Council Members Talk Amazon in NYC: “Don’t Flinch Every Time a Corporation Flexes Its Muscles”

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

File:Long Island City New York May 2015 panorama 3.jpg

Image via King of Hearts; Creative Commons license

As New York City braces itself against the potential “Seattleization” of Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon recently announced it will build one of two satellite “HQ2”s, two Seattle City councilmembers arrived in New York City Monday morning with a dual message: It’s going to be every bit as bad as you imagined. And: There’s still time to prepare.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold spoke at the headquarters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Monday morning, following a succession of local elected officials and progressive activists who denounced the company. (RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum, for example, described Amazon as “one of the worst employers not just in the United States but anywhere in the world.”)

Herbold read a letter from an Amazon contractor who described a desperate, daily scramble for shifts in a job with no benefits, no job security, and no health care—just an 800 number staffed by a nurse who “will tell you to see a doctor that you can’t afford.” Her advice for New Yorkers who want to extract some benefits from Amazon, which will receive an estimated $3 billion in tax breaks for the project? Mobilize early, align with small businesses, and be prepared for Amazon to try to change the conversation.

“We simply weren’t able to counter the influence of big money on public opinion” in Seattle, Herbold said, referring to the failure of the city’s $275-per-employee “head tax,” which would have funded housing and homeless services. “In Seattle, Amazon used small businesses as a stalking horse. … You have to remind small businesses that they, too, are victims of regressive tax structures.”

After telling Seattle leaders  they would support a scaled back “compromise” version of the tax, Amazon helped fund the “No Tax on Jobs” campaign, which planned to run a referendum to overturn the measure. Eventually, the council voted to overturn the tax, with Herbold voting with the majority and Mosqueda voting no.

Mosqueda offered the head tax experience as a cautionary tale, and warned the New York activists, “Don’t be the city or the state that flinches every time a corporation flexes its muscles, threatens to move out of town, tries to say that they’re going to cut jobs or stop construction, and pulls back on investing on the very system and infrastructure that they refuse to pay into.” Amazon’s outsize presence in Seattle, Mosqueda said, has “had a dramatic impact on who can afford to live in the city,” contributing to homelessness, gentrification, and “people not being able to keep the homes that they grew up in.”

Finally, Herbold cautioned that activists should brace themselves for Amazon and its supporters to suggest that private philanthropists, not the government, should be responsible for creating an adequate social safety net. Herbold recalled that when she wrote an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to participate in a national conversation about how to meet workers’ basic needs in the “gig economy.” The response, she said Monday, was “basically [that we need] more philanthropy.”

“We are in a modern Gilded Era,” Herbold said. “There is no accountability for private philanthropy, and charitable gifts don’t solve infrastructure issues or inequality.”

Morning Crank: A Dramatic Turnaround

1. All Seattle Public Library restrooms will soon be equipped with containers for needle disposal, following a six-month pilot program at the library system’s Ballard, Capitol Hill, University, and downtown branches. The library initiated that pilot after an employee at the Ballard branch was stuck with a needle while removing the trash from the women’s restroom, as I exclusively reported in March.

The decision marks a dramatic turnaround in library policy from just seven months ago, when library spokeswoman Andra Addison said that the library had no plans to install sharps containers for drug users (and diabetics) to dispose of used needles, because “We don’t allow illegal drug use in the library.”  The King County Public Library system preceded the Seattle library in installing sharps containers at branches in Burien, Renton, and Bellevue—branches where library staffers kept finding used needles on the floor, in toilets, and in trash bins.

Addison says it will cost about $2,000 to install the containers—the same ones used in the King County system—in all 60 library restrooms., and about $7,000 to empty and maintain them.  “The Library has ordered the additional sharps containers and we hope to have them installed over the course of November,” Addison says.

According to data provided by the library, the sharps containers at the downtown, Capitol Hill, Ballard, and University branches continue to be the most heavily used. Between the week of April 20 and the week of October 12, 912 sharps were discarded at the Central branch library, 348 on Capitol Hill, 234 in Ballard, and 194 in the University District.

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2. The city of Seattle won on two counts in the lawsuit filed by the owners of the Showbox on Friday, when King County Superior Court judge Mary E. Roberts ruled that legislation expanding the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the music venue did not constitute an illegal land use decision or a taking of private property. However, Roberts did agree to hear claims on two other, arguably more substantive, questions: Did the “Save the Showbox” legislation violate the state appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires officials to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property)? And did the city violate the property owners’ constitutional rights by dictating the use of the building as a music venue?

The owner of the building in which the Showbox is located, Roger Forbes, sued the city last month after the city council passed, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, “emergency” legislation making the two-story building part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The Showbox itself—that is, the venue that rents the building—is owned by the international behemoth Anschutz Entertainment Group).  The law, known as the “Save the Showbox” bill, prevented Forbes from selling the property to a developer, Onni, that had planned to build a 44-story apartment tower on the block. (The city had in fact just upzoned the block, along with the rest of First Avenue, specifically to encourage this type of development).

If the city violated the use of fairness doctrine, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the importance of  “Saving the Showbox” as a music venue—of which there have been many—were illegal, because the council should have remained neutral and refrained from holding public hearings. (Not only did the council hold public hearings, its members made signs, staged concerts, and even drafted public comments for private citizens in favor or the proposal.) If the court finds that the city violated Forbes’ rights by dictating the use of the Showbox property it will mean that the legislation thwarting Forbes’ plan to sell and develop the property was unconstitutional, and could open the city up to monetary claims.

The city is arguing that the “Save the Showbox” legislation—whose first section calls the Showbox “a significant cultural resource to Seattle and the region” whose loss “would erode the historical and cultural value of the Pike Place Market neighborhood”—in no way prevents Forbes or any future owner from shutting the Showbox down and using the property for another purpose. Forbes, pointing to the plain text of the legislation and the fact that the law gives the Pike Place Market Historical Commission the right to dictate every aspect of how the building is used, from the tenants down to the font, size, and materials used in its signage, says that’s absurd.

Forbes’ attorney noted that the city has only responded to one of the attorney’s ten public disclosure requests, making it difficult, he argued, to know “all the violations of the appearance of fairness doctrine.” For example, he said, “we just learned by happenstance that the cc staffers were writing public comments”—because of information that I obtained through my own disclosure request and reported on this site.

In dismissing the Showbox owners’ takings and land use claims, Roberts said that neither claim was ripe for consideration—in the case of the land use claim, because the owner of the property and the developer, Onni, had not filed a permit to develop the property by the time the legislation passed, and in the case of the takings claim, because the city has not issued any final decision about what kind of development is allowed on the property.

Roberts also rescheduled the remaining counts for early next fall.

The J Is for Judge: Trump Would Feel Right At Home In Anti-Amazon Seattle

If, as they say, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, Donald Trump is Seattle lefties’ besty.

