that the Magnolia Community Council planned to file a legal challenge to a new Seattle City Council district map that divides the peninsula into two council districts. Representatives of businesses and homeowners in Magnolia argued that the map the Seattle Redistricting Commission ultimately adopted was inequitable because it “split” the neighborhood, moving the wealthier, whiter western half of Magnolia into District 6, currently represented by Dan Strauss.

An email that went out on the community council’s mailing list this week sought donations for a “legal defense fund” to request a review of the new map from a King County Superior Court judge, on the grounds that the redistricting commission did not follow rules laid out in the city charter for the 10-year redistricting process. “Our goal is to request a judge to order the Commission to follow the Charter and vote for a map that keeps Magnolia whole,” the email says.

The community council’s website praises comments made by former mayor Greg Nickels, the only redistricting commission member to vote against the map. In his statement, as PubliCola reported, Nickels called the map “retribution  [against] Magnolia because it is an older, wealthier and whiter community.”

Demographically, the neighborhood consists of two distinct, and very different areas. The west side, with its expansive views of Puget Sound, fits the stereotype of Magnolia as a suburban enclave: almost exclusively single-family and owner-occupied, with median home values as high as $1.7 million.

The eastern half of the peninsula, which includes thousands of renters in dense apartment blocks, will remain part of District 7, which includes other renter-heavy neighborhoods like Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, and downtown. According to Census data, the eastern part of Magnolia encompasses some of the city’s densest Census tracts, including several where more than 80 percent of residents are renters; overall, the part of Magnolia that will stay in District 7 includes almost 5,000 rental units.

The Magnolia Community Council did not respond to a request for comment on its plans to mount a legal challenge, nor on its fundraising efforts.

2. Mayor Bruce Harrell offered “lunch with the Mayor” for five students, complete with a photo opp and a tour of City Hall by mayoral staff, as an auction item to benefit the exclusive Lakeside School’s parents’ association earlier this month. Proceeds from the annual ROAR (Raising Our Allocation Resources) auction pay for “classroom enrichment, faculty and staff development, and financial aid,” according to Lakeside’s website.

Annual tuition at Lakeside School is more than $40,000 a year, although families that receive financial assistance pay, on average, just over $9,800 a year, according to the school’s website. The average income for families that receive financial aid is $163,730 a year.

In response to questions about the auction, mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell has “regularly volunteered his time for these kinds of charity auctions, including to support students at Garfield and Cleveland High Schools, the Wing Luke Museum, and the Rainier Chamber. … In this case, he was asked to support a charity auction to raise money in support of students, including financial aid for underrepresented students. One of Mayor Harrell’s children is a Lakeside alumnus and his daughter-in-law currently works at the school.”

Other items available at the auction, which has now closed, included a Lake Washington Boat Adventure with “El Capitan Jefe,” an inside look at the filming of KING TV’s long-running Evening show, and weekends at several vacation houses. Lunch with the mayor sold for $225.

Under Pressure, County Executive Constantine Cancels Plans to Expand SoDo Shelter

King County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor with one of the Pallet shelters that would have been part of a shelter expansion in the SoDo neighborhood.

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced on Friday that in response to “community feedback,” the county will abandon plans to provide new shelter beds and a sobering center on vacant land next to the existing 270-bed Salvation Army shelter in SoDo. In a statement, Constantine said, “It is clear that building trust and resolving underlying concerns about the conditions in the community today will take considerable time before we can move forward with any added service capacity.”

Residents of the Chinatown International District have held protests outside the shelter and during King County Council meetings objecting to the shelter expansion, which many described during county and city public comment sessions as another example of “dumping” services for homeless people in a neighborhood that was hard-hit by the pandemic and has seen an increase in both crime and gentrification over the past few years.

Tanya Woo, a Chinatown-International District business owner who has helped organize opposition to the shelter expansion, told PublICola before today’s announcement that she wanted the county to put its plans on “pause” and have more conversations with neighborhood residents, including discussions about potential shelter locations in other parts of the city.

It doesn’t matter what side the community is on this shelter issue, the most important thing is having our voices heard,” Woo said. “My one wish is that the county and city can come to a conclusion that may include looking at other sites and looking at a more equitable distribution of shelter resources so that it’s not all concentrated in one area.”

