Category: Urbanism

Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID

by Josh Feit

A dazzling array of posters adorns the entrance to the Crocodile, Seattle’s destination music venue on 2nd Avenue in Belltown. The colorful posters are an eerie museum of ghostly show bills announcing 2020 concerts that never happened: Wye Oak March 20; Vundabar March 30; Lords of Acid April 13; Patoranking April 26; Juana Molina May 5, Gioli & Assia May 6.

For your convenience, I made a Spotify playlist called “Museum of Lost Shows” commemorating the Crocodile’s spectral season.

“A survey of 51 King County music venues revealed that in the first few months of [COVID-19] 2,100 events were canceled, 650 staff were laid off, and 17,000 musicians’ paid gigs were canceled,” according to Keep Music Live, a relief fund started by local music community advocates who have a goal of raising $10 million to keep Washington state’s small venues (under 1,000 occupancy) open through and after the pandemic.

Their rallying cry that “music venues are hubs of a cultural and economic ecosystem that make Washington’s cities vibrant” is borne out by the numbers. According to the National Independent Venue Association’s 2019 Seattle impact report on live music venues, Seattle clubs generated nearly $67 million in direct economic impact, employed 1,200 people, and sold 1.3 million tickets last year. In short: When it comes to the defining attributes of successful cities, creative music scenes are on the list right alongside dense housing, jobs, universities, mass transit, restaurants, regional medical facilities, cultural diversity, and the fine arts.

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A line around the block for a music show is a political win for any city planning office. Be it Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan or a Saturday night out, SDOT planners and Kremwerk DJs are both trying to figure out how to make things last.

When it comes to the arts, you make it last by getting creative.

So, it’s with some Seattle pride that I note this bit of city planning news: Despite the empty stages, quiet dance floors, lonely box offices, and locked club doors, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is improvising this year’s programming by partnering with Town Hall Seattle, the Royal Room, and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to make sure the festival goes on with a series of virtual shows.

With outstanding local jazz acts like the Johnaye Kendrick Quartet (Friday, October 23), Marina Albero (Sunday, October 25), the Benjamin Hunter Quintet (Saturday, November 7) taking the stage for live feeds from the aforementioned venues, Earshot will be streaming a series of 25 shows over four weekends this month and into November. It’s a scaled-back version of the festival’s typical 60-concerts-in-30-days tradition, but the resilience of our nationally recognized festival, which debuted in 1989, is an example of Seattle’s crafty and incorrigible arts scene. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID”

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 “Keep Moving 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”

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.

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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.

Golf Revenues Remain On Downward Trajectory, Raising Questions About Sustainability

A new report on Seattle’s municipal golf courses by three consultants (Lund, Scanlan, and Cocker Fennessy) concludes that none of the city-owned golf courses—Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Interbay, and West Seattle—is sustainable without ongoing subsidies, and that all four courses have significant deferred maintenance needs, totaling more than $36 million. Under each of four scenarios the consultants considered, the golf courses, which collectively occupy 528 acres of city-owned land, will continue to lose money—between $4.1 million to $8.4 million a year by 2027. In 2017, the city spent about $8.4 million to operate and maintain the courses, or about 54 percent of their total cost (the rest is funded through fees, merchandise, and restaurant sales.) The city paid just over $104,000 for the study.

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said the city will analyze “long-term models to see the financial sustainability of the courses.” At the same time, she said, the Parks Department, “working with other departments, will also begin to explore a range of potential options for these City-owned properties, which could include continuing these outdoor recreation facilities or other potential uses such as adding additional parks and green space, or creating affordable commercial space and housing.”

Since 2006, city policy has called for the golf courses to be self-sufficient, paying for all their own capital and operating costs and contributing 3.5 percent of their revenues—later increased to 5 percent—to the city’s Park Fund.

The report lays out a number of financial options to reduce the golf courses’ losses. They include: Reducing or eliminating the golf program’s ongoing contributions to the city’s Park Fund; increasing user fees; and farming out maintenance to a private vendor, which would reduce labor costs. Two of the four scenarios in the report also involve issuing bonds to pay for deferred maintenance, which would add annual debt service of up to $3.3 million a year to the cost of the program. The argument for doing this work now, according to the report, is that improving the courses and making them safer will make them more popular with golfers; for example, the nets at the Interbay driving range are too low for people to use clubs with long-ball flights, because of the risk of balls flying into the nearby Seattle Pacific University playing fields. “This is a significant safety liability and also a lost revenue opportunity,” the report says.

