Outside City Hall: Metropolitan Park District - not a solution to our ailing park system
    - Carolee Colter and John V. Fox (columnists)  reprinted from November edition of Pacific Publishing newspapers  Jan 2014
 

Everyone agrees Seattle’s parks system is in dire financial straits, with more than $270 million in “deferred” maintenance, including deteriorating structures, water mains and sewers. But does this crisis justify handing over control and authority of our entire parks system — including pools, gyms, lakes and greenspaces — to a proposed independent Metropolitan Parks District (MPD)?

Consider the characteristics of this MPD:

•Ongoing, permanent independent taxing authority, with the ability to raise your property tax bill as much as $300 annually in perpetuity, plus an additional 1 percent per year above that for inflation;

•Immunity from any of Seattle’s laws and regulations on competitive bidding, equal employment, human rights, ethics, civil service, whistleblower protection, percent-for-the-arts, tree protection and even the comprehensive plan. MPDs are subject only to a set of very general state “requirements”;

•Ability to sell off park assets, to effectively privatize city buildings and land. And it could acquire adjacent land even outside city limits — your land, as well — via eminent domain; and

•Immunity from any challenge by local citizen initiative or referendum.

Although state-enabling legislation requires that the MPD board shall consist of our City Council members, they’d be acting as independent commissioners, bound only by broad powers outlined under that state law, not the City Charter. 

As for the day-to-day activities of operating our park system, the real power would cede to administrators completely insulated from public scrutiny.

The state law also requires Seattle voters first to approve creation of the MPD, but once it’s created, there would be no local means to reverse the decision or alter its future actions. 

Few options considered

Even before there’s been a public airing of other funding options, nearly all of our City Council members back creation of the MPD, along with a coterie of corporate and other well-heeled elites. Our new Mayor-Elect Ed Murray also says he likes it. And we’re betting you weren’t even aware of it, let alone consulted. 

When a “citizens advisory group” was created supposedly to review funding alternatives for our parks, with a public hearing held just a few days ago, our current council and soon-to-be-ex-mayor appointed mostly insiders who appear already committed to creation of the MPD. Minutes from their discussions are dominated by analysis of that option and how to sell it to voters. 

The only other option given consideration is a new parks levy that voters would be asked to approve to replace the current one expiring next year. One possibility is a levy that would run forever and add another $30 a year or more to your property taxes. This annual tax hit would run in tandem with the new taxes imposed by the MPD — meaning, in the not-to-distant future, you could be paying up to another $330 in property taxes in perpetuity to the MPD.

There’s no doubt our nationally regarded parks system is ailing. But the cures now being considered by city officials may only make the patient sicker — so say a growing number of critics at the neighborhood level. We’re inclined to agree.

Neighborhood activists predict MPD taxes and a perpetual parks levy will be substituted for current monies coming the general fund and dedicated to parks. Once the city has tapped these new sources, then general fund money will be withdrawn from parks and dedicated to other uses.

Effectively, that’s what’s been happening over the last two decades since the city turned to special voter-approved parks levies. Where once parks were viewed as a basic service as integral as police, fire or public utilities, as the City Charter decrees, now they’re treated like a frill to be funded with special levies. 

Critics of the MPD call first for a reallocation of general fund monies back into the park system. They also seek an extensive internal audit by the city auditor to discover where efficiencies can be found and staff reallocated to make more effective use of the dollars available for parks. 

Above all, they’re seeking a more transparent process and a longer, broader and more thorough public review and vetting of all funding options to save our park system.  

The take-away

As we’ve said in prior columns, a key funding source commonly used across the region, yet resolutely ignored by our elected, is developer-impact fees. With thousands of new housing units expected for Seattle and a resurgence of downtown office growth, potentially tens of millions of dollars annually could be raised to fill the current hole in the parks department budget. 

Instead of truly considering options, we find ourselves in a pell-mell rush to create an MPD with little or no public dialogue. As a city, we are at risk of seeing our parks taken away from us in the name of saving them. It’s time to take a step back from the brink. 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition)

 

 

below is a list of older outside city hall columns from oldest to most recent: 

 

 

Vol. XXXII (May 2008): City Council considers lucrative tax break giveaways to developers:

Residential construction in our city has hit near record levels in the last year and cranes are sprouting up like weeds in our neighborhoods.  Developers are having a field day, yet are our city leaders remain determined to give them still more lucrative public subsidies and tax breaks.

City Council’s Housing Committee is mulling over the Mayor’s proposal to amend the existing multi-family tax exemption (MFTE) program that already rewards developers millions in tax breaks provided they set-aside 20 to 30% of their new units at rent levels affordable to those with incomes between 60 to 70% of our area median.  For a one-bedroom unit, for example, a set-aside could be offered under the current program at $1069 a month.  Mind you, in this town, most tenants have incomes below 60% of the area median and can only afford a one-bedroom priced under $915 a month. 

But for some reason our Mayor seems hell bent on raising the rents allowed on these set-asides all the way up to 80, 90 and 100% of median income, or about $1200-$1500 a month depending on size of the unit. Not only will these so-called "affordable" units be hundreds of dollars a month above what the average tenant household in Seattle can afford.  They exceed the going rate in our neighborhoods by an even great amount.

For example, the average rent for a studio apartment in Rainier Valley is $524 according to the April 2008 Dupre & Scott apartment report.  Under the Mayor’s proposal, the “affordable” rate that we’d subsidize with our property taxes would be $1282.  For a one-bedroom apartment, the average rent for Rainier Valley is $636 and rent on set-aside units under the Mayor’s proposal would be $1500.  And remember, most units in these new buildings would be offered well above the rents on these “set-asides”. Does something look out of whack here?

Housing Committee Chair Richard McIver has proposed making the set-aside units affordable for those making 70-80 % of median, pricing a set-aside one-bedroom unit at $1221 a month.  But that’s still almost twice the average rents in Rainier Valley and well above nearly all the city’s other neighborhoods. .

We’re not in favor of letting the housing market totally dictate housing costs, and we envision a role for government in ensuring adequate housing for all citizens.  But the MFTE is government intervention that actually promotes elimination of low-income housing. 

Whether it’s McIver’s or the Mayor’s proposal, these changes to the MFTE serve one purpose. They are designed to promote still more runaway growth in our communities – growth that already is wiping out our tree canopy, open space, greenbelts, and existing truly affordable low-cost housing stock.  Last year alone 1200 low-cost housing units were demolished to make way for new developments.   

Also, if enough developers get tax exemptions through this program, a tax burden of tens of millions of dollars would be shifted on to owners of existing older rental properties, and passed on to their tenants in turn in the form of higher rents.

Combine these tax breaks with the council's recent decision to lift SEPA thresholds, removal of parking requirements, increased heights in some areas, upzones now planned for many of our neighborhoods, and the proposed extension of the "housing bonus" program into all neighborhoods - and it basically amounts to one VERY big windfall for developers.

Of course the Mayor and his planners argue that we must offer these incentives and subsidies to generate more housing.  But the reality is that there’s no shortfall of new housing development in our neighborhoods.

Our planners in 2004 set a target as required under the Growth Management Act of 47,000 new housing units by the year 2024 to meet Seattle's allotted share of regional growth.  In just four years, we've reached an astonishing 50% of our 20-year target. Even in Southeast Seattle, West Seattle and Northgate, which until recently were considered lacking in new development, nearly all our neighborhoods are exceeding their targets.

Even if - as expected - our city's 2024 growth targets are adjusted upward, we could triple those targets and still easily meet them at current rates of new housing construction and without one single upzone, one more developer tax break or other giveaway!

So where's the need and what's the public purpose to be served here other than to reward developers with enormous direct and indirect subsidies for something they are already doing (and doing too much of)?

City staff have countered that rents on newly built units are normally offered to those with incomes at no less
than 120% of median, but under this program, they say, at least we’ll get a few units at rent levels affordable
to those between 70-100% of median.  But as we have said in previous columns, there is no shortage of rental units affordable to this group when, by contrast, there is a shortage of over 100,000 units countywide for those at or below 40% of median.  
 
Moreover, a close look at real estate listings in the area will tell you that as a new apartment building ages, rents
don't rise as fast as inflation and within a few years become affordable to those in the 70-100% income category.  
 
Our city leaders plan to give developers millions in tax breaks under the MFTE to get units that in only 3 to 6 years
would be offered at these lower rent levels anyway.  Age and market forces give us more "set-asides" than 
the MFTE ever could.  

The MFTE program, especially with the proposed changes, is little more than a massive giveaway, mostly to a handful of large corporate developers – many who just happen to donate heavily to our Mayor and City Council.

The real question is:  Where will we find real leadership to rein in or mitigate this development to ensure that the physical and social character of our city is preserved before even more growth occurs? 

 

Outside City Hall Vol. XXXIII:  reprinted from Beacon Hill News (release June '08)

The Attack of the Townhouses

by Carolee Colter and John V Fox

City Councilmember Sally Clark has heard from the neighborhoods and they are not happy about the spate of tacky cookie cutter lot-line to lot-line townhouses now popping up with increasing frequency in our midst.  That’s why she’s holding a series of forums on townhouses, focusing on the question of how we can make them better – improve their design and better integrate this housing option into the fabric of the city.  

Her initiative has led to a number of news articles highlighting the city of Portland’s laudable attempt to promote townhouses as a denser, more environmentally friendly alternative to lower-density single-family homes, duplexes and more “sprawling” forms of development.  

Councilmember Clark seems genuinely interested in ensuring a more creative approach to townhouses. Unfortunately, as we have seen over and over again, when discussions around zoning changes begin at the community level with earnest dialogue, citizen workshops, and lofty promises about reflecting community concerns and good design and other highfalutin’ values in new zoning, once the final decisions are made, we get something quite different.  After all, that’s the very process that brought us these look-alike townhouses in the first place. 

Phinney Ridge resident and community leader Irene Wall hits the nail on the head when she says, “It’s a lot more than a question of design.”  The Mayor plans major upzones across the city using the cover that we need such density to prevent sprawl, guarantee affordability and save polar bears.  No matter that in virtually every neighborhood now, we are greatly exceeding our residential growth targets.  Citywide we’ve reached 50% of our 20-year targets in just four years.

All this brouhaha really is about the “selling” of more density to the neighborhoods.  The Mayor and most of the planners down at City Hall have drunk the pro-density Kool-Aid and they’re trying to spoon-feed it to us.  In this case, they are seeking more penetration into single-family and other lower-zoned areas, for so-called "good design" and "sustainable green" buildings such as townhouses.

Unfortunately, the result of the added density is to drive up property values and cause the loss of more existing lower-density apartment buildings to demolition, speculative sale and higher rents.  Lacking tools put into place first to ensure that developers replace all the units they remove at comparable rents, or to steer growth away from removing existing housing, the city’s approach can only mean still more gentrification and displacement (not to mention loss of tree canopy, greenery, views, open space – the physical values we all cherish and that make this city truly livable).

These added densities packaged in townhouses don't just affect homeowners, but renters, too, since 20-25 % of all Seattle’s renters live in single-family homes.  Especially impacted are the larger family households that depend on duplexes and triplexes and small older apartment buildings.  These households include many people of color in Southeast and Southwest Seattle and the Central District. The loss of these kinds of units already is forcing larger lower-income families to leave the city or to re-concentrate into remaining pockets of lower-priced rental housing in Southeast and Southwest Seattle along corridors not yet redeveloped and gentrified.  Recent news stories about the segregation of our schools ignored the degree to which resegregation is linked to housing patterns and local land use decisions that cause the loss of larger rental housing for lower-income families. 

Perhaps under an enlightened and progressive Mayor, well-designed townhouses with Below Market Rate (BMR) housing and environmental stewardship requirements built into them, could be made workable.  For example, in areas we've recently upzoned, where we've seen the effects of bad design and excessive density—i.e. loss of existing low income housing, trees, and open space--we'd downzone first and then rezone for townhouses but at lower densities than now allowed, and then set strict design principles, affordability requirements and tree preservation requirements. 

Or we'd overlay an area to reduce current allowable densities but then allow additional density where appropriate and where the community itself says it’s OK, but subject to rigorous requirements for design, siting, BMR set-asides, open space and tree preservation.

Or we’d create a neighborhood advisory committee to review each development within these overlay areas and give this group explicit authority to set the terms of each new development as it occurs.

Of course none of these approaches will happen under this administration, or under our current get-along-to-go-along City Council.  More than at any time in our decades of community and housing advocacy, land use decisions are driven by development and corporate interests that simply ask for more and more.

In this context, Sally Clark’s efforts, however genuine, will be taken by over by the status quo and will become "the selling of townhouses,” as in, “How can we make them palatable and shoehorn still more development into lower-density communities?”  

They’ll just greenwash the townhouses -- maybe plant grass on their roofs, make the pavement between the homes porous or replace it with colored brick, plant some shrubs, add swales in the front planting strips, maybe set a courtyard or modulation or set-back requirement here and there.

Our city’s neighborhoods are under assault by a pro-developer Mayor who’s hitting us with a dizzying array of all-at-once pro-density proposals.  With a compliant Council in tow, he’s recently lifted SEPA (environmental review) requirements, removed parking requirements in neighborhood commercial zones, removed essential open space requirements, pushed excessive view-blocking heights in South Lake Union and upzoned downtown for the equivalent of 12 new Columbia Towers. 

Now the Mayor is seeking multi-million dollar tax breaks for developers through changes to the Multifamily Tax Exemption program, and significant upzones through changes to neighborhood plans and the comprehensive planning process now underway. 

Unless there is change at City Hall in 2009 when our Mayor is up for re-election and several Council seats are up for grabs – well, we’re gonna lose our city – lose what makes our communities livable, truly green, truly diverse, and truly affordable.


Special note from Displacement Coalition - We support "interim townhouse controls":

Since this piece was written, a growing number of community groups (under the banner "Liveable Seattle") have called for "interim controls" to limit townhouse development until a new set of land use rules can be adopted - something that is likely to occur as part of the process of amending the comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans scheduled to begin later in the year. We support this neighborhood based effort.  Click here to view their proposal However, given our concerns about the end result of the pending comp plan changes and given the current make-up of the Council - perhaps a better idea would be to treat townhouses like we do strip clubs. Let's pretend their interim but keep the controls in place permanently.

Vol.  return to top           return to main page

        June '08 Bulletin:

Seattle reaches 50 percent of its 20-year growth target in 4 years!
 

Residential construction in our city has hit near record levels in the last year and cranes are sprouting up like weeds in our neighborhoods.  Developers are having a field day, yet are our city leaders remain determined to give them still more lucrative public subsidies and tax breaks.
 

City Council’s Housing Committee is mulling over the Mayor’s proposal to amend the existing multi-family tax exemption (MFTE) program that already rewards developers millions in tax breaks provided they set-aside 20 to 30% of their new units at rent levels affordable to those with incomes between 60 to 70% of our area median.  For a one-bedroom unit, for example, a set-aside could be offered under the current program at $1069 a month.  Mind you, in this town, most tenants have incomes below 60% of the area median and can only afford a one-bedroom priced under $915 a month.
 

But for some reason our Mayor seems hell bent on raising the rents allowed on these set-asides all the way up to 80, 90 and 100% of median income, or about $1200-$1500 a month depending on size of the unit. Not only will these so-called "affordable" units be hundreds of dollars a month above what the average tenant household in Seattle can afford.  They exceed the going rate in our neighborhoods by an even great amount.click here for rent comparisons
 

For example, the average rent for a studio apartment in Rainier Valley is $524 according to the April 2008 Dupre & Scott apartment report.  Under the Mayor’s proposal, the “affordable” rate that we’d subsidize with our property taxes would be $1282.  For a one-bedroom apartment, the average rent for Rainier Valley is $636 and rent on set-aside units under the Mayor’s proposal would be $1500.  And remember, most units in these new buildings would be offered well above the rents on these “set-asides”. Does something look out of whack here?
 

Housing Committee Chair Richard McIver has proposed making the set-aside units affordable for those making 70-80 % of median, pricing a set-aside one-bedroom unit at $1221 a month.  But that’s still almost twice the average rents in Rainier Valley and well above nearly all the city’s other neighborhoods.
 

We’re not in favor of letting the housing market totally dictate housing costs, and we envision a role for government in ensuring adequate housing for all citizens.  But the MFTE is government intervention that actually promotes elimination of low-income housing.
 

Whether it’s McIver’s or the Mayor’s proposal, these changes to the MFTE serve one purpose. They are designed to promote still more runaway growth in our communities – growth that already is wiping out our tree canopy, open space, greenbelts, and existing truly affordable low-cost housing stock.  Last year alone 1200 low-cost housing units were demolished to make way for new developments.  
 

Also, if enough developers get tax exemptions through this program, a tax burden of tens of millions of dollars would be shifted on to owners of existing older rental properties, and passed on to their tenants in turn in the form of higher rents.

If developers of 5000 housing units took advantage of this tax break plan (which one developer said it could do at a recent hearing) it would mount to a $90-$120 million dollar tax shift relieving developers of that obligation and passing it on to owners of existing older lower priced rental properties

Combine these tax breaks with the council's recent decision to lift SEPA thresholds, removal of parking requirements, increased heights in some areas, upzones now planned for many of our neighborhoods, and the proposed extension of the "housing bonus" program into all neighborhoods - and it basically amounts to one VERY big windfall for developers.
 

Of course the Mayor and his planners argue that we must offer these incentives and subsidies to generate more housing.  But the reality is that there’s no shortfall of new housing development in our neighborhoods.
 

Our planners in 2004 set a target as required under the Growth Management Act of 47,000 new housing units by the year 2024 to meet Seattle's allotted share of regional growth.  In just four years, we've reached an astonishing 50% of our 20-year target. Even in Southeast Seattle, West Seattle and Northgate, which until recently were considered lacking in new development, nearly all our neighborhoods are exceeding their targets.click here to see city documentation
 

Even if - as expected - our city's 2024 growth targets are adjusted upward, we could triple those targets and still easily meet them at current rates of new housing construction and without one single upzone, one more developer tax break or other giveaway!
 

So where's the need and what's the public purpose to be served here other than to reward developers with enormous direct and indirect subsidies for something they are already doing (and doing too much of)?
 

City staff have countered that rents on newly built units are normally offered to those with incomes at no less than 120% of median, but under this program, they say, at least we’ll get a few units at rent levels affordable to those between 70-100% of median.  But as we have said in previous columns, there is no shortage of rental units affordable to this group when, by contrast, there is a shortage of over 100,000 units countywide for those at or below 40% of median.
 

Moreover, a close look at real estate listings in the area will tell you that as a new apartment building ages, rents don't rise as fast as inflation and within a few years become affordable to those in the 70-100% income category.
 

Our city leaders plan to give developers millions in tax breaks under the MFTE to get units that in only 3 to 6 years would be offered at these lower rent levels anyway.  Age and market forces give us more "set-asides" than the MFTE ever could.click here for charts proving our point (see especially last chart)
 

The MFTE program, especially with the proposed changes, is little more than a massive giveaway, mostly to a handful of large corporate developers – many who just happen to donate heavily to our Mayor and City Council.
 

The real question is:  Where will we find real leadership to rein in or mitigate this development to ensure that the physical and social character of our city is preserved before even more growth occurs?
 

For more information, contact us at 632-0668 or email us at this address - be sure and call/write your councilmembers to oppose these changes to the MFTE Program - especially call those on the Housing Committee including Councilmembers McIver, Drago, Harrell, and alternate Licata

 

Outside City Hall Vol. XXXIV (July 2008): Coalition responds to councilmembers defense of their vote to approve millions in developer tax breaks    - by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

         Two months ago in this column we wrote about a pending City Council vote on the Mayor’s Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) plan.  We objected to it because it would give millions of dollars of tax breaks to developers who’d only were required to set aside 20% of their new units at rents levels slightly below market rate but hundreds of dollars above what most Seattle’s tenants could afford.

         Despite our concerns and those of hundreds of others who emailed and called City Council, last week the Council approved the Mayor’s MFTE plan by a 7-1 vote.  Only Councilmember Licata opposed the measure (with Councilmember Rasmussen out on vacation). 

         Leading up to last week’s vote, the P-I editorialized against the new MFTE plan. Fearing still more runaway development spurred by these subsidies, dozens of neighborhood activists stood up at hearings and testified against it, too. Even apartment building owners decried it because millions in additional taxes would be passed on to them.

        It’s not new to see Councilmembers ignore citizens and kowtow to the Mayor and his developer pals.  Nor is uncommon on controversial issues for Councilmembers to launch into a rhetorical flourish just before voting the wrong way when the public is so opposed to their action. It’s called damage control.  What was particularly telling, though, was the rationale Councilmembers used to justify their action.

        While each Councilmember gave it his or her own twist, their arguments were simply variations on the same theme:  we are becoming a city of haves and have-nots, rich and poor, with no housing in the middle for folks like firefighters or teachers.  Each councilmember argued that without this subsidy, developers would not offer any new units affordable to those at 80 to 90% of median income.

        However, none of them could point to any supporting data.  When Councilmember Licata asked for evidence of a lack of older existing (or even relatively new) units at these income levels, Councilmembers just fell back on quoting the developers’ complaint," We just can't build anything in the middle.”

        In contrast, the Displacement Coalition produced reams of material (accessible on our website) showing that proposed rents on the set-asides in the MFTE program are $200-$500 above the average rent in most Seattle neighborhoods.  We also provided data from King County's comprehensive housing report showing that 92% of all Seattle and county rentals are at or below what would be affordable to people making 80% of median income - roughly the price of the set-asides under this new MFTE plan.

        We even went to craigslist and called some of the new buildings and found they were offering right now rents at 80-90% of median income on some of their units – the ones without views, on the alley or in the basement.  So again why give tax breaks to these developers?

        Licata mustered testimony from teachers that rents on the proposed set-asides were well above what a starting teacher could afford.   He also presented data that the proposed rents were hundreds above what daycare workers, janitors, nurses aides and restaurant employees can afford, forcing these folks to live in the suburbs.

        As for the “new kids on the block”, Councilmember Tim Burgess claimed his support of the Mayor’s plan was the sign of a true progressive committed to “equality and justice”.  Bruce Harrell simply lashed out at opponents, claiming he was as committed to the poor as anyone else in the room.  Just saying it, Bruce, doesn’t make it so.

         Councilmembers bristled at the notion that approval of the MFTE plan was simply a giveaway to developers.  When you get nothing in return that the market is not already providing without the subsidies, well, that's called a giveaway.

         If, as they anticipate, this program produces 6000 units in 12 years or 500 a year, that would represent a tax shift of $100-130 million.  That ain't small change and it’s passed on in the form of higher taxes for the rest of us--higher rents, too. It's one more "small hit" on top of many other small hits on the average taxpayer, or small owner of existing lower priced apartments, who gets stuck paying for one more stadium, one more underground car tunnel, one more expensive six-lane 520 bridge, one more Mercer corridor, one more Vulcan streetcar.

        Councilmembers also said that these changes to MFTE would not detract from the city’s other housing efforts, but would be simply one more tool “in the city’s quiver,” this one designed for moderate-income folks.  For low-income people we have a housing levy, they say.  No matter that the levy barely allows us to build a fraction of the existing low-income units lost every year citywide due to runaway growth and redevelopment.

         Licata pointed out that under the current MFTE program we get units at 60% of median income--it's working.  But with the changes, developers setting aside units at 60% will switch and do their set-asides at 80%.  This means we get less of what we really need at the lower levels.

        The Council actually could have improved on the existing MFTE program by crafting a proposal that gave away these tax breaks only to non-profits, allowing them to layer on other subsidies, provided that all of the units they offered were at or below 50% of median.  The for-profits could have been involved, but only in partnership with non-profits and at those rent levels.  (There are for-profits doing this already.)

        Had the non-profits stood up and called for this kind of plan, our City Council might have responded, but in the “get along and go along” world of Seattle politics, most non-profits simply sided with the Mayor and the for-profit developers they sometimes "partner" with. The Mayor holds the purse strings to their funding sources and after all, they too get a piece of the action under the Mayor’s plan.

        That’s what the council’s vote was all about – passing out favors to friends.  It’s the taxpayers and low-income people who will suffer.

       

Outside City Hall Vol. XXXV: A primer for the Mayor’s pro-development agenda – when they use these phrases or words, look out! by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox Seattle Displacement Coalition September 2008                                              (a version of this is printed in the Capitol Hill Times and Beacon Hill News click here)

 The Mayor and City Council are at it again.  As early as this September, they will be entertaining a proposal for “incentive zoning” which would allow nearly a doubling of densities in neighborhood business districts, mid-rise, and high-rise residential zones.   

To prepare you for this onslaught, we have put together a citizen’s handbook of planner jargon – nice-sounding euphemisms they’ll be spoon feeding you to neutralize any concerns you might have about the changes coming to your neighborhood.  When you hear these phrases, watch out!

1.  vibrant:  No adjective is more often used by the planners when they want to remove some amenity your community treasures – a grove of trees, a little piece of open space, that row of older affordable garden apartments down the street, or your view, perhaps. These will be replaced by a “vibrant” new development – something lacking in a sedate lower-density neighborhood like yours.

2.  walkable:  A neighborhood where you theoretically live within a stone’s throw of amenities, shops and services you need.  More commonly in Seattle, you are within walking distance of an expensive boutique or shi-shi bar. That family-owned hardware store you really need has long since been driven out by higher taxes and land values after ‘your’ City Council caved to developers clamoring for increased height limits in your neighborhood business district.   Now you must drive miles to the nearest mall for necessities.

3. affordable: Housing that rents for hundreds of dollars above what you or anyone else you know can afford but slightly less than the monthly rent on a new downtown luxury apartment. 

4.  workforce housing:  Under their incentive zoning scheme, you’ll get height restrictions raised from 40 to 85 feet. In return only 15% of the new units will be “set aside” as “workforce” housing affordable to those earning between 80-100% of median income.  Turns out that rents even on these units are actually hundreds of dollars above what most workers in Seattle truly could afford. 

5.  smart growth (or “sustainable growth):  Who isn’t for smart and sustainable growth in environmentally conscious Seattle?  But these terms are cynically used to wrap the Mayor’s pro-development agenda in a patina of environmentalism.  What’s smart or sustainable about zoning downtown for the equivalent of 12 more Columbia Towers?  No matter how many neighborhoods city leaders upzone, about half those 50,000 new workers expected to accompany those high-rises will choose to live in the suburbs, with many commuting by gas-guzzling, air-polluting car.

6. public-private partnerships:  Big-ticket capital projects the taxpayers are called on to subsidize, like football stadiums or convention centers.  The public foots the bill while a private contractor, developer, or corporation reaps all the profit.  The City of Seattle has sold its land off to Paul Allen in South Lake Union and is pouring over a half billion in public revenue into that area for added infrastructure at Paul Allen’s request.  That’s called a public private partnership.  Most new “low income” subsidized housing development involves entering into “partnerships” with banks and private developers.  Lucrative tax credits go to the developer for a handful of low cost housing units that in 20 years they can convert to market rate…  That’s also called a public private partnership.

7. new urbanism:  Fifteen years ago, a cult of planners and architects decided curvy streets and cul-de-sacs were bad because they looked too much like the suburbs. They also have a fetish for front porches, old fashion bungalows, and alleyways. This became a blueprint for some developers to simulate Disneyesque visions of the past in their planned developments. Unfortunately, in built-up urban environments like ours, new urbanism just became a cover for Seattle Housing Authority to wipe out over a thousand public housing units, groves of beautiful old trees, and lots of open space. 

8. mixed income housing: A term used to convince you that poor people need to rub shoulders with the rich or they just cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  It doesn’t mean going to well-off north end white neighborhoods and “mixing” in low income housing there.  It simply provides the rationale for redeveloping, fragmenting, and gentrifying lower-income and black communities in Southeast and West Seattle.  An increasing portion of new publicly subsidized buildings are “mixed income” which means fewer of your tax dollars from housing levies get to people most in need.

9. stakeholders:  Before the Council obliterates your neighborhood plan that took years to develop, they will call a “stakeholders advisory meeting.” The Mayor and Council president get to pick the stakeholders, which means these groups are always stacked with their friends and campaign supporters some of whom just happen to be developers.  And of course neighborhood folks are underrepresented.  Then the stakeholders rubberstamp the Mayor and Council’s pre-determined pro-density agenda. 

10. visioning: What citizens are asked to do in a stakeholders meeting.  Instead of discussing real impacts that a development may have on the well being of their neighborhood, citizens are taken through a visioning process, broken up into focus groups and given felt pens and butcher paper, then asked to list their “hopes and dreams” for the neighborhood.  Everything is recorded.   Once recorded, the information goes on a bookshelf to gather dust. 

11. dense: A common term planners have come to believe for all that is good, curbs global warming, and saves polar bears.  Ironically, the term dense represents a level of growth that inevitably requires removal of the amenities it is touted to serve. We are about to pour billions of dollars worth of concrete to expand the 520 bridge in order to accommodate all this city’s downtown office workers who live in the eastside.  Very few things contribute to global warming more than the making, and pouring of concrete. Every Seattle citizen could recycle 100 percent of their garbage and never use another plastic or paper bag as long as they live, and it barely offset a fraction of the carbon footprint that these forces are producing. Alternatively, ‘dense’ connotes a high level of stupidity.

See Beacon Hill News and Capitol Hill times at http://www.zwire.com/site/News.cfm?brd=855
 

Full list of pro-developer pro-density, pro-growth euphemisms: The fig leaf hit parade.  And before you read our list, check out this city neighborhood planning document which provides a preface for the city's plan to revamp all 38 of our city's neighborhood plans and make them more accommodating to higher density development. It's definitely a true classic in snow job phraseology

1.  vibrant:.  Beware of this word because no adjective is more often used by the planners when they want to remove some amenity your community treasures – like a grove of trees, a little piece of open space, that row of older affordable garden apartments  down the street, or your view perhaps. They are always replaced by a “vibrant” new development just quivering and pulsating with energy and enthusiasm.  These are things apparently that your lower density neighborhood by definition lacks.

2. liveable (or livable):  This is a word most commonly used by planners to make you think that there’s something unliveable about the current character of your community – and thus the need to invite in more development.  An upzone might even do the trick.   

3.  walkable:   Often strung together with the adjective ‘liveable’ to define a densely compacted urban environment nearly always devoid of trees and open space but full of concrete and often choked with pollution. It’s used to prepare you for growth you might otherwise not accept.  A “liveable, walkable” neighborhood by definition is very dense, where you theoretically live within a stones throw of amenities shops and services you need.  More commonly though, in Seattle you are within walking distance of an expensive boutique or shi shi bar. That family owned hardware and grocery store you really need have long since been priced out of your area – driven out by the higher taxes and land values when ‘your’ City Council caved to developers clamoring for increased height limits in your neighborhood business district.   Now you drive miles to the nearest mall for necessities.

4. pedestrian-friendly, adj. See above definition for ‘walkable’.  Like ‘walkable’ the phrase is used to get you to believe that a denser urban environment is somehow akin to a walk in the park or down a garden path.  Be very wary when you hear this word because next you are going to be told that your little patch of open space and tree canopy must be removed for another clump of cookie-cutter townhouses.

5.  urban villages, phrase. i.e, to gild runaway development with smarmy “village” overtones: The term was more frequently used in the ‘90’s by then Mayor Rice to veil his pro-development plans for West Seattle.  When community activist Charlie Chong turned out hundreds at hearings to thwart those plans, the phrase fell out of favor.  Ever persistent, however, and relying on our short collective memories, we’re again hearing the planners using it to get you to think there’s something village like associated with more concrete and less open space. 

7.  workforce housing, phrase:  This phrase is rolled out to convince you that there is a need to give developers millions in lucrative tax breaks, and waiver of height restrictions, open space and parking requirements (via “incentive zoning), or they won’t build housing affordable to Seattle workers like starting school teachers.  Developers promise to set aside a handful of units at rent levels affordable to those earning at 80 percent of median. Never mind that rents on those units are hundreds above what most tenant households in Seattle can afford including starting school teachers. 

8.  smart growth (interchangeable with “sustainable growth), phrase:   We’re all for smart and sustainable growth in environmentally conscious Seattle so it’s politically and tactically smart for the Mayor to wrap his pro-development agenda in the rhetoric of environmentalism.  Unfortunately, his agenda is far from smart or sustainable  What’s smart about always caving to developers and zoning downtown for the equivalent of 12 more Columbia Towers.  is environmental vernacular. 

10. public private partnerships: Term often used by planners and public officials to describe big ticket capital projects the taxpayers are called on to subsidize like football stadiums or convention centers.  The public foots the bill while a private contractor, developer, or corporation reaps all the profit.  The City of Seattle has sold its land off to Paul Allen in South Lake Union and is pouring over a half billion in public revenue into that area for added infrastructure at Paul Allen’s request.  That’s called a public private partnership.  Most new “low income” subsidized housing development involves entering into “partnerships” with banks and private developers.  Lucrative tax credits go to the developer for a handful of low cost housing units which in 20 years they can convert to market rate……  That’s also called a public private partnership

13. new urbanisim: Basically a group of planners and architects a decade or so ago decided curvy streets and cul-de-sacs were bad because they it looked too much like the suburbs.  They also had a fetish for front porches, old fashion bungalows, and alley-ways. This became a blueprint for some developers to simulate Disney-esque visions of the past in their planned developments. Unfortunately, in built up urban environments like Seattle, it just became a cover for wiping out over a thousand public housing units, groves a beautiful old trees, and lots of open space. 

