Anti-Density Activists’ Race and Social Justice Gotcha Backfires

In blue: The parts of the city where apartments are illegal. (h/t @sharethecities)

SCALE, a group made up primarily of activist North End homeowners, is suing the city to prevent the implementation of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which—in addition to allowing increased density in multifamily areas around the city—would allow duplexes, townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings to be built on six percent of the land currently zoned for exclusive single-family use. In exchange for the right to build about one story higher than what’s currently allowed in these areas, developers would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into a fund to build affordable apartments elsewhere. The city has already implemented MHA in a number of areas, including the University District, South Lake Union, and downtown, where Showbox fans are trying to stop one of the first developments proposed under the new rules.

Since the beginning of its drawn-out attempt to kill MHA, SCALE has mischaracterized the plan as a citywide upzone, which it is not; currently, two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land is reserved exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, and MHA would only remove a tiny sliver of land at the edges of those areas, adjacent to “urban villages” and “urban centers” that are already dense and well-served by transit. As council member Debora Juarez said last week, “with that six percent, what we’re trying to do is right a historical wrong”—that is, racist redlining—”because we know that for people of color, marginalized communities, refugees, and immigrants,  in order for us to build wealth, we need to have a home.”

Historically, SCALE and its leaders—who include Toby Thaler, head of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, Bill Bradburd, a onetime city council candidate who called the city’s entire Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda “dumb,” and Sarajane Siegfriedt, a longtime Lake City neighborhood activist —have argued that townhouses and small apartment buildings violate the “historic character” of single-family areas. But last month, they switched tactics, portraying themselves as social justice advocates and defenders of low-income communities. Making their case to hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, SCALE argued that the city failed to consider feedback about the impacts of expanding urban villages on low-income people and people of color in conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) about the proposal, and then tried to bury that feedback.

In fact, the city spent the better part of a year doing outreach to nontraditional neighborhood groups and marginalized communities to find out their concerns about the potential impacts of MHA and wrote a final EIS that responded explicitly to those concerns, changing the zoning mix in neighborhoods with a high risk of displacement in an effort to help people stay in those communities.

SCALE’s evidence for the supposed coverup: A single letter from a group of city employees, known as the Race and Social Equity Team, who were charged with reviewing the city’s draft environmental impact statement for the MHA plan through a race and social justice lens. Their report (pages 9-18), which was submitted several months after the end of the public comment period for the draft version of the plan, suggested that the city needed to go further than it did in the draft EIS to address the race and social justice impacts of upzoning low-income neighborhoods where people of color are concentrated.

Support

“A number of honorable city employees conducted a thorough review of the race and social justice equity aspects of the EIS, but the city executive administration ignored their work,”  Thaler said at a special city council meeting on the plan last week. “There is no explicit reference in the EIS to [race and social justice at all.. … Read the record! This is a coverup!”

The letter, submitted by Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections staffer Dan Nelson on behalf of staffers at several city departments, says the draft EIS “did not consider race as deeply” as other factors related to housing affordability, and suggests that the city should collect  “qualitative information” from community residents about what historic resources and cultural assets they consider most important and vulnerable to displacement as MHA moves forward, and to continue doing so on an ongoing basis as MHA proceeds.

There is ample reason to do this kind of analysis. Historically, zoning (both official and unofficial, through policies that redlined people of color out of the most desirable areas of Seattle and cities across the country) has been used as a tool of discrimination against people of color in cities. In order to avoid perpetuating that legacy, race and social justice must be considered carefully as part of every land-use decision the city makes. The city also, it must be said, has not made this a top priority until relatively recently; Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, an effort to programmatically eliminate institutional racism within the city itself and in city policies, still has not been fully implemented 13 years after it was adopted in 2005. Many of the recommendations in the race and social equity team’s letter involve addressing race and social justice proactively in the future, not just with MHA but with other policy initiatives that impact communities of color. Undeniably, this is an area where the city still has work to do.

Looking only at MHA, however, it’s important to note that contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released. The letter, which reflects concerns about the draft version of the document—namely, that it did not adequately consider the plan’s potential for driving people and institutions out of their neighborhoods through physical and economic displacement—was just one of dozens of responses from community groups, committees, and interest groups across the city, whose extensive feedback is summarized here.

The MHA process included many new kinds of community outreach—led by former neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland—aimed at reaching communities that have been poorly served by traditional neighborhood groups like the neighborhood councils that make up most of the SCALE “coalition”.  I covered a number of these, including the city’s new community liaison program and Community Involvement Commission, last year.

Contrary to what SCALE is claiming in its lawsuit (and what they are using Nelson’s letter responding to a 2016 document to retroactively demonstrate), the city did do an intensive analysis of the race and social justice impacts of MHA after the draft EIS was released.

Taking all that feedback into consideration, the city then changed the proposal between the draft and final versions to explicitly discourage high-intensity development in areas that were determined, through a separate process called the Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis, to have both a high risk of displacement and low access to economic opportunity, which tend to be neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income people and people of color. (“Displacement risk” was determined by factors such as race, ethnicity, and “linguistic isolation,” according to the city.) At the same time, the final EIS emphasized development in areas with a low risk of displacement and high access to opportunity—the same north-of-I-90 neighborhoods, in other words, where most of SCALE’s members own houses.

The changes the city made between the draft and final EIS came response to direct community feedback, independent of the letter from city employees that SCALE considers its smoking gun. Those changes include:

• Reducing the amount of new housing that can be built in several areas where community members raised concerns about displacement, including the 23rd and Jackson-Union, Othello, and Rainier Beach residential urban villages;

• Increasing the zoning capacity in areas that have historically excluded low-income people and people of color—defined in MHA as places with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity—such as the Admiral residential urban village in West Seattle and the Ballard hub urban village, to encourage more development in those areas; and

• Amending the EIS between the final and draft version to explicitly direct the city’s office of housing to spend payments collected for affordable housing from developments in high-displacement risk neighborhoods into affordable housing in those neighborhoods.

Last month, SCALE rested its case before hearing examiner Ryan Vancil with testimony from, among others, Maria Batayola, a former Beacon Hill resident who testified that she has lived in Bellevue for four years but who still chairs the Beacon Hill Community Council’s land use committee. Batayola testified that her group joined SCALE in its lawsuit because they believed the city had failed to consider race and social justice in deciding which areas would receive upzones under MHA. But on cross-examination from an attorney with the city, Batayola said that she thought Nelson’s letter, and the Race and Social Equity Team’s report, were in response to the final document, not the (substantively different) draft. (Under questioning, Batayola reversed herself. She did not discuss the changes the city had made since the first version of the EIS.)

