Amazon Drive-Thru Conflicts With City’s Sustainability Goals, Requires No Public Process

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Amazon is, by all accounts, planning to open a new drive-through grocery store at the corner of 15th Ave. NW and NW 51st St. in Ballard, the site of the now-shuttered Louie’s Chinese Restaurant. Site plans for a mysterious “project X” describe a “new model of grocery shopping in which orders are placed online at the retail business, and the goods are assembled for the customer to be picked up [sic] at the retail business.”

The plans continue: “When placing an online order, customers will schedule a specific 15-minute to two-hour pick up window. Peak time slots will sell out, which will help manage traffic flow within the customer parking adjacent to the building. When picking up purchased items, customers can either drive into a designated parking area with eight parking stalls where the purchased items will be delivered to their cars or they can walk into the retail area to pick up their items. Customers will also be able to walk into the retail room to place orders on a tablet. Walk in customers will have their products delivered to them in the retail room.”

The drive-through store will include 13 or 14 parking spots, according to the site plans, which also detail the interior plans for the retail store and storage facility. (The plans refer to both 8 and 9 customer pick-up spots; the other five spots would be for employees).

Unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas will go through with no public process at all.

The drive-through grocery will be inside the Ballard Hub Urban Village, a place where the city expects to see growth in both jobs and residents over the next 20 years. The site is also a few blocks from, but not inside, a pedestrian overlay area, where drive-through businesses are prohibited.

According to the city’s comprehensive plan, the city’s goal in urban villages and urban centers is to “promote densities, mixes of uses, and transportation improvements that support walking, use of public transportation, and other transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, especially within urban centers and urban villages.”

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Auto-oriented businesses promote the opposite. They encourage people to drive to an area, and to leave that area without getting out of their cars and exploring the cafes, parks, and small retail businesses that characterize dense, walkable neighborhoods. Worse, they make sidewalks more dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians, who have to navigate cars and delivery trucks driving in and out of a driveway designed for maximum convenience for automobiles, not people. Imagine walking through the drive-through line at McDonald’s: You can do it, but the people who have priority are the ones in cars, and it’s up to you to navigate around them at your peril.

Surprisingly, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Office of Planning and Community Development, the new drive-through grocery store will require no formal review process, and the city is providing no avenue for people to submit public comments on the proposal. SDOT said the agency would likely do a traffic analysis of the project in the future, but the proposal does not have to be approved by the agency before moving forward. OPCD spokeswoman Wendy Shark says since the project is merely a change of use (from a restaurant to a retail space), it’s allowed under the current commercial zoning and won’t trigger the design review process or a review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Which means that unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas, which defies the city’s own stated goal of creating human-scale, pedestrian-oriented urban villages, will go through with no public process at all.

Ironically, because the new drive-through is on a site with access to frequent transit service and is in a designated urban village, Amazon will be able to take advantage of an exemption to minimum city parking requirements and get by with just 14 (or 13) parking spaces. When light rail comes to Ballard, the drive-through site will also be within walking distance of the Ballard station.

A while back, I argued that the city should consider a moratorium on all auto-oriented businesses, but especially those (like the drive-through-only Starbucks in the shadow of the Othello light rail station) located in areas with frequent transit service. The city has said it wants those parts of the city to be transit- and pedestrian-oriented, rather than catering to cars. In allowing new drive-through businesses like the new Amazon grocery store, the city is embracing a very different set of priorities.

 

In “Call To Action,” Homelessness Advocates Demand Changes to City’s Sweeps Program

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In an “Open Letter ” to the council and Mayor Ed Murray (provided to The C Is for Crank this afternoon), representatives of the ACLU of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and the Public Defender Association proposed legislation that would dramatically curb the “sweeps” of homeless encampments that have become routine across the city, in which homeless people are forced to “move along” to another location on the grounds that the camps represent an imminent health and safety hazard. Often, the city confiscates the property (including IDs, medications, clothing, and blankets) of anyone who isn’t present during a sweep, leaving people living in already tenuous circumstances more marginalized and desperate than they were before.

In the letter, the advocates expressed their dismay at the city’s ongoing policy of sweeping homeless encampments without providing anywhere for people to go or any realistic way for them to retrieve their belongings. Noting that nearly 10 months have passed since Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness and promised to add millions in city resources to address the crisis, the letter demands, “When thousands of people are forced to live in public spaces, addressing their needs as best they can, the City must not pursue policies that harm people and make it more difficult to help them. The City must not continue policies which chase people from one place to another, without effectively answering the question: Where can people go?”

The ordinance the groups are proposing, drafted by Columbia Legal Services, would effectively ban the city from forcibly removing people and their belongings from an encampment unless they are able to offer them “stable services that can lead to housing, rather than a return to homelessness.” Right now, street outreach workers who approach homeless people living in camps can only offer immediate access to short-term shelters, and possibly a spot on a waiting list for permanent housing or treatment at some indefinite point in the future. For people with belongings, pets, partners, or just an aversion to sleeping on a cot or the floor in a potentially dangerous or bedbug-infested common room, camping under a bridge is often a better option.

Specifically, the proposal would:

• Bar the city from impounding property or forcing people to leave a campsite unless they have been offered “adequate and accessible housing” at least 30 days prior to the sweep. (“Adequate and accessible housing” is defined as long-term housing where people can store their belongings long-term, with “living standards commonly acceptable to society,” and that is actually accessible to the people who want to live there, meaning that people won’t be turned away because they have a family or a criminal record, for example).