Promising projection or misguided optimism? Report predicts a total reversal of the trend of declining interest in golf.

Last year, the city budget moved about half a million dollars from the parks department into the city’s capital budget to help keep the golf courses afloat. At the time, budget director Ben Noble suggested that one reason for shrinking golf revenues is that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” The report released last week affirms this conclusion—showing that the total number of rounds declined from 242,868 in 2013 to 206,010 in 2017, and that in the Seattle metropolitan area, golfers play about 12 percent fewer rounds per capita than the national average. (Jackson Park, in North Seattle, and Jefferson Park, on Beacon Hill, both had about 22 percent fewer rounds in 2017 than in 2013.)  According to a 2017 survey by EMC Research, about 13 percent of Seattle residents use the golf courses at least twice a year; in that same survey, however, respondents overwhelmingly named golf as their lowest parks spending priority.

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In spite of the downward trend in golfing in Seattle, the report projects that golf rounds will rebound dramatically between 2019 and 2020, spiking 4 percent “when full course play resumes at Jefferson following capital improvements to repair damaged holes.” Overall, the report projects that the number of rounds played will increase, on average, increase 1 percent a year between now and 2027.

The report, which includes comments from a list of 60-plus “stakeholder” in the golfing community, acknowledges that golf is widely considered an “elitist” sport, but attributes this to the fact that private golf courses and country clubs are expensive and exclusive. “If the City does not offer golf as a recreational opportunity, golf will indeed be limited to only those who can afford private or privately-owned public courses where fees are substantially higher than those charged at the City’s four municipal golf courses. In addition to direct cost of fees, players would need to travel outside of the City to find a course.”

These numbers, which use widely varying age ranges, indicate that the only course where a majority of patrons are under 50 is the Interbay Golf Center, which has a 9-hole course, a driving range, and a mini-golf course.

One reason for the perception that golf is elitist and expensive that the report does not mention is that although it is—as the report puts it—”open to all,” golfers must either invest in and transport their own equipment or rent it on-site, which adds significant costs—golf clubs, for example, cost $20 a round. That’s on top of fees of $33.75 per round for adults ($38 on weekends). The report recommends that the city consider a new fee for a maintenance fund at each golf course, while noting that raising fees “runs counter to providing access to lower income people,” and that the more discount programs the golf courses offer to schools, youth groups, and off-peak players, the more revenue they lose.

The city has limited demographic information about who uses its golf courses. They do know that the participation rate among women, at 10-17 percent, is lower than the national average of 24 percent, and that participation among people under 50 is well below 50 percent at all of the 18-hole courses. At the Interbay Golf Center, which has 9 holes and includes a driving range and mini-golf course, 53 percent of patrons are under 50.  According to the report, however, “There is no data available regarding minority participation rates at Seattle public golf courses.” The report suggests increasing marketing to women and people of color, tracking golfer demographics, and “enhanc[ing] the clubhouse experience to be welcoming to all, including non-golfers.”

Golf in Seattle remains an overwhelmingly male sport.

Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least one of the city’s golf courses and using the land to develop new affordable housing. Last year, then-parks director Christopher Williams said, “Maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” Another potential obstacle to the affordable-housing plan is that golf courses count as part of the city’s public green space, so that closing even the smallest golf course, the Interbay Golf Center, would represent a loss of 52 acres of “public” parkland.

Durkan’s office says they’re open to the idea. “As we weigh options for the future of the City of Seattle’s four golf courses, Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”

After Five Years, Seattle’s Scaled-Back Density Plan Moves Forward

Seattle's density plan gets a green light
Image credit: iStock

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

After almost five years, dozens of hearings, hundreds of public comments, multiple legal challenges, and enough environmental and legal analysis to fill a small apartment, the Seattle City Council is finally poised to pass the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan, which has been in the works, as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, since 2014.

The city council passed the plan out of committee on a unanimous 8-0 vote last Monday, February 25, a fact that is remarkable in itself. The council spent hours debating some final nuances of the legislation (and ultimately rolled back upzones in some areas), but all nine council members fundamentally agreed on the overall goal of building more housing, including affordable housing, throughout the city—a notable turnaround from just four and a half years ago, when Seattle Times story on a leaked draft of the plan sparked so much backlash that then-mayor Ed Murray decided to scale back the proposal.