The hearing on SCALE’s lawsuit will continue later this month, and will likely last well into September; MHA can’t move forward until the lawsuit is resolved. Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues. Every day that MHA is not in place, the city loses out not only on opportunities to address the ongoing shortage of market-rate housing, it loses out on funding for affordable housing as well—a slow drip-drip-drip that adds up to millions of dollars in lost housing opportunities.

Whether restricting the creation of housing—any type of housing—will work as a long-time anti-displacement strategy is, of course, another question—one that city council member Teresa Mosqueda posed at last week’s meeting. “I still struggle with the terminology that if we were to do more development—again, through the community lens, led by community organizations and neighborhood leaders who who can talk about the type of housing that they’d like to see—we can actually benefit by seeing increased housing and density requirements in some of these areas that are being called at risk of displacement.

“If they are at risk of displacement, then [it seems like] we would like to see more opportunities for folks to live in those areas and not get pushed out,” Mosqueda concluded.

Note: This post originally identified the Fremont Neighborhood Council as the Fremont Neighborhood Association.

The Showbox Is “Saved.” Now What?

When I lived in Austin, back in the 1990s, there was this bar called the Cedar Door that kept getting displaced by development. The proprietors just couldn’t catch a break: As soon as they opened in a new location, it seemed, some developer would come along and announce a new condo or apartment or office building and the Cedar Door had to go. By the time I lived in Austin, the bar’s peripatetic nature was part of local lore: The bar that never stays in one place for long.

Let me tell you another story: There was this club, also in Austin , called Liberty Lunch, where I saw some of the most memorable shows of my young adult life, including the Pixies, Failure, Clutch, and a bunch of other bands whose names are lost to time. In the late ’90s, despite a concerted local effort to save it, Liberty Lunch shut down—a victim, it was said, of development run amok. (You can still visit it virtually, on the “I Still Miss Liberty Lunch” Facebook page.) Many of the bands I saw there are now on their second or third reunion tours, playing at $30-and-up venues like the Showbox.

A final story, from Seattle. A beloved cultural institution, the Museum of History and Industry, was forced from its location in Montlake by the need to rebuild the floating bridge across SR-520. The old bridge was, in a way, itself a victim of development: Massive suburban growth that state highway planners said necessitated a wider bridge to carry commuters swiftly back and forth across Lake Washington. The museum struck a deal with the city and state, and opened in a new (and arguably more apt location): South Lake Union, where old history rubs shoulders with new industry.

What did the city council vote for today, when it voted to “Save the Showbox” by making it part of the Pike Place Market Historical District?  To the mostly middle-aged crowd who testified about the value of the venue, the vote was about the musical heritage and cultural future of Seattle. To the Pike Place Market preservationists who see the Showbox debate as an opportunity to relitigate the city’s decision to upzone First Avenue to allow taller buildings—an upzone that today’s vote partly reversed—the decision was about protecting the “entrance to the market” from towers near the Market, which they have long opposed. (The Showbox, notably, was not included in the Pike Place Market historical district in 1971, when the district was created after a lengthy citizens’ effort to save the market from development, even though it had been around, at that point, for more than four decades.) To residents of the Newmark Tower condos on Second Avenue, the vote was an opportunity to preserve their views of Elliott Bay and limit traffic in the alley behind their building. “Past city councils shouldn’t have upzoned,” attorney and Newmark condo owner Dan Merkle said. He wore a “Save the Showbox” T-shirt. (Opponents of theoretical “luxury apartments,” in one of the day’s many ironies, were in league with the owners of actual luxury condos.) And to density advocates like council member Teresa Mosqueda, it was a symbolic vote to “protect” one downtown block that came with an implicit bargain: If people who showed up over the past week to “Save the Showbox” really want to preserve cultural institutions and build affordable housing, she said, they need to show up for future debates about development, too—to advocate for more density all over the city.

The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups, without regard for whether doing so violates the spirit of prior land-use policies that resulted from lengthy, and often hard-fought, public processes. This week, it was the Showbox. Next month, it could be  an industrial business that stands in the way of a bike lane, or a single-family house whose preservation could prevent the development of dense housing in a neighborhood.

The legislation the council adopted today adds the Showbox property, owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, to the Pike Place Market Historical District for the next ten months so the city can “review the historic significance ot the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the Pike Place Market Historical District Design Guidelines related to the Showbox, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” In plain English, that means that the city has effectively downzoned the block on which the Showbox is located from about 450 feet to its current height of two stories on an “emergency” basis while the city decides whether to include the Showbox in the district permanently. Inclusion in the historical district means that any alterations to the building—from the tenants who occupy the first floor to the lighting and signage—will have to be approved by the historical commission that oversees the market. (Proponents have argued that this will force the Showbox to remain a music venue in perpetuity, but the city cannot legally force a private business to stay in business or renew its lease.) For now, the legislation effectively precludes demolition of the Showbox and prevents the building’s owner, Roger Forbes, from selling the property to Onni Group, the developer that wants to build a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

Support

In theory, the legislation provides some breathing room for the city to work out a deal to preserve the physical structure that houses the Showbox—a two-story unreinforced masonry building—while allowing Onni to build its tower on top of the venue. However, as Mosqueda acknowledged after the “this vote today makes a negotiated resolution more challenging.” Even if Onni and Forbes want to reach such a resolution, building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself may not be possible, and could be prohibitively expensive if it is. At today’s meeting, council members repeatedly cited a project built by developer Kevin Daniels that saved the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church sanctuary on Fifth and Marion as an example of preservation that allowed a new development to co-exist with a historical structure. But that development did not involve actually placing a new building on top of the church—and it cost an estimated $40 million. (Daniels has said that from a purely financial perspective, he regrets saving the church building.)

In any case, neither Onni nor Forbes has indicated that they plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to “save” a music venue in which neither party is actually invested, in any sense of that word. Moreover, the uncertainty created by today’s legislation may lead Onni to abandon the project. That could “save” the Showbox until its lease ends in two years, but does not guarantee its continued existence; AEG, the multinational company that operates the Showbox, could decide to leave, or Forbes, the building’s owner, could decline to renew their lease or raise the rent to a  prohibitive level.

Would anyone who was at city hall today declare victory if the Showbox was “saved,” only to become a new Tom Douglas restaurant, or an actual museum? Or if it ends up sitting empty, the victim of economic forces that can’t be altered by a million signatures on change.org petitions?