In addition to community members, paid outside advocates have involved themselves in the debate, including the King County Republican Party (which paid for and handed out “Down With Dow” signs to tweak the county executive, who has a history of being rattled by vocal criticism) and the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that launched the career of far-right activist Chris Rufo.

Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, DCHS director Leo Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.

Reporters received tours of the existing shelter, and the areas where the shelter would have been expanded, earlier this month. In total, the expansion would have added 90 new shelter beds: 40 beds at a new high-acuity shelter, focused on bringing people with the greatest health needs (and visible impact on the surrounding neighborhood) off the street, plus 50 new tiny house-style Pallet shelters. In addition, the county would have moved the existing sobering center, currently housed in the Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, to the complex, adding up to 60 non-shelter beds.

The high-acuity shelter has been a longtime priority for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is an independent entity funded jointly by the city of Seattle and King County. A spokeswoman for the KCRHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this latest setback for the shelter.

The director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), Leo Flor, said last month that the new shelter would help get many people off the street who are unable to access traditional shelter like the Salvation Army’s SoDo shelter because of serious physical and behavioral health needs—the kind of needs that often lead to disruptive behavior and neighborhood complaints.

Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.

Constantine’s office did not provide any information about whether the county is planning to revisit any of the new services and shelter that were canceled today. The decision will save the county some money, though it’s unclear how much; a planned lease with the property owner, developer Greg Smith of Urban Visions,  would have rolled the existing lease for the Salvation Army shelter up in a new six-year contract that would have cost King County $10 million a year.

Nor is it clear when the onsite encampment will be resolved. A spokesman for Constantine directed questions about the encampment to the KCRHA; a spokeswoman for the authority told PubliCola that the site is “within the Partnership for Zero focus area” and will be addressed as part of that work and, presumably, closed down once the homelessness authority moves the people living there into housing or shelter.

Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

UPDATE: Citing missing data in the DEIS, which fails to identify the loss of Alki Beach Academy and the childcare spots, Councilmenber Alex Pedersen is proposing the city not make a recommendation in the segment that runs through the Delridge/ Youngstown area.

The amendment also makes its recommendation for a 17th Ave. W. route in Interbay contingent on the preservation of a proposed Seattle Storm practice facility in the area; former Mayor Jenny Durkan fast-tracked the new building, which contradicts the city’s recently adopted industrial land-use policies, before she left office last year.

The committee is set to vote on this amendment and a few others on Tuesday, July 5.

Original story:

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”

Delridge 

In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route.  Continue reading “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”

Outdoor Seating Is Here to Stay, City Extends Hiring Deadline for Police Accountability Director, “Seattle Nice” Debates “Operation New Day”

Councilmember Dan Strauss, at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard
Councilmember Dan Strauss, at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard

1. Back in 2013, when the city opened its first “parklet” in two former parking spaces on Capitol Hill, opponents (like this guy, who called the city “vehemently, virulently anti-car”) claimed that repurposing parking spaces for non-car uses would lead to all kinds of calamities, including lost parking revenue, traffic congestion, and the collapse of business districts—after all, why would anyone go to a business if they couldn’t park out front?

Parklets eventually caught on, and none of the dire consequences opponents predicted came to pass—in fact, the outdoor seating made business districts more appealing by bringing people into areas that used to be choked by cars. During the pandemic, the city decided to expand the program (allowing larger, more permanent structures) and make it free, providing safe, semi-permanent spaces for restaurants and bars to operate and helping businesses that might otherwise have closed.

Sitting under one of these temporary outdoor structures outside the La Carta de Oaxaca restaurant in Ballard Tuesday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell signed legislation sponsored by District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss to extend the program until January 31, 2023, with a goal of making it permanent. Eventually, Strauss said, the city will start charging for the permits and impose design standards for street dining structures, but that it won’t be “the same amount as [revenue from] five parking spots”—the pre–pandemic cost. “We don’t want to rush and jump to conclusions about how much a permit should cost or what the design standards should do,” Strauss said.

