Category: zoning

Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle

Image via Rail House Apartments.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has long been a hero to the NIMBY crowd. His columns about density and gentrification have created heroes and villains in Seattle’s growth wars: Little old ladies versus greedy developers; “unfettered growth” versus homeowners calling for a little restraint; “some of the biggest zoning changes in our lifetimes” versus bungalows.

In 2015, a Westneat column warned darkly about secret plans to “do away with single-family zoning — which for a hundred-plus years has been the defining feature of Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.” The column galvanized a rebellion among the city’s slow-growthers that gutted then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, reducing new density to a tiny slice of land on the edges of existing urban villages and ensuring that Seattle’s single-family areas will remain unaffordable enclaves for the foreseeable future.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

So I was surprised to learn recently that while Westneat preaches the gospel of slow growth and “concurrency”—a buzz word for anti-density groups that argue the city shouldn’t accommodate new people until it has built sidewalks, roads, and other infrastructure “concurrent” with population growth—he and his wife own a development company that bulldozed a bungalow in Seattle’s historically Black south end and replaced it with a 13-unit apartment complex. Westneat’s wife developed the property.

Rents at the Rail House apartments, located about a block from the Columbia City light rail station, start at around $1,400 for a studio and go up from there; prospective renters must have three references from previous landlords and a minimum credit score of 650 (until recently 660). Activists for racial equality have called credit requirements a form of modern-day redlining that has no relationship to tenant quality. Westneat said the credit and reference requirements were a response to a city law requiring landlords to accept the first applicant who qualifies; that law was designed to prevent discrimination by landlords.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

Contacted about this seeming contradiction between the views he expresses in his columns and his family’s business, Westneat responded that he’s never had a problem with transit-oriented development; his issue is with places “where growth is overwhelming the infrastructure.”

“I think all transit corridors and the light rail corridors in particular are no-brainers for higher-density development, Westneat told me in an email. “I do have issues with the way Seattle has gentrified so quickly (but who doesn’t?).” Rail House, he continued, “is a classic transit-oriented development, 13 units with no parking. It works because it is right next to Columbia City light rail station, but it might not be appropriate in parts of the city that lack robust transit.”

What’s insidious about Westneat’s columns isn’t that they make a moderate case—it costs homeowners nothing to say that density is acceptable where they don’t live—but that they are an argument against the kind of density Seattle actually needs.

You won’t get any argument from me that transit-oriented development is a no-brainer. But even the most dyed-in-the-wool slow-growther would probably agree with this view today, now that battles over transit and development near transit stops have been mostly settled. (Of course, both Westneat and I have been around long enough to recall when transit itself was considered not just a gentrifying factor but one that would promote out-of-control growth in historically single-family areas like Columbia City!)

As an example of his support for appropriate density, Westneat said that he was all for Mike O’Brien’s 2016 legislation that would have “upzoned most of the city to three units.” (In reality, the city projected that the plan would result in fewer than 4,000 new units across the entire city over 20 years).

“I don’t have a longstanding editorial opposition to density or upzoning,” Westneat told me. 

I’d say that’s debatable—the cumulative effect of column after column condemning specific examples of density is an editorial opposition to density, even if those columns are tempered by general statements supporting the idea of density where “appropriate.” By opposing specific examples of density again and again, Westneat’s columns have poured gasoline on the movement against density of all kinds, including modest density (such as row houses and triplexes) in single-family areas.

Continue reading “Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle”

House Democrats Gut Pro-Renter Backyard Cottage Bill

by Leo Brine

As the legislative session in Olympia ended this week, Democratic lawmakers celebrated the list of historic, progressive bills they passed, such as a capital gains tax, a new clean fuels standard, and police reform.

But as usual, legislators’ attempt to increase access to affordable housing by changing outdated zoning rules  ended in disappointment.

Earlier this year, Sen. Marko Liias proposed legislation (SB 5235) to loosen restrictions on accessory dwelling units—secondary units, such as backyard cottages, that are “accessory” to single-family homes— in cities and counties that are required to plan under the state Growth Management Act. The bill would have banned local governments from imposing owner occupancy requirements for ADUs, except in limited circumstances.

Many cities and counties require property owners to live on site order to rent an accessory unit, effectively prohibiting situations in which renters occupy both the primary house and its secondary apartment. Allowing property owners to live elsewhere would have expanded opportunities for renters to live in cities, including in single-family areas that are often prohibitively expensive.