MHA allows developers to build taller, denser residential and commercial buildings in the city’s multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages—neighborhood centers, typically located along major arterial streets, that have long been designated for future growth because of their proximity to transit, jobs, and services. It also expands some of those urban villages to allow second houses, townhomes, duplexes, and small apartment buildings on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes. This was a major point of contention during the MHA deliberations. Urbanists pointed to Seattle’s history of redlining and studies showing that exclusive single-family zoning perpetuates racial and income inequality to argue that the city should get rid of single-family zoning altogether.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay into a fund to build housing that is affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income—currently $48,150 for a family of two. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago. The legislation the council has been considering for much of the last year concerns the rest of the city.

The plan, on the whole, is modest, and its impacts won’t be visible right away. In most places, it bumps land up just one or two zoning designations—allowing two-story stacked flats, for example, in areas where only townhouses are allowed today, or raising the maximum height for apartment buildings from 30 feet to 40. It also restricts most of the biggest changes to major arterials, which already tend to be pretty dense. And since many of the changes in MHA are subtle (houses built under a new type of zoning called Residential Small Lot, for example, may be virtually indistinguishable from houses built under the previous zoning), people living in single-family areas that get upzoned might not even notice the difference.

The city has prevailed against legal challenges to the plan so far. The most recent of these was in November, when a city hearing examiner ruled against neighborhood activists who claimed the city didn’t do a sufficient environmental analysis of the proposal. But the final legislation does include a “clawback” provision, supported by MHA opponents and sponsored by West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold. It states the council’s intent to invalidate any upzones implemented under the plan if a court finds MHA’s affordability requirements invalid in the future.

This was another point of contention. Opponents said including the clawback provision in the bill was an invitation to lawsuits, while proponents argued that the provision ensured that developers wouldn’t get “something for nothing”—that is, if a court ruled against the city’s affordable-housing requirement, they wouldn’t be allowed to build denser housing anyway.

The full council is expected to approve the final MHA plan on March 18.

At Long Last, Council Takes Up Mandatory Housing Affordability Upzones

As the city council prepares to finally take up former mayor Ed Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan—which alters zoning and land use across the city, and would allow duplexes and small apartment buildings on 6 percent of the land currently reserved exclusively for detached single-family houses—today, the council’s seven district members are also proposing dozens of amendments to the plan.

Many of the amendments involve undoing or reducing the proposed density increases, although some proposals do call for higher densities in certain areas. It’s highly improbable that every one of the downzoning amendments will pass, but if they did, it would be tantamount to rejecting the very premise of MHA, which allows developers to build more densely in a small swath of the city in exchange for funding new affordable housing. If all the amendments, including both downzones and upzones, passed, the overall result would still be lower density overall than MHA proposes). And even if MHA were passed unamended, the vast majority of Seattle would still be preserved for suburban-style single-family houses.

The implications of not adopting MHA as drafted (or of downzoning the proposal, block by contested block) go beyond just density. Exempting some commercial and multifamily areas from the plan will mean that developers who build in those areas will not have to build affordable housing (either on-site or by contributing money to a city fund), which have two effects: First, it will make MHA-exempt areas more attractive to developers, not less, because they won’t have to contribute to affordable housing, making development cheaper; second, because developers who build in exempted areas won’t have to contribute to affordable housing, less affordable housing will get built, making it harder for the city to reach its goal of 6,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years. Council members who act to exempt certain multifamily areas from upzones in order to prevent displacement may, in other words, actually be encouraging development in those areas.

Here are some of the amendments the council will consider this week, starting at today’s special MHA committee meeting in council chambers at 2:30, listed by district. All the amendments are available in in this 100-page document, which lists the amendments in district order; amendments that are tagged “Additional Environmental review needed” are outside the scope of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal (which the city’s hearing examiner recently upheld after a lengthy appeal process), and are less likely to move forward than those within the scope of the FEIS. Many of the amendments in each district are proposed by the council member for that district; however, because this isn’t true of every amendment (many of the amendments came from council central staff or from constituents in that district), I’ll refer to the amendments by district rather than author, with one exception. Also, when I refer to “downzones” and “upzones,” I am generally referring to those changes relative to what is proposed in the MHA plan, not to the current zoning.