The ordinance would also set up an 11-member advisory committee to oversee the implementation of the new policy, with only one member appointed by the mayor (the other 10 would be appointed by the council).
• Require the city to engage in a 30-day outreach process with people living in encampments, and provide them with access to services that are actually available, before forcing people to leave. The city would also have to give 30 days’ notice before removing people’s personal property; currently, according to estimates in the Seattle Times‘ comprehensive and damning recent story on the sweeps, only about 1 to 2 percent of the property the city confiscates in sweeps is ever retrieved.
• Mandate a new process by which people who lose their belongings in sweeps can retrieve their property to replace the current system, which requires people to travel to the city’s sign production shop on Airport Way to retrieve their belongings during regular business hours.
• Create a new process for shutting down encampments that present an immediate safety or health risk to the people living in an encampment or the surrounding neighborhood. Among other new requirements, the city would have to provide basic garbage, sanitation, and harm reduction services at the site, conduct individualized outreach among the residents, and, importantly, “make available a nearby, alternative location to camp or park that is not unsafe or unsuitable to all affected individuals.”
The ordinance would also set up an 11-member advisory committee to oversee the implementation of the new policy, with only one member appointed by the mayor (the other 10 would be appointed by the council).
It’s worth noting that the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services were both asked to be on the special sweeps advisory committee Murray announced last week; both groups declined to participate. The mayor’s advisory committee includes representatives of adamantly pro-sweeps groups like the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, along with mainstream homelessness advocacy groups and housing providers like All Home and the Downtown Emergency Service Center and neighborhood business groups like the Alliance for Pioneer Square and the SODO Business Improvement Area. Also this week, Murray appointed a new director of homelessness programs, former education reform lobbyist and Frank Chopp right-hand man George Scarola. Scarola, who Murray has known since his time in the state house in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is a political operative and policy wonk who has little experience, so far, in the world of homelessness politics and policy.
By proposing an ordinance directly to the council (complete with an enticing carrot—the council would control the advisory committee, and each council member could appoint his or her own representative to the group), the advocacy groups are attempting an end run around the mayor, whose own approach to the sweeps has been seen as haphazard and highly contentious.

Nextdoor Claims it Will Excise Racial Profiling from Site

Nextdoor, the “private social media site for neighborhoods,” announced this week that it is taking new measures to end racial profiling by its members, by explicitly (and belatedly) banning the practice and deploying new software that will bar members from posting the race of suspects when reporting crimes in its “crime and safety” section unless they provide at least two other physical identifiers, such as hair type or clothing style. (Of course, those descriptors could be “black,” “dreads” and “hoodie,” which defeats the purpose of a ban on racial profiling).

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It’s easy to see how members might get around this ban. For example, because posts show up sequentially in the main Nextdoor feed, so anyone reading the site’s feed will see posts whether they’re tagged “crime and safety” or not, they might just post under a different category. Or they might skip the race category entirely, describing a suspect’s race in the “other information” box, like so:

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The real problem, as with most complaints about user behavior on Nextdoor, appears to be that the company doesn’t have enough employees (or, perhaps, sufficient motivation) to actually monitor and respond to user behavior, and instead allows individual “leads”—who tend to include the most motivated early adopters in a neighborhood—to decide what behavior is and isn’t allowed in a neighborhood, as well which users will be tolerated, and which will be harassed and ostracized until they leave the site in frustration. 

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Predictably for a site that regularly features calls for citizen-led vigilante justice against the homeless, some Nextdoor users are already screaming “Censorship!” According to NPR, “Some residents worried the grass-roots campaign was just the PC police. [Oakland city council member] Campbell Washington [who urged Nextdoor to make the changes[ recalls people writing in with questions: ‘Why would you engage in anything that limits people’s expression? And especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhoods safe.'”

In Seattle, at least, the racial profiling changes aren’t likely to have too much impact, since most of the profiling that goes on here seems to deal with people’s perceived housing and substance use. On the front page Nextdoor in Ballard, Magnolia, and nearby neighbors at the time this post is going up, there’s a 128-comment thread going on that started with a photo of some homeless people’s belongings in Ballard, sarcastically headlined, “[Council member Mike] O’Brien’s New Street Art Installation.” In the thread: Comments calling the people who live in the park “transient bums who have seeked out and found the most coddling path of least resistance to their chosen lifestyle,” saying they are “part of a huge bicycle thievery ring,” and suggesting that “Ballard needs a vigilante problem, not an addict safe haven probem [sic].”

 

Recommended reading: A sociological view of Nextdoor from The Society Pages, which suggests, somewhat optimistically, I think, that by requiring users to identify people using markers other than race, the site might teach people to see others differently too.

 

Queen Anne Council Claims to Meet $25,000 Anti-HALA Goal

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Via queenanneappeal.org.

The Queen Anne Community Council, which filed a legal complaint to halt the city’s plan to make it easier to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family neighborhoods, now says it has reached the $25,000 contribution goal it set in July to cover its legal fees.

According to a post on his website and an email sent out to neighborhood activists across the city, complainant Marty Kaplan and other HALA opponents “have now completely funded our appeal,” which seeks to force the city to submit the proposal to a costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary environmental review. The money, Kaplan’s email continues, will pay for a “team of the most qualified experts, witnesses, and land use attorney.  We are ready to advance our defense of every Seattle citizen and neighborhood’s right to a fair, transparent, unbiased, and fact driven public process for professionally evaluating actual environmental impacts from O’Brien’s proposed legislation. “

The legislation, as I’ve reported, would allow homeowners to add both an internal apartment inside their existing house (typically, a basement unit), plus a garage apartment elsewhere on their property, subject to the same lot coverage limits that already exist for backyard cottages. It would also allow homeowners to add a basement unit or backyard cottage without building additional parking spots.

