Tag: Greg Spotts

SDOT Decries Tactical Urbanism While Allowing Eco-Blocks All Over the City

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Department of Transportation forgot the first rule of holes when its social media rep posted a testy defense of SDOT’s decision to swiftly eliminate an unauthorized crosswalk at a dangerous Capitol Hill intersection.

Responding to a person who posted a photo of an SDOT crew power-washing the guerrilla crosswalk away, SDOT wrote, “We are always interested in working with residents and businesses on ways to make walking safer and more comfortable and will evaluate the intersection to see how we might replace the unauthorized crosswalk. In the meantime, it will have to be removed. Improperly painted crosswalks give a false sense of safety which puts pedestrians in danger. There are better ways for people to work w/ us to indicate crossing improvement needs & to make sure changes achieve what is intended—get people to their destinations safely.”

In response, hundreds of Seattle residents piled on with stories about their own often-futile attempts to get SDOT to improve pedestrian safety in their neighborhoods, mocked (and interrogated) the idea that “unofficial” paint makes crosswalks less safe, and questioned why the department leaped into action to remove the guerrilla crosswalk while telling Seattle residents that their requests for safety improvements would need to go through the years-long Seattle Process.

Then, amid the furor, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s new SDOT director jumped in the thread, lashing out at one poster (among many) who suggested that SDOT’s primary mission is to make the city safe for cars (a pretty common charge against city transportation departments nationwide.) “There is not a single person at SDOT who comes to work hoping fewer people cross the street. This is a propagandistic comment that is pure disinformation,” Spotts wrote.

“Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening.”—SDOT director Greg Spotts, responding to tweets supporting a guerrilla crosswalk on Capitol Hill

Down that thread, Spotts responded to a tweet about SDOT’s utter indifference to the illegal placement of “eco blocks” to prevent homeless people from parking in public rights-of-way around the city. “Placing of ecoblocks is not acceptable And “I’m unwilling to pull SDOT crews off important safety projects to remove ecoblocks,” Spotts wrote. (In other words—as SDOT has told this publication before—it is actually acceptable, in the sense that SDOT will continue to accept it.) Even further downthread, Spotts mentioned another issue with unauthorized crosswalks, one not directly related to safety: “Liability.”

In all, Spotts responded to dozens of tweets, defending SDOT’s decision and suggesting that people go through official participation channels rather than engaging in tactical urbanism. “Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening,” Spotts wrote.

In the past, when citizens have altered crosswalks to represent their neighborhood—including a Pride flag on Broadway and a Pan-African black, red, and green crosswalk in the Central District—previous SDOT directors responded much differently, working with communities to paint the crosswalks in ways that make them more durable and visible to drivers. (Until 2017, there was even an official Department of Neighborhoods website for neighbors to apply for non-traditional crosswalks.) This administration, in contrast, seems intent on digging in its heels.

In response to the backlash, SDOT issued a statement that continued in the same chiding tone. “We have heard the message loudly and clearly that the public wants more crossing and safety improvements.  We appreciate the passion which has driven someone to paint their own crosswalk, however this is not the right way to voice your desire for change,” the statement reads. “There are standards which we are legally required to follow when painting a crosswalk. The unauthorized markings at E Olive Way and Harvard Ave E have been removed because they do not comply with city standards.”

Eco-blocks, which also do not comply with city law (and which residents use explicitly to deprive people of places to live), apparently do not rise to the level of urgency created by unauthorized lines on the ground.

New SDOT Director Talks Scooters, Streetcar, and Sweeps; A Closer Look at City Grant to Social Club Harrell Headed

New SDOT director Greg Spotts
New SDOT director Greg Spotts

1. Greg Spotts, the newly confirmed director of Seattle’s transportation department, spoke with reporters Wednesday on a wide range of topics, including scooters, the proposed downtown streetcar connector, and his plan to do a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, which is currently far off track.

Spotts, who previously headed up StreetsLA, a division of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, said he was currently agnostic on both the appropriate number of scooters the city should permit and the debate over whether to revive work on the downtown streetcar, which former mayor Jenny Durkan paused during her term. As Spotts noted, scooter sharing proliferated in LA after the city decided to allow any qualified company to operate in the city, but didn’t really serve low-income areas or communities of color.

“What it produced was an overabundance of scooters in the obvious places where there’s a lot of density and a lot of money, and … very few scooters in communities of color,” Spotts said. Even with incentives for placing scooters in underserved areas, they continued to cluster in wealthy, tourist-heavy neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown LA. “So it’s not obvious how to make this public private partnership to produce all the public goods that you want, but maybe we’re in the very, very early stages of figuring that out.”

