Tag: Tom Rasmussen

Tom Rasmussen: Not Going Down Without a Pout

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City council member Tom Rasmussen may be leaving office in December, but you’d think he was pandering to the zero-growth faction of the Seattle electorate at this afternoon’s council meeting, when he gave an impassioned speech on behalf of amendments that would have made bad legislation that did pass this morning even worse.

Last week, Rasmussen failed to pass five of eight amendments to a bill, sponsored by Mike O’Brien, that will make it more difficult to build in low-rise zones—areas adjacent to single-family areas where low-density multifamily housing, like townhomes and small apartment buildings, are allowed. The legislation adopted today lowers density by a variety of means, including counting exterior stairways as part of a building’s “density,”  limiting the height of clerestories (small additions to allow lofted ceilings), and requiring gaps between “rowhouses” or even row houses that stand alone, which raises a pretty big existential question: How can a row house be a row house if it isn’t in a row?

Even all those new restrictions weren’t enough for Rasmussen, who said the new density restrictions would still allow developers to “bulldoze our neighborhoods” and destroy their historical character with new buildings. “With this legislation, the table is set, and the developers will have a feast,” Rasmussen said.

And then, as if there was somehow a shortage of wealthy white homeowners available to organize and turn out for a daytime meeting from which lower-income folks and renters were effectively excluded, Rasmussen effusively applauded those landowning activists who showed up in scores to testify about how their neighborhood “character” (or at least the character of their property values) would be destroyed if developers were allowed to build four-foot lofts in the third story of their buildings, or if the city no longer forced developers to include parking for studio apartments in the middle of the city.

After assuring the single-family activists that “your voices and your concerns will be reflected in the legislation that I will put before the council” last month, Rasmussen did them one better today and suggested that a group of “developer advocates” were calling them NIMBYs as “a tactic to discourage participation” by scaring them away. (NIMBY, remember, just stands for “not in my backyard,” which is exactly what the folks in council chambers today were saying about small apartment buildings and two-story townhouses adjacent to their properties).

“We must do more than allow everybody to speak for one or two minutes at a public hearing,” Rasmussen, growing increasingly animated, continued. “We must make sure that everyone is allowed the opportunity to provide meaningful involvement in planning and accommodating growth.” At the words “accommodating growth (because growth, remember, consists of abstract numbers, not actual people), the crowd burst into uproarious applause.

Rasmussen, like every departing council member, wants to leave his mark on the city. Six months before his last term ends,  it looks like the legacy he’ll leave is a string of failed, increasingly petulant efforts to give a particular class of residents (homeowners, ranked in value according to how long they and their families have lived in Seattle) veto power over what their new neighbors are allowed to do.


Density Opponents: Seattle Will Look Like “Eastern Europe” Unless Council Intervenes


Density opponents mobilized in their dozens for this afternoon’s council planning and land use committee meeting, winning plaudits from neighborhood conservation district booster Tom Rasmussen and foreshadowing a potential vote for a more-extreme version of a proposal to restrict development in low-rise neighborhoods.

The legislation, which I described in detail last month, would effectively downzone Seattle’s low-rise neighborhoods–areas that make up about 10 percent of the city’s land–by placing new restrictions on what can be built in those neighborhoods and by recalculating what counts as housing development. The proposed changes include counting things like exterior stairways toward density limits, limiting the height clerestories (small additions to allow lofted ceilings) mandating wedding-cake-style setbacks at the tops of buildings, and prohibiting some row houses.

The effect of all the new regulations, which were proposed by council member Mike O’Brien over objections from Mayor Ed Murray, would be to decrease allowed density in low-rise zones between 20 and 25 percent.

However, because O’Brien’s version does eliminate some of the more egregious elements of the Department of Planning and Development proposal (including a provision that would effectively bar daylight basement apartments on sloped lots and one that would have mandated a three-foot gap between many “row houses”), single-family homeowners were out in force, hankies and photos of their “ruined” neighborhoods in hand. (Seriously: At least two speakers cried during their testimony about the impact newcomers would have on their neighborhoods).

Only two or three folks who supported scaling back the downzone slightly showed up to speak, thanks most likely to the fact that the meeting was held at 2 in the afternoon, a time much friendlier to the retirees who came out to speak than the renters who didn’t. People often say policy is determined by who shows up. But when you structure the whole system so that only homeowners, the wealthy, and those with leisure time can do so, it becomes pretty hard to argue that the system isn’t rigged.