The original bill passed the senate easily 43-6. However, by the time the bill made it out back to the state senate from the house, it included new changes that effectively gutted the legislation. The bill that eventually passed includes a loophole allowing cities to opt out of the new restrictions and impose owner occupancy requirements on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, simply by going through a brief public feedback process. The changes prompted Liias to remark sarcastically, “Sometimes when we pass a bill out of the Senate and send it over to the House, they really transform it into something even better and stronger than it was before. … This is not one of those cases.”

In fact, one of the original supporters of the bill, the progressive Sightline think tank, sent a letter to Governor Jay Inslee this week asking him to veto several sections the House added to Liias’ bill, writing that the original bill “would have lifted local prohibitions on renters residing in properties with accessory dwelling units. These rules not only discriminate against renters, but are a major impediment to the addition of ADUs. The final version as amended by the House would solve neither problem, and all told, would likely amount to a step backward on ADU policy for the state.”

“The final version as amended by the House would …would likely amount to a step backward on ADU policy for the state.”

The changes to the bill began in the House Local Government Committee, whose chair, Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) told PubliCola the original bill was “a technical nightmare,” and “needed dramatic revision.” Calling the bill his committee passed a work-in-progress, Pollet said he expected other legislators to make further amendments before passing the bill.

Pollet’s amendments, however, did not seem technical. Nor was the House able to restore the bill to anything resembling its former self before sending it back to the senate for final passage. In his committee, Pollet scaled back Liias’ pro-renter mandate by allowing cities and counties to keep owner occupancy rules as long as they allowed property owners to apply for exemptions, leaving it up to cities to decide whether claims for exemptions were legitimate.

Pollet’s version would have also given cities two years after their next required GMA comprehensive plan update to implement the regulations. Washington cities and counties must update their comprehensive plans every eight years; under the current schedule, some jurisdictions would not have to update their owner occupancy rules until 2027.

Reflecting on the committee’s amendments, Sen. Liias said: “Cities don’t like being told what to do. A lot of cities are deeply suspicious of renters—they treat renters with disdain. I think ultimately the language in the house committee amendment reflected that anti-renter sentiment from cities.”

Continue reading “House Democrats Gut Pro-Renter Backyard Cottage Bill”

The Urbanist Case Against the Homelessness Charter Amendment

by Josh Feit

Last week, I channeled the progressive opposition to what I’m calling the sweeps and shelter initiative—a proposed charter amendment that couples spending on homelessness with a trigger for sweeps.

Short version: Combining these divergent approaches in one initiative is an attempt by pro-sweeps liberals to rationalize a law-and-order crackdown on homeless people by co-opting “compassion.” The amendment literally codifies the “Of course we’re compassionate, but…” mantra into the city charter. The tell: There’s no funding for the housing part of the initiative.

This week, I’ll channel the urbanist argument against the charter amendment, which begins, actually, with the one pro-urbanist element of the proposal: It says “to accelerate the production of emergency and permanent housing” the city “shall, to the full extent permitted by state law, waive land use code and regulation requirements as necessary to urgently site [emergency and permanent housing]…”

It goes on to say the city must waive permitting fees, put projects first in line to expedite permitting, and refund city-imposed project costs. Hear, hear!

This nod to YIMBYism correctly identifies that Seattle’s land use and zoning codes squash housing development.

Unfortunately, this promising language ends up highlighting the limited scope of the charter amendment. The rules are only waived for “housing serving homeless individuals.”

The urbanist approach to homelessness understands that the problem is larger than its symptoms—homelessness—by identifying the cause of homelessness: A dearth of affordable housing.

But the charter amendment misses this larger, systematic problem and then exacerbates it by opting for liberal tinkering. The amendment calls for 12 percent of the city’s general fund (about $190 million) to go to shelter and services through a new human services fund, or about one percent higher than what the city will spend this year. Slightly recalibrating the city budget this way to dedicate money to homelessness, creating the illusion of action, will unwittingly promote this type of spending as the solution, and take political pressure off the city to do what actually needs to be done: Change the city’s zoning rules, so we can meet housing demand with housing supply. For example, 75 percent of the city’s residential land is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. If you haven’t heard, prohibiting multifamily housing is class war from above.

Spending more dollars on the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes of the actual problem: Housing scarcity.

Spending more dollars to address the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes off the actual problem: Housing scarcity. As I said, Seattle currently spends about $190 million on programs for people experiencing homelessness, including shelter. While I’m all for increasing those dollars to help people in crisis, I don’t harbor any illusions that it’s the way to end the crisis.

