Category: neighborhoods

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”

Rules Aren’t Censorship, Activists Aren’t Policymakers, and Solutions to Homelessness Aren’t Cheap

1. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant learned the hard way yesterday that the standard for decorum in the state legislature is not the same as the standard in city council chambers, when state Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) cut her off during a hearing on a proposed state capital gains tax yesterday.  Frame is a cosponsor of the legislation, and the prime sponsor on a separate proposal to impose a wealth tax on the richest Washington state residents.

Legislative committees typically hold no more than one public hearing for each bill, and commenters are supposed to restrict their remarks to the legislation on the agenda during the meeting at which they’re testifying.

In her testimony, Sawant mentioned the bill number that was on the agenda before launching into testimony about wealth and income taxes in general, focusing on a theoretical preemption clause in a different bill that hasn’t even been proposed yet—a potential state payroll tax, which some advocates worry could could preempt Seattle’s own JumpStart payroll tax. After about a minute. Frame interrupted, asking Sawant to “keep your comments focused on the bill at hand, please?”

Sawant responded, “It is focused on the bill at hand” and continued reading from her speech about the payroll tax. Frame interrupted two more times as Sawant quoted from a Crosscut article about the payroll tax proposal, accused Frame of “completely suborning the Constitution,” and insisted she had a “Constitutional right” to testify on “every bill that you will talk about focusing on the wealthy and big business.” At that point, Frame cut Sawant’s mic and moved on to the next public commenter.

“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet. It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.” — Washington State Rep. Noel Frame

Sawant posted her remarks later in the day, broken up by a large pink box reading “[Censored from this point on].” The charge of censorship prompted Sawant’s fans to dogpile Frame on social media, calling her a “corporate shill” and worse. (Frame, a Bernie delegate in 2016, does not accept corporate contributions—and, again, is sponsoring measures to tax capital gains and personal wealth.)

Ironically, the city council’s own rules require that people testifying before the council limit their comments to items on the council’s agenda, a rule that admittedly tends to be more honored in the breach.

“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet, and she kept referencing wealth, and I was like, ‘The wealth tax hearing was last week,'” Frame told PubliCola. “It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.”

As for the issue of preemption: The capital gains tax proposal includes a clause explicitly stating that it does not preempt any other taxes.

2. The city opened two cold-weather shelters on Thursday in anticipation of freezing temperatures, bringing the city’s winter-shelter capacity to about 165 beds. (King County opened a men’s only shelter downtown that will serve another 25.)

Emergency shelter unquestionably saves lives, but it’s worth putting these temporary beds into context: The city lags far behind its own revised schedule to open up 300 federally-funded hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness, a plan the mayor’s office unveiled before cold weather had even set in last fall. Those 300 rooms are supposed to serve as a temporary way station for 600 or more unsheltered people, who the city plans to move swiftly into permanent supportive or market-rate housing, freeing up rooms for more unsheltered people.

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The mayor’s office and the Human Services Department have been reluctant to release any details about the hotel proposals or even confirm the locations of the hotels, which we’ve reported several times and which the city council has begun discussing openly. The city rejected the Public Defender Association’s proposal to use the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown for an expansion of its successful JustCare hotel-based shelter model because, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the PDA’s proposal was too expensive; the city is now reportedly in conversations with the Low-Income Housing Institute, which also responded to the city’s request for qualifications for hotel-based shelters last year.

So what, exactly, is the holdup? I asked Durkan this during a press conference on the winter weather shelters, and she responded by making a hard pivot back to the winter shelters and responding as if I had asked about them—an odd dodge, in my view, since the context for my question was the fact that 300 more people would be inside and warm right now if the hotel shelters had been opened according to the city’s original schedule.

In response to a followup question, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said, “the City is working to implement the shelter surge program and is in active negotiations with hotels and service providers.” (In addition to the Executive Pacific and potentially LIHI, the Chief Seattle Club plans to open a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown.) “The significant change in weather had us redirect some resources towards emergency weather response but we plan to announce our new partnerships soon.”

