Morning Crank: Rethinking the Vaunted Neighborhood Plans of the ’90s

In a move that could reveal hard truths about the city’s vaunted 1990s-era neighborhood planning process, city council member Teresa Mosqueda wants the city to do a full race and social justice analysis of the so-called urban village strategy, which concentrates all new development in narrow bands near arterial streets and preserves two-thirds of the city exclusively for detached single-family houses. The urban village strategy was crafted more than 20 years ago by neighborhood groups that were dominated, then as now, by white homeowners who wanted to ensure that the “character” of their neighborhoods would remain unchanged. The monoculture of exclusive single-family zoning, and the “character” of Seattle’s suburban-style neighborhoods, is a legacy of redlining—the process by which people of color and renters were systematically excluded from many parts of Seattle.

Introducing her proposal at Thursday’s council budget hearing, Mosqueda noted that at the time the urban village strategy was adopted, in 1994, there was no Race and Social Justice Initiative. That came in 2004, and “it wasn’t until 10 years after that that the race and social justice strategy was expanded to include policies that impact the urban environment,” Mosqueda said. “One of our questions is whether or not we are investing in urban villages equitably throughout Seattle. … I’m interested in whether or not we are crafting policies that are allowing more people to live here.”

The city recently completed a race and social equity analysis of a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to build second and third units on their property. That analysis found, not surprisingly, that allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments will disproportionately benefit white Seattle residents, because most homeowners in Seattle are white. (See chart, below). However, the analysis (like the environmental impact statement the city recently completed on the proposal) also found that allowing more backyard and basement apartments wouldn’t contribute to displacement; and it suggested several steps the city could take to make it easier for homeowners of color to build accessory units, such as pre-approved building plans and assistance with permits and financing. A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions. Neighborhood activists, in other words, are likely to oppose it. Channeling them Thursday, council member Sally Bagshaw raised objections to Mosqueda’s proposal, which she said might be “duplicative” with work the city has already done. (It isn’t.) “Good heavens, this feels like déjà vu to me,” Bagshaw said. Council member Rob Johnson, who supports Mosqueda’s idea in principle, said, “I think that the issues that council member Mosqueda brings up are very appropriate for us to consider,” but suggested that the council might fund it later in the year.

Neighborhood activists, ironically, actually raised the need for race and social justice analysis in their ongoing attempt to prevent the city from implementing its Mandatory Housing Affordability strategy arguing (disingenuously) that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal to allow slightly denser development on 6 percent of the city’s single-family land. (Developers building under the new rules would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into an affordable housing fund. The new rules have gone into effect in denser parts of the city, including downtown). They’re still fighting that one, a year after the council passed the legislation.

It’s hard to quantify how much funding for affordable housing the city has lost because single-family activists have locked MHA up with a series of seemingly endless appeals. Hard, but not impossible. About a week ago, Johnson asked the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development to do an analysis of how much money the city has forfeited from developments that would have happened under the new rules if they had gone into effect a year ago. “I’ve asked them to run the numbers about projects that might have vested under MHA, had we adopted it when the bill was first sent down to us,” Johnson told me yesterday. “As you can imagine, vesting times really vary, so  it’s difficult analysis for us to do.” However, Johnson hopes that by looking at the development cycle that just ended, the city can get a sense of how much affordable housing Seattle has foregone while activists have filed appeal after appeal.

A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions.

Speaking of appeals, the Queen Anne Community Council filed another one against the accessory dwelling unit proposal yesterday, arguing that the proposal—which would add about 2600 basement and backyard apartments, citywide, over what will likely be built anyway—”ignores, disrespects, and eliminates the citywide Neighborhood Plans.” The appeal, filed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan and his attorney, Jeff Eustis, reiterates Kaplan’s claim that the plan will upzone the entire city, effectively turning single-family neighborhoods into wall-to-wall apartment blocks. The complaint concludes, spaghetti-at-the-wall style, by listing a litany of supposed ills that will befall neighborhoods if the city allows a few thousand more backyard and basement units in a city of 700,000: the “displacement and destruction of older, more modest and
affordable housing, the displacement of populations, the loss of historic buildings, the change in neighborhood character, the unstudied stresses on existing utilities and infrastructure, the amount of available on-street parking. and the ability of
residents and emergency vehicles to circulate through neighborhood streets, and other population pressures among many more.”

Johnson notes one potential bright side to all this delay. If the appeals of MHA and the accessory dwelling legislation drag on indefinitely,  he says, the city’s planning department will have more free time to do the kind of analysis of single-family zoning that Mosqueda is requesting.

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The J is for Judge: It Takes One to Know One

Critics of Seattle’s out-of-whack zoning scheme—two-thirds of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family housing—have been arguing for decades now that Seattle needs to grow up (or build up, actually) and function like an actual city, not a suburb.

This isn’t an argument about aesthetics. It’s an argument for housing affordability and environmental sustainability, both urgent issues given the homelessness crisis and the latest climate change data from the U.N., respectively.

The blunt argument from pro-city urbanists is this: The Magnolia First ideology that single-family zoning stalwarts adhere to  (or Laurelhurst First ideology or Wallingford First ideology or Phinney Ridge First ideology) selfishly defends an unsustainable lifestyle of privilege and exclusion (including the delusion that people have a constitutional right to free parking in front of their houses).

In short: The NIMBYs’ aesthetic position—that we must preserve the “character” of exclusionary neighborhoods—is undermining Seattle’s livability and affordability for the rest of us.

If you think the urbanist critique of single-family zoning lacks credibility because hipster urbanists supposedly don’t have kids or haven’t lived here long enough or are too young or don’t own houses (most people in Seattle are renters, by the way), let me introduce you to the latest critic of Seattle’s refusal to grow up and act like a city: An actual suburbanite, who lives in an actual suburb, state Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1, Maltby).

Palumbo is proposing a bill  that would make Seattle do something it refuses to do on its own: Upzone its suburban-style landscape to take on more density.

The 45-year-old state senator argues that Seattle’s failure to play its designated urban role in our region is undermining the state’s anti-sprawl Growth Management Act.  Palumbo’s point: Seattle’s refusal to accept more growth is causing sprawl, the very opposite of what smart cities are supposedly about. (Maltby is northeast of Kirkland and Woodinville, and due east of Lynnwood.)

Sen. Palumbo’s state legislative district (which largely overlaps with Snohomish County Council Districts 4 and 5 on the charts below) has, in fact, seen  growth on par with Seattle’s, at least as a percentage of population—around 14 percent, including 17.4 percent growth in portions of the district. It’d be one thing if that spike in growth simply represented small-town numbers growing to slightly bigger small-town numbers. But we’re talking an extra 40,000 people added to a population of 285,000. It’s as if everyone on Mercer Island picked up and moved to Palumbo’s district. And then a couple of years later, half of Mercer Island picked up and did it again.

Seattle itself has grown 17.2 percent over the same time (2010 to 2017). But Palumbo isn’t arguing Seattle hasn’t grown significantly; he’s pointing out that it should be growing a lot more than the suburbs if the region is going to grow sustainably.

