Category: zoning

Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice

Seattle generalized zoning mapby Leo Brine

Last week, the state house and senate Local Government and Housing Committees held hearings on Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) and Sen. Mona Das’ (D-47, Kent) “middle-housing” bills, which would let cities build denser housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

If passed, the bills would require all cities with more than 20,000 residents to allow multi-family housing such as six-unit multiplexes, row homes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density housing options in areas within a half-mile of frequent transit service—places where buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes during peak hours on weekdays. Cities would also need to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods further than a half-mile from transit. Under the legislation, cities would have two years to update their comprehensive growth plans to allow this type of housing.

Bateman’s and Das’ bills (HB 1782 and SB 5760, respectively) would dramatically change Seattle’s zoning laws, permitting denser housing options in most parts of the city. Currently, most of Seattle’s residential land is exclusively zoned for detached single-family housing. Many of these single-family-only areas are within a half-mile of frequent transit stops, meaning that if the bills pass, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods would have to allow significantly denser housing options. We’ve reached out to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development for a more detailed description of how the bills would alter Seattle’s housing landscape.

Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Dan Strauss all signed on to support Rep. Bateman’s bill at the House Local Government Committee’s public hearing.

The bills do offer an alternative option for cities that don’t want to allow denser housing in all single-family residential zones. Cities could instead meet average minimum density standards within their urban growth areas. If a city opted for this approach, it could theoretically allow a high-rise apartment or condo complex far away from single family neighborhoods, meeting average density goals without allowing a mix of denser housing development throughout the city. However, that opt-out alternative only applies to single-family residential zones more than a half-mile from transit areas; Seattle has few of those, so even if the city chose the alternate route—which would accomplish the opposite goal of increasing housing stock citywide, by the way—it would still have to permit denser housing options in most places.

Mosqueda said she supports the bill’s statewide approach to addressing both housing affordability and supply problems. “I think this will help ensure we’re building housing for our region so that fewer people have to commute hours into their jobs or into city cores,” she said. “That will be good for environment as well.”

Mosqueda, who’s been pushing to allow more density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, said that the legislation wouldn’t preempt or disrupt the city’s pre-existing Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which increased density allowances in some areas that are already multifamily (and slightly expanded some multifamily areas) while requiring developers who take advantage of upzones to build or fund affordable housing.

Sen. Das said, “there’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”

Das, who has tried to pass state legislation requiring denser housing options for four-years running, addressed one of the persistent fears about upzones: gentrification. Rather than causing displacement, she argued, the legislation will give “BIPOC community members an opportunity to get in the [housing] market with a condo or a townhouse” in the neighborhoods they live in, rather than having to uproot themselves to find housing they can afford in other parts of the state. “There’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Das added.

Responding to concerns about displacement, Bateman pointed to last year’s HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Petersen (D-21, Lynnwood) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), which requires cities to adopt anti-displacement measures into their comprehensive plans. (Seattle’s next comprehensive plan update is slated for 2024.)

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Despite Das’ assurances, there is still concern that new developments will result in high-income residents moving into new housing, gentrifying low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods. On the other hand, people are being displaced and priced out of Seattle already under our current, inflexible zoning regime, where rents continue to increase largely because demand (the number of people, particularly wealthy people, living in and moving to the city) eclipses supply (the number of new units being built). Continue reading “Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice”

Fremont Brewing Is Still Using Concrete Blocks to Prevent RV Parking. So Are the City of Seattle and the US Postal Service.

Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light's substation in Ballard
Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light’s substation in Ballard

By Erica C. Barnett

After at least one formal complaint, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued a warning—but no penalty—to Fremont Brewing, the company co-owned by city council member-elect Sara Nelson, for obstructing the public right-of-way around its Ballard brewing facility with massive concrete “ecology blocks.”