Just as many Seattle progressives cast Amazon as a bogeyman during debates over affordability and the city’s “character,” Trump routinely directs his Twitter ire at Amazon and the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

Here’s a typical Trump tweet trashing Amazon from this spring:

Of course, like most of Trump’s Twitter testimony, these claims strain credulity.

But the crux of Trump’s sentiments are in sync with Seattle’s own animosity toward the the South Lake Union tech magnate. As the recent head tax debate showed, Seattle’s left—like Trump—doesn’t think Amazon pays enough in taxes. Seattle’s leftist City Council member Kshama Sawant has personally used Trumpian language to demonize Bezos, saying “Jeff Bezos is our enemy” at a city council meeting in June.  (That’s right—the Washington Post owner is an enemy of the people.) Activists in Seattle have taken up the anti-Amazon crusade. In fact ,the coffee shop where I’m writing this very column is currently selling anti-Bezos postcards that say “Rich Uncle Bezos” featuring a picture of the Amazon leader in a “Monopoly” top hat.

Echoing Trump’s line that the company is killing mom and pop businesses, conventional wisdom here in Seattle holds that Amazon, the engine of our hyper growth, is destroying Seattle’s homegrown culture and authenticity. For both Trump and Seattleites who believe the company is ruining the city, Amazon represents an existential threat. The fact that council member Sawant is now organizing rallies to save the Showbox from being replaced by a new housing and retail development is unmistakably part of the same reactionary sentiment that demonizes change, and Amazon transplants, as corrosive forces—these new Seattle residents aren’t neighbors but “Amazombies,” as I overheard someone quip at a bar last week.

I agree that Amazon should be a better corporate citizen; their resistance to paying higher taxes to help address the homelessness crisis displayed a callous lack of concern for a city that has invested heavily in their success. And their crass bad faith at the negotiating table during the head tax debate (turning around and making a $25,000 contribution to the campaign to kill the tax after apparently agreeing to a deal) was shameful. For the record, I supported the head tax. Without an income tax (something else I support), it’s our only option to mark the clear nexus that exists between Amazon’s growth and the housing crisis.

On the flip side: A report that Amazon pays an estimated $250 million in local and state taxes  highlights the real benefit of having a Top 10 Fortune 500 company (#8) based in downtown Seattle, with its 45,000 current Seattle employees, 50,000 new hires planned, and all the secondary and tertiary jobs they create.

The similarity between Seattle progressives who scapegoat Amazon as a corrupting influence and Trump’s populist tweet tantrums that accuse Amazon of cuckolding the feds (turning the Post Office into a mere “delivery boy” for the all-powerful Bezos) is worth calling out because it’s part a consistent, ugly defect we also see in Seattle populism.

As insightful Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson once pointed out: The intransigence of Seattle’s largely white, single-family homeowners who oppose allowing more access to their neighborhoods is similar to the heated provincialism of Trump’s pro-wall base. Johnson, an even-keeled mass transit and density advocate, is now on his heels against an onslaught from angry single-family neighborhood constituents. And so it goes in Seattle, where the current strain of parochial leftism isn’t out of place in Trump’s America.

Looking for Common Ground Between Anti-Tax and Pro-Housing Advocates

During the overheated debate about the head tax—a tax on high-grossing businesses that would have funded housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population—it was easy to see the overlap between neighborhood groups that opposed the head tax and neighborhood groups that oppose zoning changes on the grounds that density will ruin the “character” of their exclusive single-family neighborhoods. Anxiety about visible homelessness and anxiety about visible renters often takes a similar tone: Spending on homelessness will encourage more of “those” people to come to Seattle, and allowing triplexes or apartment buildings in single-family areas will allow more of “those” people to live in “our” neighborhood. As SEIU 775 president David Rolf told the Seattle Times , the companies that funded the head tax repeal campaign “targeted conservative voters, residents who miss old Seattle and people upset over street camping, among others. ‘They figured out how to knit those groups together[.]'”

At the same time, I noticed a surprising counter-trend among some head tax opponents: While they expressed many of the same reasons as traditional neighborhood activists for opposing the tax (bad for business, the city needs to show progress before we give it more money, and so forth), they also argued that the city should open up its restrictive zoning codes to allow more housing in all parts of the city—an idea that’s anathema to most traditional neighborhood groups. (The first time I heard this argument, as it happened, was during an over-the-top vitriolic town hall meeting in Ballard, from a guy who kept screaming directly in my ear, “NO HEAD TAX! CHANGE THE ZONING!”) This is an argument you hear all the time from urbanists and YIMBYs—who, generally speaking, support policies that encourage more housing at every income level—but I’d never heard it coming to someone who opposed a tax that would have paid for housing. I wondered: Could this be a rare area of common ground between anti-tax and pro-housing advocates?

So I put a call out on Twitter, asking people to contact me if they opposed the head tax and supported reducing restrictions on where housing could be built in Seattle. Quite a few people got back to me, and I had a number of interesting offline conversations from people who didn’t want to be quoted, but who gave me some hope that even in the absence of new revenues to address our current crisis (revenues, I should add, that I still think are desperately needed), progress is still possible.  This isn’t data—the people who responded, all men, represent a tiny, self-selected slice of the larger group of Seattle residents who oppose the head tax and support density—but it is an interesting look at why at least some people who opposed this specific tax are open to other solutions, and why increased density might be an area where people on both sides of the head tax issue can agree.

“Deliberately Divisive”

Mark (not his real name) is a thirtysomething tech worker and longtime Seattle resident who lives on Capitol Hill. He considers himself socially liberal and fiscally conservative—the kind of person who votes for taxes if he thinks they will make an actual, measurable dent in solving the problem they’re supposed to solve. Mark says he opposed the head tax because the spending plan for the tax failed to identify how it would address different homeless populations with different needs (people in active addiction or with debilitating mental illness will need different approaches than, say, someone who has just lost their job and is living in their car); because the city isn’t acknowledging or addressing the problems created by tent encampments; and because he doesn’t trust the city council, particularly Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant, to spend the money well.

“In my time as a Seattleite, I’ve never seen council members as deliberately divisive as those two, and they’ve fractured the council into a group of individuals who can’t actually accomplish anything. I miss folks like Tim Burgess and Nick Licata (and on the KCC side, Dow Constantine). I often disagreed with their opinions, but they were truly interested in talking with everyone and doing what was best for the city,” Mark says. He believes that O’Brien and Sawant “would rather fund an  ineffective solution than release information that reveals it’s ineffective, and continue to willfully ignore encampments as long as homelessness or even affordable housing hasn’t been solved.”

Mark says he would “love to see …  a significant city-wide upzone.” He believes 2015’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which recommended upzoning a tiny sliver of Seattle’s single-family areas, is “laughably inadequate” and that the “grand bargain,” in which developers agreed to pay into an affordable housing fund (or build affordable housing on site) in exchange for higher density, has failed. “The HALA Committee proposal left too much of the city untouched, and what was passed was a notch above nothing.” While it’s reasonable to debate the maximum height of buildings in different areas, he says, “What isn’t reasonable is the city acting like it’s still 1995 (and yes, I lived here then), nor using its own policies to protect certain groups at the expense of others. Just like it would be insane for the city to say ‘You can’t build a single family house here,’ it’s insane to say ‘You can’t build a multifamily building here.'”