In a sign of how much things have changed since the parklet program started, only one reporter asked how making the program permanent would impact “parking and traffic congestion,” and Strauss responded with a hand wave. Gesturing to cars parked across the street, Strauss said, “As you see, we are having both the ability to have people eating outside and to park their cars. There’s many parking stalls here. What we also see here in Ballard is with increased density, we have more people living close to [businesses]”—people who don’t need to drive.

2. Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability won’t have a new permanent director until this summer at the soonest, giving the mayor’s office and city council time to launch a national candidate search for the high-profile role. Former OPA Director Andrew Myerberg left the office in January to join Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office as the new Director of Public Safety; Dr. Gráinne Perkins, an adjunct professor of criminology at Seattle University and a former detective in the Irish Police Service, currently runs the OPA as interim director.

During a city council public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, committee chair Lisa Herbold said the council will waive the standard 90-day deadline for the mayor to appoint a replacement for a departing OPA director; ordinarily, if the mayor misses the 90-day deadline, the public safety committee is responsible for appointing a new director. Instead, Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell said her office will hire a recruiting firm that specializes in police oversight positions, with a goal of identifying six candidates and starting to interview them by May 27.

Deputy Mayor Harrell added that the next OPA director will need to be a “special unicorn” who can navigate increased public scrutiny of police oversight agencies. During Myerberg’s four years at the OPA, police accountability advocates criticized his  cautious approach to investigating police misconduct—particularly allegations of excessive force, which Myerberg argued were rarely black-and-white enough to justify firing an officer. Myerberg said he was wary of recommending discipline that officers could get overturned on appeal; his wariness may be one reason for the overall decline in the number of disciplinary appeals filed by Seattle police officers over the past five years.

Harrell added that her office will also form a committee, which will include members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, to review the OPA director’s job description. In the past year, the CPC has increasingly challenged the OPA for what it views as inadequate disciplinary recommendations in high-profile misconduct cases.

3. This week on the Seattle Nice podcast, Erica and political consultant Sandeep Kaushik debate the merits of Mayor Harrell’s “Operation New Day” effort to crack down on crime in downtown Seattle. Continue reading “Outdoor Seating Is Here to Stay, City Extends Hiring Deadline for Police Accountability Director, “Seattle Nice” Debates “Operation New Day””

For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains

Plans show a deep Westlake Station, similar to the new U District Station pictured here.

By Lizz Giordano

The massive draft environmental impact statement  (DEIS) for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail extension landed on Sound Transit’s website in late January. It lays out the pros and cons of a variety of elevated and tunnel routes as the agency tries to weave light rail tracks through some of the densest parts of Seattle.

This second Seattle light rail line will start at the current SoDo station and cross the Duwamish Waterway before skirting the north edge of the West Seattle Golf Course on its way to the Alaska Junction. The Ballard spur will start in the Chinatown-International District (CID), then head north through a new tunnel under downtown toward Seattle Center, through Interbay, and over or under Salmon Bay to its terminus in Ballard.

This extension will add a second transit tunnel through downtown to handle increased train volumes (including the new extension to Everett, also part of Sound Transit 3) and new stations near existing ones at Westlake, the CID and SoDo, which will become transfer points between the two light rail lines.

Some options offer better bus connections or more potential for transit-oriented development. Other alternatives lessen construction impacts by moving stations to the fringes of the neighborhood or deep below ground.

While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

As the Sound Transit board makes a final decision on the route, expected in 2023, board members will be weighing short-term construction impacts against building a system that’s easy and seamless for riders to use for decades. Those decisions might be a little easier now that the costs of elevated routes is similar to that of tunneling. But underground stations don’t always equal a better experience for riders.

To keep certain tunnel routes on the table for West Seattle and Ballard, as requested by many in those neighborhoods, Sound Transit board members representing King County proposed a last-minute compromise in 2019. It stipulated that while the agency staff would continue to study the more expensive tunnel routes, they would not move forward without third-party (non-Sound Transit) funding.

A few years later, the relentless increase in property values has made it just as expensive to build above ground as to tunnel beneath the city for third-party funding.

In Ballard, where there are basically four options—an elevated or underground station at NW Market Street and either 14th or 15th Ave. NW—the price tag for the elevated options is now almost identical to the estimated cost to tunnel: Between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, compared to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion for the tunnel alternatives.