Similarly, Spotts said he might support expanding the streetcar if there’s evidence it will improve the economic climate in the areas it serves. The new downtown section of streetcar would create a loop connecting two separate streetcar lines, connecting South Lake Union to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. All three areas are already connected by frequent transit, which—along with low ridership on the existing streetcar—raises questions about whether a new streetcar segment would justify its cost, currently estimated at almost $300 million.

“There’s operational benefits, right? Instead of running two segments, running one big one,” Spotts said. “But what would push it over the top, I think, is it analysis that it could be an important catalyst for our small businesses in downtown, for our tourist economy, for our cultural institutions.”

One issue Spotts declined to address is SDOT’s role in removing homeless encampments from sidewalks; SDOT staffers (including some currently vacant positions) make up more than half the members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 70 staffers who removes encampment. (The UCT also includes six members of the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach and makes shelter offers prior to sweeps).

“At this early stage, I’m really deferring to the mayor’s office to utilize the departments as they want to for the larger policies that they’re pursuing,” Spotts said. “And I’m not looking to introduce some personal opinions into that. I’m just here to here to assist in whatever way they want us to assist.”

2. After we reported on the fact that the city awarded nearly $800,000 to a private men’s social club that Mayor Bruce Harrell chaired until late last year, we took another look at the record to see if there was any precedent for the city awarding Equitable Development Initiative dollars to any similar institution.

Over the five years the city has been making EDI awards, about three dozen organizations have received significant grants from the fund. Many of the groups that have received multiple grants are engaged in low-income housing development, create community spaces that are open to the public, or provide social or health services to particular communities.

For example, the Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown, the Rainier Valley Midwives, Chief Seattle Club, and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle have all received multiple EDI awards over the past five years. Other grant recipients in past years include Cham Refugees Community, the Somali Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and the Filipino Community of Seattle.

A few of the grant recipients provide cultural space and put on events that are open to the ticket-buying public, including Black and Tan Hall and the Wing Luke Museum. None is a private social club—except the Royal Esquire Club.

It’s unclear whether the Royal Esquire Club has sought public funding from the city in the past; we’ve requested a list of all previous EDI grant applicants through a public records request. The club, which was at the center of another controversy involving Harrell while he was City Council president, has never received an EDI award in the program’s history; the $782,000 the club will receive is more than twice its annual revenues for 2019, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.

Anti-Election Reform Campaign Emerges, Next Year’s Election Starts Shaping Up, New SDOT Director Says He’ll Take Vision Zero Down to the Studs

Map of fatal and serious crashes in Seattle from June 2022 SDOT presentation.
Map of fatal and serious crashes in Seattle from June 2022 SDOT presentation.

1. Next year, all seven district-based city council positions will be on the ballot, and several names have already begun to circulate as potential contenders.

In District 1 (West Seattle), Meta (and former Microsoft) attorney Rob Saka, who served on the King County Council redistricting committee, is reportedly considering a bid against incumbent Lisa Herbold if she runs again next year.

Saka told PubliCola he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run, but confirmed he has met with Harrell as well as “fellow daycare and public school parents, early childhood education providers, leaders in the Black community I used to work with when I served on the boards of the Urban League and the Loren Miller Bar Association (civil rights organization of Black lawyers in Washington State), through my work in policing and legal reforms, and with current and former elected leaders throughout the region.

“I have nothing to announce or confirm, and I remain 100% focused on current obligations — from my legal practice in a new role in my ‘day job’ to the Police Chief search, to helping my kids get back to school,” Saka continued. “That said, I am grateful for the initial discussions—and strong encouragement—from so many as I think about potential longer term next steps in my career and public service.”

In District 2, Tammy Morales (who filled Harrell’s council position when he declined to run for reelection in 2019) could see a challenge from community advocate Chukundi Salisbury, who ran for state representative in the 37th District and was defeated by Kirsten Harris-Talley in 2020; Salisbury did not return an email seeking comment.

In District 3 (Central Seattle), represented since 2015 by socialist Kshama Sawant, cannabis entrepreneur and Jackson Place Community Council leader Alex Cooley told PubliCola he’s “strongly considering” a run against Sawant, who he says has “never been interested in so the problems of the district or the city.” Cooley owns the SoDo-based company Solstice, which grows and processes cannabis that’s sold in stores across the region; he said that it’s “kind of a neighborhood joke [in the district] that you will never hear back from Councilmember Sawant.”

