Category: South Seattle Emerald

Aziz Ansari Isn’t Harvey Weinstein. That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Talk About Boundaries and Consent.

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald. 

It has been two weeks since a formerly obscure website called published a piece describing a troubling sexual encounter between an anonymous 23-year-old woman, “Grace,” and 34-year-old comedian Aziz Ansari.

According to Grace’s account, Ansari pressured her to have sex with him, placed her hand on his crotch a half-dozen times, pointed to his penis and motioned for her to give him oral sex, and repeatedly shoved his fingers down her throat. Grace said she gave Ansari numerous verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted to stop or slow down—leaving the room, telling him “no,” saying that she didn’t want to feel “forced,” and even going limp and “cold” while he tried to kiss her. Eventually, Grace got up and left, texting Ansari later to say that she had been deeply uncomfortable with their encounter.

For a second, it seemed like we were going to finally have a national conversation about sexual coercion, consent, female pleasure, and male privilege. It seemed inevitable that we would discuss the profoundly disturbing fact that even in the era of #TimesUp #MeToo, a shockingly high percentage of sexual encounters between men and women end with the woman “giving in,” or going numb, or leaving in tears.


But then, after a minute or an hour or another drink, he decides to keep pushing, and now he’s pawing at your clothes or pushing your head down into his lap or putting your hand on his crotch, hoping to wear down your resistance. After all, pushing has worked for him so many times—like all men, he’s been taught explicitly or implicitly that sex is a negotiation, in which the man badgers and the woman relents.


But that conversation was quickly sidelined by the backlash to Grace’s story—by feminists who said the sloppiness of Babe’s reporting undermined the larger conversation about consent, by left-leaning women who mocked Grace’s experience as a rite of passage that young women must suffer, by anti-feminists who said that even discussing Ansari in the context of “real” offenders like Harvey Weinstein undermined the #MeToo movement, and by other anti-feminists who argued that requiring men to read women’s signals or listen to their words somehow infantilizes women. Ansari, an experienced actor and comedian who wrote a best-selling book about relationships between men and women, was given the benefit of doubt and forbearance one would grant a small child, as someone who couldn’t possibly be expected to read minds, as an “aspirational” Muslim who was being “assassinated” by a vindictive woman, as a young man “in the confused beginning [of his] dating [life].” (Ansari will turn 35 next month).

Fewer people wanted to talk about the central issue the story raised, which is the fact that lack of consent exists on a spectrum, and that encounters where women just give in is part of that continuum, just like violent rape and partner rape and sexual assault against women too drunk to consent. But because our society still requires perfect victims and multiple witnesses and multiple accusations from multiple women to even consider the possibility that a man has committed sexual assault, we rarely get close to discussing the grayer areas of the spectrum, where men who would never consider violently raping a woman think nothing of pushing and pushing until they get their way.

And yet virtually every woman has been in the exact kind of situation Grace describes. You’re alone with a man, fooling around, and at some point, you establish a boundary. Most likely, you do it gently, especially if the man you’re alone with is someone you don’t know well. “Can we just slow down for a minute?” “I don’t feel comfortable doing that right now.” “Let’s go in the other room and talk for a while.” “Can you be a little more gentle?” “I’m not ready for this.”

He may pause for a while, and you think, “Whew. That’s over.” “Of course,” he says, leading you into the next room. But then, after a minute or an hour or another drink, he decides to keep pushing, and now he’s pawing at your clothes or pushing your head down into his lap or putting your hand on his crotch, hoping to wear down your resistance. After all, pushing has worked for him so many times—like all men, he’s been taught explicitly or implicitly that sex is a negotiation, in which the man badgers until the woman relents.

“Bad sex” is sex he takes from you. “Bad sex” is sex where you leave your body and just let it happen. “Bad sex” is any sexual activity that you don’t really want to do, but you do anyway, because it’s the only way to make him stop pestering you. “Bad sex” is sex you give him because it would cost too much to slap him in the face, or tell him to fuck off, or get up and leave.


Eventually, you may get up and leave. Or you may go limp. You may stop moving your lips and turn cold, as Grace did. You may take another drink and let the numbness sink into your bones. You may lie back and wait until it’s over or give him whatever it is he wants and sort of float somewhere outside your body while it happens. You may tell yourself, “This will be over in a minute, then I can leave and never see this guy again.” Or you may see him again and offer timidly, “Hey, it was a little weird when….” You may go home with him again and hope it will be better this time.