Neither council member backed down or gave ground when neighborhood activists tried to goad them (“I can already hear the snarky comments about how it’s called the HOPE Team because you hope they’ll do something!” one man guffawed) and both stayed on message

The delay, which was going on long before yesterday’s cold snap, likely comes down to two issues: Cost and capacity. Every provider who submitted a bid to operate a hotel-based shelter proposed a plan more expensive than the city’s original $17,000-per-bed spending cap. And every provider in the city is stretched thin, as HSD interim director Helen Howell noted in her remarks at Wednesday’s press conference— for example, the city is relying on groups that don’t ordinarily operate emergency shelters, like LIHI, to staff the winter-weather shelters. To run a successful hotel-based shelter program, agencies will either have to hire more staff (which increases) or spread themselves even thinner (which can decrease service quality.)

The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel plan would have entailed moving existing DESC clients from a congregate shelter at Seattle Center rather than taking on a whole new group of residents. The city rejected it as non-responsive because, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, it did not bring a new set of unsheltered people into the shelter system. Continue reading “Rules Aren’t Censorship, Activists Aren’t Policymakers, and Solutions to Homelessness Aren’t Cheap”

Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces

L-R: The Gateway Park North site, the Georgetown Tiny House Village, and the future dog park site at the Georgetown Flume

by Erica C. Barnett

This is a story about a new park for people, a proposed park for dogs, and how confusion among at least four city departments has left more than a dozen people living in RVs and trailers in a state of limbo, living on disputed territory amid neighbors—including a permitted tiny house village—who want them gone.

It’s also, inevitably, a story about homelessness: A reminder, in a city where people without permanent places to live are routinely swept from place to place, that even the urgency of a global pandemic has not produced lasting solutions to a problem that is currently more visible than it has ever been. Because while the city’s policy of removing people from public spaces based largely on neighborhood complaints has subsided in the past year, that short-term reprieve hasn’t been coupled with enough new shelter or housing to get more than a few hundred of Seattle’s growing homeless population indoors on even a temporary basis.”

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land.” Greg Ramirez, board chair, Georgetown Community Council

The story begins, as a lot of stories about homelessness seem to, in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the Seattle Parks Department is just starting construction on a new park facing the Duwamish River across from Boeing Field. The Gateway Park North project will improve and provide better access to a tiny piece of riverfront land that’s partly occupied by the out-of-commission Georgetown Pumping Station.

Since March, the city tacitly allowed people living in RVs, cars, and trailers to occupy the site, which is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. In early December, however, the department put  up signs announcing it was about to start work on the new park and warning RV residents that they needed to be gone by the following week. REACH, the nonprofit that had been doing outreach to the vehicle residents for the last eight months, worked quickly to figure out where the residents wanted to go and how to get them there; since many of the RVs had been sitting in place for longer than usual, 11 of them no longer ran.

“We talked about who needed to move and asked them, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’,” said Dawn Whitson, a REACH case manager who works in Georgetown. “They had already identified the site—the Georgetown Flume.”

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The Georgetown Flume—so named because it was the site of a flume that transported water from the Duwamish to the Georgetown Steam Plant, which closed in 1975—is another disused property a few blocks north of the pumping station site. Seattle City Light owns the land, but plans to give it to the Parks Department in exchange for a street vacation (the permanent closure of a public street) on property it owns in SoDo. Street vacations require some kind of public benefit; hence the trade to Parks. The plan is for the property to become a dog park for the surrounding neighborhood.

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land,” Greg Ramirez, the board chair for the Georgetown Community Council, said. “We want to assist these individuals to find a better location, but this is not it. The flume is not that spot. Gateway Park North is not that spot.”

“If the city is going to pay for [RVs] to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go?”—Dawn Whitson, REACH

Georgetown is already the site of one longstanding tiny house village run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which the community council and other local groups initially opposed but which, according to Georgetown Tiny House Village Community Advisory Council chair Barbara Grace Hill, has since become “a big part of the neighborhood.” (According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, “we are on record supporting the dog park.”)

The issue, Georgetown residents say is that nobody at the city asked them what they thought of the idea. This, they say, is part of a pattern that has included not just the tiny house village but the proposed relocation of an overnight sobering center into a historic building in the neighborhood core—a proposal that would have put the sobering center far away from other city services. “It’s been a pattern with the city,” Hill said. After a neighborhood lawsuit helped sink the sobering center proposal, “it was like, again, ‘Would you please communicate with us? Would you please let us know what’s going on?'” Continue reading “Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces”

These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

Due to the popularity of closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars—and opening it for walking, biking, and rolling only, as SDOT did during the recent Thanksgiving weekend and over the summer: one mile of the northern portion of Lake Washington Blvd from Mt. Baker Park to Stan Sayres Memorial Park will be a no-car zone this Friday, December 18 through January 3.