Or Forbes could sue. On Sunday, the law firm that represents Forbes, Byrnes Keller Cromwell, sent a letter to city attorney Pete Holmes and council president Bruce Harrell noting that Forbes has the legal right to redevelop the Showbox property as a high-rise; in fact, the lawyers note, the city implicitly endorsed its redevelopment when it upzoned the land in both 2006 and 2016, when the zoning capacity of downtown Seattle was increased as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. “That zoning and up-zoning were and are entirely consistent with the City’s high-density urban plan and goal of promoting affordable housing,” the letter says. (If Onni does not move forward with its development, the city will  forego about $5 million that would have gone toward affordable housing under MHA.)

The letter continues:

As you are aware, property owners, the City and the courts all have respective rights, obligations and oversight related to the significant economic interests that arise from real property and re-zoning issues. Just this last Thursday, the State Supreme Court unanimously issued an opinion on land use rights in a case where a property owner was not given a fair opportunity to use a property. [That case upheld a decision finding that Thurston County illegally delayed the sale of a piece of land owned by the Port of Tacoma and awarded total damages of $12 million].  Of course, you know that case does not stand alone, but is part of a larger body of state and federal law addressing these kinds of significant economic and constitutional issues.

It is important for all parties involved to be heard fairly and accorded consideration and for rights to be recognized and protected. Process should be afforded and both procedural and substantive fairness observed.  We understand that a more considered  approach may be underway for the Monday, August 13, 2018, City Council meeting at which these issues are to be considered, and we sincerely appreciate a path toward working through the issues in a way that avoids unnecessary entanglements, missteps and interference with contractual and other expectations of the parties involved.

Whatever ultimately happens with the Showbox, the ramifications of today’s vote will be far-reaching. Although council member Mosqueda told me after the vote that she did not intend for the decision to set any kind of precedent, that’s exactly what it does. The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups, without regard for whether doing so violates the spirit of prior land-use policies that resulted from lengthy, and often hard-fought, public processes. This week, it was the Showbox. Next month, it could be  an industrial business that stands in the way of a bike lane, or a single-family house whose preservation could prevent the development of dense housing in a neighborhood. For all Mosqueda’s optimism that the “Save the Showbox” crowd will turn out in the future to advocate for density all over the city, it’s important to note that council members who often advocate against density, including Lisa Herbold and Sawant, see the same people as an opportunity to advance their own anti-development agendas.

At today’s meeting, while Herbold was talking about the need to save the physical structure of the Showbox, rather than preserving its spirit by rebuilding or revamping the venue, someone shouted from the back. “The soul is in the walls, it’s in the stage, it’s in the floor!” But he was wrong.  The Showbox isn’t the Lincoln Memorial, or La Sagrada Familia, or the Louvre. Its cultural relevance comes not from the squat, architecturally unremarkable building in which it is located, but from the music that has been made, and continues to be made, inside its walls. And cultural institutions sometimes move, or are rebuilt, or even close only to reopen later in a different form. (Moe’s, a once-shuttered institution whose rebirth as Neumos helped to spur the reinvention of the Pike-Pine corridor as a nightlife district, springs to mind.) Would anyone who was at city hall today declare victory if the Showbox was “saved,” only to become a new Tom Douglas restaurant, or an actual museum? Or if it ends up sitting empty, the victim of economic forces that can’t be altered by a million signatures on change.org petitions? Twenty years ago, Liberty Lunch was replaced by a generic office building. But Austin remained a music destination, largely on the strength of the new venues that emerged on the other side of town after the Lunch shut down. Cities rarely grow and improve by preserving their culture in amber. Almost always, they do so by letting things change.

Saving the Showbox Just Took a Big Step Forward, But What’s Next?

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Efforts to “save the Showbox” theater moved forward Wednesday, though not in quite the way council member Kshama Sawant envisioned when she proposed legislation on Monday to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District on a two-year “interim” basis to include more than a dozen buildings on the east side of First Avenue, including the Showbox.

On Wednesday, council members Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw whittled down Sawant’s legislation to expand the historic district to encompass just one new property—the Showbox—and for just ten months, rather than two years. The amended legislation passed the committee unanimously, and could go before the full council on Monday.

The council got its first look at the plan to “Save the Showbox” by expanding the Market on Monday when Sawant introduced a proposal to increase the size of the Pike Place Market Historical District to include all the properties on the east side of First Avenue downtown between Virginia and Union Streets—the largest expansion in the history of the district, which was expanded twice in the 1980s.

Sawant said the council needed to pass her proposal quickly—just one week after it was introduced—in order to halt Vancouver, B.C.-based developer Onni from building a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

By Monday afternoon, dozens of Showbox supporters had mobilized at city hall, waving signs (distributed by Sawant’s staff) that read “Save the Showbox” and “Music for People, not Profits for Onni Group” and testifying about the importance of preserving the historic venue, which first opened as a dance hall in 1939. Since then, it has served as a bingo hall, a party room, an adult “amusement arcade,” a storage facility, and a live music venue with a rich history.

Supporters’ comments focused on the Showbox’s value as a music venue, but the legislation Sawant proposed would have had implications far beyond the Showbox property, rendering brand-new buildings like the Thompson Hotel on First and Stewart as well as vacant parking lots, a 1985 condo tower, and the Deja Vu strip club “historic” by virtue of their inclusion in the historical district.

Buildings in the district, which was established in 1971 to protect small farmers, artisans, and retail businesses that were threatened by plans to bulldoze the Market, are subject to a long list of restrictions that regulate everything from which tenants are allowed to the color of first-floor interior walls to the wattage of exterior lighting and signage. (More on what the new strictures would have meant for the buildings on the east side of First Avenue here.)

Sawant said it was urgent to rush her proposal through in just one week, without the usual process that a large expansion of a historic district would ordinarily require, because Onni was scheduled to vest the project “in about three weeks’ time,” which would make it subject only to current land use laws, which allow it to build an apartment building on First Avenue.

“I’m convinced that there’s a reason to rush,” Sawant said Monday. “I don’t think we should be misleading community members into thinking they have the time” to “save the Showbox” in a more deliberate way, she added. Historic designation would give “breathing room to the community and prevent Onni’s luxury project from becoming a fait accompli.”