Homeowners opposed to these changes describe a worst-case scenario in which every single-family home is converted into an investor-owned triplex, and every new triplex is occupied by renters not “invested” in their neighborhood. Leaving aside the class judgment inherent in these homeowners’ fear of renters, the scenario they envision is totally contradicted by reality on the ground in Seattle. Opponents painted a similarly dystopian picture when the city allowed backyard cottages citywide in 2009, but since then, fewer than 200 have been built in Seattle. Removing parking requirements might make garage apartments somewhat more affordable to build, but the main barrier remains the cost of construction and the layout of many single-family lots, which just aren’t the right shape or size to accommodate a mini-house in the backyard.

Kaplan’s letter continues in similarly hyperbolic fashion: “We will fight for our right to review actual studies and participate in the process to review and contribute to what should be a city-wide inclusive and honest dialogue, instead of an ideological top-down proclamation from O’Brien and Murray that not one environmental impact will result from converting every Seattle single family neighborhood to multi-family zoning; destroying the very fabric of over thirty very special and different communities, and offering in turn a significant development gift to every investor at our expense!”

The council’s complaint got a boost when the Seattle Times handed over valuable column-inches on its op/ed page to chief complainant Kaplan, who argued that the new rules would lead to “uncontrolled speculation, immediate displacement, removal of affordable housing, and considerable environmental impacts to every single-family property owner.”

The city’s Hearing Examiner will hear Kaplan and the community council’s appeal at 9am on Wednesday, August 31, at Seattle Municipal Tower Room 4009. Details about the case are available on the hearing examiner’s website.

As Council Moves Into Retail Politics, are “Office Hours” a Good Use of City Resources?

City Council member Mike O’Brien at a recent office hours session in Ballard. So

Photo credit: Hayley Young, Seattle Magazine

Check out my piece in this month’s Seattle Magazine, about the city council’s institution of in-district “office hours” in the post-council-districts world. The piece explores different council members’ approaches to this new frontier of retail politics, and poses the question: Are office hours, where council members throw open their (community center) doors to all comers, a positive move toward accessibility, or a poor use of limited city resources?

On a bright afternoon at the Ballard library, constituents arrive in a steady stream for their chance to speak for 10–15 minutes with Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien, who represents northwest Seattle’s District 6. He’s holding his in-district “office hours” for constituents. On this day, they include grizzled baby boomer guys in cargo pants, moms in workout clothes with smart running backpacks and harried couples whose kids play in the corner as a growing crowd mills around. What they all seem to have in common is a desire to walk away from their meeting with a sense of accomplishment—help with an underwater mortgage, reassurance about parking worries in their neighborhood or knowing they’ve lodged their grievances with someone at City Hall.

Holding in-district office hours is a new experience for the council members who represent the city’s seven geographic districts, each with about 80,000 residents. After more than a century of electing all nine City Council members citywide, in 2013 voters decided to upend the previous civic order by splitting the council into districts and electing just two council members at large. Council members, who previously focused on issues that came up in their committees (transportation, land use, utilities and so on), now find themselves responsible for answering neighborhood-specific questions, such as: “Why do basements on my street flood when it rains?” “How can I get more police patrols in my neighborhood?” “Why are my utility rates so high?” “Can I get a crosswalk on my street?”

There is little doubt that this opportunity for one-on-one contact improves access for constituents. But with a day that still has only 24 hours, and a public that doesn’t always understand the types of issues that the council addresses, are office hours helping council members govern effectively? Do they represent a good use of the councilors’ time?

Read the whole piece here.

Despite What You May Have Heard, Most In Ballard Support Solutions

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Earlier this month, after criticism from constituents that he hadn’t sufficiently listened to their input on public-safety problems in Ballard, Magnolia, and other District 6 neighborhoods, city council member Mike O’Brien held a “Safe and Healthy Communities Forum” at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Ballard. The church, located right across the street from the Ballard Commons, has been criticized for providing meals to the homeless people who hang out in the park, by neighbors who theorize that providing food draws an unwanted criminal element to the area. The Commons, along with the nearby Ballard Library, is the undisputed epicenter of small-bore crime in the neighborhood, including public intoxication as well as public mental illness.

O’Brien started the meeting on a conciliatory note, pointing out that it had been just one year since an angry outdoor meeting about the siting of the city-sanctioned Nickelsville tent city on Market Street, where many of the same neighbors had showed up to oppose homeless encampments in the area.  “Over the past year, a lot has happened,” O’Brien said. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown. The city has made some mistakes; I’ve made some mistakes. But … it’s through those occasions where, despite our differences of opinion—sometimes very strong differences of opinion—that our ability as a community to be able to continue to come together …  gives me hope to believe that we can work together to solve our problems.”

After presentations by homeless advocate Alison Eisenger of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, and Assistant Police Chief Steve Wilske, the crowd of about 200 broke up into a dozen-plus tables for moderated discussions about what issues they saw in their own neighborhoods, and what solutions they would support to address them. The groups were pretty obviously self-selecting—while my table was made up largely of millennials  and liberal neighborhood residents opposed to “criminalizing homelessness,” others filled up with groups who arranged to attend the meeting via the generally anti-O’Brien Ballard Nextdoor page—but the moderator, at the discussion I sat in on, at least, guided the discussion without weighing in with his or O’Brien’s own preferred solutions. (The moderators were, in fairness, chosen by the city, and included several advocates for harm reduction and housing-first solutions to homelessness).