“They are taking growth,” he says of Seattle. “The problem is the growth they aren’t taking is moving at too high a level to places that aren’t equipped to deal with it and service it. Snohomish is taking the growth that should be in Seattle,” he reasons. “If Seattle only built the types of housing people wanted and needed,” he adds, it would also increase housing supply, slowing the increase in housing prices that are nudging people out to the remote suburbs. Sprawl.

Palumbo condemns Seattle’s rigid zoning because, he says, it’s forcing families who would actually prefer to live in the city to move into his suburban southwest Snohomish County district instead. “Seattle is zoned low-density, single-family,” he says.  As a result, “people can’t even afford one of the few and overpriced houses there, and they have to move. And they move out to the suburbs. ”

Why, there oughta be a law!

Lucky thing Palumbo is a state senator.

According to Palumbo, his draft bill (which the Urbanist first reported earlier this month),  would require increased density within a mile of frequent transit service—areas near light rail stations or near bus stops where buses arrive at least every 15 minutes. Although the details of the bill could change, Palumbo envisions a mandatory density that slopes down as development fans out: 150 dwelling units per acre within a quarter-mile of frequent transit; 45 units per acre within half a mile of transit; and 14 units per acre within a 1 mile radius. (Asked whether cities could build more densely than the minimums required by his bill, Palumbo said he hadn’t thought of that.)

Palumbo tells me his legislation isn’t a one-size-fits-all bill, and those particular numbers are only intended for Seattle. Different numbers would apply to transit-friendly neighborhoods in smaller cities and towns where transit is less frequent and where target densities are lower. (He also acknowledged that his “units per acre” metric was a bit backwards—that is, you can’t logically prescribe units-per acre rules on an individual development without a universal picture of all the proposed developments in the upzoned area.)

He said his metric was simply meant to describe the ultimate density he envisions, and that Seattle could apply units per lot and floor area ratio metrics to achieve the 14 units per acre within his 1-mile radius performance standard, for example.

Seattle is already (sorta) moving in this direction, though as cautiously as a cat burglar tip-toeing up the stairs.

This year, the council is taking up a plan that’s been in play since 2015 to upzone a tiny percentage of the city’s vast single-family neighborhoods. Focusing on the edges of single family zones that are near designated residential urban villages, the city proposal, known as  Mandatory Housing Affordability (it simultaneously makes developers fund affordable housing), would upzone six percent of single family zoned land into slightly denser residential small lot zones, low-rise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones. The changes would help create  what pro-housing urbanists call the “Missing Middle.”

The density increase Palumbo’s proposing within a half and quarter mile of frequent transit service—45 and 150 units per acre, respectively—would already be allowed (though not required) under both current Seattle zoning and under MHA changes to Lowrise zones and Neighborhood Commercial zones.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the MHA rezone area  in strict single-family zones (so about four percent of that current zoning)—the   Residential Small Lot upzone—would permit density of about 20 units per acre, according to some back-of-the-envelope math city staffers did after they read about Sen. Palumbo’s proposal for comparison’s sake.

Again, while not required (as it is in Palumbo’s formula), that would actually be slightly more permissive than the density Palumbo is proposing a mile away from transit stops (his 14 units per acre). But that’s only in the sliver of single family areas rezoned under MHA; under Palumbo’s mandate, the larger swath of single family areas left untouched by MHA would face a significant upzone.

In other words, when it comes to the majority of Seattle’s single family zones, Mr. Palumbo of Maltby is far more woke about requiring dense, sustainable land use than Seattle and its leaders—even though today’s leading climate scientists are demanding dramatic action to address pending environmental calamity.

Seattle leaders do not have a good track record when it comes to standing up to the Magnolia First faction and making this change. Back in 2009, former Mayor Greg Nickels initially backed  a Futurewise/Transportation Choices Coalition state bill that would have promoted more density around transit hubs. But when traditional neighborhood activists said the proposal would turn Seattle into Mumbai, intimidating Nickels’ wary deputy mayor Tim Ceis, Nickels stepped away from the bill as his reelection loomed. (The legislation failed.)

And, of course, former Mayor Ed Murray folded on his original proposal to upzone all single family zones in 2015, watering his proposal down to the current six percent plan when the NIMBYs at the Seattle Times protested on behalf of their home-owning readers.

I contacted the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to see if they supported Palumbo’s urgent push for more density. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said she hadn’t seen the bill, which is still in early draft form.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson, who’s leading the city’s limited MHA upzone effort, responded. Johnson, who was the director of TCC back in 2009 when the pro-transit  group went to the mat for the state upzone legislation, cautioned: “Been there done that.” He did note, though, that Palumbo was starting “an interesting conversation.”

Ultimately, Johnson argued that Palumbo’s statewide approach isn’t likely to succeed, pointing out that some suburban cities, such as Sammamish, Issaquah, and Federal Way, have gone so far as to impose moratoria on new development. (After a year, the Sammamish City Council effectively lifted the moratorium  as did the Issaquah City Council. )

However, Johnson has a point. Several Puget Sound cities have enacted development bans, making it clear that A) they’re queasy about more density and B) they’re not going to take kindly to some dude from the state legislature telling them how to manage growth.

Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Johnson says the local approach he’s now heading up as a Seattle City Council member is more likely to work, although—recalling how Nickels backed away from the Futurewise/TCC bill—he acknowledged there’s dedicated resistance to new development in Seattle as well.  For example, he lamented the fact that single-family home owners are currently funding a legal effort to tie up the MHA upzone in a  battle in front of the City Hearing Examiner.

Resistance to development in Seattle has already undermined the rezones Johnson passed in 2016 and 2017 as part of MHA Part 1, when the city upzoned five (already) densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers,  including downtown, plus one Residential Urban Village at 23rd & Union-Jackson.

To wit: After unanimously passing the downtown upzone, the city council halted one of the first proposed developments proposed under the new zoning (even drafting talking points for the opposition) when a developer wanted to tear down the talismanic  Showbox music venue to build more housing.

Johnson does have a point about state legislation: The merits of Palumbo’s bill are likely to be overshadowed by a meta question of governance that could stall the state senate legislation: Should the state have the right to micromanage local land use issues?

But Palumbo has a point too. When local policies spill over legislators’ borders to threaten a green and progressive state law like the Growth Management Act, which was intended to combat regional problems like sprawl, then yes, the state has a role to play.

It takes one to know one. Suburbanite Palumbo is telling it like it is: Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Showbox Property Owners Respond to City, Seek Depositions from Council Members Bagshaw, Sawant

A lot has happened since I wrote about the city’s response to a lawsuit by the owners of the Showbox last month. (The lawsuit, in very brief, alleges that the city council violated land use processes in spot-downzoning the Showbox property when they expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the property on a temporary basis, preventing a 44-story development, and that the historic designation represents a taking of about $40 million—the amount for which the owner, Roger Forbes, planned to sell the land to the Vancouver developer Onni.)