Things moved quickly from there. Sawant’s office sent out emails calling on her supporters to “pack city hall” before a Wednesday meeting of the city council’s finance and neighborhoods committee to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

By Wednesday afternoon, when the committee met, city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Sally Bagshaw had countered with amendments to Sawant’s proposal that would reduce the size of the historical district expansion area to eliminate everything but only the Showbox property and reduce the amount of time the new controls would be in place from two years to ten months.

This amended legislation passed out of Bagshaw’s committee unanimously on Wednesday and headed to full council, where it could be heard on Monday.

On Wednesday, the timeline to pass the legislation was officially moved more than two months into the future, when Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, told council members that Onni will not submit its application for early design guidance, a necessary step in the approval process, until October 17, meaning the absolute earliest the project could vest is October 18.

That gives the council some breathing room to come up with some kind of agreement to preserve the Showbox as a music venue in a number of ways: 1) by permanently expanding the historic district to include the building, 2) by landmarking the building and arranging for a nonprofit to purchase and run it—possibly, as council member Lisa Herbold suggested, as part of the city’s existing historic theater district, or 3) by coming up with a compromise in which Onni agrees to reopen the Showbox in a new space on the ground floor of its new development, preserving any significant interior features of the current concert hall.

This proposed new expansion of the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the Showbox would give the Pike Place Market Historical Commission broad authority over both the physical building and its use, down to the choice of food and beverage vendors and any interior alterations or improvements. “If someone is selling bags in the market and they want to sell shoes instead, the commission reviews that,” Heather McAuliffe, the city’s coordinator for the historic district, told the council committee Wednesday.

Landmarking the building, in contrast, would preserve just the structure, without dictating how it could be used. Late on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that three historic preservation groups— Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown—had filed an application to landmark the venue, potentially circumventing a parallel application from Onni. The developer announced plans to seek landmark status for the building shortly after announcing plans to replace it with a 44-story apartment tower last month—a fairly routine practice for developers that want to expedite approval of their permits—but apparently had not yet filed its application with the city.

The third option—save the Showbox, demolish the building—would likely present the fewest legal issues for the city.

Landmarking the architecturally unremarkable two-story building where the Showbox is located or expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox would amount to a selective downzone in a part of town where the city just adopted new zoning guidelines designed to encourage more housing construction. Barring Onni from building its apartment tower would also mean foregoing the approximately $5 million the developer would be required to contribute to affordable housing under those new guidelines.

That would likely lead to a protracted legal battle involving the property owner, Roger Forbes, who also owns Deja Vu, and Onni, who could argue that taking away the value represented by 44 stories of development potential amounts to a taking of private property. A compromise that would allow the Showbox to stay on First Avenue but does not restrict the owner’s ability to sell to Onni or Onni’s ability to build apartments could circumvent that potential legal dispute.

Building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself likely isn’t an option. The building, which is made of unreinforced masonry and covers basically the entire property on which it sits, would have to undergo a massive seismic upgrade to support a 44-story tower, if such an upgrade is even possible. Developer Kevin Daniels did a less significant seismic upgrade to preserve the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church building on Fifth and Marion, which did not involve placing a building on top of the church, and that cost an estimated $40 million.

Of course, no historic district or landmark designation can force the Showbox to remain the Showbox. Forbes, the owner, could decide to sell the building. AEG Live, the subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group that operates the Showbox, could decide not to renew its lease, which expires in 2021. Forbes could also decline to renew AEG’s lease.

Neither Forbes nor AEG responded to requests for comment.

If the building became an official part of the Market, the market historical commission could stipulate that it had to remain a music venue in perpetuity—and the building’s owners could fail to find a suitable tenant. There are many scenarios, in other words, in which the Showbox might close even after a successful effort to “save” it.

It was unclear after Wednesday’s vote whether the council would vote on the Showbox legislation on Monday, as Sawant originally proposed, or wait a few weeks to let discussions with Onni play out.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who initially supported Sawant’s proposal to move quickly because he believed the council only had three weeks to act, said he now believes “it would be prudent” to look at other models for saving the Showbox before going with the plan Sawant proposed. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that whatever happens, she plans to draft a resolution “that lays out in clearer form what we expect to occur over the next nine to 12 months.”

The Showbox isn’t “saved” just yet. But it might have just bought some time, and gained a few new routes to salvation.

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.

What “Save the Showbox” Really Means

The effort to “Save the Showbox” moved deeper into the murky waters of historic preservation earlier today with the introduction of a proposal, sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant, to expand the Pike Place Market Historic District on an “interim,” two-year basis.  The proposal would effectively kill plans by the Vancouver-based developer Onni to replace the two-story building the Showbox occupies on First Avenue with 442 apartments, and force the city to forego roughly $5 million Onni would have had to pay to build affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability law—a law Sawant opposed.

“This is what the working people of Seattle want,” Sawant said today, pointing to a change.org petition to “Save the Showbox” that has garnered some 90,000 signatures from around the country. Sawant-branded red-and-white signs emphasized this point, as did an email from Sawant’s official list urging “our movement” to—per usual—”pack city hall” to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

If we buy the notion that “the working people of Seattle” are preoccupied with the desire to save a venue where tickets typically go for $30 , $40, or more (plus $10 a ticket in nonrefundable “convenience fees”), it’s still worth asking: What are the working people of Seattle getting in this bargain? What does Sawant’s proposal actually do?

In 2016, a parking garage in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved.

First, Sawant’s proposal would compress the typically months-long process of expanding the boundaries of a designated historic district (in this case, the one created to preserve Pike Place Market in 1971) into just one week in order to prevent the property from vesting to Onni, the Vancouver-based developer that wants to turn the property into a mixed-use apartment tower. “I’m convinced that there is a reason to rush,” Sawant said today, adding that the council rushed through a repeal of the head tax as a point of comparison. The council agreed to move the legislation through committee this week, for possible consideration next Monday afternoon. (The lone committee hearing on Sawant’s proposal will be in Sally Bagshaw’s finance and neighborhoods committee in council chambers on Wednesday at 2).

Support

Digging into the details, the legislation would roughly double the geographic area on First Avenue in which businesses and property owners are subject to strict, legally binding controls on what they can do in and to their properties. Most speakers this afternoon didn’t talk about historic preservation or landmark status or the implications of taking rules designed to protect small farmers and artisans and applying them to buildings that most people would never consider part of Pike Place Market. But the council needs to talk about those things before they move forward with Sawant’s sweeping legislation, because it will have implications far beyond the Showbox, and for long after the crowds that show up to “Save the Showbox” have moved on.