At my table, people expressed concern about the growing number of visible drug users in Ballard, related problems with discarded needles (a woman who works at the Ballard library noted the lack of sharps containers at library buildings), squatters (a young renter said she had come home to find someone trying to take shelter in her basement), and the lack of affordable housing in the neighborhood. “My landlord and I seem to live in different worlds, where she’s terrified about crime and the users and the people she thinks are lurking around every corner, and I just don’t see it,” one renter said. “It’s hard sometimes to separate the fact and the fiction.” Another woman, a homeowner who has lived in Ballard since the 1980s, said “it used to be that if you weren’t paying attention, they’d pull up in a moving van and take all your stuff. Every single house in my general vicinity, at one point, was hit.” A homeless man who uses St. Luke’s services bemoaned the lack of drug and alcohol treatment beds for people who want to get sober, noting that there isn’t much point in putting someone who wants to get clean now on a two-month waiting list for a detox bed.

At the end of the night, O’Brien reconvened the whole group and summarized the notes from the dozen or so tables: People were frustrated by the lack of police response to complaints, wanted to see the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program expanded to Ballard, thought the city should be more responsive to neighborhood complaints, generally supported studying safe drug consumption sites, and supported efforts to “humanize” people experiencing homelessness.

In a followup blog post titled “Do No Harm and Do the Most Good,” O’Brien summarized the responses and expressed optimism that his constituents agree on basic principles, including the idea that “everyone needs support at different moments of their life,” and that “meeting the needs of the most vulnerable will actually increase the health and safety of all of our communities.”

Well, not so fast. After the meeting, anti-O’Brien neighborhood activists complained on Nextdoor, Facebook, and neighborhood blogs that the forum had been a dog and pony show for O’Brien to pretend to listen to neighborhood residents’ concerns while plowing forward with his own predetermined policy solutions. They pointed to everything from the selection of the table moderators to the fact that O’Brien released a summary of each group’s feedback, rather than the handwritten table notes themselves, as evidence of a conspiracy to silence what neighbors actually said they wanted.

“This meeting was a set up right from the start,” one resident wrote on Nextdoor. “The fact that O’Brien was there on time was a big indicator. Then the other speakers were hand picked by him. Breaking into small groups and having moderators is a great tactic, nobody was able to ask him a question and he didn’t have to answer any. I didn’t stay for the wrap up, I wasn’t disappointed, I was HOT and disgusted.”

Another chimed in, “This was a political set-up. Those of us who opposed the above ‘shared outcomes’ were quieted. He did a great job making sure our voices were not heard. I really don’t believe he or his ‘groupies’ have any idea of the reality of what is going to happen if he gets his way. This entire city will look and smell like a garbage dump.”

Wondering whether my table was truly an outlier, I requested the notes from each table. Far from reflecting the “garbage dump” assessment of O’Brien’s critics, the notes showed a district, and a neighborhood, that was generally solution-oriented, proactive, and concerned about homelessness, drugs, and crime but hopeful about the future. While two or three tables seemed obsessed with “data collection,” “tracking the homeless,” dividing the homeless into two separate tracks (those down on their luck and those who “don’t want help”), and forcing drug users and mentally ill people into jail or involuntary commitment, the vast majority suggested positive solutions, such as lockers, more mental health treatment and drug rehab beds,  more legal places for homeless people to be during the day, and treating homeless people as neighbors rather than intruders. (Read the full, transcribed table notes here.) The upshot was a community that, like Seattle as a whole, includes some very vocal people who oppose change and see law enforcement as the solution to urban problems, and a much larger contingent who want to find solutions that don’t involve criminalizing homelessness or imposing civic martial law in neighborhoods. The minority  in the former group may not be encouraged by that obvious fact, but those who want solutions, not just endless gripe sessions, certainly should be.

Council Bans Preferred Employer Rent Discounts

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This afternoon, with surprisingly little pushback, the city council adopted a bill sponsored by freshman council member Lisa Herbold banning source-of-income discrimination (in brief, barring landlords from discriminating against potential tenants whose income comes from government-funded assistance programs such as Social Security) that also included a provision banning “preferred employer” discounts, like free rent or no-deposit move-in specials, to renters who work at certain companies (typically large tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft).

Is Herbold—former aide to Nick Licata, ex-Tenants Union advocate, go-to encyclopedia of landlord-tenant law—poised to rewrite city rental regulations in a way that her former boss neither did nor could?

Herbold, an iconoclastic city hall veteran (17 years at Licata’s office) who toes the John Fox anti-displacement line on some issues but is far less doctrinaire than her detractors insist, has seen pushback when she’s tried to tinker too much with city dollars (her proposal to set aside a percentage of the city’s general fund for affordable housing bonds ran into skepticism from the council’s fiscal conservatives) or zoning laws (a recent anti-displacement amendment to the mayor’s HALA plan was changed to be less punitive for housing developers). But her proposals to change landlord-tenant law are well-reasoned and hard to challenge (landlords’ main criticism was the one Johnson and Juarez raised), and her early successes suggest that now that she’s actually in charge, instead of behind the scenes as Licata’s right-hand woman, Herbold may be the most effective renters’ advocate on the council since Judy Nicastro.

Is Herbold—former aide to Nick Licata, ex-Tenants Union advocate, go-to encyclopedia of landlord-tenant law—poised to rewrite city rental regulations in a way that her former boss neither did nor could?

Even if that proves optimistic, renters can certainly cheer the legislation the council passed unanimously today, which eliminates several avenues for landlords to discriminate.