What you are not too likely to do is slap him, punch him, or run out the door—the solutions many writers have offered up for women trying to escape an uncomfortable situation, usually preceded by “Why didn’t she….” Usually, what makes women stay isn’t a fear of physical violence. It’s the fact that women are socialized, starting practically at birth, never to make things ugly, or hurt a man’s feelings, or give offense. Unlearning those lessons is harder than just walking away from awful sexual encounters, too, because they’re embedded in every facet of women’s lives, from the expectation that we let men talk over us in meetings and present our ideas as their own to the fact that many of us say “I’m sorry” a hundred times a day, not because we are sorry but because we’ve been taught, by instruction and example, that that’s how women get by.

So you sit there, or you lie there, and let him take what he wants, whether it’s oral sex or more nudity than you’re comfortable with or touching you somewhere you don’t want to be touched. One writer described this latter scenario as a game of “touch-roulette … you try to decide the least awful places and ways to let this person touch you because you’re not getting out of the night without letting him touch something in some way.” It is gross and demeaning and dehumanizing. And for straight, sexually active women, it’s a near-universal experience.

We even have a name for it: “Bad sex.”

“Bad sex” is sex he takes from you. “Bad sex” is sex where you leave your body and just let it happen. “Bad sex” is sex where you fake an orgasm to get it over with, because that’s part of the performance he expects. “Bad sex” is any sexual activity that you don’t really want to do, but you do anyway, because it’s the only way to make him stop pestering you. “Bad sex” is sex you give him because it would cost too much to slap him in the face, or tell him to fuck off, or get up and leave.

What “bad sex” isn’t is bad sex. It’s sexual coercion, and it exists on the exact same spectrum as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The existence of a spectrum—and, yes, gray areas—doesn’t mean that we should only discuss one end of that spectrum, the part everyone can agree is unequivocally bad. Despite what you may have heard,  women are more than capable of understanding the difference between violent rape and sexual harassment and sex you said no to but ended up letting him do to you anyway. We should be talking about all of it.

We’re still crossing ten lanes of traffic to find excuses for predatory men’s behavior, and to find reasons to discount women’s stories. We’re still more concerned about the entirely fictional ruination of men like Aziz Ansari than we are about the women they hurt.


In fact, the fact that “bad sex” happens so often—and has so many apologists—is a reason to talk about that end of the spectrum of nonconsensual sex more. It’s 2018, and we’re still earnestly debating whether consent has to be enthusiastic, and whether we should put all or just most of the blame on women when men fail to read our mysterious “signals.” We’re still wondering whether men are just too dense or lack the emotional intelligence to perceive whether their sexual partners are actively participating or just acquiescing. We’re still fretting more about whether a report about a sexually coercive encounter was thoroughly reported than the fact that coercive sex is ubiquitous.

We’re still more concerned about the entirely fictional ruination of men like Aziz Ansari than we are about the women they hurt. (See, just this morning, anti-faminist writer Caitlyn Flanagan’s latest concern-trolling piece claiming that society has punished Ansari and Harvey Weinstein equally.) We’re still crossing ten lanes of traffic to find excuses for predatory men’s behavior, and to find reasons to discount women’s stories. (She’s too young to know that what she went through was normal; she just wanted to get famous; she has it in for him; she did something and then regretted it the morning after and now she’s trying to blame the man.) We’re still treating enthusiastic consent, the idea that sex should be pleasurable to both parties, as a new and radical concept, one that men will need a good long time to grasp and put into practice. “Bad sex,” to men, is sex that ends with a slightly suboptimal orgasm. To women, it’s sex that ends with us leaving in tears. Why is that acceptable to anyone?

And yet, there are reasons for optimism. Social change often happens quickly. (Affirmative consent isn’t a new concept anyway—I learned about it in college, and Carole Pateman, among others, was writing a counternarrative about consent back in 1980.) Marijuana, once considered as dangerous as heroin, is now legal in some form in all but a handful of states. Abortion was illegal almost everywhere, then became legal, with restrictions, virtually overnight. Same-sex marriage was unthinkable in mainstream political circles 20 years ago, but now it’s the law across much of the land.

The most optimistic reading of all the #MeToo backlash, including the fevered defenses of Ansari against an imaginary horde of radical feminists out to ruin his career and reputation, is that it’s a sign that women’s sexual autonomy is being normalized. Sometimes, the voices favoring a retrograde status quo are loudest just before an epochal shift. Maybe this backlash is a death rattle.