So, who showed up? In shorthand terms, people who argued that their neighborhoods were being destroyed; people who suggested that newcomers were all rich and didn’t care about the neighborhoods were destroying; people who believed, and said explicitly, that people who moved here more recently should have less say over what happens in their neighborhoods; and people who seemed to genuinely think that homeowners should have the right to dictate the terms of development, no matter what the law or city council have to say about it.

Remember, the homeowners who turn out to object to development in low-rise zones by and large do not live in single-family areas, which are protected and treated as sacrosanct by all the city’s long-term planning documents.

Some themes that emerged from the hearing, which began, as all good public hearings do, with indistinct shouting:

Gay people/poor people/old people will end up on the street if you don’t downzone low-rise neighborhoods to be as much like single-family zones as possible.

“I’ve lived in Fremont since 1981. No one seems to be speaking for Fremont because everybody has left. The people moving in to Fremont now make $100,000 a year.”

“I bought house when I was making $7 an hour. Please protect your people from the ravages of greed that have been unleashed over them.”

“‘Affordable housing’ is only a ruse for further profit.” (Oh, wait: That last one was city council member Kshama Sawant).

Conversely, if you allow this particular downzone to pass, those people are going to come here, which will also ruin the neighborhood.


“The process has been discarded into the round file. Microhousing [buildings are] hotels for transient people coming in[to] our Ravenna Woods urban village. … We are going to be receiving over 110 micro units with no provision for parking or design review.”

People have dreams, and the city council exists to crush them.

“My husband and I dreamed of moving into Seattle and living where we only need one car or no car. With 44 units [going in], I’m not sure we’re going to be able to have that dream anymore. It shouldn’t always be about next residents that are coming into town. What about the people who are here?”

“I love my house. I always thought I would die in our house. And as soon as my daughter goes to college, I’m leaving. I can’t stand what you have done to our neighborhoods.”

Neighborhood residents (those who own houses, at least), not the city, should have the power to dictate what development looks like.

“If you’re listening to these people (developers), I’m afraid. Please, can you make them look like houses in our neighborhood?” (The speaker later clarified that these were “Craftsman houses.”)

“[We’re saying], keep the neighborhoods the way they were when we first saw them, and in comes a bunch of developers with shoddy development and very little concern about working with the community.

Density (again: we’re talking four-story buildings here) will turn once-quaint neighborhoods into barren urban hellscapes/Cold War Romania/treeless wastelands where the sky is only a distant memory. But mostly, post-communist Eastern Europe.

“Dear architects, please stop this city from looking like an Eastern Bloc city. … You are creating a monster of gridlock such that in an emergency, no one will be able to get out of the city.”

“What you are doing is sanctioning these developers to cram in as many wealthy people as possible into giant buildings that look like they’re in an Eastern Bloc city.”

“I recently traveled to Eastern Europe, and I look at Ballard and I see that, Oh my god, this is Eastern Europe. This is where we’re headed. Do you not get it?”

At the end of public comment, after one speaker responded to Mike O’Brien, who told her she was at the end of her time, by spitting, “And so are you!”, Rasmussen praised the crowd for a “very, very impressive turnout,” adding, perhaps unwittingly, that “if we had had it in the evening, we would have had a much bigger turnout.

“I want to assure those who are here and those who can’t be here that I will ensure that your voices and your concerns will be reflected in the legislation that I will put before the council,” Rasmussen said, before promising to either amend the legislation to increase its density restrictions or propose legislation of his own–apparently an oblique reference to his proposed neighborhood conservation district proposal, which would effectively create and empower homeowners’ associations in Seattle neighborhoods.

Rasmussen, Licata, and Sawant (who does not sit on the PLUS committee but showed up for this hearing) will likely vote to roll back the O’Brien changes when they come up for a committee vote later this month.

Rasmussen’s Anti-Density Conservation District Bill Screams “Unintended Consequences”

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I got my hands on a copy of the draft of Tom Rasmussen’s bill that would give property owners the ability to create special districts in which development must be in keeping with the “character of the neighborhood,” known as neighborhood conservation districts, last week. (PubliCola also got the draft, and reported on it in Fizz on THursday).

Rasmussen’s bill would allow 50 percent of the landowners in a neighborhood, including those who do not live in the area such as nonresident landlords or part-time residents, to vote to create a conservation district. The board of that district would then be allowed to determine what does and doesn’t get built in a neighborhood, banning, for example, new apartment buildings that are allowed by the zoning code but which don’t fit in with nearby Craftsman houses, or telling neighbors they can’t add a mother-in-law apartment that they decide is out of keeping with neighborhood “character.”