As the cost difference has evaporated, Seattle Subway, a transit advocacy group, hopes to persuade the agency to revive an old proposed route along 20th Avenue Northwest that would deliver riders closer to the core of the neighborhood rather than several blocks east. Serving dense neighborhoods (rather than more car-centric areas on their periphery) is a core urbanist tenet: High-capacity transit works best when it serves a dense core of riders, and easy access to transit can spur more density in urban areas.

To fully resurrect this option, however, Sound Transit would have to create an entirely new environmental impact statement, which is no easy task and could add time to the project.

If that doesn’t happen, routes along 14th Avenue NW might offer the best combination of transit connections and development potential. The 14th Avenue location provides better transfers between buses and trains than alternatives on 15th Avenue, while also avoiding the need to build a moveable bridge over Salmon Bay.

A buried route along 14th would also create opportunities for transit-oriented development on Sound Transit-owned land after construction—up to 450 housing units and 70,000 gross square feet of retail space. While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

A similar price convergence is also occurring between above and below ground options in West Seattle, where stations are planned for the Junction, the Avalon area and North Delridge.

While a long-requested tunnel route to preserve views and “neighborhood character” from the West Seattle Golf Course to the Alaska Junction—estimated cost: $1.7 billion—is still much more expensive than the two elevated options, which are priced at $900 million and $1.3 billion, respectively. But a shorter tunnel route that would head below ground after the Avalon Station is now estimated to cost $1.1 billion, less than even one of the above ground routes.

Locating a station here at Alaska Avenue and Fauntleroy, one of two preferred alternatives identified in the DEIS, offers less potential for transit-oriented development than building at 41st or 42nd, while also displacing a Safeway.

At the Alaska Junction, future transit-oriented development hinges more on the location of the station than on whether the line is elevated or buried. Stations at 41st or 42nd Avenues SW have the potential to create slightly more residential units and commercial space on leftover Sound Transit land than if the station is further east. Any kind of station on 41st Ave.  offers the best bus connection for what will become a terminus station, according to the DEIS.

While laying tracks underground minimizes construction impacts on the surface and usually displaces the fewest businesses and residents, it doesn’t always lead to a better experience for future riders. This is especially true if the journey out of these deep stations or between lines becomes its own leg of the commute.

At the new Westlake Station downtown, Sound Transit plans to bury the train platform 135 feet below the surface regardless of which alternative the board chooses—more than twice the depth of the existing station. The agency estimates it would take most riders three to six minutes to get from the street to the train platform —two escalators or two elevator rides, or a mix of both (plus a stair option on the last leg), according to the agency.

Expect another long ride to the platform at the Midtown Station at Fifth or Sixth Avenue at Madison St. downtown, which is likely to be buried even deeper: Between 140 and 205 feet. Continue reading “For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains”

Police Sweep Troubled Little Saigon Intersection, Retirement Incentives Could Thwart SPD Hiring Plans, City Still Plans Sidewalk Sweep

1. After Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced plans to crack down on a street market in the Little Saigon neighborhood earlier this month, Seattle police officers swept the area last Friday, parking a mobile precinct at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St. and posting a half-dozen uniformed officers nearby. The southeast corner of the intersection, which housed an informal market for stolen goods, food, and illicit drugs, vanished; King County Metro removed a bus shelter from the intersection on Wednesday, and the neighboring strip mall installed a partial fence around its parking area.

The sudden police presence pushed people who frequented the market, including some who are unhoused, into the surrounding neighborhoods and encampments. A woman who lives under the I-5 overpass on King St. told PubliCola on Friday that some of the corner’s regulars briefly gathered near her tent on Friday morning before she told them to leave. “We told them aren’t welcome here,” she said. Other displaced people attempted to move into an encampment on 10th Ave. S, where they also encountered some objections, and a man selling toilet paper set up shop near a utilities box on a quiet side street. “We’re just being moved around in a circle again,” he said.

Although Harrell promised that “social service providers” would play a role in his plan to revive Little Saigon—an epicenter of Seattle’s public safety woes since the start of the pandemic, and one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods—Friday’s action relied exclusively on police.