As PubliCola reported last summer, eco blocks—so called because they are a byproduct of concrete production that uses waste that would otherwise occupy landfills—are an inexpensive way for business owners to prevent people living in their vehicles from parking on the street next to their properties.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, when the city stopped enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every three days, the blocks have proliferated throughout Seattle’s industrial areas, which are the only places where people living in oversized vehicles can legally park. Business owners say that the presence of RVs and other types of large vehicles, such as box trucks, discourages patrons, and that large concentrations of RVs can lead to health and safety problems that impact their customers and employees.

Obstructing public streets is illegal, but SDOT has treated eco-blocks differently than other street obstructions; instead of penalizing business owners for taking over public space that belongs to everyone, as they might if a random person set up a tire fort or craft fair in the middle of the street, the department has responded to the proliferation of eco-blocks by essentially throwing up its hands.

Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing's production facility in Ballard.
Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing’s production facility in Ballard.

This is true not just of Fremont Brewing, which received a written warning, but of many other businesses around the city’s industrial areas as well as the US Postal Service, which surrounded its Ballard sorting facility with eco blocks way back in August 2020.

At the time, USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson told PubliCola that “USPS got the OK from the city to put in the concrete barriers” in response to a proliferation of RVs in the area. The Seattle Department of Transportation disputed this, calling the road-blocking barricades “unpermitted,” but took no action. They’re still there today, graffiti-covered and looking dingy compared to their more recently installed counterparts in front of a Bevmo!-anchored strip mall across the street. 

Contacted for information about why the blocks are still in place more than a year later, Swanson said, “The concrete blocks were placed in front of the Ballard PO as well as other neighboring businesses as a response to a proliferation of needles, human waste and other hazardous materials being discarded on the property. As of this date, the blocks remain not only in front of the PO but also other businesses in the area. We have no knowledge that a permit was ever required.”

"Eco-blox matta": Graffiti on an ecology block in Ballard.

The city’s process for dealing with Fremont Brewing’s ecology blocks was typical. After someone filed an anonymous complaint about the blocks in September, SDOT performed an inspection “and observed ecology blocks” in the street around Fremont Brewing, according to a notice SDOT sent to the company September 17. “We do not allow this type of use in public right-of-way due to traffic safety concerns as well as transportation and utility access needs. Please remove these unpermitted encroachments from public right-of-way by the compliance date indicated below”—November 10.

November 10 came and went; the blocks remained. About a week later, the case was closed.

SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson told PubliCola the department followed “standard procedure” in responding to the complaint. “The first step in the enforcement process is to mail a letter to the adjacent businesses or property owners notifying them of their responsibilities to remove the concrete blocks,” Bergerson said. “The purpose of this letter is to initiate a conversation with the responsible party so that we can find a path forward leading to their removal of the unpermitted concrete blocks. To date, we have sent letters of this nature to property owners and businesses adjacent to concrete blocks left in about a dozen locations around Ballard, SoDo, and Georgetown. … Our approach [with Fremont Brewing] has been consistent with the other locations.”

A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light's Canal substation.
A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light’s Canal substation.

Fremont Brewing owner (and Nelson’s husband) Matt Lincecum, who runs the company day to day, declined to comment for this story, as did Nelson.

SDOT has the authority to take enforcement action against any business (or government entity) that obstructs the public street with eco blocks or other objects that make it impossible for the public to access streets, sidewalks, or parking strips. To date, it has not done so, beyond warnings like the one it issued to Fremont Brewing.

As if to emphasize the city’s lackadaisical approach to enforcement, Seattle City Light has installed its own anti-RV fortifications at its Canal Substation, located two blocks away from Fremont Brewing and the rest of the eco-block-littered Ballard brewery district. In addition to eco-blocks in the street, the north side of the substation is walled off by two layers of fencing that completely obstruct the public sidewalk. A review of historical Google Maps reveals that the eco-blocks were installed sometime after this past August, when several RVs were parked along the south side of the substation. The fence, too, is new; as of June 2021, per Google Maps, several RVs were parked on that side of the substation, too. Since then, the RVs appear to have moved around the corner, to a narrower residential street on the east side of the building.

We’ve reached out to City Light as well as SDOT about the obstructions around the Canal Substation and will update this post when we hear back.