“The city has been on a pretty long decline for at least the past five years—really about 10—and I don’t see Councilmember Sawant solving the problems that the city’s dealing with, [and] is actually part of that decline and lack of progress,” Cooley said.

As a business owner in SoDo, Cooley said he’s seen his share of half-implemented solutions to the problem of homelessness, which in industrial areas often means people living in RVs. Seattle has “fits and starts of good ideas” but fails to commit to them, Cooley said. “We  tried to do the experiment of an RV safe lot, which I’m a huge proponent of, but no one managed it, no one ran it, and so it evolved into chaos.”

Cooley said he’ll take the next few months to make a decision before filing for council races starts in January. Including her first citywide race in 2013, Sawant has won three elections by increasingly narrow margins; she narrowly beat back a recall effort last year.

This item has been corrected to reflect the fact that Chukundi Salisbury lives in District 2, not District 3, and updated with comments from Rob Saka.

2. In November, voters will get to decide whether and how to replace the city’s current first-past-the-post primary elections by saying yes to ranked choice voting or approval voting or no to both. Ranked-choice voting gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference, while approval voting allows voters to “approve” as many candidates that they like, with the top two candidates moving forward to the general election.

Advocates for both proposals say their system would result in elected officials who better represent the views and interests of voters, by allowing them to choose a whole slate of acceptable candidates instead of betting their entire vote on a single person. Advocates for the status quo say the alternatives are confusing and open the system to new forms of gamemanship.

Now, a group of business owners, organized as Seattle for Election Simplicity, has formed to make the case for the status quo. Campaign filings show the group has raised around $35,000 in contributions, all of it (so far) from people who represent business and banking interests in and around Seattle. Among the contributors are HomeStreet Bank and its CEO, Mark Mason ($5,000 total), Costco co-founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal ($5,000), telecom billionaire and Mariners co-owner John Stanton ($5,000), developer Jon Runstad ($5,000), Space Needle chairman Jeffrey Wright ($5,000), and former Starbucks president Howard Behar ($2,500).

So far, almost half of the contributions to Seattle for Election Simplicity, over $15,000, come from outside Seattle. This actually compares favorably to Seattle Approves, which has obtained 87 percent of its almost $500,000 in contributions from outside city limits. The campaign for ranked-choice voting has only reported one contribution so far.

Spotts said he would start work on Vision Zero by doing a detailed assessment of which “interventions” (a category that might include protected and unprotected bike lanes, bus bulbs, road diets, and pedestrian-first stop lights) are working to reduce casualties and which ones aren’t. “We know we have some corridors that are very vehicular-oriented,” Spotts said.

3. The city council’s transportation committee unanimously recommended approving Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to direct the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) on Tuesday, after a brief volley of questions focusing on issues like pedestrian safety and tree canopy in South Seattle, bridge maintenance, and Seattle’s lack of progress on Vision Zero, a plan to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

Spotts said he would start work on Vision Zero by doing a detailed assessment of which “interventions” (a category that might include protected and unprotected bike lanes, bus bulbs, road diets, and pedestrian-first stop lights) are working to reduce casualties and which ones aren’t. “We know we have some corridors that are very vehicular-oriented,” Spotts said.

Later, after District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales noted that 56 percent of traffic fatalities happened in Southeast Seattle, Spotts added, “I want to spend some more time out on Rainier. I did do some walking and there are places where there’s a very wide crossing distance to get across unsignalized freeway on-ramps and off-ramps, which is a scary thing to get across.”

The safety problems with areas like Aurora Ave. N and Rainier Ave. S have been well-documented for decades (hell, I’ve been covering them myself since at least 2006), and the solutions that will work to address them are no mystery, either: When the city narrowed a portion of Rainier that runs through now-chichi Columbia City, people stopped driving their cars into businesses and there were fewer traffic collisions, because people could no longer drive at freeway speeds through the neighborhood.

North of Columbia City, where Seattle has continued to do almost nothing to slow traffic or provide opportunities for pedestrian to cross the street safely, the crashes, injuries, and deaths continued. Notably, the city has made almost no major changes to calm traffic along the speed-inducing corridor since approving the “road diet” (after almost a decade of opposition, including from then-council member Harrell) in 2015. Cutesy signs, “empowering” billboards, and slightly lower speed limits won’t cut it; more stoplights, signaled crosswalks, and a narrower travel path for people in cars can and will.