The Pike Place Market Historical District, and the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, were established by ordinance in 1971 to “promote the educational, cultural, farming, marketing, other economic resources, and the general welfare; and to assure the harmonious, orderly, and efficient growth and development of the municipality.” The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage. (A full list of requirements and processes for approving changes within the district is available on the city’s website.)

The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage.

And, of course, any new development within a historical district is subject to a far more intense level of scrutiny than an existing business that wants to sell to a different owner (which requires the prospective new business owner to get a whole new certificate of approval after convincing the commission that they will abide by all the prior restrictions)  or add an awning (which falls under “Major Structures and Architectural Elements” and involves an approval process). In recent years, at least one building—a parking garage near the waterfront, in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District—was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners in a building across the street who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved. As it happens, Sawant’s proposed expansion area includes two parking lots, one right next to the Showbox, where any development would block the view of people who live at the Newmark Tower, a luxury condo building. If the parking lot, which currently serves the Showbox and the Showgirls Deja Vu strip club, is “preserved” as part of the district, count on the residents of the Newmark to object to any building that blocks their “historic” waterfront views.

The Newmark condos rise behind what could become a “historic” parking lot. Historic district status would give residents an opportunity to object to development that blocks their views.

Some other buildings and businesses that would fall into the newly expanded Pike Place Market Historical District include:

The Showgirls strip club and Fantasy Unltd. store, whose front windows advertise “low-price DVDs” and whose presence on First Ave. is itself a historical artifact—a holdover from the time when First Avenue was known for adult theaters, flop houses, and peep shows, not high-end jewelry designers and fancy tchotchke shops.

Smoke Plus Inc., which shares the First Avenue frontage of the three-story Hahn Building with a a 2-for-$10 t-shirt shop. This building, which also houses the Green Tortoise Hostel, is already slated for redevelopment as a hotel, but that proposal is controversial and remains under review. Opponents of the development have argued that demolishing the building would destroy the “market entrance.” Historic designation could give hotel opponents another tool to protest that development.

The 98 Union condo building, built in 1985 at the south end of the market:

Another parking lot, this one backing up to the Chase Bank tower on Second Avenue.

This Starbucks, which would potentially run into restrictions the historical commission places on duplicate businesses and chain stores within the market, where there is already a Starbucks. The Pike Place Market Historical District bars “multiple ownership” of more than one business in the Market district and does not allow any chains or franchises, and carves out an explicit exemption for businesses (like Starbucks and Sur La Table) “that originated in the Market and whose owners or controllers later opened another location or locations outside the Market.” (The original Starbucks was located at 2000 Western and “re”-opened at its current location in 1976).

And the brand-new Thompson Hotel at the north end of the Market expansion area—a gleaming 12-story hotel designed by Olson Kundig that the New York Times called a “stylish … hotel whose location can’t be beat.”

Designation as part of the Pike Place Market Historical District wouldn’t prevent any of the businesses in these newly “historic” buildings from closing down or changing their business model, nor would it prohibit new businesses from opening up. But the designation would impose strict controls on how the buildings can be used in the future, whether they can be remodeled, and how and whether they can be redeveloped. If the Thompson Hotel, which just opened last year, wanted to update its signage, for example, it would have to abide by five detailed rules imposed on all businesses in the district, the first of which is “Signs should be simple, clear, of modest size, and painted with plain lettering styles.” Adding a sidewalk cafe, modifying the facade, or painting an interior wall that happens to be visible from the sidewalk would all require approval from the commission.

As for the Showbox itself: “Saving” the building—even stipulating that the interior of the building be preserved in its current form, which would effectively require any future owners to keep it open as a concert venue or let it sit empty in perpetuity—won’t necessarily save the Showbox itself. As my colleague Josh Feit pointed out last week, it’s the nature of thriving cities to change, not stay the same. If people my age, or the age of most of the people who testified in favor of Sawant’s legislation today, use the strong arm of government to “save” our favorite institutions (and make no mistake, the Showbox is no longer a place you can go to pay a $5 cover to see an up-and-coming band, if it ever was), the unintended consequences may go beyond forcing a bunch of other businesses to learn to live under a newly restrictive historic-preservation regime. It can also turn the city into a museum commemorating the youth of people who are in their 40s and 50s, at the expense of people in their 20s and 30s who may want to start new businesses—future beloved institutions—of their own. Worst case, Showbox operator AEG Live—whose lease for the venue runs out in two years—shuts the place down on their own, leaving a very expensive empty room for some other company to try to fill with a business that meets all of the historic district’s stringent requirements. There may be a way to “save the Showbox”—some have suggested buying it from AEG and running it as a Vera Project-style nonprofit, or striking a deal with Onni to reopen the venue in its new tower—but historic preservation is the bluntest possible instrument, and inevitably leads to some collateral damage.

 

The J Is for Judge: More Housing, Less Nostalgia

File:Seattle - Showbox marquee 01.jpg

Photo credit: Joe Mabel

Editor’s note: I’m excited to introduce a regular new column for The C Is for Crank, by my former colleague at PubliCola and The Stranger, Josh Feit, in which Josh issues a verdict on the week’s news. For his debut column, Josh argues that we might not be having a debate over whether to “save the Showbox”—a club in a two-story building in the densest part of downtown Seattle—if Seattle’s zoning laws didn’t make housing illegal almost everywhere in the city. 

After the Daily Journal of Commerce and other local news sites reported that the Onni Group, a Vancouver, BC-based developer, plans to tear down the the Showbox and build a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail, social media blew up, lamenting yet another victim of Seattle’s building boom. Calls to save the Showbox, the storied downtown music venue at 1st and Pike, quickly followed, including the possibility of declaring the building, with its iconic marquee, a historic landmark.  Even former Guns ‘n Roses bassist Duff McKagan joined the outcry, telling KIRO radio: “Music is a big part of the soul of our city, and the Showbox is at the center of that.”

My flip reaction to the news? If Seattle didn’t have strict zoning laws that make it impossible to build freely in other neighborhoods, maybe developers like Onni wouldn’t have to tear down beloved downtown institutions like the Showbox.