Old and new ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.
Old and newer ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.

From the point of view of a property owner, ecology blocks solve an immediate problem—people living in RVs or parking large vehicles indefinitely in front of their business—that the city has failed to address. But the fact remains that even if the city continues to turn a blind eye to vigilante street obstructions, nothing will really change until the region stops ignoring the needs of people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of King County’s homeless population. In the absence of “safe lots,” social services, and affordable, permanent housing, people sleeping in their vehicles will continue to take up space in public,

But no amount of semi-sanctioned street and sidewalk obstruction will fix the underlying problem: The city and county have dedicated virtually no resources to people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of the region’s unsheltered homeless population.

 

Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy

Street scene outside the property where the Seattle Storm wants to build a new practice arena.
Street scene outside the property where the Seattle Storm wants to build a new practice arena.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council’s land use committee voted Friday to fast-track a change to the land use code that will allow a new 50,000-square-foot practice facility for the Seattle Storm WNBA team on industrial land owned by Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in Interbay. Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is friends with (and received a campaign contribution from) Gilder, requested the change, which will allow the Storm to build a sports complex five times larger than what’s currently allowed.

“Seattle has a long tradition of investing in its professional sports franchises,” Gilder said during public comment at a committee meeting earlier this week, pointing to stadiums and practice facilities the city has helped build for the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and the new NHL team, the Kraken. “Now the city has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equity, to step forward and expand that tradition of support to its sole professional women’s sports franchise, the Seattle Storm.”

On Friday, committee chair Dan Strauss said, “It’s important that we show the same support for our most winningest team, the Seattle Storm who have more championships than any of [Seattle’s men’s] teams … combined.”

Critics have argued that the exemption, which would bar any similar facilities in a one-mile radius once the Storm practice site is built, constitutes an illegal “spot zone” to benefit one property owner; defenders of the move, including Strauss, have said that because the bill is a code amendment, not a zoning change, it can’t be considered spot zoning. “Because [a sports practice facility] is a use that is already allowed in these zones, it cannot be inconsistent with the surrounding uses,” Strauss said.

Durkan’s office offered another reason they believe the proposal is “not a spot rezone”: Technically, it impacts 45 parcels, any one of whose owners could theoretically propose a sports complex before the Storm does. “Any owner of eligible property could make use of the provision,” a spokeswoman, Chelsea Kellogg, said. This is a legal fiction—in addition to Gilder, Storm star Sue Bird gave public comment in favor of the change, and Juarez suggested a “no” vote would be a blow against professional women’s sports teams and feminism at large—but it may not matter: Unless someone sues to stop the project, the mayor and council’s legal theory won’t have to stand up in court.

At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across busy West Dravus Street.

Beyond questions of legality, the exemption is completely at odds with the city’s policy of “preserving industrial lands for industrial use,” which was one of Durkan’s top campaign promises to labor unions who supported her. Just last month, a Durkan-appointed task force, which included Gilder, adopted a new industrial lands policy that includes new restrictions on housing and other non-industrial uses in industrial areas. That work group also proposed an amendment to the city’s give plan that would make it virtually impossible to rezone industrial land in the future. Durkan’s office has also proposed legislation that would set new limits on the size of retail stores and storage facilities in industrial areas.

Supporters say allowing a large new sports facility in an industrial area doesn’t conflict with the goal of “keeping industrial lands industrial,” because the legislation is narrowly tailored and wouldn’t produce the kind of car traffic and street life a retail building or housing would. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the area, said, “The planning department made a determination, which I agree with, that it’s somewhat compatible with the uses in the area”—a sliver of Interbay near the BNSF railroad tracks that is not currently in heavy industrial use. “It’s not like we’re taking this land and permanently getting rid of any industrial application for it” by changing the underlying zoning, he said.

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Kellogg, from Durkan’s office, noted that “indoor sports and recreation structures are similar in physical characteristics to industrial structures”—an observation that speaks more to what a building looks like from the outside (big, impenetrable, not for pedestrians) than what happens on the inside. “It does not impede progress towards the Mayor’s proposed strategy to strengthen and grow industrial and maritime sectors,” Kellogg said.