Character, of course, is a common dog whistle for anti-density activists who don’t want apartment buildings or renters in “their” neighborhood, and a palatable argument for preserving neighborhoods in amber even as tens of thousands of new residents move to Seattle and need somewhere to live. It’s also a way of saying, “I like things as they were 40 years ago, and I think those new apartments are ugly.” As Rasmussen himself put it in a contentious planning commission meeting last month, neighbors “don’t like the plastic material that’s being put on some of these buildings. They look cheap, horrible.”

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 10.43.25 AMThe details of Rasmussen’s proposal, needless to say, will do nothing to mollify critics of the proposal like the 15 members of the Seattle Planning Commission who objected strenuously to the very idea of NCDs, which are, as all 15 planning commissioners argued in a letter to Rasmussen in April, could create “unintended consequences” such as preventing redevelopment, driving up housing costs and limiting affordable housing development, and allowing current residents to dictate development and redevelopment patterns on a patchwork basis, without regard for citywide housing goals or problems of race and social justice.

The draft, prime-authored by council central staffer Rebecca Herzfeld (who in private life is a neighborhood activist who opposed tall buildings and microhousing in her upscale Capitol Hill neighborhood and even lobbied the council, her bosses, to prohibit small retail businesses in apartment buildings), would give property owners, and property owners only, ill-defined and virtually unlimited power to dictate what gets built in a neighborhood.

The draft, which includes notes from staffers, would allow property owners in a neighborhood and within 300 feet of its boundaries to bypass existing zoning and development codes in numerous ways. Its stated goal is to “maintain the integrity of designated” NCDs and to “protect the character of neighborhoods with a distinctive character,” which is defined vaguely as features “representative of a period of the city’s development or cultural history that is worthy of conservation.” Although the ordinance goes on to specify that the neighborhood must have “identifiable attributes embodied in architecture, urban design, landscape design, uses, or history that make the district an important part of the city,” which structures will be deemed “worthy” is, again, up to a majority of land owners in a neighborhood.

In practice, the legislation would:

• Give neighborhoods the ability to direct the Department of Planning and Development to override or waive existing zoning and land use codes, imposing new, de facto codes in an area that are more restrictive than the adopted zoning. According to the legislation, “District standards and guidelines may apply aditional rquirements or allow exceptions to the standard regulations of the underlying zone to conserve the character of a designated area.”

In practice, this could mean that residents could have city-sanctioned authority to require larger yards and setbacks, mandate shorter buildings (limiting the profitability of building more densely), prohibit backyard cottages (which are currently allowed in single-family zones throughout the city), and mandate that developers build more parking than is legally required.

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 10.44.59 AM• Stipulate that any new development that doesn’t conform to district rules “shall not be detrimental to other properties in the zone or vicinity or to the public interest,” a standard that sounds reasonable enough until you realize that it’s not defined and could mean just about anything.

• Require environmental review (a process that adds substantial time and cost to new developments) any time a “contributing structure,” say, a Craftsman house, “is proposed to be demolished. In other words, anyone tearing down an old house could be required to submit an environmental impact statement to the city.

• Exclude renters, who make up more than half of Seattle’s population, not only from the process of approving conservation districts that limit development and could make living in such areas more expensive, but also from the requirement that residents be notified that major new development restrictions could be coming to their neighborhood or invited to a public hearing on the changes. Renters, contrary to popular belief, are often quite invested in their neighborhoods and live in those neighborhoods for many years, yet the NCD legislation erases them from every step of the process.

• Create a de facto homeowners association among property owners in a conservation district, requiring a special Certificate of Approval when a homeowner wants to alter the “external appearance of any building identified as contributing to the character of a district.” This could mean anything from the color of a facade or an addition to a private house. A property owner who wants to make alterations to their building would have to submit before-and-after site plans, before-and-after elevations, and “photographs of any existing features that would be altered and photographs showing the context of those features, such as the building facade where they are located.”

“The NCD [Officer] shall recommend denial of any application that is not consistent with the development standards for the district.”