 District 1 (Lisa Herbold)

The amendments proposed for Herbold’s West Seattle District would reduce the proposed upzones in areas that are currently zoned single-family from low-rise (a catchall term for zones that allow multifamily development) to lower-density designations. Seven of the 11 District 1 amendments call for scaling back the MHA density increases to Residential Small Lot zoning, which allows no more than one unit per 2,000 square feet of land area and limits the size of new houses to 2,200 square feet. Other amendments would undo every proposed upzone in the areas of the West Seattle Junction that are currently single-family, while upzoning a swath of land known as the Triangle, along Fauntleroy Way SW, from 65 feet to 95 feet.

In practice, Residential Small Lot, a new zoning designation, imposes a density limit of about two units on a typical 5,000-square-foot Seattle lot—far less than, say, Low-Rise 3, which is supposed to encourage “infill housing at medium to high densities,” according to the city.

District 2 (Bruce Harrell)

Areas around the Mount Baker light rail station would not be upzoned, or would receive more modest upzones, under two District 2 amendments, and a proposed expansion of the North Beacon Hill Urban Village (along with an upzone within the existing urban village, which is served by the Beacon Hill light rail station) would be eliminated. Getting rid of upzones on Beacon Hill has been a priority of the anti-density SCALE coalition, whose environmental appeals have stalled the implementation of MHA, and Harrell’s amendments would largely accomplish this goal.

The District 2 amendments also include small, specific upzones and downzones in far southeast Seattle (including lower heights and densities around the Rainier Beach light rail station).

District 3 (Kshama Sawant)

Most of the proposed MHA amendments in District 3 consist of downzones on North Capitol Hill east of 15th Ave. and north of Thomas St.—generally speaking, one of the wealthier parts of Sawant’s district, which includes the rest of Capitol Hill as well as the Central District small parts of Mount Baker and Beacon Hill. Geographically, the majority of the proposed District 3 downzones are in the Madison-Miller Urban Village, along 19th Ave. E between East Aloha and East Thomas Streets, and between 20th and 24rd Aves. E on Capitol Hill.

The District 3 amendments also include a few small upzones on individual properties and blocks—all of them, with one exception, in the Central District or further south.

District 4 (Rob Johnson)

Johnson is a vocal proponent of MHA and of increasing density in his own Northeast Seattle district. Many of the amendments in District 4, not surprisingly, would upzone parts of Johnson’s district even more than MHA calls for, particularly around the two light rail stations that are being built near the University of Washington and in the Ravenna-Roosevelt neighborhood. The amendments would also increase potential building heights near the Roosevelt station, on 12th Ave. NE between NE 65th and 67th Streets, from 65 feet to 125 feet, and would add 20 feet to the potential height of new apartments around University Village.

The District 4 amendments also include a few proposed downzones—one for the block just north of Roosevelt High School, two for a site just north of Ravenna Park, and one on the northern boundary of his district, where he has proposed reducing part of the Wallingford Urban Village from low-rise to residential small lot.

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District 5 (Debora Juarez)

The amendments proposed for District 5, which stretches from the northern boundary of Johnson’s district to the border between Seattle and Shoreline, also include a number of upzones centering on three dense (and densifying) areas of North Seattle—Northgate, where a light-rail station is under construction, Lake City, and Aurora Avenue North, in the Aurora-Licton Urban Village.

District 3 council member Sawant has also proposed an amendment in Juarez’s district that would cancel an upzone planned for commercially zoned two mobile home parks located just south of N 125th Street, which are slated for an upzone from 40 to 55 feet. It’s unclear whether Sawant consulted with Juarez on her amendment about the mobile home park, which is also the subject of a special committee meeting Sawant is holding in her renters’ rights committee on Friday afternoon.

District 6 (Mike O’Brien)The 15 proposed amendments in District 6, which includes all of Northwest Seattle, largely sidestep Ballard’s historical center and the area around a potential light rail station, along NW Market Street. Instead, the proposed changes center on the Crown Hill Urban Village, where nine amendments would reduce MHA’s proposed upzones, mostly by lowering proposed densities in areas that are currently single-family from low-rise to residential small lot.

A handful of other District 6 amendments would modestly increase density on a few specific parcels—including one block just south of Holman Rd. NW, currently the site of a Dick’s Drive-In location—but most of the proposals involve lowering development capacity in the northern half of O’Brien’s district.