“At some level, we need to acknowledge that not everyone who wants to live in Seattle is going to be able to afford it, let alone be able to afford a place they want to live in. I’d love for that threshold to be as low as we can practically make it; IMO, re-zoning is the single biggest impact we can make on that, followed by allowing smaller units (pods), and incredibly, both of those are free to do.”

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“There Is No Plan”

Neil, who owns a duplex and four-unit apartment building on Beacon Hill (and lives, with his wife, in one of the apartments), has worn a lot of hats in his life: Business owner, CPA, landlord—he even ran a “distressed fishing lodge” in Alaska for a number of years. An independent who mostly votes for Democrats, he says he has supported most of Seattle’s recurring tax levies, but voted against the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure “because of my frustration with recent governance in Seattle, and [because] the $50 billion price tag was too big to decipher.”

Neil says the main reason he opposed the head tax was because it was “too small,” because it applied only to a narrow group of businesses (those with gross receipts above $20 million a year), and because he did not have confidence that the city council and the progressive revenue task force that recommended the tax were starting with the right goals or had the right expertise for the job. “The annual tax raised by the original [head tax] proposal [during last year’s budget discussions] was $24 million, then it was $75 million but really needed to be $150 million but they settled with $47 million.  My observation: The council concentrates more on how much money they can generate rather than what is needed and how it will be used.  Whether real or perceived, it feeds the narrative of ‘there is no plan,'” he says. Additionally, he says, council members and advocates who campaigned for the head tax by vilifying Amazon were being “cynical and destructive to the well being of Seattle. … Good policy should stand on its own, at least in principle.”

Neil, unlike Mark, doesn’t support major citywide upzones; he thinks that allowing more attached and detached accessory dwelling units (backyard and basement apartments) in single-family areas, and implementing the HALA recommendations throughout the city, will do a lot to address the current housing shortage. “Personally, I am fine living in and amongst apartments,” he says.  “But my situation is unique and we are not surrounded by five-story buildings.  ADU[s and] DADU[s] seem to be low-impact personal housing alternatives. [They] also promote investment and vitality at a neighborhood level.”

“We Need WAY More Density”

Jeff, a software engineer who has lived in Seattle twice, for a total of about 15 years, owns a house in the Green Lake/Roosevelt area, on a block where two single-family homes are being torn down and replaced with larger single-family houses. He says that although he has consistently voted to raise taxes for housing, education, and transportation, he opposed the head tax because he “disliked the ‘stick it to the rich’ sentiments behind” it, and believes it punishes high-grossing, low-margin businesses, like grocery stores and restaurants. (Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s hamburger chain Dick Spady, made this argument in his PR campaign against the tax, for which his consulting firm was  paid at least $20,000).

Jeff believes that, had the head tax passed, companies might choose to locate in the suburbs, rather than in the city proper, working “against the trend towards a higher density city, which is the direction I think we should be moving in. ”

“I think we need WAY more density,” Jeff says. “Traffic sucks, but high density should make transit more viable and also means there are enough people within walking distances to support local businesses without driving.” In particular, he says he would support removing “almost all” restrictions on basement and backyard apartments in single-family areas, allowing row houses and triplexes in those areas, getting rid of parking mandates for new developments, and reducing restrictions on efficiency apartments and rooming houses, which “traditionally have provided housing for low-income people.”

“For those currently on the street, even building complexes of semi-permanent buildings with sanitary facilities and availability to drug treatment would be a step up,” Jeff says. “I don’t know the costs and also there are some that wouldn’t want to go there, but people setting up camp in the parks and on highway medians isn’t acceptable for them or for everyone else.” Locking people up when they refuse to go into shelter or treatment is too expensive, doesn’t work, and leads to a lifetime of misery, Jeff says. “We can offer people something pretty good for much less than the cost of prison.”

“Upzone Like Crazy”

Andrew is a longtime Seattle resident who lives in a townhouse in South Seattle and works in finance for a telecomm company in Factoria. He says he’s “definitely on the liberal end of the spectrum—he voted for Cary Moon in the primary and general elections last year—but he “tend[s[ not to support the kinds of solutions provided by Kshama Sawant or Nikkita Oliver that engage in class warfare at the expense of good, progressive policy.”

Andrew’s concern about the head tax stemmed from the fact that it “appeared largely to demonize Amazon despite its broad impact on large headcount businesses that don’t necessarily share Amazon’s profit structure. … It is not, generally speaking, the fault of business that the city has not absorbed its growing population or kept housing in check,” he says. Another problem with the head tax, he says, was that its spending plan would have gone all-in on building new housing (which can cost more than $300,000 a unit) instead of spending more on less-expensive solutions like services, diversion, treatment, and rent subsidies until housing supply can catch up with demand.

To that end, Andrew says, “the city needs to upzone like crazy. … I honestly see no reason why all of the single-family zones in the city shouldn’t be upzoned to” low-rise 2 or low-rise 3, which would allow townhouses and two- or three-story apartment buildings. “My townhome has earned as much money in appreciation as I have at my six-figure job in the two years we’ve lived here” thanks in no small part to Seattle’s housing shortage, he says. “This is ridiculous rent-seeking and I don’t need it, nor does any other homeowner who bought in the good old days”. I would rather see housing prices decline to 2010 levels in the city if it meant that everyone had a place to live.”

“In my ideal world, people would be prohibited from living on the street because we had ample shelter, services, care, and support to provide to them through official channels. Only then do we have the right to chase them from view.”

“A More Collaborative Process”

Ian, a city employee who lives in a four-bedroom house in North Seattle with his wife, two children, elderly in-laws, and a roommate, has always voted for every housing, education, and transportation levy, but says he has started considering such measures more carefully in recent years, given the rising cost of living in Seattle. He opposed the head tax because of its potential to cause what he calls “collateral damage”—impacts on companies other than Amazon and “Big Tech” firms that could have easily absorbed the cost of the $275-per-employee tax.

For example, Ian says, “I have a friend who’s a longtime Nucor employee; apparently his management told them point blank that if the tax had passed in its original ($500) form, the plant would close. That mill’s been here for over a century and is not part of the reason why housing and living costs have skyrocketed, so why ‘punish’ them and their employees? How many other businesses like that would meet a similar fate?” Ian says he was also concerned that grocery chains would have increased prices to offset the tax, which would have disproportionately impacted homeless and rent-burdened people. (This was a point hammered home by head tax opponents, who frequently argued that the cost of groceries would go up if the tax passed. Before the head tax was repealed, a phone survey asked Seattle residents whether they would be more or less likely to support the tax if they knew it would raise their grocery prices.)