In response to a citizens’ records request, the city also provided a draft briefing paper by consultant Kjristine Lund of Lund Consulting, which was apparently supposed to be a review of how the legislation could address the issue of affordability, which, on its face, would clearly be threatened by major restrictions on new development. (It should be noted that the affordable housing that low-income housing activists are trying to preserve to prevent displacement is generally in older apartment buildings that would not be considered “contributing structures” to a neighborhood’s “character,” and so wouldn’t typically be protected from demolition in NCDs).

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 10.45.20 AMAlthough it aims to demonstrated that allowing property owners to dictate new restrictions on development won’t displace or price out low-income residents, the report brushes aside concerns about gentrification by noting passively that “There is also belief by some that [NCDs] result in gentrification that displaces lower income residents.” This is followed up by examples of scholarly studies that supposedly disprove this belief, and noting that “some neighborhood conservation districts have made the development and preservation of affordable housing an explicit purpose and goal for creation of the district.” In practice, the briefing paper continues, this has led to regulations that discourage displacement, rather than regulations that allow more new affordable housing to be built in a conservation district.

Displacement is only a fraction of the affordable housing problem rapidly developing cities like Seattle face, and restricting the development of new housing for the 100,000 or so people expected to move here in the next 20 years is going to worsen the affordability problem, not alleviate it. The legislation itself encourages NCD officers to “support efforts of members of disadvantaged communities to create conservation districts in their area,” but if those disadvantaged community members are renters, they’re explicitly prevented from creating conservation districts by the same legislation. Neither the report nor the legislation itself makes the case that affordable housing will be helped instead of hurt by allowing homeowners, not policymakers, to dictate the direction of development in the city.

Rasmussen, who is leaving the council at the end of the year, has said he’d like to formally introduce the legislation as early as this month.

New Parking Proposal is Reality-Size

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City council member Tom Rasmussen stopped by the council’s planning and land use committee this week to express his view that the city’s new parking recommendations—which would, among other things, continue to allow new developments to be built sans parking, while encouraging alternatives to driving such as carsharing, biking, and riding transit—might violate the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

The recommendations (all meeting materials available here) were based on a survey of 219 newly reviewed or permitted residential developments in parts of Seattle where no parking is required, which found that three-quarters of developers are choosing to build parking anyway, despite the fact that parking adds between $20,000 and $50,000 per space to the cost of new developments (or about $500 a month per unit in rent) and reduces the total number of units that can fit in a development. The market, not the government, determines whether a developer chooses to build parking.

The developments with parking comprised 16,600 units; only 2,400 units in the survey will have no parking, mostly in places with easy access to frequent transit such as Capitol Hill, the Central District, Ballard, and the U District. The rest will average 0.55 spaces per unit.

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A separate survey, King County’s “Right-Sized Parking” study, found that in Seattle, about 35 percent of parking spaces in multifamily buildings go unused, becoming, in planning committee chair Mike O’Brien’s words, “a wasted resource.”

Rasmussen and fellow density skeptic Nick Licata attempted to pick apart these findings by claiming they didn’t narrow in on Seattle (incorrect; the conclusions are based on Seattle parking vacancies only), or that they were too old (the survey data was from 2012, not 2002), or that they only took very dense neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and First Hill into account (wrong again—the survey spanned Seattle from Alki to the U District).

But Rasmussen’s main issue with the recommendations—which have gotten pushback from neighborhood residents concerned that, as Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura wryly phrased it , “they are not able to park in front of their house”—is that development without parking will lead to “spillover parking” in nearby neighborhoods, the kind of adverse effect the city is supposed to avoid.

Rasmussen went on quite a tear about this point, lamenting that as the city grows, “people are saying [a street parking shortage is] causing tremendous congestion: ‘We can’t get to our church,’ ‘We can’t get to our home.’

“We’re hearing concerns from the community, and they’re saying that we’re not complying with the comprehensive plan. … So either we change the comprehensive plan and don’t address our commitment to the public about not having spillover parking, or we try to develop some information [about] if spillover parking is occurring, and that’s what I was expecting to see in this study.”

In fact, the city’s parking report concluded that “it is not likely that establishing new off-street parking requirements would have a noticeable effect on on-street parking in a number of areas because there is no mechanism to compel people to park off-street when on-street parking is much less expensive.”

Rasmussen also argued that parking requirements should be “very neighborhood-specific,” an idea that could effectively negate the city’s entire urban center/urban village strategy, and suggested that DPD and the Seattle Department of Transportation go back and study parking patterns in neighborhoods across the city over time, a huge assignment that would go far beyond the scope of the study on which the new parking recommendations were based.