14. stakeholder’s meeting Before the Council obliterates your neighborhood plan that took years to develop, they will call a “stakeholders” meeting to “advise them”.  The Mayor and Council president get to  pick the stakeholders of course, which means these groups are always stacked with their friends and campaign supporters who just happened to be developers.  And of course real folks like you who just happened to live in the neighborhood are underrepresented.  After the stakeholders invariable support the Mayor and Council’s pre-determined positions, their recommendations provide a “mandate” for action to wipe out your neighborhood plan

15. Performance based budgeting The Seattle Housing Authority and the City make increasing use of these terms to justify dramatically raising rents on their low income housing stock and preferencing “mixed income” over projects that reach down and serve primarly very low income and the “poorest of the poor”.  All subsidized housing developments new and old now must produce a “bottom line return” and “pay for itself” which is inherently not possible when you are serving the very poor who cannot afford rents needed to cover debt and maintenance. But rather than work with residents and activists to find the subsidies that are required to maintain housing as truly low income it’s easier to switch to bottom line mixed income developments.

16. mixed income housing:  rather than serving those most in need and maintain our existing public housing and truly low income stock, it’s easier to shift over to serving higher income “low income” groups.  An increasing portion of new subsidized units must be higher income so they can “internally subsidize” a handful of very low income units. The net effect is a substantial reduction in the amount of your tax dollar going into programs for people who really need assistance and they are far more lucrative for the contractors, attorney’s, bond counselors’ accountants, and bankers who put them together.  The term mixed income housing also is used to get you to believe that poor people need to rub shoulders with the rich in one development or they just cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  These assumptions are a cover for the economic motivations behind the shift to higher end “low income” development that is more lucrative for the food chain of contractors, and developers who do the projects.

17. compact building design:  this is code for filling up a site lot-line to lot-line with development and eliminating any patch of green for miles.  A city may require a developer doing compact design to include a pointy roof, move parking to the back, or provide a front entry but the net effect is still the same – adding one more tacky cookie cutter townhouse or drab apartment on our landscape. 

18. “a strong sense of place”:  This is planner gobbledy-gook often used to disguise a new high end development when it’s placed in a low income neighborhood.

19. dispersing the poor or “deconcentrating” poverty: These are euphemisms for wiping out low income neighborhoods and communities.  The assumption the planners want to convey is that when the poor concentrate together they’ll reinforce each others “bad” habits. Aside from the inherent arrogance in this assumption, it’s simply a plan to gentrify and displace longtime residents whose strength and power lies precisely in their numbers and due to their concentration…The problem was never concentration of poor folk but a withdrawal of city support and an extreme unwillingness to guarantee these communities they same amount of support and tax revenue for infrastructure that cities give to downtown and wealthier white communities.  Deconcentrating the poor is a cover for wiping out and redeveloping so it’s more suitable to the white upper middle class. 

20. restoring urban fabric and vitality.  This is code for plans that replace the scale, amendies, and things you now value in your community with something new, bigger, denser and serving other likely more affluent groups.

21. urban renewal or community renewal

22. downtown revitalization

23. affordable:  like the term “workforce” housing, public officials use the term “affordable housing” loosely – about as tight as a pair of teenager’s pants - meaning housing that rents for hundreds of dollars above what you or anyone else you know can afford but slightly less than the monthly rent on a new downtown luxury apartment.  Don’t confuse the term with “low income” or “very low income”.  “Affordable” is tossed out when the City wants to give away more tax breaks or upzones to developers.  That’s what we get in return – a few “affordable units” priced at 1200-1800 dollars a month.  Meanwhile, your neighborhood has been turned into skyscraper paradise.  (The city’s new ‘incentive zoning’ proposal soon coming before the council would allow nearly a doubly of heights and densities in Seattle’s neighborhood business district and areas surrounding those districts. In return 15% of the new units at 1200-1800 a month. In planners lexicon, this is called an “affordable or workforce housing strategy.”) 

24. footprint as in carbon footprint: When the planners are in doubt about your willingness to support their pro-growth agenda, they may choose to accuse you of contributing to global warming and failing to curb your carbon footprint. A look atvour skyline reveals so many monster construction cranes, it resembles to me sometimes a scene out of War of the Worlds. 

No matter that all but a few of our neighborhoods have exceeded their 20 year growth targets in just four years – if you don’t accept more density your contributing to global climate change.  Ironically this gross misuse of the language and rhetoric of environmentalism now precedes all of the Mayor’s proposed land use changes. As the price of land rises. housing costs skyrocket, and our inner-city tree canopy falls , more and more folks who work inside the city are packing for the ‘burbs’. What’s environmentally sound about overbuilding a city and contributing to a new kind of flight to the suburbs. Those who are tiring of the growth or who cannot afford to live here anymore retreat to the burbs where they once again clog our freeways on daily extended commutes.  What pray tell is sustainable or ‘smart’ about such a regional scenario

 

26. unfunded mandate

 

27.  to leverageoften used in a sentence with “public private partnership” to  conceal large  subsidies to corporations and developers:  City leaders will allocate millions for a big capital project that special interests are clamoring for like a convention center, a street car network, perhaps a sports stadium then tell us that it will help us “leverage” private sector jobs and more taxes.   In reality, those special interests will reap the benefits while we foot the bill.  The Mayor’s plan to spend 300 million on Mercer Corridor is another good example.

 

28. civic engagement – usually used in a sentence with “stakeholders”.  Rather than give citizens a real say in the future of their communities, city planners hold stakeholder meetings and promote “civic engagement strategies” simply designed to coopt or channel any real concerns of citizens into meaningless forums.    

 

29.  effective community outreach

 

30. visioning:  usually this is what citizens are asked to do in a stakeholders meeting.  Instead of discussing real impacts that a development may have on the well being of their neighborhood, citizens are taken thru a visioning process, broken up into focus groups and given felt pens and butcher paper then asked to list their favorite “hopes and dreams” for the neighborhood.  Everything is recorded.   All that is recorded goes on a bookshelf somewhere to gather dust. 

 

31. the reality of climate change is upon us

 

32. inclusive

 

33. focus groups

 

34. broad and diverse cross-section

 

35. citizens advisory group

 

36. renaissance, n

 

37. dense, adj.     In it’s adjective form a common term planners have come to believe for all that is good, curbs global warming, and saves polar bears.  Ironically, the term dense represents a level of growth that inevitably requires removal of the amenities it is touted to serve.  We must sacrifice our open space, trees, and greenery here in Seattle in order to be “green” – in order to preserve these values out in the burbs and rural areas…… as if decimating what we value here in Seattle somehow leads to more rational growth choices in the rest of the region.  The term dense when used as a noun also can connote high levels of stupidity.

 

38. Seamless:  This word is often used to make you think that some level of objective analysis went into the zoning changes now be wrought on your community.  Don’t worry the midrises or even highrise zoning they’re proposing for your neighborhood will blend “seamlessly” with the lower density character of your community business district. 

 

39. “Ramp Up”:  This phrase means they want to “expedite” the zoning changes proposed for your neighborhood, meaning they want to ignore normal SEPA requirements and other junctures in the process for citizen comment. 

 

40.  Streamline:  Developers and staff in the City’s Department of Planning and Development are always calling for a “streamlining” of the permit process. It’s just another way of saying, they want to lift important points in the permitting process for citizen and environmental review.

 

Outside City Hall Vol XXXVI: A Look Back at Thirty-One Years of City Politics - Then and Now (October '08)

- by  Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

This is the thirty-first year of the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s existence. Funny, it hardly seems that long since 1977 when we were established, first as a task force to combat rising housing prices and removal of low-income housing on Capitol Hill.

Boeing was coming out of a terrible slump, and a downtown office boom brought thousands of new office workers into the city looking for homes. This in turn set off a wave of development throughout Seattle, especially on Capitol Hill. A home that went for $44,000 in 1976 by 1978 was selling for a whopping $88,000. Rents jumped by 20%. A city study showed that one in five households over an 18-month period were forced to move because of rent increases, demolition and condo conversion.

A neighborhood newspaper, the Seattle Sun, a rival back then to the newly formed Seattle Weekly published a piece called “A Tale of Two Capitol Hills,” highlighting how older shops and businesses and the then ample supply of low-rent apartments were quickly giving way to fern bars and luxury apartments.

In protest, a militant women’s group marched into the newly built Safeway at the north end of Broadway and spilled pig’s blood in its aisles. Then they moved to the other end of Capitol Hill and disrupted happy hour at Henry’s Off Broadway, a plush new yuppie bar.

The entire top of Capitol Hill between 10th and 15th was zoned for 30-plus story highrises and developers were demolishing older homes at an astonishing rate. The ranks of the Capitol Hill Community Council swelled to fight off these changes. Hundreds turned out at street protests. Residents (including this writer) put their bodies in front of wrecking balls. A historic legal battle failed to ward off construction of the Somerset highrise, but the ensuing political turmoil ultimately led to an unprecedented downzone of that area.

This was just part of the ferment in response to the changes being wrought on the social and physical landscape of our city in the 70’s. A new generation of activists was taking up residence in the older homes and apartments. These were folks (including both of us) who only a few years earlier were hanging out at rock festivals and war protests. Now we were forming food co-ops and collectives, and creating neighborhood organizations to ward off development at odds with the human scale of our communities. The Tenants Union got its start at this time.

The late 70’s also saw the beginnings of a local and regional environmental movement to save farmland, shorelines and trees and to promote responsible growth. Environmentalists, housing, and neighborhood activists worked together to fend off car-oriented plans for the Arboretum and I-90 expansion.

There was a Mayor’s race on and the pro-neighborhood candidate--a former TV anchor named Charles Royer – was railing at the city’s pro-growth pro-downtown agenda. He squared off against Paul Schell, a city planner with developer ties. Because displacement and gentrification were sweeping across our city, the Displacement Coalition’s first formal event was a debate between Royer and Schell.

Royer won that race and a new crop of councilmembers swept into office by calling for accountability to neighborhoods and managed responsible levels of growth.

Following that election, our city approved a just-cause eviction law which to this day protects tenants against arbitrary and retaliatory evictions, and a Housing Preservation Ordinance requiring developers to replace any low-income housing they removed. Our city also approved a moratorium on condo conversions and that Capitol Hill downzone saved hundreds of affordable rentals.

The Displacement Coalition was formed in this crucible. They were heady times and we really believed we could change the world. And for us, that started here at home in efforts to reshape city government to reflect neighborhood values and a commitment to equity and economic justice.

Boy, have we come full circle. Today, rent increases, condo conversions and housing demolitions have approached levels not seen since the late 70’s. What is noticeably different, however, is the political context.

Most of our politicos are corporate liberals who stand firmly behind a pro-growth, pro-density agenda and believe what’s good for developers is good for the rest of us. Our Mayor bullies those who stand in the way and the great majority on our City Council dutifully falls in line.

Our once vaunted neighborhood planning process has been reduced to a shell of itself, more often used to co-opt the community council movement and funnel citizen action into innocuous channels.

What’s worse, most electeds completely ignore issues of equity and justice. Rather than taking on developers removing our remaining stock of low-income housing, they indulge in a ritual every five years of supporting a new housing levy and annually dedicating a small amount of the city budget for social services and homeless programs. But these programs replace only a fraction of what we are losing to redevelopment and gentrification openly promoted by these same elected officials.

The last groundswell of anti-establishment, pro-neighborhood sentiment occurred in the mid-90’s when citizens turned back developers’ plans for Seattle Commons Park and a pro-density plan for “Urban Villages” in our neighborhoods. It spurred election of Charlie Chong and later Licata, Steinbrueck, and Nicastro. Perhaps we are at another juncture like that. Certainly the gap between the citizens and City Hall is even greater now.

Since the Displacement Coalition’s founding, growth has taken its toll on our skyline and our neighborhoods. But it’s the erosion in integrity of our leaders that we fear most. From the more affluent professionals who work in those downtown skyscrapers to the blue collar, elderly, low-income, and homeless overshadowed by their presence, we all are affected by the removal of open space and trees and low-income housing which gives this town its uniqueness and its livability.

If “pin towers”, skyscrapers, and tacky townhomes win out, their only value will be to serve as a constant reminder or of ill-conceived choices by this generation of “leaders” and our inability as citizens to prevent them.


Mercer vote: City Council releases $30 million & violates it's own budget provisos and "best practices"
- Mayor and Council's first priority when Obama takes office - it's not dollars for our ailing bridges, sidewalks, and neighborhood streets      (Outside City Hall Vol XXXVI - Nov '08):
- you guessed it, it's money for Mercer and their other big ticket pet projects
 

Just this week, Seattle City Council voted 8-1 to extend another $30 million for the Mercer Corridor Project. They did so knowing full well that they’re $80 million short on funding for the $230 million project.
 

They released the funds in defiance of their own budget proviso in which they promised the community they would not spend more until the city had a plan to make up this gap.  They also defied the city auditor and the federal Office of Management and Budget’s advice on best practices for cities.
 

No matter. For our Mayor and City Council (with the exception of Nick Licata), it’s full steam ahead.  The $30 million will go to acquire land and complete final designs so construction can begin later in 2009 or 2010.
 

Their plan involves redirecting traffic from Valley (and away from Paul Allen’s properties) bordering Lake Union onto a two-way Mercer thoroughfare (now one-way in the eastbound direction).  By city planners’ own admission, it will not relieve congestion one iota--and actually increase travel times eastbound. It also drains the limited transportation dollars for a backlog of critical bridge repairs, crosswalks, stop lights, sidewalks, and roads desperately needed in our neighborhoods.
 

In defense of his vote, Councilmember Richard Conlin said it didn’t matter if all these transportation dollars went to a plan that made traffic worse in that area. Perhaps it was time to turn Mercer into a residential street anyway rather than an arterial. After all, he said, “neighborhoods don’t have freeways running through them.”
 

Right now several thousand commuters from Queen Anne, Magnolia, Interbay, Fremont and even Ballard rely on that arterial to get to and from their jobs--not to mention freight haulers serving hundreds of businesses in those areas.
 

More outrageous still, several Councilmembers and the Mayor’s office indicated that by moving the project forward now, even with a funding shortfall, it would facilitate their efforts to secure federal funding for the project when Obama takes office.
 

These are limited federal funds explicitly reserved for arterials, not residential streets. They are earmarked for real transportation solutions to relieve traffic congestion. Projects around the region and our city have been placed on hold for years waiting for some loosening of these dollars, and what do our elected officials choose to do? Their first priority is to seek use of these funds for what amounts to a very expensive beautification project serving the development objectives of one of the richest men in the world who just happens to own over 40% of the real estate in South Lake Union. Already, the Mayor’s staff and several Councilmembers are lobbying our Senators and the incoming Obama administration to make Mercer their first priority. 
 

(In fact, when the vote was taken, several councilmembers seemed absolutely giddy over the prospect that now,  under Obama, the spigot would open for more of their pet projects like Mercer.  We’re betting this wasn’t what most Seattleites had in mind when they cast their ballot for Obama. Only Licata spoke against this travesty.)
 

The latest Mercer vote highlights in our minds the strong need for change at City Hall.  At no time in 30 years of our observation of city politics have we seen such a gulf between the citizens and our politicians on the critical issues. With one or two exceptions our Mayor and Council support a pro-growth, pro-density agenda, unvarnished and unmitigated. It is the citizens and our neighborhoods that pay the price--the price of the infrastructure needed to accommodate that growth. We are one of the only cities in the region that doesn't impose “impact fees” on developers to help cover the cost of this infrastructure.
 

And we also pay the price for the erosion and loss of our city's livability, human scale, open space, tree canopy and, above all, affordability as hundreds of housing units are lost yearly to the forces of redevelopment.  Few on the Council have chosen to speak to these concerns or call on developers to pay their fair share.
 

In 2009 there will be four Council seats up for grabs, plus the Mayor's.  We've learned that at least two of those four Council seats may be open because Jan Drago and Richard McIver are likely to step down.  Furthermore, rumor has it that Richard Conlin is considering a bid for Mayor, meaning he too would give up his Council seat.
 

There’s even a possibility that Licata may give up his seat on the Council, either to mount a bid for Mayor or to bow out altogether from elected office.  No doubt he’s tired of being on the losing end of so many 8-to-1 Council votes.  Too often, since Peter Steinbrueck left two years ago, Licata has been the lone voice for the neighborhoods and disenfranchised. 
 

We believe the time is ripe for change in city government.  In October, a potential mayoral candidate commissioned a poll.  Out of 1002 registered voters (with an error of plus or minus 3.02%), only 22% would vote to re-elect Nickels to a third term. He trails in every area of the city.  When asked if voters would prefer Licata to Nickels, 35% chose Licata and 28% Nickels.  Steinbrueck fared even better with 39% to 26%. The poll also indicated that 46% of voters disapprove of how the Council is doing its job with only 32% approving.
 

While there are many undecided voters, these numbers show unprecedented disaffection with the status quo.
 

Already, there are several people lining up to run for City Council whose candidacy and qualifications we’ll review in future columns.  Those who have registered with the City’s Office of Elections, however, seem a pretty run-of-the-mill bunch so far.
 

In the Mayor’s race, there is an effort in the community to recruit some credible candidates if neither Licata nor Steinbrueck choose to run. Folks who could carry the neighborhood banner include retired state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, current County Councilmember Bob Ferguson, or both progressive labor leaders and longtime justice advocates Steve Williamson or Ron Judd.
 

Whoever decides to run, especially for Mayor, will need high name familiarity, an ability to raise big bucks, and the charisma to excite disaffected constituencies---of which, as the poll indicates, there are many.
 

We saw hope and real change emerge out of the presidential elections no matter how much our crop of local electeds are trying to warp that. It only serves to highlight even more the need for change here at the local level in 2009.
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- John V. Fox and Carolee Colter  
(206-632-0668)

Outside City Hall Volume XXXVII: Vote No on Prop 1 and Here's Why (Nov '08):

"Even without a roads component, the Prop 1 Transportation Package (really a rail package) is still a budget busting, sprawl inducing, global warming carbon-emitting lemon and here's why"
 

Last year, we urged readers to oppose Proposition 1, the regional transportation package that was placed on the November ’07 ballot.  That $18 billion measure, including $7 billion for roads and most of the rest for light rail, was soundly defeated.  But somehow the Sound Transit board interpreted that to mean they could come back again this November with another $18 billion ballot measure, only this time stripped of the roads component.  

Repackaged under the banner “transit now”, Proposition 1 would pay for construction of 34 additional miles of light-rail track, additional Sounder train service to the south, a First Hill streetcar, and a handful of express buses.

Even without roadway funding, it’s still a global-warming, carbon-emitting lemon of a proposal and here’s why:

1)      The measure allows Sound Transit to extend the existing sales tax of .04 percent and raise it by another .05 percent.  This would bring Seattle’s total sales tax burden to nearly 10 cents on the dollar – perhaps the highest rate in the nation.  While the agency says the $18 billion package ($23 billion with interest) will be paid off in 2038, they’ve structured the tax to allow collection through 2053 and in an amount that literally would exceed $100 billion.  Clearly officials lack confidence they can complete these light rail extensions within budget.

2)      It’s a misnomer for Prop 1 supporters to label this proposal “transit now”.  Light rail funded by the measure won’t come on line until at least 2023.   Meanwhile Seattle and the region continue to add population and commuters at an alarming rate - over 300,000 new residents since 2000. If we’re going to get people out of their cars, we can’t wait 15 years for a transit solution.  As County Executive Ron Sims recently said, “We can’t wait even 15 months.” Sims, by the way, is one of the few regional leaders with the courage to speak out against Prop 1.

3)      With gas prices rising, King County METRO reports a phenomenal increase in bus ridership - up 9 percent over the summer when ridership normally dips. Now with over 400,000 riders per day, area buses are crammed to the gills.  At a time when we should be dramatically expanding the bus system, Sims reports that METRO lacks even the funding to maintain current levels of service. He’s called for fare increases and asked METRO to tap into its reserve fund to make up the shortfall.  For a fraction of the cost of Prop 1’s light rail extension, we could dramatically expand the number of buses and add dozens of new routes and truly provide “transit NOW”. 

But alas, Prop 1 allocates only about 2 percent of its total package for buses.  To quote Sims again, “The plan provides just 60 new buses for the three-county area, half of which will not be in service until after 2015. That adds just an average of 1.3 new buses per year in each of the three counties for the next 15 years.” Contrary to the claims of Prop 1 supporters, if we pour nearly all our transit dollars into a staggeringly expensive rail system, there’s little left over for real solutions like buses, vans, carpooling, shuttle service, bike, and pedestrian amenities. 

4)      Nothing exemplifies our misguided transit priorities more than our area leaders’ obsession with rail – a plan that according to one study will serve only 0.4 percent of all trips in 2030.  Earlier this summer area leaders including Mayor Nickels and members of our City Council had an opportunity to insist that a significant chunk of Prop 1’s funding go to buses and other non-rail transit solutions.  Rail is at least 40 percent more expensive to operate than buses (not counting the cost of adding several 100 million dollar rail stations along each route). Instead, these officials asked that money’s be inserted in the Prop 1 package for a costly toy of a streetcar line on Capitol Hill.  Last year those same officials chose to divert monies METRO had dedicated for new bus routes in Seattle and instead use them to cover a portion of the operating costs for Paul Allen’s South Lake Union Streetcar. 

5)      Finally, and most damning of all, Prop 1 locks us for decades into an unsustainable car dependent pattern of growth. Our state’s former Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald said it best in a recent issue of Crosscut, the local online magazine. Light rail, he says, assumes that most of the region’s growth will be concentrated in or near the major urban centers including Bellevue, Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett.  But despite our local government’s best efforts to concentrate growth along or near planned rail routes serving these areas, it’s simply not happening.  Population and jobs are exploding on the margins of the region’s growth boundaries in areas like Monroe, Marysville, Mount Vernon, Mill Creek, Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Dupont, Duvall, Bonney Lake, and a dozen other formerly rural areas.  These areas cry out for creation of small transit centers with buses, vans, car pools, paths and bikeways running to and from those hubs.  Lacking funding for these solutions (because most of our area transit dollars are being poured into rail) folks in these outlying areas have no choice but to continue to drive their cars.

As the rail line for Rainier Valley makes clear, light rail is not really about transportation.  It's about real estate, displacement, and gentrification.  Consider that most of the small businesses and residents displaced by light rail construction were low income and minorities.  It’s the rail lobby and real estate interests driving Prop 1, hiding under the illusion that this plan will curb use of cars and promote “sustainable” patterns of growth. 

On the contrary, passage of this measure will lock us into a regional growth scenario that will keep us and our children and our children’s children dependent on the automobile for decades to come. 

Vote “NO” on Prop 1!

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Transit Oriented Development: What it is and our response to bill HB 1490 promoting TOD (click on headline) articles laid out in order of how they appeared

Jan O9 original column:

Futurewise Slams Our Column and our response Jan '09

* Responses to the Low Income Housing Alliance:

Futurewise's justification for 50-unit per acre mandates is not supported by the science Feb '09

Only modest transit development needed and more buses serving the majority in the region not served by rail (March '09)
 
We respond to Stranger and other critics on more time (March 09):
 


New Futurewise bill heading to Olympia - would force neighborhoods to accommodate massive increases in density around "transit stations" (densities that rival levels in our downtown) Jan '09

By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Outside City Hall

Although Seattle residents don't know it yet, a bill will be introduced in our state Legislature in January that could have a massive impact on the affordability and livability of our neighborhoods.

Proposed by the statewide land-use and environmental planning group Futurewise (formerly called 1,000 Friends of Washington), this bill would essentially force cities in the Puget Sound region to create Transit Oriented Development (TOD) areas at every transit station along a rail or bus rapid-transit route and upzone all the land within a half-mile radius of those stations.

Within these areas, cities would be required to accommodate densities greater than what now exists in our downtown (or anywhere else between here and San Francisco for that matter).

The Futurewise bill would have the most immediate impact on Southeast Seattle, especially along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where several thousand low-income and minority households now live.

But over the long term, it also affects Capitol Hill, the University District, Roosevelt and Northgate, where rail extensions are planned.

WELL ABOVE MINIMUM DENSITY

In principle, adding some level of additional density around transit stations makes very good environmental sense. If not managed, urban sprawl eats up farmland, forests and other open space. Planning housing around public transit gives people realistic options to using cars for all their transportation needs.

However, upzones that encourage still more market-rate development in already built-up communities threaten hundreds, if not thousands, of existing lower-priced housing units within those areas.

Such densities also threaten what remains of the tree canopy. Single-family neighborhoods contain far more trees than our public parks. But single-family housing and low-cost rentals within these TOD areas would become endangered species.

Currently, all of Southeast Seattle is at a density of about four units per acre. The Rainier Vista HOPE VI community located next to the Edmunds Street transit station is planned to contain 1,000 or so units on 65 acres; that's about 15 units per acre. Seattle's Belltown (the densest neighborhood in the state) contains about 25 units per acre.

Now consider that Futurewise's TOD bill would require cities to plan for a minimum density of 50 units per acre within a half-mile of the Othello, McClellan and Edmunds rail stations. Given that a circle with a half-mile radius contains 502 acres, at least 25,000 housing units would be required in each of those station areas.

At most, these areas now hold 3,000 units of lower-density apartments and single-family homes, most occupied by lower-income and minority households. Imagine multiplying densities in these areas by eight!

This bill is a bull in a china shop. It would lay waste to whole communities in the name of "sustainability." Futurewise wrote it as if the Rainier Valley were a tabla rasa - a blank slate for planners and wide-eyed naive enviros to play out what they just learned in class or at a conference on global warming.

ASSURANCES NEEDED

What could be done by urban counties and cities around the Puget Sound to reasonably plan for added densities, including along transit routes, and not jeopardize whole communities, the remaining green spaces and affordability?

If the state advances pro-density programs that jurisdictions are encouraged (or required) to use - such as incentive zoning, bonus programs, multi-family tax exemptions or creation of TOD areas - urban counties and cities must meet the following conditions:

•Create an inventory of existing rental-housing stock in the affected area that is still affordable to low-income renters - If upzones, transit overlays or other land-use measures are planned, they must be accompanied by a low-cost housing vulnerability assessment and tools to mitigate the losses that may result.

•Require one-for-one replacement - Developers who tear down existing low-cost housing to build within TOD areas and who take advantage of such programs must replace the low-cost rental units and at a comparable price.

•Plan for and require a mix of units tailored to the income needs and affordability levels of those communities where these added densities are encouraged - Define the required percentages of units priced at or below 30 percent of AMI (area median income), between 30 to 50 percent of AMI and between 50 and 80 percent of AMI.

•Establish a low-cost housing notification requirement - When rental properties containing low-cost rental units are put up for sale, the owners must notify the local jurisdiction. Nonprofit housing developers and housing authorities from that jurisdiction should be given a reasonable amount of time in which to bid on the property and match or exceed other offers - at least 120 days.

Often notification and time are all that is needed for housing authorities and nonprofits to assemble the resources they need to outbid speculators and preserve such housing.

•Add more state funding into the current "rapid response" fund and possibly into a homeowner equity fund, to facilitate acquisition of low-cost rental and homeowner units that may be vulnerable to redevelopment in these high growth areas, and to facilitate the notification measure we've proposed above.

•Add language to the bill to mitigate the effects of such growth on open space and trees within these TOD areas.

BEING AT THE TABLE

Above all, every plan to push more density in existing areas must begin by making sure that the voice of affected residents is heard and "at the table" when this bill or any other pro-density measure is drafted. It cannot be just a bunch of planners, developers and gung-ho enviros caucusing behind closed doors with no understanding of (or seemingly any care for) the existing social and physical fabric of our communities.

To its credit, Futurewise has voiced a willingness to sit down with affected communities and low-income housing advocates and discuss these concerns.

But it's too early to tell if they will scale back required densities within these TOD areas, or add the housing measures we and others have proposed. If these issues are not addressed, their bill can only be described as social engineering at its worst.

(for more information, contact us at this email address or call us at 206-632-0668)

Futurewise slams our last week's column critical of their Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Bill & We Respond:

Call your legislators to oppose their TOD bill - It will cause massive displacement, destruction of open space, trees, and loss of our neighborhoods character unless you act!  (We don't yet have a bill number but provide herein links to the text of the current version - call members of the House Local Government Committee - see Legislative website for roster)

Read Futurewise letter to legislators slamming us(co-signed by the Statewide Low Income Housing Alliance) blasting us and read our critique of it.  Then read the bill and read our comments below! 
Did they contact you folks who live in an affected neighborhood - you folks who are most affected before drafting this measure and plunging ahead "like a bull in a china shop". click here to see how much area would be affected within just one TOD area at Othello and MKL Way. There are 4 TOD's in SE Seattle and at least half a dozen others in Central and NE Seattle.

More details and our response:

Last week a column of ours was aired in local newpapers critical of a bill about to be introduced down in Olympia by Futurewise (formerly "1000 Friends of Washington). click here to see our original column    Their "Transit Oriented Development" or TOD bill - as drafted with absolutely no input from affected communities - would require cities to accommodate a minimum of 50 units per acre within a half mile radius of all bus and light rail rapid transit stations in our city and region.  Areas like SE Seattle, Capitol Hill, U-District, Roosevelt, Northgate that radiate out rail stations and deep into each neighborhood (encompassing over 500 acres in each area). Each of these "TOD" areas would have to be upzoned to accommodate a minimum of 25,000 housing units.  These areas respectively now have current densities at 4 units per acre in SE Seattle (or 3000-4000 units), Capitol Hill (10.8 units per acre or about 8000-10,000 units total), the UDistrict (8 per acre 6000-8000 total), Roosevelt (6 per acre 4000-6000 total), Northgate (4 per acre 3000-4000 total).

However, much of these areas are single family and densities lower than 2 units per acre around proposed TOD areas (not withstanding Futurewise's claims that the zoning in these areas currently allows much higher densities. (Their own website describes proper TOD densities at 12-18 units per acre akin to what would be a mixed neighborhood 45' commercial zoning not the 50 unit per acre mini Belltowns their bill calls for within in each TOD area). Again read the bill yourself Click here for full text of their bill and (see especially page 21 Section 9) which would require densities in excess of 6-10 times current levels in these TOD areas. The downtown and Belltown currently contain densities of about 25 units per acre.

In response to our column - rather than seeking us out first or more importantly rather than meeting with the affected communities first to hear directly their concerns and respond to them - Futurewise has merely shot back with a fiery letter denying that their bill will have any adverse impacts on our city's neighborhoods. And, unfortunately, they also have been joined in their attack on us by the State-Wide Low Income Housing Alliance as co-signatory on the letter. They too to date have not sought out the opinions and concerns of people within these affected areas. (The Alliance is made up largely and is primarily funded by housing authorities, cities, and non-profit housing developers). (click here for a copy of their joint letter)

Below we'd like to offer a point by point response to their letter but we also invite you to be the your own judge. Review especially p. 21 Section 9 of their bill (click on above) and then let Futurewise and the Low Income Housing Alliance know what you think of their bill. Better yet let members of the House Local Government Committee know what you think of a bill designed to cram runaway displacement-inducing densities into our neighborhoods. And please also call you own area legislators that soon will be called on to cast a vote on this bill or a version of it.

(Futurewise says they will be coming out with another version that will modify and perhaps reduce these required densities and include some provisions within it to mitigate the impacts such development would have on low income housing. But they have said they will only listen to the state-wide housing alliance - right now unlikely to seek additions to their bill that would fully mitigate the impact such densities would have on affected communities. We can only react to the current bill - and that bill is a bull in a china shop. Perhaps - perhaps - their next version will start to address neighborhood concerns (now that they are getting feedback from us and I hope you folks out there) but as long as neighborhoods are shut out of their decision-making process it's unlikely to adequately address neighborhood concerns. We shall see)

A few specific comments in response to the Futurewise/Housing Alliance letter (click above to access their letter)..oh and we stand by our column as written: for more information contact, John V. Fox for the Coalition 206-632-0668:

 * The copy of their bill dated first of Dec. is the only one now circulating (click above to access full text)...and obviously the only version we are able to react to.  That draft dated Dec. 1st which I have attached as you see in Section 9 page 21 makes no reference to net vs. gross area within a TOD area. It does not subtract out of the 500 acre affected area - publicly owned land. If it is taken out, cities still would be required to zone for 18,000 units within those areas (not 25,000 as we stated)... But that still represents a colossal increase in the level of required density within each of the affected areas.  Remember these areas run N. and S. thru the entire city and reach deep into each neighborhood along the route made up of predominantly single-family and lower density very affordable rentals.

* Again, at no time have these neighborhoods been consulted or their comments take by Futurewise or the Statewide Housing Alliance....Given these increased densities that absolutely would be required under their bill as written (click on p21 Section 9), it's arrogant and elitist to proceed with such heavy handed legislation and without input from these communities pure and simple!