How Effective Is Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Law?

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald

Later this year, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant plans to introduce legislation that would require landlords who raise their rent more than 10 percent to pay lower-income tenants the equivalent of three months’ rent should they move out because of the resulting increase. The proposal, based on a similar law in Portland, is aimed at addressing “economic eviction,” when tenants are forced to move by rising rents.

The city already has a tenant relocation law on the books, although you may not have heard about it, because it only applies to certain renters in a limited number of situations. In anticipation of Sawant’s proposal, which her office says she plans to introduce later this spring, here’s a primer on the current law and what to expect from the proposal to expand it.

What is tenant relocation assistance and who currently qualifies?

Back in 1990, the Seattle City Council adopted a tenant relocation assistance ordinance (TRAO) to help low-income renters who have to move because of housing demolition, major renovations, or land use changes (for example, if an apartment building is converted into condos or a hotel). Tenants must make less than 50 percent of area median income (currently $33,600 for one person, or $48,000 for a family of four) to qualify for assistance; those who do receive a payment of $3,658 to help them move to a new location. Half that amount is paid by the city, and half is paid directly by landlords.

Property owners who are demolishing or converting a building have to get a tenant relocation license from the city, and are required to give tenants 90 days’ notice before demolishing a building or making other major changes.

The legislation has been amended periodically over the years—most recently in 2015, when the city council added a provision barring landlords from raising rent more than 10 percent in an effort to get tenants to move out so they can avoid paying relocation assistance before demolishing or renovating their building. The 2015 amendments also prohibit landlords from evicting tenants, except for good cause, after filing for a tenant relocation license.

How often does the city pay out rental relocation assistance, and how much does it cost the city?

Since 2004, the earliest year for which payout records are available, the city has paid more than $5.5 million to 1,881 tenants. In 2017, according to records from the Department of Construction and Inspections, the city provided relocation assistance to 235 households, for a total of $380,000 (landlords paid the other half).

What would Sawant’s proposal do?

Council member Sawant’s proposal would require landlords to pay three months’ rent to tenants who make less than 80 percent of the area median income ($48,500 for a single person or $72,000 for a family of four) and have to move as a result of a rent increase of more than 10 percent. Unlike the existing relocation ordinance, Sawant’s proposal would make landlords pay the full amount of assistance; Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone argues that the higher obligation is more than fair, given that it would only apply in cases where “the landlord has raised the rent substantially without having even the expense of a remodel or reconstruction.”

Couldn’t landlords just get around the law by raising rent by 9.9 percent?

Yes, although Virdone says the intent of the proposal is to address landlords who raise rents by an unreasonable amount, and 10 percent seemed like a reasonable floor. “People who have lived the majority of their lives here in Seattle should have a choice to stay,” Virdone says. “If we don’t put in place ordinances like this, there will be even more people moving out of the city.” Reliable information about individual rent increases in Seattle isn’t readily available, although rents went up 7.2 percent, on average, in 2016.

What do advocates for landlords say about the proposal?

Not surprisingly, groups like the Rental Housing Association, which represents about 5,500 landlords in Seattle, oppose the legislation, calling it another burdensome rule that will cause small “mom and pop” landlords to sell their properties to larger apartment management companies. “The biggest concern we should all have is that the more burden you put on landlords, the more risk you throw on them, the more likely they are to sell, and that property’s not going to be on the affordable end any longer,” says Sean Martin, external affairs director for the RHA. “We’re already seeing an uptick in folks that are selling.”

Isn’t imposing a penalty for rent increases over 10 percent a form of rent control, which is banned under state law? 

Sawant’s office says no—“This is just about what the tenant needs; it isn’t about trying to impact landlord behavior,” Virdone says—and the RHA, unsurprisingly, says yes. “If you’re making it economically unfeasible to raise the rent by whatever percentage is appropriate, that’s a restriction on rent,” Martin says. In either case, if it passes, the bill is certain to be challenged in court. In Portland, where rent control is also illegal, two local landlords sued the city over its almost identical. Although a federal judge upheld the ordinance, the landlords have appealed, and the case is currently working its way through the federal courts.

How Programs Like “Our Best” Fail Black Girls: A Conversation With Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

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This story originally appeared on the South Seattle Emerald.