Paolo Nunes-Ueno, SDOT’s Transit Division chief, said that while the city could go back and do that study, the ultimate issue, as the King County parking survey indicates, is that “although we can require parking to be included in a development, we can’t require people to park in that parking.” Continue reading “New Parking Proposal is Reality-Size”

Planning Commission Grills Rasmussen on Neighborhood Conservation Districts

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Council member Tom Rasmussen presents examples of “character” structures to a skeptical city planning commission.


City council member Tom Rasmussen, fresh from being skewered by the Seattle Planning Commission for his proposal to create “neighborhood conservation districts” that would give homeowners who wished to do so the power to decide what can and can get built in their neighborhood, showed up on late notice at last Thursday’s 7:30am Planning Commission meeting to attempt to convince the possibly unconvincible.

The idea behind the neighborhood conservation district proposal is simple: Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods have been around for a long time, and have developed a certain neighborhood “character.” But now, suddenly, there’s influx of insiders demanding to live inside Seattle, which creates demand for housing, and some of that housing doesn’t look like the Craftsman-era neighborhoods that sprung up during an earlier Seattle development boom. Neighbors who don’t like the new buildings, Rasmussen argues, should have a right to decree developments they don’t like as not “consistent with the physical character of a neighborhood” and prevent them from being built or require substantial aesthetic changes.

In a letter, the Planning Commissioners noted numerous potential “unintended consequences” of such a policy, such as preventing redevelopment, driving up housing costs by restricting supply, making upkeep more expensive for homeowners and tenants, and allowing existing residents to dictate development and redevelopment patterns on a patchwork basis throughout the city, without regard for citywide housing goals or problems of race and social justice.

I would add another to the list: Landowners, who make up less than half of this increasingly unaffordable city, would be the only ones with a say in these conservation districts. Every district would be governed by a board, and only property owners, including everyone from absentee landlords to AirBnB capitalists to slumlords, would get a say in determining the proper “character” of a neighborhood.

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 11.09.27 PMOn Thursday, Rasmussen pled his case against all these objections, which boiled down, simply, to this: If neighborhoods (landowners) are uncomfortable with development patterns, they should have the right to do something about it.

“Parts [of the city] are experiencing very rapid change and growth, and they’re saying, we have little say and little leverage in terms of how the growth occurs,” Rasmussen told the commission. “If a program like this were created and a neighborhood came to the council and was saying, we’re unhappy with what’s happening in our neighborhood, we could say, there is a program where, if you would like to keep your neighborhood looking a certain way or of a certain character, the neighborhood could become a conservation district.”

How this would play out in practice is unclear, but Rasmussen offered some ideas. “Some neighborhoods are very concerned about development; some neighborhoods are very concerned about growth and development in this neighborhood that they loved and moved into,” Rasmussen said. “In single-family [zones], if a neighborhood meets certain standards and a majority of folks in the neighborhood agree on certain design guidelines that are unique to the character of that neighborhood, then those guidelines could be incorporated into the district.” Specifically, he added, “I hear people saying, Ireally don’t like the plastic material that’s being put on some of these buildings. They look cheap, horrible. If the neighborhood agrees, there can be limitations on those type of characteristics.” Some neighborhoods, he added, might want to mandate larger front yards or greater setbacks from the street.

“It’s a very grassroots type of a program, very democratic, because a majority of the property owners would have to petition the council to become a neighborhood conservation district and decide what are the characteristics of that neighborhood,” Rasmussen said.

Predictably, commissioners barraged Rasmussen with questions. Won’t allowing residents to keep development out work against the city’s affordable housing goals? Why do we need this now, given the multi-multi-step process every new development has to go through before a single shovel of dirt is turned? And what about renters, who are also invested in their neighborhoods and make up a majority of the city? Why are they excluded from this supposedly “democratic” (to use Rasmussen’s word) process?

“Reserving the ability to make those changes to the homeowner seems a little bit unfair,” said commissioner Grace Kim, “given that if a neighborhood or a block is completely comprised of renters and they think that a neighborhood should be preserved, and yet their landlords are seeing the pressures of development coming from elsewhere and they would never go for it,” the landlord, not the renters, would have a say.

Slide from  Neighborhood Conservation District presentation.
Slide from Neighborhood Conservation District presentation.

“The way it’s currently proposed is, it’s really biased in favor of homeowners,” Kim said.