The only way to do that is to understand that the real crisis is the affordable housing crisis and the real solution is to build more affordable housing stock. All told, through the Housing Levy, the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, incentive zoning, the Multi-Family Housing Tax Exemption program, and other funds, Seattle spent around $115 million on affordable housing in 2020.

It’s clearly not enough. The money translated into about 1,300 affordable units, or about 11,000 units shy of what we need to be creating annually. In order to reset our housing economy so more people can actually afford to live here, we need a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force. Our current spending doesn’t come close.

Talking in regional numbers brings up another urbanist critique of the charter amendment proposal: An isolated Seattle response to homelessness will be about as successful as a climate action policy that caps carbon emissions in New York, but not in Texas. Urbanism is about community: creating sustainable metro regions that are connected by sympatico transit, land use, environmental, and housing policy. It’s why we created the King County Regional Homelessness Authority last year, and recently hired a CEO. Seattle shouldn’t undermine this approach, particularly not with a charter amendment that awkwardly justifies a crackdown policy.

Our homelessness policy needs to be about building more affordable housing. An affordable housing approach will check poverty and the downward spiral into homelessness. The cruelty of the sweeps and shelter initiative is that it blames homeless people for the homelessness crisis. It’s like addressing police murders of African Americans by telling African Americans to stop getting pulled over.

Josh@PubliCola.com

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

King’s Inn in Belltown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia

Despite his old-school, anti-development environmentalism, Accessory Dwelling Units fit right into Rep. Pollet’s North Seattle district. He should stop stalling them in cities statewide.

By Josh Feit

Back in 2017, the environmental group Futurewise had an “OK Boomer” moment when it came to light that two of their board members, Jeffrey Eustis and Dave Bricklin, were independently suing the city of Seattle to stop two affordable housing initiatives: The city wanted to increase the production of accessory dwelling units (also known as granny flats) and upzone a small portion of Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones to accommodate more density.

The old-school, anti-development environmentalists (Eustis against ADUs and Bricklin against zoning increases) didn’t grok that Futurewise’s up-to-date vision of environmentalism now prioritized urban density as a component of equity and sustainability. After years of process monkeywrenching, Eustis, representing the Queen Anne Community Council, and Bricklin, representing the Wallingford Community Council, failed to stop Seattle’s zoning changes. In an appropriate denouement that signaled its shift forward, Futurewise replaced the anti-development pair (who were both founding board members) with new faces, including Angela Compton, the young woman who actually led the grassroots campaign to pass the city’s upzone agenda. Ouch.

Futurewise, currently advocating for a slate of pro-density bills in the state legislature, may be experiencing yet another “OK Boomer” moment, as longtime North Seattle State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) has already tabled a Futurewise-backed bill that would have encouraged more ADUs in cities statewide.

Clinging to outdated anti-development tropes, Pollet (who got some naive positive press last week for denouncing a boneheaded Building Industry Association of Washington propaganda video) has been the number-one opponent of the inclusive, pro-housing agenda in Olympia over the last several legislative sessions.

For three years straight, Pollet, the chair of the pivotal House Local Government Committee, has sabotaged a series of pro-housing bills that would have reformed ADU laws in urban areas by prohibiting owner occupancy requirements, eliminating parking mandates, loosening minimum lot size and square footage requirements, and getting rid of street improvement mandates. The urban planning nerds at Sightline get into the weeds of the latest ADU bills here.

By the way, I understand that cities need to do something more dramatic than add ADUs to housing stock if they want to successfully address the affordable housing crisis, but it’s a necessary first step to dismantling exclusionary zoning rules.

And the numbers in Seattle, Tacoma, California, and Oregon show that reforms like these  do increase ADU production. For example, after Seattle adopted new rules in 2019 to allow two ADUs per lot and eliminate parking and owner occupancy mandates, the numbers soared. In fact, ADU production grew 69 percent in Seattle in 2020 compared to 2018. The fact that this swift growth represents an increase from 227 new ADUs to 566 just illustrates the need for more far-reaching pro-density policies.

A quick history lesson: In 2019, Pollet watered down a pro-ADU bill proposed by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Kent) and supported by Reps. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), and Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle, Vashon Island)—to the point that the policy architects behind the bill, Sightline, pulled their support. After that, the legislation died.

In 2020, after Gregerson passed another sweeping pro-ADU bill through Fitzgibbon’s Environment and Energy Committee, Pollet voted against it in the Appropriations Committee (even though it was watered down), and it eventually died in the Rules committee.