* There are no provisions within the Futurewise bill requiring cities to tier of graduate the densities downward within the TOD areas nor is their language requiring cities to "average" the increased densities. (meaning zone areas closes to the station at highrise levels, and further out within the TOD those areas could remain lower density). Under their bill, cities are not limited or called on or required to in any way to average or tier down densities moving out from the center of a TOD area.

* What would your neighborhood look like and how would residents in your community react to a proposal calling for single family areas to be upzoned to L3 or even higher and in areas now zoned single family or duplex?  If those single family areas weren't upzoned, and all that density was concentrated closer to the station...that'd be mid or highrise densities. What would those changes do to a Fremont, Wallingford, Sand Point, Roosevelt, or even a Capitol Hill - in areas now made up of mostly lower rise very low income and affordable rental units? 

* To date Futurewise has only said they are prepared to include some new housing measures into their bill - measures to address the impacts of more growth on existing low income housing in TOD areas. But the only measures they are prepared to possibly support are those put forth by the Low Income Housing Alliance...that group has not to date said they support the additions into the bill that we recommend or that are needed to guarantee no net loss of low income rentals within TOD areas. Quite the contrary we know that at present,they are not adequate by a longshot to guarantee no net loss let alone expand the stock of housing tailored to the needs of low income,working people, and people of color that make up SE Seattle. Futurewise did not say they would respond or support our proposals identified in our column and we have recently learned that to date

* This following link taken from the "Smart Growth, Smart Energy Toolkit" defines appropriate densities for TOD areas at minimums of "12-15 units per acre.  Futurewise's 50 unit per acre threshold is over 3 times that amount.  (read midway down link). Not only are Futurewise Thresholds out of touch with neighborhood reality..there out of touch with smart growth standards: http://www.mass.gov/envir/smart_growth_toolkit/pages/mod-tod.html   Note also these principles state that "The zoning should be tailored to respect the unique setting of individual stations".  There is no sucy attempt by Futurewise to craft legislation responsive to the unique characteristics of each neighborhood where a station would be located.

* See page 5 of 8 click here on  Futurewise's own website. Even they say the optimum amount of density per acre within a TOD area should be between 12-18 to as low at 4 units per acre, and I'll quote directly from their website:
The zoning in these land uses varies, and the density is some zones is quite low. A general benchmark for density in transit station areas is twenty units per acre, to make high capacity transit feasible. The densities in the potential TOD zones of Auburn range from two units per acre in the R-3 zone, to 12-18 units per acre in the R-4 and RO zones. It is important to note the densities of less than four housing units per gross acre within the urban growth area violation of the Growth Management Act unless they are applied exclusively to lands with extensive critical areas.

*
Responses to the Low Income Housing Alliance: We are disappointed that they would join as signatory without first talking to us and more importantly affected communities. And we are not at all certain that the state-wide low income housing alliance will support amendments to the bill to ensure that low income housing impacts will be addressed within cities required to upzone within TOD areas.  If they do not support amendments requiring cities to adopt 1 for 1 replacement requirements at comparable price, requirements to ensure most units within TOD areas are low income and affordable not highend, full relocation for any displaced residents, and right of first notice requirements (requiring owners first to offer low income properties for sale to non-profits and affected residents so they can be retained as low income housing) - then the Alliance (and anyone else supporting this bill) is simply part of the problem and complicit in the massive gentrification, displacement, and hardship among poor people and people of color that inevitably will ensue if the bill is approved (as written)

We stand by our column as written: for more information contact, John V. Fox for the Coalition 206-632-0668

Outside City Hall Vol XXXVIII:  February 2009  (our column appears regularly in the South Seattle Beacon and other neighborhood newspapers)                

Futurewise's justification for 50-unit per acre mandates in HB 1490 is not supported by the science and ignores costs to the environment
- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox  

The theory of transit-oriented development (TOD) in that clustering residents and businesses around transit stations will reduce auto use and thus greenhouse gas emissions.  We’re hearing this now from groups like Futurewise, Transportation Choices, and the Cascade Land Conservancy.  On the surface TOD sounds plausible.  But where’s the scientific evidence that it will actually work?

Let’s consider the environmental costs not just the assumed benefits. Otherwise, we could end up exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them.

As we’ve already seen in Seattle, upzoning areas for increased density leads to the demolition of existing structures.  Older low-rise buildings are wrecked to make way for bigger ones.  Debris from demolition and construction makes up 30% of the waste stream choking our landfills.

In the process, we waste a resource that doesn’t get recognized on the developer’s balance sheet—the embodied energy in the destroyed structure.

Embodied energy is the total expenditure of non-renewable energy consumed in the creation of a building—the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to the site, and construction.  Embodied energy represents 15 to 30 times the amount of energy involved in operating a building annually.  No matter how “green” a new building is, it will still take 15 to 30 years before the embodied energy lost in destroying the original structure is paid off by the efficiency of the new one.

Meanwhile, the construction of new large buildings consumes prodigious amounts of concrete.  Concrete manufacturing is responsible for 7 to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, partly because of the high temperatures required to create cement, its principal ingredient.

Then consider how larger, bulkier structures increase lot coverage and crowd out trees. For example, the redevelopment of Seattle Housing Authority’s Rainier Vista project took out over 300 trees in one 65 acre plot while the construction of Sound Transit’s light rail line took out another hundred along Martin Luther King near the Edmunds station.

Mature trees store carbon, which is released into the atmosphere after they are cut down.  Sure, we can plant spindly little saplings where once we had a canopy, but it will be decades before those young trees begin to make up for what’s been lost.  Aside from capturing carbon, mature trees also retain stormwater and shade buildings in summer, cutting down on air conditioning needs.

By demolishing an existing neighborhood and rebuilding it at a much greater density, we destroy embodied energy, remove carbon-capturing trees and emit more greenhouse gases by producing concrete.  It’s going to take a lot of foregone auto trips to pay off that carbon debt.

But will concentrating populations around a transit hub actually reduce auto trips?  There are several factors that could work against that hoped-for outcome.

First, the older housing units that get destroyed to allow for larger buildings almost always provided lower rents than the buildings that replace them.  Developers have to make back their construction costs and reap a profit.  Unless there is a public subsidy for at least some of the units, newer housing units are going to cost more than older ones, driving up rents.

If lower-income people are displaced by the demolition of their homes near a transit station, they don't disappear off the face of the earth.  Where do they go?  To the last few places with affordable housing—Tukwila, Renton, Auburn.  And from there they must commute to their jobs, doctor appointments, places of worship, etc.  More auto trips.

The same dynamic affects neighborhood business districts. Most locally-owned independent businesses in Seattle are located in one or two-story buildings, the kind that are at risk when an area is upzoned for greater density.  If their buildings are demolished, chances are these small business owners will not be able to pay the higher rents in the new, larger structures.

For instance, before light rail construction the average rents in a strip of small businesses at the corner of Alaska and Martin Luther King were $13 per square foot.  Seattle Housing Authority planned to rent out retail spaces in their new development along MLK at twice that rate.

If small businesses are pushed out, those business owners have to leave the neighborhood, perhaps Seattle itself.  They leave holes in the fabric of that neighborhood business district.  For the people living around the transit hubs, there may be a Starbucks to patronize, but will they be able to walk to hardware stores, office supply stores, locksmiths and other retailers?

If former residents are displaced to the suburbs, tree cover is lost, embodied energy is wasted, carbon emissions from concrete production are increased--all we can say is that there just better be a net reduction in car use big enough to more than balance all those negative climate impacts.

But can we be sure that the people who choose to live in the new TOD housing will NOT have cars?  Or will they still bring cars with them?  Can this even be controlled?  Can renters to be asked to sign leases with clauses forbidding cars, like pets?

There is an alternative to concentrating massive increases in density around transit stations in Seattle— create small bus transit centers all around Puget Sound.  Encourage densities around those stations and provide bus service for those communities that is now sorely lacking.

An increasing portion of our region’s population and employment is going into Lynnwood, Renton, Bellevue and further out in the county.  No upzones or light rail systems or efforts to force still more growth in Seattle is going to alter that.  But right now these areas are being denied adequate mass transit service and folks there have no choice but to drive their car--which of course means even more carbon emissions.

Before ripping down our trees, paving our open space, and kicking longtime low-income families out of their homes, show us the math.  Demonstrate that the impacts of your proposal will result in a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  Show us that your planning is based on science instead of faith.

- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox for the Displacement Coalition for more information 206-632-0668

Important Note - more details on why you need to call and oppose as written HB 1490 (and its companion in the Senate SB 5687) HB 1490 & SB 5687, the Futurewise sponsored Transporation Oriented Development bill, would mandate that cities zone for a minimum of 50 units per acre within a one-half mile radius of every major transit station in the region including rail and rapid bus stops. The bill as currently written gives no consideration to the fact that here in Seattle we have undergone extensive station area planning and already planned for minimum densities of 15-20 units per acre necessary to support rapid transit stations.  These rail stations lack adequate capacity to handle 50 unit per acre densities (size of stations and peak frequency fall far short of what's needed to support that higher density). That means if we do approach such high densities most households would have no choice but to drive their cars (especially since we are limiting bus service and redirecting some of the routes in order to link to light rail).  What will this do to increase our carbon footprint? 

The bill would also mark a major change in the Growth Management Act for the first time mandating densities with no consideration of condition on the ground in those communities, no impact analysis, no input from affected communities.  Some say this is a hi-jacking of growth management that many in the neighborhoods worked hard to achieve 20 years ago including the Displacement Coalition. In these areas of SE Seattle and North Seattle along the rail route, there are thousands of units of affordable housing - most of the cities remaining stock - serving especially low income families and people of color.  The bill as written will force upzones that will greatly accelerate displacement and gentrification, loss of trees and open space. 

Carolee Colter and John Fox respond to their critics in the debate over density:

"Only modest transit development needed and more buses serving the majority in the region not served by rail"
 

 

- reprinted from the March 4th edition of the South Seattle Beacon  http://www.sdistrictjournal.com/

 

We sure stirred up a hornet’s nest!  Our last two columns--critiquing the Futurewise bill mandating minimum densities of 50 units per acre around transit hubs, and questioning whether transit-oriented development (TOD) will help climate change—generated more controversy than any time in the four years we’ve been writing “Outside City Hall.” 
 

A segment of the environmental community is enraged with us because we’ve challenged a key assumption of theirs--that the only way to prevent sprawl, make housing more affordable, and prevent climate change is to cram more housing into Seattle’s neighborhoods. However, there are many residents of southeast Seattle already contending with increased density and gentrification, who agree with us.
 

"People need yards and open space to be mentally healthy,” said Pat Murakami, president of Southeast Seattle Neighborhood District Council, in the Seattle Times.  “Are we supposed to live like sardines crammed into a can?"
 

Yes, say the proponents of greater density.  You must sacrifice your open space, your trees, the very scale of your neighborhood that allows you to know your neighbors.  And furthermore, you must make that sacrifice on faith, without guarantees that any particular land anywhere is saved as a result.
 

Since 2004 Seattle has reached 50% of its 20-year growth targets and we have three times the zoning capacity to meet them.  In contrast, many smaller cities around the region aren't meeting their targets.  Meanwhile, 30 to 40% of growth in Pierce and Snohomish Counties occurred outside the growth boundaries, (compared to only 2% in King County.)  Obviously county and city governments out there on the margins are not effectively holding the line on strip developments and subdivisions.
 

While Seattle has been absorbing much more than its share of growth in recent years, it’s made no dent in reducing sprawl.  Although we have grave concerns about Transfer of Development Rights as a concept, at least it would protect an actual parcel of rural land from suburban sprawl in exchange for urban dwellers “living like sardines.”
 

But looming over us is an even larger threat than sprawl—global warming.  And without a doubt, automobile use is a major cause of that .  No one involved in this density debate, us included, questions this science.
 

What we’re missing, however, is the hard data proving that a minimum of 50 units per acre will reduce automobile use enough to offset the environmental destruction caused by tearing down neighborhoods of smaller, older buildings, wasting the energy embodied in these buildings from their original construction, producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas-emitting concrete and destroying the mature trees.
 

Proponents point to studies showing a theoretical tipping point with “vehicle miles traveled” falling at 50 units per acre – when most people switch to transit.  There is debate even among transit gurus, however, over this tipping point and many say one size does not fit all.
 

More to the point, those studies extolling 50 units per acre ignore the costs and environmental impacts of removing what's in these communities already.  And they don’t even consider the question of whether there is adequate transit capacity in place to absorb those densities.
 

Take a look at this quote from a recent L.A. Times story on four TOD projects:

“New Urbanist planners have long hoped that building high-density, mixed-use, multiple-unit developments on or near public transit lines would encourage Angeleños to leave their cars and start taking buses and trains. Instead, the properties that Times reporters studied have substantially increased vehicular traffic.”

What the reporters found is that while many people were attracted to the mix of housing and shopping, they were not foregoing their cars.
 

When Portland built its first MAX light rail line, several transit-oriented housing projects sprang up near stations.  However, according to a study by the Cascade Policy Institute, very few living in those buildings used the rail station.  Most in fact got in their cars to drive away in the morning.  Because parking requirements for these TOD projects had been waived, residents created “guerilla parking spaces” and blocked neighbors’ driveways.  Meanwhile commuters from outside the neighborhood drove to the rail station, exacerbating the parking crunch.
 

Unless car ownership can actually be prohibited (something we doubt), TOD residents will probably still have cars and will still use them, and transit riders from outside the area will drive to transit stations.
 

If some current residents of neighborhoods near transit stops are displaced from their homes by demolition and higher prices, and others lose their trees and open space, their sacrifice should at least have achieved the desired result of significantly reduced auto trips.  We shouldn’t be messing with people’s lives based on wishful thinking.
 

It’s a disservice to the Growth Management Act and the cause of combating global warming to blindly assume that solutions rest with massive increases in density clustered around a handful of rail stations serving only a small fraction of the region’s commuters.
 

We advocate for many smaller-scale TOD’s distributed around the Puget Sound region and centered on bus transit and vanpooling.  These modest projects could meet the needs of the 95% of commuters who won’t be served by light rail, including those in the hinterlands who currently have no alternative to the auto.  In fact there are centers now in existence with unused capacity – with infrastructure already in place that can support more employment and more residents.
 

Building more office towers in Seattle and a six-lane 520 bridge is going in the wrong direction.  Instead of badmouthing suburbia, and expecting all those suburbanites to move to the city, it makes more sense to promote moderate-density TOD suburban centers so that people living there can work closer to home and ride public transit. 
 

The fight against climate change begins with managed and more modest levels of growth here in Seattle done without any more loss of trees, open space and urban streams. The burden of proof rests with those who tell us we must sacrifice our environment on faith in order to preserve it somewhere else.  Urgent action is needed that will actually make a difference, not just destroy people’s homes and make developers rich.
 

- John V. Fox and Carolee Colter (for more information contact 206-632-0668)
 

We respond to Stranger and other in sundry critics:
In the current issue of the Stranger, Erica Barnett trashed the Displacement Coalition and the Neighborhood Movement for their stance on HB 1490 the Transit Oriented Development Bill.  We thought we'd share our response with you which also offers our summary of what happened to this bill and why we believe it crashed and burned down in Olympia. 

In response to Erica Barnett's hit piece regarding my role in the demise of the Futurewise "Transit Oriented Development" (TOD) bill:

Ms. Barnett picked me as the whipping boy to make her case that increased density around rail stops as mandated by this bill was good for Seattle. In doing so, she took at face value the claims of the bill's sponsor, Futurewise, that 50 unit per acre mandates within one-half mile of each stop would require little or no change to zoning in those areas. That claim ignored both ours and the city's analysis indicating that current allowable densities around many of the stations -- especially in Southeast Seattle -- were well below that threshold.

With so much of the land within these TOD areas zoned for single family or 8 units per acre, to reach an average of 50 units per acre across the whole area, you'd have to upzone the remaining lower density multi-family zones to over 200 units per acre. (Yes, that does look like Manhattan or you could upzone large swaths of the single family area - an unlikely prospect that even our mayor and councilmembers wouldn't support).

Currently in Southeast Seattle these lower density multi-family areas contain the highest concentrations of low-income and minority households remaining in our city. These are folks with incomes well below 40% of area median. Requiring developers to set aside a percentage of new units in these areas at 80% or even 60% of median as the bill would have done, would not replace the much lower priced units that would have been lost if these areas were upzoned to meet the density mandates in the bill.

To go into these communities with these mandates without involving the people who live there and with no understanding of how they would be affected, is elitist and raises all sorts of economic, social, and racial justice issues.

Ms. Barnett's Reaganesque argument that low-income units will trickle down with more housing density may pass muster in Econ 101 but not in real-world Seattle. Every time in the last 30 years that our city has gone through a spurt of growth, it's been accompanied by the loss of thousands of low-income units, a precipitous rise in homelessness, and longer waiting lists for public housing. Most recently, during the 2005-2007 era of runaway growth, we lost over 5000 low-income rentals to redevelopment. Only a fraction of the units were ever replaced with our limited public funds.

But we are not saying that the loss of low-income units is necessarily an inevitable consequence of that growth nor are we anti-density. However, mechanisms first must be put in place to preserve existing affordable units or ensure that developers replace what they remove. We will vigorously oppose this or any other bill at the state or local level that imposes upzones until such provisions are put into place. The obstacles to achieving this are not technical or legal. They are political i.e. we've got a pro-developer mayor and Council majority standing in the way.

Contrary to Ms. Barnett's claim, the bill's sponsors in the end chose not to include the explicit anti-displacement language we sought for the bill--nor did they include several variations on that language we proposed in the interest of compromise. I think that was because our mayor and his lobbyists had more of the ear of the bill's sponsors than we did. Even though in Olympia Seattle carries little or no weight, I surmise the bill's sponsors we're just too tight with hizzoner to buck him. Our mayor also masqueraded as if the city took a formal position against our amendments when the city council did no such thing.

Lastly it does a disservice to the density debate to stereotype literally the entire neighborhood movement as nothing but NIMBY’s. In doing so, you've dismissed not just these community leaders but residents from across this city - including many of your readers (or former readers as the case may be) - who turned out in unprecedented numbers to oppose the bill's density mandates.

These density mandates would have wiped out years of station area planning already undertaken in these communities and gave no recognition to the fact that most of these areas are meeting and exceeding regional growth targets needed to support rail stations under existing zoning. You're missing a big story here with your facile dismissal of these folks and the reason for this outpouring of sentiment. We simply got the word out about the implications of these density mandates. The "nabe's" did the rest.

For every NIMBY out there, there are many dozens of folks in the neighborhood movement who don't get paid, who don't have lobbyists, who don't get dollars from Sound Transit (like Futurewise) or the city (like the Low-income Housing Alliance) who are willing stand up and take on the city and Sound Transit when values in their communities are placed at risk, including low-income housing. These are the neighborhood folks who we identify with and thank for turning back these draconian mandates.

The Futurewise pro-density-at-all-costs crowd were blown out of the water and, more importantly, the myth they and Ms. Barnett have been perpetuating has taken a serious hit. Unbridled density in Seattle does not automatically reduce our carbon footprint nor curb sprawl. Ripping down our local trees, paving over our local streams, pouring more concrete - increasing our carbon footprint here in the name of reducing it somewhere else -- is a fallacy. A bit Orwellian too don't you think - to do the exact opposite in Seattle of what you say you subscribe to globally, nationally, or wherever. I'd say it's simply a cover to mask the same old developer- driven agenda that's destroying the livability and human scale of this city.

With this TOD bill, these interests and their apologists didn't get their way like they so often do at City Hall. It's a different ballgame down in Olympia. And more importantly, due to the neighborhood energy that has been unleashed, we are in a much better position to influence the process of revising the neighborhood plans and multi-family housing code and getting the strong anti-displacement language so desperately needed in our city.

John Fox for the Coalition 206-632-0668

For more information click on link below:

link to our full critique and response

Link to one TOD area and how much area it covers - just one in Seattle

link to city's comments on Futurewise bill

 

Outside City Hall: March 2009

for immediate release:                                                                                       206-632-0668

What did Jan Drago (and the Mayor) know and when did they know it?

Rep. Clibborn says today that Drago knew last week that funding wasn't in the stimulus package and so did the Mayor

So why then didn't Jan Drago and/or the Mayor inform the Council of this fact before yesterdays 6-3 vote to release funding and break ground on the Mercer project? 
the only rationale councilmembers and especially Drago used yesterday when giving Mercer the go-ahead was that the Council needed to act now because stimulus funds were certain to follow...

"Displacement Coalition calls for a re-vote and immediate retraction of release of funding for the Mercer Project" and hats off to Licata, Rasmussen and Clark for not getting on the bandwagon and voting NO to Mercer until all funding was lined up.

Yesterday when the Full Council vote was taken, Councilmember Burgess said that the proviso could be restored (that prevented Mercer from going forward until funding was in hand) if later the federal money wasn't made available. There is the "motion for reconsideration," under the Council charter that can be made by anyone voting with the prevailing party.  OK Councilmember Burgess, the Money IS NOT THERE. Now it's time for you (or any of the others who voted yes yesterday) to move for reconsideration and retraction of the Council's action.

At noon today, the Chair of the House Transportation Committee Judy Clibborn announced the list of projects that would receive federal stimulus funds.  The Mercer Corridor Project ($50 million) was not on that list and she made it very clear it would not be on that list.  She also expressed her own surprise at our Mayor who earlier in the morning expressed surprise in front of cameras that Mercer wasn't in the package. In response to questions from the press, Rep. Clibborn also stated that she did not understand that - the Mayor's reaction. She went on to say that last week she could not understand why the Mayor was suggesting and acting like it was there (in the package) when she and the committee had been very upfront that it wasn't going to be in the package. No local funding projects were going to receive stimulus funds including Mercer. It so surprised her, the Mayor's actions last week, she thought the Mayor might have been referring to some other source of federal dollars she was not aware of. In Rep. Clibborn's words "I know he knew it wasn't there".  

Rep. Clibborn also said she wasn't sure if the full City Council knew last week that Mercer funding wasn't in the package - but then she went on to state explicitly "I did talk to Jan Drago and told her last week so she knew" (exact quote from Rep. Clibborn). When asked about the City's claim made repeatedly by the Mayor and yesterday by Drago prior to the vote that the project would provide many jobs, Rep. Clibborn quicky replied..... all the projects we have chosen to fund provide jobs. 

The Displacement Coalition urges our supporters to call and/or write Rep. Clibborn and all other members of the House  Transportation Committee and there own legislators thanking them for their decision to withhold funding for a project that clearly would represent a gross misuse of stimulus package funding.  We forwarded today a letter to our legislators signed by over 300 city residents and 18 community and business organizations opposing use of federal funds for this project. The Mercer project is merely a beautification project designed to take traffic off Valley and away from Vulcan properties. It will actually make traffic worse than doing nothing and all at a cost of over 200 million dollars. This project has been propelled forward by special interests and should have been stopped a long time ago.

We also believe that Councilmember Drago and the Mayor should be held accountable for their actions, called on the carpet, and their actions roundly criticized and face some kind of reprimand if they indeed did know about the lack of federal dollars before the council vote and failed to alert their colleagues.  It's a shameful example of backroom Robert Moses style politics done at the expense of tens of millions in limited dollars our city desperately needs to meet real transportation needs in our city.

for more information contact John V Fox for the Displacement Coalition 206-632-0668

 

Outside City Hall: April 2009

King County Releases 2008 Housing Benchmarks Report                             - please circulate - please circulate

Housing shortfall has grown for people below 40% of county-wide median - report shows similar growing gap for Seattle's very low income households
 

We are hearing from several sources that our Mayor may seek to shift our upcoming Housing Levy dollars away from the poor and very poor in order to 'incentivize' production of "mixed income" and units for those at 80% of median. He calls these "workforce" units even though at those rent levels, they would be hundreds of dollars above what most working families could afford! The County's Report and recent data from the 2007 American Community Survey (US. Census Updates) shoots down the Mayor's claim that we have a lot of housing for the poor in Seattle and very rich but "not enough in between".  We don't have enough for the poor and the problem is growing.   And if the Mayor cares about workers "in between", then he needs to reach further down and serve those at 60% of median or even a bit less.

The County's 2008 Housing Benchmark's Report may be accessed by clicking here:
http://www.metrokc.gov/budget/benchmrk/bench08/AffHsg/aff_housing.htm. Click on "public dollars spent on low income housing" and go to page 3 where you'll see that 81.6% of 150,000 Seattle rental units (or 122,400 units) are affordable to those at 80% of median. According to the 2007 American Community Survey there are  about 26,000 households in Seattle earning between 50-80% of median leaving a considerable surplus of units affordable to this income group. Click here for Amercian Community Survey Data:

By contrast, the 2008 County's Benchmarks data shows that only 7.4% of Seattle rental units are affordable to households with incomes at or below 40% of median (or about 11,100 units). However there are over 40,600 households with incomes at or below 40% of median (Source 2008 American Community Survey ACS Data) leaving a shortfall of about 30,000 rentals for this income group.  The 2007 ACS data also shows there are 36,033 hh's earning $20,000 a year or less in Seattle - at or below 35% of median (assuming 2007 ACS median of $57,000).  Fully 82% or 29529 of those households are paying more than 30% of their income on rent.  Only 2 percent of Seattle households whose incomes are between 50-80% of median, pay more than 30% of their income on rent. 

Also, drawing from ACS Data and the 2006 and 2008 Housing Benchmarks Report, we put together some comparison tables which highlight the growing need in Seattle and county-wide for those at the bottom and the corresponding surplus of units affordable at 80% of median.  Click here to view those tables. http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/incentivezone.htm

For data on average worker wages (closer to 52% of median) and what they can afford in rent compared to rents offered at 80% of median, click here: http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/workforceresearch.htm

And for a full list of all workers earning less that 80% of median - the vast majority - click here      http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/attachment_5.htm

Our conclusions and thoughts on all this:  Stop incentivizing ie, giving away our tax dollars,  to developers who build units at 80% of median that we would get anyway without the subsidies and expand our commitment to serve those at the bottom!
Our Mayor and Housing Department continue to push for more tax breaks, upzones, and use of our tax dollars for developers who set-aside a handful of units affordable to those at 80% of median or even above that figure.  However, most of the area's workforce earns an income between 50 and 60% of median according to data taken directly from Washington State Employment Securities. 

Our recent survey of new buildings and buildings built within the last 6-8 years indicates that most new rental developments include units priced at or near 80% of median or as they age will soon offer units at that income level.  So why give these developers subsidies to do what they already are doing? . The Mayor's aim is to 'incentivize' still more market or near market rate development in communities around Seattle particularly around transit stops and in especially in Southeast Seattle - doing so without regard to the impact of that growth on the existing truly affordable character of those communities. When our Mayor calls units at 80% of median (or even higher) "workforce housing", it's simply a euphemism used to disguise the Mayor's pro-developer pro-density agenda.

But here is an even bigger rub - How much more housing serving those at or below 40% will be lost to increased demolition, conversion, and speculation due to the Mayor's 'incentivizing' of units at 80% of median?  We may get a handful of units for those at that income level but at the direct expense of hundreds of units we need for the most needy in our community! 

>From 2005 thru 2007 (and halfway thru 2008), we broke records for new housing construction. Our mayor pushed for and obtained upzones from a compliant City Council and more incentives to the tune of millions in deferred taxes were given away to developers  During that period (from 2004-2007), we reached 50% of our 20 year growth targets. But we also saw an unprecedented loss of existing low income and very low income units - far more than we could ever replace with our limited public housing dollars - over 5000 units lost to demolition, conversion, increased rents, and speculative activity directly traceable to the development boom. click here for documentation  While the City's liberal elites were extolling the virtues of the "Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness" - they ignored these housing losses and homelessness grew at an exponential rate.

To repeat: the Mayor's incentive schemes are simply giveaways to stimulate still more of this kind of growth disguised as "workforce housing".  We need workforce housing in addition to more low and very low income but most workers earn in Seattle and the County at or below 60% of median. Before any more upzones and tax giveaways to developers, we must first put into place mechanisms that prevent loss of existing low income units or developers must foot the bill for replacing 100 percent of the units they remove.  And with respect to use of the limited public dollars we have - especially our housing levy dollars - the emphasis must continue to remain on serving those at the bottom - below 40% of median with most of that serving those below 30% of median.

For more information, contact John V. Fox for the Coalition 206-632-0668

Outside City Hall: (May 2009 Volume)

reprinted from North Seattle Herald and Capitol Hill Times - slightly modified to reflect subsequent council discussions:
(our apologies if you received two or more of these)

OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Leave well enough alone: Housing levy should help the poorest

By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Columnists

"Changing the levy to provide housing at rents thousands of dollars above what the average family can afford in order to serve households with much higher incomes is not a formula for winning voter approval in a deep recession. "

In 1985, the City of Seattle announced plans to spend more than $5 million of the city's general-fund dollars on creation of a new home for the elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo. Such a home, it was said, was long overdue. It just wasn't humane to cram those pachyderms into a cramped concrete enclosure, and they needed room to roam.

For housing advocates, this was bitterly ironic. Sure, it was a fine idea to renovate Dumbo's home, but the Reagan administration had just wiped out federal assistance programs for housing for low-income and working families across the country.

To top it off, there was a downtown-office boom under way, and city officials had just announced the loss of more than 1,500 low-income units to demolition and abandonment in downtown alone.

Hundreds of other units across the city also were giving way to new construction, while waiting lists for our city's limited stock of affordable rentals were exploding. The city's few homeless shelters were inundated with newly homeless people, including, for the first time, dozens of families with children.

Advocates had already called on city officials to address this housing shortage, but precious little had been done. Then came the funding for the elephant house.

THE FIRST LEVY

David Bloom, of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, wrote a scathing critique of the city's priorities in the daily papers: How was it that our city's leaders could find the dollars for an elephant house but not for the growing number of low-income working families in our community?

That editorial and subsequent hubbub set in motion our city's first family-housing levy, approved by the voters in 1987. That levy raised more than $50 million for low-income housing over seven years. And for the first time, the city tapped a portion of its general fund for housing and supportive services.

Since then, about $200 million in total has been generated from three housing levies brought before the voters every seven years. The last one approved in 2002 raised more than $86 million. About 60 percent of these funds have been used to provide housing for families with incomes less than 50 percent of median. More than 35 percent of all funds have been used to serve the poorest of the poor in our city - those from 0 to 30 percent of area median.

IT'S TIME AGAIN

Now that the 2002 levy is in its last year, voters will be asked this time to commit $145 million over an additional seven year period to renew that levy. Even at this higher amount, given inflation, it won't produce as many units as the 2002 levy.  The new levy will add in property taxes annually between $50 and $60 on an averaged priced home of around $300,000-$400,000. In all, the three past levies created more than 5,000 units of housing. It's difficult to imagine how much worse our housing crisis would be without the levy.

But our mayor and some on the City Council seem intent on tampering with this successful formula. Our Mayor and at least a few councilmembers want to shift as much as $45 million of these upcoming housing-levy dollars away from the poor and very poor to incentivize production of units affordable to those at 80 percent of median - euphemistically called "workforce" or "mixed-income" housing.

A couple with one child would need to pay more than $1,400 a month for a two-bedroom unit priced at 80 percent of median. To afford that (assuming they pay 30 percent of their income on rent), that household must earn more than $55,000 a year. According to Washington Employment Security, 75 percent of all county wage earners earn less than $55,000 a year.

The Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey shows there are 40,600 households in Seattle with incomes at or below 40 percent of median but only 11,100 units affordable to that group.

By contrast, for the 20,000 households in Seattle earning between 60 to 80 percent of median, there are almost 60,000 units at rents they can afford. Even pricey new rental construction may include units affordable at 80 percent of median, or they will within a few years as the building ages.

But here's an even bigger rub. Our mayor's rush to incentivize more housing for those at 80 percent of median and above has only accelerated the loss of housing serving those at or below 40 percent - from demolition, conversion or speculation. From 2005 through 2007, Seattle broke records for new housing construction, but we also experienced an unprecedented loss of more than 5,000 units of existing low-income and very low-income housing - far more than we could ever replace with our limited public-housing funds.

CITY COUNCIL - What will they do - council committee action on June 11th

Seattle has recently approved up-zones and still more tax giveaways to developers to promote units at 80 percent of median and above. Just this week, the council voted to eliminate language in the downtown bonus program guaranteeing some of the millions raised from this program for those at 30 percent and 50 percent of median (meaning the city is free to give it all away including $14 million already accumulated, to developers producing units priced at 80% of median).

With respect to the limited public dollars we have - especially our housing-levy dollars - the emphasis must remain on serving those at the bottom: below 30 percent of median. None of the new levy's $104 million dedicated for rental housing should be used for households above 60% of median (where again the Mayor would allow $45 million serving those between 60 and 80% of median). The remaining portions of the levy for homeowner assistance, to help renters paying rent, and for acquisition of existing housing also should be limited to ensure that only a tiny fraction if any goes for housing above 60% of median.  Further of the nine million dedicated for homeowner assistance, most of that should go to land trust and coops or if a unit is purchased with these funds the unit may not be resold to higher income groups - the longterm affordability of the units must be retained!