But here’s my real take. It’s fine that developers are planning on replacing the two-story building that houses the Showbox with a mixed residential and commercial building. In fact, it’s a net positive. Here’s why: Seattle’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which makes developers either build a certain percentage of affordable housing on site or contribute to an affordable housing fund, means new downtown housing generates serious cash for affordable housing. In the specific case of Onni’s plans for the Showbox, MHA’s upzone requires a $10.85 per square foot payment toward affordable housing, which means the project will generate somewhere around five million dollars for affordable housing. (Under the city’s affordable housing plan, Onni also has the option to build affordable housing on site.)<

And if 442 fancy market-rate apartments still isn’t your idea of good development, keep in mind, downtown Seattle, from Pioneer Square to Belltown, is already home to 10,000 affordable subsidized units,  more than 35 percent of Seattle’s total affordable housing stock. For one neighborhood to provide a plurality of all the city’s affordable housing stock is remarkable.

For a city that’s facing a housing affordability crisis (and where market-rate housing hasn’t kept up with our population boom), the Onni development is a win.

No, low-income people can’t afford to live in brand-new high-income housing downtown. But if no one is building housing for the tens of thousands of workers who are moving here, those people start to compete for existing housing, driving up rents down the line. The only way out of this spiral is to build more housing. And: Today’s market-rate housing is tomorrow’s middle-income housing is tomorrow’s “naturally occurring affordable housing.

Another thing I like about Onni’s plans is that they call for just one parking spot for every five units— 88 parking spots for 442 apartments. In a city that has 1.6 million parking spaces—5.2 per household, 3.7 per car—Onni’s downsized garage is a welcome change in priorities, matching the city’s future vision for a pro-pedestrian and transit oriented downtown.

Arts and cultural spaces are vital to cities—music and art, with lines stretching around the block, represent important political and community assets for any town. (Seeing avant garde R&B crooner Serpentwithfeet at Barboza last month was one of my favorite nights in Seattle in 2018 so far.)

But Showbox or no Showbox, Seattle is currently jammed with cultural spaces (1,132 of them), including about 120 music venues.

In short, saving the Showbox won’t make you 21 again, but there plenty of places for 21-year-olds to go in 2018.

The outcry to save the Showbox is just more nostalgic pique from a public in the throes of anxiety about change. Preserving memories is not the job of cities. Successful cities are the ones that constantly build new memories. The simple secret to doing that: Stop living in the past.

Morning Crank: Public Land for the Public Good

1. City Council member Teresa Mosqueda will introduce affordable-housing legislation that could have major implications for one of the largest land holders in the city, Seattle City Light. Mosqueda’s bill would allow City Light to sell its surplus land to affordable-housing developers for less than market value—all the way down to the amount the city originally paid for the land—and would require City Light to do so if the agency committed to build housing making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. (That latter part may be up for negotiation.) For example, if City Light bought a piece of property in South Lake Union 60 years ago for a few thousand dollars, and the land is now worth millions, a nonprofit that agreed to build deeply affordable housing could buy it for the original, decades-old price.

The proposal, if it passes, will mark a significant change in the city’s policy for disposing of excess City Light land, and could invite a court challenge. Currently, the city requires property owned by its electric utility to be sold at fair-market value, thanks to a 2003 ruling striking down a fee City Light imposed to install and maintain streetlights. That ruling found that City Light could not charge ratepayers for any purpose other than providing utilities, and forced the agency to return $24 million to Seattle residents. Mosqueda’s legislation would change this disposition policy. However, Mosqueda’s office maintains that a separate ruling in 2013, in which the state supreme court disagreed with Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman’s claim that it was illegal to build light rail over I-90 because the bridge was built with gas taxes, which are supposed to be spent only on road purposes, establishes a precedent for City Light to sell its property at below-market value once that property is paid off and declared surplus to the city’s purposes.

Separately, Mosqueda’s office says she will introduce legislation that would encourage all city agencies that own surplus land to  give away or sell this excess property for below-market values to public agencies or nonprofit housing providers that agree to use the land to build affordable housing. The legislation comes in response to a new state law, House Bill 2382, passed by the state legislature last year allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.  Mosqueda’s proposal would also allow agencies, including nonprofits to exercise this right even if they don’t have all the money in hand or haven’t secured a development partner.

“Through smart management of public land, and using surplus and underutilized public land for the best public good, we can reduce the cost of building the affordable housing our communities need,” Mosqueda says. “This will also help us realize more community-led affordable housing and small-business development” by giving housing providers more time to pull together funding and development plans for properties that become available.

According to the latest city land inventory, there are about 35 pieces of city-owned land larger than 15,000 square feet that are surplus, “excess,” or underutilized, although some are outside Seattle and not all are suitable for housing development.

2. As I noted on Twitter last week, the anti-head tax campaign formed on May 18 and achieved its goal of repealing the tax on June 12. In the course of their brief effort, they spent nearly half a million dollars, according to their latest filing at the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission—more than most of last year’s city council candidates spent in a year-long campaign.

Morning Crank: “Poor People Are People”

KIRO’s Jason Rantz was there, too.

1. A sharply divided standing-room-only crowd gathered last Thursday at 415 Westlake—an airy South Lake Union events center that ordinarily hosts weddings, fundraisers, and bat mitzvahs—and both sides came ready to shout. About 200 people (including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant) crammed into the space, many of them jostling for standing room in the back, to hear a presentation on a proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union and register their support or protest. Representatives from a new group called Unified Seattle handed out fact sheets and glossy campaign-style signs to fellow tiny-house opponents in the audience—a stark contrast to the hand-drawn, crayon-colored reading “We Welcome Our New Neighbors” that supporters of another tiny house village, at 18th and Yesler, held aloft at a similar meeting last month.  Unified Seattle—a group that, according to its website, includes Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and until last week also listed Speak Out Seattle among its backers—purchased Facebook ads to encourage people to show up at the meeting. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” the event page urged.

The “village”—a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that will occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street that was previously used as a parking lot—is the subject of a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, a statewide group that is best known for trying to thwart the Service Employees International Union from organizing home health care workers; according to the Seattle Times, the suit contends that the city did not adequately inform the community of the proposal, did not do a required environmental review, and has exceeded the maximum number of tiny house villages allowed under city law. The opening date for the encampment, (originally scheduled for July, then quietly bumped to November in the latest version of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” plan) could end up getting pushed back even further.

As of January 2018, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle; All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is in reality higher.

Opponents of the tiny house village, which would be run by the Low-Income Housing Institute and would provide temporary shelter to about 65 people, focused on the fact that the encampment will not be an explicitly clean and sober environment; although drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in all common areas (and smoking prohibited throughout the site), LIHI will not go into people’s individual sheds and search for contraband, which means, in practice, that people can drink and use drugs in the houses. When Seattle homelessness strategy division director Tiffany Washington noted that this is precisely the city’s policy for dealing with people who live in regular homes (“If I’m using drugs in my house, how will you know?”)—opponents in the crowd erupted in shouts and boos. “The taxpayers don’t pay for your house!” someone yelled. “I provide my kids with rules,” a speaker said moments later, adding that if he thought they were up to no good, “I might search the room.” That prompted another shout from the back: “They’re not kids!”