Ian, like  Neil, believes the progressive revenue task force was the wrong approach; if the city wanted to come up with a tax that would enjoy wide support, he suggests, they should have created  “a more collaborative process, like what happened for the minimum wage increase. I thought it was weird that the Council didn’t pursue a similar strategy for the head tax, and cagey that the Council seemed to avoid talking about which specific business would actually be affected outside of the tech industry.” As I noted after Amazon and other big businesses launched their formal campaign to kill the head tax, former mayor Ed Murray took a much different approach to passing the $15 minimum wage, bringing reluctant businesses, labor groups, and activists to the table to hammer out a compromise everyone was willing to sign off on before rolling it out in a press conference that featured some of the same players who gave thousands of dollars to the anti-head tax campaign.

Ian supports “eliminating single family residential zoning in its current form” altogether, but adds, “I don’t think that the market will solve affordability by itself; having worked in private sector construction management, I know for a fact that it won’t. Developers primarily want to build more expensive housing for incoming tech workers and that’s not going to change any time soon. But zoning changes could still have a significant effect on availability and pricing.” This is the argument made by many urbanists, who point out that if developers can’t or don’t provide huge amounts of housing at the high end to accommodate the thousands of new workers who move to Seattle every year, they will be forced to compete for existing mid-range housing, driving up prices all the way down the line. And today’s high-end housing is tomorrow’s mid-range housing. Ian also supports “open[ing] up City-owned land for dedicated low-income housing development, to help more people on the edge keep from falling into homelessness.” A new law that just went into effect this month allows government agencies, including the city, to provide land to housing developers for free if it fulfills a public purpose; this could lead to more housing on public land, and will, in theory, create an incentive for the city to hang on to property it owns instead of selling it to the highest bidder for a one-time profit.

So Much for Compromise: Amazon-Backed Business Coalition Invests Big to Kill Head Tax

Remember when, just a couple of weeks ago, Amazon held the whole city hostage by halting plans to build one 17-story tower and threatening to sublease space it had planned to rent in another? The issue was the size of the proposed head tax to fund housing and services for some of the thousands of people living homeless in Seattle: A majority of the city council wanted the tax to be $500 per employee on every business with gross revenues of more than $20 million a year (Amazon plus nearly 600 other companies); Amazon said it couldn’t go a cent higher than $250. Over a weekend of frenzied negotiations, in which Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly served as the conduit between Amazon and the city council, that five-member majority evaporated, and on Monday, the council voted unanimously to approve the $275 tax that Amazon supposedly wanted. Amazon resumed construction, everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and the council prepared for the next battle—a debate over how to spend the money, about $47 million a year, that the hard-won head tax would generate.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and it looks like Durkan—and the council—were in over their heads. Amazon may still be building in Seattle, but they have one foot out the door, and last week, they made their first pledge—$25,000—to the “No Tax On Jobs” referendum campaign. The campaign enjoys the backing of not just other corporate behemoths (Kroger, Starbucks, Centurylink) but a who’s who of local developers, hotel industry players, and maritime and industrial businesses. So far, the anti-tax campaign has brought in more than $352,000 in financial pledges—and that doesn’t count the free labor the companies’ anti-tax messaging has received from regular citizens who are mad at the city’s response to homelessness, who are cheerfully gathering signatures at farmers’ markets and community meetings around the city. (The dubious connection between a tax on the largest corporations and ordinary taxpayers is that if companies like Amazon are required to pay additional taxes, they will leave the city, taking all those high-paying jobs with them. The irony that many of the people who are freaked out by this scenario are the same people who stridently oppose the increased traffic and population density that all those “jobs” produce appears to be lost on many head tax proponents.)

It’s hardly surprising that Amazon is looking out for its bottom line. What is a bit surprising is that Durkan seems to have believed that her half-measure “compromise,” which was focused on Amazon and not the rest of Seattle’s politically active business community, would quell a rebellion. When former mayor Ed Murray (who resigned in disgrace after allegations that he sexually abused minors decades ago) wanted to make sure that the $15 minimum wage proposal would stick, he created an unprecedented business- and labor-led advisory committee that included representatives from the Seattle Hospitality Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and local businesses like Ivar’s and Nucor Steel along with labor and social-justice groups. Over five months, that group hammered out a deal that phased the $15 minimum wage in slowly, over seven years, with extra concessions for the small businesses that would be most impacted by the increase. By next year, workers at all but the smallest businesses in Seattle will be making a minimum of $15 an hour.

Four years ago, Seattle Hospitality Group founder Howard Wright stood beside the mayor for a photo op as he signed the legislation making $15 the law of the land. This week, he donated $25,000 to the effort to kill the head tax.

Maybe compromise is harder than it looks.

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Six Things to Think About When Thinking About the Head Tax

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

Weeks of tense negotiations, heated yelling sessions, and a high-stakes game of chicken between the biggest employer in the city and the city council culminated in a unanimous city council vote to approve a $275-per-employee “head tax” on Monday afternoon. But what does the vote mean? Is Amazon’s threat to abandon the city off the table? And where does Seattle go from here?

We’ve put together a handy primer to answer these and other pressing questions about this latest effort to address the growing homelessness crisis in Seattle.

1. The $275-per-head tax the council passed Monday was not the tax a majority of the council wanted to pass. Last Friday, in fact, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee (made up, on this occasion, of all nine council members) approved a much larger tax of $500 per employee, which would have raised around $75 million a year. That vote, however, was too narrow (at 5-4) to withstand a likely veto by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who offered up a $250 version of the tax as a counterproposal last week. The “compromise” most council members agreed to over the weekend raised the total size of the tax by just $25 per employee, enough for Durkan to cheerfully declare victory on Monday evening and for council members who wanted a larger tax, such as council member Mike O’Brien, to say that they had done everything they could.

2. The original $500 tax proposal didn’t come out of nowhere—it was recommended by the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, a group that was established after a group of council members failed to pass a smaller, but similar, business tax during the city council’s 2017 budget process. The task force was charged with coming up with a tax that would produce between $25 million and $75 million in revenues; they ended up proposing a $500-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues after considering, and rejecting, lower tax levels that would apply to a larger number of businesses. By targeting the tax at businesses at the very top of the city’s revenue scale, the task force was attempting to respond to objections by smaller businesses (those with more than $5 million but less than $20 million in gross revenues) operate on narrow profit margins and shouldn’t really count as “big businesses.” The more businesses the task force exempted from the tax, the larger the tax had to be to yield the same revenues, which is how the task force arrived at $500

3. The head tax isn’t enough to address the problem. The tax, which sunsets after five years, would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. Under the spending plan adopted by the council, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median.  The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, and more money for safe parking lots and sanitation stations.

A few hundred housing units is obviously far from adequate to house the more than 8,500 people who were homeless in Seattle at the beginning of 2017, when All Home did its most recent homeless census—a number that has likely only grown since then. In fact, a report commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., concluded that the county needs an additional 14,000 units of affordable just to address the current needs of people experiencing homelessness in King County. Building that much housing and addressing the other needs of King County’s homeless population would cost the public and private sectors $410 million a year, the independent report concluded, and that’s only if the annual rate of people falling into homelessness does not increase. King County would need to spend between $164 million and $215 million a year to pay its “share” of that $410 million total.