District 7 (Sally Bagshaw) 

There are just three proposed amendments in Bagshaw’s district, which includes parts of the city (downtown and South Lake Union) that have already gone through their own upzone process and are not part of the current MHA debate. They include two downzones from the MHA proposal, in Upper Queen Anne, and a reversal of a proposed upzone in Magnolia, near the Kiwanis Memorial Preserve Park, just south of the Ballard Locks.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is likely to want to leave her own stamp on the previous mayor’s upzone proposal; during the campaign, she said she supported Murray’s decision to take single-family housing (mostly) off the table, and commented that in considering changes to the plan, it was important to make sure “that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.”

The plan has already been drastically watered down once, during the Murray administration—from a proposal that would have allowed duplexes and townhomes in the 65 percent of Seattle that is preserved exclusively for single-family houses, to the current version, which upzones just a sliver of that land and keeps the city’s single-family mandate intact. Any further backsliding on MHA will only hinder the city’s ability to create affordable housing for low-income residents, and ensure that more middle-income people are pushed out of the city simply

Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

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1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.

Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in  7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.

To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.

Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”

Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

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2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s]  an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.

The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.

ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.

The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”

Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”

The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.

This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data.  Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.

Morning Crank: Details Emerge About Megablock Sale

1. Yesterday, six months after the city put the largest remaining piece of publicly owned land in South Lake Union on the market, the city council got its first look at the bids for the property. The conjoined parcel, which some affordable housing advocates have argued the city should hold onto and develop as public housing, is worth upwards of $90 million on the open market.  Although the city budget office wasn’t willing to say much about the bids in open session (for fear, according to city budget office director Ben Noble, of weakening the city’s bargaining position), a few details did emerge during the public discussion.

First, budget staffers revealed that seven teams presented proposals to either purchase or lease and develop the property, and that the city determined that six were responsive. After a team made up of city staffers and one private citizen—former Downtown Seattle Association director  and deputy mayor Kate Joncas—reviewed the applications and interviewed the candidates, they decided to move all six forward to the “best and final offer” stage of the process rather than eliminating any of them right away. Noble said that most, but not all, of the proposals included the 175 units of affordable housing suggested in the request for proposals, and that some of the bidders proposed developing the land under a long-term ground lease, rather than buying it outright. Some of the bidders apparently proposed two different offers—one price with affordable housing, and another, higher price without—and staffers said that one goal of the negotiations will be reducing the difference between those two numbers. If the city decided to keep the property and develop it in cooperation with a nonprofit housing provider, budget office staffer Steven Shain said, the cost to the city would be about $100,000 a unit, or about $100 million for 1,000 units of affordable housing.

City council members questioned why Joncas was the only non-city employee on the committee reviewing the bids for the Megablock property. “I was unaware until very recently that it is even possible to have somebody not of the city family to participate in a process like this,” council member Lisa Herbold said. “It would have been really helpful, knowing now  that we could have external stakeholders participate… having somebody participate with expertise in nonprofit affordable housing production.” Shain said the executive reached out to other people and organizations, including Capitol Hill Housing, but they weren’t able to commit the amount of time the job required without any kind of compensation from the city.

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“As the issues facing our city become more critical and more complicated, we are as elected leaders… pursuing the expertise of subject matter experts within the community more and more often,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said, but there isn’t a clear policy about how and when to pay people who work for nonprofits, rather than for-profit consulting firms. “That’s an inherent inequity in how we engage subject matter experts in a variety of areas. We tend to not monetarily value nonprofits, but we will monetarily value people who are literally in the business of providing expert consultant opinions.”

Gonzalez also suggested that the council think about whether they’re overusing executive sessions and invoking confidentiality provisions when they don’t have to. “My frustration is that we just assume that everything is confidential, and we don’t afford ourselves the opportunity to take a scalpel approach to the issues related to confidentiality,” Gonzalez said. “So, yes, while the details of the transactions and the proposals mightbe subject to confidentiality, there are several details around the transactions… that could have been daylighted in a more transparent way that could, at a minimum, contribute to a higher level of public confidence in whatever deal that we’re going to be judged for approving or not approving.”

Then the council went into executive session.