The City Council is scheduled to finalize the new housing levy and begin taking votes in Committee on June 11th. Let the City Council know what you think. Let's not risk losing a very important thing for our city.

Changing the levy to provide housing at rents thousands of dollars above what the average family can afford in order to serve households with much higher incomes is not a formula for winning voter approval in a deep recession.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter can be reached at needitor@nwlink.com.

 

--------------------------------

update: our follow-up piece in wake of Council decision on make-up of housing levy: (June '09)

Council moves to place new housing levy on the Fall ballot - Our thoughts on Monday’s vote

  • Council gives go-head but only after amending Mayor's proposal so millions more are directed to the very poor
    with changes that dramatically limit amounts for units serving at 80% of median, we strongly urge voter approval  

The Seattle City Council on Monday agreed unanimously (8-0 with Councilmember Rasmussen absent) to place a $145 million housing levy on the November ballot. The measure is expected to cost the owner of a $430,000 home $79 a year in property taxes over the seven year life of the levy (an increase from the previous levy that cost that homeowner $49 annually).
 

The monies raised will contribute to the production of at least 1600 additional units of low-income housing in our community.  If the measure passes, it would be the fourth successive seven-year levy garnering voter approval since 1988.  Over $200 million has been raised from past levies, which produced over 4000 low-income units. Without this critical resource, literally thousands of folks would have been rendered homeless and/or forced out of our communities due to rising rents and displacement.
 

As in past levies, the bulk of the monies from the new levy ($104 million) would go to production of low-income rental units and $9 million will be offered in the form of low-interest loans to low-income homebuyers.  Councilmember Licata was able to add language to the homeowner portion to ensure long term affordability of these units and encourage use of some of these funds for land trust and cooperatives.  
 

The remainder of levy funds would be used to cover maintenance and operation of existing subsidized units ($14 million), administering the fund ($13.2 million), help for non-profits to acquire existing housing ($6.5 million) and assistance to tenants who cannot afford their rent ($4.2 million).
 

When Councilmembers finally approved the make-up of the levy, there was little or no debate over key elements of the program. Such unanimity, however, masked real concern among housing and homeless advocates on several issues not resolved until late in Council deliberations. 
 

Last Thursday when the Council’s Committee of the Whole convened, Councilmember Jan Drago called for a cut in the amount of the levy to $120 million but she could not find a second for her proposal.  Her gesture seemed designed to further distinguish her Mayoral bid from Greg Nickels (a difficult feat because they are two peas in a pod) and capture a few headlines (something she succeeded in doing).  One of her colleagues pointed out that a drop from $145 million to $120 million would mean the owner of an averaged priced home would only see a reduction in their assessment of a whole dollar a month. On the other hand a drop of this magnitude would mean this levy would serve far fewer households than previous levies at a time when the need is far greater.
 

After failing to find a second, Drago joined the other councilmembers in voting for a $145 million levy proposal, touting her long history of support for low-income housing and the homeless.  But then only a few hours later Thursday night she reiterated her doubts about the larger levy in order to capture support from the Alki Foundation for her Mayoral bid.  That downtown crowd may even oppose the levy all together, and she gave fuel to that idea by reminding them she supported a reduced dollar levy.
 

Nevertheless, recent polling shows voters will support a levy at the $145 million total despite harder economic times.  Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute also reminded the Council that only last year they agreed to put a $146 million dollar measure on the ballot for parks and open space and an $86 million dollar measure to restore facilities at the Pike Place Market. How could we do less for human beings?
 

In what was their most important decision, Councilmembers voted unanimously (with Rasmussen absent) to amend the Mayor's proposal so that the amount going for rental housing serving those at 80% of median, was limited to no more than 10% (or about $10 million of the $104 million rental portion).
 

The Mayor's proposal would have allowed 45% or $46 million of the $104 million rental portion of the levy for housing serving these higher-income groups.  Developers would get a huge chunk of levy funds to produce, for example, a two-bedroom unit going for $1500 a month or a three-bedroom unit going for over $1900 a month.  A three-person household would have to earn at least $60,000 a year to afford such a unit - an amount well beyond what even what most working households earn in our city. Only 2% of the current levy (approved in 2002) was used for housing serving those making 80% of median.
 

The Council also increased amounts going for housing serving the homeless and those with incomes at or below 30% of median income.  A minimum of 60% (another $5-6 million) of the rental portion (instead of 55% under the Mayor’s proposal) must serve this income group.
 

The intent of using levy funds for units at 80% of median was clear. The Mayor wants to direct more of the city's housing subsidies to promote near market-rate development which he hopes will fuel added densities around light rail stations and within our neighborhoods.  In recent months, he steamrolled the council into offering tax breaks to developers who built rentals serving those at 80% of median and approving an incentive zoning scheme that would reward developers with higher density if they included units in their projects for those at 80% of median.
 

In Southeast Seattle and many parts of the City, private developers already are building units affordable to this 80% income group and without subsidies.  Apparently, it's just not fast enough or at a density and scale satisfactory to our Mayor.   A quick check on Craigslist shows no shortage of available rentals at this level in any area of the city.
 

The Council's did the right thing here. Its decision to limit amounts going to higher-income groups was a direct response to concerns from an ad hoc coalition of homeless advocates and service providers who lobbied hard to retain the emphasis, as in past housing levies, on serving those most in need.  Had this change not been made it would have seriously risked voter approval. Who's going to vote to subsidize construction of housing even they cannot afford?
 

The Council's actions also ensured 110 percent support from the housing advocates and social service provider community and, we hope, the rest of the city.  It's a good proposal that retains the focus on the very poor.
 

Ultimately, our city leaders must take stronger action to stop the continued loss of our existing low-income housing stock to demolition, condominium conversion, increased rent and speculation.  For every one unit we create with housing levy dollars, we lose three to four times that to these developer actions. But until our leaders secure a political backbone to stop these losses and make developers pay for replacement, only our housing levy is available to mitigate the losses. Too many in our gentrifying city depend upon the levy to remain in our communities.  We must support and vote for this levy.
 

--------------------

Outside City Hall Bulletin: July 7, 2009                        (206-632-0668)

New city data shows Seattle at 60% of its 20-year residential growth target thru April 2009
 

  • Despite downturn, over 6500 units built since Jan 08 in the city
     
  • We've reached 60% of our GMA 20-year housing target in just 4 years and 3 months
  • All but one of the areas around light rail stations are meeting or exceeding targets
     

"Who says upzones are needed when the city continues to absorb far more than its share of the region's growth at the expense of the physical and social character (and affordability) of our city"

UCUV Growth Report - Master0309.pdf

"Who says upzones are needed when the city continues to absorb far more than its share of the region's growth at the expense of the physical and social character (and affordability) of our city"

Click on link above for recently released city data updating the progress we are making towards meeting our 2024 residential growth targets. From January 2005 thru March of 2009, over 28,000 housing units have been added to Seattle's stock. This number includes 16,504 units that are already built and another 11,721 units that have been "permitted" and at various stages of construction or pre-construction process. And while there may be an economic downturn, it hasn't yet affected the number of new units either built or permitted in Seattle.  Since Jan of '08 over 6500 units have been added to Seattle's housing stock with 2800 of that total finished in the first three months of 2009!

From 2004-2024, Seattle must add 47,000 units to its stock - a number set by the Puget Sound Regional Council and based on what regional leaders determine is our city's fair share of regional growth obligation. While other urban areas across the region are falling thousands of units short of their growth targets, Seattle in just four years and 3 months has reached 60% of it's 20 year growth targets.  At this rate, we'll add over 110,000 units under current zoning by 2024 over twice the rate needed to fulfill our targets.

Here's some neighborhood figures you might find interesting as well.  >From 2005-Mar 09, Ballard has reached 205% of it's 20 year targets. Fremont reached 124% of it's target. Eastlake has reached 240% of its target. Capitol Hill: 130% of its target. Goodness, I think they need another upzone just to be on the safe side.

And what about those so-called "TOD" (Transit Oriented Development) areas where we are told those nasty neighborhood groups are standing in the way of the density we need to support light rail  Most are well ahead of densities required under growth management and the regional growth plan. Roosevelt has reached 66% of its 20-year target. North Rainier (Mt Baker Station) has reached 105% of it's target. Columbia City has reached 75% of its target. And at Othello, they've reached 77% of their required target.  Northgate and the U-District are slightly exceeding the pace they need to set and have reached 30% and 33% respectively of their 20 year targets.North Beacon is right on pace at 20% of its target. Only the Rainier Beach area falls short reaching only 2% of its target.

We are told over and over by developers, and their pro-density partners from the corporate wing of the environmental movement (folks who Geov Parrish calls the "let's fight sprawl by destroying our neighborhoods camp") that Seattle is not meeting it's fair share of the region's growth requirements. It's repeated like a mantra by city officials, most council and mayoral candidates (fortunately not all) until it becomes the gospel. Then it becomes the rationale to justify still more upzones (specially around rail stops) during the coming process of revising the neighborhood plans and multi-family land use code.  Still more of our dwindling tree canopy, urban streams, and existing low income housing stock will be placed at risk and legitimized under the guise of the conventional wisdom

Stay tuned for our next bulletin.  The State's Office of Financial Management released new population projections in 2007 which show King County growing at a faster rate than previously forecast - one-third more growth in fact by 2022 than their 2002 prediction. That 2002 estimate became the basis under Growth Management for the current 2024 targets and growth now assigned to Seattle and it's neighborhoods. It means that when new 25-year targets are set at the end of 2010 (for the period 2006-2031 it turns out), Seattle and it's nabe's will be called on again to absorb still more growth.  We'll tell you how much it may more it may mean for Seattle and your neighborhood. But as we will show in our next bulletin, we on pace to exceed even these revised targets and our city under current zoning has more than enough capacity to meet even these upwardly revised figures.  We'll also show you what cities and areas of the region by contrast are falling short of their targets.

John V. Fox for the Coalition  206-632-0668

Sources for chart below include: July '05 2000-2022 Targets for Seattle and King County can be found in Chapter 4 of PSRC's "Growth Management by the Numbers - Puget Sound Milestones" link: Puget Sound Milestones Reports

Source for 2006-2031 Proposed County-Wide targets is contained in the April 09 King County Growth Management Planning Council Agenda and can be found here: CountyApril09growthtargetreport.pdf

Residential Growth Set by PSCOG as required by GMA

Target

Target

Target

2000-2022

2004-2024

* 2006-2031

Seattle

50,000

47000

** 74816

County-Wide

158,000

233,800

 

* 2031 County-Wide Target Estimate from April 15 '09 Growth Management Planning Council - Proposed

 

* this likely will be the next growth period upon which new targets will be based

 

** Seattle 2031 Target assumes City Continues to Absorb 32% of County-Wide Target

Seattle

2006-2031

 

2031 target assuming city continues to absorb 32% of county growth target

74,816

     
 

Units already added '06 - 3/09

13,386

17.9% of Target

   

remaining units to be built by 2031

61,430

* if only 9876 units were built by now and we'd reached 13.2% of target

we'd be on pace to reach our 2031 revised target

------------------------------------

Outside City Hall Bulletin:                          July 2009

by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

Myths about low income housing in Seattle: Where is it?  And so much for the Magnet Theory

Over the years we’ve heard some neighborhood activists claim that Southeast Seattle has “become the dumping ground” for the city’s social services and low-income housing.  They allege this has something to do with the greater incidence of poverty there than elsewhere in the city.  Crime, they say, is the inevitable result.  Stop giving us more than our share, they say.

We’ve also heard fears that because of these services and housing, Southeast Seattle has become a “magnet” attracting poor people from out of state to congregate in this community seeking all these great programs.  Some of this sentiment fueled opposition to Casa Latina’s ill-fated plan to relocate to North Rainier, as well as resistance to the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s successful homeless housing project in Columbia City. And we fear it may fuel opposition to the new housing levy on the fall ballot.

As neighborhood activists ourselves, we certainly understand such concerns.  But the facts show that Southeast Seattle has not been a recipient of an “unfair share” of low income housing nor would it be accurate to call such development a social burden

We requested, and were able to secure, a small sum in the 2007 city budget for a study on the need for low-income housing in Seattle. Among other things, that study looked at the distribution of subsidized units around town. These are so-called “hard units,” actually constructed to serve as low-income housing, as opposed to “soft units” in the form of vouchers that tenants take wherever they can find an affordable rental.

Of the 20,000 subsidized hard units in the city, 50% are located in the "Center City," i.e. downtown, Capitol Hill and Pike-Pine.  Only 16% of the total are located in Southeast Seattle. This is hardly a disproportionate amount.  Also note that only about 11% of all housing in Southeast Seattle is subsidized compared to 26% in the Center City.

On the other hand, it would be accurate to say there is an over-concentration of Section 8 vouchered low-income households living in otherwise unsubsidized privately owned rentals in Southeast Seattle.  But this problem is unrelated to the production of subsidized housing built in Southeast Seattle, and unrelated to the levy since few levy dollars will go to subsidize tenants’ rents.

The over-concentration of households with Section 8 vouchers in Southeast Seattle is due principally to two related factors.  First, eligible households have a very hard time finding a unit north of the Ship Canal because rents there on average are much higher while vacancy rates on the few affordable rentals are lower.  Consequently, they take their vouchers to West Seattle and Southeast Seattle in greater numbers.

Secondly, Seattle Housing Authority, the distributor of Section 8 vouchers, sets the payment standard too low. This is the threshold above which tenants with vouchers are forced to pay the difference between 30% of their income and the rent on the unit.  The only place with a significant supply of rental units priced at or below the payment standard is Southeast Seattle.

Despite the concentration of vouchered low-income households and the relatively small (and declining) number of subsidized “hard” units in Southeast Seattle, these programs simply allow longtime low-income residents, including families, the elderly and people of color who already live there, to remain in their own neighborhood.  Moreover, these programs only replace a portion of the affordable units being lost to demolition, conversion, speculative sale, increased rents--i.e. the forces of gentrification.

This resulting over-concentration of low-income households with vouchers in the Southeast Seattle is not addressed by opposing the housing levy.  Instead it will be solved by going directly to SHA and holding them responsible for how they run the Section 8 voucher program, and by demanding that our city government do more to expand opportunities in the north end and to hold SHA accountable. 

And we strenuously disagree with those who subscribe to the "magnet" theory--that the disenfranchised are flocking here from other parts of the country to take advantage of our generosity.  Every survey (and there have been many over the years) shows that the vast majority of the poor are "us" - people born and raised in our own city/county and secondarily from our own state.  Only a fraction come from out-of-state.  But even if they did, why stigmatize the victims of recession and a failed economy? 

In fact, without the housing levy to generate more homes for the poorest of the poor, there’s likely to be more homelessness right in our neighborhoods, including Southeast Seattle.  More folks camping out in greenbelts and sitting on sidewalks in front of neighborhood shops and businesses.

Until we generate the critical mass to give neighborhoods more power over development, and secure city-wide land use and housing laws that more responsibly manage growth to prevent runaway gentrification and displacement, and until we require corporate developers to foot the bill to replace the existing housing they remove rather than taxpayers—until we achieve all that, the housing levy is one of the only tools we’ve got to reduce homelessness and ensure equal opportunity for housing in all neighborhoods.

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Outside City Hall:  The upcoming local elections - Our Thoughts for Mayor and the City Council Races (August 2009):

- by John V. Fox (one of our on-going columns - please feel free to circulate)

I just got through reading a host of candidate ratings, questionnaires, blogs, and endorsements from various group's around town.  It's enough to make George Orwell (and me) laugh and cry. 

You've got groups who make up "FUSE" a self proclaimed "progressive" coalition endorsing corporate candidates like Sally Bagshaw and Jesse Israel. Both candidates, especially Bagshaw are bankrolled by downtown, Paul Allen, and real estate interests. Given who they've ignored, FUSE has only demonstrated with their listing just how out of touch they are with the Seattle political scene.

Then you've got the Cascade Bicycle Club (CBC) endorsing Greg Nickels, Israel, and Bagshaw simply because they blindly support Paul Allen's agenda including the Mayor's Mercer Corridor Plan. Maybe one one-hundredth of the $200 million Mercer plan will go towards bike and pedestrian improvements, the rest to pour concrete for cars and make congestion worse in that area especially for bikes. With those dollars we could add bike lanes to every city arterial with enough left to paint the lanes in gold leaf. Yet, mysteriously, to these folks, it's a litmus test.  

Mainstream environmental groups like the Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club are opposing candidates (or not endorsing them, i,e, such as David Bloom) simply because they don't tow the line for a pro-density-at-all-costs agenda.  The limousine enviro's support candidates like Michael O'Brien who oppose use of developer fees that would require developers to share in the costs of growth or replace housing they remove.  O'Brien told the 43rd Dem's such fee requirements would impair developer's ability to build in Seattle.  Of course, we've heard this position articulated by the Master Builders for years now suddenly (and depressingly) embraced by folks like O'Brien who paint the old nostrum in a green patina.

By the way, incumbent Nick Licata (who'se supported a green agenda for years), and Miller (who just helped save a large old grove of trees from the chainsaw) and Candidate Bloom (no slouch on enviro issues himself), do support use of developer impact fees. Miller says it must be complimented with a permitting process that is more streamlined.  Rusty Williams also supports impact fees as does Bobby Forch. Rosencranz and Royer (the younger) predictably oppose them while other candidates are not on record on the issue yet.

Publicola recently tossed out the word "marxist" to suggest how "progressive" O'Brien was on issues. Perhaps they meant Groucho not Karl. Other than his opposition to the tunnel option for viaduct relacement, I haven't heard anything from O'Brien that would suggest he's at all progressive. In this town, he's a corporate liberal and mainstream as they come. He'd fit right in with our current get-along- and go-along Council.

And the same can be said of McGinn in the Mayor's race, and council candidates Bagshaw, and Israel.  I also see nothing in these folks to suggest they give one iota about the question of economic and racial justice and how that fits into the public policy debate.  In fact, as far as I can tell, there's been very little discussion at all around this fundamental question. What would the candidates do to overcome poverty, homelessness and lack of low cost housing in our city.

Candidates like Bloom and Licata do get real specific on how to address poverty and inequality when the issue come sup.  They've called for (and made a career out advocating for) more police accountability, repealing the Sidran laws, requiring 1 for 1 replacement, redirecting more the city budget from downtown to our neighborhoods, supporting tent city, and livable wage jobs.  The party line from candidates like Bagshaw, Israel, Rosencranz, Royer, et al....is "I support the housing levy."  Well thank goodness for that but who doesn't in this town?

Of course Bloom, Miller and Licata do too. Each went a step further calling for the vast bulk of levy funds to reach down to continue to serve the poorest of the poor rather than folks with $65,000 incomes at 80% of area median as are current Mayor would have preferred.  Royer, Bagshaw, Israel, Rosencranz, and O'Brien also are more inclined to prefer giving away incentives (meaning our tax dollars) to promote still more market rate or near market development espousing "trickle down" nostrums that would make Ronald Reagan (and my old Econ 101 Prof) very proud indeed.

And we've seen mudslinging but now it's the so-called "greens" carrying the freight for big business.  Candidates who support tree protections in our city and managed and responsible levels of growth, stream preservation, and housing replacement requirements are automatically typecast as NIMBY's. 

These pseudo-greens also are attempting to cast the debate in subtle and not so subtle ways as an intergenerational thing - you're not hip if you call for limits on runaway growth in our city and ask developers to pay their share of the infrastructure costs. (Israel goes further accusing Licata of being obstructionist or a naysayer because right now he's the only councilmember who regularly stands up to the pro-developer crowd). 

Or you are called myopic. That's what Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn called Knute Berger when, in a recent column, Berger said that a green agenda must include measures to preserve our historic character and older buildings. Painting the issue as an either/or debate, McGinn like his supporters at the Stranger and Publicola believe that density must be maxed out in Seattle in order to prevent sprawl. Record levels of growth in Seattle certainly have not contained sprawl. The argument just provides more cover for developers. 

When the Displacement Coalition joined forces with Southend neighborhoods to turn back state legislation that would have mandated 50 unit per acre mandates around rail stations (in areas at 3-5 units per acre now where literally several thousand low income families are people of color now live), McGinn chided the Coalition and they were ill-informed about the value of "compact development".  This wasn't about compact development already being planned for that area with neighborhood support.  It was about a bill mandating too much growth destroying low cost housing and displacing hundreds of longtime residents (and trees and open space).

There is such a thing as a poly-centerered approach to growth that more evenly clusters or distributes growth around the region and provides adequate funding for buses serving those areas. That's an alternative to sprawl or cramming all growth in Seattle.  That's the green way to get people out of their cars. But its not even recognized by the pro-growth enviro wing.  And these are the folks that call the neighborhood movement "doctrinaire"

In the Mayor's race, I'm disappointed that Joe Mallahan supports replacing the viaduct with a tunnel unlike McGinn, the only Mayoral candidate to oppose it. McGinn in this instance sides with grassroots groups and the general public. Even though I co-chaired the No Tunnel Alliance, and agree with that position, Mallahan is closer to the neighborhoods and grassroots on all the other key issues affecting this city and especially around the debate over density and it's equity and justice implications. 

Mallahan has said city residents should not absorb tunnel cost overruns and that it must keep freight moving.  Ramps should be added to better serve Ballard and West Seattle residents. He's also the only candidate to raise concerns about Paul Allen's plans in South Lake Union.  He's said he would oppose draining away bus service dollars for street car expansion, and opposed Nickel's Mercer corridor plans. In meeting with citizen activists, he has said he'd re-open a door long ago slammed shut by Nickels (and that would stay shut if Drago won). Mallahan also said he would expand funding for the neighborhood matching program. He's clearly the only real choice in that contest.

Most importantly in the City Council races, look for candidates in the races with a nuanced approach to density and growth such as incumbent Nick Licata, and candidates David Miller and David Bloom who don't just blindly support development like we've seen too much of in Seattle. (If Bobby Forch or Rusty Williams make it past the primary rather than Miller in that race, they too could carry this ball).

These are the true greens and true progressives in this race who believe in balancing growth with the need to preserve the qualities in our community that make this city liveable and affordable.

- John V. Fox 206-632-0668

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Outside City Hall October 4th  2009                  Carolee Colter and John V. Fox    206-632-0668
 

Press Coverage of our Current Local Elections and Questions Going Unanswered and Unasked

As we head into the final elections for City Council and Mayor, we’re surprised how little press coverage these races have received.  And how little of that focuses on where the candidates actually stand on key issues. 

We miss the P-I.  The Times has good reporters but their editors usually send them out to cover murder and mayhem, not local politics.  When mainstream TV does the occasional story on local races, we get a 90-second broad brush. 

The City’s cable channel wastes its prime time with poetry readings, theater, music and book reviews easily found at other outlets.  Only night-owls get to see that station’s excellent C.R. Douglas’s “Inside-Out” news show. Commercial talk radio is dominated by rants from bloviating show hosts.  Public radio has some thoughtful interviews but you have to be listening at the time—or know to seek the show out later on the station website.

Websites and blogs are where you have to go now if you want to learn about local candidates and the issues.  But all too often what this really means is choosing the sources that support your interests and worldview. 

Take, for example, the Stranger.  In addition to its weekly printed edition, it features regular updates on council and Mayoral candidates via its “Slog”.  But don’t expect journalism from these folks. They simply pour out their biases around their pet issues and then measure candidates against them. The Stranger claims the youth vote – truly a disturbing thought.

Older, more regular voters still turn to hard copy, which means the Times.  Lacking hard news coverage there, these voters tend to rely on editorial endorsements that of course invariably support status-quo pro-downtown candidates.  Either that or they turn to the voter’s pamphlet, an occasional superficial TV news story or mailings, robo-calls, and TV ads from the candidates who could afford them.

What we’re left with, if we want news of substance about the elections, are neighborhood newspapers (such as this one) and neighborhood blogs/websites. And a handful of labor of love city-wide political websites such as Brewster’s Crosscut, Feit and Barnett’s Publicola, and Murakami’s PostGlobe.  The P-I has a pretty good website retaining some of their print reporters with experience covering local issues.  Increasingly these sources offer detailed coverage of what’s happening not only in the neighborhoods – land use, transportation, housing—but also features, columns, and analysis. 

The problem is, these sources are read almost exclusively by those of us “in the bubble” – a term we heard a campaign consultant use to describe those of us who make a religion out of observing, following, and participating in the local political process.  How much of the content actually percolates out beyond the bubble?

Without reporters to pitch hardball questions to the candidates and post in-depth responses, no one’s forcing them to tell us their specific policy positions.  Here’s a starter list of key questions we are trying to get answers to.  And when we do we’ll be posting them on our website (Google “Displacement Coalition”).  But that’s no substitute for getting to the forums (or even calling them directly) and insisting on responses from the candidates yourselves.

1.  How much density should Seattle absorb?  Have we grown too much or not enough?  What mechanisms or regulations, if any, would you propose either to manage growth or encourage more of it?

2. Do you support transportation or utility impact fees for developers to cover infrastructure costs (as allowed under the Growth Management Act)? Or do you believe taxpayers should continue to foot the bill?

3. Before supporting any more upzones or developer incentive plans to encourage more growth in Seattle, would you first initiate legislation to preserve our existing stock of low-income housing?  For example, a fee on developers who tear down low-income housing or require them to replace 100 percent of the units they remove at their own expense?

4. Do you support the Nickels’/Paul Allen's Mercer Corridor plan?

5. Do you support a comprehensive tree preservation law for older trees on private land?  What else would you introduce to preserve open space, urban streams, and our tree canopy from private redevelopment?

6. Will you maintain the current zoning for industrial lands that some business and lobbyists are trying to change?

7. Do you support creating a citizen review board with subpoena powers to hold the police accountable for their actions?

8. Until there’s sufficient shelter for homeless people in Seattle, would you set aside public land and social services for tent cities, and would you stop police sweeps of makeshift encampments of the homeless in our greenbelts and removal of their belongings?

9. Do you oppose expansion of the streetcar line to other areas already well served by much less costly and more efficient bus service? 

10. These are tight economic times requiring budget cuts.  But in these times there are more people in need.  Do you support expansion of funding for human services and emergency shelter, or if not, will you at least guarantee no cuts to these programs?

Now more than ever, it’s up to you to ask the questions and get the answers from the candidates. You must keep the candidate’s feet to the fire.

 

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

OUTSIDE CITY HALL:
Anti-panhandling law not solution, but the problem itself

by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox
Reprinted from the North Seattle Herald and other Pacific Publishing Newspapers in Seattle
http://northseattleherald-outlook.com/main.asp?SectionID=9&SubSectionID=257&ArticleID=28007

Note: The following column was written in late October and printed in early November.  Since then, we are hearing from several sources that Councilmember Burgess has altered his approach to this issue. Instead of an outright ban on panhandling at certain times or locations, he instead may propose giving police broader authority to cite or arrest people engaged in specific types of aggressive and/or assaultive behaviors whether they are panhandling or not.  However, since he has not yet formally released his proposal we're posting this column unchanged and based on the Councilmember's earlier comments favoring some kind of panhandling ban.  Many of our comments would apply anyway.  As we point out below, there are over dozen such laws already on the books to address assaultive criminal street conduct so why do we need another. 

Since the Councilmember has slowed down his timeline (to take more input from the community - something we applaud Burgess for doing and for moving more cautiously before venturing into this arena), this matter is not likely to be taken up by the Council until early next year. For more information on Council review of this, you are welcome to call us at 206-632-0668 mailto:jvf4119@zipcon.net but especially call the Councilmember Burgess's office at 206-684-8806 and also let him know your feeling about this. mailto:tim.burgess@seattle.gov ). 

Our column begins here:

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess plans to introduce an anti-panhandling law. Here we go again.

Apparently, Burgess wants to take us back 15 years to the era of Mark Sidran and Margaret Pageler. As former city attorney and City Council member respectively, Sidran and Pageler authored the notorious "no-sitting" and "parks exclusion" laws and other anti-homeless "civility" ordinances.

It was one of the most divisive times in Seattle's political history, pitting churches, civil liberties groups, social services and homeless advocates against the downtown establishment and chamber types. The contentiousness spilled out into street protests, sit-ins, marches, civil disobedience, numerous unruly public hearings, court challenges and even death threats.

Sidran and Pageler came to be characterized as insensitive and callous towards the poor - a label that played a significant role in putting an end to their electoral careers in this town.

In a recent radio interview Burgess said his bill would ban panhandling at intersections, freeway entrances, around ATM machines, when people got into and out of their cars and during nighttime hours.

However, in a meeting with homeless advocates, he indicated his proposal might be more narrowly focused, barring panhandling around ATMs and targeting aggressive and/or assaultive behaviors that may occur while people are panhandling.

The bottom line: Such laws simply don't work and are unconstitutional, to boot.

AN UNNECESSARY LAW

There's an array of tools and laws already in place to address aggressive and/or assaultive behavior by panhandlers or anyone else at ATMs, intersections, entrances to freeways and the like, and at any and all hours of the day.

To name just a few, we have laws against assault, pedestrian interference, expectoration, trespass, urination, property defacement, theft, graffiti, drug loitering, stalking, littering, public drinking, menacing, malicious harassment and obstruction.

And we already have an aggressive panhandling law, making it a crime to stand, sit or lie in such a way as to cause someone to take evasive action (whatever that means) and allowing police to arrest someone panhandling with intent to do harm or in a manner that would lead someone to believe reasonably that that they would cause harm.

Even interim Seattle Police Chief John Diaz agrees: In a recent memo to Burgess he pointed out that it's not a problem of not enough laws already out there.

Further, only three people were charged under the current aggressive panhandling law in all of last year, so why would Burgess's new proposal produce any more arrests or prosecutions? Like the current law, enforcement of his proposal is difficult because such cases require someone not only to file a complaint but be available to testify later in court. And if a case ever does get to court, it's likely to be tossed out as unconstitutional.

Just recently, the Ninth Circuit held that regulations of active solicitation in public forums are unconstitutional unless the restrictions are "narrowly tailored" to achieve a "compelling government interest." While public safety is an important government interest, Burgess's broad catch-all hardly meets the "narrowly tailored" standard.

Measures like this anti-panhandling ban, the no-sitting law and pedestrian-interference law give police broad authority to arrest or cite people for non-criminal conduct clog our courts with folks whose only crime is that they are poor. This diverts limited police resources away from their mission to address serious, real crimes.

It also creates a shortage of jail space, leading to demands to spend millions for a new jail.

A DISCRIMINATORY LAW

The Sidran laws passed in the early '90s were touted as a solution to the presence of unruly conduct on our streets, but their underlying goal was to sweep the streets of the poor. Of course, they haven't achieved either goal.

Unfortunately, when such laws fail, as they inevitably do, there are always calls for more draconian measures that go even further in stripping people of their dignity and rights.

These laws are racially discriminatory and anti-poor, which makes them that much more objectionable morally and ethically. Surveys of those arrested under the parks-exclusion law, trespass-admonishment laws and other anti-homeless laws indicate that more than half of those arrested, cited or admonished are people of color - even though these communities represent about 20 percent of the city's overall population.

Burgess claims that panhandlers are not homeless or jobless. Further, he says there's an array of social services that make it unnecessary for a deserving poor person to beg for change. We strongly disagree. A great percentage are indeed homeless, especially in this era of 10-percent unemployment, declining real wages and unaffordable housing prices.

More troubling to us, separating the deserving poor from all who panhandle (who we must assume are up to no good and thus have no claim to our sympathy) effectively stigmatizes a whole class. That's what makes it easier for some to justify violence against these folks: Every year in Seattle, many homeless are beaten and some are murdered.

REAL SOLUTIONS

Instead of moving forward with this or any other social-control law, a review of current laws is needed to uncover their impact on courts and jails - and on the homeless, themselves.

Most importantly, let's look to real solutions like expanded housing opportunities, livable wage jobs and, for those with disabilities, more community-based treatment, counseling and services (linked with housing). Measures like Burgess's proposal are hurtful and simply pit the haves against the have-nots.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (http://zipcon.net/~jvf4119/ ), a low-income housing organization.

OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Seattle Children's expansion may be more business than usual

By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Columnists

Over the last few weeks Seattle Children's Hospital and its allies have unleashed a no-holds-barred media campaign demanding that the City Council approve Children's proposal to triple its development in the Laurelhurst neighborhood, located just east of the University of Washington.

Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on public rallies, yard signs, TV/print/radio ads and the consultants who create them - all to persuade John and Jane Q. Public to flood the council with demands for approval of Children's plans.

Children's campaign targets a decision by Seattle's hearing examiner (land-use judge) that the expansion would be just too much in the wrong place: a "square peg in a round hole." Children's has refused to compromise, insisting on its plan to add another 1.5 million square feet of bed and administrative space, raise allowable heights from 70 to 140 feet-plus, demolish 136 units of truly affordable housing and extend its boundaries into the surrounding residential neighborhood and across Sand Point Way Northeast.

Drowned out by Children's media muscle is the offer made repeatedly by community members - and rejected out of hand by Children's - to settle on a doubling of hospital development.