Michael Maddux, a staffer for council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office, crunched the numbers in the report and determined that Seattle’s “share” of that countywide total would be somewhere between $59 million and $79 million. The $47 million in annual spending that the $275 head tax would provide falls short of the bottom end of that range.

4. The tax that passed Monday is just the beginning of the story. Although the national news crews packed up their cameras and left before the council could begin discussing how to spend the new revenues on Monday, the spending plan is in many ways more critical than the size of the tax. The plan Durkan proposed for her $250 tax would have focused the vast majority of its spending on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and other stopgap solutions, rather than housing, building just 250 units of new affordable housing over five years.

On Monday, the council approved a spending plan that took the opposite approach, emphasizing housing over temporary shelter. However, the real debate will come later this year, when Durkan proposes an implementation plan for the tax as part of the city’s annual budget process. (The spending plan adopted this week sets the council’s priorities, but is itself a nonbinding resolution.) That plan, and the budget process, will give proponents of the Durkan spending model another opportunity to attempt to recalibrate the spending balance in the tax proposal.

The city’s adopted Pathways Home plan, which directs the city to focus its homeless service spending on programs that get people off the streets and into “permanent housing” as quickly as possible, recommends that the city do the exact opposite of what Durkan recommended in her original spending plan. Last year, the city adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers that actually eliminated funding for a large number of basic shelter beds, on the grounds that those shelter providers failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. Pathways Home is controversial, in part, because it penalizes nonprofits that serve the hardest to house, but the “housing first” principles that underlie it are right in line with the McKinsey report that suggested a lack of housing is the fundamental problem underlying Seattle’s homelessness crisis.

5. Seattle has continued to insist that it won’t continue to “go it alone” on funding for homelessness, but King County has yet to step up and propose its own tax plan to supplement Seattle’s. Although Durkan announced Monday that King County will provide $5.7 million in one-time funding to help keep shelters and authorized encampments open in 2018, the county has been noticeably quiet about what it will do to fund housing and services on an ongoing basis. One Table,” a regional task force made up of elected officials, advocates, and business leaders from across King County, began meeting in January. So far, they have announced that Pearl Jam will hold two concerts in Seattle to raise at least $1 million for homelessness—and not much else. The group’s last two public meetings were canceled with minimal public notice, and the closest they have gotten to a set of recommendations is nine-page document, released quietly last month, that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. That document no longer appears to be available on King County’s website.

6. Finally, the passage of the head tax is unlikely to end the vitriol that has accompanied the debate over homelessness in the past few months, exemplified by a recent town hall meeting at a church in Ballard where homeowners shouted down a panel of elected leaders and progressive revenue task force members with bellows of “BULLSHIT!” “FUCK YOU!” and “RESIGN NOW!”  The problem with any spending plan that fails to house enough people to make an appreciable dent in homelessness is that it leaves too many people on the streets, opening the city up to the predictable objection that “no matter how much money we give them, the problem keeps getting worse”  and the problem with any spending plan that takes a large number of people off the streets and stuffs them into new “tiny house” camps and shelters is that those people have nowhere to go and shelter becomes a way of warehousing people indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the problem with spending the amount that experts consider “enough” is that it tends to inspire fierce pushback from the business community. (According to Maddux’s report, a thorough response may require about $69 million per year from Seattle and $120 million from the rest of the county.)  Amazon threatened to stop construction on one of its downtown projects over the original $75 million head tax proposal, and said on Monday that the adopted $47 million tax “causes us to question our growth here” in Seattle. That kind of talk tends to send those who have benefited from the recent Amazon-fueled boom, such as homeowners who have seen the value of their properties skyrocket to an average of $820,000 over the last few years, into a tizzy. Amazon may not leave Seattle, or even slow its growth here—Fast Company, the business magazine, called the company’s latest statement “passive-aggressive and vaguely threatening”—but the possibility that the company, which just reported $1.6 billion in quarterly profits, might retaliate against the city remains a guillotine that the company is more than happy to hold over the heads of those who have benefited from its success.

Afternoon Crank: I Don’t Understand the Evidentiary Value

 

Image result for cascade bicycle club

1. For the past week, local right-wing talk show host Dori Monson has been on a jag about Cascade Bicycle Club, accusing the bicycling advocacy group of engaging in “gangland” tactics in their years-long effort to complete the “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman multi-use trail in Ballard. Monson’s evidence for this “gangster” activity? A single email from 2014, sent by Cascade policy director Brock Howell to former executive director Elizabeth Kiker, which reads, in full:

  Tue, 28 Oct 2014 16:23:00 -0700

Re: Josh Brower’s jacket Brock Howell <brock.howell@cascadebicycleclub.org> Elizabeth Kiker <elizabeth.kiker@cascadebicycleclub.org>

I would love to go around the litigation. Our best bet is to get this C.D. Stimson development project funded & built. Once it’s built, the operations of Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel and other light industry will likely have to be limited during evening hours due to noise issues —- especially if the development is a hotel, apartment or condo. Once their operations are impacted, it’s only a matter of time before they sell out and give up the litigation. Also, Brower’s “Plan B” will likely be completed in 2016 during a major maintenance project to Leary Way/Ave. Or, rather, we’ll at least get a road diet with bike lanes on Leary. So, in terms of meeting the needs of bicyclists in Ballard, some of the pressure should be lifted from us, and we can push for a true completion of the Burke-Gilman Trail no matter how long it takes.   In the interim, I’m looking forward to shoulder improvements to Shilshole Ave, which is supposed to go to bid this November (basically 1.5 years late) with construction soon there after.   The Connect Ballard team is working on an end-run-around the anti-business framing by building a business coalition in support of fixing the Missing Link. And Mary & I have talked about using Ballard as an ideal pilot neighborhood for creating Seattle’s first Bike-Friendly Business District.   So lots of good things potentially happening. With 240 Connect Ballard team members, hopefully we can make some things happen quickly.   -Brock

No context is provided for the email, and I was unable to obtain the rest of the email chain. However, here is some context that might help explain why a nearly four-year-old conversation between two people who have long since left Cascade might be surfacing now: After waging battle against the Missing Link for years, a group of business owners, including Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel, are trying to convince the new mayor, Jenny Durkan, to kill the project. The email, which the coalition attached to a letter rejecting a proposed settlement in their ongoing lawsuit against the city. bolsters their argument that bike activists really just want to destroy local businesses.

Absurd as that idea might sound, it’s basically the story the anti-Missing Link coalition’s attorney, Josh Brower, has been peddling for years. In fact, Brower tried to introduce the exact same email as evidence of an anti-business plot last year in a hearing before the city hearing examiner, who rejected the email as irrelevant. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of that hearing, which begins with city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil expressing skepticism about Brower’s claim that it proves Cascade’s plan is to gentrify Ballard so that industrial businesses won’t be around to complain anymore.