The story of the school-to-prison pipeline is a familiar one: Nationwide, young Black men in both public and private schools are more likely than their White counterparts to be disciplined, tracked into special education classes, and suspended for the same infractions, contributing to higher dropout rates and subsequent incarceration. Seattle is no exception to this nationwide phenomenon. In Seattle public schools, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as White boys to be referred to special education, and fall far behind their White counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores, to seventh-grade math proficiency, to graduation rates.

Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray announced a new initiative, called Our Best, that aims to close this achievement gap by doubling the number of Black male mentors, providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs that serve young Black men, and creating a new special advisor to the mayor on young Black male achievement. The program, which is modeled on former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, aims to increase the number of Black boys who graduate from high school, provide Black young men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful, well-paid employment,” and reduce the percentage of young Black men entering the criminal justice system.

Admirable as those goals may be, some advocates wonder: What about the girls? Young Black women face unique challenges that aren’t shared by young Black men, including pregnancy (four in 10 Black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason), lack of economic opportunity (the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts), and abuse (girls are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and harassment.) Black girls are also far more likely than Black boys to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single Black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for Black men and $41,500 for single White women.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University, was one of the first prominent African-American writers to ring the alarm bell about My Brother’s Keeper back in 2014 when she wrote a New York Times op/ed titled “The Girls Obama Forgot: My Brother’s Keeper Ignores Young Black Women.” (Crenshaw is also known for coining the term “intersectionality,” which describes overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression.) The following year, Crenshaw and the AAPF published a report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” which chronicled the “hidden toll of race on Black girls,” including the astonishing fact that Black girls are six times as likely as White girls to be suspended from school for the same infractions—a gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between Black and White boys.

I sat down with Crenshaw in Seattle earlier this summer.

Erica C. Barnett [ECB]: Mayor Ed Murray has argued, essentially, that if the city can address the achievement gap for young Black men, the benefits will accrue to all Black students, including young women, without the need for a separate program addressing young women’s specific needs. Specifically, part of the argument is that when boys end up in jail, it destabilizes the African-American family structure and forces women to take on all the responsibilities in a family, including earning a living and taking care of kids and other family members. What do you think of the argument that addressing Black boys’ issues will ultimately help address Black girls’ problems as well?

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw: Where do I start? Trickle-down social justice doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did. If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet. That ship has sailed. It sailed a long time ago. What’s most important is to recognize the ways that boys and girls who are from socially marginalized groups are marginalized by a variety of factors.

Gender correction is not at the source of the solutions for African-American people or for any people. These frameworks are effectively foregrounding a framework that appeared in the 1960s, and even at that time it wasn’t really accurate to what was happening. This is [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan effectively warmed over and reproduced over 50 years later. [Moynihan, who served as assistant labor secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote a now-infamous 1964 report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” that argued for racial self-help and the restoration of the traditional family as the solution to racial economic inequality]. The Moynihan thesis was basically that equality would always outpace what African-Americans were able to expect as long as their family structure was non-normative. To think that the source of inequality is incomplete socialization to gender norms is to ignore a whole variety of structural and historical dynamics that impact both boys and girls, men and women.

“If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet.”

So what about the job market? What about the under-resourcing of public schools? What about stereotypes about men and women, boys and girls? What about suspension and punishment that happens inside of schools and outside of schools? What about geographic isolation and segregation? All of these are structural, institutional, historical factors that together contribute to the wide variety of inequalities that African-Americans face? To essentially say that the problem is located in the individual, as opposed to the structure in which the individuals live, is to effectively let off the hook an entire history of subordination and do so by essentially saying that, ‘the inequality rests in you, Black boy,’ rather than in the society that constructs the situations in which people live.

ECB: If you were creating a program within a school system to address those structural inequalities more directly, what would it look like?

KWC: I think there should be targeted programs for socially marginal and struggling students, and those students come across all genders. It’s not just one gender that’s struggling. I think the measurement of what counts as a crisis is also a problem, because the conversation up ‘til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys.

We’ve heard all about the school-to-prison pipeline, the disproportionate suspension rates, and all that, but if you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys. Basically, it’s the way that we frame social problems that is the problem. Assuming that the girls are doing okay, or ‘the girls can wait,’ is basically assuming that ‘whatever is going on with you is basically irrelevant; the racial disparity between you and White girls is something that isn’t the primary point of concern.’

“If you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys.”