The preferred employer discounts were particularly insidious, because they didn’t look like discrimination. But even if they didn’t explicitly say “young, unattached, high-income white men wanted,” the ads were widely viewed as discriminatory because they gave preferential treatment to people who fit that demographic. In essence, preferred employer discounts serve as a dog whistle for a certain type of renter, telling those potential renters that their money is better than others’.

Council members did raise a few alarms today, and the whole program will be subject to an audit in 18 months. In the morning council briefing, council member Debora Juarez expressed concern that the proposal might contradict the city’s efforts to encourage people to live near transit, wondering if it might send a message to landlords not to build “transit-oriented housing.” In the afternoon’s full council meeting, Juarez and her fellow council freshman Rob Johnson raised concerns about another provision of the bill, known as the “first-in-time” amendment, which would require landlords to rent to the first person who qualifies, rather than deciding based on other, potentially discriminatory, criteria; they worried that the provision might have the unintended consequence of privileging people with Internet access and cars, who could get their applications in faster than other potential tenants. (Juarez said that a “lottery” for available apartments might be more fair.)

The bill also requires landlords to accept payment vouchers from community-based organizations instead of evicting tenants who fall a few days behind on their rent, as long as the groups pay the rent in cash within five days.

Last year, when I interviewed her before the general election, Herbold told me eliminating preferred employer provisions was one of her top priorities, because she believed that “preferential practices for some result in discriminatory outcomes for others.” Less than eight months into her term, she can check that one off her list.

Under Neighborhood Pressure, Apartment Building Heads for Fourth Design Review

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In a highly unusual move for such a small project, the Northwest Design Review Board voted Monday to delay a 57-unit, 44-foot-tall, four-story apartment building planned on Greenwood Ave. (on the site of what is now Ed’s Kort Haus and the Stumbling Goat Bistro, which would reopen in the new space) for a third time for additional design revisions. The board came to the split decision after pressure from a large group of Phinney Ridge property owners who argue that the building is—you guessed it—ugly and out of scale. They also argued that the building of small efficiency apartments should have parking for cars (it has none) and that people shouldn’t have to live the way the layout will “force” them to live, which is to say: in compact studios with two washer/dryer units for every 17 apartments and no air conditioning.

The “lack” of washer/dryers (extremely generous by the standards of every apartment building where I’ve ever lived in Seattle, but definitely less so than the one-per-house ratio most of those objecting are used to) and air conditioning (I’ve never lived in a place with A/C, so I’m not sure why this is a deficiency in a city that never gets hot) came up again and again on Monday. Such complaints, in substance if not in exact details, are familiar to anyone who pays attention to the hand-wringing that seems necessary for any north-end development. They are also, with the exception of charges that the building is ugly, totally irrelevant to the work of the Design Review Board. The board is charged with looking at the exterior design of the building, and absolutely everything else—massing, scale, parking, and the size of the apartments–is the business of other city departments (including the city council, which already imposed onerous new restrictions that effectively legislated micro-units, commonly known as “apodments,” out of existence.)

Tuesday’s meeting was a repeat of the gatherings that preceded the previous two delays, according to advocates for the development who have been trying to get the thing approved since last October. Architect Jay Janette of Skidmore/Janette Architects presented the proposal and showed what had changed since the last design review meeting in January. (The major changes involved improvements to facades, larger step-backs on upper floors so the building would feel smaller and cast fewer shadows, and taller ground-floor commercial spaces.) Then the crowd made comments for an hour (the board had allotted 20 minutes). The comments were universally negative, and more than half involved issues board member Dale Kutzera explicitly asked audience members not to bring up, including parking, scale, and the size of the apartments.

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One woman was concerned that the building’s two live-work spaces  would create traffic and crowd nearby sidewalks. “If you’re maybe somebody who has clients coming and going [from the] live-work units, going in and out, and if you’re on Greenwood, they’re going to be crossing the sidewalk. I’m concerned about blocking the sidewalk so frequently and so often,” she said.

Another woman said she “would like the developers and the builders to spend three weeks, 24 hours a day, in those units with no A/C and see how they like it in 80-degree weather. That’s inhumane and unacceptable. How many people go in their houses and it’s hot and they just sit in the heat?” (Another woman chimed in later: “The people whose houses back up to [the apartments] are going to have 30 fans blowing right at them all summer.”)

Others expressed dismay that the newer apartment buildings surrounding the development are now being regarded as part of the “neighborhood character,” said the apartments were “very Soviet Union-like,” and suggested that the tenants would probably want to “party” in the 700-square-foot landscaped open space on the building’s roof. Objections that were ostensibly about design mostly had to do with aesthetic preferences: “This does not have ambiance; this is not what you want to take the tour by,” one man said. “Give us a building that gives us joy to walk by. It’s like that saying, ‘I don’t know what art is but I know it when I see it.’ Well, I don’t know what good architecture is, but I know it when I see it.”

This, by the way, is what the location looks like now:

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Does this give you joy?

It’s unclear at what point the design review will decide the building is acceptable enough, aesthetically and from the standpoint of neighborhood support, to move forward. But it speaks to the broken nature of our planning processes in Seattle that a few dozen who currently live adjacent to a building that will house 60 people can drag the design review process out (without substantially changing the building or preventing its construction) for more than a year, adding to the already substantial cost of building housing and keeping new units off the market at a time when the housing market is tighter than it has ever been.