What's wrong with Children's paid megaphone blasting at the City Council? The city's Land Use Code requires that the City Council act as judges when deciding on Children's appeal of the examiner's denial recommendation. This "quasi-judicial role" means that the council must base its decision strictly on the record made before the hearing examiner and on the law: no lobbying allowed.

Children's, nevertheless, has campaigned to frame the issue as whether you are for or against sick children.

What Children's does not broadcast is that it spent several years and thousands of dollars trying to block a competitor, Swedish Medical Center, from providing new pediatric beds on the Eastside - more convenient to sick kids from that area than Children's Laurelhurst location.

Does that make Children's against sick children?

IT'S ALL BUSINESS

Market share - yes, a business (not medical) term - is a key factor in Children's demand for tripling its development. Many of the projected new patients that Children's counts on for its tripling would come from the Eastside, from the South Sound (where Mary Bridge Children's Hospital is located) and from Eastern Washington (which has its own pediatric hospital in Spokane).

Those just as well-intentioned and knowledgeable as Children's planners and business executives have pointed out that Children's approach may not always be in the best interests of a sick child in Spokane, or Issaquah or Lacey.

Seattle's Major Institutions Code was passed 30 years ago so that institutions' ambitions for market share did not overwhelm city neighborhoods. Under it, institutions would be allowed to expand more liberally within defined campus boundaries - but, in return, would not be permitted to convert surrounding residential neighborhoods to intense institutional development.

Children's plan throws that balance out the window. It allows intense growth within existing boundaries and intense growth outside of them. Worse yet, unlike other hospitals and institutions (such as those on Pill Hill), Children's is located in a neighborhood that is unmistakably low-intensity residential under the city's Comprehensive Plan and zoning.

A SECRET AGREEMENT

Children's plans require tearing down 136 units of affordable housing: the Laurelon Terrace Apartments, where seniors, working people and persons of moderate means have resided for years. The Major Institutions Code says that's not supposed to happen. If it does, the institution (not the government) must replace all the housing units destroyed.

Testimony at the Children's hearing placed the value of the 136 Laurelon Terrace low-cost units at $35 million. But the city told the hearing examiner that it had cut a deal with Children's to pay only $5 million; the public will pick up the rest of the replacement -housing tab.

Many have wondered for months why the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and City Attorney's Office were giving Children's such an easy ride on its expansion demands. Then, just recently, the city was forced through the Public Records Act to disclose that the city attorney and DPD have been in a secret "Common Interest and Joint Defense Agreement" since January 2009.

Under the secret agreement, DPD and the city attorney committed to support a DPD recommendation for approval of Children's expansion even before the hearing examiner held hearings. To top it off, DPD and the City Attorney's Office pledged to only make available information to elected officials (such as the City Council) on a "need-to-know basis" and only if it supported their mutual goal of getting the expansion approved.

The city and Children's now say such agreements are routine, but they don't cite another one. And they don't explain why they labeled their "routine" deal "confidential" for almost a year - until forced to disclose its existence.

Land-use decisions are judicial so that those with deep pockets can't pressure the City Council with PR shock and awe. They are not supposed to be the subject of backroom deals with city regulators and lawyers.

If Children's succeeds, it will be open season on the hearing examiner and the land -use process.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization

 

January 2010 issue of Outside City Hall:

Our Answers to Mayor McGinn's Magic Three Questions

Now that Michael McGinn has been elected mayor, he’s undertaken a unique exercise in community participation before even taking office.  He’s asked a small cadre of community leaders appointed to his advisory committee to reach out to the public and the constituencies they represent for answers to three questions. 

While we have our doubts about how meaningful this process will be, we'll provide our answers to his magic questions.

* How do we build the strongest possible team to achieve the policy objectives and values set forth by the campaign (grass roots community involvement, transparency and neighborhood focus)?

Strengthen the role of the district councils. Give each one real authority over all land use and development decisions affecting their district. In addition, take the concept of “Special Review Districts” (SRD’s), allowed under the city’s zoning code, and extend its use to every neighborhood in the city.

Currently in Pike Place Market, the International District, and Pioneer Square SRD’s now act as an overlay to the existing zoning. Those neighborhoods elect representatives from their community to a board. The Mayor and Council also appoint representatives.  Then that board regulates the design, siting and scale of development within the SRD’s boundaries.

Pike Place Market’s historic buildings and rich physical and social diversity were accomplished despite its very high density and precisely because of the presence of the SRD.  We should extend this concept to all our communities to protect our tree canopy, open space and low-income housing stock while we accommodate growth.

Regarding how much growth each neighborhood is called on to absorb, City Council would still set overarching residential and employment targets as required under the Growth Management Act.  But once targets were set, the SRD boards would determine how those targets were met within their community.

We should use the same process to apportion low-income housing throughout our communities. When a neighborhood lacks an adequate supply, more would be prescribed for that area.  When a neighborhood is losing low-income units to redevelopment, the SRD board would be charged with preventing those losses and given authority to do so.

This principle of “fair share” also would be applied to the location of social and human services, mental health facilities, jails, hospitals, universities and the like.  Once targets were set and assigned to each community (only after extensive neighborhood involvement via the district councils), the SRD boards would set parameters for receiving those programs. In this way fair share is established not by taking away but by expanding choices for our neighborhoods.

In the interim, suspend development of the city's new multi-family land use policies and upzones until a system of neighborhood control is established.  Also, move immediately to adopt stiff new rules to control development occurring under existing zoning, to better protect trees, open space, and low-income housing. 

* How do we build public trust in the new administration?
Actions speak louder than words. Simply running citizens through a new set of participatory mechanisms without real change, i. e, giving citizens a real say in land use decisions, is just business as usual.

* What do you view as the incoming administration and the city’s greatest challenge — what should the new administration do first out of the gate?

Until there’s enough low-cost housing, dramatically expand our system of emergency shelters.  Allow more tent cities, including a permanent site for Nickelsville.  Move immediately to protect our last existing truly affordable housing stock by passing new laws that:

*    Require owners of low-cost apartments to notify non-profit housing developers of a pending sale and give them time to make an offer before the building is sold to a speculator or developer.
*    Require all developers to replace one for one at comparable rent, any existing low-cost housing they are permitted to remove. 
*    Pass immediately a mandatory code inspection program desperately needed to prevent neglect and abandonment of our remaining affordable units.

From his campaign statements, our new Mayor, like his predecessor, apparently believes that by building as many new market-rate units as possible, some affordable units will “trickle down” to low-income people. He’s also stated that more density is needed in Seattle to cut down on auto use and thus carbon emissions.  Operating on those beliefs, he’ll likely view true neighborhood democracy as an impediment to his agenda. 

To us there appear to be two distinct wings to the environmental movement.  There’s an elitist pro-density wing quick to brand Seattle’s neighborhood movement as anti-environment if they stand in the way of growth. Then there’s a democratic wing rooted in the neighborhood movement itself – activists with years of experience fighting to protect green space, trees, and streams in their own communities. These folks are calling for a more rational way of distributing regional growth than cramming it all into Seattle.

Our new Mayor appears to come from the elitist wing but has ties with the other wing as well. Perhaps this is his, and our city’s, greatest challenge – reconciling these two views of growth.  Only time will tell whether McGinn (or we) are up to the task.

January 15, 2010:  Outside City HallSeattle Displacement Coalition    206-632-0668

Bagshaw and O’Brien on Monday cast their first significant Council vote - In favor of spot zone for Vulcan Inc. in South Lake Union Only Nick Licata votes ‘NO’

In case you didn't see or hear about it - there was little media coverage on it - by a 7 to 1 vote, last Monday, the City Council approved significant density and height allowances above normal zoning requirements for the final phase of Vulcan’s redevelopment project in South Lake Union. Taking the form of a text change to the zoning code, the Council granted Vulcan’s request to build up to 125 feet in an area where heights now are restricted to no more that 85 feet.  Councilmember Licata was the only councilmember voting no.  Bruce Harrell disqualified himself from the vote because the upzone was designed to accommodate a U of W biotech research facility at that site and his wife happens to be on the U of W’s board of Regents (although earlier in committee he did vote in favor of the spotzone)
 

Before the final vote councilmembers Licata and Rasmussen tried to broker a compromise that would have scaled back the height and density somewhat to better reflect concerns coming from neighborhood residents.  Other councilmembers voted against even the compromise giving Vulcan essentially everything it had requested.  Even though the amendment failed, Rasmussen then joined the rest of the Council voting for the upzone.

Residents from Lake Union - organized under the banner of a relatively new community group, the “Lake Union Opportunity Alliance”, complained bitterly that the Council’s action was little more than a “giveaway”.  They also expressed concern that the City moved this spotzone too quickly through the permit review process and that it allowed height and density which was inconsistent with the neighborhood planning now underway in that community.   

Prior to the final vote Councilmember Licata pointed out that the entire area was upzoned only a few years ago at the request of Vulcan and the biotech industry to its existing allowable levels. Further, on this particular site, when Vulcan launched earlier phases of the project, as late as 2005, they gave no indication at all of a need for the increased height and density they now are requesting in this last phase.  

To the applause of area residents, Licata also echoed the community’s concern that the City had purposely streamlined the process – allowing them to seek a “text amendment” to the code rather than as is normally the case - taking it through a contract review process.  The contract review process is “quasi-judicial” and subjects the project to a more comprehensive and objective review.  Rarely is it not applied in cases where a single developer pursues plans for a large project on several sites. 

With this vote, it was pretty much business as usual at City Hall. Once again, Licata was left alone to represent community concerns while other councilmembers bent over backwards to favor Paul Allen’s plans.  What made this particular pro-Vulcan vote especially noteworthy – it was one of the first taken by Sally Bagshaw and Michael OBrien since taking office a little over a week ago. 

Prior to the final vote, when councilmembers explained how they’ll vote (or as some would say to rationalize their position), it was apparent that Bagshaw was doing Vulcan’s heavy lifting. Perhaps their most ardent supporter formerly on the Council, Jan Drago, won’t be so sorely missed after all.  Bagshaw seems to have quickly grabbed up that baton. She was the most articulate and assertive councilmember speaking on behalf of Vulcan’s interest during the discussion.

Bagshaw said she’d be voting for this text change because this was all about jobs and remaining competitive in the fight to attract more of the national and regional biotech market for Seattle. In his closing remarks, Licata countered that this wasn’t about jobs at all. Indeed other biotech projects had moved forward within the current envelope.  Further, since either way this project was already two-thirds complete and in its last phase, it was going forward one way or another. 

What seemed particularly frustrating to Licata, if Vulcan three years ago had declared its need for more space during these earlier phases, then the increased density they are seeking now could have easily been absorbed across all phases within the existing code rather than crammed into the last phase requiring view blocking height increases that transgressed the neighborhood plan and circumvented normal review.  

When O’Brien got up to explain why he’d be supporting the spotzone, he did not appear to be particularly up-to-speed on the nuances of the debate.  Instead of arguing the finer points of zoning and land use processes – something he seems ill-equipped to do at least right off the bat -  he opted for his “great cities” pitch heard frequently during his campaign.  In his mind this wasn’t about density or height at all but how together “we can build a great city” while we move to accommodate more residential and commercial growth.  He said that there were enough amenities like sidewalks and greenspace built into the project to satisfy him. 

Of course that is exactly what this was all about – the debate over height and density. And it is likely to be the number one issue he and his colleagues will be addressing at least over the next few years as they move to amend the neighborhood plans and promote more density around rail stations and bus stops.  As we heard during his campaign, O’Brien’s vote and speech gives us a good idea of how he (and no doubt many of his Council colleagues will continue to frame the debate – rationalizing their pro-development sentiments in a layer of green and “great city” encomiums).  It’s a position not likely to assuage neighborhoods already reeling from record levels of growth during the 2005-2007 period.

To the neighborhoods, it’s precisely about managing and establishing (for a change) responsible restraints on runaway levels of growth and building new policies into the code that truly protect the liveable qualities of those communities.  We obviously must grow (and will especially given the make-up of this Council) but it does it mean simply opening the spigot even more, but rather striking a better balance between it and the need to preserve open space, trees, streams, and low income housing in our communities.  
 

With the actions of Bagshaw, O’Brien, and most of their colleagues in this case, these values were roundly ignored.  Both Bagshaw and O'Brien in the recent election benefited from the "progressive" and "outsider" label both they and some in the media pasted on them.  I certainly saw none of that in this vote.
 

To read more of the residents take on this, click on the Lake Union Opportunity Alliance Website here: http://luoa.wordpress.com/

(Feb 2, 2010)

OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Seattle's struggle between economics, environment  Reprinted from the North Seattle Herald and other Pacific Publishing Newspapers

can you be pro-growth and still be "green"?

For decades, government and industry leaders and many who call themselves environmentalists have claimed we can have economic growth and still protect the natural world from destruction and pollution. In fact, some have claimed that without growth, we can't provide that protection.

But with increased population and the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it's becoming all too clear that economic growth and the finite capacity of our planet are on a collision course.

According to Herman Daly, former economist of the World Bank's environmental department, humanity is already at or past the point where the social and environmental costs of economic growth start canceling out the gains.

'SMART GROWTH'?

The reality is that the economy can only keep growing by expanding its level of energy consumption, and energy consumption is the direct cause of catastrophic global warming.

No matter how efficient our technology becomes, the more the economy grows, the more we surpass any gains we can make through efficiency. And the faster the economy grows, the higher the rate at which we must "decarbonizes" - that is, replace fossil fuels with renewables or conservation.

The engines of growth also have not eradicated poverty. The gulf between rich and poor has grown exponentially in the last 30 years, nationally and globally.

Even with technological fixes, economic growth will only exacerbate shortages we already face, including over-fishing, over-logging and drawing down aquifers faster than they can recharge. In this sense, there is no such thing as "smart growth."

The opposite of the growth economy is the "steady-state economy," which emphasizes qualitative development in place of quantitative output.

Canadian economist Peter Victor, in his book "Managing Without Growth," lays out how such a scenario could occur. It would take a stronger social safety net than we have now, a shorter workweek and tax policy that encourages certain kinds of investment (education, maintenance and repair) and discourages others (manufacturing some types of consumer goods).

SEATTLE'S POSITION

What does this mean for Seattle? When do we face up to the limits to growth? At what point do we say we've reached capacity - as a city and as a region?

While the local environmental movement is far from monolithic, nevertheless, in Seattle the organizations that we might look to for leadership on moving to a steady-state economy are all-too-often arrayed on the side of economic growth. In fact, groups like Futurewise, Transportation Choices, Sustainable Seattle and even the Sierra Club appear to have embraced the false promise of green growth - that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

When it comes to local land-use decisions, this is a philosophy that assumes continued accelerated, unstoppable levels of growth. There's a "toothpaste effect," they argue: If you squeeze it or restrict it in Seattle, it will just go elsewhere in the region. Thus, it is our task to make it more sustainable by cramming it into Seattle.

There's something inherently contradictory if not downright anti-environment here. How can you promote runaway growth in Seattle and the urban core with all its negative environmental consequences (loss of existing low-cost housing, tree canopy, quiet spaces, green spaces and an urban scale that allows you to meet your neighbors), then argue we need to do it to preserve or enhance those same values somewhere else?

To rephrase a popular slogan, it's "Think globally; destroy locally."

MAKING IT WORK

In recent years, Seattle has absorbed record levels of growth. By adding still more on top of that, we are quickly overwhelming the capacity of our existing infrastructure, where the cost of improving it or adding new increments to it both in dollars and energy consumed will greatly outweigh the benefits.

We do not favor building new subdivisions in rural areas or more sprawl. On the contrary, we're saying, let's hold the line throughout the region.

We could start first by making the urban-growth boundary impenetrable. No more permits for developments in the four-county area outside that boundary. For the growth we do get inside the boundary, let's move to a poly-centered approach that more evenly distributes it to smaller urban centers around the region. That will ensure optimal use of the currently underutilized infrastructure already in place out there.

But even with this approach, we think the day of reckoning still looms ahead of us, when we will need to learn to live with a steady-state economy.

CURBING GROWTH

Most people now understand that if you build more freeways, you bring more cars, which beget more freeways, which beget still more cars. By the same token, if you create systems to accommodate more growth, you'll get more growth.

If all municipalities moved to curb growth, we'd get less growth. If Seattle moved to limit growth it would not necessarily squeeze it somewhere else at all. Perhaps, instead, it would provide the leadership the rest of the region needs to also limit it.

Unless we seek to manage and limit growth wherever and whenever it occurs on all fronts - locally, regionally, nationally, globally - we will lose our battle with global warming. 

JOHN V. FOX and Carolee Colter are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (google it), a low-income housing organization

Our Unsung Neighborhood Heroes

March 2010 by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox: reprinted from Pacific Publishing Newspapers

Scarcely a month goes by without a news story about an awards ceremony or banquet honoring some local civic activist.  Usually these events are held by large organizations honoring their own – a wealthy person whose work or dollars have aided some charitable cause or city-beautiful campaign.  Hats off, of course. to these folks and the recognition they indeed deserve. 

These are the people that Governors, Mayors and Councilmembers love to select for slots on those innumerable advisory, planning, or development authority boards--especially if they or the companies they work for happen to be (or hopefully will become) major contributors to their re-election campaigns.

But there’s another group of activists who likely will never have their names inscribed on a plaque.  Only occasionally do you hear about them when they’re quoted in the local media speaking out against freeway expansion or working to save a grove of “heritage” trees or historic building threatened by redevelopment in their neighborhood.

Without them, the physical and social character of our city would be irrevocably different—more view-blocking high-rises, fewer parks, and more concrete. There would be no Pike Place Market, historic Pioneer Square, or the International District.  Without the rear guard action of hundreds of community council members over the decades, we’d have even more gentrification and redevelopment threatening the diversity and human scale of our neighborhoods.

In this era where bigger and denser is supposedly better, you might hear local pundits call these community leaders obstructionist, NIMBY’s, or worse, anti-environment. It’s not so fashionable these days to be called a neighborhood activist. 

Right now the city is in the process of revising the neighborhood plans and development interests are pushing for upzones.  The marginalization/typecasting of the neighborhood movement can only help pave the way (pun intended) for those upzones at the expense of trees, open space and our low-income housing stock. 

We’d like to give credit to a few of those under-appreciated neighborhood advocates currently in the forefront of efforts to keep this city livable.

Kent Kammerer, as chair of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, hosts monthly Saturday breakfasts to discuss the latest critical issues affecting the region, putting local elected leaders on the hot seat.

Cheryl Trivison and her cohorts from Wallingford staved off a plan to privatize big parts of Gasworks Park. 

Jenna Walden leads the Othello neighborhood’s efforts to mitigate the effects of runaway growth planned for areas around their light rail station.

Rick Barrett for over 30 years has been the voice of the Seattle Community Council Federation.  His reserve and quiet approach understate his role in countless land use, transportation and parks battles.

Steve Zemke leads the struggle to preserve a large grove of trees threatened with removal by the School District in his neighborhood next to Ingraham High School.

John Barber, retired city employee and Leschi resident, successfully fought I-90 expansion through his neighborhood, and later founded POSA (Parks & Open Space Advocates).  The POSA listserve keeps advocates up-to-date and fosters thoughtful discussion from diverse viewpoints. 

Irene Wall almost single-handedly turned back construction of waterfront buildings that would have blocked views from Steinbrueck Park in the Pike Place Market. She was instrumental in preventing parks officials from turning Woodland Park into a parking lot.

Duff Badgley, Richard Ellison, and Michael Oxman put their arborist expertise in the service of urban tree preservation. They understand that the effort to save our forests doesn’t end at Seattle’s city limits but starts in our own communities.

Ray Akers, Ron Momoda, Pat Murakami, Patricia Paschal, and Mariana Quarnstrom helped fend off creation of a “Community Redevelopment Area” with powers of eminent domain in Southeast Seattle.  Then they organized their neighbors to resist a government-mandated “Transit Oriented Development” plan that would have paved the way for unbridled growth, higher housing costs, gentrification, and displacement.

Kris Fuller speaks for the majority of citizens who, whenever polled, prefer quiet passive recreation in Seattle parks over privatized uses.  She and others like her are this city’s defense against well organized sports groups seeking to blanket our parks with lighted synthetic playfields.

Dennis Saxman, former attorney, fights gentrification and loss of affordable housing in Pike/Pine.

Gene Hogland and Elizabeth Campbell have consistently opposed the tunnel and championed a rebuilt viaduct that would guarantee freight movement and protect waterfront businesses.

Matt Fox headed the successful effort to defeat the developer-driven Seattle Commons plan in the 1990’s.  He’s now president of the U-District Community Council leading resistance to the University’s unbridled expansion into that neighborhood.

Posthumously, we honor Glover Barnes, a respected academic in the field of medicine who, for nearly 40 years until his recent passing, also was a leader in Seattle’s neighborhood movement.  He deserves a statute for his years of work dating back to battles against segregation and bank redlining in the Central Area.

In a city with over 70 community councils, we could have spotlighted dozens of others working collectively to keep this city livable.  The best decisions affecting our city’s future don’t get made by planners or technocrats but at this grassroots level.  It’s what is best about our republican form of democracy.

 

4/7/2010 2:31:00 PM
OUTSIDE CITY HALL | The Year of Urban Agriculture: Can it happen?
 
By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Columnists

Increasingly, what most Americans eat is grown or raised hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Every aspect of food production depends upon fossil fuels — in the form of natural gas for fertilizer, and oil for farm machinery and transportation of food to market.

As the price of oil skyrockets (and it will) so will the price of grapes from Chile, garlic from China and beef from Argentina. Even lettuce from California and wheat from Eastern Washington will become a lot more expensive to grow and ship than they are now.

Throw in the uncertainty about growing conditions created by climate change, and our “food security” can no longer be taken for granted.

In April 2008, the Seattle City Council, led by Councilmember Richard Conlin, passed a resolution that outlined a series of actions toward goals for increased access for Seattle’s residents to healthy and local foods, integrating the food system into land use and transportation, and building capacity to feed the population for two to three months in an emergency.

This Local Food Action Initiative tasked the Department of Neighborhoods with working with the school district, City Light and Seattle Public Utilities to identify potential new sites for community gardens on public lands.

Meanwhile, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) was requested to review land-use codes to see how they might help or hinder urban agriculture.

Only a month ago, city officials announced that 2010 would be “The Year of Urban Agriculture,” designed to increase community access to locally grown food.

Gardening on the rise
There are two aspects to urban agriculture: people growing food for themselves or to donate to others, and commercial enterprises that grow food for sale.

Seattle’s well-established P-Patch Community Gardening Program rents out plots of 100 to 400 square feet to about 4,000 gardeners at its 83 sites, 23 acres in all. Most sites also contain a garden specifically for growing produce for food banks, and P-Patch gardeners themselves donate tons of produce every year from their own plots.

Prompted by this program’s popularity (with more than 1,900 now on the P-Patch waiting list), $2 million from the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy was earmarked for development of new community gardens in 21 neighborhoods.

Another p-patch program, done in cooperation with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), involves two large gardens at SHA’s NewHolly and High Point developments. The food is organically grown by residents and delivered to subscribers. A full share provides fresh vegetables for four to six people for under $25 a week. It only serves, however, 79 households.

The Local Food Action Initiative aims to dramatically expand these programs while also developing more extensive commercial growing to feed much more of the city’s population. To accomplish these goals, Seattle will need more land.

To date, the city has identified 45 possible new garden sites, 12 acres in all, plus several hundred school, park or right-of-way properties with gardening potential. Meanwhile, groups like Urbangardenshare.org are hooking up would-be gardeners with property owners willing to share their land.

In addition, DPD is developing new zoning and land-use rules to encourage food gardens in future multi-family developments. To protect the investment in labor and soil building that makes a viable garden, a zoning code must allow for gardens as a sub-use of already protected open space, or must approve gardening as an appropriate use in residential, multifamily or industrial districts, so that citizens don’t need to get a variance or permit to have a garden. It’s DPD’s job to propose the needed code.

Space issues
We see the Local Food Action Initiative as a key element in curbing global warming, fighting globalization and putting healthy affordable food on the table. But like Seattle’s stated interest in preserving open space and tree canopy, it’s on a collision course with this city’s hell-bent desire to promote more density.

Upzones are in the works for every area of the city but especially in “urban villages” or “urban centers” where populations are already concentrated. The denser these areas become, the more difficult it is to find space for gardens within walking distance of where people live. Expecting people to drive to distant p-patches defeats the purpose.

Then there’s the challenge of encouraging more gardens on private property. Say a homeowner establishes a thriving food garden. Then a neighboring building is torn down and replaced by a taller one that blocks the sunlight. Does the gardener have any rights?

Allowing Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) citywide also means more structures taking up lot space, leaving less room for gardens.

Each individual property owner’s decision seems insignificant, but the cumulative impact of owners paving and building over every bit of open space on their lots is vast.

Perhaps the current residents of those properties stand to benefit financially, but future dwellers on the land may come to regret the choices made by their predecessors.

If we’re serious about promoting urban agriculture and urban forests, we must consider increased density as just one factor to be juggled among others, not the trump card of urban planning.

JOHN V. FOX AND CAROLEE COLTER
are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization.

OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Citizen groups win battle with City Hall
- may 5th edition Pacific Publishing Newspapers
Columnists John V. Fox and Carolee Colter

The month of April began very much as usual down at City Hall, with citizen groups clamoring to be heard and our local officials largely ignoring them.

The state Route 520 bridge project moves inexorably forward with six lanes. While access ramps to the Washington Park Arboretum were not included in a recently released plan, some fear it's just a matter of time before they are put back into the plan.

Arboretum officials approved whacking down 34 mature, native trees so they could display imported Chinese vegetation.

Up in the North End, the Seattle School District remains steadfastly committed to ripping out a grove of beautiful, old trees next to Ingraham High School in the face of stiff resistance from neighborhood activists.

Most community councils from across the city continue to fight planned revisions to their neighborhood plans and changes to multi-family zoning that would increase densities in their communities.

Community gardeners got some bad news, with Seattle Parks and Recreation suggesting a reduction in the size of p-patch plots and term limits for gardeners. (the idea of term limits has been turned back by parks activists since this was written)

Even the swallows were having a rough time of it. Just days before the birds were expected to arrive for their spring nesting atop the old hangar (Building 27) at Magnuson Park, indoor-sports fanatics leasing that space removed the nests despite outcry from neighbors and bird enthusiasts — and a broken promise to city officials.

We cite these issues and neighborhood battles not because they made this April unusual — quite the opposite.

It’s routine for the folks at the grass-roots level to call out city wrongs while recalcitrant city officials defend bad decisions or stand on the sidelines claiming their hands are tied.

We’ve called attention to what’s all-too-typical to contrast it with something truly marvelous that happened this month — in fact, something that happens only rarely, like the sighting last summer of a mountain bluebird in the Montlake Fill. It left us feeling that exhilarated.

Broad-based opposition

A broad coalition cutting across class, race, and income lines — including groups as diverse as the Community Council Federation, NAACP, the Minority Executive Directors, ACLU, all Seattle Democratic Party Districts, church leaders, and housing and homeless advocates (such as ourselves) — came together and turned back Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess’ anti-panhandling (“aggressive solicitation”) law.

Only three weeks ago, this piece of legislation looked like a done deal, projected to pass by an 8-1 vote. It was backed by the entire downtown business and tourist industry — elites who in this town nearly always get their way.

But, instead, Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed the bill brought to his desk by a 5-4 vote. (This was a courageous act: Nickels only vetoed two pieces of legislation in eight years.) Burgess is not likely to muster the six council votes he’ll need to overturn the veto. What happened?

It started with a lone dissent from City Councilmember Nick Licata. In the week leading up to the council vote, a remarkable organizing effort by this community-based coalition brought Councilmembers Bruce Harrell, Tom Rasmussen and Mike O’Brien to Licata’s side.

The Burgess bill gave police far too much discretion and violated due-process rights for those hit with citations. It invited selective enforcement against people of color, poor people or just people who don’t look quite right. That’s why community leaders reacted so strongly (as they did to the so-called “Sidran civility laws” passed a decade ago). Such laws target behavior of one class of people who happen to be poor.

Why single them out? Why not special laws aimed at aggressive football fans, bar customers or rock-club patrons in the University District? Come to think of it, an “aggressive, drunk college student” law would do far more to curb feelings of fear and intimidation than Burgess’ proposed “aggressive solicitation” law. Obviously, it’s unlikely we’ll ever consider laws singling out spoiled, rich, white college kids!

In any case, there are a host of existing laws already on the books against extortion, assault, harassment, obstruction and menacing, available to police to address real crimes by anyone acting truly aggressive or assaultive.

Keeping at ‘em

Burgess and allies like fellow council member Richard Conlin, who introduced and supported this bill, have whipped up a level of divisiveness not seen since the Mark Sidran era. When McGinn’s veto is upheld, it will be a tremendous victory for true civility and fairness and will help put a lid — hopefully, for a long time — on further attempts at such class-based and divisive legislation.

The defeat of this bill also elevates the stature of Councilmembers Licata, Rasmussen, Harrell and O’Brien, and Mayor McGinn, who all stood up to such pressure.

But what really made this come-from-behind victory significant and turned April into an exhilarating month was that we were reminded, as we haven’t been in a while, that we should never give up but always seek to build broad coalitions even with unlikely allies and keep at ‘em. You can make history, topple giants and make a substantive difference in the quality of people’s lives and the future of this city.

And while some issues may seem small and not draw much media coverage, thank goodness there are many people working doggedly on them and setting an example for their neighbors because cumulatively they, too, shape our town’s character.
 return to main page


June 2010 issue of Outside City Hall by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox:

City Council increases Seattle's growth targets by 30% - Neighborhoods fight back

You probably don't know this because no one down at City Hall thought to tell you, let alone ask for your opinion on the matter.  But quietly two weeks ago the full City Council unanimously voted to increase the City's twenty-year residential growth targets by over 30 percent.  On top of that, they committed the City to increasing its total share of the County's anticipated residential growth from 32 to about 37 percent during the period 2006 through 2031.  Without a doubt, this will set the stage for and provide the justification for still more upzones--at the expense of the livability and affordability of our city.

Every seven years, the State's Growth Management Act requires counties and cities throughout Central Puget Sound to reassess actual employment, population and housing unit figures and then if necessary readjust their twenty year targets to accommodate their assigned share of the region's growth.  If an area has seen a lot of job growth but falls short in adding the housing needed to accommodate those workers, a jurisdiction could be required to upzone and add buildable capacity to meet those new projected targets.

The goal is to concentrate most of the existing growth within existing urban centers around the region and thus prevent sprawl, preserve open space, reduce auto miles traveled, and reduce our carbon footprint. 

We couldn't agree more with these goals. The problems lie in how these goals are implemented, how the growth is apportioned and the degree to which politics may intervene and as a practical matter actually subvert these critical goals.  Nowhere are we seeing these problems emerge more than here in Seattle with the setting of these new targets for our city.

Data from the Puget Sound Regional Council shows that many cities on the east side of the lake and other parts of the region have fallen far short of reaching their designated growth targets.  That is not the case at all for Seattle. Other areas hit with huge amounts of growth have been in the unincorporated areas and at the margins of the five county area, far from light rail and urban center locations and not at all consistent with the goal of preventing or containing sprawl.

In 2005 Seattle's 20-year target was set at 47,000 units or 2350 units per year through 2024. This ensured Seattle would absorb about 30 percent of King County's residential growth target.  However, according to numbers we've just obtained from the City, despite the economic downturn, Seattle added over 21,000 housing units from 2005 through 2009. Another 7000 units are about to be brought on line.

And while we hear from city officials that the number of permit applications from developers has fallen due to the economy, that has not yet been reflected in these newly released, astonishingly high figures--three to four times the annual amounts of new housing that were normal over the last 20 years.

In just five years, we’ve reached over 60 percent of our 2024 citywide residential growth target.  Ballard, Greenlake, Pike/Pine, Capitol Hill, the Downtown Core, West Seattle and most of the city's designated urban villages have reached or greatly exceeded over 100 percent of their targets.

Even at these high levels of growth a city analysis shows that Seattle has enough capacity under current zoning to accommodate over 110,000 more housing units.  So why increase our growth targets?  Clearly, it's to provide the ammunition for special interests to justify still more redevelopment in our communities. Only by moving the goalposts can you argue that we haven’t crossed the goal line.

In spite of such unprecedented growth, there’s an enormous push for still more density especially around existing and proposed rail stations and in areas zoned for multifamily development.  Some of it is driven by pro-rail enthusiasts seeking to add densities they believe are needed to pump up Sound Transit ridership.  But a lot of the push comes from the usual place – developers who benefit from such policies.  These and other forces are making a concerted effort to do away with the neighborhood plans drawn up over the last decade to manage growth responsibly in our communities.  

While such neighborhood plans obviously haven’t deterred the growth we’ve seen, at least they’ve worked to protect a degree of livability in those communities while that growth occurs. More of our tree canopy, open space, streams, and our stock of affordable housing remain because of the countless hours of resident involvement that went into the development of those plans.  The things that make this city livable aren’t derived by planners or elitists dictating to the neighborhoods. They come from the grassroots.