What we know is that the long-term consequences of being pushed out of school for girls are in some ways even more consequential over the long term, because the jobs available for girls without a high school diploma actually pay less than the jobs that are available for boys without a [high school] diploma. If you add to that the fact that the majority of Black children will, at some point in their lives, rely either wholly or in part on the income of their mothers—to ignore that, to ignore those real family formations [in exchange] for the ones that we fantasize about, is basically to say, ‘All of you can wait until we get the ideal family formation that we want.’

That kind of framing of families is almost only expressed with respect to racialized communities. Outside of that, we have a completely new idea about what counts as a family. We have a completely new idea about gender roles. But when it comes to remediation—treating Black folks as sort of in need of gender repair—we’re back to old ideas about that.

ECB: A lot of what I’ve heard from supporters of these kinds of programs is that Black women are strong; they can provide for themselves; they’re the rock for their families.

KWC: So what’s that saying? Black men and boys are weak? I think that’s the question that should get asked. Unfortunately, we have accepted this idea that there’s something uniquely vulnerable about the boy child, rather than saying, ‘okay, this is the way the entire system impacts boys and here’s the way it impacts girls.’ Sometimes they’re impacted the same, particularly relative to their White counterparts, but sometimes there are differences, too. There are a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by some of these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy.

“It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?”

ECB: For example?

KWC: Harassment that happens in school. The way that Black girls are often framed as unruly because of a stereotype about both Black people and girls, and that comes together and it makes it more likely that Black girls will be seen as acting out, having attitude. Obviously, the consequences of single parenting are greater for girls than they are for boys. Sexual abuse is more common for girls than it is for boys. So all this stuff gets sort of swept under the rug by saying, ‘Okay, you, girl, can wait so we can create Prince Charming for you.’ We need boys and girls who actualize their best capacity. We need to create opportunities for both of them and not create this fantasy where the girls can wait until the knight in shining armor comes along. Some of them don’t want a knight.

And then you add to that: How can we even be thinking about his when we’re starting to understand that gender is fluid? It’s not just two! So how’s that work? And where are the folks who are advocating for gender diversity when it comes to these issues? Where is the gay community? It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?

Seattle is about to choose a new mayor from among two White women. Although neither of the two candidates, Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan, have expressed an opinion about Our Best specifically, both have had what Crenshaw would call “non-normative” family experiences—Moon as a single mom and Durkan as the mother of two boys with her partner, who is a woman. For now, the city’s focus will remain on young Black men, whose mass incarceration, according to Office of Economic Director Brian Surrat, has “been very destabilizing to the African American family.” Surrat acknowledges that this “sounds like a very conservative argument,” and says the city does “need to have a different set of initiatives and investments targeting young Black women and Latinas, as well as the Southeast Asian community.”

However, the city has no specific plans for such an initiative, nor any details about what it might look like. For now, the city has decided that Our Best is good enough.


Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail Station?

Image via city of Seattle interactive map of MHA rezones:

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

Plans to turn some of the land immediately adjacent to the Rainier Beach light rail station into the centerpiece of a new “food innovation district”—a proposed network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—remain stalled, after a property that advocates hoped would serve as the hub for that district sold last month to a company controlled by a local landlord who owns numerous single-family homes in the area.

As the Emerald reported back in May, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had hoped to purchase the property on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and S. Henderson St., which is currently the site of a Mexican grocery store. Those plans were thwarted when another bidder, former city council member (and onetime food innovation district champion) Richard Conlin, outbid RBAC. (At the time, Conlin said he had no idea RBAC was bidding on the property, which he planned to develop as affordable artist housing). However, Conlin subsequently withdrew his bid, and the property sold to a mystery backup bidder.

The new owner, the Emerald has learned, is Greg Goodwin, a Rainier Beach landlord who owns and leases about a dozen single-family houses in the blocks surrounding the light-rail station. (Goodwin is the son of the late Albert (A.C.) Goodwin, a longtime property owner and manager in the area; the Goodwin family companies now include Greg D. Goodwin Co., Civetta Properties, and Roan Properties, which purchased the light-rail station property through a Las Vegas-based subsidiary called Radner Properties).

Neither Goodwin nor his sister Gael Goodwin, who is listed as the agent for the now-defunct A.C. Goodwin Properties, returned calls seeking comment about their plans for the property. David Sauvion, the co-founder of RBAC and coordinator for the food innovation district, says RBAC has tried to reach out to the family but “they don’t want anything to do with us. They are difficult to engage.” However, Sauvion says he has heard that “they have no short-term plan for the property; as far as we know, the space will stay vacant.”