Apparently, the popularity of these closures is causing some angst. People who oppose closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars took their case to the joint Board of Parks Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee meeting last Thursday night.  At the online meeting, SDOT floated the concept of making some of 2020’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-and-bike-only streets permanent. Lake Washington Boulevard isn’t currently under consideration for permanent closure, but SDOT’s anxious critics, intent on nipping the idea in the bud, pointed out that the vaunted Olmsted Brothers originally designed Lake Washington Boulevard for cars. Specifically, they said, for “recreational…pleasure drives.”

I love it when city officials are able to turn original intent arguments back against NIMBYs, and Parks Commissioner Tom Byers did just that. Byers, former deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, pointed out that the typical car speed when the Olmsteds designed the boulevard was 12 mph. Today, it’s 25 mph. (Seems more like 30 or 40 if you’ve ever been biking there and had a car up in your business, but still.) For the past decade, the city has traditionally closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on Sundays during summer months. 

This past summer, responding to people’s need for daily recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods during the pandemic, SDOT restricted car access on 26 miles of neighborhood streets, creating bike-and pedestrian-friendly zones known as “Stay Healthy Streets” to create more room for people to walk, bike, and roll while maintaining at least six feet of distance from others. SDOT also teamed up with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department for four additional miles of closed streets (I consider all these open streets), near Alki Point, near Green Lake, in Goldens Gardens Park, and along Lake Washington Boulevard, to expand park footprints. SDOT called these park-adjacent no-car zones “Keep Moving Streets.”

SDOT is now surveying the public to decide where to make 20 miles of these car-free streets permanent. It’s all part of the department’s pedestrian-centric response to the pandemic, which also now includes 150 sidewalk, converted parking spot, and street permits that neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants have used to set up outdoor seating. That popular program, known as “Safe Starts,” has been extended through October 2021.

In the first installment of this column a couple of months ago, I wrote about all these programs combined, arguing that the ad hoc emergency response was energizing Seattle’s neighborhoods and providing a surprise opportunity to rethink how our city should be planned and zoned.

The notion of re-upping the Lake Washington Boulevard car-free pilot as a pedestrian and bike thoroughfare (thanks for bringing it up, guys!) is a prequel to the overdue debate over reallocating public right-of-way. It’s time to retrofit our growing city to human scale.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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

SDOT’s idea isn’t about tradition. It’s about change. And ultimately, that’s what Byers’ “12 mph” quip was getting at.

“I’m really excited about the future potential of these streets,” Seattle Parks District Oversight Committee member Deepa Sivarajan seconded.

Sivarajan, a policy manager at Climate Solutions by day, went even further. “Let’s not prioritize historical intent and historical preservation when thinking about these streets,” she said. “A lot of historical preservation in Seattle tends to preserve an era that was de facto segregationist. Thinking about the historical intent of a ‘driving street’ is not the biggest factor we should be considering.” Sivarajan argued that the city should consider equity above original intent, and her own priorities seemed to also include health and safety; she cited collisions and pollution as something the Olmsteds didn’t consider when designing boulevards for “pleasure drives.”

Sivarajan’s social justice angle served notice on the opponents of SDOT’s potential plan. In addition to the goofy original intent talking points, the preservationists had also been arguing that closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars would be unfair to communities of color who, they claimed without presenting data, rely on the boulevard to access the city and parks from the Rainier Valley and beyond.

Opponents of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard also got an earful from Parks Commissioner Dennis Cook, who’s African American. “I’ve walked the lake [for] many, many, many years,” he said. “During the pandemic, I’ve seen more people of color walking Seward Park than I have in the last five to ten years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful to see because people are out there greeting people and their neighbors, and it’s building community.” Cook noted that the area in question is in the 98118 ZIP code, where the population is 25 percent African American. Seattle is 7 percent Black overall.