Although Rasmussen didn’t respond directly to the question about renters, he did insist that allowing neighbors to have veto power over aspects of new developments (including, one imagines, height—Rasmussen referred ominously to backyard apartments designed to look like “grain silos” towering over neighborhoods), he did insist that new restrictions on development wouldn’t conflict with affordable-housing or neighborhood diversity goals, which “I of course support,” adding that his view was backed up “by the experiences in other cities” without specifying which cities he was talking about.

Commissioners repeatedly asked Rasmussen why current homeowners’ opinions should be weighed more heavily than newcomers’ just because the homeowners got here first, and questioned whether there was any need for a new process aimed at placating neighbors when there are already so many on the books.

Kim again: “This just feels so contrary to everything that we have spent the last year and a half working on to try to encourage flexibility in single-family zones so that there is more opportunity for a diversity of incomes in all neighborhoods. This feels like a very strong effort to restrict some of that [diversity]. … The city isn’t flush with cash, and with so many other priorities, I don’t understand why you’d focus on this. If people are complaining because they’re unhappy with the [comprehensive] plan that was created in ’86, they should be working on that plan rather than creating a different program.”

Commissioner Michael Austin piled on, citing Mayor Ed Murray’s ongoing Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda meetings, which are aimed at crafting an affordable-housing strategy for the city.  “If there is a crisis at hand, there are processes going on at the city right now where there could be a great collaboration with the city.”

Rasmussen retorted that his outreach had, in fact, done outreach in multiple areas of the city (although, he allowed, not as many as he would have liked), and said that telling neighbors they need to take up their concerns in the comprehensive plan revision process would “be confusing to people in terms of how to go about that.”

Finally, commissioners wondered why the neighborhood conservation district concept, just introduced as a concept last month, is being fast-tracked now, when so much else is at stake in the city. “I still have some concerns, just overall, that this is moving a lot faster than what is intended,” Austin said. Rasmussen flatly denied that his proposal was being “fast-tracked,” right before saying that he could have legislation as soon as next month, which is a pretty fast track indeed.

A theory on all of this: Like Peter Steinbrueck before him, Rasmussen is not running for reelection, freeing him to pursue legislation that’s potentially controversial but close to his heart. In Steinbrueck’s case, it was legislation “preserving” industrial lands by making it virtually impossible to use them for non-industrial purposes, such as retail and residential. In Rasmussen’s, it’s protecting the “character” of neighborhoods like his own Alki neighborhood in West Seattle, by giving homeowners like himself a say in the rapid changes that are happening, thanks to a strong economy and an increasingly urban workforce, in Seattle neighborhoods. Better to give neighbors the option of preserving their neighborhood in amber, this argument for “conservation” goes, than allow newcomers to bust in and remake the city in their own image.

Sawant Loses the Plot

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Leave aside whatever feelings you might have about the closed-door process that led to the selection of Seattle’s newest city council member, John Okamoto. Leave aside whatever you think of Okamoto himself, whether it’s that he’s a competent seat-warmer, a corrupt tool of big business, or the mayor’s embed on the council. Leave aside, if you can, even who your own ideal pick for council would have been, whether that’s a righteous activist with a big personality like Sharon Lee or an experienced known quantity like Jan Drago.

Whatever your thoughts on those things, today’s story was that Kshama Sawant lost the plot.

In trashing Okamoto, the foregone pick, in front of a crowd packed with cheering-then-booing supporters, Sawant made it clear that she has no intention of working with people who disagree with her orthodoxy. In calling her colleagues’ votes for Okamoto, most recently head of the city’s Human Services Department and chief administrative officer at the Port of Seattle before that, “scandalous,” she left no room for legitimate debate (debate that should have happened, in public) about Okamoto’s qualifications or demerits. In calling the Port of Seattle under Okamoto a “cesspool of corruption,” she drew her line in the sand and declared that she has no intention of working with this person whom the majority of her colleagues saw fit to support. And in accusing Okamoto of “lying” when he said he did not apply for the position with any personal agenda, she made the political far too personal.

Even if Sawant walks back her rhetoric now that Okamoto has been chosen, it’s hard to take back accusations that prompt your colleagues to go off-script by calling your claims “divisive,” “false,” and “odious.”