Back in September, the city asked a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss Forbes’s land use claims claims (technically,  an LLC created by Forbes that owns the property, but we’ll stick with Forbes for clarity’s sake) on the grounds that Onni hadn’t formally sought any permits from the city, that inclusion in the historic district didn’t constitute a land use decision restricting how Forbes could use his property,  and that in fact nothing in the “Save the Showbox” legislation said that the Showbox must be saved.

The property owners—sounding spitting mad—filed a brief last week objecting to the city’s motion to dismiss the land use claims in the lawsuit, arguing that the decision to add the Showbox property, and only that property, to the historic district—effectively reducing its development potential from 44 stories to two—constituted a “reverse spot zone” and therefore was a “classic taking.” In their defense, they cite a number of cases that reducing the height of what can be built on one piece of land is considered a zoning decision, regardless of whether a permit has been filed. (The council made it much less likely that Onni would file a permit when they started talking about killing the development immediately after the developer started a pre-application process with the city, and passed fast-track “emergency” legislation barely one week later to ensure that Onni couldn’t go forward with its plans.)

Violating almost all of its own rules for a property use decision, the City enacted an “emergency” ordinance – not to abate a public nuisance – but rather because it wanted a private music venue to be an asset of the City. To try and accomplish that, it had to circumvent and carve this parcel – and only this parcel – out of its own prior and lawful zoning actions that previously upzoned the property and surrounding properties twice for high-rise development. The most recent upzone occurred just last year when the property (and other similarly situated properties) were upzoned by the City to allow additional floors if property owners provided certain financial support to the City’s efforts to increase affordable housing. The City’s reverse spot zoning of this property, stripping only this property of the same development potential similarly situated parcels enjoy, was not an exercise of “police power” to protect the public. It was instead an eminent domain powerplay to appease a vocal “Save the Showbox” group at the expense of a single property’s development and use rights.

Forbes’ attorneys also lays out the case that the city violated the state appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires officials like council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented and to make their deliberations in public, not behind closed doors. If the court finds that they did, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the need to “Save the Showbox” as a music venue in  perpetuity will have happened in violation of the law.

The response to the city makes one novel point: The Pike Place Market Historical District was not only created to protect small farmers and craftspeople from commercial development in the 1970s, it was formed by the city under the power of eminent domain—and, to this day, almost every single property in the district is publicly owned by the Pike Place Market Public Development Authority. That PDA has the right to regulate virtually every aspect of all businesses in the district, down to which tenants are allowed in each building, the size and materials on their signage, and what their storefronts look like on the inside. The Showbox building across the street, in contrast, is privately owned, making its inclusion in the historic district, the plaintiffs argue, even more of a taking than if the city had simply said Forbes couldn’t sell to a developer for an apartment tower.

This week, Forbes’ attorneys also filed a request to depose five city officials, including city council members Sally Bagshaw and Kshama Sawant, to get “information about the decision to single out this property, and only this property, for inclusion in the Pike Place Market Historical District, the process that the City employed in drafting, introducing and passing the ordinance, and the City’s real intentions in passing the ordinance (to maintain the property as a music venue in perpetuity).

“This information,” the request continues, “is relevant to Plaintiff’s contentions that the ordinance is invalid as an illegal spot zone, is otherwise procedurally invalid, was improperly passed because the Council violated the Appearance of Fairness statute, and violates Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by forcing Plaintiff to maintain the property as a music venue.”

The hearing on that motion will be held next Friday, October 19. The trial is currently scheduled for February.

Note to readers: The reporting I do isn’t free! For example, court records cost 25 cents a page—a charge that can really add up when a case involves hundreds of pages. The time and effort it takes to bring you stories like this one, not to mention all my in-depth, on-the-ground reporting on the Showbox and other city issues, is made possible only by support from people who read this site. So if you enjoy my work and want to see it continue, please continue becoming a sustaining or one-time donor. Thanks for reading, and for your support!

The J is for Judge: Lesser Seattle Has Gaslighted the Pro-Housing Movement

Image via City of Seattle.

Well, that was like passing a kidney stone. After single-family zone stalwarts spent two years stalling the city’s efforts to allow more mother-in-law and backyard apartments, the city has finally returned with a new proposal to loosen restrictions governing  attached and detached accessory dwelling units.  Three cheers for that.

However, I will say: Unless the proposal—the preferred alternative from the city’s new Final Environmental Impact Statement for accessory dwelling units—is part of a broader series of citywide land use changes that include more actual apartments  in Seattle’s single-family zones, urbanists should not hail this new plan as a pro-city victory. To do so would just confirm how badly housing activists have been gaslit by Lesser Seattle and the convoluted story line that equates building more housing with some sort of George Soros plot.

I’m obviously not as sanguine as Sightline urbanist Dan Bertolet about the city’s latest plan to loosen restrictions on  secondary units in single-family areas. But nor am I as disappointed as the Urbanist, which thinks the changes should do even more to catalyze ADU and DADU development.

Mostly, as someone who has been reporting on this city’s push to increase density for decades now  (and who covered the Queen Anne Community Council’s original challenge to the new rules back in 2016), my reaction is mostly just: “Meh. About time, Seattle.” (Crosscut has an eye-opening timeline on the stalled push for more ADUs and DADUs in Seattle.)

The proposal certainly does some good.  And ironically (as I predicted at the time), the plan is the outcome of an Environmental Impact Statement the city was forced to do after the Lesser Seattleites from Queen Anne won their case to stall these long-overdue land use reforms.  The city’s new proposal increases ADU/DADU development capacity from current standards in place since 2010 by allowing taller and larger detached accessory dwelling units, also known as backyard cottages,  while simultaneously allowing development on smaller lots. The new preferred alternative allows two attached units, providing more flexibility for homeowners who want to build two extra units but may not have the space for a separate backyard apartment. It gets rid of the (pathological) off-street parking requirements for secondary units. It eliminates the requirement for the owner to live on-site if a house has an ADU. It gives one to two additional feet of height for DADUs that have a green design. And—oh no, watch out for laundry on the clotheslines!—it increases the number of unrelated people who can live on one lot from eight to 12.

Merely green-lighting more ADUs and DADUs and declaring victory in the fight to build housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods is like proposing a congestion pricing scheme that only charges Uber and Lyft and ignores the 25 percent of downtown commuters who drive to work alone.

Perhaps the best change (Sightline’s Bertolet calls it “radical!”)— and one that blows QACC’s cover story that they were trying to prevent small existing houses from being torn down and replaced by huge single-family monstrosities— is that the new preferred alternative shuts down the potential for any McMansion craze. As Erica noted: The proposed new rules limit new houses to just 2,500 square feet or a 50 percent floor-area ratio (FAR), whichever is larger. FAR is the ratio of the square footage of a building to the lot that it’s on.

These are all welcome changes; the original 2009 law that allowed ADUs and DADUs in the first place (itself overdue) underperformed thanks to the rigid guidelines the new proposal unwinds—only 221 were built on the city’s 75,000 eligible single-family lots, or just 37 a year, between 2010 and 2016. Council Member Mike O’Brien’s initial reform proposal (the one the QACC dragged to the hearing examiner in 2016)  was expected to produce about 4,000  accessory units in the next 20 years—about five times the current underwhelming rate.