Although the first leg of Sound Transit’s Link light rail opened nearly a decade ago, the corridor still has no shortage of vacant properties. Many are owned by Sound Transit—recognizable by their chain link fences and gravel lots, which leaf-blower-wielding workers periodically clear of trash and other detritus. So why are there so still many empty lots along the southern leg of the light rail line in the Rainier Valley? And why is it so hard to build new housing at light rail stations in South Seattle, given that “transit-oriented development” is such a critical component of new light-rail stations elsewhere in the city?

To answer those questions, you have to go back to the early 2000s, when light rail was still immensely controversial in the Valley. At the time, a group called Save Our Valley (whose members included Pat Murakami, a current candidate for Seattle City Council) was fighting to force Sound Transit to run its rail line underground instead of at-grade in order to minimize the impact on neighborhood businesses. Although SOV lost that battle, Sound Transit tacitly acknowledged their objections in its approach to buying land-use for light-rail construction staging in the area; they aimed, in the words of Sound Transit land use and planning director Brooke Belman, to “take the smallest amount of property as possible and acquire as minimal a footprint as possible. … The [Sound Transit] board, at the time, was certainly cognizant of not wanting to buy too much property from the existing property owners down there.”

The result was that Sound Transit was left with a large number of oddly shaped “remnant” properties that can’t be easily developed, including parking strips, narrow parcels immediately in front of existing businesses, and those weird fenced-in lots that dot the length of the light rail line.

Today, Belman says, Sound Transit’s approach to property acquisition “has done about a 180” since a decade ago. If light rail was being built in the Valley today, “We probably would have consolidated a lot of the staging that we did instead of just leaving those remnants.”

One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own. “There was a lot of hope that private development would come right behind us in the Rainier Valley” and start to create residential and retail hubs at the stations, she says. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.

Sound Transit isn’t the only agency responsible for the lack of development at the Rainier Beach station; the city—specifically the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department, now known as the Office of Planning and Community Development—bears some of the responsibility as well. Right now, much of the land near the light rail station is still zoned for exclusive single-family use, rendering it off-limits for new apartment, townhouse, row house, duplex, or retail developments. The rest is low-rise or neighborhood commercial—land use designations that allow things like townhouses and four-story apartment buildings, not the kind of intense development seen at other stations (like Columbia City a few miles up the road.)

That is slated to change under HALA—the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the station area, allowing four-to-seven-story buildings—but the fact remains that the zoning throughout much of the Rainier Beach station area is more fitting for a sleepy area with limited transit access—say, Blue Ridge—than a growing, but still relatively affordable, community within a few blocks of a major light rail hub.

Robert Scully, OCPD’s point person on Rainier Beach station development, says former mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to begin work on rezoning the area, but that work stalled under new Mayor Ed Murray, who wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to updating land use throughout the whole city. “We had a rezone proposal kind of ready to go up to the mayor’s office; we just got held up,” Scully says. That proposal would have provided incentives for food production facilities—in other words, a food innovation hub. Now, Murray is focused on affordable housing, not food production.

The land also presents other challenges—it’s shoehorned into a valley, with rising hills on each side, which makes large developments challenging and expensive. The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell. And there’s really no way, Scully says, for the city to force land owners to include food production in private developments.

“We live in a political system and an economy that’s heavily based on property rights and the real estate market,” he says. “In doing this for the past five years, I’ve kind of arrived at the conclusion that the best tool is for the community, maybe in partnership with a developer or a nonprofit, to actually [purchase] some land down there—enough so that they could actually develop this facility, and that could help influence other development in the area.” Of course, that’s what RBAC had hoped to do. For now, the land will remain vacant.

“We tried,” Sauvion says.

Surprise Bidder Threatens Plans for Rainier Beach Food District

This story originally appeared on the South Seattle Emerald

Image result for richard conlinUPDATE: Conlin says he ahas withdrawn his bid for the Rainier Beach property, after conversations with the Rainier Beach Action Coalition about partnering on a development at the site.

Conlin says he and his business partner, Ben Rankin, “have been in discussions with RBAC and had much encouragement from city and other folks who said working with a good developer could have really helped the project. Our last communication from RBAC said that they supported our investment and looked forward to good negotiations on making the project work.” “Although RBAC is not in a position to provide any financial contribution towards a down payment right away, we would like to convey our support for the investment and look forward to developing a mutually acceptable partnership for the project.”