And the grassroots, thank heavens, is fighting back.  Several community organizations and activists recently challenged the city’s decision to go ahead with upzones in low rise multi-family areas without even proper environmental review.  And groups in Southeast Seattle and Beacon Hill recently challenged the city’s revocation of key elements in their neighborhood plans.  More of this kind of activism is desperately needed, however, or we’ll lose the “great growth debate” along with our city’s character.  

JOHN V. FOX AND CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (website can be googled)

------------------------

In Praise of the 'Ave'  reprinted from Aug 4th 2010 edition of Pacific Publishing Newspapers in Seattle

- by John V. Fox with editing assistance from Carolee Colter

We’re hearing it again, the hue and cry from the University District Chamber of Commerce that the “U-District” and its main thoroughfare, University Way or “the Ave,” have become another Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Drugs and crime are rampant!” and “Where are the police when you need them?” and “All our customers have left us for University Village.”  That’s what councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Bagshaw of City Council’s Public Safety Committee heard from key landowners on a recent morning tour of the District hosted by the local Chamber. 

Since my days as a student at the University of Washington in the late 60’s to early 70’s, I haven’t strayed far from the District.  Most of that time, I’ve lived and or worked here. Scarcely a day or evening goes by that doesn’t take me down the Ave to meet someone for lunch, dinner, or a drink, or walk between work and home. 

I’ve kept a UW Daily from 1970 featuring the same stories we read today about the druggies hanging out on the Ave and fears about rising crime rates.  The Chamber is quoted railing about all the street kids running amok and driving away businesses and shoppers. They were hippies, not punkers or Goths back then but the moaning and groaning sound like today.

Because the Ave is the backbone of the University District, it always has been and always will be a place where young people congregate. By its nature it’s a liberal community that tolerates/attracts/encourages diversity of lifestyles, behaviors and politics.  People who stand out like a sore thumb somewhere else go unnoticed along the Ave.  Every day is Halloween here--one of the reasons why the Ave appeals to me.

As for its youth character, it reflects the best and worst.  If drugs are a problem in society as a whole, it's on display for all to see along the Ave. If poverty and homelessness are problems in the larger community, they’re on display there, too.  Crime rates, by the way, are on par with other neighborhood business districts, no better, no worse. 

The District’s so-called seedy reputation is more myth than reality, fueled by the Chamber’s constant complaints.  If only they’d spend as much time marketing the good things about the District! Over my decades here, day or night, I’ve only felt threatened once and that was solved by walking away and calling police.

Ironically, the district’s alleged reputation helps keep rents lower on the storefronts (although still too high) allowing small independent first-time businesses to give it a go here.  No other area of the City offers so much ethnic diversity with first generation immigrants running unique little niche shops and restaurants, (Southeast Seattle notwithstanding.)  After a while the chain stores give up on the Ave and move to the strip malls (thank heavens).  

No other area in the Northwest offers so many movie theaters, inexpensive restaurants, sporting events on campus, and bars and clubs, all within easy walking distance.  There are more churches here than anywhere else in the City.  The U District is the intellectual center of the city, tied to the campus with bookstores, libraries, and other activities including a performance hall, two art museums, and three theatre companies. 

Don't get me wrong.  The District has its problems. For my list:

Ø      Too much redevelopment, demolition of low-cost housing opportunities and displacement of small businesses.  Some of it is due to the University’s insatiable quest to expand. (City Hall currently is on a crusade to upzone this neighborhood meaning even more displacement)

Ø      A cabal of large property owners controlling most of the Ave and dictating rents, sometimes resulting in empty storefronts. In hard times, why don’t they either negotiate better deals to keep loyal businesses or to fill an empty storefront?

Ø      Instead of embracing and marketing the District’s youthful and ethnic character, chamber types seem always to be fighting against it, fruitlessly fixating on or trying to emulate their pretentiously bland rival, U Village.

Ø      Not enough services, community based treatment, and housing for those in need, especially homeless youth. That’s the way to get serious about the panhandling, drugs, and homelessness we see on the Ave.

I’m more than a casual observer of the District’s goings-on, and frankly it actually seems quieter and less raucous here today.  In 2002, police shot and killed a young man who pointed a BB gun at them in front of the Rite-Aid.  A few blocks away about that time police shot and killed a disturbed young man who refused to drop his knife when ordered.  In the mid-nineties, an all ages club on the Ave at closing time often was the scene of fights and even gunfire on a couple of occasions.

Of course if you go back to the 60's and 70's, those were the days of massive anti-war protests, flag burnings, and overturned dumpsters.  Police covered their badges and clubbed protestors, and once donned civilian garb and marauded through campus beating up “longhairs”. 

No, today things along the Ave seem downright sedate.  I recommend you all come down and visit. 

-----------------------------

Outside City Hall July 2010:  A response to a recent Publicola column pushing still more highrise office development for Seattle's downtown by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

"There's nothing environmentally sound about the effort to concentrate an even greater share of the region's jobs in Seattle's downtown core.  In fact it's just the opposite"


(Reprinted from July 7th edition of Pacific Publishing Newspapers including North Seattle Herald - please circulate)

On June 21st, the on-line news site Publicola featured John Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association.  The DSA has for decades been the voice of downtown real estate and development interests in our city. 

Mr. Scholes argues that Seattle policy makers must “reduce the trend of decentralization of employment in the region” and do what they can to “nurture” more job growth in Seattle, especially the downtown core.  By “nurture”, of course, he means more government handouts.  He cites figures showing job loss in Seattle over the last decade and warns against reestablishment of a “head tax” on office employees or any other tax that would discourage more office development. 

There’s nothing especially original about a business group objecting to a tax while raking in government subsidies. What’s new, however, is that Scholes builds his case on environmental grounds – arguing that too much office growth, like too much housing, built outside the city contributes to sprawl, increases auto use and raises our carbon footprint. The piece is entitled “Fill downtown buildings to combat climate change.”  Gee, if we’re to believe the headline that must make Martin Selig, our city’s most prominent high-rise developer, the next John Muir. 

Aside from that absurdity, what exactly is wrong with his argument?

First, Seattle's job situation remains relatively healthy.  Job levels at the beginning of the decade were artificially inflated by the dot.com boom but fell back to late 90’s levels when that bubble burst. From 2003 to 2008 we saw a steady recovery and increase of 30,000 jobs citywide from 467,000 to 497,000.

Since the bust of 2008 Seattle again lost jobs – about 24,000 – but we’re still some 6000 jobs above 2003 citywide, with the same pattern holding for downtown.  Long-term forecasts indicate good prospects for a slow but steady recovery.

There’s a bigger problem with Scholes’ environmental argument.  Planners say the optimum ratio of jobs to housing must be less than 1.4 jobs to 1 unit of housing or less.  Otherwise you’ve got too many workers looking for too few units inside the city – meaning more of them move to the suburbs with long costly commutes and sprawl.  Seattle’s ratio of jobs to housing is above that optimum, about 1.7 to 1, arguing for fewer of the region’s jobs, not more, inside city limits.

But in downtown, the jobs to housing ratio is much worse, 7 to 1, (165,000 jobs to about 25,000 housing units).  That’s despite major upzones and unprecedented numbers of new housing units added in the last decade in the core.

It’s a pipedream to think this gross imbalance can be cured simply by raising residential densities yet again. It can only be rectified by moving some office jobs out of Seattle’s downtown to Bellevue, Redmond or one of the other activity centers where many people filling those jobs happen to live anyway, and where there is considerable unused zoning capacity and potential for in-fill, with infrastructure already in place.

In fact, there are census estimates indicating the percentage of Seattle workers living in the suburbs is over 60 percent and rising. Relocating some jobs there would eliminate the need to transport these workers long distances, whether by gas guzzling car or expensive transit system –resulting in a smaller carbon footprint.

Three decades ago demographers anticipated the shift of employment from a concentrated single regional core out to multiple suburban office and business parks. That's especially true for the lower-wage office jobs. It's a long-term structural trend occurring irrespective of local planning efforts to discourage it. Contributing factors include the loss of traditional in-city blue collar jobs, high land costs in already built-up areas, redevelopment and gentrification in the urban core pushing out low-income workers, and changing technologies allowing more office work to be done less expensively in scattered locations.

The problem is not that jobs are moving to the 'burbs” but that many of them are occurring outside the region’s designated commercial centers and in unincorporated areas beyond boundaries set by the Growth Management Act. No matter that we’re spending billions on rail systems and passing upzones in a futile effort to concentrate growth around rail and rapid bus stops on the west side.  Instead the thrust of new development in the four-county area is happening to the east and at the margins.

Perhaps it’s time to redirect more of our attention and our transportation dollars out there to create smaller-scale mass transit systems like bus centers and carpool and vanpool programs serving those areas.  Over time, this might also lead to new zoning aimed at concentrating more eastside growth along these new transit routes and back into designated commercial centers, moving us slowly away from sprawl.

A growth model for the region premised off a giant central hub with radiating spokes is an anachronism. Trying to recreate it with ruinously expensive light rail and massive upzones (that only drive up housing costs and destroy tree canopy here in Seattle) ignores the reality of where most people actually live and work. And it leaves them only one choice - use of their car.  There’s nothing green in that.

Special thanks to Seattle, King County, and PSRC Demographers for help in compiling data for this article.  For employment data, see especially PSRC sites here:  http://www.psrc.org/data/employment/covered-emp

and here: http://www.psrc.org/data/trends

For useful data on where Seattle workers live and where Seattle residents work go here: http://lehdmap4.did.census.gov/themap4/

There are numerous articles indicating Seattle's relative economic health and good longer term prospects:

http://www.thenewstribune.com/2010/05/13/1184566/area-economy-has-muscle.html

and here: http://www.amlife.us/seattle/economic_trends.html

and here: http://www.rionrealestate.com/blog/news-current-events/seattle-on-forbes-best-cities-for-recession-recovery-list/

For more information and copies of past columns go to North Seattle Herald website or to the Seattle Displacement Coalition's website here: http://zipcon.net/~jvf4119/

--------------------------------

9/1/2010 1:25:00 PM

OUTSIDE CITY HALL | SHA should recommit to low-income housing at Yesler Terrace   

By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Columnists

In a surprise decision, a narrow majority of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted to nominate the community center building and steam plant at the 580-unit Yesler Terrace Public Housing Project for landmark designation.  If the Board affirms their vote on October 6th these two structures would gain protection under the state's Historic Landmark Laws.

While the Board could reverse its decision or simply require Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) to protect the façade or only a piece of either building, potentially SHA could be required to save both buildings.  Without a doubt, this would throw a monkey wrench in SHA's plan to turn the 25-acre Yesler Terrace site into a dense high-rise office, retail, and condominium complex.

However, another narrow majority of the Landmarks Board declined to protect the rest of the site saying it lacked historical value. 

The Board’s action was downright tragic and bitterly ironic.  Yesler Terrace was built in 1941 after Jesse Epstein, the Seattle Housing Authority’s first director, traveled to Washington DC and convinced the Roosevelt Administration a low-rise “garden” style design was best for low-income families.  Epstein also insisted it be a fully integrated community.  On both counts, it was the first such public housing project in the country.

Seven decades later, Yesler Terrace continues that proud tradition as a living breathing community of people of color and first-generation immigrants. Gary Locke is just one of many community leaders who grew up there.

Epstein was a true visionary. The Yesler Terrace model was replicated here and across the country many times.  The biggest names in Seattle architecture (including Victor Steinbrueck) were involved in its construction.  In 1966, Yesler Terrace’s design earned the Seattle Arts Commission’s Citation of Excellence. 

While we were disappointed in the Landmarks Preservation Board’s actions, SHA officials also were stunned. They expected a dismissal of all claims of historical value.  Between now and October 6th, expect an army of SHA attorneys, architects and consultants to do all they can to reverse the Board’s decision.    

SHA argues that since the buildings were constructed nearly 70 years ago, their useful life has ended.  This is absolutely false. They were built on solid concrete foundations and so long as they’re maintained, can last many more lifetimes. 

SHA simply wants to tear down and replace the existing 580 public housing units with more lucrative uses, but in order to get approval from the federal government to do that, they must prove that the site is blighted and that demolition is the only available option. 

Ironically, in order to justify denial of a landmark designation, SHA made the exact opposite case before the Landmarks Preservation Board.  They highlighted the many times the Yesler Terrace housing units have been renovated and thus argue that the buildings no longer share original design features worthy of historical designation.

This too is bull.  Except for some superficial exterior changes and the fact that about one quarter of the units were removed in the sixties for freeway construction, the overall design and low-rise character of the site remain largely intact.  Only about 50 of the remaining 580 housing units were added later and lack design characteristics of those built in 1941.

Unlike notorious Cabrini Green and other east coast high-rise projects, these low-rise garden communities have always been a tremendous untold success story.  And now they are disappearing as public housing authorities abandon their mission to serve the poorest of the poor and instead become profit-driven developers. 

SHA’s plans call for a dense concentration of condominiums, expensive apartments and office buildings rising to over 400 feet on the site. Only a fraction of the 580 public housing units would be replaced on site. 

The plans also include redevelopment of the area directly east of the current Yesler Terrace and into the neighborhood of Squire Park.  Already, SHA has been buying up property there and cutting deals with Sound Transit and the County for joint redevelopment of other sites in that area.

SHA still has several hurdles to jump through. Next year it must apply for rezones through a "planned development" process and state and federal environmental review has only just begun.  However, if the Landmarks Board upholds its decision to save the Steam Plant and the Community Center, that would force a major reworking of the years of planning already done for Yesler Terrace.

We see this as an opportunity for SHA to rethink its plans, and commit to no net loss of low-income housing on site.  There are viable options that do not presuppose wiping out the buildings and displacing most of the low-income residents. These options would still allow for some increases in density, and the addition of revenue-generating uses through infill on the site without loss of most of the existing historically significant structures or any low-income housing. 

It is not SHA’s mission to become just one more developer seeking to maximize redevelopment potential and profits under the guise of “deconcentrating the poor” (read, displacement of the poor.) Let’s see SHA return to its vital mission and uphold the standard it set in 1941 when it built Yesler Terrace.

10/6/2010 12:49:00 PM
OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Mayor's budget gives way to special interests, not real needs
 
By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Columnists

Last week, Mayor Mike McGinn presented his first budget to the Seattle City Council. These are tough economic times, and the mayor needed to make up for a $67 million drop in local tax revenues that normally would have supported programs covered by the general fund, plus significant shortfalls in non-general-fund sources such as user fees, utility rates, state and federal revenue sources.

The mayor addressed these challenges by proposing a general-fund budget $13 million less than last year. Only police and fire departments avoided deep cuts in city services and staffing. We’ll also face steep rate increases for water, solid waste, electricity and parking. (Hats off to the mayor, though, for minimizing cuts to human services)

But here are some things especially troubling to us. For starters, the parks department really took it in the shorts. On top of a 5-percent reduction to its maintenance budget earlier this year, the mayor called for another $8.1 million in cuts for 2011, which means layoffs of more than 100 employees and accompanying drastic reductions in park programs and increased user fees.

Our city is in the ironic position of adding parks, playfields and open space due to passage of the 2008 Parks and Open Space levy while lacking funds for basic maintenance. The mayor’s cuts worsen this situation and give fodder to special interests seeking to privatize our parks system (e.g., leasing parks space and buildings to trinket and food vendors, profit-producing weekend concerts or Dale Chihuly’s glorified ashtray displays).

More for Paul Allen

While the mayor argues that his proposed utility-rate increases are necessary to fund the basics, that claim is undermined by a host of new and ongoing programs that siphon off millions — all to accommodate private redevelopment in one neighborhood.

In South Lake Union, his budget includes a new “bioswale” drainage system, “networking” and undergrounding the wiring, expanding the Broad Street electrical substation and monies for a new “North Downtown Substation.” Through 2016, these costs exceed $300 million.
There never seems to be a shortage of dollars for Paul Allen.

The mayor also committed millions next year and in future years to complete Mercer Phase II (Mercer West), a project now estimated at $100 million, in addition to the $200 million already committed for Phase I (Mercer East). As we’ve reported before, this is nothing more than a redevelopment scheme designed to redirect traffic away from Paul Allen’s properties facing Lake Union and does nothing to reduce traffic congestion.

Wrong kind of road work

What has drawn the most attention and criticism, though, is the mayor’s plan to raise parking rates, extend meter hours until 8 p.m., increase the commercial parking tax and eliminate “free” parking on Sundays. This would raise about $13 million over two years and $40 million through 2016, which McGinn would use to pay for his controversial “road diets” that replace car lanes around town with bike lanes.

We love our bikes, too, but how is it that we can find dollars for more bike lanes and still more projects for South Lake Union, yet neither the mayor nor City Council can seem to scrape up the funds for repairing a huge and growing backlog of ailing bridge and road infrastructure in our neighborhoods?

A recent public-disclosure request we made to the city reveals that, currently, 59 of the city’s 115 bridges are either “functionally obsolete,” “functionally deficient” or in poor structural condition. The current price tag for making the needed repairs is estimated at more than half a billion dollars. Only a small fraction of these bridges will get any funding at all from now through 2016 in the mayor’s five-year capital plan.

A new state law allows cities to create special transportation-benefit districts and authorize increases in car-tab fees; three weeks ago, the City Council did both.

The council also authorized an advisory committee to create another Bridging the Gap transportation package to bring before voters as soon as next year. This ballot measure would raise our property-tax rates and allow use of other financing mechanisms (such as tolling) to pay for the list of transportation projects identified by the advisory committee. No doubt some of that backlog of bridges in need of repair will appear in this package.

Special interests to ballot

To top it off, our elected officials — without a vote of approval from the public — are jacking up user fees, parking rates and utility charges that would not be needed at all if they chose to cut projects out of the current budget serving special interests or have those special interests foot the bill themselves (through use of developer-impact fees).

We’ve got a better idea. Let’s use our existing revenues to keep our bridges safe and meet other real needs in our community. Then if our electeds still want to tax us for things like the city’s share of the downtown tunnel (including perhaps millions in cost overruns), road diets, the Mercer corridor and more South Lake Union giveaways, let’s put those items on a special ballot so voters can decide.

The City Council is holding hearings on McGinn’s budget now, so get involved.

JOHN V. FOX AND CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization.
 

-------------------------------

Outside City Hall:  November 2010

Can We Achieve Social Equity While We Pursue "Smart Growth"

On September 20th Nick Licata, head of City Council’s Housing Committee, hosted an overflow crowd of 200 at a forum entitled “Can We Achieve Social Equity Using Smart Growth?” 

The Seattle Displacement Coalition, Puget Sound SAGE, Washington Low-income Housing Alliance, Seattle Human Services Coalition, and Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County co-sponsored the event.  Councilmembers Richard Conlin, Sally Bagshaw, Michael O’Brien and Jean Godden also attended. 

Currently Seattle is in the process of upzoning many neighborhoods, especially around current or planned light rail stations for “transit-oriented development”.  The goal is to encourage new patterns of so-called “smart growth” that prevent sprawl and promote increased use of mass transit.  By reducing auto dependency in this way, proponents hope to dramatically reduce the region’s carbon emissions and combat climate change.  

While halting the pace of climate change is critical, in past columns we’ve expressed doubt that cramming still more of the region’s growth into Seattle helps us reach that goal.  We’ve argued that preventing sprawl (and getting people out of their cars) can best be achieved through a more even distribution of growth among all of the region’s existing activity centers, not just Seattle.   

But there’s another reason why we’ve argued against increasing densities in Seattle, especially around rail stops. The added development threatens to accelerate removal of what’s left of our city’s low-income housing stock, including many units serving minority households in Southeast Seattle. 

Last month’s forum was designed to shed light on these trends and identify new legally defensible tools that Seattle could adopt to preserve our low-income housing before putting in place further “smart-growth policies”.   

First a panel of experts shared experiences from across the country.  Connie Galambos Malloy, Director of Programs for Urban Habitat, an environmental justice group in the Bay Area, described how San Francisco’s growth has made it the most expensive city in the US.  As a result, more city workers, especially lower wage earners, were moving to the suburbs.  Commute times, car usage and travel distances went up, undermining the carbon neutrality goals of “smart growth”.   

Dennis Keating, Professor of Urban Planning from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law then described
what happened to other cities adding densities under the banner of smart growth.  The increased supply
in these already built-up urban areas did not “trickle down” to the poor. On the contrary, expensive 
new residential construction, now legitimized as environmentally “sustainable,” simply replaced the 
older lower-density units.
 
Sarah Treuhaft from Policy Link, a national social justice ‘think tank’, then presented a toolkit her agency
developed to mitigate the effects of “smart growth” on low-income housing. Drawing from that toolkit,
the audience then broke into small groups identifying several possible housing preservation strategies for 
Seattle including: 
 
1) “Inclusionary zoning” laws that would require developers to set aside a percentage of new units in their
projects at low-income rent levels.
 
2) Requiring developers seeking upzones or any special exceptions above normal zoning to replace “one-for-one” 
and at comparable rent, all existing low-income housing they demolish.
 
3) “Special Review Districts” or “overlay zoning” for gentrifying low-income communities.  Neighborhood
advisory boards would be created and growth monitored in these areas.  And whenever too much low-income 
housing was being lost, more housing levy dollars would be directed into these districts and zoning rules
would be altered to require developers to set aside more low-income housing in their projects.
 
4) “Right of First Notice” requiring owners of existing low-income apartment buildings to notify and 
entertain bids from non-profit housing developers before selling these buildings to speculators and 
for-profit developers.   

Still we remain skeptical that these “smart growth” pro-density policies ever can be reconciled with the goal of preventing displacement and achieving social equity.  

Data presented at the forum showed that from 2005-2007--a period of high growth in Seattle--over 7000 low-income units were lost to demolition, condominium conversion and increased rents.  When the economy picks up, we fear these trends will emerge with even greater force due to the upzones now being considered in the name of “smart growth”.  Even if we do adopt new housing mitigation measures to accompany these upzones, they won’t be adequate to stem the loss.  

For example, a “one for one” replacement policy, would ensure developers replace any affordable housing they directly demolish.  But as Keating pointed out, upzones to these areas will push up land values and lead to rent increases on surrounding properties not directly lost to redevelopment. More speculative buying and selling of existing rentals will also occur in these now “hot” areas, driving rents up further, and more rentals are lost to condominium conversions.     

Despite our skepticism, we strongly support one-for-one replacement, right of first notice and inclusionary zoning, if only to minimize the growing inequality caused by "smart growth."  

Closing the forum, Councilmember Licata pledged to get a resolution passed to consider the anti-displacement strategies prioritized by the audience, and other attending councilmembers seemed supportive. Ultimately, however, these tools won’t be adopted unless a larger coalition of housing and homeless advocates come together to push our leaders with the same zeal we did to get the housing levy passed last year.   

- John V. Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition

Links to the Policy Link Toolkit and other panelist’s ideas may be accessed here:  http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?s1=housing.comm.&S3=&s2=&s4=&Sect4=AND&l=20&Sect6=HITOFF&Sect5=AGEN1&Sect3=PLURON&d=AGEN&p=1&u=%2F%7Epublic%2Fagen1.htm&r=5&f=G

================================

OUTSIDE CITY HALL | A neighborhood manifesto for change
- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox  (reprinted from Dec 1, 2010 edition of Pacific Publishing Co. Newspapers)

Looking ahead to the 2011 Seattle City Council election, it’s not too early to start thinking about how to make City Hall more responsive to our neighborhoods and the cause of social justice.

The five seats now occupied by councilmembers Tom Rasmussen, Jean Godden, Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell and Sally Clark will be contested.

Early next year, housing and neighborhood activists expect to convene an ad hoc group to discuss whether to run our own candidates in any of these races or find other ways to make all our electeds more sympathetic to our needs.

Right now, it appears likely that most, if not all, incumbents will seek reelection. And given the power of incumbency, we know how difficult it would be to beat any of them.

Only Godden, who routinely sides with development interests, seems to be in any way vulnerable.

Time to limit growth
There are other ways for neighborhood activists to challenge the status quo. Putting an initiative on the ballot, for instance, to block the current upzone-redevelopment-tear-down craze could save both trees and low-income housing.

The “creeks initiative” from 2003 was a good example. Had the courts not struck it down, that initiative would have thrown a serious monkey wrench into developers’ plans across our neighborhoods.

Another option might be creation of a “Neighborhood PAC,” or a Municipal League-like entity to evaluate and rate candidates in terms of their stance on issues important to the neighborhoods.

And there’s always another push for district elections. By making City Council members represent specific districts, they would become more directly accountable to their constituents instead of the moneyed special interests who donate to their campaigns.

And it would become much more financially feasible to those without corporate donors to get elected since TV advertising would no longer be as cost-effective as door-to-door campaigning. That’s why corporate interests went all out to (successfully) defeat an initiative for district elections in 2003.

Whether we run candidates, rate candidates or work to get initiatives on the ballot, our theme should be limiting growth to responsible, managed levels.

As we come out of the economic downturn, we need mechanisms in place to preserve our trees, greenspace, affordable housing and the physical and social character of our neighborhoods — the things that make this city livable — before growth accelerates again to the runaway levels we experienced before the recession hit.

What we really need
We’ve seen too much growth, and our current elected leaders are too beholden to developers, Paul Allen and downtown interests. It’s time developers started paying their fair share of the costs of growth, in the form of one-for-one replacement of affordable housing units they remove.

We need stronger tree protections (not fewer) and no more upzones in our neighborhoods, period.

Impact fees should replace regressive revenue sources, such as increases in property taxes, user fees, tolling and the business-and-occupation tax. Small businesses, working people, low-income people, including many longtime residents, are all being nickeled-and-dimed to death.

Let’s stop tapping the general fund for big-ticket projects that serve special interests and put them on special ballots rather than bridge repairs, crosswalks and funding for our libraries and community centers — that’s what the general fund is for.

Root out the millions in our general fund going to South Lake Union and downtown.

No to fixing the “Mercer mess,” and no to the Alaskan Way Viaduct-replacement tunnel!

No to adding more lanes to state Route 520.

More for buses, and less for Sound Transit and streetcars.

Kill the stoplight cameras, bring parking-meter rates back down and limit “road diets” to those areas where the neighborhoods want them.

More police accountability — it’s time for a real citizen-review board with subpoena powers and power to impose penalties and consequences.

Good stewardship

The big lie is the assumption that Seattle isn’t doing its share to absorb density and growth, to prevent sprawl and curb global warming. In nearly every neighborhood, including most of the areas around train stops, we’ve exceeded our growth targets.

There’s something wrong with advocating for open-space preservation outside the city but, once across the city line, aiding and abetting the pouring of concrete and wiping out of trees, stamping out every last vestige of nature for urban dwellers outside of parks.

Good stewardship of our environment begins right here in our own neighborhoods: protecting our trees, preserving space in all our neighborhoods for essential urban gardening, saving urban streams — and, not coincidentally, preserving our existing stock of low-income and affordable housing.

It’s right in our neighborhoods where we can make the most impact on climate change, not somewhere else.

Although this runs counter to conventional wisdom and special interests, we need to publicize and promote the notion of a “steady state economy,” a realization that growth anywhere of any kind at accelerated rates is anathema to a healthy environment.

In the interim, a poly-centered approach to growth for the region — distributing it where people are already living and not concentrating it all in Seattle — is the most cost-effective and environmentally sound way to manage the growth we have.

We progressives need to reclaim the environmental high ground, and that means learning to say no to growth.

Outside City Hall (January 2011)

Our Predictions for the Coming Year – Starting with the Deep Bore Tunnel
(A shorter version appears in this issue of Pacific Publishing newspapers)
     - John V. Fox and Carolee Colter

This is the time pundits and columnists write their predictions for the coming year.  Since everyone is doing it, here are some of our predictions for 2011 and beyond here in Seattle.  We’ll let you decide whether our prophecy is true or an exaggeration.

While most Councilmembers will do their best to pretend the $4.2 billion dollar deep bore tunnel is a done deal, Initiatives ‘101’ (requiring city officials to deny use of any city right of way for the tunnel) and ‘102’ (preventing the city from paying for tunnel cost overruns) will easily collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Since Initiative 101 started collecting their signatures early, theoretically, it could be placed on a special May ballot.  But pro-tunnel councilmembers decide to instead place both measures on the November 2011 ballot.  What better way, they think, to confuse voters and increase chances that both will go down in flames.

Meanwhile an enterprising reporter from one of the neighborhood newspapers uncovers documents from the city Department of Transportation, revealing that over half of Seattle’s 110 bridge structures are in poor or severely deteriorated condition.  City officials are even considering closing some bridges including Magnolia Bridge--years ago destined for replacement until funds were diverted to the Mercer project.

Since the city lacks the $600 million in repair costs for these bridges, and funding from the previous “Bridging the Gap levy” now is exhausted…. with great fanfare, Councilmembers Burgess, Rasmussen and Conlin call for a new “Bridging the Gap” property tax levy to be placed before voters as soon as possible.

Michael O’Brien’s plan to get the measure on the ballot as early as the August primary, however, is dropped largely because of bickering among members of a new Citizen’s Advisory Committee set up to prioritize how such funding would be spent.  The Mayor and councilmembers also are squabbling.   The pro-bike anti-car crowd represented on the advisory committee and Mayor want much of the money to go for bike paths, road diets, and pedestrian amenities while others emphasize repair of our ailing bridges and potholed streets.  And Vulcan/Paul Allen Interests represented on the committee are insisting on still more for Mercer and South Lake Union. While this is being debated, several area columnists point out that we could easily pay for both bridge repairs and road diets with the money we’d save by dropping the tunnel.  Given the furor, plans for any new Bridging the Gap measure are postponed at least until 2012. 

Come the November 2011 ballot, our crystal ball says voters will overwhelmingly approve both anti-tunnel measures, not surprisingly given they voted the tunnel down in 2007 by a large margin and still favor other less costly options.  At last, the voters have gotten a chance to vent their anger.  In their unhappy mood, for good measure, they vote down a proposal on the ballot aimed at raising money for seawall repairs. 

Our crystal ball doesn’t tell us whether voters will say yes or no to other measures destined for the November ballot including the Families and Education levy, a library tax, and renewal of the County’s Veterans and Human Service Levy.  However, voter’s tunnel angst and tax overload tell us these measures may also be in trouble.

But our crystal ball also says voters will re-elect all five incumbent city councilmembers who support the tunnel, in the absence of credible anti-tunnel opponents, not to mention the fact that the incumbents bankrolled by downtown, Vulcan and pro-tunnel interests outspend their challengers 10-1 .

Only days after the election, Richard Conlin, Tom Rasmussen, and most of the other councilmembers gather in front of the press to re-assert their support for the tunnel. They assert that both the voter approved tunnel initiatives are meaningless because the Council approved and signed agreements months ago and tunnel planning already is well underway. They reassert their belief that the project will be completed within budget and, “besides the state is on the hook for cost overruns anyway”.  Now is the time, they say, to set aside objections and move forward.

Only Mayor McGinn and Councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien object.  Calling their own press event, they assert the tunnel is not a done deal until a pending environmental review is completed – a process delayed due to court challenges.  There is still time to heed voter wishes, they argue.  Further, they question how the tunnel can proceed even if it stays under budget, not when the Port has no idea how to cover its $300 million dollar share of current project costs. They also charge that the state will never raise any where near $400 million from tolling that’s also needed to cover another chunk of project costs.  Tolling, they say will simply push drivers out of the tunnel and onto downtown streets.  And because of voter discontent, now there is not even a secured revenue source for repair of the seawall.

Soon after the dueling press conferences, the state and tunnel supporters including downtown business interests and big labor secure a court decision striking both down both anti-tunnel initiatives on the grounds that no city action can preempt a state authorized project.  Court challenges to environmental documents also are soon dismissed.

The Governor then announces that the project is a done deal and its “full steam ahead!” completely ignoring widespread ill feelings and public rancor that couldn’t be higher (or so we thought couldn’t be higher…)

Soon after we move into the first months of 2012 while contractors are preparing and setting up the machinery to begin actual digging early in 2013, more precise engineering and soils reports come in along with revised “design build” tunnel cost estimates.  Experts now say that tunnel will cost another $300 million – and well above what was set aside in the budget to cover such overruns.  

Our City Council insists local government is not on the hook for these costs.  But key state legislators disagree--especially legislators from districts that won’t benefit from a tunnel.  They reiterate what they’ve been saying since 2008, “we passed legislation putting that burden on you, the citizens of Seattle!” and “it’ll be a cold day in Bermuda before we foot the bill.”

After public posturing and finger pointing, certain pro-tunnel Councilmembers strike a backroom deal with the Governor.   After all, Gregoire too has made public statements that she wouldn’t force Seattle to pay for overruns.

In return for the city assuming responsibility for cost overruns, the state will extend special tax credits to downtown businesses and expand the city’s “local option” taxing authority allowing Seattle officials to proclaim they’ve been given new sources of revenue to cover cost overruns.  Gregoire and Councilmember Conlin hail the deal as a “win-win” agreement for both the city and state.

The Governor then presents this proposal to the Legislature still convened for the 2012 session.  With the backing of a number of Seattle legislators and especially Ed Murray, she ekes through approval of the new tax credits for downtown businesses. 