The legislature did pass another pro-ADU bill that year. However, it was dramatically watered down; the original bill would have gotten rid of owner occupancy requirements, allowed two ADUs per lot, and eliminated parking requirements for ADUs within a half mile of transit. The final bill got rid of the first two reforms and sliced down the new parking rule to a quarter mile.

This year, Pollet’s committee tabled yet another best-practices ADU bill that was proposed by Gregerson and supported by Seattle progressives like Macri and Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37, Seattle). And then, last week,  Pollet and his committee gutted SB 5235, an additional pro-housing bill, this one sponsored by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo); Liias passed the legislation out of the senate 46-3 with support from Seattle progressives such as Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) and Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle).

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia”

Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?

by Josh Feit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunnel Option Back on the Table? Plus: Updates on Homeless Authority and Vaccinating Unsheltered People

An example of a lot in West Seattle that went up dramatically in value after a developer built a 300-unit apartment complex on site.

1. At Sound Transit’s system expansion committee meeting today, agency staff will present new numbers showing a greatly reduced cost differential between the elevated and tunnel options for light rail between Ballard and West Seattle, according to multiple sources. Previous cost estimates indicated that any tunnel would be far more expensive than the agency’s preferred elevated options, adding well over a billion dollars to the cost of the project; if the difference turns out to be negligible, a tunnel alignment would start looking better and better.

Sound Transit’s preferred alternatives for the Ballard-to-West Seattle segment include both elevated and tunnel options, but the tunnel has always come with an asterisk: The agency will only consider building it if tunnel supporters can find third-party funding to pay the difference.

Last week, Sound Transit released new cost estimates showing that the Ballard-downtown-West Seattle alignment will cost between 53 and 59 percent more than the agency estimated in 2019, due primarily to increased property acquisition costs. As PubliCola reported, the most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment.

Joe Gray, Sound Transit’s director of real property, said in an interview Wednesday that Sound Transit based its new property value estimates on the past several years of property sales in the neighborhoods along the alignment, without regard to the development potential of individual properties. For example, a vacant parking lot that is zoned for nine stories of residential development would be assessed not at the potential value of the future apartment building, but on the actual sales price of comparably zoned parking lots in the area over the past five years. If someone buys that parking lot and puts a 300-unit apartment complex on it (see image above), the difference in value becomes an unanticipated cost.

“It’s an estimate, because we only have the data that’s out there,” Gray said. This could be one reason the West Seattle estimates went up more dramatically than those for Ballard—”it’s a hot market,” Gray said, and the large number of property sales is reflected in Sound Transit’s higher estimates for that area. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that the difference between the cost increases in West Seattle and Ballard “is due to the property development currently underway in the area.”)

An alternative approach would be to pick a different cost escalator—one based on the likelihood that West Seattle and Ballard will continue to grow, particularly along the light rail alignment—and come up with new, higher estimates based on that assumption. But Gray said that would require assumptions Sound Transit is not prepared to make; after all, “the bottom could fall out” of the real estate market. “We wish we had that crystal ball to say that growth is going to continue in the commercial and in the industrial [sectors], but we just can’t,” he said. “We have to go to on what the property is [worth] today. We don’t guess.”

That approach—basing cost estimates on recent sales—is conservative in the sense that it doesn’t assume huge spikes in property values without direct evidence. In another sense, though, it could actually be risky: By assuming that property values will basically stay on their current trajectory into the indefinite future, even if their underlying zoning is designed specifically to encourage development that will dramatically increase its value, Sound Transit may be ensuring that it will have to come back with new, higher estimates year after year.

For now, the Sound Transit board and staff will consider a more immediate question: What will happen to the West Seattle-Ballard line? One possibility is that the new line (which is actually three separate segments, any of which could be built on its own) could be truncated or delayed. Another is that Sound Transit will give the tunnel options a closer look. Property values have less of an impact on tunnels because they just don’t require as much property acquisition. But tunnels can go over budget, too—and some of the new costs revealed last week have nothing to do with property values.

2. After numerous delays, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to hire a director—which the agency calls a “CEO”—and is interviewing four finalists for the job this week. As part of that process, the candidates will be meeting separately with members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people that has three representatives on the regional authority’s implementation board. The idea, board member and Lived Experience Coalition founder Sara Rankin said, was to bring these marginalized people closer to power, in this case by giving them a chance to sit down with the potential leaders of the new agency.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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

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

On Wednesday, the board approved another informal meeting—this one with representatives of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban cities that are members of the authority. The SCA, which includes Renton, Kent, and other cities that are often at odds with Seattle and King County’s approach to homelessness, reached out to ask for the “informal meet and greet,” as former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak put it. “If this body is going to be successful, there has to be some sharing and some building of trust, so I would be in favor of finding a way to do this,” Chelminiak said.