At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across five-lane West Dravus Street.

According to a staff report supporting the proposal, the location of the new practice facility “would allow for functional clusters of recreational activities that could support a variety of camps, competitions, and training opportunities”—an idea that, if it actually happened, would certainly result in a lot more regular people tromping through the industrial part of Interbay to access all those new recreational opportunities. Continue reading “Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy”

Maybe Metropolis: Time Share

Instead of letting new spaces languish during “off hours,” let’s time share the public right-of-way throughout the day.

by Josh Feit

All summer, I’ve been setting up my computer and working afternoons at a picnic table under one of those outdoor dining canopies—one of the approximately 230 that have sprung up during the pandemic. My impromptu afternoon office is at E. Harrison St. on Capitol Hill next to Rione XIII, an Italian spot that seats diners outside under the plywood and plastic roofing all evening. When I settle in there, the restaurant is closed. Typically, I’m the only one using the space at that time of day. I did walk by on Tuesday night last week—the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday nights—and notice that a singer-songwriter with a PA, microphone, and guitar had commandeered the place for a performance; a small audience had gathered.

Turning city right-of-way into curbside seating instead of parking spots is one of the ways we’ve reconfigured city space during the pandemic—and not just for sanctioned dining it seems, but also for DIY uses such as music performances and potential co-working spots.

This amorphous moment has created an opportunity for the city to harness a relatively untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times—like applying the concept of “adult swim” to city spaces— could remake Seattle, particularly if we apply the time-share concept with sustainability and social justice in mind. I’m definitely not talking about Ping-Pong in the Park.

We saw some examples of businesses using time creatively during the pandemic—senior-only shopping hours at grocery stores, for example. But pre-pandemic, with only a handful of exceptions, the city has never truly (or formally) explored the tactic of reserving the same space for different uses at different times. Closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on summer Sundays—and opening it for people to walk, bike, and roll—is perhaps the most notable, and coolest, example, along with (briefly) making a few blocks of Capitol Hill’s nightlife district pedestrian-only on weekend evenings, and turning Ballard Ave. over to a farmers’ market on Sundays.

We have an opportunity to harness an untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times could remake the city for the better.

Generally speaking, Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development Interim Director Rico Quirindongo is excited about the way the pandemic has upended traditionally designated uses.

Prior to COVID-19, he said, “the public realm was owned by single-occupancy vehicles,” and “parking was king. What has happened in a time of COVID is a transformation of that, where [the public realm] was assessed differently. The necessity was around public health. We couldn’t gather indoors. So there was a land grab, if you will, where we the people took it back. We took it back for gathering, we took it back for protest, we took it back for celebrating, we took it back for retail. Are all those things that we want to keep? Hell to the yes.”

As the former chair of the Pike Place Market PDA Council, Quirindongo says he sees the potential for divvying uses up by time. The idea is already afoot organically in the Market, he says. “With Pike Place Market, the lines have been blurred between around to whom does the space belong, and when does it belong to whom. Sometimes it is a marketplace, sometimes it is closed. Sometimes people are walking down the middle the streets, sometimes it is a loading zone. Sometimes it is single-occupancy vehicles. And when and how that happens, is just left up to the organic nature of people and time.” He notes, though, whenever the PDA broached the idea of formally closing the the block to cars in favor of pedestrians, the businesses told them no. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Time Share”

Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts

Evolution Block in Vancouver, B.C.—the kind of multistory industrial building that could come to Seattle under a new proposal for industrial areas. Photo via PC Urban.

by Erica C. Barnett

Walk through the stretch of Ballard that runs roughly from 14th to 8th Ave. NW between NW 53rd Street and Leary Way, and you’ll find no shortage of breweries and taprooms selling hoppy IPAs and farmhouse ales to take home or drink onsite, along with an eclectic assortment of food trucks offering everything from dim sum to burgers to Polish food. What you won’t see is housing: No apartments, condos, or artists’ lofts to break up the area’s single-story industrial monoculture.