Continue reading “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Stay Healthy Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”

Nickelsville Gets a Reprieve; Regional Homelessness Discussions Get an Extension

1. King County’s Regional Policy Committee passed a much-amended plan to create a regional homelessness authority yesterday morning, but supporters acknowledged that it would go through more amendments once it reached the Seattle City Council, which has raised increasing alarms over a proposal some members say merely “shifts the deck chairs on the Titanic”—a metaphor that has been in constant rotation during the regional planning process.

Although the plan passed the RPC unanimously with some new amendments (an effort by Seattle council president Bruce Harrell to increase the number of governing board votes required to amend budgets and policies and hire and fire the executive director of the new authority failed), the city council sounded more skeptical of the plan than ever at a special committee meeting Thursday afternoon.

The council’s main objections highlighted the rift between suburban cities (who want several seats on the governing board, explicit suburban representation on the board of experts, and the authority to draft their own sub-regional homelessness plans) and the city of Seattle.

The first point of contention: Why should Seattle give suburban cities so much say over composition and policies of the new authority when they’re contributing nothing financially? The legislation the RPC adopted yesterday explicitly bans the regional authority from raising revenues, which means that the only funding sources are Seattle—contributing 57% of the authority’s initial budget—and King County. (Residents of suburban cities, like Seattle, also pay county taxes, but their contribution is small and indirect compared to what Seattle is putting on the table.)

“The city of Seattle has been very generous in subsidizing the needs of non-Seattle residents … and yet that reciprocity is pretty much nonexistent in terms of how this deal is structured.” — Seattle city council member Lorena Gonzalez

“I had always had the impression, going all the way back to One Table”—a task force that was supposed to come up with regional solutions to homelessness—”that we were going to have a conversation about our funding needs,” council member Lisa Herbold said. “I don’t know why we would, in the structure, foreclose our option to do that.”

Council member Lorena Gonzalez added: “The city of Seattle has been very generous in subsidizing the needs of non-Seattle residents … and yet that reciprocity is pretty much nonexistent in terms of how this deal is structured.” 

Council members raised similar objections about the fact that the legislation now requires “regional sub-planning,” which means that different parts of the county could create their own homelessness policies, and that the new authority’s five-year plan would be required to reflect (and fund) those policies, even non-evidence-based strategies like high-barrier housing that requires sobriety. Gonzalez said that the question for her was, “Should municipalities who want to primarily or solely focus on non-evidence-based strategies to address homelessness… be able to qualify to receive money from these pooled resources? And the answer for me is no, they should not.”

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A larger, but related, issue council members raised Thursday is the fact that the new body would keep power where it has always been—in the hands of elected officials, who would make up two-thirds of the governing board that would wield most of the power over the new authority. Originally, the idea behind creating a new regional authority was to create a “de-fragmented system” where experts, including people with lived experience of homelessness, could make decisions on policy without feeling swayed by political considerations like the need to get reelected. The new plan, as Herbold pointed out, “flips [that] script.”

Gonzalez agreed, saying that without new revenue authority, and with a structure controlled by elected officials, the regional authority will be “AllHome 2.0″—a powerless body controlled by people making decisions for political reasons. “I don’t want us to fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing something transformative,” she said..

For a moment near the end of the meeting, council member Sally Bagshaw, who has spent months negotiating the plan with the county, seemed to agree. Moving toward a regional approach to homelessness, she said, was “a journey worth taking.” But “whether I would say that it’s transformational— I can’t go that far.”

2. The Northlake tiny house village, which had been slated for closure on Monday, December 9, got a reprieve Thursday morning in the form of a memo from Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson saying that the encampment could stay in place until March of next year. (I reported the news on Twitter Thursday morning).

Continue reading “Nickelsville Gets a Reprieve; Regional Homelessness Discussions Get an Extension”

The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 1 Incumbent Lisa Herbold

Image via Lisa Herbold campaign

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

Today: District 1 City Council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and South Park.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): Because so many council members are leaving, if you’re reelected, you’ll be one of the senior members of the city council. What are some of your top priorities for a second term?

Lisa Herbold (LH): I’m interested in working with council member [Teresa] Mosqueda on the work that she plans to do on the comprehensive plan—revisiting single-family neighborhood zoning, and looking at how we can do that in a way that brings people together and doesn’t become another big wedge issue for the city. And I think it’s important to figure out a way to have those conversations that doesn’t put people into camps—either NIMBYs or urbanists. So I want to play a role in that, because I think there’s a right way of having those conversations.

