1. On Monday, new District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation transferring a small piece of land in Wallingford (or, as Pedersen called it, “East Fremont”) from the Finance and Administrative Services department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The land transfer will allow SDOT to extend a bus lane on N. 45th St. and speed travel times on Metro’s Route 44, which is one of the only east-west bus routes north of the Ship Canal. The Urbanist first reported on the proposed changes back in June. SDOT told the Urbanist that the spot changes, which also involve moving an intersection and converting a short stretch of 45th to one-way traffic, will improve travel times for nearly half of all Route 44 riders.
Pedersen said Monday that he was voting against the transfer because he had “gotten some feedback from residents of East Fremont” involving “access and traffic calming for residents.”
“East Fremont,” for those unfamiliar with fights over neighborhood nomenclature, is a part of Wallingford that the Fremont Neighborhood Council has long insisted is part of Fremont. Toby Thaler, the longtime head of the FNC, is now Pedersen’s advisor on land use and transportation.
Pedersen’s office responded to a request for comment by directing me to the video of the meeting. In a letter to a constituent, he went into slightly more detail, saying that his “concern with this project was the public engagement process, which could have benefited from more time to craft community-informed win-win solutions.” He added: “The ordinance was approved and my vote signaled to SDOT that it’s important for them to work to resolve issues from more than one angle.”
2. Pedersen took what seemed to be the opposite position on a different transportation project in his district‚ the redesign of Brooklyn Ave—arguing in favor of buses over a planned “green street” that will be too narrow to accommodate buses in the future. The redesign is part of the new University District light rail station.
At a briefing on the city’s Transportation Benefit District last Thursday, Pedersen asked two SDOT staffers if they had “heard about the bus lanes on Brooklyn issue,” then explained: “Brooklyn Avenue is going to be built too narrow to accommodate buses, and Sound Transit [is] worried if there are going to be any changes, if we try to widen it so it can accommodate buses, it’ll screw up Sound Transit’ schedule. … I don’t know if that’s something on the agenda to talk with Sound Transit about—to assure them that SDOT is able to get things done on Brooklyn.”
Sound Transit’s plans for the new station include a “Green Street” on Brooklyn designed primarily for pedestrian traffic, with narrow lanes, a 20mph speed limit, and pedestrian improvements designed to drive car traffic away from the street and encourage bike and pedestrian traffic. Brooklyn is not currently a bus corridor. A group called U District Mobility, which includes a number of transit advocacy groups, has asked Sound Transit to widen Brooklyn to accommodate buses in the future.
In a joint statement, Sound Transit and SDOT told The C Is for Crank that the planning for the Brooklyn street design has been going on since at least 2014, when the city published the U District Green Street Concept Plan, and “the public clearly expressed that access to the station was a top priority.”
“Significant modifications to Brooklyn Ave NE would be needed to accommodate buses. While future revisions to the street may be a possibility after light rail opens, there is neither the time nor the funding for such revisions to be in place by the time the U District station is scheduled to open in 2021.”
The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.”
3. Most council committee chairs have canceled their regularly scheduled meetings through the holidays, but Pedersen is making the most of his status as temporary chair of the land use committee, holding a special meeting to discuss the future of Seattle’s tree protection ordinance—a document that has galvanized activists ever since it first passed in 2001. (Pedersen inherited his chairmanship from temporary council member Abel Pacheco, who inherited it from Rob Johnson, who left the council in April. New committees and chairmanships will be announced in January).
The meeting was billed as a briefing by “outside expert[s]” on the “need for and status of activity to implement Resolution 31902 concerning development of an updated Seattle Tree Ordinance.” The nonbinding resolution talks about the need to protect trees on single-family properties and to increase Seattle’s tree canopy to 30 percent of the city’s land area. (The advocacy group American Forests no longer recommends adopting percentage-based canopy cover goals and suggests providing density bonuses to developers who agree to plant trees.)
The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.” One speaker called for a “moratorium on development” based on “primacy for trees,” and suggested “rewild[ing] areas too dense now for climate justice.” Another suggested that Seattle model itself after Cleveland, Ohio, which is “lapping Seattle” in terms of adding trees. This is true: Cleveland is “rewilding” the city—because the city is in decline; in order to cut down on blight, the hollowed-out city is tearing down thousands of houses abandoned by people who moved away.
Pedersen didn’t say much at Tuesday’s meeting, letting his handpicked guests—a professor from the University of Washington’s College of Environment and Forest Sciences, an urban forestry manager from Portland, and a Seattle Urban Forestry Commission member—do most of the talking. But he has made clear in the past where he stands on the trees-vs.-density debate. Pedersen’s campaign platform (which featured a photo of Pedersen with one of the activists who spoke on Wednesday) called for “preventing the removal of most trees prior to and during construction projects” on the grounds that “existing large trees have the most positive impact in absorbing harmful carbon emissions.” Pedersen also advocated during the campaign for mandatory parking minimums—a policy that would cover more of Seattle in concrete to facilitate driving, which remains by far the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the city.
And Pedersen, like most of the public commenters who spoke on Wednesday, opposes density in areas that aren’t already dense, an untenable prospect if Seattle ever wants to be affordable for middle- and working-class people. As a citizen and candidate, he opposed even modest upzones on the edges of single-family areas, calling the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones” and writing that “some say” that the pro-density argument represents a “trickle-down, supply-side theory of economics that would (continue to) enrich speculative for-profit real estate developers while displacing existing affordable housing.”
Density and trees are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Developers can be offered incentives to preserve large existing trees, or required to plant new trees on site or elsewhere. But that isn’t the debate anti-density activists are interested in having. Instead, they argue that allowing more density in the exclusive single-family-only neighborhoods where they own property (generally North Seattle) will destroy the city’s urban canopy. (Somehow they never volunteer their private parking spaces or on-street parking in front of their houses as planting sites).
The policy implications of preserving car-dependent single-family neighborhoods in amber while the majority of Seattle’s residents scramble to rent apartments in the few areas where they are allowed are obvious and well-documented: As scarcity drives up housing prices, working and middle-class people move out to the suburbs or exurbs, where entire forests are actually “scraped” to build subdivisions entirely dependent on cars. This will be the pattern as long as homeowners and politicians insist that their personal interests—the birds they can see from the breakfast rooms of their 2,000-square-foot detached single-family houses—trump the climate and affordability interests of the city and region as a whole.