Burn on the QACC: The new-and-improved proposal doubles that, to an estimated 4,430 new units in the next 10 years.

Still, the proposal doesn’t solve the underlying problem: Seattle’s ongoing housing shortage, which is exacerbated by the fact that 65 percent of the city’s developable land is exclusively reserved for single family zones. Merely green-lighting more ADUs and DADUs and declaring victory in the fight to build housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods is like proposing a congestion pricing scheme that only charges Uber and Lyft and ignores the 25 percent of downtown commuters who drive to work alone.

In the absence of more meaningful changes to the city’s exclusionary zoning laws, simply allowing more ADUs and DADUs is not a win—it’s a capitulation to anti-density activists who have moved the goalposts by keeping most of the city off-limits to any development, making even incremental victories like this one seem more significant than they are. Building 4,000 units over the next ten years falls far short, for example, of the 14,000 affordable units Seattle needs to simply address the existing homelessness crisis.

The ADU/DADU proposal must be coupled with other land use reforms that dismantle the wall around single family zones. The city’s actually “radical” 2015 proposal to allow multi-family development in single-family areas (which it  dropped after the Seattle Times stoked a privileged neighborhood tantrum of Lindsey Graham proportions)  has since been whittled down to allowing some multifamily housing in just six percent of the areas that are currently zoned single-family—and only along the edges. Hopefully the city will eventually enact this mild reform as well. (Another Lesser Seattle neighborhood group is now challenging this scaled-back proposal in front of the hearing examiner, naturally).

Until the city allows more housing of all types in walled-off single-family zones, slightly more permissive rules for secondary units will represent a limit, rather than a license to increase housing stock.

Morning Crank: Prohibitive and Frustrating

1. Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne activist who has filed multiple legal challenges to delay new rules that would allow homeowners to add up to two additional units to their property, is reviewing the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposal and deciding whether to press on with his appeal, according to an email he sent to members of the Queen Anne Community Council last week.

In the email, Kaplan notes that the group has until October 18 to file an appeal, and suggests that they adopt the following motion: “If the ADU FEIS is found by Martin Kaplan to be deficient in representing a comprehensive environmental study as required by the Hearing Examiner in our former appeal and outlined with our letter of comment pertaining to the ADU DEIS, then Martin Kaplan is hereby authorized to file an appeal on behalf of our QACC.” Kaplan has not said whether he plans to continue pursuing his case against the city, or whether thousands of Seattle homeowners will finally be able to build secondary units on their properties.

The FEIS, released last week, added a fourth, preferred, option to the three alternatives in the draft document, which I covered in depth in May.  If the city adopts the preferred option, homeowners will be able to build up to two accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property—two attached (mother-in-law) units, or one attached unit and one detached apartment, subject to maximum rear lot coverage of 60 percent. (The total maximum lot coverage—35 percent for lots over 5,000 square feet, or 15 percent plus 1,000 square feet for lots under 5,000 square feet—will remain the same). The minimum lot size for building an additional unit will be reduced from the current 4,000 square feet to 3,200 square feet, and rules requiring homeowners to build an extra parking spot for each unit, and to live on the property at least six months a year, will be lifted. However, in an odd concession to opponents like Kaplan, homeowners who want to build a second ADU won’t be allowed to do so until they’ve owned the property for at least a year. Both attached and detached units could be up to 1,000 square feet—up from the current 800—and up to 12 unrelated people could live on a lot with three units, allowing (for example) a house, basement apartment, and backyard cottage with four roommates each on a single lot. (This has been a particular sticking point with single-family activists who say so many unrelated people shouldn’t be allowed to live on a single lot). Unlike one of the alternatives the city originally considered, the preferred alternative would not require homeowners to pay into a city affordable housing fund if they want to build a second accessory unit.

Finally, in an attempt to mitigate the spread of new McMansions in Seattle’s single-family areas (and encourage homeowners to add density instead), the proposed new rules limit new houses to just 2,500 square feet or a 50 percent floor-area ratio (FAR), whichever is larger. FAR is the ratio of the square footage of a building to the lot that it’s on. A 2,500-square-foot house on a 5,000-square-foot lot would have a floor-area ratio of 0.5, even if that 2,500 square feet is spread over two stories; so would a 3,600-square-foot house on a 7,200-square-foot lot, and so on.

Because the the city used slightly different assumptions in calculating the number of second and third units that will be produced if the new rules move forward (assuming, for example, that homeowners will have access to pre-approved standard plans for accessory units, and that the city will lower other regulatory barriers that drive of the cost of adding extra units), the new preferred alternative is expected to lead to slightly more units than any of the options the city previously considered. Overall, the preferred alternative would produce about 2,460 more accessory units than the no-action alternative (a total of 4,430), which would correspond to about 3,960 additional residents in single-family areas, spread across Seattle (6,645, compared to 2,955 under the do-nothing alternative.)

2. Saul Spady—the grandson of Dick Spady, of Dick’s Burgers, and one of the most vocal opponents of the “head tax” for homelessness that was overturned earlier this year—has been busy. Since September, Spady has reportedly been meeting with prospective city council candidates for 2019, including Erika Nagy of Speak Out Seattle and Ari Hoffman, who unsuccessfully sued the city for $230,000 in “homeless-related damages” to a cemetery in North Seattle. On Friday, Hoffman officially filed to run for council in District 2, the South Seattle council seat currently held by three-term incumbent Bruce Harrell. Spady, whose parents spend decades advocating for charter schools,  sent out an email in September seeking funds to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy renewal and to recruit “common sense candidates” to defeat council incumbents—a solicitation that could put him at odds with city and state election  laws.

In addition to his work recruiting local candidates, Spady has an upcoming speaking engagement in front of members of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative/libertarian-leaning think tank. The group’s annual Young Professionals Dinner includes speeches and “exclusive Q&A sessions” with two keynote speakers: Spady, and former US House Speaker-turned-Trump apologist Newt Gingrich. Non-member tickets start at $75.

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3. Speaking of potential council candidates: A few other names that are starting to circulate in the rumor mill for 2019: Former Nick Licata campaign manager Andrew Lewis (District 7, currently held by Sally Bagshaw); former Seattle police chief Jim Pugel, also in District 7; Beto Yarce, a onetime undocumented immigrant and entrepreneur who now runs a nonprofit that helps launch small businesses (District 3, held by Kshama Sawant); and community organizer Tammy Morales, who came within 400 votes of beating District 2 incumbent Bruce Harrell in 2015 and is widely expected to run for his seat this year. Bagshaw is widely expected to step down this year, as is District 4 council member Rob Johnson. Sawant has given no indication that she won’t seek reelection, and Harrell’s plans are currently anybody’s guess.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2019 transportation budget includes new investments in “adaptive signal” technology—a term that typically describes systems that monitor where vehicle traffic is heavy and adjust light cycles to give traffic more time to get through crowded intersections. Seattle has a system like this in place on Mercer Street in South Lake Union, which “detects cars in each lane at every intersection … determines traffic levels, predicts the flow of traffic, and adjusts the amount of time available to each movement through the intersection.” These marginal drive time improvements often come at the expense of pedestrians, who are forced to endure long waits as the city gives cars extra time to drive through intersections (and to dash across the street on short walk cycles designed for maximum vehicle movement), which is one reason the National Association of City Transportation Officials says that “long signal cycles … can make crossing a street or walking even a short distance prohibitive and frustrating, [which] discourages walking altogether,” and recommends adaptive signals only for suburban areas.