For instance, [Mandatory Housing Affordability], as it relates to single-family zoning, is focused on single-family zoning only within urban villages. The planning commission has made a set of recommendations for single-family zoning outside of urban villages, and I know that council member Mosqueda is very interested in the issue. I’m really concerned that the conversation won’t be held in a way that brings people together, because it hasn’t in the past. And then there’s the whole question of neighborhood planning around our urban village strategy. She has, for instance, asked for a [racial equity toolkit] on the urban village strategies. I imagine there’s going to be some recommendations that come out of that.

I think that we should have neighborhood-based input. I’m supportive of the direction that [the Department of Neighborhoods] has moved in [toward including communities that have been traditionally excluded from neighborhood planning], but not as a replacement for some sort of geographic-based engagement. In the efforts to involve people in these conversations that haven’t historically been at the table, I think that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

I think for instance, when you’re talking about neighborhood matching funds or the neighborhood street fund, these participatory budgeting-type programs that seek to empower community to make decisions about improvements in their communities, I’m just concerned that, in our efforts to model our values of equity, we’ve alienated people who have something to contribute to our city, who care deeply about their communities.

“I’m supportive of the direction that [the Department of Neighborhoods] has moved in, but not as a replacement for some sort of geographic-based engagement. In the efforts to involve people in these conversations that haven’t historically been at the table, I think that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”

ECB: The mayor’s budget continues the expansion of the Navigation Team [which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces, often with no notice or offers of services to their displaced residents.] Are you going to be pushing for changes to the team’s current model or way of doing things?

LH: I’ve been working on implementing the recommendations of the city auditor, particularly on hygiene and garbage pickup. So for instance, I helped pilot the purple bag program [which provides purple trash bags and trash pickup to some encampments], but [Seattle Public Utilities] only visits 12 sites at any given time. I believe that our need to prioritize sites for removal might be mitigated if we make it possible for people that are living unsheltered to pick up their own garbage. I know Seattle Public Utilities feels good about the work that they’re doing. And this program has been replicated in Austin.

One of the things that the city auditor is doing is mapping all of the removed encampments over the last year, to find out where people return. Maybe the locations where people return aren’t locations that are inherently dangerous. Maybe there’s some logic for why people return there. Maybe for those locations, rather than chasing them away from them, we should make it possible for people to clean them.

I’m going to be working with the campaign that Real Change is doing in March, called Everybody Poops. It comes out of the recommendations of the city auditor that we ought to have a mobile pit stop like other cities do. It’s a way of providing people with something that they need and also providing opportunities for engaging in case management services. There’s also a slate of recommendations related to hygiene that the city auditor made. We have some of our community centers that have showers that have made them available to all members of the public, whether or not you’re signed up for programs, and so one of the recommendations is to open all of them. Another recommendation is to staff a couple of the standalone bathrooms in parks. And then of course there’s making sure that our permanent Urban Rest Stops are able to find spaces.

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ECB: The mayor has proposed legislation that would crack down on people renting run-down RVs to people who would otherwise be unsheltered. What do you think of the legislation as proposed? [Editor’s note: After our conversation, the council dramatically revised the legislation to add tenant relocation funding and to limit the scope of the proposal; further amendments are expected when the council takes the proposal up again after budget deliberations, which end in November]

LH: We have a way to pay tenants of rental housing that the city is shutting down under emergency order because there are life safety issues that are so severe that somebody can’t continue to live there. The city advances the relocation assistance and then they work on pursuing the landlord later. But they pay first.

So I actually see this very similar to that, depending on how it’s administered. People could say about that rental housing, ‘Well, it’s better than living unsheltered.’ Okay, but nevertheless, it is the city’s policy to not let rental housing providers exploit tenants by collecting rent and forcing them to live in places that they have refused to fix and that have significant life safety violations. That is the city’s policy. So I see this as in many ways being very consistent with that. But the thing I’m worried about is whether or not the city is going to be looking for these instances as a way to accomplish a different objective [getting RVs off the street].