That kind of rhetoric keeps the hard core loyal, and makes the divisions between socialist Sawant and the rest of the essentially Democratic council clear. But it doesn’t produce results (in the form of legislation that passes and is signed by the mayor) so much as it fuels whatever Sawant’s next campaign will be. After giving her own ghostwritten memoir the grandiose title “The Most Dangerous Woman In America,” it’s hard to imagine that Sawant will be content for long to sit in her council office with the door closed. She’ll win reelection, handily—her fan base on Capitol Hill, which she now represents under district elections, will see to that—but can she serve effectively after showing such utter contempt for the majority of her colleagues, including Okamoto? Or will she move on to the next thing, propelled by her absolutist fanbase to the a higher high-profile position?

Some folks on Twitter accused me of being unfair, being mean, or exaggerating what Sawant said (or, if you’re the type who likes to prove you know the difference between “imply” and “infer,” of “implying what [I] inferred” from Sawant’s comments). Fair enough. Here’s the transcript. Decide for yourself. Continue reading “Sawant Loses the Plot”

Planning Commission Says “Neighborhood Conservation Districts” Could Stifle Diversity, Affordability

Sacred. Sacred, do you hear me?!?
Classic. Beige. Sacred.

Tomorrow morning around 8:00, the Seattle Planning Commission will take public testimony on outgoing city council member Tom Rasmussen’s not-in-my-backyard proposal to create “neighborhood conservation districts” throughout the city, with elected boards whose explicit goal is to make sure that all new development be “consistent with the physical character of a neighborhood.”

The idea is essentially a codification of the dictum, “All change is bad,” and could make the approval of new, “out of character” developments (remember, the Smith Tower was way out of character with downtown Seattle when it towered over the business district in 1914) subject to the majority opinion of the current residents of a neighborhood.  Like rent control, NCDs as proposed value incumbency (the people who got here first get to decide for the people who got here later) over what’s best for the city as a whole.

In the letter they will consider Thursday morning, the commissioners write:


We heard from [Rasmussen aide Evan] Clifthorne that Neighborhood Conservation Districts are meant to enable the community to hold onto unique aspects of their neighborhood character and make it possible for people to continue enjoying the creativity in design expressed in past generations, yet we are not clear how the program as outlined would achieve this without unintended consequences such as:

• adding to the complexity and cost involved in home upkeep, remodel and related activities in these areas particularly for low and moderate income homeowners and tenants.

• increased barriers to currently allowed redevelopment and infill in residential and commercial neighborhoods within the Neighborhood Conservation Districts,

• reductions in current and future homeowners’ ability to make changes to their home or site to accommodate their households’ changing needs,

• increased housing costs in areas using the program, which would make it even more difficult for low-, moderate, and middle-income households to access these areas, and

• allowing a high number of small Neighborhood Conservation District geographic boundaries (minimum of one block) to occur throughout the city with varying design guidelines without conflicting with affordability goals and equity (RSJI).

Additionally, the commissioners question the fast-track nature of the public outreach on the proposal (three meetings in two and a half weeks, to be followed by legislation later this month), as well as the fact that the proposal appears to contradict goals set out in the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability agenda, as well as the city’s Comprehensive Plan, in ways that could lead to a loss of low-income housing and income diversity in neighborhoods.

Read the whole letter here. The Planning Commission meeting is in the Boards and Commissions meeting at City Hall starting at 7:30 tomorrow (Thursday) morning.

What Do Seattle’s Gay Council Members Think of Murray’s Indiana Boycott?

As readers of this blog or my Twitter feed are no doubt aware, I feel strongly that “boycotts” on, or exhortations to “flee” from, “backward” states like Indiana hurt more than they “help” and display a basic, inexcusable ignorance of red states.

More specifically, I think saying “screw them, they’re getting what they deserve” (or even, “this boycott will teach other states that discrimination is bad for business”) fundamentally erases progressives in those states, and elides the fact that even “red states” have progressives that live there, work there, and will be hurt by any boycott of their state or the business that they own or that employ them.

Finally, I think the most effective thing politicians can do to “send a message” to states like Indiana that pass discriminatory laws is to support the organizations fighting back against those laws, especially in states, like Indiana, where rampant gerrymandering makes it all the more difficult to elect progressive officials who’ll pass good laws.

Which brings us to Mayor Ed Murray’s executive order banning all city-funded travel to Indiana. (Murray’s announcement was followed by a similar, state-level ban by Governor Jay Inslee.) Murray, obviously, supports the ban; in his announcement, he said that his executive order “sends a strong signal Seattle does not support Indiana’s discriminatory law” (the “send a message and other states will hesitate to pass anti-LGBT laws” argument).