The Legislature also amends the state law allowing cities to create special transportation benefit districts and levy special taxes for transportation improvements within those districts.  The amendment applies only to cities with over 500,000 residents (meaning only Seattle).  Specifically, it waives the provision that requires voter approval before any additional local taxes can be authorized.

Over the objections of McGinn, Licata, and O’Brien, the majority on the City Council move immediately to increase in vehicle registration fees, sales and property taxes city-wide.  Since they’ve already created a special benefit district and did so back in 2010 there’s not need to create another one. No public vote is taken. Use of these tax sources for the tunnel pretty much kills an earlier city plan to use these sources to pay for repair of our ailing bridges.

With this increase in the sales tax, Seattle now has the nation’s highest.  The Council also discusses but then refuses to authorize use of impact fees which would require developers to pay a portion of tunnel costs.  This local option also was authorized under the new legislation but councilmembers say it would be “too controversial” to require that of developers.   The downtown establishment, Seattle Times and construction trade unions then applaud Council’s “courage and leadership.”

Meanwhile, the uproar over all this diverts attention from an increase in the cost of “North Portal Improvements” where the Aurora emerges from the tunnel’s north end.  Costs previously estimated at $100 million to “improve” Mercer West from Aurora through Queen Anne, have suddenly doubled. Even though it’s never been clear what Mercer West has to do with the tunnel and won’t reduce east-west congestion at all, this “improvement” has been buried since day one in the tunnel budget.

So there is more infighting and handwringing.  Pro-tunnel Councilmembers however insist these new local option taxes are more than enough to cover any anticipated overruns.  Big labor reminds people there will be a lot of new jobs too.

Finally in 2013 actual boring of the tunnel begins.  But a quarter mile into the ground the complex tunneling machinery breaks down in difficult soil, just as the same machinery broke down drilling a tunnel for the Brightwater Sewage Project in 2009. Now the experts tell us that delays and repair of the boring machinery will raise tunnel costs by another $300 million.  Of course by now, it's too late to stop Seattle's own version of "The Big Dig".

It would be an understatement to say that by now (2013) polls show great dissatisfaction with city leaders as a whole.  But the political currency and popularity of O’Brien, Licata and Mayor McGinn have soared.  Several pro-tunnel councilmembers announce their plans not to seek re-election.  Several say they are planning long vacations. 

Like a bad 50’s Sci-Fi movie, the tunnel has become the issue that will not die.  Debate is carried through 2013 over how to cover still more cost overruns.  Any talk of a new Bridging the Gap levy, whether for our ailing bridges or road diets is postponed another year.

In the holiday movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Jimmy Stewart gets to see what life in Bedford Falls would be like without him. We’ve tried to sketch out what life will be like in Seattle for years without a much stronger public outcry against the tunnel.

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Reprinted from Feb 1, 2011 Edition of North Seattle Herald and other Pacific Publishing Newspapers:

SHA Veering from its mission to help the poor

“City would lose low income units, money with Yesler Terrace redevelopment

According to King County’s 2010 Housing Benchmarks report, in Seattle there are about 30,000 households with incomes at or below 30% of median ($23,150 for a 3-person household).  Yet, the report says, there are only 310 unsubsidized units in all of King County renting at levels affordable to this income group.

This stunning shortfall of affordable housing for poor people is a prime example of what economists call “market failure.”  And it demonstrates the crucial role of subsidized public housing. 

True, non-profit housing developers make an essential contribution.  But even their "low-income" units are usually priced above what is affordable to public-housing eligible households--families with incomes at or below 30% of area median.  Also their units tend to be smaller than the three or four bedroom units specifically tailored for families served by public housing.

The largest and single most important remaining source of public housing in Seattle is the 28-acre 561-unit Yesler Terrace Garden Community owned and managed by Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).  Over the last 15 years, SHA's other garden communities at Holly Park, High Point, Roxbury Village, and Rainier Vista were torn down, redeveloped and now serve primarily higher-income groups, with a net loss of over 1000 public housing units.

As the last of our "garden communities," Yesler Terrace is an irreplaceable resource.  It has served generations of extremely low-income families, the disabled, the elderly, first-generation immigrants, and households of color since its establishment over 70 years ago as the nation’s first fully integrated low-density public housing project. Today Yesler Terrace is needed more than ever to address a resurgence of poverty and homelessness in our city, especially among families with children.

After three years of windy discussions before a “citizen’s review committee” (most handpicked so they’d rubber stamp any SHA proposal), SHA has finally announced specific plans for Yesler Terrace.  The existing garden community will be replaced with as many as 5000 units (mostly expensive rentals and/or condominiums), 80,000 square feet of retail and one million square feet of offices (roughly equal to the amount in Columbia Tower, the city’s largest skyscraper). 

But despite adding ten times the current housing density and new uses that would generate considerable income, SHA said it would replace only 490 of the existing 561 public housing units on the redeveloped site. Based on past history, we know this means even fewer will wind up there after SHA gets its permits.  As always, SHA insists the remaining public housing units will be built off-site.

What’s wrong with moving public housing off the Yesler Terrace site?  In the new development, public housing would make up less than one-tenth of all units.  An existing community would be dismembered so that this prime land near downtown with great views can serve higher-income groups.  This directly conflicts with what SHA was created to do--to serve the poorest of the poor in our city.

Further, if the City allows SHA to build any portion of public housing replacement units off-site, millions of existing Seattle housing levy, state, and other local dollars likely will be tapped by SHA to buy the land and build those units. That’s what happened at Rainier Vista and Holly Park. Funds badly needed to expand our low-income housing stock instead were used to replace existing housing SHA destroyed.

Meanwhile SHA has purchased several buildings off-site and evicted at least 60 low-income households, intending to use these locations as receiving sites for low-income households they’ll displace from Yesler Terrace.  It’s a game of musical chairs for the poor.

The City will soon begin review of SHA’s permit applications.  Because SHA is seeking an upzone to build above current code restrictions, our Mayor and City Council have clear authority to withhold approval of SHA’s plans unless specific conditions are met.  Here’s what our electeds must require: 

1) SHA shall commit to 100% replacement on site of all 561 public housing units (serving those at or below 30% of median income).  Further, SHA shall increase the number of public housing units on site so that public housing makes up at least 20% of the total.  More will be added if it is economically feasible.

2)  SHA will pledge that all units located in the surrounding community it has already acquired and vacated shall be replaced at comparable rents.

3)  SHA will pledge to use only new sources of revenue including the (considerable) income generated from the planned retail, condominium, and offices, to build replacement public housing units and no existing finite source of revenue such as city housing levy dollars, or state trust fund dollars, shall be tapped to build these replacement units.

4) SHA will guarantee that the public housing in the redeveloped site will not be segregated by income, and that amenities such as views, parks and play areas, and access to larger ground-related and view units shall be distributed equally among all income groups.

Meanwhile redevelopment and gentrification continue to accelerate the loss of housing serving these poorest households through demolition, conversion, speculative sale and increased rents.  As a city, we cannot afford the loss of Yesler Terrace.

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April 2011: Reprinted from April 5th Edition of North Seattle Press & Other Pacific Publishing Newspapers

"Calling all challengers - your recipe for a City Council bid"

Well, it looks like all five Seattle City Council incumbents - Bruce Harrell, Jean Godden, Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen and Tim Burgess - will be seeking re-election this fall.  It’s a daunting task in Seattle to run against and defeat an incumbent.

The last wholesale removal of incumbents occurred in 2003.  Rasmussen beat long running councilmember Margaret Pageler.  Godden eked out a victory over Judy Nicastro, and David Della upset Heidi Wills. Jim Compton barely hung on to his seat. 

That was the year of the Rick’s Strip Club scandal, in which Nicastro, Wills and Compton received contributions from the strip club owners illegally bundled to get around campaign donor limits. While none of these incumbents had knowledge of the club owner’s misdeeds, Nicastro and Wills took the fall. With his credibility weakened, Compton resigned midway through his next term.  Pageler, her image already tarnished by years of arrogant disregard for Seattle’s neighborhoods, got caught in the backlash.

As we head into the 2011 council election, there’s plenty of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo.  But lacking another fiasco like Rick’s Strip Club, it’s inherently difficult for challengers to win under a system of at-large elections and in the absence of publicly financed campaigns. By contrast, with district elections, a challenger could substitute people power for money, and blanket a district with doorbelling, mailings, and issue papers—nearly impossible in city-wide elections.

Incumbents accumulate tens of thousands of dollars from “the establishment” and downtown interests even before the campaign begins.  They draw press attention every time they cast a vote or break ground with golden shovels at a public works project, while challengers struggle for endorsements, funding and media coverage. 

We followed closely David Bloom’s campaign for City Council two years ago and while he was not running against an incumbent, he was an outsider up against a candidate backed by the establishment and corporate power—the eventual winner Sally Bagshaw.

Bloom raised about $50,000 before the primary. To get there, he spent 6 months on the phone begging for money and building a list of some 600 contributors.  He pulled down the majority of key group endorsements and shook a lot of hands in public places. He set up a website and Facebook page and hired a good campaign manager.  His volunteers waived signs and planted them everywhere.   

He was a credible candidate with a progressive pro-neighborhood message.  Yet few primary voters even knew who David Bloom was.  He spent most of his funds on cable TV ads no one saw and then could not afford to blanket voters with even one bulk mailing.  His second-place finish in a crowded primary carried him through to the final, but with only 18 percent of the vote to Bagshaw’s 51 percent, few took his campaign seriously after that.

In hindsight, our advice to challengers; concentrate like Bloom on fundraising, but raise even more, say, $80,000 before the primary.  Cut drastically all expenses except what you’ll need for at least three bulk mailings, including at least two hard hitting pieces right before or even during the period voters mail in ballots.  There is no other way to become known.  The press might write one piece about your race before the primary, but say little about the distinctions between you and your opponents. 

Also you’ll have little space or time to distinguish yourself, so speak almost exclusively about one or two hot-button issues featured prominently on your website and mailings--issues that voters truly care about.

Two years ago Mike McGinn's mailing showed a photo of his opponents together holding up signs at the City Club debate saying “Yes” to the tunnel, while he held up the only sign saying “No”.  More than anything, that one photo mailed to all voters helped boost his vote total over incumbent Greg Nickels in the primary.  He became the outsider bringing change to City Hall – an image he carried to victory in the final election. 

 The tunnel is still a hot issue that will get hotter if the City Attorney prevails in his lawsuit aimed at denying citizens even the right to vote on it.  Polls show voters overwhelmingly prefer alternatives to the tunnel.  That’s why thousands of voters quickly signed a referendum as well as an initiative to get it back on the ballot.  Meanwhile all five incumbents are tunnel boosters and fans of the City Attorney’s litigation. 

What a great opportunity for a challenger to label these incumbents “anti-democratic” and “standing in the way of the voter’s will”, and to speak out against the tunnel. There are other hot-button issues.  They also could decry incumbents continued catering to downtown over neighborhood concerns.  And they could call for limits on runaway growth and unbridled densification in our neighborhoods destroying both our low income housing stock and tree canopy. These are stances that resonate with voters and would distinguish a challenger (or even an incumbent for that matter) as someone who truly stands for something other than the status quo. 

For candidates who’ve already declared and those considering it, are you ready for such a challenge?

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May 2011 Column  "Outside City Hall"  by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox:

Rewriting history of Pacific Place Parking Garage Scandal

The Pacific Place Parking Garage is in the news again.  Readers may recall the mid-90’s scandal surrounding this facility that cost the city $23 million in overpayments to developers, diverted Housing & Urban Development (HUD) funds intended for low-income and minority communities and wrecked the political aspirations of former mayor Norm Rice.

Located in the downtown business district, the 1200-space garage is an elevator ride away from shops at Pacific Place and a stroll across a skybridge to Nordstrom’s. The garage was part of a larger deal that included a complicated land swap allowing Nordstrom’s to trade its old location on 5th for the building it currently occupies--the old Frederick and Nelson Building.  In return Pine Street Developers took control of Nordstrom’s old location and built the garage with city funds.

Mayor Norm Rice’s administration made it all happen by landing a $24 million loan from HUD’s Section 108 Loan Guarantee Program, created to encourage economic development in low-income and minority communities.  They did this by claiming our downtown was “blighted” and the funds were needed to repair the Fredericks building.  Documents later showed that all the building needed were some repairs to its roof estimated at $2000.

In 1996 the Seattle Displacement Coalition and Jorden Brower, a neighborhood activist, filed a complaint with HUD’s Inspector General against Rice's administration for abuse of the HUD 108 loan program.  While the Inspector General did not dispute our facts, Rice was not charged with wrongdoing.  Instead, she wrote that program rules were so general that Rice and other cities applying for these funds could literally create their own definition of blight.  As a result, HUD reformed the program, implementing stricter guidelines for determining blight for all future 108 loan requests.

All this occurred at the very time Rice was identified as the top candidate for Secretary of HUD in Clinton’s cabinet--something we were not aware of when we filed our complaint.  New York’s Andrew Cuomo, also in line for the job, got wind of our complaint somehow and slipped it to his contacts at the NY Times, Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.  The ensuing coverage torpedoed Rice’s bid and Cuomo got the job.  The Seattle Times and P-I, which had barely covered our complaint, then put out banner headlines blaming us for Rice’s downfall.

Six month later, Barbara Serrano and Debra Nelson, two enterprising Seattle Times reporters, wrote a huge investigative piece revealing that the city paid $73 million to buy the garage from the developers when it only cost $50 million to build.  Suddenly, the Times editors were more critical of the deal, giving us some credit for bringing it to the public’s attention--especially the fact that Rice’s staff had concealed the true nature of the deal even from city Councilmembers.    [CC1] 

And now it seems the garage has become an enormous money loser for the city. Since 2008 revenues have failed to cover annual operating expenses or payments on the 30-year loan the city took out to pay for it.  With the annual shortfall rising above $500,000, the city was forced to borrow $1.5 million from its general fund to cover losses.

The garage’s budget woes have put some city bigwigs on the defensive, especially those in the mid-90’s who played a role in its construction.  A month ago, the Seattle Times reiterated its longstanding support for the project.  So did the Downtown Seattle Association’s Matt Griffin in a recent guest column to the Times.  Their argument is that despite the garage’s current financial problems, its construction was instrumental in reviving downtown business and stimulating new tax revenues for the city.

Remember Pine Street Developers, the folks who benefited from the city’s $73 million overpayment for the $50 million garage?  Who was head of PSD?  Yep, it was Matt Griffin whose company is still being paid by the city to manage the garage.

Meanwhile Norm Rice, now president of the Seattle Foundation, at a forum sponsored by the Committee to End Homelessness, told local and regional social service providers that the garage was vital to downtown’s revival and that without it, there would have been much less city revenue available to combat homelessness. 

These claims drip with irony.  Throughout the 90’s over 2000 low-income apartments were torn down to make way for downtown redevelopment, including the parking garage itself.  Homelessness exploded during that era as a direct result.

Furthermore, as we substantiated in our HUD complaint, nearly all of the major downtown projects created in the 90's were already either under construction, or going through permitting before the garage was ever built.

Any way you look at it, the Nordstrom Parking Garage deal was a colossal giveaway to corporate interests.  In its wake the city created a committee to review all public-private “partnerships” of this kind.  As far as we know this body is no longer convened. 

The legacy of the garage is a deep cynicism toward our local government officials that continues to this day – and is regularly reinforced by other more recent boondoggles like the tunnel and Mercer Corridor giveaways.  What have we learned?

Outside City Hall:  Yesler Terrace far from being the touted 'sustainable' project
- reprinted from North Seattle Herald and other Pacific Publishing Newpapers  (June 2011)
      by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

Recently Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) board unanimously approved moving forward with redevelopment of Yesler Terrace.  The 561 units of public housing on the 28-acre site just north of Harborview will be wiped out and replaced with as many as 5000 units of mostly high-end apartments and condominiums.

To date, SHA has committed to replacing only 490 of those public housing units.  That’s less than one in ten of the new units serving the poorest and neediest households in our city.  About a million square feet of office space and 80,000 square feet of retail also are planned. 

While testimony before the vote came from residents opposing the plan and fearing for their futures, a cadre of architects, planners, service providers and nonprofit housing developers spoke in favor.  As if SHA’s mission to serve our city’s poor was a mere afterthought, they spoke effusively about a dense, environmentally sound, walkable community built with LEED certification, green roofs, bioswales and other innovative drainage and energy conservation techniques.  (None of these folks mentioned they were either seeking or already under contract to SHA).

In reality SHA could renovate and modernize the existing buildings at Yesler Terrace for millions less and without loss of any public housing.  Instead the agency justifies demolition and redevelopment under the mantra of “sustainable development.” It’s the same argument city leaders use for upzones for our neighborhoods - that more density is needed to reduce auto miles driven, reduce our carbon footprint and curb global warming.

Something’s wrong here. They build canyons of sun-blocking concrete and glass, eliminate open space, take out the grass, the community garden, the old community center and darn near the entire tree canopy--and then applaud the project’s “sustainability”. 

The term “sustainable development” originated in 1987 from the UN-affiliated “Brundtland Report,” defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Refined at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it also was a call by the Third World for “equitable development” which meant the poorer nations cannot continue to be the rich nations’ “dumping” ground and must share the benefits of future development. 

 

Over the last 15 years, SHA redeveloped High Point, Rainier Vista, Roxbury Village and Holly Park, in the process removing 2000 public housing units and replacing only half in the new developments.  Most of former residents were pushed into the suburbs and forced into long energy inefficient commutes, usually by car/ to jobs in Seattle. The Yesler Terrace plan promises more of the same.  And this is part of a larger trend in which the city's pro-density policies caused the loss of thousands of low-cost units citywide to demolition, condo conversion and speculative sale.

 

Bioswales, green roofs and LEED certification are certainly better than conventional construction practices, but let's be clear:  all that combined will not be enough to offset the environmental negatives associated with this project.

 

Sustainable development is not just about conservation in design and building materials. It is fundamentally a critique of societies that are over-consuming at the expense of low-income and third world peoples, as well as the earth itself.  SHA’s plan for Yesler Terrace is about accommodating their contractors, maximizing return, and gentrification coated in a varnish of green.

6/14/2011 9:48:00 PM
OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Power grab on Roosevelt
Alliance of developers, 'greens' want to wipe out Roosevelt's neighborhood plan
By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter
Columnists

No matter how much density a neighborhood accepts, it will never be enough for some people.

Take the letter sent June 3 from a small group calling itself “Leadership for Great Neighborhoods” (LGN). It urges the mayor to overthrow the democratically developed Roosevelt neighborhood plan in favor of its own vision of “much higher densities” around a rail stop planned for that community.

The Roosevelt neighborhood plan, first adopted in 1999 and reworked over the last several months, is a product of hundreds of hours of community input, created through countless negotiations and compromises with city planners. Residents lobbied hard to relocate a rail station closer to their business district and recently agreed to a modest increase in allowed densities around the station.

The Department of Planning and Development (DPD), in a rare instance, approved the neighborhood’s proposed upzones and, in April, forwarded them to the City Council. Later this summer, the council was expected to adopt these changes.

Now, however, in light of the LGN letter, all that may be tossed out the window. It took less than a week for Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess to express support for LGN’s call for much greater densities in Roosevelt.

For money, legitimization

Authors of the LGN letter want the city to start over with a new “urban design framework” planning process similar to the one now being used for South Lake Union and South Downtown.

Professionals typically lead these planning efforts, with affected citizens occasionally asked to put green “stickies” on butcher paper next to their preferences. Most of the time, however, they’re sitting in chairs and listening to what’s best for them.

It’s not as if the current zoning doesn’t allow significant growth in Roosevelt. There’s capacity for an additional 1,700 housing units on top of the 1,400 that exist there now.

The zoning changes the neighborhood recently supported would increase capacity by 20 percent, to about 2,100 units. That’s six times as great as the Roosevelt neighborhood’s growth target of 350 units — the amount planners say that area must absorb by 2024.

On top of that, planners at both the Puget Sound Regional Council and the city’s DPD say these densities are sufficient to support a rail stop.

But for the so-called Leadership for Great Neighborhoods, that’s just not good enough.

Canyons of sun-blocking concrete and glass must surround every rail stop. Open space, tree canopy, a human scale and other neighborhood values must give way, they say, to curb sprawl and move us toward “regional and climate stability.”

They want us to swallow the notion that “density” is interchangeable with words like “sustainable,” “vibrant” and “walkable,” so then, of course, we can never get enough of it. But it’s just a cover for the same, old, bottom-line thinking.

Most of those signing LGN’s letter are, to one degree or another, linked to development interests, including even a timber company. They include representative from Great City and Futurewise, groups dependent on local developer funding.

Another signer and founder of LGN is a paid lobbyist for Paul Allen’s Vulcan development company.

The Downtown Chamber and Downtown Seattle Association’s also are signatories on the letter.

Another explanation behind the push for dramatic increases in density around current and future rail stops is the growing realization among rail proponents that ridership is falling far short of expectations. There is a growing fear the critics may be right that rail will never draw enough regional ridership to justify its cost.

But should fear become the basis for overriding the rational planning process that produced DPD’s and the Roosevelt neighborhood’s recent proposals? Should we risk loss of more existing lower-density, low-income housing in a vain attempt to legitimize rail?

A message of ‘arrogance’

As we’ve said in the past, there are other regional growth options — starting with a poly-centered approach to growth — that would do a far better job of distributing both the costs and benefits of growth, getting people out of their automobiles and managing and responding to climate change.

There are more environmental problems created rather than solved by over-concentrating growth in Seattle’s neighborhoods.

These folks display a disturbing arrogance. Take a recent quote from Dan Bertolet, one of the LGN letter’s signatories and a vigorous pro-density blogger: “Decisions of regional consequence should not be left entirely up to local residents…. Seattle’s leaders have an obligation to make sure land-use decisions benefit not just the neighborhood but also the greater region and…the entire planet.”

In a more recent posting, he applauded the mayor and City Councilmember Burgess for “defying the will of a neighborhood group,” showing “just the sort of leadership Seattle needs.”

Noblesse obliges: We elite few know best — this is a profoundly anti-democratic message.

The Seattle Displacement Coalition doesn’t always agree with the neighborhoods. In fact, if we had our druthers, the Roosevelt neighborhood plan would require developers to replace, one-for-one, every unit of low-income housing they remove and to include at least 20 percent of their new units at rents affordable to households with incomes below 40 percent of city median income.

But we firmly believe that, over the long haul, and across a range of critical matters affecting this city, the best decisions are those made at the neighborhood level by the people directly affected.

An unholy alliance has formed in recent years bringing local developers and “pseudo enviros” together to destroy this fundamental premise. This is now what we must fight.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization

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Reprinted from the North Seattle Herald and other Pacific Publishing Newspapers  -  July 2011

Outside City Hall:

A look back at the best of the best:  City Councilmembers from our past who truly represented us

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest City Councilmember of all?  For over 35 years, I’ve closely followed the City Council races and listened to hundreds of candidates’ speeches and pledges.  They all tell us they are going to do something for our transportation woes, make city hall more accessible, guarantee jobs and improve public safety.   

How many times has a candidate, if elected, actually lived up to his/her promises?  Too often they renege on campaign promises or even pretend they didn’t make them.  Too many councilmembers think first about how their stance on an issue affects their popularity, not whether that stance is right or wrong for our city.  

If it’s not about vanity, it’s about catering to powerful constituencies and doing what it takes to capture key endorsements and oodles of contributions for future campaigns.  Of course, they’ll tell you they always vote their conscience.

It’s all very depressing because in general this is the prescription for getting elected in a town that chooses its “leaders” by citywide rather than district elections, without a public financing option.  Those who raise the most money from the most corporate backers capture most of our city’s offices.

But among past councilmembers, there have been a few who’ve risen to the top and shown true leadership.  Rather than evaluating incumbents seeking re-election and their challengers, we thought now might be a good time to honor these past great ones in hopes that more of their qualities will rub off on the current crop. 

Michael Hildt

Elected in 1977, he served two terms on Council, then stepped down in 1986, eventually moving to Port Townsend where he served as City Manager until his untimely death in 2001 from cancer at age 59.  When he first ran against and beat a popular left-leaning candidate, we had a low opinion of him as a “nerdy” council staffer.  He promptly convened an all-day summit of housing activists.  From a list of ideas captured on butcher paper that day, he introduced and secured passage of the nation’s first demolition control law, a just-cause eviction law, an anti-abandonment law and a ban on housing discrimination against families with children.  During his tenure as chair of the Housing Committee, Seattle’s first housing ballot measure was approved, raising needed revenues for low-income senior housing.

These were the halcyon days of Seattle’s efforts to preserve low-income housing.  Michael Hildt’s leadership made it possible.  Funny, at the time, we didn’t think he moved Seattle forward fast enough.  In retrospect, no councilmember can hold a candle to his dedication and commitment to the cause of overcoming inequality in our city.   His obituary from 2001 said he was fond of repeating a saying few councilmembers today likely would share: "It's amazing what you can achieve if you don't care who gets the credit." 

Virginia Galle

She served from 1980 to 1989. A former head of the Girl Scouts, with little background in city politics, we held zero hope that she’d be an advocate for community causes.  Once elected, however, she became the consummate populist who routinely championed the cause of neighborhoods and low-income housing over corporate interests.  She led early efforts to curb runaway downtown growth and called for redirection of more resources out to the neighborhoods.  She firmly believed that it was her job to directly voice concerns brought to her by the neighborhoods and by housing advocates. 

With her folksy, maternal presence in Council Chambers, she was the most down-to-earth, honest and non-political councilmember I’ve ever met.  Once after another councilmember called me in to bawl me out and then kicked me out of his office for a flier I’d drawn up critical of his stance on a housing issue, she ran into me in the hallway. Seeing how troubled I was, she gave me a hug, brought me into her office and insisted I have some of her tea and cookies.

Charlie Chong

Coming onto Council in 1996 in a special election for a vacant seat, Charlie served only about one year. He passed up running for a full term to instead run for Mayor – a race he lost.   But in that short time, Charlie was a dynamic neighborhood voice on the Council. Often on the losing end of 8 to 1 votes, that didn’t deter Charlie from letting everyone know when neighborhood concerns were sacrificed to downtown and other special interests.  Charlie stood on principle rather than trying to eke out minor changes to bad bills.  By doing so, he routinely changed the nature of debate and galvanized many into motion. 

His leadership mobilized the community and paved the way for election of future activists such as fellow anti-establishment councilmembers Nick Licata, Judy Nicastro, and Peter Steinbrueck. 

With more space, we could also recognize a few others who didn’t mind bucking the establishment from time to time, including Paul Kraabel (1978-89, and briefly in 1996), Jim Street (1984-95), John Miller (1972-80), Sam Smith (1968-91) and Jeanette Williams (1969-1989).  Kudos to all of these past leaders who helped make this city a little bit more livable and affordable.

 

Reprinted from the August 3rd 2011 edition of Pacific Publishing Neighborhood Newspapers including the North Seattle Herald.

Call your Councilmembers Now!  Tell them you do not favor placing a 20-year $80 dollar increase in our car tab fees on the Fall ballot!

- Most of the dollars WILL NOT be used to cover our city's backlog of critical bridge and road repairs and likely will compete directly with the County's two year 20 dollar car tab increase on the November ballot which is needed to maintain area bus service and the Families and Education Levy!  Tell them NO to a 20-year $80 dollar increase - with few built-in controls on how that money will be spent

- Keep it off the ballot this year, replace the current advisory committee stacked with downtown and development interests, make sure most of the dollars go to critical bridge and road repairs, cut the amount and length of it in half, and match amounts this will raise with developer impact fees to so developers pay their fair share!

- By Carolee Colter and John V. Fox 

On August 16th, Seattleites (we hope) will vote to “reject” the referendum authorizing the City Council to move forward with the waterfront tunnel.  But there is another, not-so-publicized, critically important transportation decision to be made this month.   

Our City Council must decide before the 16th whether to put an annual $80 car tab fee on the November ballot.  This is on top of the $20 fee that Council recently voted to extend through 2013. King County also is considering adding yet another $20 dollars.  As an example of the impact, John’s car tabs were $55 in 2009, went to $75 in 2010 and will be $175 if both county and city increases are adopted, a 318% increase. 

The county fee has merit because it will help maintain city and county bus service.  Funny how our bus system goes begging while light rail gets tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.  Even when completed, light rail at best will reach only 3-5% of the region’s commuters whereas buses serve tens of thousands more than rail far more cost effectively. 

City Council’s recent extension of the current $20 annual increase will raise an additional $7 million annually for bridge, road, sidewalk, and other transportation needs. This fee increase seems justified given Seattle’s enormous repair backlog of needs and must be renewed in two years.   

But the proposal planned to come before the voters in November would add another $80 dollars to our license tab fees for 20 years

Our objections to this plan:

Our recommendation to Council: 

1.      Delay this referendum, and create a new advisory committee with representation from low-income working people, small business and freight haulers.

2.      Start from the premise that any tab increase must be matched by developer impact fees and re-establishment of the downtown parking tax.

3.      Include a special category for bridge repairs with a large chunk committed for this purpose, and separate from an equally large chunk earmarked for basic maintenance of roads. 

4.      Include a chunk for pedestrian, bikes, and sidewalks but make sure most goes to neighborhoods that need (and want) it.

5.      Break into two categories the portion of funds dedicated to mass transit, between rail/streetcars and buses/carpools/vanpools.  Much more should go to the latter category because it serves more in-city riders, more cost effectively.  That’s Sound Transit’s job – wasting transit dollars on rail.

Some proponents of the $80 fee say it’s no great hardship – the cost of a couple of frappucinos each month.  Maybe $80 by itself doesn’t seem like much to some, but consider that it comes on top of a veritable truckload of special levies, new tolls, B&O tax on small business and the third highest sales tax in the nation.

What we object to most is that our leaders drain our general fund for their pet projects like Mercer and streetcars, then tap use of these regressive add-ons for the basics. We get socked extra for frills that fundamentally only benefit developers.  The Council won’t even consider impact fees and last year eliminated the office head tax – tools that helped ensure developers at least pay their share.   

Call the Council now and tell them ‘No’ to the $80 car tab increase.

 

Reprinted from Sept. 2011 Outside City Hall Column:

Report showing job growth in SLU greatly exaggerated!  Lets' get real!

Vulcan Inc., Paul Allen’s development company, recently celebrated 10 years of activity in South Lake Union (SLU). 

At the party, quotes were posted on large bulletin boards from us and former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck questioning the merit of pouring so much public money into SLU. Next to our quotes were graphs from a recent report alleging that 13,647 jobs have been added in South Lake Union since 2004, exceeding initial predictions of 8,500 to 10,000 jobs. 

Laughs were shared all around, apparently directed at us, and I guess we’re supposed to feel embarrassed. 

That recent report, it turns out, was authored by Michael Mann and Paul Sommers. Mann now runs a planning and consultant agency but, until 2008, was head of the Mayor Greg Nickels administration’s “South Lake Union Agenda.” In that role, he worked with Vulcan to promote biotech development in SLU and ensure that hundreds of millions of our city tax dollars went into making that agenda happen. 

Sommers, an economics professor at Seattle University and occasional consultant for the biotech industry, was commissioned by Nickels back in 2004 to create the initial report projecting that 8,500-to-10,000-job increase by 2010.

The Mann/Sommers report argues that the creation of 13,647 new jobs has more than paid off the city’s investment. Columnists for Publicola, Crosscut and The Seattle Times all uncritically accepted these numbers.

But hold on a minute. Here are the numbers we’ve just obtained from the Puget Sound Regional Council’s (PSRC) Employment Data specialists. 

Since 2000, they’ve regularly updated job gains and losses for each of the region’s “urban growth centers,” including SLU. Their figures come directly from the quarterly data on employment and wages that employers must, by law, provide to Washington State Employment Security Department. Even part-time and temporary jobs are factored in. You simply can’t get more accurate than those numbers.

Over the decade, during the era SLU was described as the new biotech and job growth center of the region, we actually saw an overall drop in employment, with a paltry gain of 548 jobs between 2004 and 2010 — a far cry from the Mann/Sommers claim of 13,647.

Getting those numbers

Why the discrepancy? To get that figure of 13,647, Mann and Sommers took the total new square footage added in SLU over the period, then used a standard jobs multiplier. 

But they conveniently failed to subtract the number of jobs lost over the same period, mostly blue-collar jobs with the warehouses, shops, light industry, retail, low-income housing and other longtime uses removed often as a direct result of Vulcan’s redevelopment.

Mann and Sommers also expanded their area of study beyond the boundaries of how SLU is normally defined to include new developments not truly in the neighborhood at all. 

On top of that, they failed to take into account vacancy rates in those new developments running as high as 40 percent over their period of study. You can’t have new jobs if the space isn’t occupied. 

Also, Mann and Sommers don’t even mention that a significant portion of new jobs in SLU are simply jobs that have relocated from other parts of the city —including the relocation of more than 2,000 Amazon jobs from Beacon Hill and downtown. 

On the basis of this alleged net gain, Mann and Sommers then calculate what they say is a substantial increase of millions in new tax revenues for the city. 