Continue reading “The 2019 City Council Candidates: District 1 Incumbent Lisa Herbold”

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

Mayor Jenny Durkan planned to propose her own accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legislation that would have restricted homeowners’ ability to build second and third units on their property, going far beyond the limitations in the legislation the city council passed unanimously yesterday afternoon.

The restrictions Durkan proposed would have been more lenient than previous regulations, which had resulted in just a handful of ADUs per year, but would have included many provisions requested by ADU opponents, including parking requirements for second ADUs, preserving the current owner occupancy requirement, and imposing new limits  on the size of backyard units.

Ultimately, as I reported this morning (item 2), Durkan did not propose her own legislation, and the bill the council passed yesterday does not include any of these restrictions. Still, Durkan’s ADU proposal gives a glimpse into her thinking about how much the city should limit how many people (and what kind of people) should be allowed to live in single-family neighborhoods.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean 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 site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. 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.

This report is based on documents I received through a records request filed in March. The mayor’s office provided unredacted versions of these documents this morning.

First, the mayor set out her goals in drafting her own ADU legislation: “1. Encourage ADUs—especially affordable ADUs—throughout Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. 2. Prevent speculative development and the demolition of existing single-family homes.” Her plan also laid out a set of “principles,” which included “Retain existing single-family neighborhood character.”

To those ends, here’s what the mayor’s proposal (which, again, was never sent to the council as legislation) might have done:

1. Imposed a cap of 1,000 accessory units permitted per year. (The legislation the council passed includes no such restriction.)

2. Required homeowners building a second ADU to sign a legally binding document stating that they would never use that ADU as an Airbnb (a new restriction that would allow someone to own two houses on adjoining lots and rent one as an Airbnb, but would ban a neighbor with two ADUs from renting out their backyard unit).

3. Required two years of continuous ownership before a homeowner could build a second ADU, such as a backyard cottage in a house that already has a basement apartment. This restriction went further than council member Lisa Herbold’s proposal for a one-year ownership requirement, which failed; the legislation the council passed does not include any ownership-related restrictions on ADU construction.

4. Required homeowners to build one off-street parking space when they build a second ADU. Notes from staff on the mayor’s proposal indicate that “many infill parcels, especially those without alley access, cannot easily accommodate off-street parking, making this requirement a significant impediment to ADU development.” The legislation that passed yesterday includes no parking mandate.

5. Imposed a new floor-area ratio (a measure of maximum density) on detached units while eliminating the previous minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. Although getting rid of maximum lot sizes sounds like a good thing, in practice, this measure would have little practical impact while imposing a new restriction on what people on smaller lots could build. I’ve explained this in a bit more detail below*, but the impact would be that any lot smaller than 5,000 square feet would have to build a backyard unit smaller than 1,000 square feet—and the smaller the lot, the smaller the cottage. In contrast, O’Brien’s legislation allows backyard cottages of up to 1,000 square feet on all lots, subject to the city’s existing maximum lot coverage of 35 percent.

Although getting rid of the minimum lot size entirely might seem preferable, the impact would be tiny—according to the city, just 7 percent of the single-family lots in Seattle are smaller than 3,200 square feet, and ADUs on very small lots are unlikely for the reasons I explain below.

6. Required a homeowner or a homeowner’s family member to live on the property for at least six months out of every year. O’Brien’s legislation got rid of the existing six-month owner occupancy requirement because it effectively banned renters from living in at least one of the units on lots with an ADU (suggesting that backyard-cottage renters require owner supervision.) Durkan’s proposal would have continued to prevent renters from occupying every unit on lots with ADUs, but allowed family members to serve as owner proxies. The proposal doesn’t define “family member,” but other elements of the municipal code limit the number of people who can live on a single lot unless they are “related,” a term that is undefined in the code.

Because I filed my request for these documents in March, they don’t include any discussions that happened after April 1 that might shed light on why Durkan decided not to propose her own ADU legislation. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about why they dropped the proposal this afternoon.

*Two hypothetical examples illustrate the impact of this change on lots of two different sizes.

A homeowner with a 4,000-square-foot lot could cover a total of 1,400 square feet of that lot with buildings, subject to the maximum height limit of about 30 feet. That could include, say, a 1,600-square-foot two story house (covering 800 square feet of the lot) and a two-story, 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage (covering 500 square feet). Under Durkan’s proposal, though, the backyard cottage would also be restricted by the 0.2 FAR, limiting it to a total of 800 square feet no matter how the rest of the lot is configured. This is the limit that existed before O’Brien’s legislation raised it to 1,000 square feet, so in this case Durkan’s proposal would have preserved the old status quo.