EXAMINER VANCIL: [T]he concept you’re getting at is this land use pressure. We had an expert witness addressing those land use pressures, the tensions between the different land uses that are coming. I’m — I’m not sure how we’re getting at that through this. And we had this discussion when we didn’t admit this — this email. Even if this is an accurate — you know, if I sort of apply, sort of, a summary judgment standard, if — if this is exactly how Cascade feels about this and they would love to see every business gone in Ballard, I don’t see how that’s a land use pressure. It’s the opinion of a — of a nonprofit organization. It — it’s  not a … zoning or land use code pressure that’s coming from a use. And this is a hearing inherently analyzing — we are looking at the  analysis of different land uses and whether it’s adequate or not. So I’m just not — I mean, I get it that this is a good stick in the eye to Cascade but I don’t understand the evidentiary value of it.

MR. BROWER: Sure. And it’s not meant to be a stick in the eye, Mr. Examiner.

EXAMINER VANCIL: It comes across that way  very strongly.

MR. BROWER: Okay.

EXAMINER VANCIL: And, so I’m having a hard time understanding why —

MR. BROWER: Certainly.

EXAMINER VANCIL: — particularly with the limited time we have, how this is something we really want to be spending our time on.   

Brower says he did not provide the email, which was one of “hundreds or thousands” his team obtained through the discovery process, to Monson, his fellow talk-show host Todd Herman (who called Howell to confirm the email), or Safe Seattle, which posted the email in mid-April. Brower says he does not agree with Monson’s characterization of Howell and Cascade as “gangsters,” but adds, “I do believe CBC, Brock and other CBC staff have a very heavy handed and personal-attack approach to their advocacy. When CBC does not get what it wants it resorts to personal attacks, which I think is inappropriate in civil discourse.” Brower went on Monson’s show on Tuesday, where he posited that Cascade is “truly trying to put those [Ballard industrial] businesses out of business.” Although Brower stayed on message and avoided personal attacks, he did not object when Monson accused Cascade of engaging in “gangster stuff,” “raw corruption,” and “collud[ing] with developers to put condos on the waterfront where maritime businesses used to be.”

2. Learn to trust the Crank: At last night’s meeting of the 47th District Democrats, Debra Entenman, a field representative for Congressman Adam Smith, announced that she will be challenging state 47th District Rep. Mark Hargrove, a Republican, this year. Entenman has the support of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which funds and campaigns for Democratic candidates.

Earlier this week, ousted King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober told the Seattle Times that he was running for the position as an “independent Democrat.” The surprise announcement came just two days before Entenman was expected to announce she was running, and just one week after Stober was forced to resign from his $98,000-a-year job at King County over allegations of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. (Three separate investigations and a 14-hour “trial” by the King County Democrats’ executive board concluded that Stober was guilty of the vast majority of the charges against him, which also included allegations of financial misconduct.)

The 47th District won’t have its formal endorsement process until later this year, but the district’s chairman, Aaron Schuler, announced that he was removing Stober from his position as sergeant-at-arms for the district, citing the fact that Stober had threatened one of the group’s members via text message and is running for office without the support of his party. (I have seen the text message and can confirm that Stober threatened the recipient if she spoke against him politically.) During the same meeting, another member said she felt threatened by Stober’s supporters during the process that resulted in his resignation. “I felt that I was a potential target,” she said. During a panel discussion later in the meeting, Washington State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said she hoped that what happened in the King County party would be “a cautionary tale around the state. … I’ve gotta say, as Democrats, one of our tenets is that we believe women,” Podlodowski continued. “I think we could have done a lot of things better.”

3. The One Table task force, which was charged with coming up with regional solutions for the root causes of homelessness and came back with a plan that included just 5,000 units of housing over the next three years across the entire King County region, was supposed to hold its final meeting today in Auburn. But the long-scheduled meeting was canceled quietly and abruptly earlier this week, and removed from the One Table website with no public notice.  One possible reason for the cancellation: An upcoming vote on the city’s proposed employee hours tax, the outcome of which could dramatically alter the task force’s final recommendations. Yesterday, after Amazon effectively threatened to pick up its toys and leave if Seattle passes the tax, the City Council’s finance committee decided to postpone additional discussion on the proposal, prompting speculation that the council will not hit its own self-imposed mid-May deadline for voting on the tax. The tax is expected to bring in $75 million a year.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Unprecedented” Bipartisan Testimony

1. The state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces campaign finance rules, keeps tabs on lobbyists, and provides a library’s worth of public information about every campaign in the state, has been inundated over the past year by citizen complaints. One very particular citizen, actually: Glen Morgan, the former Freedom Foundation fellow and director of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, who has filed nearly 300 complaints with the agency against Democrats and progressive groups in the past three years. (He has filed a smaller number of complaints with the attorney general’s office, which has 45 days to respond before a citizen filing a complaint can indicate their intent to file a lawsuit; if another 10 days go by with no action from the state, the citizen complainant can sue the person or campaign he feels is violating campaign-finance law.)

Some Democratic organizations have spent down their treasuries and dissolved their political arms in response to the onslaught; others are facing fines of tens of thousands of dollars for violations ranging from  late reports to reports they failed to file at all. This is less of an issue for large, well-funded organizations like the state Democrats or unions like SEIU 775 than it is for small, volunteer-run district party organizations, which often have only a few hundred dollars in the bank and can scarce afford to pay attorneys, much less cough up $10,000-plus fines. The complaints Morgan files are often about violations most observers would find trivial—failing to report the number of copies that were made when paying a printer, for example, or filing a required report one day late.

Morgan, who started filing complaints after local Democrats alleged he violated campaign finance law in a series of misleading robocalls against Democrats running for Thurston County Commissioner in 2016, has only filed complaints against Democratic groups, but he contends his point isn’t that Democrats are uniquely bad at following the law—it’s that the whole system is broken. “Nobody cares about a conservative activist saying all this. It’s irrelevant,” Morgan says. “So you have to demonstrate it by proving that there’s a problem with the widest variety of people possible.”

But Dmitri Iglitzin, a Seattle attorney who has represented several of the Democratic Party groups Morgan is pursuing, says that while Morgan “says he wants to create a crisis and show how screwed up the system is—which he’s done—the fact that he’s only gone after progressive groups and is a former Freedom Foundation Fellow and head of a right-wing organization (the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights) shows that his agenda is to wipe out Democratic party organizations and progressive organizations from the political sphere.”

Whether or not that’s the case, reforming the original law that led to the current, rather byzantine system of campaign-finance reporting—and that turned the Attorney General’s office into a useful bludgeon for activists like Morgan—is a bipartisan issue. Yesterday, the heads of the King County Democrats, Bailey Stober, and the King County Republicans, Lori Sotelo, testified together before the House State Government, Elections, and Information Technology Committee about a bill proposed by Rep. Zach Hudgins that would force complainants like Morgan to file their complaints at the PDC first instead of filing simultaneous complaints with the attorney general’s office. The PDC would have 60 days to take action on a complaint before a citizen could escalate it up to the AG, and the AG would have a longer time—60 days, not 45—to decide whether to take action. The bill would also bar citizens from filing complaints with the AG’s office for violations that amount to less than $25,000.