To be sure, these new developments have produced new tax revenues, but a lot of the gain is offset by tax losses due to removal of blue-collar jobs and businesses in the area, as well as tax losses in neighborhoods that lost businesses relocating to SLU.

From revenues to city costs

Our biggest criticism of the report is that it completely ignores the staggering cost to taxpayers: the amount of state, local and federal dollars poured into SLU for very little return in terms of jobs or tax revenues. 

When you factor state subsidies into the equation for the Mercer Corridor, the SLU streetcar, undergrounding and networking the area to prevent electrical interruptions, a planned new electrical substation, improvements to the existing Broad Street substation, Terry Avenue improvements, a new waterfront park — these costs approach $1 billion.

The federal government says we should expect one job to be created for every $15,000 in public subsidy. Even if you assume SLU did generate those 13,647 jobs, that translates into $73,000 per job. 

Just think what we could have done if we had taken that $1 billion and put it into job creation where it was needed in Southeast Seattle to serve struggling communities of color, or to help shore up good, old, working-class jobs in the Duwamish area or to support small businesses often described as the true wellspring of job growth for ailing cities. 

Let’s hope that, in the future, there is a more careful and thoughtful press scrutiny of “glowing” reports coming out of South Lake Union, especially when those reports come from interests that will reap the benefits while we’re stuck with the costs.

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October 2011 Outside City Hall Column reprinted from Pacific Publishing Newspapers

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” 

I read a comment posted in response to one of our columns from someone saying, “John Fox must be the angriest man in the world”.  After a good laugh I got to thinking the writer must be referring to the fact that our columns are always critical of city policy.  Don’t we ever have anything positive to say?  Well, no, not often when it comes to the antics of our current crop of elected city officials.

Remember that epithet hurled by Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President, at critics of that administration as “nattering nabobs of negativism”?  And remember that fictional news broadcaster Howard Beale from “Network,” who told a rapt nation of viewers “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”?

As your local “angry” nattering nabobs of negativism, perhaps its time we really unleashed our inner crank. 

For starters, how can the University of Washington plead poverty to legislators year after year in Olympia, cut programs, layoff teachers and janitors, jack up tuition, yet simultaneously embark upon a building boom? Construction cranes dot campus and spill over into the surrounding community. They’ve demolished trees and low-income housing, displaced small businesses, and run roughshod through the district with a couple of billion dollars worth of new offices, classrooms, and dorms, under construction or planned. And that doesn’t include over $250 million for stadium renovation, a new track oval, and baseball field improvements.

Yet UW lobbyists are continually begging legislators for more money for “higher education”.  Of course they’ll say, “that pot of money to build new facilities is separate. Our big donors want their names engraved on a new building and won’t pay for operations, faculty, or scholarships.”

If I were a state legislator I’d kick their butts out the door and demand a full accounting of the funding going into those improvements, what they’re displacing, and who’s benefiting from the contracts.  And I’d figure out a way to redirect those monies into guaranteeing an affordable education for all – and mitigating the UW’s devastatingly negative impact on the U-District.

And what about those darn red light cameras?  Let’s face it. There are no definitive studies that demonstrate they improve driver safety and they barely raise enough in fines to cover their cost.

Then there are those unconscionably expensive parking meters – the ones you can’t even feed a few coins for extra time after you’ve paid.  And here comes variable tolling for the new tunnel and for one, maybe both, floating bridges.  Is there no limit on how far are our electeds will go to heap one regressive and unpredictable fee and tax upon another?

As one state civil engineer described it, “we intend to vary tolls dynamically in response to real-time traffic conditions in order to provide a superior free-flow travel service to the users of the toll lanes while maximizing the freeway’s throughput. “  Perhaps its time to free flow this guy right out of town.

And what about the city’s plan to jack up our water rates by 25% making them “among the highest in the nation”.  Of course they’re telling us they have no choice.  That’s some reward for all the conserving we’ve been doing.  Oh, wait, they heard us.  They’re raising rates by “only” 23%!  Nearly every city in the region asks developers to share these costs with impact fees, but not here in developer-friendly Seattle where we give them multi-million dollar tax breaks.

While we’re at it, if I hear one more official tell me that this or that action is a “win-win” for everyone just before he or she votes to give away the farm or hand over more of our tax dollars to another special interest, well, we just might have to scream. 

And did you see the new plans for apartments in the lot north of the football stadium and adjacent to King Street station?  In addition to a wall of glass towers blocking views of downtown from the two stadiums that fans and sportscasters love to rave about, those buildings cut off the International District.  Combined with planned upzones surrounding Pioneer Square, those two historical districts will soon be dwarfed. 

No more picturesque views from the ferry of our skyline, either.  With the viaduct coming down and a generically designed waterfront in the works, soon they’ll be removing our historic piers for over-water condos.  Our skyline will look more like “fortress Seattle” with the little tips of the Space Needle, Smith Tower, and King Street Station poking through like lonely flowers in a weed patch.

Whew!  That rant really wore us out.  Some of what we’ve said above was a bit tongue-in-cheek.  On the other hand it reflects what we often hear in conversations with many longtime Seattleites, who really feel the livability, affordability and human scale of our great city and its neighborhoods is being tossed away.

Oh, heck, let’s all next Friday at 11pm do what Howard Beale advised - open our windows and yell, ”We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore!”

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Outside City Hall: November 2011 Edition Reprinted from Pacific Publishing Neighborhood Newspapers

"McGinn's plans for streetcar network are a colossal waste of city's limited transportation dollars"

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about an expanded streetcar network – too much as far as we’re concerned. 

Mayor McGinn envisions at least five lines—one a connector from Westlake to Pioneer Square and another four running into downtown from Ballard, the University District, Capitol Hill and Queen Anne. That’s in addition to the existing 1.3-mile long South Lake Union Streetcar (or “trolley” giving it the acronym “SLUT”) and one soon to be built running through First Hill.

There’s also talk of another line somehow connecting SLU and First Hill streetcars even though that already will occur when light rail line is extended to Capitol Hill.

Back in 2008 City Council approved a resolution to develop a “concept” for an expanded streetcar network.  Other than setting up a website to cheerlead for it, the city has done little since then to promote the idea.

That may soon change. The Mayor’s 2012 budget proposes committing $1.5 million (from sale of city land at Magnuson Park) for study and design of a streetcar network. And he announced he’d received $900,000 in federal funds for that purpose.  And Proposition 1, the $60 car tab measure, if approved by voters, would commit $18 million to streetcar planning and design as well. 

So just who is behind the big push for streetcars?  There certainly isn’t a groundswell of interest coming from the public.  A recent poll asked Seattle residents what they thought were the city’s most pressing transportation needs.  From a list of 14 possible priorities, bridge and street repairs were ranked highest by 68 and 69 percent of respondents respectively.  Streetcars came in dead last mentioned by only 26%. 

Seattle faces a backlog of over $600 million in street repairs, $800 million for bridge repairs, and 1200 city blocks without even sidewalks.  At current rates of annual spending, we’ll clean up that backlog of bridge and road repairs in, oh, three to four decades.  And given how little we’re spending for new sidewalks, the city says in about 800 years, we’ll overcome that 1200-block shortfall.

So why the heck are our elected officials spending what precious few dollars we have studying streetcar expansion? 

And just what would be the total cost – god help us – if we ever did launch these new streetcar systems? Here are some numbers culled from a recent presentation by a group of paid consultants and city planners to City Council:

Ballard to Downtown:  $237 million

Capitol Hill to Downtown:  $81 million

Queen Anne to Downtown:  $121 million

Westlake to Pioneer Square:  $74 million

University District to Downtown:  $253 million

Total cost:  $856 million. 

What’s more--each of these routes are now covered by an existing network of buses.  Buses that operate at less than half the cost of streetcars per mile of service and don’t require enormous capital outlays for track.

Now lets take a closer look at the actual performance of the streetcar we’ve currently got in South Lake Union.  When Vulcan Inc (Paul Allen’s development company) and Mayor Nickels first hyped the SLUT in 2004, construction costs were projected at $45 million.  Two years after it was up and running (December, 2009), Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times reported actual costs of over $56 million.  Add another one million to that for recent improvements to SLUT’s Westlake stop.

In May of 2009 the city projected daily ridership to rise to 2590 in 2010 and to 3820 in 2011. Actual daily ridership in 2010 averaged 1800 and in this year may reach 2400.  By comparison, at least four of the 20 bus routes running through SLU attract 5000-8000 daily riders.  Operating costs for those buses run 30-40 % below streetcar costs.  Ironic when you consider that under an agreement with METRO, Seattle sacrificed over 9000 bus service hours in return for METRO covering 75% of streetcar operating costs.

In 2005 planners projected annual operating costs of $1.5 million.  Actual annual costs now exceed $2.5 million. Farebox revenues and the sale of ads on SLUT streetcars and at stops were expected to bring in more than enough revenue to cover these costs.  But annual farebox revenues are one-fifth of $500,000 projected and the sale of ads is less than half the $500,000 projected.  The operating fund is now $3.5 million in the red and that’s despite a $3.5 million loan floated by the city.  The city has extended the loan twice and soon will accumulate a million in interest payments (coming right out of the general fund) on top of that.

No wonder the Seattle Times editors called the SLUT an “unnecessary trinket”, “not mainly a transportation investment” but more about “jazzing up a neighborhood so that more people will want to move and invest there.”  

And now the Mayor and come Councilmembers want to spend as much as $20 million to begin planning for a billion dollar streetcar network?

We can’t afford to fix what we have and our electeds want to launch entire new systems.  It only serves to demonstrate just how out of touch our city leaders are with the realities and needs facing this city.

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Outside City Hall: January 2012 Edition Reprinted from Pacific Publishing Neighborhood Newspapers

Council's decision on Roosevelt rezone spells end to neighborhood planning

- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

Councilmember Richard Conlin talks about being socially and environmentally responsible, and responsive to neighborhoods.  Yet when he gets around to voting, he always seems to wind up in the same place – doing whatever large developers want.  Conlin’s way will be on display January 17th when the full council votes on the Roosevelt neighborhood upzones. 

In the Land Use Committee last month, Councilmembers Clark, Burgess, Bagshaw, O'Brien, and Rasmussen chose to ignore the Roosevelt neighborhood's recommendation to limit densities and heights to 40' on three blocks immediately south of Roosevelt High School. Conlin has indicated he will join the majority when the full council votes, making it a virtual certainty that even greater densities and 65-foot heights will be imposed on these blocks.   

Under existing zoning, the entire Roosevelt neighborhood is currently zoned for six times the capacity needed to accommodate its 20-year 2024 residential growth targets, and has reached 64 percent of that target in just seven years.  Despite concerns over a lack of adequate public infrastructure to support rapid growth and fears it would overwhelm the character and affordability of their neighborhood, residents agreed to accept still more density in the form of several upzones around their planned rail stop. 

Neighbors asked for one thing in return--reasonable limits on height, scale, and design of the blocks immediately south of Roosevelt High School in order to protect the "heart and soul" of the community.  As one resident eloquently stated in her testimony to councilmembers, "This really isn't a debate over density or shouldn't be since the neighborhood clearly has demonstrated its willingness to accept a lot more of it." 

Instead this is about honoring agreements between residents and city planners forged over years of neighborhood planning involving hundreds of hours of volunteer time.  And it’s about ensuring a scale of development adjacent to the school that would not block views, tower over or overwhelm the school at the heart of that community. 

But Conlin's recent mailer explaining his support for higher densities on the high school blocks ignores all that. First he trivializes the role of neighbors in the planning process saying they only “help shape decisions”.  On the contrary, neighborhood planning is a long recognized key element of the comprehensive plan.   

In every discretionary and “quasi-judicial” land use decision, our Hearings Examiner and Council are required to give substantial legal weight to the community position before granting upzones or other discretionary land use decisions.  Imperiously, Conlin claims the Council’s only mistake was not making it clear at the outset of community discussions in 2005 that greater heights and densities would be imposed on those blocks.   

Conlin also states that, “overheated rhetoric polarized the issue unnecessarily."  If anyone did any polarizing, it was Mayor McGinn with his decision last May to override his own planners and the community and favor the greater heights for the high school blocks sought by a few pro-density zealots and development interests.  Conlin and the other five councilmembers upcoming vote fuels the fire.  

Under our legal system, Conlin claims the city lacked the tools to address effectively the issues associated with slumlord Drake Sisley's properties
and now must essentially bow to his plans for redevelopment of those three blocks south of the high school.  Wrong again.  Takings law 
allows our Council to set design, setback, and other siting criteria as easily at densities of 40 or 65 feet or whatever, so long as owners are 
allowed a “reasonable,” not “maximum,” return.
 
It was nice that our Housing, Building and Maintenance Codes were strengthened recently to address nuisance properties but 
the city has always retained authority to order repair or removal of structures violating health and safety standards.  The city also 
can seek a court appointed receiver to manage and clean up blighted properties charging costs to owners.  And state law gives
cities clear authority to seek condemnation and take ownership of such properties – power unfortunately it’s only willing to use
 on behalf of corporate developers against small businesses like those displaced in South Lake Union for a streetcar barn and 
widening Mercer Corridor.

Finally, Conlin says Roosevelt got 95 percent of what it wanted even with the higher densities south of the school so it’s really an affirmation of neighborhood planning. No, it’s a naked political bow to development interests, camouflaged in pseudo-“green” pro-density planning rhetoric.

Incumbent councilmembers are routinely reelected in this town and increasingly take on an air of “I don’t care, I don’t have to.”  Their campaigns are heavily financed from developer and out-of-town contributions, so is it any surprise that the neighborhoods are increasingly marginalized as signaled by this vote?

It should send a clear message to all of us – not to give up, but to fight all the harder and to look to other strategies besides these co-optive and no longer legitimate forms of structured neighborhood planning.  Legal challenges and appeals have proven effective when neighborhoods can afford them or, perhaps, it’s time for another attempt at securing election of our councilmembers by district. Taking a lesson from the Occupy Movement, maybe it’s time to “Occupy City Hall”. 

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Outside City Hall: February 2012 Edition Reprinted from Pacific Publishing Neighborhood Newspapers

"Why we need District Elections in Seattle"

- Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

Seattle’s citizens have become strangers in their own land, increasingly ignored and treated as outsiders at City Hall by staff and leaders supposedly elected to serve them. That’s certainly our impression informed by over 35 plus years of involvement in Seattle politics. 

Take for example, the Council’s failed attempt to secure voter approval of an increase in our car tabs by $60.  Rather than heed voters’ overwhelming rejection of the measure, City Councilmembers have been lobbying in Olympia to take away a state requirement that such tax increases be brought before voters at all.  And we’ve heard our Mayor is still fixated on prioritizing city funds for extension of Paul Allen’s streetcar over repair of our ailing roads and bridges.

Whether it’s rejection of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Plan, or extending $70 million in “Multi-Family Tax Breaks” to a handful of large developers, Councilmembers are more concerned about finding a "developer's sweet spot" than meeting our city’s needs.

Such unresponsiveness is directly linked to how we elect our Councilmembers through citywide at-large elections, and the power of incumbency under that system. 

It’s about money.  If you’re a challenger in an at-large election, you have to somehow reach the city’s 370,000 voters.  At best, the press may write a paragraph about you in a story on the race before the primary.  Since there’s no way to doorbell all those voters, to get your message out you must secure enough in contributions for at least two mailings.   

Even if you only mail to 75,000 or so “regular” voters, two mailings will run you about $60,000.  Add to that the cost of hiring a campaign manager, yard signs, website, an office, phones, other campaign expenses and you’ve spent easily $80,000 and that’s just to give you a fighting chance to make it to the final election.  Expect to spend again that much, if not more, by November! 

Meanwhile, incumbents can hold a few fundraisers, invite their corporate friends, and raise a $100,000 in the blink of an eye.   

The city’s election website shows that incumbents receive $250,000 to $300,000 per campaign.  About 40 percent comes either from downtown or out-of-town interests, plus individual contributors directly affiliated with these elites. 

That’s why incumbents are routinely re-elected in this town and why challengers, especially those representing neighborhood interests, small businesses, tenants and poor people, have such a hard time getting elected.  

So how can we re-level the playing field and make government once again accountable to its citizens?  By moving to a system of district elections.   

Dividing the city into at least six or seven discrete geographic districts of no more than 50,000 to 60,000 voters each, would make it possible for a challenger to reach all the voters with his or her message. Doorbelling with volunteers, running ads in neighborhood blogs and newspapers, holding signs on street corners, winning endorsements of key neighborhood figures and organizations, and even sending out mailings – all that becomes doable and affordable under a district system.  

Seattle is one of the few large US cities that don’t elect Councilmembers by district.  Three times in the last 40 years, Seattle voters rejected district elections, though the last time was nearly a decade ago and by a narrow margin.  Critics have successfully exploited claims that representation by geographic area encourages cronyism and Chicago-style patronage.   Or that regional issues – like siting waste facilities, prisons, a light rail line, or meeting other area-wide needs--won’t get addressed.    

Yet our county council is elected by district as are most all the other small and large cities in our region, and though on rare occasions graft is discovered there, it’s never been traced to district elections.  

As for critical region-wide decisions, we’d argue that they’re best made through normal give-and-take negotiation with representatives from each district sitting at the table.  That way both the costs and benefits are more truly evaluated and equitably distributed.  Under Seattle’s at-large system, only the costs get distributed citywide while most of the benefits go to special interests and downtown. 

While we prefer election of all Councilmembers by district, one way to assuage critics would be to create a “mixed system”.  We’d elect six or seven Councilmembers by district and two or three “at-large” to ensure a citywide perspective. 

Our current electeds certainly won’t adopt either system voluntarily.  It will have to be done by initiative.  It also must take the form of an amendment to the City Charter and as such can only be brought to voters during a regular local election cycle meaning not until 2013.  But that should give citizens ample time to collect the required 20,000-30,000 signatures to get on the ballot.  

No, development interests don't always get 100 percent of what they want, just most of the time.  And indeed, it’s a tribute to the continued hard work of citizens and neighborhood groups when they do prevail in such a climate.  But if we’re serious about returning city government to our neighborhoods and to our citizens, there’s no time like the present to get started on district elections!   

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Outside City Hall:  March 14, 2012 Reprinted from "Seattle City Living" neighborhood newspapers
by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

"Homelessness has once cause: the loss of low income housing"

In January, over 800 volunteers fanned out over Seattle-King County to count the homeless.  Almost 2600 people were found without shelter sleeping under bridges, in greenbelts and cars among other places.

Since an accurate count is impossible, a rule of thumb is to multiply that 2600 by two, then add 6000 – the number of shelter beds occupied on any given night - and it means we now have in our county more than 11,000 homeless.

In spite of a “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness,” a combined city-county outlay above $50 million annually, and over 50 programs (and easily 2000 staff) providing shelter, counseling, case management and services, the number of homeless continues its steady climb upward.

Why, despite such extraordinary effort and expenditure, does the problem continue to grow?

Most “homeless experts” point to multiple factors--mental illness, addiction, poverty, foreclosure, criminal record, bankruptcy, disability, family discord.   They paint a portrait of an intractable problem.

Mental illness, addiction, poverty, etc., are not causes.  These are conditions that make certain groups more vulnerable to homelessness.  If anything, they are conditions exacerbated, if not actually resulting from, the loss of one’s home.  For those on the edge, the loss of housing pushes them over it.

Speaking of their "pathologies," defining them as "the underclass," allows us to think of the homeless as “others,” not like us.  This scapegoating winds up legitimizing policies of containment and social control and policing, instead of forcing us to look inward at ourselves and the actions of our locally elected leaders whose policies continue to cause a dramatic loss of affordable housing.

Homelessness has not always been with us--that assumption is wrong and self-fulfilling.  The term was not even coined until about 30 years ago.  Before that, the problem affected a relative few and was confined to downtowns and traditional skid rows.  Homelessness exploded with the dramatic loss of single-room-occupancy units in downtown cores--over a million and a half in the early 80’s nationwide.

In Seattle the 1960 census recorded a stock of over 25,000 low-income units in our downtown core.  By 1980 it had fallen to 10,000, with another 4000 lost by 1985.  Today there are less than 6000 such units in the core.  This loss was a direct result of decisions by elected officials to promote office, retail, and condominium development without regard for the impact on our housing stock.   Pushed by housing and homeless advocates, our city leaders did commit about $100 million in the 80’s and 90’s to replace some of that housing, but losses far outweighed the number of subsidized units created.

This situation persists today.  For every unit of subsidized housing our city creates, we lose three to four times that number to redevelopment and gentrification.  Last year alone, Seattle lost about 900 housing units to demolition.  As the stock fell, rents on 1000 remaining rentals were pushed up above low-income thresholds.   Another 1000 were lost due to developers buying and selling apartment buildings and the new owners raising rents to cover financing costs.   Compare that to the 400 new subsidized units our city built over the same period using limited public revenues.

A countywide study estimates 70,000 tenant households in King County with incomes below 30% of area median but only 300 privately owned rental units offered at rent levels affordable to that group. Yes, federal state and local budget cuts have exacerbated the situation, but at its core, homelessness is due to the ongoing rapid loss of low-cost units.

Yes, there also is a need for redistributive taxation and more funding for general assistance, health care, job training, shelter and more low income housing.  At the same time, as the social service and shelter network grows, funded by our tax dollars, we've institutionalized our response to the problem.  Now there are hundreds of jobs and dozens of programs premised off the notion that homelessness will always be with us.  This runs the risk of becoming a self-perpetuating system.

Those in the service system have an obligation to go beyond advocating for funding for their programs, and advocate to change the conditions that give rise to homelessness in the first place. We all must demand our city officials take actions to stem the continuing loss of low-income housing in our communities.

That means implementing policies that stop developers from destroying what’s left of our low income housing stock and/or ensuring that when it does occur, they pay 100 percent of the cost of replacing those units and at comparable price.  It's time developers paid their fair share. Instead our city leaders are rewarding bad behavior by granting them upzones and tens of millions in “multi- family tax exemptions”.

Getting our local private and public elites to do the right thing is a political question.  It’s not a matter of planning or fine-tuning techniques of service delivery.  And do we really need to “count” the homeless to know there’s a deepening human crisis? 

If only half the 800 volunteers instead marched on City Hall and sat in their offices to demand change, that could make a real difference. 

 

Outside City Hall: density does not bring affordability - only higher housing costs, homelessness and displacement
May 2012

There's been a lot of blogging and news articles of late on the topic of density and how much Seattleites are willing to and should accept.  Contrary to the image some are pushing of marauding neighbors with pitchforks stymieing all growth, recent data obtained from City Hall indicates otherwise.  In just seven years, 2005-2011, the city has reached 73 percent of its 20-year (2024) regionally set residential growth target. (More about this report,  click here.) In fact, we are approaching or exceeding record levels of new construction in many of our neighborhoods.  Construction cranes dominate Seattle's skyline like "War of the Worlds" aliens.  And like the movie, those cranes and the bulldozers clawing away in their shadow are altering our landscape just about as effectively. 
 

Seattle's urban streams, open space, tree canopy, human scale, and diverse physical form is under siege to redevelopment and more is on the way in the wake of the pell-mell push for regulatory reform, master permitting, upzones, and "pedestrian friendly" development (a misnomer if there ever was one).  Somehow though, it's not enough for the pro-density crowd who say we need still more growth in order to "save the environment".  Effectively, they're telling us that we must destroy our urban village (here in Seattle) in order to save the "global village" (everywhere else but Seattle).  This is rank hypocrisy as we've described in several previous columns. Excessive densities concentrated in Seattle (as opposed to a "poly-centered" approach to regional growth) is not sound environmental policy.  More of our views on this are here: http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/outsidetwo.htm#Outside City Hall July 2010:  A response to a recent Publicola column pushing still more highrise office  and here: (scroll down to Feb 2010 article: http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/outsidetwo.htm#Reprinted from Feb 1, 2011 Edition of North  )
 

For our most recent column however (reprinted below from the last issue of City Living Pacific Publishing neighborhood papers), we're focusing on another canard that pro-density forces have factored into the debate - the claim that by simply unleashing the market, adding unlimited densities, it will produce more affordable housing.  This isn't a new argument. It rears its head every decade or so, and then soon it's dismissed by all but the most zealous developers and freshman economics majors. 
 

Development interests never could get much traction making this "trickle down" argument by themselves because it's so shamelessly self serving.  But now that density has a "higher purpose"- to save the environment - the affordable housing we're gonna get is the icing on the cake.  Effectively they've teamed up the "pseudo-enviro's" (who some say are really one and the same) and together they're advancing the affordability argument to bolster their pro-density agenda. Our column reprinted below takes aim at this aspect of their case.   (This intro by John V. Fox alone)
 

Outside City Hall Column Begins here by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox (May 2013 City Living):

Econ 101 textbooks offer a simple equation: More supply drives down prices. The pro-density argument to legitimize runaway growth here in Seattle is that increasing the supply of market-rate units will lower housing prices and guarantee a larger stock of affordable housing. 

That’s the theory. But what does empirical experience in Seattle tell us? 

For the last 35 years, since Seattle came out of its mid-1970s economic bust, periods of accelerated residential development have always directly coincided with more demolition of low-income housing, higher rents, lower vacancy rates, longer waiting lists for subsidized housing, increasing levels of homelessness and higher housing costs for all Seattleites. Each successive wave of growth leaves in its wake a growing divide between rich and poor, white and non-white in our city.

So how does the simple economic maxim of “more supply lowers prices” get turned completely on its ear? In a built-up urban environment, there’s less and less vacant land over time, and the consequence of new development means removal of the existing supply of lower-density housing. Housing that’s older, non-debt-supported and affordable gives way to new, more expensive housing.

 Following the numbers

Here are some real numbers from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and updated through March 2012, which highlight our point. Since 2005, more than 5,000 units of housing have been torn down to make way for new residential construction. Conservatively, 3,000 of those 5,000 units that were lost served the city’s poorest renters. (Our surveys over the years of tenants in buildings facing the wrecking ball indicate that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of these units were low-income rentals.) 

As for the new units that replaced this lost housing, they’re priced hundreds of dollars above what most low-income people could afford — or even what the average wage earner or tenant in Seattle could afford. 

Most new construction might provide, for example, a studio for $1,100 a month or $1,500 for a one-bedroom. The average Seattle wage earner makes about $43,000 a year and, to spend no more than 30 percent of income on housing, needs a rental at $1,075 a month. The average tenant earns around $39,000 and needs a rental below $975.

Those with incomes below 40 percent of the median, who need a rental below $700 to $800 a month, face a conspicuous shortfall. According to the King County Housing Benchmarks report, in Seattle, there are 40,000 households whose income falls below that threshold, but only 10,000 units at rents affordable to this group. In all of King County, there are some 70,000 households whose incomes are below 30 percent of area median but only 300 (you read that right) rentals affordable to that group. Consequently, there’s a long waiting list for subsidized housing. 

More housing development coincides with more demolition of existing low-income housing. The expensive stuff that gets built adds to our total supply. In fact, since 2005, Seattle has built more than 35,000 new units and reached over 70 percent of its 20-year growth targets. 

But even at this level of growth, the increased inventory has not reduced prices — in fact, it’s just the opposite. Prices fall when development rates fall, when the number of demolitions falls. Vacancy rates fall at these times, as well. So does homelessness. So do the waiting lists for public housing

New construction (and upzones designed to stimulate higher rates of new construction) also has the effect of driving up surrounding property values, and the resulting higher taxes get passed on in the form of higher rents. This encourages a more rapid turnover of surrounding properties — buying and selling and refinancing of existing units — which also serves to drive rents up on surrounding properties. 

 Saving lower-priced rentals

No matter how much new construction we see in Seattle, it’s never enough to offset rising demand accompanying the influx of newcomers attracted to work in those shiny, new downtown and South Lake Union office towers. And we only recently upzoned downtown for another 17 million square feet of office space to ensure an influx of new workers who will raise demand even more.

If our concern really is affordable housing, our local government should intervene to slow growth down, rather than stoking the flames of rapid growth through upzones. 

And what growth does occur should be preceded with mechanisms that prevent removal of existing, lower-priced units and that promote in-fill over demolition. 

And when this cannot be done, let’s require developers to replace one-for-one what they remove, at comparable price. 

More proactively, our city should acquire and purchase existing, lower-priced rentals before they are lost to the wrecking ball or before speculation drives rents above low-income thresholds, and transferring these buildings to nonprofit ownership, cooperatives and land trusts. Slowing growth down and reducing speculative pressure on existing units gives government more time to do this.

Simply unleashing the forces of the market by promoting more density through upzoning has only led to more displacement, higher housing costs and more inequality and human suffering in our community. And those — especially elected officials — who promote added density and rely on the myth of supply-and-demand to justify it, are guilty of abetting these trends.
 

(to reach us, email us at this address or call 206-632-0668 or check out our website)

 

Proposed "TIF" law would rob city's tax base for special interests

by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox reprinted from June 2012 edition of City Living neighborhood newspapers 

Tax Increment Financing.  Ever heard of it?  “TIF” as it has come to be called may be headed soon to your community, unless citizen groups organize to block it during the next session of the Washington State Legislature. 

 

What’s the problem?  TIF threatens to drain millions from already shortchanged municipal budgets and, like many of the worst urban planning schemes we’ve seen of late, it’s being promoted under the banner of “Transit Oriented Development”. 

 

So what the heck is TIF?  If allowed by state law, a city can draw boundaries to create a special district of almost any size.  The city then sells bonds to pay for “public works” projects in that area in the hope that this will stimulate economic growth that otherwise would not occur.  Thereafter, sometimes for 20-30 years, all additional property tax revenues (the increment) accompanying new growth in that district are used to pay off the bonds. This is why boosters claim that TIF projects “pay for themselves.” 

 

That’s the theory anyway, but the reality is quite different. In states that allow it, TIF has been used to divert hundreds of millions of the future tax dollars for such things as sports arenas, strip malls, downtown development, and other big-ticket special interest projects. 

 

This happens because TIF laws generally do not contain adequate limitations restricting use of TIF to “brown”, blighted, or deteriorated areas, nor are they tailored to ensure that low-income people and small businesses are the primary beneficiaries. 

 

More often TIF gets used in areas where high levels of growth are already anticipated, where there’s confidence that enough new tax revenues will be generated in future years to pay off the bonds that were floated for the TIF improvements in the first place.  And these of course are the areas with powerful interests able to push projects that serve them. 

 

By funding projects where growth is expected to occur anyway, instead of creating new economic activity and new jobs where they didn’t exist before, TIF projects just become another form of corporate welfare. 

 

Tax revenues that otherwise would have gone into the general fund for police, roads, bridges, and human services to the benefit of the whole city including poorer neighborhoods – instead are captured for big-ticket redevelopment projects to fuel still more redevelopment in those TIF districts.  The rich areas get richer and the poor areas of the city effectively get poorer. 

 

On those occasions where TIF is used in poorer communities, the projects that are funded more often serve to promote big box retailers and strip malls that suck the life out of existing small businesses areas or displace longtime residents.

 

To get buy-off from the larger community, sometimes cities promise to earmark a portion of the TIF revenues for low-income and “affordable” housing and social services.  But invariably that amounts to no more than 10-20 percent of the total tax dollars that are taken, not nearly enough to build replacement units for all those who are displaced by these redevelopment schemes. And the so-called affordable units built with these funds often are priced closer to market rate than what low-income people from these areas can afford.

 

In states where there are few restrictions, TIF districts proliferate, draining away as much as 15-20 percent of municipal budgets. Then cities are forced to raise additional taxes to cover budget deficits or cut back on basic services and there is less money available for housing and job development in truly needy areas.

 

Nearly every year it seems, development interests make another attempt to get Olympia to pass some form of TIF.  Fortunately, every time they do, citizen activists like us have followed them down there and, with help from several key legislators, managed to turn back the worst of these bills. 

 

Now however, a new coalition of interests is gearing up for the next legislative session. Led by the Puget Sound Regional Council, the group includes several mainstream environmental groups like Futurewise, the Cascade Land Conservancy (now ‘rebranded’ Futerra), and Transportation Choices coupled with the more usual commercial land and development interests.  The coalition even includes a smattering of labor-related interests and non-profit housing developers hoping to piggyback onto the new TIF legislation.  Their goal is to have new TIF legislation drafted by the end of the summer and fully ready for the next session of the legislature the following spring. 

 

The legislation is being touted to promote “affordable housing” in “Transit Oriented Development” (TOD) areas around rail and major bus stops.  But it looks to us more like cover for the same old developer agenda.  Few of the TIF dollars will go anywhere but into developer pockets. And a lot of the projects likely to receive funding from TIF will simply spur still more displacement, housing loss, and homelessness in our city.

 

We hope a lot of Seattle residents will let our area legislators know what they think of this idea.  And we intend to be effectively organized and prepared to head down to Olympia next spring once again to stave off passage of a full-blown TIF mechanism hatched by PSRC’s coalition.  

 

 JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/), a low-income housing organizatio

 

For more information on the Coalition and reprints of past Outside City Hall Columns contact 206-632-0668 or connect here: http://zipcon.net/~jvf4119/
See Beacon Hill News and Capitol Hill times at http://www.zwire.com/site/News.cfm?brd=855
 

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