Board member Simha Reddy, a doctor who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness, supported the motion for a different reason. “It’s important for the candidates to know what they’re getting into.”

3. During a press conference announcing a city-led effort to vaccinate people living in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities on Tuesday, PubliCola asked Mayor Jenny Durkan whether the city had any plans for reaching the thousands of unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people experiencing homelessness during later vaccination phases. Homeless people who “live in or access services in congregate settings” won’t get their turn in line until Phase B4 unless they’re over 70 (Phase A2), and the current list of phases does not include any guidance at all about people living unsheltered, who may spend little or no time in congregate settings at all.

Durkan’s response was nonspecific. “That is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the county and the state,” she said, adding that “that phase is in robust planning” by city and county officials. “Some of those people live in congregate settings, like permanent supportive housing, and so setting up systems to get them vaccinated will be easier than those who are unsheltered.”

This is probably an understatement. Because the vaccine must be administered in two doses, unsheltered people who receive the first shot must “keep a record of their vaccination status and when they need to follow up for a second dose,” according to the CDC. Then, after hanging on to that piece of paper for nearly a month, they have to follow through on schedule. How Seattle and King County will track down unsheltered people who fail to show up for their second vaccination appointments remains unclear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support PubliCola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

Renton City Council to Homeless: No Room at the Inn

The Renton City Council, plus Mayor Armondo Pavone (upper left), City Clerk Jason Seth (third row, middle) and Sr. Assistant City Attorney Leslie Clark (bottom)

By Erica C. Barnett

Tonight, the Renton City Council voted 5-2, with council members Kim-Khanh Van and Ryan McIrvin casting the dissenting votes, to adopt a sweeping new law that will evict about 235 homeless people from the city’s Red Lion hotel, where they have been staying since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in two stages. The first will come at the end of May, when the shelter provider, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, will have to reduce the total population in the hotel to 125. The second will come next New Year’s Eve, when the remaining residents must also vacate the premises.

The new law, which was passed as “emergency” legislation, also creates a special zoning designation for homeless services, and imposes restrictions on service providers that will, advocates and providers say, have the effect of banning all homeless services from the city. Among other new regulations—imposed, supporters on the council said, because the city needs to have some way to restrict land uses with negative impacts—the law bars any homeless service provider from helping more than 100 people, imposes a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service providers, and requires service providers to monitor and regulate the behavior of their guests.

I described the impacts of the legislation last week, along with some of the changes the council made to the bill since its first introduction in November and; those included a number of new “whereas” clauses that emphasized the supposed violent nature of some of the Red Lion’s residents and the negative impact they have supposedly had on the surrounding community, which consists—in the Red Lion’s immediate vicinity—of a Walmart Supercenter, several car lots, and the South Renton Park and Ride.

I also covered the blow this vote represents to the hope for a “regional approach to homelessness,” on which many King County leaders, including County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have placed all their bets.

And I live-tweeted the public comment, both hateful and heartfelt, on both sides of the debate—from homeowners furious that “the activist class” has a right to speak in public meetings to formerly homeless people who spoke movingly about how access to a private room and shower could have changed their lives and gotten them on the path to housing and stability years before they found a way out.

This week, I’ll just note what happens next, now that Renton has said emphatically: We don’t want those people here. Currently, King County, DESC, and the Red Lion owners are locked in litigation over a separate zoning case, in which Renton says they are violating the city’s zoning laws by giving homeless people literal room at the inn. (That inn, they say, is a hotel, which is supposed to charge people for rooms, not shelter people displaced by a pandemic.) That litigation is ongoing, and more could follow soon now that the council has taken its vote.

In the meantime, the 235 men and women living at the Red Lion, including many for whom access to a private room and shower made health, stability, and recovery possible, are on a six-month timeline. Come June 1, about half of them will be selected to leave. Some of them, perhaps most, will have nowhere to go. Six months later, in the middle of winter, the rest will be forced to leave as well. Some at tonight’s council meeting, including Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone, seemed unwilling to acknowledge that their action constituted an eviction. The council, Pavone insisted, had “no intent” of “kicking anyone out” of the Red Lion. Moments later, he watched as the council voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill that does just that.