2.  After the council approves Mayor Jenny Durkan’s appointment of two more Transportation Choices Coalition staffers to the city’s bike and transit boards next week, there will, by my count, be just one person on TCC’s entire full-time staff who Mayor Durkan has not appointed to a city board, commission, or advisory committee during her first year in office. This year, Durkan has appointed TCC staffers to serve on the advisory committee overseeing the selection of a new Seattle Department of Transportation director; the Bicycle Advisory Board; the Transit Advisory Board; and the Levy to Move Seattle Oversight Committee. And, of course, her deputy mayor is Shefali Ranganathan, who left her job as TCC director to join the Durkan administration last year.

Honestly, there are worse things than a takeover by the IlluminaTCC. As I wrote back in November, the group is a strong, effective voice for alternatives to driving, especially transit, in a city that too often takes a windshield perspective on transportation planning. (New director Alex Hudson, who ran the uber-YIMBY First Hill Improvement Association, was an especially inspired hire.) Still, it’s worth asking whether other voices—the voices of groups that did not support Durkan’s election campaign, as TCC did, for example—are being displaced. As advocates from advocacy groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways worry that they’re being shut out of official city appointments, TCC’s presence inside the city’s power structure appears to only be growing.

The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle

Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.

Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.

Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.

MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next  decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.

Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.

The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”

If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.

A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.

This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households  and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.

The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be  physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.

One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.

Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.

Morning Crank: Eliminating “Single-Family” Zoning Altogether

1. It’s been three years (and three mayors) since the city first adopted a plan to implement the affordable housing plan known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for greater density in some parts of the city. Although some aspects of the plan are now in place, the most controversial element—expanding the city’s urban villages and centers to incorporate 6 percent of the city’s vast swaths of single-family land—was locked up in appeals until late last month, when city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil ruled that the city had adequately addressed almost all of the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.

The fundamental debate about whether to upzone any of the city’s single-family neighborhoods, however, continues. On Monday, at a council committee meeting about next steps, city council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson (with assists from Sally Bagshaw and Teresa Mosqueda) played out a miniature version of that debate, with Herbold taking up the banner for activists who claim that allowing more types of housing will lead to massive displacement of low-income people living in single-family houses. “My concern is that we are grossly underestimating the number of affordable units that are being lost to development” by using eligibility for tenant relocation assistance as a proxy for displacement, Herbold said. (Tenant relocation assistance is available to people who make less than 50 percent of the Seattle median income. A subsequent analysis, based on American Community Survey data, included people making up to 80 percent of median income, although as Herbold pointed out, this still may not capture people who share houses with roommates, and thus have a collective household income well above 80 percent of median). Johnson countered that while the council has dithered on passing the MHA legislation, hundreds of new apartments have been built with no affordable housing requirement at all. “Would it be fair to say that the ‘no-action alternative’ results in a whole lot of displacement?” he asked Nick Welch, a senior planner with the Office of Housing and Community Development. “Yes,” Welch replied.

Herbold also suggested that the council should adopt separate resolutions dealing with each of the city’s seven “unique” districts that would include “individual urban village commitments” in those districts. Johnson said that was certainly something the council could discuss in the future, but noted that the city has already spent years learning about the issues various neighborhood groups have with the upzone proposal. “I think we have a pretty good sense of what community issues and concerns are out there,” Johnson said. “We want to outline a process that would allow us to address some of those issues.” Herbold also said she was considering amendments that would require developers to replace every unit for which a tenant received relocation assistance on a one-for-one basis, and suggested requiring developers building in areas with high displacement risk to build affordable units on site, rather than paying into the city’s affordable housing fund.

Under the city’s current timeline, the council would vote to approve the legislation, with amendments in late March of next year.

2. As the council debated the merits of modest density increases, the city’s Planning Commission suggested a far more significant rewrite of the city’s housing laws—one that would include doing away with city’s “single-family” zoning designation entirely. In the report, “Neighborhoods for All: Expanding Housing Opportunity in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones,” the advisory commission recommends reducing displacement and increasing economic and racial diversity in Seattle’s increasingly white single-family areas with “a return to the mix of housing and development patterns found in many of Seattle’s older and most walkable neighborhoods.” In other words: Backyard cottages and basement apartments aren’t enough; the city needs to allow small-scale apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes, and other types of housing in those areas as well. Crucially, the report notes that these changes wouldn’t represent a radical shift or a departure from single-family zones’ vaunted “neighborhood character”; in fact, both minimum lot-size requirements and “Seattle’s current single-family zoning code came into being in the 1950’s.”