The breweries have brought some street-level excitement to this part of Ballard, but the vitality is limited: You can drink beer and buy food from a truck here, but you can’t work in an office, browse in a retail store, or dine at a restaurant—and you certainly can’t live here. Tap rooms (and marijuana shops) represent the limit of what’s allowed in an industrial area like this one in Ballard, which will eventually be a short walk away from Sound Transit’s Ballard light-rail station.

The future of Seattle’s industrial land has been a subject of debate for decades, but the idea of integrating non-industrial uses into these areas, which make up about 12 percent of Seattle’s land, has accelerated in recent years as smaller, more human-scale industrial businesses have replaced smoke-belching traditional manufacturing enterprises in Seattle and across the country. Under a new strategy created at the behest of Mayor Jenny Durkan, however, innovation in these areas would be restricted to small edge zones on the outskirts of industrial districts—and housing would continue to be banned altogether.

In addition to those new restrictions, a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan (the document that governs land use and zoning in Seattle) would make it virtually impossible to take land out of industrial use for any reason—a zoning restriction on par with laws preserving Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones.

In effect, the amendment would bar anyone who owns industrial land from even asking permission to remove it from industrial use—say, to add housing in an area right next to a light rail station. Historically (including this year), individual land owners have asked permission to change their property from industrial to another use as part of the comprehensive plan amendment process, and historically, including this year, the city has rejected such requests.

On Monday, NAIOP Washington, a lobbying organization for commercial real estate developers, wrote a letter to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development asking for more zoning flexibility within a quarter-mile of light rail stations and requesting a more flexible definition of “industrial” to allow a wider range of uses. And they asked the city to reject the proposed comprehensive plan amendment. “[W]e do not believe all 5,000 acres of our City’s industrial lands should be treated the same,” the letter, signed by NAIOP Washington director Peggi Lewis Fu, says.

“We believe in some areas, this work could go further… ensuring that this effort fully considers the billion-dollar taxpayer investment in current and future light-rail transit stations that fall within this study area,” the letter continues.

The new recommendations introduce the concept of “high-density employment” in industrial areas near transit stops—multistory industrial buildings that, in some cases, might include office space. In practice, this type of development would encourage a one-way in-migration to jobs and a one-way out-migration to homes, much as 20th-century transit and highway planning assumed people would commute to cities’ downtown cores from distant residential neighborhoods and suburbs.

Jessica Clawson, an attorney at the firm McCullough Hill Leary in Seattle, asked the city council’s land use committee last month to delay considering the comprehensive plan amendment until next year, when the city will have a better idea of where Sound Transit’s new stations in Interbay and Ballard will go.

“Why would the council docket and study a comp plan amendment now that would make it more difficult to consider these really important transportation decisions when making land use changes [in the future]?” she asked. Clawson’s firm is headed by longtime developer attorney (and political heavy hitter) Jack McCullough, who co-chaired the committee that produced the 2017 proposal.

The Industrial Innovation Network—a group of property owners who want to remove their land from industrial use, allowing them to develop it—has filed an appeal to the city’s determination of [environmental] nonsignificance for the amendment, arguing that the proposal would make it impossible for them to develop housing, including affordable housing, in historically industrial areas near light rail stations “In addition, the Proposal’s restriction of land to only industrial uses will cause some properties to remain vacant or underutilized, with buildings in a state of disrepair, resulting in blight,” the appeal, filed by McCullough Hill Leary, says. 

In a letter to OPCD a week before the IIN filed its appeal, Clawson argued that would take away property owners’ rights to “petition their government” for a land-use change, reduce the usefulness of light rail, and contribute to the housing shortage by taking land out of residential use, potentially “in perpetuity.” 

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter, signed by Clawson, says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

The council voted to move the amendment forward; they haven’t acted on the industrial advisory group’s recommendations, which will face environmental review. The city hearing examiner’s office has the property owners’ appeal on its docket.