In his testimony, Stober said the PDC had been “weaponized” against political parties. Sotelo added that the two party leaders had taken the “unprecedented action” of appearing together to demonstrate how important it was to reform the state public disclosure law. They were less sanguine about a separate provision in the bill that would increase the maximum the PDC can fine a candidate or committee from  $10,000 to $50,000.

Morgan testified too, calling the bill an inadequate response to the problems with the public disclosure law. He did not say whether he was on board with the provision quintupling the fine for violating the law.

2. The last major hurdle preventing the city from completing the “Missing Link” of the Burke-Gilman trail in Ballard fell yesterday, when Seattle deputy hearing examiner Ryan Vancil decided that the city’s environmental impact statement is adequate and rejected opponents’ arguments against building the trail. “The weight of the evidence presented supports the determination of the [final environmental impact statement] that the Preferred Alternative will improve safety for non-motorized users over existing conditions,” Vancil wrote in a 20-point, 21-page opinion dismantling every argument the opponents made.

It has been a long road for trail proponents, who have been battling to complete the 1.4-mile gap in the trail for nearly three decades. Currently, cyclists heading through Ballard on the Burke-Gilman must detour through a path that is poorly maintained and crisscrossed by multiple railroad tracks; accidents and injuries are common. Missing Link opponents, including Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel and the King County Labor Council, argued that the presence of cyclists in an industrial area would threaten businesses’ viability and endanger jobs.

In a tweet posted right after the decision came down, council member Mike O’Brien—a daily cyclist and Missing Link proponent since before his election to the council, in 2009—said, “At last! We can move forward to complete the missing link of the Burke-Gilman Trail. I look forward to [Mayor Jenny Durkan] and [the Seattle Department of Transportation[ taking quick action to complete the Burke-Gilman, providing a safer and sound alignment for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and trucks.”

3. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce picked a new leader to replace outgoing CEO (and former deputy mayor) Maud Daudon yesterday: Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who will be the first black woman (and the second woman ever) to lead the business group. As Sound Transit board vice-chair, Strickland was a vocal advocate for light rail and a cautionary voice against legislation, just passed by the state  House, that could cut funding for ST3 by more than $2 billion.

By business-establishment standards, Seattle’s business community is unusually progressive, often endorsing measures (like the recent Sound Transit 3 ballot measure and the recent housing levy) supported by the left. The choice of Strickland over other potential leaders (former deputy mayor and Downtown Seattle Association head Kate Joncas was rumored to be in the running) may help assuage fears that the Chamber would respond to recent tax talk in Seattle (including discussion of the employee hours/”head” tax, which they oppose) by choosing a more conventional or conservative leader to take the chamber in a more conservative direction.

 

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

A Proposed City Program Could Save Seattle’s Legacy Businesses—but Should It?

This article originally ran in the February issue of Seattle magazine

If you haven’t been to Husky Deli in West Seattle’s Alaska Junction in a while, don’t worry: It hasn’t changed much since the last time you were there. There’s still the same ice cream counter featuring flavors like Husky Flake, Almond Joy and spumoni; the old-school deli with classic made-to-order sandwiches; the shelves stocked with staples and an oddball selection of British treats—Hobnobs, Marmite and Kinder Bueno bars.

It’s the kind of place that may still exist in your neighborhood—an old-fashioned grocery store and gathering place, owned and operated by the same family since 1932, when the place sold chocolate-dipped ice cream bars to local schoolkids. Jack Miller, the deli’s apple-cheeked, barrel-chested paterfamilias, started working here as soon as he was “old enough to help make ice cream”—around age 6 or 7, he thinks. He took it over from his father (who took it over from his father) in 1975.

“When people come back to town after being gone, they come in here, because they want to see what’s still here,” Miller says. On 9/11, he recalls, “We were full—people came in because they wanted to run into some place where they knew they were going to see people they know, and Husky’s is that kind of place.”

City Council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and has lived in the neighborhood for decades, wants to make sure businesses like Husky can survive the rising rents and booming development that have doomed neighborhood institutions across the city—the Harvard Exit Theatre, Ballard’s Sunset Bowl, West Seattle’s Alki Tavern. Last November, Herbold secured $100,000 in the 2017 city budget (approved in an 8–1 council vote) to study the cost and scope of creating a “legacy business program,” to help “preserve businesses that contribute to the City’s unique culture and character and are at imminent risk of closure.” That includes businesses like Husky, which ranked fourth on a questionnaire Herbold posted on her council website asking, “What business do you fear will go away?” In that questionnaire, Scarecrow Video in the University District came in at No. 1.

“We need a bridge to our past,” Herbold says. “Development happens, growth happens, but the people who made this city what it is are still here.”

The San Francisco program on which Herbold’s proposal is loosely based includes both a registry of legacy businesses and a dedicated fund (passed by 57 percent of San Francisco voters in 2015) to pay for direct assistance to historic businesses, along with financial incentives for landlords to keep renting to those businesses. Herbold says she doesn’t plan to propose a property tax in Seattle. Instead, she hopes to provide incentives and assistance to businesses through existing city funds. Assistance could include help from the city’s Office of Economic Development with marketing, relocation or complying with complex regulations.

David Campos, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors member who spearheaded the legacy business effort there, says that in San Francisco, the main threat to historic businesses is rising rents: “A lot of these legacy businesses were not getting long-term leases, because the owners of these properties saw that they could make many times more money if they kicked them out and rented to somebody else.” The grants to property owners, which are capped at $22,500 a year, help make up the difference between market rent and what the businesses are able to pay; the grants to the businesses, capped at $50,000 a year, help businesses pay for ongoing operating costs, whether or not they stay in their original location. The program just started issuing its first grants.

One of the challenges of the legacy business project is defining just what bumps a business into the “legacy” category. San Francisco has grappled with this, without coming up with a definitive answer. Campos, who represents San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Mission District, says the case-by-case process is “intangible and very neighborhood-specific,” with businesses chosen based on testimony from the community and a hearing before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Seattle’s definition may be similarly subjective, though Herbold says, “It has to be something other than nostalgia. I don’t see this as being a way to a save every quirky little hole-in-the-wall business in town.” The point is to heed community input. “It is really important that we don’t have a legacy business template, but rather, that each community has the ability to identify what’s important for them.”

Jaimee Garbacik, a local author whose multimedia historical mapping project, Ghosts of Seattle Past, collects “the venues, restaurants, shops and institutions we’ve lost to development,” according to its websites, is a vocal advocate for Herbold’s proposal. The way to make sure “legacy business” isn’t just a synonym for “quirky dive bar” is to work with and survey neighborhood residents from all backgrounds and find out what matters to them, she says. “I would hope that a space with cultural significance to a specific community, including gathering places, historically significant spaces that don’t qualify for landmark status and businesses that offer specialized services should be distinguishable from somewhere that merely has niche flavor,” Garbacik says. And just because defining what counts as a “legacy business” is difficult, the city shouldn’t be dissuaded from undertaking the project.