Conlin says the RBAC told him that they were unable to help out with a downpayment on the property themselves, but were interested in becoming partners on a development that would include the Food Innovation Hub. “While we felt that an agreement was likely, we ultimately had to respond to them by telling them we had decided not to make the payment, [because] there were too many uncertainties and possible risks around the community relationship, the potential upzone, and some physical attributes of the property,” including its irregular shape and wet soils that would likely require expensive support piles to develop.

Original story follows.

Years-long efforts to create a food innovation district—a network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—saw a major setback last month when the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) learned that another buyer outbid them on a property, next to the Rainier Beach light rail station, where they hoped to site the food innovation hub at the center of the district.

The food innovation hub, as the RBAC and its partners envisioned it, would have included a network of food-related uses to promote jobs and entrepreneurship in the food industry—not just jobs “busting suds” in restaurant kitchens, as Thomas puts it, but higher-paying positions like truck driver, food packer, chef, caterer, and accountant. According to the city of Seattle, which has been an intermittent partner on the project, the Rainier Beach station hub could have included classrooms, a co-packing facility for food startups, a food bank grocery store, tests kitchen, and a computer lab.

The winning bidder? Former Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin. As a council member from 1997 to 2013, Conlin was an outspoken advocate for improving access to food and food-industry employment through his Food Action Initiative, and is far better known as an environmentalist than as a developer—largely because he hasn’t been one until this project.

Conlin, whose firm is a joint venture with developer and former theater manager Ben Rankin, says he had no idea the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had made its own bid for the property, a 23,000-square-foot plot that currently houses a rent-to-own furniture shop and a Mexican grocery and restaurant. “We weren’t even aware that somebody else was competing for it,” Conlin says. “We just had this property come on the market and were informed about it and weren’t really aware of their intent.” The RBAC made its bid in collaboration with South East Effective Development, a community development nonprofit, and Forterra , an environmental preservation group that has recently begun investing in equitable development projects.

RBAC strategist Patrice Thomas says that if Conlin wanted to find out what the group’s intentions were, he had every opportunity to seek them out. “We shouldn’t have to reach out to him—he knows the process,” Thomas says. “There are multitudes of avenues by which he could have found anyone in the neighborhood to reach out to, to ask, ‘What’s up with the bid that was going on? I’m thinking of doing X Y Z.’ He did none of that. He chose not to speak with anybody.”

David Sauvion, RBAC co-founder and coordinator for the food innovation district, says “it was particularly harsh” to be unexpectedly outbid by Conlin “because we put all this time and effort into this, and now we have about 10 potential tenants who were talking to their boards, saying, ‘Things are progressing, we put in an offer,’ and having to go to their boards and say ‘there’s been another setback—they decided to go with another buyer’. It’s a terrible thing. You never want to be in that position.” The RBAC also received a significant grant to work on the food innovation district from the Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, and the food innovation district (and hub) was identified as a priority in the 2012 Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan. Sauvion says the foundation is still supporting the initiative.

Conlin says he’s open to the idea of a food innovation hub in his development, but the vision he describes—low- to moderate-income apartments, marketed to artists and funded by low-income tax credits and tax-exempt bonds, built over “community-oriented” ground-floor uses—isn’t an obvious fit with the RBAC’s ground-up proposal focused on economic and food security. “I’d say we don’t really have a vision as yet—we’re just starting on this particular piece of property,” Conlin says. But, the Madrona resident adds, “We’re community-oriented developers. We’re not in this to make a ton of money. It is a for-profit [business] so we will make a little bit.”

Few of those in the negotiating and bidding process would talk on the record about what happened. Michelle Connor, executive vice president of Forterra, said only that her organization “made an offer that was not accepted by the sellers” and “received no information beyond that the sellers selected another offer.” The property owners, Jack and Peggy Solowoniuk, declined a request to talk about the deal; Jack Solowoniuk told me only that “the property is for sale and we have a backup offer” before hanging up on me. Another person involved in the process said on background that the owners, who don’t live in the neighborhood, probably didn’t care about what happened on the property once it was sold; their interest was in selling to the highest bidder.

“They don’t have a developer, like us, committed to their vision, who’s willing to leverage their financial capacity, because that’s what it takes,” says Tony To, director of the nonprofit developer Homesight. To says HomeSight would be interested in the Rainier Beach station project if they weren’t already overextended—HomeSight is all-in on another project, the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center at the Othello light rail station, one stop away.