Although industrial areas enjoy an enviably low vacancy rate (about 5 percent, compared to an office vacancy rate of 15 percent), the definition of “industrial” continues to shift in ways that have led other cities (notably Portland) to allow some mingling of homes, shops, and restaurants in once walled-off industrial areas. The idea of allowing housing in industrial areas has long been off-limits in Seattle, but the city’s growth—even at the height of COVID, the city grew by 8,400 people, cementing our status as one of the fastest-growing US cities—may force the issue, especially in a city that restricts new apartments to a tiny sliver of its buildable land.

In Seattle, conversations about the future of industrial land have been slow and fitful. In 2016, then-mayor Ed Murray assembled a group of stakeholders—including industrial land owners, planners, developers, and maritime advocacy groups—to come up with a new framework for developing industrial areas in the future. The update was long overdue: Since 2007, when the city dramatically downzoned industrial land by placing strict size limits on office and retail uses, Seattle’s industrial areas have been effectively closed to non-industrial development—a status that keeps land costs lower (no competition with residential and office developers), but can produce dull streetscapes prone to potholes and blight.

“That first [set of meetings] started so contentiously that they couldn’t even have the two sides of the table in the same room for the first three meetings,” SODO Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman recalled. The argument boiled down to “development version preservation of industrial land—this is a hot button issue down here.” Continue reading “Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts”

“Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

Drive through Seattle’s industrial areas—Georgetown, South Park, parts of Ballard, and SoDo—and it’s hard to miss them: Bulky, horizontal concrete blocks lined up like giant Legos along the sides of the street, preventing large vehicles from parking by the roadside.

At Third and Brandon in Georgetown, around the corner from the headquarters of the LGBTQ+ health care organization Lifelong, a row of bright-white barricades prevent any vehicle longer than a passenger van from parking on the street. Along a quiet, wide stretch of road near West Marginal Way in South Park, graffiti is just starting to pop up on an older, graying line of blocks set a dozen feet apart across a chain-link fence from a modern apartment building.

The blocks, known as “ecology blocks” because they’re made of waste material that concrete producers would otherwise throw away, are there to prevent large vehicles—primarily RVs—from parking in front of businesses. They started proliferating in industrial areas, which are the only areas where Seattle allows RVs to park overnight, during the pandemic, when the city suspended rules requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours.

Equinox Studios owner Sam Farrazaino, who says the blocks have given his neighborhood the feel of a “war zone,” has installed a number of the blocks around land he owns in Georgetown, although he says he used his “eco blocks” to “define parking” for his business, painted them to make them more attractive, and did not put them in the public right-of-way. “It’s a complicated… debate,” said Farrazaino, who described a rat infestation on a lot surrounded with RVs that made the ground look like “a moving carpet.” On the other hand, he said, “We keep pushing people around and saying we solved the problem, but the end result of the people with the power and land being able to push out that people that don’t have power and don’t have land is terrible.”‘

Although most of the debate about unsheltered homelessness centers on people living in tents in so-called “unauthorized encampments” (in Seattle, there is no other kind), about a quarter of people living without shelter in the city live in RVs, which are only allowed to park overnight in industrial areas. The city dedicates few resources to helping this group, who are often seen as less vulnerable than tent residents and are unlikely to “accept” the city’s offers of shelter, because even so-called enhanced shelters, which are open during the day and allow people to bring their partners and pets, provide less privacy and autonomy than the most rundown RV.

Years of efforts by advocates and city council members to create “safe lots” for RV residents have been unsuccessful, thanks largely to neighborhood objections that have made it difficult to site lots for ordinary cars and trucks, much less RVs. And while the city council recently allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds could create safe parking spaces for between 20 and 30 RVs, that represents a tiny fraction of the need; according to the most recent count of homeless people in King County, nearly 1,000 people were living in RVs, and vehicular homelessness expert Graham Pruss, an academic researcher who has advised the city on the needs of people living in vehicles, says the true number is likely much higher.

“The reality is that the people who live in the vehicles and the people who own the businesses who are angry about the vehicles are all subject to the same problem: There is not a private place for the person who lives in that vehicle to park, and if they don’t have a place to park, they are forced to occupy that public street,” Pruss said.