Of course, not everyone is in favor of preservation for preservation’s sake. Advocates for housing development tend to be skeptical of proposals that would require preserving the buildings where legacy businesses are located, arguing that this will discourage new housing and serve as another avenue for neighborhood activists to stymie projects they don’t like.

One such skeptic is Roger Valdez, a lobbyist for local apartment developers. Sitting at a table at Joe Bar, a quirky little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop on North Capitol Hill, he notes: “Whatever Lisa says, I know there are going to be people who use [her project] to stop development. It feels like another opportunity for people who want to monkey-wrench the [development] process.” And change, he says, is inevitable. Some businesses that fit into a neighborhood 20 years ago no longer do. “Small businesses are just hard to run, and sometimes the neighborhood changes and doesn’t support that business anymore. I don’t see how you’re going to put your finger on the scale and say, ‘Nobody goes to Café Whatever anymore, but there’s a group of people who want to save it, so let’s save it.’”

Ethan Phelps-Goodman, founder of the development-tracking website Seattle in Progress, spoke recently at an event curated by Garbacik about lost or threatened Seattle institutions. He agrees that small, community-based businesses add character to a neighborhood, but worries that the definition of that “character” will be determined by a narrow slice of neighborhood residents. “You can say that it will be a community-driven process, but we’ve seen repeatedly how without extreme care, open community processes are captured by the most engaged, connected and already privileged members of a community”—that is, the single-family homeowners who often show up to oppose new development already. Phelps-Goodman argues that the best way to keep small businesses viable is to create new mixed-use development that includes spaces for both old and new small businesses. “By far the most important thing we can do is address the shortages of affordable small commercial spaces that are the root of the problem,” he says.

It’s closing in on noon back at Husky Deli, and nearly every seat is taken in the small dining area. Miller, the owner, knows he and his business are in an enviable position. As owner of the building, he’s the master of his fate. His building will only be torn down for redevelopment if he decides to take that step. “We’ve got no plans to do that.” While redevelopment could mean a financial windfall, there are other important things—like making the kind of human connections his place of business fosters. It’s true even for newcomers to the city. “They start off eating at Chipotle and all the places that they know, but pretty soon they realize that it’s pretty cool to go to a place that’s been there a long time.” Herbold sees her proposal as a bridge to that kind of past—to a time when guys like Miller passed their businesses down from generation to generation, and everyone bought their ice cream by the cone.

City Considers Protections for “Legacy Businesses”

This post originally appeared on Next City.

Wedgwood Salad

Image via Serious Eats.

The Wedgwood Broiler, in a neighborhood of single-family bungalows in far North Seattle, is a blue-collar bar and restaurant that has been around for more than 50 years, and has the look of a place last renovated sometime in the 1980s. There’s the green wall-to-wall carpet, the mauve-and-mint patterned wallpaper in the ladies’ room, and the lighting set to “permanent twilight.” Smoking has been banned in Seattle bars for years now, but the place still looks like it reeks of smoke. The menu — grilled steaks, hamburgers and salads with Cheez-Its for croutons — is purely vintage, except for the 2016 prices.

The Broiler is the kind of old-school place that people mention when they talk fondly about “old Seattle” — basic, rough-hewn, unpretentious. It’s also a member of an increasingly endangered species: Businesses that thrived in a pre-tech-boom Seattle are being replaced by sleek doggie-friendly brewpubs and high-end doughnut shops. Old institutions, many of them in low-slung buildings along once-sleepy commercial strips, are disappearing amid new development.

Seattle City Council Member Lisa Herbold wants to make sure businesses like the Broiler — and Husky Deli in West Seattle, Scarecrow Video near the University of Washington and the Ballard Smoke Shop dive bar in northwest Seattle — don’t go the way of the Sunset Bowl, Piecora’s Pizza and other beloved local institutions that have closed in the last decade. To that end, she’s proposed a “legacy business” program that would identify such neighborhood institutions and provide them with financial or regulatory support to help them survive as Seattle continues to boom.

“It’s important that we preserve a cultural bridge to our past,” Herbold says.

Her idea, which is still in its infancy — the city council just allocated $100,000 to study what a legacy business program might look like — is loosely based on a similar program in San Francisco, which has also lost older businesses to new development. Voters passed a proposition for it by a margin of 57 to 43 percent in 2015. Businesses that are 30 years or older, “have contributed to their neighborhood’s history,” and agree to maintain their identity can apply for placement on the city’s Legacy Business Registry.

Once the mayor or a member of the Board of Supervisors nominates a business, and the Small Business Commission approves the nomination, the business becomes eligible for grants of up to $50,000 to help with rent, renovations or other costs. (Building owners could also get grants to help subsidize below-market rents.) So far, about 300 businesses have qualified, and the program — which got off to a slow start, apparently in part because the initial legislation didn’t fund a staffer to administer the grants — is on track to fund grants of about $3 million a year.

At this point, Herbold’s Seattle legacy business program doesn’t include a dedicated funding source. Instead, it would be administered through the city’s Office of Economic Development, which would provide help with marketing, regulatory compliance and relocation costs for businesses forced to move to a new location by development.

“I want to be more creative around the types of support that eventually might be available, rather than to presuppose taxpayer funds,” Herbold says. In her view, there are “forces that are creating impacts, and communities that are feeling the impacts, and I just want to create a space for a small handful of eligible businesses to have the city as a partner in facilitating conversations between them.”

Skeptics of Herbold’s proposal suggest that development is inevitable, and that protecting old businesses may come at the cost of encouraging new ones. And they point out that, in Seattle at least, “preservation” efforts are often smokescreens for anti-development activism. For example, one business that made the “threatened” list in Herbold’s survey was the West Seattle PCC Market — an outpost of a local grocery chain that opened in the late 1980s, and which happens to be the site of a hotly disputed new mixed-use development.

“This is all about redevelopment,” says Roger Valdez, a local lobbyist for small developers and the founder of Smart Growth Seattle. “If you’re talking about a business closing because the owner doesn’t know how to run a business, is the city really going to intervene in that situation? I think it’s not fair to be picking winners and losers in the realm of small businesses.” Herbold says just as firmly: “This is not about development. But I want development to consider the things that are important to our communities.”

One of the challenges Herbold and other advocates of legacy business protections face is defining what counts as a “legacy” business. David Campos, the San Francisco supervisor who spearheaded the legacy business project in that city, says the criteria they use are “intangible and very neighborhood-specific,” and Herbold says Seattle’s definition may be similarly subjective.

“It is really important that we don’t have a legacy business template, but rather, that each community has the ability to identify what’s important for them,” she says. “Development happens, growth happens, but the people who made this city what it is are still here.”

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