However, the new budget also includes funding for a pilot project at the University of Washington that could at least start to restore the balance between pedestrians and cyclists and the almighty car. The project, which will also be funded by the UW and the Federal Highway Administration, will test passive pedestrian detection and pedestrian counting—technologies that could eliminate the need for walkers to push a “beg button” to cross the street and allow longer crossing times for large groups of pedestrians, respectively. (One way to obviate the need for a beg button, of course, would be to assume there are always pedestrians trying to cross the street in busy areas like South Lake Union and the U District and provide a walk cycle during every green light, as pedestrian advocates across the country have been requesting for years, but baby steps.)

The pilot project will also test an app that will enable cyclists to trigger signals at intersections that equipped with weight-sensitive sensors in streets, which don’t detect vehicles lighter than cars. Cyclists (and, presumably, motorcyclists, who are also usually too light to trip pavement-embedded signals) will be able to download an app that will notify any signals equipped with the new technology that a bike is present, causing the light to change even if there aren’t any cars around. This “solution,” of course, will only work in the limited number of signals near the University of Washington that are equipped with detectors, and for cyclists who download the app and have it running on their phones when they approach those intersections.

This post has been edited to reflect that maximum lot coverage rules will remain the same under all accessory dwelling unit options; the change is to maximum rear yard coverage, which would increase to 60 percent for new detached accessory dwelling units.

Morning Crank: Fort Lawton Drags On, Spady Drags His Feet, and Enhanced Shelter Shortage Drags Out Homelessness

1. The wait for affordable housing at the Fort Lawton military base in Magnolia—on which, as I noted last week, the city is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for security —will continue to drag on at least until the end of this year, after a city hearing examiner agreed to delay a hearing in an appeal challenging the environmental impact statement on the project until the end of October so that the complainant, Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, can secure a lawyer. The appeal process has already been delayed once, until the end of September, to accommodate Campbell’s lengthy vacation to Europe. Campbell said that she was requesting this second delay because of health concerns that have prevented her from participating in the appeal process.

The motion granting Campbell’s request for a delay, which also denied the city of Seattle’s request to dismiss the six-month-old case, includes a salty dismissal of Campbell’s claim that the hearing examiner, Ryan Vancil, should not be allowed to hear the appeal because he once served on the board of Futurewise, a conservation group with no stake in the Fort Lawton debate, and because he has represented the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which works to prevent the demolition of existing affordable housing, in the past.

The city’s rules, Vancil noted, require anyone who files an appeal before the hearing examiner to file any motions to disqualify a particular hearing examiner quite early in the process, typically at least 7 days before the first hearing. That hearing was in May.  “As explained at the prehearing conference [on May 15] the Hearing Examiner has not been a board member or officer of Futurewise for two years, and is not currently a member as alleged by Ms. Campbell. Ms. Campbell identified no specific interest in this appeal by either Futurewise, or the Seattle Displacement Coalition. … Ms. Campbell was clearly aware of these facts [and] raised [them] in the context of a response to the Hearing Examiner’s disfavorable order as a form of retaliation.” In other words, Campbell only decided Vancil’s past association with Futurewise was a problem after he ruled against her on an unrelated issue—specifically, the fact that Campbell hadn’t filed her list of witnesses and exhibits by a mid-September deadline.

(Side note: Vancil may not be on the Futurewise board anymore, but the group’s current board includes two attorneys, Jeff Eustis and Dave Bricklin, who have both fought against proposals to allow more density and housing, including Mandatory Housing Affordability, which allows developers to build more densely in exchange for funding affordable housing; a proposed 12-story building in Pioneer Square that would have replaced a “historic” parking garage; a proposed three-story apartment building in Phinney Ridge, which nearby homeowners opposed because they didn’t want to lose parking in front of their houses; and a proposal to make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units on their property. Given that track record among Futurewise board members, serving on the group’s board could be seen as an indication that Vancil is sympathetic to housing opponents like Campbell. The Displacement Coalition, meanwhile, often fights against density and development on the grounds that it displaces people and drives up the cost of housing.)

Campbell claimed that she was unable to file a list of witnesses because of her poor health. But Vancil was skeptical about that claim, noting that Campbell had managed to  five no fewer than separate, lengthy motions over a period of about two weeks in September, Vancil said, which “demonstrate[s] Appellants’ capacity to draft documents and work on this case, and/or the ability to have communicated at an earlier date that Appellants did not have the capacity to identify exhibits and witnesses within the time required.”

The next hearing on the Fort Lawton appeal will be at 9:30am on October 29.

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2. A city audit of the Navigation Team—a team  of police officers and outreach workers that removes encampments and offers services to people living unsheltered in Seattle—concluded that the city has not done enough to provide the kind of “enhanced shelter” that people living outdoors are most likely to accept, and should consider increasing the use of diversion strategies like “reunification”—that is, connecting people to family,  and sending them on their way. The idea of reunification is popular in California, where cities like San Francisco provide bus tickets out of town to homeless people who are able to find a friend or family member who will tell the city they are willing to take the person in. Such programs are controversial because, while they do relocate some chronically homeless people outside city limits, little is known about how people in such programs fare at the end of what are often cross-country journeys, and horror stories abound.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Human Services Department notes that enhanced shelters, which provide case management, a place to store possessions, and a place to be during the day, result in significantly more exits to permanent housing than stripped-down, mats-on-the-floor, in-at-9-out-at-7 basic shelters. According to the Human Services Department, 21 percent of people who entered enhanced shelters, like the Navigation Center operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, exited into some form of permanent housing. (Permanent housing can include everything from supportive housing in facilities with case management and other services, or a “rapid rehousing” voucher for an apartment on the private market.) In comparison, just 4 percent of those entering basic shelters exited directly into permanent housing.

Despite their higher success rate, the audit found that enhanced shelters are often full, making it impossible for the Navigation Team to refer many, if any, unsheltered people to them. Between March and December of 2017, the report says, there was an average of 18 beds available for all Navigation Team referrals—an average that includes 27 days when fewer than 10 beds were available, and four months in which the average daily vacancy was less than one bed, citywide. This was during a period when the Navigation Team contacted more than 1,800 individual people, many of them more than once.

Finally, the auditor recommended that the city consider “bridge to housing” strategies like the ones in place in San Diego and Sacramento, which employ large, semi-permanent tentlike structures that can house tens or hundreds of people in dormitory-style or more private rooms. The structures are similar to enhanced shelter—24/7 and low-barrier, they allow singles and couples to bring pets and possessions with them—but are less expensive because the buildings aren’t permanent.