Elisabeth James, one of the leaders of Speak Out Seattle, suggested that the city would be foolish to give up the revenue it receives from the parking lot where the village would be located. “I look at this parking lot that generates over a million dollars a year, then we’re going to give up that and pay to house people on a parking lot? That seems like a waste of money to me,” she said. Brandishing a four-page, folded color flyer that LIHI handed out at the meeting, James continued, “I look at this fancy folder that you guys have and I think this is a waste of money! And this is one of the reasons that the neighbors are so upset and frustrated.”

Another neighbor, condo owner and retired police officer Greg Williams, suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment. “They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us to offset” what they cost the community Williams said. “We don’t live free. Why should they live free? If they want to do something, get that experience of a job. Get that experience having to be somewhere on time every day.” According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home King County, 20 percent of King County’s homeless residents have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they became homeless; and 45 percent were actively looking for work.

Many people wanted to know whether LIHI or the city would be doing “background checks” on the people who want to live in the village, either to see whether they have active warrants inside or outside Washington State, or to determine whether they are local residents, as a way of weeding out homeless people who aren’t “from here.” The short answer to each question is that the city won’t exclude anyone, except registered sex offenders, from shelter because of their criminal history, and they can’t exclude people based on where they came from, because that would be housing discrimination. The longer answer is that homeless people frequently have criminal records because of minor, nonviolent offenses, either because they committed low-level crimes like shoplifting or because they violated laws against loitering, lying down, sleeping, urinating, or having an open container in public. (Open containers are illegal for everybody, but homeless people are uniquely unable to drink, or perform many other activities housed people take for granted anywhere but in public.) Basically any activity that housed people do in the privacy of their own homes becomes illegal when you do it in public; denying shelter to every homeless person who has been caught doing one of these things and locking them in jail instead would be a logistical and civil-rights nightmare, not to mention a tremendous burden on public resources.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort. Hodes made an impassioned plea for the people who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out  that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.” “She’s saying nasty things! She’s attacking us!” members of the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience shouted.

Image via Fourth and Madison Building, fourthandmadison.com

2. The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is proposing changes to the existing incentive zoning program for commercial properties, which allows developers to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable child care and housing. OCPD strategic advisor Brennon Staley presented the proposed changes, which are aimed at making the city’s various incentive zoning programs more consistent and easier to use, to the Seattle Planning Commission last Thursday.

Although most of the changes won’t have an immediate, dramatic impact on the street level in places like downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District (making it easier for developers to preserve historic buildings and affordable housing through transfers of development rights, for example, will have the result of keeping the streetscape the same), one change that could make a visible impact is the proposed update to the city’s privately owned public space (POPS) program. POPS, which developers are required to provide as part of any new development, are often hard to find, hostile to the general public, and inaccessible outside business hours. (The quintessential example is the 7th-floor plaza at the Fourth and Madison Building, accessible only from inside the building and marked only by a small sign  at the building’s base. Thank former city council member Nick Licata for that modest marker!)

The proposed changes would provide more flexibility for developers to build smaller, more flexible open spaces, allow cafes, movable seating, and games to help “activate” smaller public spaces, and require that all privately owned public spaces be open between 6am and 10pm, the same hours as public parks. One commissioner, Amy Shumann, suggested that OCPD require larger signs than the small, green-and-white markers that currently point pedestrians to these spaces; another, David Goldberg, asked whether developers might be able to pay a fee instead of providing open space on site, an idea Staley shot down by pointing out that when the city has tried to do this kind of program in the past, they’ve ended up having to give the money back because they haven’t been able to collect enough money to build the spaces elsewhere.

Fact-Checking the Weekly’s Fact Check On My Fact Check (Yes, We’re Talking About YIMBYs)

Last Friday, Seattle Weekly appended a lengthy editor’s note to its error-riddled story about Seattle’s YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement, which was written by a California activist who wrote an article last year asserting that YIMBYs are members of the “alt-right.” 

After a couple of perfunctory corrections (more on those in a moment), the editor’s note spends four paragraphs chiding me for a post I wrote fact-checking the Weekly’s piece and pointing out the ways in which the writer misrepresented himself to people he interviewed and mischaracterized the views of groups with which he disagreed.

This post is my response to the Weekly’s “Editorial Response,” which ran in both the print and online editions of the paper.

The note begins by arguing that my “criticism … relies heavily on her own imagined projections about how the story was put together.”

For example, Barnett suggests that we were completely unaware of the writer’s background and should’ve “googled him.” That’s simply not true. We were aware that Meronek (a San Francisco-based, Seattle native) had written articles in the past that had drawn the ire of people within the YIMBY movement. Perhaps that could’ve been framed better, but the idea that a reporter shouldn’t be able to write on a topic because of backlash they’ve received from the subject’s side would have a chilling effect (it would be incredibly difficult to write about the current Presidential administration, for example).

Well, I am just a silly girl given to flights of fancy and “imagined projections,” but even my ladybrain is capable of parsing that paragraph: The Weekly is saying that their editor, Seth Sommerfeld, was familiar with Meronek’s work, and was aware that it had caused an uproar because Meronek got a bunch of facts wrong, mischaracterized people’s comments and views, and made outrageous statements about YIMBYs, the subject of his piece. (Just this week, Meronek accused San Francisco YIMBYs of ethnic cleansing on his Twitter feed.)  He knew about Meronek’s error-riddled polemic calling YIMBYs members of the “alt-right.” He knew, too, about Meronek’s piece arguing that YIMBYs’ “politics are rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan.” He dismissed attempts to fact-check Meronek’s polemics by women (they were all women) in the Bay Area as “ire” aimed at a writer whose perspective they just didn’t like. And he decided Meronek would be a great person to cover the YIMBY movement in Seattle.