Compounding the conflict, the city has used laws and informal policies, such as “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs, to push RVs deeper into nonresidential areas, usually far away from frequent transit lines, hygiene centers, and agencies that provide resources like job assistance and addiction treatment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would stop enforcing the 72-hour parking rule so that people could work from home; one year later, she announced she was reinstating the regulation, forcing people who had been living in one place for a year or more to get their vehicles in working order or risk losing them. 

Homeless service providers say the suspension of the rule had positive effects for vehicle residents, who didn’t have to deal with the daily stress of finding another place to park. “It was nice for them to have a reprieve where they didn’t have to move every 72 hours, where they could be in place and connect to service providers from one location and get more accomplished,” said Rebecca Gilley, the SoDo outreach coordinator for the homeless outreach group REACH. 

But it also led to increased conflicts with nearby business owners, who complained that people occupying space on the street were making it impossible for customers to park, committing crimes, and causing unhealthy and unsanitary conditions around their vehicles.

“There were folks who were here for a year and a half, blocking the whole sidewalk on both sides and blocking part of the travel lanes with all the stuff they had accumulated” around their RV, Farrazaino said. “If it was a house and the living conditions were the same as these, the county and the city would have shut it down and condemned the house.”

Placing ecology blocks or boulders in the public right-of-way without permission, as many businesses have done, is illegal under city law; theoretically, anyone who does so can be fined up to $4,000 for each individual violation.

The problem is, the blocks are cheap to put in place and expensive to remove. Farrazaino said he paid about $20 apiece for his ecology blocks, which he bought from Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel in Ballard. The biggest expense, he added, was moving them. “We drove back and forth to Salmon Bay with a big rental truck to get the ones we have here,” Farrazaino said. “It’s just a matter of moving them around with a forklift that can handle it.”

Removing the blocks would require the city to devote money, manpower, and storage space to addressing the problem, plus enforcement to ensure the blocks don’t come back. “Part of the challenge is that each ecology blocks weighs 1-2 tons, and more blocks continue appearing in new areas,” Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. “Removing these massive obstructions is costly and our employees are busy completing important work to maintain our streets and infrastructure.”

Mariajose Barrera, who owns Mose Auto in Georgetown, said she installed ecology blocks near her business because of “the garbage, the nuisance, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampments.” For example, she said, someone parked a large box truck outside her auto shop for several weeks and was using it to hold stolen goods; more recently, someone broke into her shop and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools.

“We’ve been working to be able to have parking for our own businesses and kind of deter people from long-term parking, because the garbage, the nuisances, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampment—it’s really rough.” Barrera said. Seattle Public Utilities provides garbage pickup and sewage pump-out services to some RVs through its RV remediation and pump-out programs, but the utility can’t serve every site, so garbage, sewage, and gas and chemical spills remain persistent problems.

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“Unfortunately, we’ve had set up these eco blocks because we’re not getting any other help from the city,” Barrera continued. “It’s unfair—we all work for our stuff and for these people to just come in take whatever they want, whenever they want, without any accountability is not okay.”

Part of his frustration, Farrazaino said, stems from the fact that the city has pushed people living in RVs into industrial areas, which make up just 12 percent of the city’s land. Gentrification in places like SoDo and industrial Ballard, where breweries and retail storefronts are overtaking traditional industrial businesses, has constrained options for vehicle residents even further; you’re less likely to get hassled or swept if you live next to a steel fabrication plant than in front of a popular bar. The result is more conflicts between RV residents and businesses in places like Georgetown and South Park, and the proliferation of barricades to keep them from coming back.

“SoDo is pushing everyone down here [to Georgetown] because they have a [business improvement area] and money to hire security,” Farrazaino said. A business advocacy group might give Georgetown or South Park more clout with the city; Erin Goodman, the director of the SoDo BIA, has pushed the city to crack down on RVs from the area for years, arguing that the presence of people living in vehicles has contributed to crime and filth in the area. Continue reading ““Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness”

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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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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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”