The idea, which council members Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda brought up yesterday, elicited a testy back-and-forth between Mosqueda and Navigation Team director Fred Podesta, who interrupted Mosqueda’s question about the bridge-to-housing strategy by saying, “We need to carefully think about, are people going to accept an enormous, 150-person dormitory that’s in a tent? Before we get too bound up in the efficiency of a particular structure type, we have to think about how our clients are going to respond to it.” When Mosqueda picked up her line of question, Podesta interrupted her again, interjecting, “I just think it’s worth asking the question—if our approach is going to be to offer [housing in that type of structure to] people—’Would you go or not?’ We need to ask those questions before we spend $2 million on a tent.” The city of Sacramento estimates that a 300-bed shelter of this type would cost between $3 million and $4 million a year.

3. Saul Spady, the Dick’s Burgers scion and political consultant last seen soliciting money to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy renewal and to fill the seven city council seats that will be up for grabs next year with “common sense civic leaders,” may be improperly raising funds for an election campaign without registering with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the Public Disclosure Commission.

As I reported, Spady sent an email to supporters in September seeking $100,000 in contributions for a campaign to “educate” voters on why they should oppose the Families and Education Levy ballot measure and support “common sense civic leaders” against incumbent council members next year. The email says that Spady hosted a meeting the previous week—that is, the week of September 3—of “potential 2019 Seattle City Council candidates focused on common sense, fiscally responsible & acountable [sic] government mixed with active citizens who are concerned about the continuing slide of Seattle into the ‘corruption of incompetence’ that we’re witnessing across all sectors of city hall.” The goal of the meeting, Spady continued, “was to engage likely candidates & political donors.”

This kind of unofficial campaigning could put Spady, who owns the ad firm Cre8tive Empowerment, in violation of state campaign finance law as well as the city’s own campaign finance rules. According to the Public Disclosure Commission,  new campaigns for or against ballot measures must register with the PDC “within two weeks of forming a committee or expecting to receive or spend funds (whichever occurs first).” The Seattle Municipal Code, similarly, requires campaigns to file with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission as soon as they’ve raised or spent any money, announced that they plan to support or oppose a candidate or an upcoming ballot measure, bought an ad or reserved ad space, or put a survey in the field about a candidate or ballot measure. Filing involves paying a fee (about $1,300), setting up a campaign office, opening a bank account, and designating campaign officers. All of this, again, must be done within two weeks of soliciting money or engaging in any other campaign activities. Spady’s email went out on Tuesday, September 11—more than three weeks ago. As of midnight last night, Spady had not filed any campaign paperwork with either agency.

City’s Showbox Defense: “Save the Showbox” Law Doesn’t Require Saving the Showbox

Council member Kshama Sawant’s “Save the Showbox” rally and concert outside City Hall last Wednesday, one hour before the required public hearing on the legislation.

On Friday, City Attorney Pete Holmes quietly filed a response to a lawsuit by the owner of the building that currently houses the Showbox, seeking partial summary judgment (essentially, a partial dismissal) on a number of grounds. The most telling: The city maintains that the “#SavetheShowbox” legislation that made the Showbox, and only the Showbox, a part of the Pike Place Market Historical District does not require the building owner to keep the Showbox as a tenant. This completely contradicts the city council’s contention that the legislation had to be passed—and passed on an emergency basis, bypassing the usual public hearing process—right away in order to assure that the Showbox remains in business.

In its motion, the city attorney’s office argues that King County Superior Judge Mary Roberts “should dismiss Plaintiff’s compelled speech claim because the Ordinance does not, as Plaintiff alleges, ‘requir[e] continued performances at the Showbox.’ City law does not force Market property owners to perpetuate their existing uses.” This is quite a claim, considering the intense effort by Showbox fans, activists, and council members—particularly council member Kshama Sawant—to “Save the Showbox” on the grounds that it must be preserved specifically as a music venue in perpetuity. From an email Sawant sent to supporters just last week: “If we stay organized and mobilized, and unrelenting in our demand that Council make the Pike Place Historical District expansion permanent, then we can absolutely #SavetheShowbox!”)

And while the legislation itself is silent on whether the Showbox must be retained as a music venue specifically, it goes on at length about the value of the Showbox—a tenant using a rented space—as an irreplaceable cultural institution, the “loss” of which “would erode the historical and cultural value of the Pike Place Market neighborhood.” That’s pretty hard to square with the city attorney’s claim that the emergency Showbox preservation ordinance, which stopped a 44-story apartment development that would have provided around $5 million for affordable housing, had nothing to do with “saving the Showbox” as a music venue—unless you believe that what the council meant, when it drafted and passed the legislation, was that the unremarkable two-story building that houses the Showbox is what contributes cultural value to the neighborhood.

In its motion, the city attorney’s office argues the “Save the Showbox” “Ordinance does not, as Plaintiff alleges, ‘requir[e] continued performances at the Showbox.’ City law does not force Market property owners to perpetuate their existing uses.” This is quite a claim, considering the intense effort by Showbox fans, activists, and council members—particularly council member Kshama Sawant—to “Save the Showbox” on the grounds that it must be preserved specifically as a music venue in perpetuity.

The rest of the city attorney’s petition has to do with two basic issues. The first is whether the land owner, strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, has the right to sue under the land use petition act, and whether he has standing to claim that legislation barring him from developing his property constitutes an illegal property taking. The city argues that because Forbes and the developer to which he planned to sell his land, the Onni Group, didn’t file a permit application for the proposed 44-story development after initiating a pre-application process for the development on July 24, they haven’t exhausted every option for appeal. (This is also the argument the city makes in claiming that the reduction in Forbes’ property value can’t be considered a taking).  Of course, council members made it much less likely that Onni would file for a permit when they began discussing legislation to kill the development a few days later, and when they passed a new law in early August, on a fast-tracked “emergency” timeline, to prevent Onni from moving forward with its proposed apartment tower.

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The second is whether the city violated appearance of fairness rules that require council members to remain neutral (and not take public testimony) on quasi-judicial land use matters such as spot rezones, which the Showbox property owner claims the extension of the historical district was. The city claims that because Forbes didn’t file a permit application, the decision couldn’t have been a quasi-judicial land use decision, and instead is a mere “development regulation.”

Want the legalese version of all this? Check out the city’s full motion here.

Afternoon Crank: Public Land Sale Materials Tout Restrictive Zoning, Barriers to Homeownership; Details on Bike Lane Mediator’s Campaign Contributions

1.The official request for proposals for developers interesting in buying the so-called Mercer Megablock—three sites that total three acres in the heart of South Lake Union—includes some revealing details about how the city is pitching itself (via JLL, its broker) to potential property buyers. Alongside standard marketing language about the city’s booming economy, growing tech base, and wealth of cultural and natural assets, the Megablock marketing materials tout the fact that Seattle has restrictive zoning and “high barriers to entry for homeownership,” along with some of the highest and fastest-rising rents in the nation, as positive assets that make the city a great place to build.

From the RFP:

This area is also one of the most dynamic real estate investment markets in the country, benefiting from a combination of strict land use planning, topographical constraints on supply, and employment growth that consistently ranks above the national average. Favorable “renter” demographics, positive job numbers, strong population projections and a low unemployment rate, together with high barriers for entry in home ownership, also position the region as a strategic market for multifamily investment gains.