Sauvion thinks the pending approval of Mayor Ed Murray’s mandatory housing affordability upzones around the Rainier Beach station, which will increase the height of any potential development from four to seven stories, may already be driving up land values in the area. That, in turn, enables complex agreements led by nonprofit coalitions without a lot of cash up front, to win in bidding wars. If the developments that result follow the typical pattern—mixed-income housing built above retail—they will fail to provide the kind of living-wage jobs and business opportunities the RBAC envisions.

“I really want to be clear: retail doesn’t work,” Sauvion says. “Retail doesn’t create good jobs.”

Rankin, Conlin’s partner, says that assuming he and Conlin do move forward with their project (their bid is not a final sale; it simply forecloses other bids on the property), “we do indeed hope and plan to incorporate the good work already done on a Rainier Beach food innovation district.”

Connor, the Forterra VP, says her group isn’t giving up on the food innovation hub, or pulling out as a partner on the project. “We stand ready to re-engage on behalf of RBAC should the property come back onto the market in the future.” And if it doesn’t? The RBAC and its partners say they’ve seen setbacks before, and are ready to roll up their sleeves and get back to work.

Pedestrian Safety and Equity in the Rainier Valley

This post, a more detailed account of the pedestrian-safety announcement I reported on in yesterday’s Morning Crank, originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

Less than an hour after Mayor Ed Murray wrapped up a press conference to announce new pedestrian-safety improvements along Rainier Avenue South, a collision between a car and a semi shut down the intersection of Rainier and South Alaska St. — an in-your-face reminder that whatever the city has done to calm what is frequently referred to as “the most dangerous street in Seattle”, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. 

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, but that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero” — the city’s goal of zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030 — has stagnated.

Murray chose Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Brighton to announce new investments in pedestrian safety not only because the school won a $300,000 grant from the city to improve sidewalks in the area, but to highlight the city’s new emphasis on creating safe routes between schools and transit stops. In the next year, Murray said, the city will build 50 new blocks of sidewalks at a cost of $22 million; by 2024, the city plans to add an additional 200 blocks.

The plan announced yesterday would also accelerate by one year the extension of new pavement markings and crosswalks that have been added along Rainier from Hillman City to Alaska Street — improvements Murray credited with limiting “off-roading” by speeding cars like the one that plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon in 2014 — further south, at a cost of $2.25 million. Over the next two years, seven more streets across the city will get the Rainier Avenue treatment. The funding for all the new projects will come from the $930 million Move Seattle levy voters passed in 2015.

Less flashy and expensive, but potentially more impactful, were some of the small changes Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly said the city was making to improve pedestrian safety at individual intersections — and the process the city will use to determine which intersections get upgrades. Instead of reacting to incidents after they happen — say, by reducing the speed limit and width of a road where cars have a habit of jumping through windows — the city will use modeling to figure out intersections that are likely to be problems before accidents occur.

SDOT Director Scott Kubly speaks about planned improvements to Rainier Avenue South in front of Brighton Elementary School (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

For example, Kubly said, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns” — a regular green light without a left-turn arrow — “particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian. At intersections where the city knows accidents are likely, SDOT will preemptively add what Murray called “pedestrian-friendly signals” — walk signs that allow pedestrians into an intersection before drivers’ light turns green, giving walkers greater visibility — and traffic lights with left turn signals, which reduces conflicts between left-turning cars and pedestrians (or trucks) heading straight through an intersection. By adding leading pedestrian signals at 40 intersections citywide, Kubly said, the city expected to reduce crashes by 50 percent at those intersections.

Pedestrian safety, Murray said, “is an equity issue,” and that’s certainly been true in the Valley, where, neighbors have been requesting pedestrian safety improvements along Rainier for the past 40 years. Historically, Rainier has had more crashes per mile than arterial streets that carry more than twice as much traffic. Further east, surface-running light rail trains pose a particular challenge to pedestrians, who must traverse unprotected light rail tracks to cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; earlier this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the tracks in a crosswalk.

Asked whether SDOT planned to follow danger “indicators” wherever its traffic engineers found them, even at the risk of abandoning its commitment to geographic equity, Kubly responded, “the mayor has made it abundantly clear to me and the department that we need to be equitable in our work… One of the things that is true in Seattle and a lot of other cities is that the incidents of serious and fatal crashes, and just collisions in general, tend to be in areas that also present more need for equitable investment” — that is, poorer and historically neglected areas like Southeast Seattle — “so I would anticipate that by following the data we’ll be investing more in neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley.”