Ban on Narcan Continues Amid Overdoses at Libraries; Harrell’s Pick for SDOT Director Answers Council Questions

1. Last month, we reported on the Seattle Public Library’s directive telling staff not to carry or use Narcan, or naloxone—a nasal spray that can restore breathing in people overdosing on opioids—because of potential liability issues.

The state’s Good Samaritan law exempts people who provide emergency care from civil liability, but a library spokeswoman said City Attorney Ann Davison’s office advised the library that library staffers were “likely” not covered by the law. King County Public Libraries, which operates outside Seattle, also bars staff from using Narcan.

Public libraries are among the only indoor places where people experiencing homelessness can go during the day without being expected to make a purchase or explain why they’re there. They’ve also been the location for dozens of fatal and nonfatal overdoses in recent years. According to data provided by the King County Department of Public Health, there have been at least 42 likely overdoses in or outside public libraries in King County since 2019, including 16 inside library branches. Since 2017, at least eight people have died of drug-related causes at libraries in King County, half of them in Seattle, including at least four involving opiates like heroin and fentanyl.

Bans on using Narcan force library staffers to call 911 and wait for emergency responders to arrive, adding several potentially fatal minutes to the time an overdosing person is unconscious and not receiving oxygen to their brain.

A review of recent fire department reports for overdoses at Seattle Public Library branches shows that it takes emergency responders between three and five minutes to arrive on the scene of an overdose and start administering aid. These reports also show that on at least one occasion, back in April, someone at the downtown Seattle library revived a patron with Narcan, the drug library staffers were formally barred from using just three months later.

The ban on using Narcan is based on the belief that library staffers, unlike other Washington state residents, are not protected under the state’s Good Samaritan laws when they administer aid. By that standard, library staffers shouldn’t be able to offer first aid to patrons experiencing minor medical emergencies, or attempt to assist people experiencing heat stroke when they come to the library to cool off in the summer. And yet they manage to do both. Why are overdoses categorically different?

2. Greg Spotts, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to lead the Seattle Department of Transportation, submitted detailed answers this week to a list of questions from the city council’s transportation committee about his goals for his first year, plan to get Vision Zero back on track, and ideas about how to create a more equitable transportation system. Spotts’ responses t check off a lot of boxes for people who support urbanism and alternatives to driving alone.

For example, in response to a question about creating “connected safe spaces for people to move throughout the city” without a car, Spotts noted that in many cases, “pressure to preserve just a few curbside parking spaces stands in the way of conveying cyclists safely across a busy intersection. Too many of our bike and pedestrian routes have discontinuities that render the route significantly less safe, useful and attractive than it could have been.” In 2019, former mayor Jenny Durkan killed plans to build a protected bike lane along a dangerous stretch of 35th Ave. NE after neighborhood and business groups argued that removing a few curbside parking spaces would devastate businesses in Wedgwood and Ravenna.

However, Spotts also hedged a bit when talking about commitments to new bike infrastructure, responding to a question about whether he would support creating new protected bike lanes as part of road resurfacing projects with an artful dodge. “I fully intend to support projects and routes as called for in the Council-approved Bicycle Master Plan; and will be engaging with staff, subject matter experts, and community as these projects are developed and constructed,” he wrote. As the Urbanist has reported, the city is currently working to integrate all its transportation related “master plans” into a single mega-plan, a move that some advocates worry could further reduce the city’s commitments to nonmotorized transportation.

He also ducked questions about whether parking enforcement officers belong at SDOT and if he would commit to removing the large concrete “eco-blocks” that business owners place illegally in the public right-of-way to keep people living in oversize vehicles from having a place to park. (Councilmember Sara Nelson, whose own business, Fremont Brewing, continues to flagrantly violate this law, is not on the transportation committee).

 

Previous SDOT directors learned the hard way that specific commitments can be tough to implement if they conflict with what their boss, the mayor, wants—which is probably why, when asked about equity in transportation investments, Spotts said only that Seattle’s most deadly streets for cyclists and pedestrians, Rainier Ave. S and Aurora Ave. N., “can potentially be reenvisioned to meet community needs.” Harrell has made it clear that his top transportation priorities include maintaining and repairing basic infrastructure like streets and bridges, not big-reach projects like protected bike paths connecting every part of the city.

Seattle will hear more from Spotts next month, when the transportation committee considers his nomination again after the council returns from summer recess.

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.