 

What, exactly, constitutes “a strategic market for multifamily investment gains”? A pull quote in the RFP puts a finer point on it: “Housing prices have grown at the fastest rate in the country for the past 17-consecutive months. The 12.9% year-over-year growth is more than double the national growth rate. Multifamily rents increased by 3.1% year-over-year and vacancy is just 4.2%. ”

Obviously, when you put artificial constraints on housing supply (such as zoning laws that make multifamily housing illegal in most parts of a city), housing prices increase. Usually, we think of that as a bad thing, because it means that all but the wealthiest renters (and those who can afford to buy $800,000 houses) get priced out of neighborhoods near employment centers, transit, and other amenities. But the city’s marketing materials turn this idea on its head: Restrictive zoning, “high barriers” to homeownership, and spiraling rents make Seattle the perfect place to buy one of the city’s last large parcels of public land—a parcel which, if housing advocates had their way, would be used for affordable housing that might help address some of those very issues.

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2. After I reported yesterday on the city’s decision to hire a mediator with the Cedar River Group to facilitate a series of conversations  with groups that support and oppose a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, architect/intrepid YIMBY Mike Eliason dug through the city’s elections website and discovered that the mediator, John Howell, has given money to both Mayor Jenny Durkan (who directed SDOT to initiate the mediation) and onetime city council candidate Jordan Royer (who, along with attorney Gabe Galanda, is representing the Save 35th Avenue NE anti-bike-lane group in mediation). Howell, who is a principal and founder of Cedar River Group, contributed $275 to Durkan last year and $250 to Royer in 2009.

Rules adopted after the passage of Initiative 122 in 2015 bar contributions from contractors who made more than $250,000 from city contracts over the last two years; according to the city’s contractor list, Cedar River Group made $399,757 from city contractors between 2016 and 2018. However, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year dismissed a similar case involving contributions from Paul Allen, who owns a large stake in City Investors (the real estate arm of Allen’s Vulcan Inc.) , concluding that restricting Allen’s ability to donate to local candidates would violate his right to free speech. The “rationale,” according to SEEC director Wayne Barnett, was that “giving a campaign contribution is protected speech under the First Amendment.”  I asked Barnett if that finding might also mean that (under Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that unleashed unlimited political spending by corporations) that the contractor contribution restrictions themselves were unconstitutional. Barnett said that was an interesting legal question but that it hasn’t been tested (yet).

 

Evening Crank: Showbox Supporters Get Extra Notice of Upcoming Hearing; Anti-Head Tax Consultant Spady Seeks Funds to Kill Education Levy

1. “Save the Showbox” activists, including city council member Kshama Sawant, put out a call to supporters  this past Tuesday urging them to show up next Wednesday, September 19, for a “Concert, Rally, and Public Hearing” to “#SavetheShowbox!” at 4pm on Wednesday, September 19, to be followed by “the City of Seattle’s formal public hearing on the Showbox.” That notice to activists went out three full days before the general public received notice of the hearing, at which the council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee will take public testimony on whether to permanently expand the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the building that houses the Showbox. That official public notice went out Friday afternoon. (A post rallying supporters on Facebook (or any other social media) does not constitute a formal public notice of an official city hearing.)

Advocates who favor the Showbox legislation, in other words, appear to have received an extra three days’ notice, courtesy of a city council member, about an opportunity to organize in favor of legislation that council member is sponsoring. This advantage isn’t trivial—it means that proponents had several extra days to mobilize, take time off work, and organize a rally and concert before the general public even received notice that the hearing was happening.

Sawant’s call to action, which went up on her Facebook page on Tuesday, reads:

At the start of the summer, the Showbox, Seattle’s 80 year-old iconic music venue, seemed destined for destruction. Then the #SavetheShowbox movement came onto the scene, gathering more than 100,000 petition signatures and packing City Hall for discussions and votes. By mid-August, our movement had pressured the City Council to pass an ordinance put forward by Councilmember Kshama Sawant temporarily saving the Showbox by expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District for 10 months.

This was a historic victory and a huge first step, but the movement to #SavetheShowbox is far from over. The current owners of the building have sued the city and we know the developer Onni will do everything in its power to bulldoze the Showbox, and corporate politicians will certainly capitulate, unless we keep the pressure up.  

Why does it matter if a council member gives one interest group advance notice of an opportunity to sway public opinion (and to bring pressure to bear on her fellow council members) on an issue?  For one thing, the city is currently being sued by Roger Forbes, the owner of the building that leases space to the Showbox, who had planned to sell the land to a developer, Onni, to build a 44-story apartment building. Forbes’ lawsuit argues, among other things, that Sawant and other council members  violated  the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented. Organizing a rally, and giving one side several extra days to mobilize for a public  hearing, could be seen as evidence of bias in violation of these rules.

A key question will be whether adding the Showbox to the historic district, and thus dramatically restricting what its owner can do with his property, constitutes a land-use decision that is subject to quasi-judicial rules. In the lawsuit, Forbes argues that by including the Showbox in the historic district, the council effectively downzoned his property, and only his property, from 44 stories to two, the height of the existing building. Forbes had planned to sell the land to Onni for around $40 million, and is seeking that amount in damages.

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2. Dick’s Burgers scion Saul Spady, whose PR firm, Cre8tive Empowerment, took in $31,000 during the four-week campaign to defeat the head tax, is hoping to raise $100,000 to oppose the upcoming Families and Education Levy and to fill the seven city council seats that will be up for grabs next year with “common sense civic leaders.” The money would, according to the email, go to Spady’s firm for the purpose of “digital outreach.”

In an email obtained by The C Is for Crank, Spady says he held a meeting last week with a group of potential 2019 candidates, with the goal of “engag[ing] likely candidates & potential donors to build support for a digital outreach campaign partnering with my advertising agency Cre8tive Empowerment to engage likely Seattle voters via Facebook & Instagram to help them learn more about important city issues in late 2018 and 2019 ranging from:

• 2018 Education/Property Tax Levy [$683 million over 6 years]
• Did you know increasing Property Taxes increases your rent?
• 2018 Ballard Bike Path Costs rising to $25 million for 1.4 miles
• Lack of Safety, Property Crimes, Affordable Housing & Homelessness [2019 Core Issue]”

The first two bullet points are about the Families and Education Levy, a property tax measure which funds preschool, summer school, early childhood and school-based health services, and other programs aimed at closing the achievement and opportunity gap for students in Seattle Schools. That levy passed in 2011 with 63 percent of the vote. Part of the strategy to kill that levy, apparently, will involve informing renters, who make up 53 percent of Seattle households, that their landlords use their rent to pay for things.