Although some officers went door-to-door to nearby business owners on Friday to check in, one of those proprietors—the owner of Ten Sushi, located in the strip mall on the southeast corner of the intersection—wrote on Instagram that she still plans to leave the neighborhood, arguing that the police presence is only temporary.

“This improvement at 12th and Jackson demonstrates early results and a promising first step as Mayor Harrell continues to roll out his comprehensive approach to public safety,” a spokesman for Harrell’s office told PubliCola. “SPD’s efforts are one part of the administration’s broader strategy to ensure a safe and thriving neighborhood. In addition to addressing crime, next steps include providing social services, driving economic development, keeping areas free of litter and trash, and, most importantly, engaging community in immediate and forward-looking solutions.”

2. The Seattle Police Department estimates that its ranks could increase to 1,000 officers—still well below the department’s pre-pandemic size—by the end of 2022 if it is able to slow the pace of attrition, meet its optimistic hiring goals and count on officers returning from long-term leave.

However, a bill making its way through the Washington State Legislature may throw a wrench in the department’s plans. The bill, which would increase retirement benefits for officers who have worked in law enforcement for 15  years or more, could spur some of SPD’s older officers to retire early, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz warned during a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

In 2021, 171 officers left SPD, and the department hired only 81 new officers, most of them new recruits, as opposed to transfers from other law enforcement agencies. In January 2022 alone, SPD lost another 20 officers, including 12 who opted to leave the department instead of complying with Seattle’s vaccine mandate for public employees. SPD hopes to hire 125 more officers this year and has avoided making any estimates about attrition, but the council estimates that the department may lose as many officers as it hires in 2022.  Meanwhile, 170 officers are on long-term leave; some of those officers will return, but others are using their paid time off before formally retiring.

In a pitch to boost SPD’s regrowth, former mayor Jenny Durkan debuted a hiring incentive program last October that offered up to $10,000 for new recruits and $25,000 for officers who transfer from other departments, though SPD spokesman Sergeant Randall Huserik told PubliCola in January that the incentives didn’t produce “any uptick in applications.” The council attempted to end the hiring incentive program in December of last year, but Durkan ordered SPD to continue offering bonuses to new recruits into the new year, erroneously claiming that the council’s vote wasn’t legally binding; Mayor Bruce Harrell finally stopped SPD from offering incentives earlier this month.

During Tuesday’s meeting, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold and council member Sara Nelson, who worked together as council aides for Nick Licata and Richard Conlin, respectively, clashed over whether to renew the hiring incentive program. Herbold argued that the city should consider expanding hiring incentives for all departments with staffing shortages, while Nelson argued that SPD’s staffing shortage demands a more urgent response.

3. After activists thwarted the removal of an encampment that stretches along the west side of Fourth Avenue on Sunday, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office confirmed that the city still plans to remove the tents, which the city has deemed an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way.

As we reported yesterday, Seattle’s rules for removing encampments require the city to provide at least 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter before removing an encampment, but there is an exemption: If an encampment poses an “obstruction”—that is, if it is located on a sidewalk, in a park, or in any other space used by the public—the city can clear it without notice, and with no offers of shelter or services.

While the City will do its best to offer shelter as available through the City’s HOPE team and the efforts of the RHA, we cannot allow tents and other structures to remain in the right of way if they are causing an obstruction or presenting a public health or safety risk,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “It is important to balance the immediate need to ensure safe and equitable access to sidewalks while we work to expand services and strategies to bring more people inside.”

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection

Aftermath of a shooting at 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in October 2021 (Seattle Police Department)

By Paul Kiefer

Every morning at around 8 am, an informal market begins to assemble at the corner of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street. Buyers and sellers arrive from every direction by every mode of transportation: One man parks his car nearby and unloads a bag of laundry detergent and whiskey; another man steps off the streetcar at the Little Saigon stop and joins the small crowd gathering under the bus shelter.

The market has become a daily presence in Little Saigon, spilling into the courtyard of the adjacent strip mall and the underground parking structure below. Two dozen people gather on the corner, where, until this week, a King County Metro Metro bus stop stood; satellite groups of three or four people settle down near a gravel lot across the street. The products for sale vary depending on the day. On one cold February morning, a man appeared with a shopping basket full of frozen shrimp, seemingly stolen from a nearby seafood market; on another, a vendor sold bottles of hand soap.