Given all that, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my suggestion that the Weekly could have found a local reporter, with actual reporting credentials, would get me compared to Trump. After all, isn’t suggesting that reporters ought to meet some basic standards—like characterizing people accurately, getting their facts straight, and not misrepresenting themselves to people they interview—exactly the same thing as saying that people whose opinions are controversial should be banned from writing? It’s like I always say: If you piss anyone off with your writing, you should pick another profession, because the point of journalism is to make everybody happy. Oh, wait. I don’t say that. In fact, some days I feel like my Twitter feed, emails, and comments are just a firehose of vitriol. If you aren’t pissing anyone off, you aren’t doing your job. The problem with Meronek isn’t that he made all those YIMBYs in California mad. The problem is that he misrepresented himself, mischaracterized them, and got a ton of verifiable facts wrong—and then came and did the same thing here.

The paragraph about the Central District being even more cost-prohibitive for people of color due to market-rate development (which is factual) at no point says that it’s the only reason for the demographic shift in the neighborhood. Barnett goes on for paragraphs about the issue, but this article wasn’t about the Central District, so a comprehensive history would’ve been a diversion.

First: Just saying something is “factual” doesn’t make it true (my post outlines, apparently at great length, why this claim is not supported by facts.) Second: I wasn’t asking for a “comprehensive history” of the Central District, nor did I attempt to provide one, even if I did “go on for paragraphs” (two) about Meronek’s error. My point was that Meronek’s claim that recent market-rate development has forced people out of the Central District is simply inaccurate, belied by history; market-rate development in the Central District is a very recent development, and at the risk of quoting from the piece where I apprently droned on for so long even Seattle Weekly got bored, my issue with Meronek’s claim was that the Central District began gentrifying dramatically years ago, thanks largely to high taxes, poor loan terms, and a lack of affordable housing. I don’t think the Weekly needed to publish a “comprehensive history” of the Central District. I think taking out the section that blamed the recent “unleash[ing] of market-rate development” on the area for gentrification that started 30 years ago (and maybe not referring to the area as “The District”) would have sufficed.

Support

In regards to the email contact between Seattle Weekly and Sightline, the numbers and money flow regarding Sightline and Good Ventures were corrected and clarified in a previous update. The quote about a “matter of perception” was willfully taken out of context and had nothing to do with Sightline’s money, but was a response to the other portions of the Sightline email which were not mentioned. (While Barnett was in contact with Sightline, she made no effort to contact Seattle Weekly.)

The issue wasn’t “the numbers and money flow”; the issue was the outrageous claim that Alan Durning, Sightline’s director, had “funneled at least 1.3 million dollars to YIMBY organizations through the charity Good Ventures, founded by Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz.” This suggests that Durning, and Sightline, have directed out-of-town money through mysterious channels to shady groups (the “shady” is implied). The fact that the reverse is true (Good Ventures/Open Philanthropy gave Sightline a total of $800,000 in two chunks over three years) isn’t just a matter of fixing “the numbers and money flow”; any correction should also correct the original implication, not just the direction the money went.

Sommerfeld accuses me of “willfully taking” his email to Sightline “out of context.” My response to that one is simple: The email is short, I characterized it accurately, and I took nothing out of context, “willfully” or otherwise. Here’s how I described Sommerfeld’s response to the error (which was, at least initially, to add up a bunch of numbers that didn’t actually total $1.3 million and claim that no error existed):

This is confirmed by an email from Weekly editor Seth Sommerfield to Sightline, in which Sommerfield explained that the $1.3 million number was “the approximate sum of these grants specifically: Sightline $350,000 10/17; East Bay Forward $40,000 4/17;  Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. $300,000 7/16; California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund $300,000 6/16; Sightline $450,000 10/15.” … Sommerfeld then said that any issues with the way the Weekly characterized Sightline were just “a matter of your perception, not based on false reporting.”

And here’s the entire email from Somerfeld to Kelsey Hamlin, Sightline’s communications associate:

Finally, the Weekly is bent out of shape that I didn’t contact them directly when fact-checking their story. This is a weird objection. A fact-checker is no more obligated to contact the author of an erroneous piece to go over his errors with him (or with his editor) than a reporter citing a set of statistics in a government document is obliged to contact the author of the report. Facts are either right or wrong. To use another Trump analogy, it’s like insisting that NPR’s crack annotation team get the president  on the phone when they know he’s lying to give him a chance to explain his own interpretation of the facts.

And speaking of which, the story is still wrong. In the original version of his piece, Meronek claimed that a single, childless person making up to $84,000 would be eligible for affordable housing through the city’s inclusionary zoning program, which he described as a program where “developers must set aside a few units in new condo complex as below-market-rate.” This was wrong on a whole bunch of levels: “New condo complexes” aren’t getting built in Seattle, for a whole bunch of reasons, and Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, creates rental units, not condos. (Inclusionary zoning is a catchall term for programs that give developers height and density bonuses in exchange for paying into an affordable housing fund or building affordable units on site.) The Office of Housing does invest in homeownership programs, for which a single person making up to $84,000 would be eligible, but those are separate from MHA. Only people making up to 80 percent of median income, or about $56,200 for a single person, can qualify for MHA. So that whole section is a mess.

But the “corrected”version  actually compounds the error:

Another solution would be to put more controls on who can apply for the city’s major affordable-housing push: inclusionary zoning, wherein developers must set aside a few units in new condo complexes as below-market-rate. As it stands, in Seattle an unmarried, childless buyer can make up to $84,000—or 120 percent of the area median income—and still be eligible for this affordable housing via the Multifamily Tax Exception. (Under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, renters making around $40,000—which is 60 percent area median income—are considered eligible for this affordable housing.) 

His description of inclusionary zoning is still inaccurate, but now even more confusing (and inaccurate). People making up to 120 percent of median can indeed qualify for homeownership assistance under the Multifamily Tax Exemption (not “tax exception”) program, but that program—which provides a property tax exemption to developers who agree to set aside some units as affordable for 12 years—isn’t an inclusionary zoning program. It has nothing to do with zoning at all.

Oh, and $40,000 is not 60 percent of the Seattle area median income; the real number is $42,150.

My point in pointing all this out isn’t to gloat or suggest that I don’t make errors, or that I never inadvertently mischaracterize people’s positions. Believe me, I do—every reporter does. The responsible thing to do when that happens, though, is to quickly make sure you understand what the facts are and why you got them wrong, append a correction/retraction identifying and addressing the specific error, express regret, and try to do better in the future. Not issue a condescending editor’s note accusing the person who pointed those errors out of imagining things, taking quotes “out of context,” and trying to stifle free speech, of all things, by suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to report on a topic if they’ve ever elicited a “backlash.” That kind of stuff may get clicks, but it doesn’t build long-term trust in your publication—and it may elicit a backlash of its own.

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.”

Support

“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.