I got the sense that among those who weren’t simply opposed to any development, the only design that might have worked would be a wedding-cake-shaped building set back 15 feet from the street in every direction so that it was barely noticeable. But of course, such a building is impossible—no developer would build it without doubling rents, and no renters would pay twice the current market rate to live in it. Emotions and individual aesthetic preferences will always play a role in development decisions, but there comes a point when it’s up to the city itself to say enough is enough, and this little building in Phinney Ridge is an excellent example of a time when the city should have put its foot down but didn’t.

Despite Concerns, Police Using Nextdoor to Help Set Neighborhood Policing Priorities

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As other city departments, including the Department of Neighborhoods and City Council offices, have backed off from using Nextdoor—the private, homeowner-dominated social media site—to communicate with Seattle residents, the Seattle Police Department has taken the opposite approach. (Nextdoor, which is dominated by homeowners, has come under fire as a hotbed of racial profiling by white homeowners in cities from Oakland to Seattle.

Since February, when I first reported that Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole did a private, members-only “town hall” with Nextdoor members, ostensibly as part of SPD’s outreach to the public,  the department has steadily increased its use of the website as a communications tool. In fact, every month since the town hall, the number of citywide posts from the official police department Nextdoor account has gone up—from one in March, to two each in April in May, to three in June, to eight in July. Additional precinct-specific alerts appear to have increased in frequency as well, based on the number of posts in three precincts. (SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says there has been “no strategy to ramp up Nextdoor engagement,” which he says “fluctuates.”)

It isn’t just event notices. SPD has also used the site to help Seattle University set up focus groups to determine how communities across the city perceive crime and safety issues in their neighborhoods. The focus groups are being conducted by Seattle University, but will be used, along with a separate survey also done by SU, “to inform and revise the [Micro-Community Policing Plans] priorities and strategies,” according to SPD’s website. “MCPPs will then be used in conjunction with crime data to direct Seattle police resources and services to target unique needs of Seattle’s micro-communities.” SPD has identified ten micro-communities for its surveys and focus groups.

This work, in other words, will directly impact where SPD resources and services are directed, according to SPD. According to SU researcher Jessica Chandler, who (like all the other researchers in SPD’s five precincts) has a seattle.gov email address and posts to Nextdoor from SPD’s official agency Nextdoor account, SPD and the university have done no online outreach outside Nextdoor, and the online RSVP page is an internal Nextdoor page accessible only to Nextdoor members.

SPD spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee says SU has “’publicized’ their focus groups via direct outreach at [the Downtown Emergency Service Center], through community groups,  such as the Asian Pacific Islanders Directors Coalition and the Chinese Information and Service Center. Information was also sent to  Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos for distribution to constituents, and included in a story in the Capitol Hill Times.” The department’s Facebook page does not appear to have mentioned or provided any information about the focus groups.

In a recent Nextdoor post responding to a North Precinct resident’s question about outreach avenues other Nextdoor, Chandler replied, “We are currently working to have the focus groups shared through other avenues soon! In the meantime, if you would like a flyer I would be more than happy to email one to you. Send me a personal message if so!”

Under state public disclosure law, most communications between city email addresses and citizens are public. But because Chandler’s communications—like Chief O’Toole’s “public town hall” on Nextdoor—took place behind Nextdoor’s firewall, they aren’t accessible to the general public. If you aren’t a Nextdoor member and you want to access government agencies’ conversations there, you have to first know that they exist and second, file a public disclosure request and wait for the results. SPD has a significant backlog of records requests, meaning that even routine requests often take months, so by the time you find out about a conversation, say, on policing priorities in your neighborhood, chances are it will be too late to do anything about it. (One decision that was made in real time is the relocation of a focus group, via private message, to a location more convenient to a single Nextdoor member; “Chandra: I am willing to change locations to better accommodate! I will PM you, thanks!” Chandler wrote.)

Why doesn’t everyone in the city who wants to know what city agencies are up to just join Nextdoor? For one thing, some people, including many renters, move often and have to join by asking Nextdoor to send a physical postcard to their home so they can prove they actually live there. For another, Nextdoor is a private site that asks residents for their home addresses and targets its marketing based on those addresses; it also makes people’s addresses public to their immediate neighbors, which could raise privacy concerns. Anecdotally, many people have told me they left Nextdoor because of the toxic environment it seems to breed in certain neighborhoods, and because they felt bullied by neighbors whose political views differed from their own. But the bottom line is that just as people shouldn’t have to join Facebook to read city departments’ Facebook posts, which they don’t, citizens shouldn’t have to give a private company their personal data to access public information about what taxpayer-funded agencies are up to.

SPD’s Spangenthal-Lee responded to questions about why the SU researchers were posting from official City of Seattle Nextdoor accounts and had government email addresses by directing me to SU. “[Chandler is] posting as a researcher on the previously mentioned study, which is being conducted under a research agreement between SU and SPD. The study is being conducted independently, and I’d direct you to Seattle U for questions about their research/methods,” he said.

I talked to Chandler by email. In response to my questions about the SU-SPD partnership, she said:

As Seattle University was hired to work with SPD, we are evaluating how they implement the Micro-Community Policing Plan, knowledge and understanding of MCPP, and crime and safety concerns. That is where the focus groups come in to play. There is [a research assistant] in each precinct, all graduate students like myself, and we are all conducting focus groups with each micro-community. The idea behind the plan is that no tw3o areas are the same therefore, the crimes and concerns will not be and will need different resources and strategies. At the end of the project, we report on if MCPP is working, adjustments that should be made, etc.