A homeowner with a 2,500-square-foot lot, who couldn’t build a backyard cottage under the rules adopted yesterday, would theoretically be able to do so under Durkan’s proposal. But the restrictions would make this exceedingly unlikely, because the backyard cottage would be limited to a total of 500 square feet—on a lot where only 875 square feet can be developed in the first place. Playing this out presents some very unlikely scenarios, such as a tiny front house towered over by a narrow two-story backyard tower. The point is, the effect of these restrictions would have been primarily to limit the size of backyard units, not to expand homeowners’ ability to build them.

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

1. The city council finally adopted legislation to loosen regulations on backyard and basement apartment construction Monday, 13 years after the city allowed homeowners to build backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle on a “pilot” basis in 2006.  The city’s analysis found that the new rules, which would allow homeowners to build up to two accessory units (such as a basement apartment and a backyard cottage) on their property, will add up to 440 new units a year across Seattle, or about one unit for every 80 acres of single-family land.

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The city expanded its initial backyard cottage pilot to include the rest of Seattle in 2009, but it never took off in a major way, thanks in large part to restrictions on lot and unit size, owner-occupancy requirement, and parking mandates that made accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, difficult and expensive to build. Efforts to make it easier to build second and third units ran against the usual objections from single-family homeowner activists, who claimed that changing the law would turn Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods into triplex canyons, and from left-leaning development opponents, who claimed  that loosening the rules would lead to a frenzy of speculative development, with builders snatching up affordable single-family rental houses and destroying them to make way for new houses with two additional units, which they would rent out at higher prices or turn into Airbnbs.

Litigation by a group of homeowner activists dragged the process out for years, but the city prevailed in May, enabling the legislation to finally move forward. Although council members generally supported the proposal, some of them wanted to add new restrictions, such as owner occupancy and ownership requirements and even a ban on leasing the units as short-term rentals, which would have subjected backyard cottages and basement apartments to more stringent anti-Airbnb rules  than any other kind of housing in the city.

Ultimately, the only one of those amendments that saw the light of day on Monday was Lisa Herbold’s proposal to require homeowners to own a property for one year before building a second accessory unit—a provision Herbold said was necessary “to address the speculative market that will flip these units”—with even socialist council member Kshama Sawant saying that she saw no reason for the restriction. While she is concerned about “corporate developers” building luxury apartment towers, Sawant said, “I have not seen any speculative ADU bubble anywhere.”

The legislation, which Sightline called “the best rules in America for backyard cottages,” passed 8-0, with council member Bruce Harrell absent.

2. Often, when the council passes a piece of legislation they have been working on for some time, Mayor Jenny Durkan sends out a press release praising the council for passing “the Mayor’s legislation.” That didn’t happen with the ADU bill that passed yesterday—not because Durkan didn’t have her own version of the proposal, but because she never sent her own version of the ADU legislation to the council. Instead, after a team of staffers spent months working on draft legislation and crafting an outreach plan for an alternative proposal, the mayor apparently decided to support O’Brien’s legislation after all.

It’s hard to quantify how much staff time the mayor’s office and city departments dedicated to drafting legislation that never saw the light of day, but the sheer volume of communications in the first three months of 2019 suggests it was a substantial body of work. (I filed my request at the end of March and received redacted records in mid-June, which is why I don’t have any documents dated later than March 31).

At the moment, it’s also hard to know what problems Durkan had with O’Brien’s proposal, since most of the documents her office provided about her strategy and legislation look like this:

I would show more, but it just goes on like this.However, series of text messages between two mayoral staffers that were provided without redactions shows that one of the changes Durkan was considering was an even longer ownership requirement than what  Herbold proposed—two years, rather than one, before a homeowner could build a second accessory unit.

I’ve asked the mayor’s office for unredacted versions of the documents I received in  and will post more details about her proposal  when I receive them. In the meantime, here’s one more page from those redacted documents—this one a list of ideas the mayor’s office had to “further allay concerns” about “speculative development.”