The rest of the initial $100,000 would go toward “build[ing] strong & vibrant grassroots communities in Seattle that want to engage on major issues & will vote for common sense civic leaders in 2019,” described elsewhere in the email as  “candidates focused on common sense, fiscally responsible & accountable government mixed with active citizens who are concerned about the continuing slide of Seattle into the ‘corruption of incompetence’ that we’re witnessing across all sectors of city hall.” The campaign, Spady writes, will aim to place “positive articles from local leaders” in the Seattle press and to “deliver 3,000,000+ targeted Facebook/Instagram impressions among core targets” over the next three months. Just something to think about the next time you see a slickly produced Facebook ad opposing some proposed homelessness solution, or explaining to you in patient, simple language that when your landlord’s costs go up, your rent does, too.

Emails Reveal Council Drafted Pro-Showbox Talking Points; City Lawyers Expressed Concerns About Landmark Status Based on “Popularity”

Emails obtained by the C Is for Crank reveal the extraordinary measures city council members and staff took to promote legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, scuttling a planned apartment building on the site and prompting a lawsuit claiming that the council violated numerous state and city laws when they voted to effectively downzone the Showbox property from 44 stories to two. The emails also reveal that the city attorney’s office advised the council against pursuing landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue, and warned that making such a designation based on popular sentiment in favor of the Showbox, a tenant, could raise legal concerns about whether the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Among other machinations, the emails reveal that the city council’s public information officer drafted talking points for Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, who testified in favor of the legislation in early August, based on comments he made to an NPR reporter about the Showbox the previous week. Gibbard was listed as one of the “advocates” for the legislation in an email from the spokeswoman, Dana Robinson Slote, suggesting actions council members could take to promote the legislation; the advocates were listed in contrast to the “‘pain point’ players” in the debate, which included Onni, the developer that planned to purchase the land and build a 440-unit apartment building; Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson; and Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In the email, Robinson Slote writes,

Ben— Thanks for your time by phone yesterday. As promised, below you’ll find suggested talking points for Monday’s Full Council meeting. In short, I summarized many of the themes from an interview you gave in June this year, which seems to fit well with the Resolution and Ordinance CM Sawant will introduce to #SaveTheShowbox

Also as discussed:

• I’ll plan to meet you on the first floor of the City Hall lobby approx. 1230p (Lyft can bring you to the 5th Ave entrance), and feel free to call if I can help guide you here.

• We’ll meet first with Sawant for fewer than 15:00; and,

• Then I’ll take you to O’Brien (Ballard, Fremont) and Herbold (West Seattle), followed by Citywide elected Gonzalez & Mosqueda (and the remaining Councilmembers Johnson, Juarez, Bagshaw and Harrell) as time allows. Public comment begins at 2:00 p.m., so we can decide in advance if you’d still like to speak (and sign you in) or watch from the Green Room. Thank you once again for sharing your time and talent on this important occasion and for this critical cause.   

Slote then lays out a full page of potential talking points, many of which focus on Gibbard’s experience growing into middle age in Seattle after moving here and falling in love with the city in the 1990s.

Kshama Sawant and  her staff used private gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was run out of Sawant’s office.

Robinson Slote says she did not give Gibbard special treatment during the Showbox debate, and points out that the “talking points” she wrote for Gibbard were based on his own previous comments. Gibbard ended up writing his own testimony, which differed significantly from the draft  Robinson Slote provided. However, the council’s solicitous treatment of Gibbard—which also included shepherding him from council member to council member and offering to host him in the council’s “green room,” away from the general public, during the council meeting—is not the standard treatment accorded to most members of the public, who must line up to speak, write their own testimony, and sit or stand in council chambers along with the rest of the general public.

Also unusual is the fact that legislation sponsor Kshama Sawant and her staff used private Gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was largely run out of Sawant’s office using city resources. It is standard practice for elected officials and public staffers to use their city email addresses to do public business, both because this practice just makes sense (all the other council members and staffers who are cc’d on the email use their public @seattle.gov addresses for all communications), and because private emails can more easily be withheld from public disclosure. If a journalist or member of the public requests email communications from an elected official or government staffer, it’s up to that staffer to volunteer their private emails for disclosure; the city’s public disclosure officers have no authority to go searching through people’s private email accounts. Additionally, public emails are archived by the city; private emails are not.  Sawant and her staffers’ email addresses all use the naming convention Firstnameatcouncil@gmail.com.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett says the city’s ethics code is silent on the issue of whether city officials and employees are allowed to do city business using personal email addresses. The city IT department’s policy on use of city resources, however, does prohibit “The use of personally owned technology for conducting City business, where official City records are created but not maintained by the City.”

In another email, Sawant’s staff discusses the wording of a poster, ultimately produced by Sawant’s council office, urging the council to vote to “save the Showbox” by including it in the historic district. An early version of the poster included the suggestion to “Call in sick – go protest!”

The fact that Sawant and her staff, as well as Robinson Slote, were discussing how to influence the legislation could—if the inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is deemed to be a spot downzone of the property—give the owners of the property important evidence in their case that the council and staffers engaged in illegal “ex parte” discussions and failed to remain impartial on a zoning decision.

In another exchange that could help the Showbox’s owners make the case that the council intervened improperly on a zoning decision, the city’s own attorney cautions against seeking landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue. (The inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is different from landmark status, but the emails demonstrate that the city’s attorneys cautioned against such a political approach to historic designation.) In an email dated July 31, assistant city attorney Bob Tobin told city council member Lisa Herbold that it would be “premature” for the city council to “take the position that the [Showbox] qualifies as a landmark, without first allowing the (expert) Board’s process to play out, and without applying the standards in the code, seems premature at best. From a legal perspective it is preferable for the Council to consider the designation decision in due course, pursuant to City ordinances. And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.” The Showbox owners’ lawsuit, of course, claims precisely that the council’s decision to include the property in the Pike Place Market Historical District was “out of step with the founding of the Pike Place Market redevelopment and is the definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

The city’s own attorneys advised the council against making the argument that the Showbox should be granted formal landmark status because of its “popularity” with the public: “And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.”

One day after sending the email to council member about landmark status, Tobin responded to an email from Sawant staffer Ted Virdone, who had posed several questions about what would happen if the city included the Showbox in the Pike Place Market Historical District, rather than seeking to make it a landmark on its own. Virdone’s questions are in italics.

Hi Ted. Here is a quick response to your questions below, in red.

  1. Is it possible to extend the boundary of the historical district to cover a property if the property owner objects? I believe the answer is yes, as owners typically can’t veto regulatory measures.
  2. If the Historical District is extended to cover this property, could it effect this development, or would the develop be vested in some way that would trump the procedures of the historical district? I believe that vesting of such a project would likely occur at the time that the Design Review process begins (SMC 23.76.026), and I doubt that process has begun. If the district were enlarged before the projects vests, then the applicant would be subject to historic district regulations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Showbox would be preserved.
  3. Are there any other considerations we should be aware of? There likely are, but I would need more focus on your questions and goals. Bob

Five days later, Virdone’s boss, Sawant, introduced legislation to extend the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox and about a dozen other properties on the east side of First Avenue. After property owners ultimately objected, that legislation was scaled back to encompass (and effectively downzone) just the Showbox property. Less than a month after that, the owners of the Showbox sued the city, seeking $40 million in compensation for legislation that, they say, drastically devalued their property.

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