After I raised questions about the city’s decision to do business on Nextdoor, Mayor Ed Murray said he would reconsider the city’s use of the site to communicate with residents; on Monday, Murray’s temporary spokesman Jeff Reading said the review of the city’s social media policy has been “on pause” since former Murray spokesman Viet Shelton left in March and will resume now that new spokesman Benton Strong has started. Whitcomb said of Nextdoor generally, “Nextdoor engagement is important to us. It is one of many digital platforms that we use.”

 

Safe Space, Part 4: Safe Consumption in Seattle

This is the fourth and final installment in a series about safe injection and safe consumption spaces, Safe Space, which started in Vancouver, B.C. and concludes back at home in Seattle. Read Parts One, Two, and Three. If you like my coverage of harm reduction in cities, urbanism, transportation, drug policy, homelessness, and many other issues, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter by signing up at Patreon; your contributions are what enables me to keep The C Is for Crank cranking and to occasionally travel to places like Vancouver and Boulder to report on what’s happening in other cities and the lessons they have for Seattle.

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Safe injection sites have a distinct advantage over many other harm-reduction proposals: They directly address a crisis that is in the forefront of the middle-class American consciousness, the heroin epidemic. Although safe-injection sites like Insite in Vancouver allow clients to use other drugs—in fact, Insite manager Darwin Fisher estimates that heroin makes up only about 40 percent of the drugs injected at the facility—most people think of them as heroin-injection sites, and therefore an answer to an opioid epidemic that claimed nearly 30,000 lives in the US in 2014 alone.

Safe consumption sites are different. At safe-consumption facilities, which are fairly common in Western Europe but nonexistent in North America, drug users (and, sometimes, alcoholics) are allowed to consume drugs by whatever method they prefer, including shooting, snorting, or smoking. This raises all kinds of logistical questions, which I’ll get to in a minute, but the basic premise is that people who shoot drugs aren’t the only ones at risk of overdose or in need of access to treatment and other forms of assistance; moreover, in general, every other method of consuming drugs is safer than shooting up, so moving users from shooting to, say, smoking is an improvement on the harm-reduction continuum.

Another distinction between Insite and what some harm-reduction advocates would like to see in Seattle is that Insite, as its name suggests, consists of a single site—located in a run-down, hardscrabble part of Vancouver that has no Seattle equivalent. Whereas drug use and sales are concentrated heavily in one area of Vancouver, Seattle’s drug use is decentralized and highly distributed, making a single injection site—a central destination for drug users from all corners of the city—less than ideal. (The neighborhoods around methadone clinics tend to be hotbeds of “disorder” and minor nuisance crimes isn’t because drug users concentrate there, but because a huge proportion of the city’s drug users concentrate there; currently, there are only two methadone programs in the city of Seattle, serving an estimated 2,200 clients, according to Evergreen Treatment Services director Molly Carney, with more clinics outside city limits.)

What may work best for Seattle and its drug-using population, in other words, is a network of small facilities spread throughout the city, where clients can consume drugs not only by injecting but by smoking, snorting, or any other method of ingestion. These sites would be indemnified by the government, blessed with the approval of SPD and the city attorney’s office, and staffed with people who can help drug users access services including treatment, housing, and medical care. Radical–yes. Doable–very possibly.

Patricia Sully, a staff attorney at the Public Defender Association and the coordinator for the harm-reduction group VOCAL-WA, says most drug users probably won’t travel across the city to access a safe-consumption site; they need services where they already are, which means small (or, potentially, mobile) sites in Seattle neighborhoods where drug users already congregate. Unlike Vancouver, “We don’t have one centralized area where all the drug use is concentrated; we have very diffuse drug use. And I think to mitigate the impact on neighborhoods, it’s important that there not be just one [safe-consumption facility so that] people are able to access  this kind of service where they already are.” Paradoxically, the diffuse nature of Seattle’s unsafe drug consumption could allay fears that neighborhoods will become drug-use destinations, Sully says: “There’s a lot of fear that if you had this kind of facility, it’s going to draw all these people, but I think it’s actually fairly unlikely that people are going to bus miles and miles and miles to access the service.”

Darwin Fisher, the manager of Insite, told me on a recent visit to Vancouver that whether a city builds a single, stand-alone facility, as Vancouver has, or many smaller sites, it should make sure drug users don’t have to travel far, because they won’t. “If I’m in withdrawal, I’m not going to travel 20 blocks to where the site is. That’s just not going to happen,” Fisher says. Montreal is proposing a distributed safe-injection system, and “if you were to take a tour of Europe and go to the 90 sites, I think the only consistent thing would be implied in the title (safe consumption). Everything else is negotiable, depending on what the community wants,” he says.

Sally Bagshaw is one city council member who says she would consider multiple safe-injection sites, but is currently inclined to propose placing them in existing public health clinics, which already have a health-care infrastructure in place. “I don’t think a safe injection site, in and of itself, is the model that I want to pursue. I would like to pursue the public health model where you can come in and have a safe injection site, or safe consumption site, [as well as] other options available when you come in the door,” Bagshaw says—a setup where “if you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, there are other options that are available to you there, whether it’s a prescription for [buprenorphone, a maintenance drug for opiate addiction] or treatment,  and that we also know that there are beds for people that really want to go into detox.” As I’ve reported, there are only a few dozen detox beds available for people withdrawing from alcohol or other substances in King County, a number that is pathetically smaller than the need. People detoxing from alcohol can die, making medical detox an absolute must for serious alcoholics, but supervised detox can help heroin addicts through the process too, and may be less expensive than building full medical facilities; Insite, for example, has 12 private detox rooms for opiate addicts that are medically supervised but are not full medical detox.