I wondered, though, what the two LGBT members of the city council thought of the mayor’s ban. Do they think “sending a message” is enough? What about the other counterarguments — that allies in other states should help progressives in Indiana, not tell them to give up, or that blue states aren’t helping by suggesting red states like Indiana are corn-pone backwaters full of ignoramus bigots?

Sigh. Neither council member took my bait. Instead, they argued that a ban on travel sent a symbolic message, which is really the best a government can do, and that it isn’t the city’s responsibility to support specific groups in other states.

First, here’s what Rasmussen, after a long pause, had to say:

First of all, I’m just really appalled by the statements coming from the governor of Indiana, and what I would describe as pathetic ignorance of basic constitutional and legal rights. To argue, in this day and age, that because of your religion it’s OK to discriminate against people in very basic accommodations—that is disgusting.

I support clear and strong action on the part of the city. Spending any of our public dollars or time in a state that blatantly says, “Go ahead and discriminate, just say it’s against your religious views to provide your services or accommodations to people,” those kinds of justifications have been thrown out time and time and time again by the courts. Strong statements are important. Boycotts tend to be broad-brushed, there’s no question about that. But sometimes a boycott is the strongest statement you can make.

I lived in in for three years. That’s where I went to law school. It’s a pretty tough state, in the sense that they’re extremely conservative. Indiana does not have a good reputation with civil rights. I have no problem criticizing them when they make these incredibly hostile decisions with regard to discrimination. This is part of their history and legacy, and they’re continuing to do it today in the LGBT community.

Is it harming folks that would not be harmed? It is, undoubtedly. There are good people, of course, who I’m sure are very embarrassed and appalled by what the legislature and the governor of this state have done, and we should support them.

I guess I would like to hear from LGBT individuals from Indiana about what they think about the reaction.

Rasmussen’s colleague Clark, meanwhile, acknowledged the “tinge about the middle states vs. the coasts, the elitist east and west vs. ‘those simple people in the middle,” but said she ultimately supported the mayor’s decision.

If you’re a private company, like an Angie’s List (which put an Indiana expansion on hold) or an Apple or a Costco, you have a little bit more freedom to decide to use your philanthropic arm to do that kind of work. If you’re the government, if you’re the gay mayor of a major city, you don’t have a philanthropic arm to say, “I’m going to use my city resources to bolster equality in Indiana.” What I can control is whether the budget of the city supports state-sponsored discrimination.

I think the point is to try to continue to focus attention. There’s no great big travel budget for city employees rushing from Seattle to Indiana, but by doing it and trying to focus attention, he’s contributing to people who oppose discrimination in Indiana.

Is Tom Rasmussen Going All-In NIMBY?

An invitation City Council member Tom Rasmussen sent out this morning was headlined, provocatively, “Councilmember Rasmussen to Host Neighborhood Character Preservation Meetings, Hear Community Feedback.” It went on to announce several upcoming community meetings to discuss new preservation districts and development restrictions in

“Neighborhood character,” of course, is a common Seattle dog whistle for “keeping apartments, poor people, and other icky stuff out of our single-family neighborhoods.” (Alternate version: “Leave everything the same as it was in 1962.”)

Rasmussen, who charted this territory when he championed a conservation overlay district for the Pike-Pine area back in 2013, has often sided with neighborhood residents against developers. See, for example his support of 2008’s incentive zoning legislation, followed by his enthusiastic endorsement of so-called “impact fees” on all new development in Seattle; his proposed moratorium on aPodments; and his support for new restrictions on small-lot development, to name just a few.

These days, though, Rasmussen—a lame-duck council member who will retire in January—is sounding more like a neighborhood activist than a legislator.

His recent announcement, for example, promises to give neighbors “a voice in the design of proposed developments”—as if they didn’t already have an extremely loud, vocal, and influential voice, in the form of neighborhood councils, organized neighborhood lobbying campaigns, and near-endless public comment opportunities in front of the design review board, the Planning Commission, the City Council, and community and campaign forums.

The promise of Rasmussen’s proposed Neighborhood Conservation District Board, which is explicitly to require that every new development be “consistent with the distinctive physical character of a neighborhood,” would make citizens’ personal tastes and preferences (Craftsman 4evah!) the ultimate arbiter of whether new apartment buildings are allowed in neighborhoods. If neighbors are really given the right to decide, irrespective of zoning, what type of building is and isn’t allowed in their neighborhood, it’s not hard to see why developers might look elsewhere to find land that doesn’t need “preserving.”