At a time when arguments about development often center on the need to protect the “historic character” of Seattle’s neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes and laws restricting housing to one house per lot, this bears repeating. “Small lot houses, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments built prior to 1957 remain in single-family zones, but building them is illegal today.” Rules restricting development in single-family areas effectively concentrate all growth into narrow bands of land along busy arterials known as urban centers and urban villages; since 2006, according to the report, “over 80% of Seattle’s growth has occurred in urban villages and centers that make up less than a quarter of Seattle’s land. Urban villages have seen significant change and new construction, while most areas of the city have seen little physical change. Overall, multifamily housing is only allowed in 12 percent of the city’s residential land—a constriction of opportunity that perpetuates the historical impacts of redlining, racial covenants, and other discriminatory housing policies by “excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes,” the report says.And Seattle’s restrictive policies don’t even work to preserve “neighborhood character,” the report points out. Instead, they encourage homeowners and builders to tear down existing houses and build McMansions in their place. “Even under current zoning, the physical character of neighborhoods is changing as existing houses are replaced with larger, more expensive ones, as allowed by today’s land use code,” the report notes. “The average size of newly constructed detached houses in 2016 was 3,487 square feet, more than 1,000 square feet larger than the average for the first two-thirds of the last century.”

The planning commission offers a number of suggested policy changes, including:

• Expanding urban village boundaries to include all areas within a 15-minute walk of frequent transit lines. Currently, the report points out, many urban villages are extremely narrow—the Greenwood/Phinney urban village, pictured below, is an extreme but not unique example—dramatically limiting housing choices for people who can’t afford to buy single-family homes. At the same time, the report recommends getting rid of frequent transit service as a requirement to expand urban villages, pointing out that this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem, where lack of transit justifies keeping density low, and low density justifies a lack of investment in transit.

• Renaming “single-family” zoning as “neighborhood residential,” with various levels of density (from backyard cottages to small apartment buildings) to reflect lot size and neighborhood amenities. Areas near parks and schools, which the report identifies as amenities that tend to be most accessible to people in single-family areas, would get more density so that more people would have access to those resources.

• Eliminating or reducing parking requirements—not just in urban villages, but everywhere. Single-family-housing activists have long argued that if the city allows more housing without requiring new parking, they will have no place to park their cars. Though the planning commission report doesn’t explicitly mention a recent study that found that Seattle already has more than five parking spaces per household, they do point out that prioritizing cars over people conflicts with the city’s stated climate goals. “Requiring parking on site takes away space that could be used for additional housing or open space,” the report says. Under their proposal, “While driveways and garages could still be allowed, people would not be required to provide space for cars over housing or space for trees–especially if they choose not to own a car.”

3. The J Is for Judge himself stepped up to the mic at city hall yesterday to explain why he wants to see more of every kind of housing in every neighborhood. At yesterday’s MHA briefing, after the authors of this piece (one of whom lives in Bellevue) claimed that the council was withholding information about displacement from the public,  Josh Feit got up to speak. Here, in slightly abridged form, is what he had to say.

My name is Josh Feit, and I am not originally from Seattle.

I did not grow up here.

I’m am not a 7th-generation Seattleite.

I was not born and raised in Ballard.

I did not go to Roosevelt High School.

I am not a lifelong member of my community.

To those of us who choose to move here, Seattle stands out as an exciting 21st Century landmark that’s taking up a brave experiment in progressive city building.

I’m excited to live here.

I have a public sector job.

I am a renter.

Please stop letting some residents of Seattle’s Single Family zones play Seattle First politics by mythologizing neighborhood “character” and stigmatizing renters.

That kind of dog whistling has no place in Seattle.

Please stop letting quarter-century-old neighborhood plans that were developed without a Race and Social Justice analysis be the blueprint for Seattle’s future. (Thank you, Council Member Mosqueda, for challenging the anti-growth narrative by taking a closer look at that vaunted 1994 plan.)

As you know, the Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation and upzones in front of you today did go through a displacement analysis by income and race.

Thank you for passing the six MHA Urban Center and Urban Village rezones last year.

But to make MHA work, to address the housing affordability crisis, all of Seattle needs to be neighborly.

Please pass this small but significant first step in taking down the walls that keep too many of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods–off limits for too many residents.

I am not proud that I’m from here. I’m proud that I moved here. I hope I can continue to feel that way.

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