Liz Evans, the founder of Insite, said on a recent visit that she does not support the Bagshaw-approved co-location approach, because “if you embed it into an existing health service, the culture of the health service is the dominant culture at that location, and may not necessarily be as welcoming” as a site run by an independent nonprofit like Insite. (Insite, while its own entity, partners with and gets its funding from Health Canada, the Canadian federal health care service.)

Another hurdle North American advocates for safe consumption spaces face is the very notion of safe consumption, rather than injection; particularly, the idea of crack- and meth-smoking rooms attached to safe-injection sites. But Sully says safe consumption is really “not any more radical than safe injection,” and only raises eyebrows because it’s unfamiliar. “When you’ve got people who are outdoors using drugs, it’s going to be preferable for them to be indoors using drugs both for their own health reasons and for public health and safety of the neighborhoods,” Sully says. “I think that for a lot of people in the neighborhoods who are struggling with people using drugs outdoors, whether those people are injecting drugs or smoking drugs is largely irrelevant.”  

Matt Curtis, the program manager at VOCAL-NY, a New York-based harm-reduction group, adds that “unless you’ve done the world’s worst job of explaining a supervised injection facility, and you’ve explained it so narrowly that people are monofocused on that one little thing, I don’t think it’s that much more of a lift to walk people through why other kinds of safe consumption spaces are a good thing.” And both Sully and Curtis point to the issue of racial justice—limiting safe spaces to heroin users, who tend to be white and have middle-class backgrounds, excludes the crack users who were the victims of the harsh, racially biased drug laws of the ’80s and ’90s, which punished crack users much more harshly than those who used powder cocaine. 

“There’s certainly much more openness to this idea because of the response to the heroin epidemic, and you can’t really separate that from race,” Sully says. “The fact that this is affecting white people and middle America and ‘our sons and daughters’ and all these things —we certainly did not see this response to the crack epidemic.” For that reaosn, if the city chooses to focus exclusively on heroin to the exclusion of drugs used primarily by black people, “we have the potential to really exacerbate our racial disparity,” Sully says.

Building safe smoking rooms would be a minor engineering challenge (the rooms would need to be ventilated properly and segregated from the injection areas), but that seems surmountable. Likewise, the fact that people would be using very different types of drugs—including drugs like meth and crack that can make users aggressive and hyper, along with downers like heroin and fentanyl—hasn’t been a problem at Insite, where more than a dozen drugs are included on the login screen at the front desk, with more being added all the time. When I visited, the room was fairly quiet and mellow, even though there were people in the room shooting heroin, meth, cocaine, and other drugs, often in combination. “You still get people who say, ‘God damn it, it’s the coke users who are taking up so much time because they’re tweaking,’ but that’s just griping that happens. There’s nothing special about that,” Fisher says. 

Will Seattle–famous for processing everything to death, largely ruled at the dictates of neighborhood activists who blame homeless drug addicts for everything from property crime to the presence of discarded couches in neighborhoods–manage to transcend its sometimes-wary attitude toward counterintuitive solutions and embrace safe-consumption sites? Advocates insist there are signs that it may. 

For one thing, we already have Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)–a program that partners SPD and human and social services agencies to divert low-level offenders from jail and into community-based interventions, without expecting them to change everything overnight. Since the program began in Belltown, it has expanded through SPD’s West Precinct and will soon include Capitol Hill.

At a Council District 6 public safety meeting Wednesday night, Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard said one thing groups like the PDA, which advocates for harm reduction and criminal justice reform, learned doing LEAD is that advocates can’t merely impose their preferred solutions on neighborhoods; they have to engage communities and show them that they take their concerns seriously. Only then can advocates like Daugaard show communities how programs like LEAD (and, by extension, safe consumption sites) can actually help address the problems they perceive, like property crime, drug addiction, and visible homelessness.

“Even if it was ineffective, wrong, unconstitutional, and stupid” to lock people up over and over for minor crimes like drug possession, “we weren’t engaging the central dynamic, which is that it was actually problematic for people to engage in those behaviors,” like aggressive panhandling, public urination, and minor property crimes, Daugaard said. “So, some years back, some folks on both sides of these conversations decided to talk about the issue in a different way … and reframe the conversation in terms of what actually works. And it turns out that if that’s the lodestar of your conversation, it leads to completely different policy choices.”

At a city council-sponsored public forum on safe consumption sites earlier this year, one unlikely advocate, Magnolia neighborhood activist Gretchen Taylor, expressed her tentative support for the idea of safe consumption facilities–if they are closely monitored and accompanied by strategies that reduce crime in the neighborhoods. Cindy Pierce, another Magnolia neighborhood activist who, with Taylor and several others, formed a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance last year, has also expressed a willingness to discuss safe-consumption sites if they will reduce crime and other visible signs of homelessness and addiction. Both women traveled to San Francisco with Bagshaw earlier this year to visit that city’s Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that does not require clients to come in sober.
Taylor, whose son is a heroin addict, told the panel, “I do understand the wisdom behind Insite and I congratulate you for your victories. Vancouver has identified that years of failed policies have failed people and perpetuated … continued suffering. I totally get that.”
Taylor continued: “The frustration [in Seattle] has not only reduced people who are addicted to ‘junkies’ and ‘addicts,’ but they’re also not considered a viable part of our community whatsoever, and the frustration is leading to serious ramifications. When you say ‘harm reduction,’ I get it, but I think the citizens and the neighbors are going to want to hear about harm reduction for the neighborhoods as well–that most notably being safety and crime reduction for all of us.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But, perhaps, a start.