Typically, the vendors are outnumbered by the dozens of people who come together at the corner to socialize or smoke crushed-up pills from sheets of foil. At night, some people light small bonfires to keep warm and huddle in the doorways of nearby restaurants. At any hour of the day, arguments can escalate into violence: Nearly a dozen people have been shot or stabbed at or near the intersection since the start of the pandemic, including three people in January alone.

Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

The corner has become the epicenter of Seattle’s public safety discussions, fueled by outcry from business owners and neighborhood advocates who say that the public drug use and bouts of violence at the corner have driven away customers and could lead to the death of Little Saigon. Just before taking office, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison appeared at one nearby restaurant, Seven Stars Pepper, for a photo op with the owner, Yong Hong Wang; Davison brought up the visit, and Yong’s warning that she will need to close her restaurant if the city doesn’t intervene in the neighborhood, in her inauguration speech.

In January, SPD made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests at the corner. Although the only regular law enforcement presence at the intersection is a sheriff’s deputy working for King County Metro’s transit security program, that could soon change: Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

Crackdowns on crime “hot spots” are nothing new in Seattle, and many past attempts have produced few (or no) long-term results. Harrell’s new plan to focus the city’s police resources on the neighborhood has many observers, including neighborhood advocates and mental health service providers, wondering whether this time will be different.

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Little Saigon is no stranger to shoplifting, drug dealing and other illegal commerce, said Jim Pugel, a former Seattle police chief who first worked in the neighborhood in the 1980s. Even before it evolved into the present-day street market in Little Saigon, Pugel said that some minor illegal commerce has long been a feature of the nine square blocks between I-5 and Rainier Avenue S.

“It is an area that has always had a small  market for stolen goods, illegal cigarettes and EBT [food stamp] fraud,” he said. The daily crowd of people selling shoplifted merchandise and drugs on the corner of 12th and Jackson today may be more extreme than any past iteration, he said, but the basic components are not new.

In 2011, SPD recovered more than $100,000 in stolen cell phones and other merchandise from a storefront at 12th and Jackson. Other investigations in the early 2010s led police to a restaurant selling cocaine to neighborhood drug dealers and an EBT fraud scheme involving the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores.

“Informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards,” SPD Detective Todd Jakobsen remarked in a 2014 post on the department’s blog. “We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street,” he continued. “We’re going to take that area back for the community.”

Quynh Pham, the director of the advocacy group Friends of Little Saigon and one of the central figures in current discussions of the neighborhood’s fate, says that SPD’s past crackdowns on EBT scams and drug dealing were only effective in the short term. When the COVID pandemic hit and forced many of the neighborhood’s businesses to close, she said, she watched 12th and Jackson decline more dramatically than ever before.

The city’s 2015 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.

When SPD has ramped up its presence in Little Saigon in the past, she said, “I feel like they’ve always been reactionary and temporary. There’s never been a strategy where it’s more long term or sustained effort. And I think that’s why a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with, like food stamp fraud, keep coming back up. We’ve been a vulnerable neighborhood for a long time, and we’re still dealing with kind of the same root issues, but it’s so much more visible now.”

Harrell and SPD shouldn’t ignore the neighborhood’s history of neglect and underground commerce, said Lisa Daugaard, the co-director of the Public Defender Association (PDA). “People come to purchase where they know to come to purchase, and people sell where they know people will come to purchase,” she said. “In some locations, those patterns have proven incredibly stable over time, notwithstanding literal decades of flavor-of-the-month short-term enforcement initiatives.”

Critics of the “hot spot” approach to public safety often point to a 2015 campaign targeting the drug trade in Seattle’s downtown core known as the “9 1/2 Block Strategy,” which was spearheaded by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, then an advisor to mayor Ed Murray. The campaign resulted in more than 100 arrests in its first week and a sharp decline in drug-related 911 calls from a small stretch of downtown surrounding Westlake Park, but the number of drug-, disturbance- and assault-related calls from the surrounding neighborhoods rose. The 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates. Continue reading “Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection”