Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail Station?

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

Plans to turn some of the land immediately adjacent to the Rainier Beach light rail station into the centerpiece of a new “food innovation district”—a proposed network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—remain stalled, after a property that advocates hoped would serve as the hub for that district sold last month to a company controlled by a local landlord who owns numerous single-family homes in the area.

As the Emerald reported back in May, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had hoped to purchase the property on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and S. Henderson St., which is currently the site of a Mexican grocery store. Those plans were thwarted when another bidder, former city council member (and onetime food innovation district champion) Richard Conlin, outbid RBAC. (At the time, Conlin said he had no idea RBAC was bidding on the property, which he planned to develop as affordable artist housing). However, Conlin subsequently withdrew his bid, and the property sold to a mystery backup bidder.

The new owner, the Emerald has learned, is Greg Goodwin, a Rainier Beach landlord who owns and leases about a dozen single-family houses in the blocks surrounding the light-rail station. (Goodwin is the son of the late Albert (A.C.) Goodwin, a longtime property owner and manager in the area; the Goodwin family companies now include Greg D. Goodwin Co., Civetta Properties, and Roan Properties, which purchased the light-rail station property through a Las Vegas-based subsidiary called Radner Properties).

Neither Goodwin nor his sister Gael Goodwin, who is listed as the agent for the now-defunct A.C. Goodwin Properties, returned calls seeking comment about their plans for the property. David Sauvion, the co-founder of RBAC and coordinator for the food innovation district, says RBAC has tried to reach out to the family but “they don’t want anything to do with us. They are difficult to engage.” However, Sauvion says he has heard that “they have no short-term plan for the property; as far as we know, the space will stay vacant.”

Although the first leg of Sound Transit’s Link light rail opened nearly a decade ago, the corridor still has no shortage of vacant properties. Many are owned by Sound Transit—recognizable by their chain link fences and gravel lots, which leaf-blower-wielding workers periodically clear of trash and other detritus. So why are there so still many empty lots along the southern leg of the light rail line in the Rainier Valley? And why is it so hard to build new housing at light rail stations in South Seattle, given that “transit-oriented development” is such a critical component of new light-rail stations elsewhere in the city?

To answer those questions, you have to go back to the early 2000s, when light rail was still immensely controversial in the Valley. At the time, a group called Save Our Valley (whose members included Pat Murakami, a current candidate for Seattle City Council) was fighting to force Sound Transit to run its rail line underground instead of at-grade in order to minimize the impact on neighborhood businesses. Although SOV lost that battle, Sound Transit tacitly acknowledged their objections in its approach to buying land-use for light-rail construction staging in the area; they aimed, in the words of Sound Transit land use and planning director Brooke Belman, to “take the smallest amount of property as possible and acquire as minimal a footprint as possible. … The [Sound Transit] board, at the time, was certainly cognizant of not wanting to buy too much property from the existing property owners down there.”

The result was that Sound Transit was left with a large number of oddly shaped “remnant” properties that can’t be easily developed, including parking strips, narrow parcels immediately in front of existing businesses, and those weird fenced-in lots that dot the length of the light rail line.

Today, Belman says, Sound Transit’s approach to property acquisition “has done about a 180” since a decade ago. If light rail was being built in the Valley today, “We probably would have consolidated a lot of the staging that we did instead of just leaving those remnants.”

One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own. “There was a lot of hope that private development would come right behind us in the Rainier Valley” and start to create residential and retail hubs at the stations, she says. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.

Sound Transit isn’t the only agency responsible for the lack of development at the Rainier Beach station; the city—specifically the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department, now known as the Office of Planning and Community Development—bears some of the responsibility as well. Right now, much of the land near the light rail station is still zoned for exclusive single-family use, rendering it off-limits for new apartment, townhouse, row house, duplex, or retail developments. The rest is low-rise or neighborhood commercial—land use designations that allow things like townhouses and four-story apartment buildings, not the kind of intense development seen at other stations (like Columbia City a few miles up the road.)

That is slated to change under HALA—the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the station area, allowing four-to-seven-story buildings—but the fact remains that the zoning throughout much of the Rainier Beach station area is more fitting for a sleepy area with limited transit access—say, Blue Ridge—than a growing, but still relatively affordable, community within a few blocks of a major light rail hub.

Robert Scully, OCPD’s point person on Rainier Beach station development, says former mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to begin work on rezoning the area, but that work stalled under new Mayor Ed Murray, who wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to updating land use throughout the whole city. “We had a rezone proposal kind of ready to go up to the mayor’s office; we just got held up,” Scully says. That proposal would have provided incentives for food production facilities—in other words, a food innovation hub. Now, Murray is focused on affordable housing, not food production.

The land also presents other challenges—it’s shoehorned into a valley, with rising hills on each side, which makes large developments challenging and expensive. The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell. And there’s really no way, Scully says, for the city to force land owners to include food production in private developments.

“We live in a political system and an economy that’s heavily based on property rights and the real estate market,” he says. “In doing this for the past five years, I’ve kind of arrived at the conclusion that the best tool is for the community, maybe in partnership with a developer or a nonprofit, to actually [purchase] some land down there—enough so that they could actually develop this facility, and that could help influence other development in the area.” Of course, that’s what RBAC had hoped to do. For now, the land will remain vacant.

“We tried,” Sauvion says.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Pat Murakami

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Image result for pat murakami seattle

Most Seattleites had probably never heard of Pat Murakami, a Mount Baker neighborhood activist and a candidate for the Seattle City Council seat held for the last two years by Lorena Gonzalez, until the Seattle Times endorsed her in July. But for those who pay attention debates over development and crime in the South End, Murakami’s name is familiar. As head of the Mount Baker Community Club and president of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council, Murakami opposed efforts to locate Casa Latina, the day-labor center that serves primarily Spanish-speaking immigrant workers, to a site on Rainier Avenue; unsuccessfully fought El Centro De La Raza’s plans to provide services and affordable housing at the Beacon Hill light rail station; and led efforts to prevent transit-oriented development out of the Rainier Valley. In its endorsement, the Times editorial board wrote that Murakami would “broaden the council’s representation and strengthen the voice of residents who own homes as well as those who rent.”

The Times endorsement helped push Murakami through the primary with 19.71 percent of the vote, although it scarcely reduced Gonzalez’s landslide; she came out of this year’s primary with 64.17 percent of the vote, compared to 65.02 percent in 2015, when she faced a neighborhood activist opponent with similar political views, Bill Bradburd.

I sat down with Murakami, who runs an IT and computer repair firm, in her office in Georgetown.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: I know you’re opposed to a lot of the policies the city council has adopted over the years, but what’s your specific critique of council member Gonzalez?

Pat Murakami [PM] Public safety is a big priority to me, obviously, and I don’t think she’s done enough in that role. I believe that body cameras should have been on officers a long time ago. I think we need Shot Spotter (an acoustic gunshot locator system) down here in South Seattle.

Another thing on public safety: I don’t think she’s doing anything to address major disasters like an earthquake in Seattle. I was in Alaska in 1964 [for the so-called Good Friday earthquake]. I remember that earthquake like it was yesterday, and I take disaster preparedness extremely seriously. Here, in my other office, at home, I have food, I have water, I have cookstoves and propane for heat or cooking, and I’m ready to sit in for two weeks. But we have the highest density of poverty of anywhere in the city [in South Seattle] and we don’t have the resources that the folks who don’t have the money to buy the dehydrated food would need, and we’re going to have a hot mess on our hands in South Seattle in particular.

ECB: Do you take issue with the police accountability legislation council member Gonzalez’s committee passed? What steps would you take to improve police accountability in Seattle?

PM: First, I would give credit where credit was due—the Community Police Commission wrote that legislation. Lorena likes to take credit for it. Well, passing good legislation shouldn’t give you a gold star as a city council member.  And it should have been done a long time ago. We have a serious problem. I was there testifying that [former police chief] John Diaz should not have been our chief of police. She wasn’t there. She was in Seattle at the time. She could have spoken out.

Another issue—we have we only have 60 percent of the police officers we should have. I want a fully staffed police department so they can be out in the community and engaging with people and doing preventative work—going into the schools, serving as a mentor, playing late-night basketball with the kids, talking to people on the street, like, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ Think of the dynamic of Jackson Street. Everyone knows gang members hang out on certain parts of Jackson Street. What if there was a foot patrol officer that just kind of walks up and down the street and is talking to those men? The whole dynamic could change and they could redirect them to other activities.

“I didn’t initially like the signs, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ because I was thinking that’s one more thing that’s divisive, because all lives matter. But I’ve changed my mind and I’ve decided that until black lives matter, no lives matter.”

I know Lorena is very opposed to bringing in former members of the military, and I disagree with that. There are military people and people that served in the military, and we just need to find the ones that served in the military but are not militaristic in their approach. They actually would be further along in the training [when they join the force] and we could get them into uniform a lot sooner. We are having some problems with recruiting. We need the officers. They’re our first responders, and if there’s an emergency, almost all of our police officers live outside Seattle. So if we have an earthquake and it’s supposed to be all hands on the deck, they might not be able to even get to us, depending on conditions of the roads. Then we’ll be in big trouble. So we actually need a larger contingent of officers on the street during each shift, in the event we have something where we’re cut off.

“There are military people and people that served in the military, and we just need to find the ones that served in the military but are not militaristic in their approach. They actually would be further along in the training [when they join the force] and we could get them into uniform a lot sooner.”

ECB: Is there anything in particular you would do to accelerate police reform?

PM:  I’d like to see more citizen oversight. Let’s say an officer seemed aggressive or angry. I think minor things need to be reported and dealt with, that won’t necessarily go on their employment record, but that they should realize that they need to be more polite to whomever they’re dealing with—whether it’s somebody that just robbed somebody or they’re breaking up a fight or somebody calls them names, they still need to be polite to the person that they’re dealing with. I don’t care what kind of criminal it is. I think we need the citizen commission to do things like visit the precincts and have a conversation with the police.

I don’t think they have a single former officer on the Citizens [Police] Commission. I think we should have about two. There should not be enough of them that they can outvote the group. but have two that are former officers that have good records. so that they can explain to the folks what their perspective would have been as an officer and everyone that’s on the commission should go through the [Community] Police Academy. I think it gives you a sense of how stressful their jobs are.

I think we need we have serious problems in this country, but we also need police, and we need to have that conversation where somewhere in the middle is the right thing for our society. I think there is still too much division. I didn’t initially like the signs, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ because I was thinking that’s one more thing that’s divisive, because all lives matter. But I’ve changed my mind and I’ve decided that until black lives matter, no lives matter. So we really need some serious changes in society, and I’m willing to work on those things from a balanced perspective. I think Lorena just tends to be more anti-police, and I realize the sacrifices that good officers make.

I want junior officers, and apparently the union doesn’t want that. I want people in a white shirt that don’t carry a gun that could go to a burglary, where you know it’s safe, the burglar is long gone, and they could take the report photos and dust for prints, so then we’d have more officers [on the streets].

ECB: As an opponent of the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability plan, which your opponent supported, which parts of HALA would you like to revisit?

PM: I think the whole thing should be revisited. It was written by developers for developers, and we need community input. I don’t know why the city is so averse to actually listening to community members. They’ll make up all kinds of excuses, like, ‘Oh. the people in the room aren’t diverse enough, blah blah blah.’ I’m throughout this community. I have friends in subsidized housing. I have friends in a huge variety of ethnic backgrounds and races, and everybody wants the same four things. All we have to do is make decisions that help ensure that people eventually become property owners, if possible, so that they can build wealth; that their kids get to go to a good school; that they have a job that pays decent wages; and that they can live in a safe community. If we make decisions on that basis and never try just to dump stuff in one area and have one part of the community in one neighborhood bear all the burden of social problems, we’d have a better city.

My dream is: I went down to South Center, to the Olive Garden, and I looked around and was like, ‘This is like the who’s who of the United Nations. There are people from all over the world there, of all different races, and it’s not the cheapest restaurant. This is, to me, diversity. Everybody’s financially comfortable. In Seattle, the diversity is, people of color tend to be impoverished. You go over to Bellevue and you’ll see middle-class racial diversity. That is my vision.

I’d like to think about the entire community when development is done and not just the best interest of the developers. I want neighbors to have a say in where the density goes, and I want the density to fit into the neighborhood. Let’s take Eastlake, for example. You’ve got houses going up a hillside that all have views, and they’re talking about raising the height limits on everything. Why not just put all the density up against the freeway, not affect the views, and just go much higher than you were planning to along the freeway? Then they get a view and everybody down the hill maintains theirs.

“My dream is: I went down to South Center, to the Olive Garden, and I looked around and was like, ‘This is like the who’s who of the United Nations. There are people from all over the world there, of all different races, and it’s not the cheapest restaurant. This is, to me, diversity. Everybody’s financially comfortable.”

If we have people driving around and around looking for a parking spot, that’s not helping the environment. We have to have enough parking to accommodate those people. If we want our streets to be parking lots like they are in New York City, then just go ahead and develop anywhere without off-street parking. We can have the economy go to a grinding halt and force everybody out of their vehicles, but we have to face reality. We’re getting the cart before the horse too often.

ECB: What do you mean by a workable transit system?

PM: I’d like to see more connector buses. They actually cut bus lines after light rail went in, and made it more difficult for people, and I know people in my neighborhood [Mount Baker, which has a light rail station] that drove all the way to Tukwila to park for free to ride light rail into downtown. Now, how does that make environmental sense at all? They should have built parking lots near the light rail stations. There’s no parking along ML King [Jr. Way], and I know what the crimes are. Most people are mugged within 300 feet of light rail or a major bus stop, and that’s been true for years and years. I personally would not ride light rail without five other people after dark ever, okay?

ECB: Why not?

PM: People have bene mugged right after they get off, especially a woman by herself at night. I stopped wearing my necklace that my husband gave me because necklaces are literally just snatched right off your neck. You don’t take out your electronics when you’re on the light rail. The police know. They tell us there’s somebody that sits on there, they case it, they get on the phone and say, ‘Hey, I’m following this person’ and the car comes up behind. Once they’re at the stop, the guy will try to take something from the person that’s walking, and if they don’t give it freely, then the other people will get out of the car and forcefully take it, and then they hop into the car and zoom off.

I think we need to think outside the box. Maybe we need to take advantage of our topography and have aerial trams going from hilltop to hilltop. They would be a lot less expensive to put in, less intrusive, and you maybe lease space from an existing building owner and have the stop on top of their building.

ECB: What do you think of Mike O’Brien’s proposal to create more places for people living in their cars to park without getting towed away for unpaid tickets?

PM: I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not all, but some—enough—people in RVs are actually dangerous and have assaulted parking enforcement, so they’re not necessarily people that should be indefinitely in neighborhoods. That’s one issue. The biggest issue is, I don’t support anything that is going to encourage the creation of a permanent underclass. Accepting that people live in RVs and tents is wrong.

We are now getting a rat infestation problem where a lot of RVs are located. I was at a meeting in South Park and seniors were complaining that they live in a facility called Arrowhead [Gardens, run by the Seattle Housing Authority], and they couldn’t open up their windows because the stench of human feces that’s out on the street is enough to knock them over. It’s not just a public safety issue, it’s a public health issue.

“Just like with sex offenders, it’s better that everybody knows where [people with criminal records] are, versus, they could be anywhere and you don’t know who you’re getting as a potential tenant. If they’re in one place and they’re kind of being monitored, you can see if they’re going back to their old habits.”

ECB: But would you agree that the larger problem is that we don’t have adequate affordable housing, and won’t for a long time?

PM: I’ve heard that churches have been willing to host them, and we need to let them do that. [Ed: A pilot program called Road to Housing, in which churches offered spaces in their lots to people living in vehicles, only provided spaces for 12 cars.] I can’t believe the expense of what it was for the sanctioned RV sites [which the city has since abandoned]. They said it was about $1,700 a month per RV. At that amount give them a friggin’ housing voucher! And maybe they’ll be renting in Renton or Kent or Auburn but at least they’d be in decent housing. We also have surplus city property that we could be looking at. Let’s build single-occupancy boarding houses, like we used to have, and when the crisis is over with, those could be converted to youth hostels for tourists.

ECB: What do you think of the fair-chance housing legislation that just passed, which prohibits landlords from asking about a prospective tenant’s criminal history?

PM: I have mixed feelings about it. I really think that our low-income housing providers, like SHA, should take all of these folks as tenants initially, let them establish themselves back into the community, show a good year or two of credit history, that they’ve paid their rent on time, etc., and then have them go out into the general public.

ECB: It seems like that would create a weird situation for SHA residents—if you think these folks are too dangerous to be allowed to rent on the private market, why do you think low-income people should be forced to live next to them?

PM: They could have one building that’s for transitional housing and have it separated somewhat. Just like with sex offenders, it’s better that everybody knows where [people with criminal records] are, versus, they could be anywhere and you don’t know who you’re getting as a potential tenant. If they’re in one place and they’re kind of being monitored, you can see if they’re going back to their old habits. I think in some ways, there should be an exchange program so that people are sent to a new community where they’re connected with services and they get a fresh start. When they’re forced to go back to the county where they committed the offense, sometimes the easiest thing to do is go back and hang with the same people you did before, that got you into trouble in the first place.

ECB: What do you think of expanding programs like LEAD [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion] and the therapeutic courts?

PM: I think that’s a good idea. I’d like to see more community courts and restorative justice. I think the city should fund social workers in every single school. And kids whose parents are engaged tend to be more successful in school, so we need to develop programs that help parents be successful. In the South End, for example, I think we need more acculturation classes. We’ve brought in lots of people from East Africa. Many of them are single women who lost their spouse to conflict in their home country, and they’ve not been given enough information about how things work in America. We need to empower them to stand up—like if their oldest kid is a male, they sometimes give away way too much power to the child. They still need to be a parent. We need to teach them, ‘Okay, in this country, you can’t hit your kids but you still can control them, and this is how you do it.’ There’s just so much more we could do to ensure success. Their chances of success are diminished when we’re not properly supporting them. We are really letting people fall through the cracks.

“I Do Not Care If These Druggies and Tweakers Have Homes”: Some Responses to Mike O’Brien’s RV Legislation

For just $5,500, the good life could be yours!

City council member Mike O’Brien has received hundreds of emails vehemently opposing his proposal to exempt some people living in their cars or RVs from the city’s parking scofflaw ordinance. (He has also received a handful of positive responses.) Currently, cars or RVs that remain in one place for more than 72 hours, or whose owners have too many unpaid parking tickets, can be impounded and towed, leaving people who live in their vehicles without even the inadequate shelter of an RV or car. Under O’Brien’s proposal, people who agree to participate in a new “vehicular residence program” aimed at putting them on a path to permanent housing would be exempt from most parking enforcement except when they pose a threat to public safety or block access to the public right-of-way.

The proposal attempts to accomplish a few goals. One, it acknowledges the fact that people who are desperate enough to live in their vehicles can’t afford to pay their parking tickets or, in some cases, get their vehicles up and running. Two, it effectively decriminalizes vehicular living at a time when there is nowhere close to enough permanent housing for the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. And three, it recognizes the plain reality that people are better off with some shelter than with none—homeless people living in their vehicles will not suddenly become housed people if the city takes their vehicles away; rather, they’ll just take their place among the thousands of people already sleeping outdoors, in tents, or on the floors of temporary shelters in one of the richest cities in the nation.

Anyway, from the emails O’Brien has been receiving—which I obtained through a public records request—you would think the city was proposing to open the jails and let the inmates roam freely through the streets of single-family Seattle neighborhoods.

Good God, it’s bad enough we are Freeattle are you trying to ruin neighborhoods and tourism? I do not care if these druggies and tweakers have homes. They don’t want to work, they just want to do their thing and you’re coddling them.

I just saw your latest bullshit. I am writing you as a citizen who will also be more than willing to file suit against you and the council for allowing methheads, heroine addicts and sexual abusers from living in derelict vehicles, dumping their trash and needles and precluding my children from being safely able to walk to and enjoy our city.

I am an honest, tax paying citizen. I work…I contribute to society and yet I have to pay when my parking meter expires. It almost makes a person want to quit their job, start shooting up heroin, start a meth lab, steal from neighborhood cars and the CITY WILL LET YOU PARK WHEREVER YOU WANT & THE AVERAGE PERSON BE DAMNED.

This proposal is insanity at its highest level!!! How about ticket & tow for parking illegally (according to the LAW!),arrest the heroin addicts for illegal possession of a controlled substance, clean up the rolling meth labs, and make them clean up their own trash and feces and not the beleaguered city workers? I would love to see these rolling meth labs, heroin dens and filthmobiles roll up and park in front all your houses. Because according to this proposed ordinance they would be allowed to do it and since it can’t be towed or ticketed the RV occupants can stay there as long as they “seek help”? ARE YOU SERIOUS?

A lot of people threatened to do something that none of them will ever actually do: Sell their comfortable single-family houses and move into their cars.

What would prevent anyone from just buying a vehicle and living rent/hassle free because we are now allowing that (say a google employee buying a nice RV and parking in Fremont), because that’s what I would do if I was fresh out of college and moving to this expensive city for a job – why pay rent if the city permits long-term parking for the purpose of housing?

Go along the Shilshole ave yourself and see the disgusting RVs parked along the side of the road. Visitors to the city take these roads often and thats what they see. A run down, broken disgusting RV parked in premium locations around Ballard.

So if this horrible idea actually passes, what is stopping me from instead buying and over priced house in the area, buy a run down RV and just move it around the city to places like Golden Gardens, boat ramps, Alki Beach and maybe see how the people of Laurlhurst are doing, and enjoy nice views and never have to pay taxes again?

If this goes through, I’m selling my home and buying a top of the line RV and living on Alki or the best view areas in Seattle. I will also buy additional RVs and rent them out as AirBnBs.

Others did the thing Seattleites always do—they complained about parking.

All people wanting to avoid parking issues will sign up for the program.

If this proposal goes through, expect a class action suit against the city by all of those who receive parking tickets. Figure out a different solution, proposing discriminatory Laws will not help.

I’ve made a lifestyle choice too: I decided when I became an adult that I would take care of myself. I would pay my own rent, or own my own home. I would go to work every day to help support my family. I would pay my taxes, and vote for Democrats so that more citizens could benefit from all our tax money. I also made a choice NOT to live in an RV encampment, but in a modest, somewhat diverse neighborhood, which will not have a single parking place left if this scheme of yours goes into effect.

[Redacted] Street, my street, will be LINED with RVs, and we will listen to the sound of generators night and day. There will be no parking left for tax-paying residents, their families, or visitors.

Many seemed to believe that people who live in cars and RVs just prefer being homeless, despite the fact that in every survey, people experiencing homelessness overwhelmingly say what they want is a home.

I’ve been reading about this initiative and it seems you’re missing that most of the people who live in those vehicles live there because they want to, or rather, they are not willing to participate in the normal societal processes.

We should on the contrary, constantly make their life in the cars extremely uncomfortable and leave them just two choices — leave the city or actually work on their integration in the society. Those who are actually on down-low and want to re-integrate should be helped and will be willing to accept the help. The professional homeless, junkies and alcoholics should not be encouraged to live like this in our city.

Some argued that throwing homeless people in jail might teach them a lesson about paying their parking tickets.

This will attract RV’s and car campers to Seattle. The parking rules are fine the way they are. What they need is to really enforce them, people need consequences like maybe jail?

Others resorted to my favorite red-herring argument: If you think RVs are so great, how would you like it if someone parked one in YOUR driveway?

STOP SCREWING us hard paying homeowners. I don’t see any of you city council members take a homeless person into your home or letting them park in your driveway.

Why the f*ck should I have to have a homeless vehicle/person in front of my house harrassing my kids & wife, piling up their drugs/garbage and waiting for me to go to work so they can break into my house?????

Most of these homeless, even if they were drug free, don’t have the skills to earn enough to pay the ridiculous rents in Seattle.

STOP AND GRABBING MONEY FROM HOMEOWNERS AND JUST LET THE HOMELESS LEAVE THE CITY.

Really sucks when the city council rams the homeless down the throats of tax paying homeowners.

How about you guys adopting some homeless into your spare bedrooms and in front of Your houses??

And harrassing your childen and wife when they’re parked in front of your house!! YaH!!!

Lowering our lifestyle to cater to them harms us. Do you not see this? Would you tolerate an filthy, shabby RV parked in your driveway? Would you want to try to use the library or a playground by stepping over sleeping bodies with needles and alcohol scattered around them? I have personally experienced this along with foul language and drug dealing. This is truly an emergency! If DOT, the parks or police dept can’t maintain order then the National Guard should be called out. I am serious! I’ve heard from countless people who are visit Seattle and are so disgusted that they vow to never return to experience this filth again.

Finally, some saw the proposal as part of a larger conspiracy: drive down property values so that land can be sold cheaply to developers so that [???]. Which might hold water (actually, no, it wouldn’t) if single family homeowners’ property values had not doubled in the past five years, and appreciated 13 percent in the last year alone.

Perhaps you’re mining for taxpayers, or voters for 2019? Or perhaps you hope that a citywide Intentional Blight™ will free up more single-family homes for redevelopment? Or perhaps you’re just using hate-baiting tactics because you want to paint your district and beyond in broad strokes as folks who lack compassion for our homeless neighbors. Perhaps you have another upzone planned. You has just declared war on families and children. It’s a shame we’re not the demographic you’re looking for. There will be hell to pay.

Tell me, is this the following intention true or false?

IT IS ALL ABOUT PASSING THE $469 MILLION HOMELESS TAX Mike O’Brien and the homeless services advocates who wrote the vehicular residence legislation have 1 goal: make homelessness worse in Seattle so they can pass the $469 million King County homeless tax.

Interestingly, the most contentious element of O’Brien’s proposal inside city hall may not be the provision exempting homeless people from parking tickets that has his constituents so worked up, but a separate “safe parking program” that would designate between 30 and 50 small lots across the city as safe havens for between 300 and 500 vehicles. Apart from the practical challenges such a widespread, highly decentralized program would present, council member Tim Burgess says he and other council members are concerned that such a “policy of accommodation” might conflict with the city’s new push to move people into housing as quickly as possible rather than allowing them to stay on the streets.

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

Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

This story originally ran in Seattle Magazine.

Last month the Seattle Times reported that hundreds of new Amazon interns, each wearing identical company-issued black backpacks, are crowding out other commuters on King County Metro’s Route 70. The overcrowded buses, which forced drivers to skip some stops when full, led Metro to take the unusual step of adding service to the route for the rest of the summer without the extensive public process that typically informs long-term service increases.

Metro service development manager Bill Bryant says the bus agency routinely provides extra service for special events, like Pride or the Women’s March, and temporary disruption such as the periodic closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “We really do not want to see any situation where specific trips on a route are passing customers by on a regular basis,” he says. “We received multiple reports that people were getting passed by [on Route 70], and we decided to pull the trigger.”

According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service. The current uptick in service during morning rush hour—two extra buses between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.—is costing Metro about $3,600 a week.

Shefali Ranganathan, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, says the “bottom-line question is, should Metro explore a broader partnership with Amazon where Amazon buys service hours from Metro” to mitigate their impact on the system. “Maybe this is something [Metro] should approach not just as a one-off [service improvement] but as a broader partnership that would benefit Amazon and the broader community, which is what Microsoft does,” Ranganathan says.

There’s precedent for this: Back in 2012, Amazon paid for the South Lake Union streetcar to run more frequently, although that money was compensation for land the city gave Amazon to expand its South Lake Union campus.

Microsoft, somewhat controversially, has given its workers a way to opt out of the public transit system entirely by creating a private option, the Microsoft Connector, which has grown into the largest private regional bus system in the nation. Since last year, Amazon has offered its own limited shuttle service, called Amazon Ride, which runs four shuttle buses between the company’s two main campuses in South Lake Union and the University District. The company also spends $12 million on ORCA transit passes for its employees.

Of course, Amazon’s expansion in the city isn’t limited to a few hundred summer interns. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was hiring 100,000 new U.S. employees by mid-2018, and advertised more than 9,000 new job openings in Seattle. Most of those new jobs will be in South Lake Union, meaning that the pressure on Metro service will only grow. “The growth in South Lake Union, just across the board, continues,” Bryant says. “The choice to add service to keep customers moving and to prevent pass-bys is not a hard choice for us.”

As a transit agency charged with getting cars off the roads, Metro wants to make sure all those new customers keep coming back to use its service, rather than giving up and driving to work alone. But Metro has also made a commitment, through its service guidelines, to serve low-income and minority communities, such as Southeast Seattle. When Metro decides where to add service during its twice-annual service adjustment process, it looks not just at demand but at how well the system is serving the goal of racial equity.

A few tens of thousands of dollars shifted over to South Lake Union over the summer may not sound like much. But if Amazon’s growth creates the demand for permanent shifts in service, that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by.

Amazon, which provided information on its existing shuttle service through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for information about any plans to expand its shuttle service. Although the company confirmed that it is actively working with Metro to plan for increased ridership from the UW to South Lake Union, Bryant says “we haven’t had any significant conversations with Amazon about significantly increasing their shuttle service.”

Relief and Skepticism Over Seattle’s Closed-Door Waterfront Settlement

Earlier this afternoon, the city council approved a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Pioneer Square over the city’s plans to build an eight-lane highway on the waterfront. 

I wrote about the settlement, which took place behind closed doors and with no input from transit or pedestrian advocates, on the blog in March. This story, which takes a broader look at what the settlement will mean for the waterfront once the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, appeared in the June issue of Seattle Magazine

This past march, Leslie Smith found herself in an unusual position.

For years, Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, had criticized the City of Seattle for its plan to build what she describes as a “nine-lane highway” on Seattle’s waterfront, near the downtown ferry terminal, after the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down. Instead of expanding the roadway, Smith had supported a proposal to move most of the 600 buses that use the Alaskan Way Viaduct off the waterfront and onto streets in neighboring SoDo (including S Lander Street, and First and Fourth Avenues), to enable the city to make do with a narrower roadway on the waterfront.

Smith has been one of the most vocal critics of the project. As the leader of a group whose mission includes promoting tourism in Pioneer Square, she spent years trying to convince city leaders that the planned 102-foot-wide roadway would cut off Pioneer Square from downtown, defeating one of the stated purposes of the tunnel project: to better connect the city with its waterfront.

In November, after spending nearly three years cajoling, testifying and negotiating with the city, Smith’s organization appealed the city’s environmental impact statement for the project. The legal challenge wasn’t in itself unusual. Plenty of groups have complained about the city’s plans for rebuilding the downtown waterfront. Part of the reason for this width is that the new tunnel will be two lanes narrower than the current viaduct, and won’t include any downtown exits. As a result, the new surface Alaskan Way will function much like a regional highway, with as many as eight lanes for buses, freight traffic and cars (plus an extra lane in some places for parking). What made Smith and the alliance’s case unusual is what happened next: Instead of fighting back, the city settled, striking a closed-door deal, with a private organization that will determine how thousands of Seattle residents and visitors experience the waterfront for decades to come.

The city’s Office of the Waterfront—along with King County Metro and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)—agreed to narrow the road to 79 feet, eliminating the two transit lanes when the West Seattle light rail station opens in 2033, reducing the need for most bus routes between downtown and West Seattle. Until then, Smith agreed to accept the 102-foot-wide roadway as originally planned, with lanes for general traffic, parking and ferry queues, plus those 600 buses, which will run in transit-only lanes.

“We actually have come up with what we think is kind of an elegant solution to what will be a pretty wide roadway for another decade,” Smith says.
In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the new Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, will open three years later. And the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about a decade.

To understand how this settlement came to be, it helps to know a little history. When the city and state agreed to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits, that created a problem: how to accommodate transit, freight and general traffic—including the cars lining up for the ferry terminal—as well as bicyclists and pedestrians, all on a surface street.

Smith supported moving Metro buses to SoDo, eliminating the need for transit lanes on the waterfront. Transit advocates and King County Metro rejected that idea, noting that those rerouted buses would have to contend with more than 20 traffic lights. The city agreed to two transit lanes.

Meanwhile, the Port of Seattle insisted on two travel lanes for freight, rejecting a proposal that its trucks share the transit lanes with buses. The city agreed to two general-purpose travel lanes. And Washington State Ferries insisted on two ferry queuing lanes. The city agreed to two ferry queuing lanes, and two northbound turn lanes for drivers headed for Colman Dock.

That, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide roadway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

Sitting in the vast conference room of a Fifth Avenue building that overlooks the Viaduct itself in the distance, Marshall Foster, director of the city’s Office of the Waterfront, says, “The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone.” Mayor Ed Murray established the office in early 2014 to oversee the redesign of the downtown waterfront once the Viaduct comes down.

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re [experiencing] growing pains as a city,” Foster continues. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition, where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough” to have light rail and buses integrate seamlessly, leading to an awkward 10-year period when they don’t.

Transit advocates aren’t thrilled with the settlement. Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the pro-transit nonprofit group Transportation Choices Coalition, had hoped for a compromise that would allow buses to stay on the waterfront while also narrowing the roadway, calming traffic and making it safer for pedestrians. She also says she had expected to be at the table when the fate of the waterfront was being decided.

“I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made with this sideways approach of a legal challenge, where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the environmental impact statement,” Ranganathan says.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now,” she says. “We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses now seems short-sighted.”

Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says.

There are a lot of “ifs” built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project is contingent on a successful negotiating process between the port, Metro, WSDOT, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants. The agreement stipulates that beginning in the late 2020s—before the West Seattle light rail station opens—these groups will spend five years working together to decide what the roadway will look like once light rail is up and running, according to the agreement.

The second is that conditions on the waterfront could change significantly over the next 10 to 15 years, in ways planners today may be unable to anticipate.

Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that over time, someone else might need to fight to ensure that the agreement is implemented. “But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.” She says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, or fighting for her vision for the waterfront, but she’s glad it’s over. “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”

Advocates, Council Members Say Urgency Lacking on Vision Zero

In February 2015, Seattle launched Vision Zero—an audacious plan to calm traffic, prioritize pedestrians, and reengineer city streets so that by 2030, the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured in traffic crashes will be zero.

More than two years later, Seattle is closer to that goal than other US cities—literally all of them. Seattle transportation officials tout the fact that our rate of pedestrian fatalities, per capita, is lower than in Boston and Portland and is just a hair behind Sweden—the result, Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly says, of “decades of investing in neighborhood infrastructure,” like traffic circles, bike lanes, and road diets.

But some advocates point, instead, to the fact that pedestrian deaths have been inching upward; so far this year, three pedestrians have died in traffic collisions, and seven people have died in traffic overall—two more than the average for the previous three years. With just 13 years to go until 2030, they argue that Seattle should—and could—be doing better.

Two weeks ago, as the city council’s transportation committee prepared to adopt a new Pedestrian Master Plan (the document that prioritizes pedestrian projects for city spending), pedestrian advocates lined up in council chambers to register their disappointment that the plan didn’t come with more funding for basics like sidewalks, marked and signaled crosswalks, and other traffic calming measures. (The committee also got a Vision Zero update from SDOT, which attributed the rise in traffic collisions to distracted driving and an uptick in vehicle miles traveled, a measure of how much people are driving.)

“Many of who do a lot of walking really feel like it’s not our city, and it doesn’t welcome us, and it really does not care about our safety and dignity,” Janine Blaeloch, the founder of Lake City Greenways and a member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Board, told the council.

“I think there is a lack of urgency,” Blaeloch said after the meeting. “The Pedestrian Master Plan talks about making Seattle the most walkable city in the nation, but there’s so little imagination or vision. It seems like the city has sort of given up. From my experience as a pedestrian, I don’t feel like I’m living in Sweden. I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands when I’m crossing the street.”

Kubly says he understands why an advocate like Blaeloch are frustrated—“any fatality over zero is one too many”—but he points to investments the city has already made on corridors like Rainier Ave. S, where the city has reduced the number of car lanes and lowered speeds to slow traffic, and NE 65th Street and Roosevelt near Roosevelt High School, where two pedestrian deaths this year have fast-tracked plans to make the 65th Street corridor safer. (One of those pedestrians was crossing with the light; the other, against it.)

SDOT, as I’ve reported, has already started implementing some low-cost pedestrian-safety fixes in crash-prone locations—like “walk” signs that give pedestrians extra time to enter an crosswalk at the beginning of a light cycle, making them more visible to turning cars—and has plans in place to use modeling to identify dangerous intersections before accidents occur.

“One of the things that’s tough with pedestrian collisions is to identify spots that are high-risk, because the numbers are so small and there’s thousands of miles of roadway,” Kubly says. “If you’re not being strategic and using data to drive investments, you end up chasing crashes” after they’ve already happened.

Skeptics of this study-first, implement-later approach say there’s plenty of data to justify lowering speed limits to 25 miles per hour throughout the city. At the meeting earlier this month, council member Rob Johnson questioned why the city doesn’t even plan to analyze safety issues on the northern portion of Rainier Avenue S, where there are few crossings and drivers frequently travel well above the 30mph speed limit, until 2021. “We know folks are going to lose their lives on that corridor in the next four years, before we have even completed the evaluation,” Johnson said. Why not lower the speed limit now, before that happens?

“Our challenge is that if we go into a place like Rainier and we just change out the signs, we usually see almost no effect,” SDOT project development division director Darby Watson responded. “They just ignore the signs.”

SDOT senior transportation planner Jim Curtin says the city plans to make major design changes on Rainier anyway, and doesn’t want to futz with the speed limits before that happens. (The same goes for streets like 65th, where the city is considering a long menu of traffic-calming options). “There’s a whole bunch of places in the city where, if we just drop the speed limit, drivers will go as fast as they feel comfortable with, based on the geometry of the street, Curtin says. In other words, if drivers can round a corner going 35 miles an hour, it’s safe to assume that they will round the corner at that speed, and the real solution is not just to lower the speed limit but to engineer the road so that even if a pedestrian wanders out into traffic, drivers will be going slow enough to stop before striking her.

Blaeloch, the pedestrian board member, says there’s an easy way to make sure people don’t ignore the signs—send cops out to catch them. “How about if you put the signs up and enforce the speed limit? You could do that next week,” she says. “But that just didn’t seem to be in [SDOT’s] tool box.

“It’s easy for them to say ‘We’re engineers; we know who this stuff works,” Blaeloch adds. “Well, I’m a pedestrian. I know how this stuff works too.”

Council member Johnson, along with his colleague Mike O’Brien, want SDOT to accelerate the Pedestrian Master plan and prioritize projects on a list that could, depending on whether you believe the optimistic estimate from Seattle Greenways or the pessimistic estimate from the pedestrian advocacy group Feet First, take between 200 and 300 years to implement in its entirety.

“Are we making progress? I can point to policy decisions and say, ‘That’s progress,’ but if you look at the outcomes and the data, it appears that we’re losing ground,” O’Brien says.

Johnson adds: “I’m all for more study and more analysis, but I’m also for bold action, and this feels like one of those times when we need to listen to the community.”

Seattle Greenways staffer Gordon Padelford, one of the community members who spoke at the transportation committee earlier this month, says Vision Zero should be more than just aspirational. “No one would say, ‘We can have five deaths a year from our water system.’ We expect to have all these other government systems that are completely safe.” Why should Seattle’s roads and sidewalks be any different?

“Seattle really is so close to being a completely safe city,” Padelford says. “Maybe we can be the first ones to get there.”

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

Morning Crank: The War on Immigrants Is a War on Cities

1. “The war on facts has become a war on cities.” 

That was Mayor Ed Murray’s latest volley in his own war against the Trump Administration, launched yesterday along with a lawsuit charging that Trump has no legal right to pull federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to enforce federal immigration statutes according to the new Administration’s harsh interpretation of those laws.

Yesterday, the mayor and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced they were filing suit against the US Justice Department, whose director, KKK apologist Jeff Sessions, announced this week that he would pull Department of Justice grants to cities that refuse to assist federal agents in tracking down and detaining undocumented immigrants. Seattle’s 2017 budget assumes $2.6 million in DOJ grants for domestic violence prevention, officer body cams, human trafficking prosecution, and more.

The lawsuit contends that Sessions’ order violates the 10th Amendment, by dictating the way the city enforces federal laws, and the Spending Clause from Article 1 of the Constitution, by attempting to coerce the city into aiding immigration agents by threatening to withhold federal funding if it doesn’t.

“We have the law on our side: the federal government cannot compel our police department to enforce federal immigration law and cannot use our federal dollars to coerce Seattle into turning our backs on our immigrant and refugee communities,” Murray said.

Trump’s war on immigrants is a war on cities because cities are made stronger, politically, culturally, and economically, by the presences of immigrants, and he’s waging that war because city values—diversity, inclusion, resistance, queerness, intellectualism, and unconformity—are anathema to his backward-looking vision of a nation united by fear and mutual distrust. Seattle is the first city to formally resist Sessions’ and Trump’s unconstitutional bullying by filing a lawsuit. If cities’ response to the last unconstitutional order targeting immigrants was any indication, we won’t be the last.

2. A Queen Anne homeowner’s dogged, well-financed effort to kill backyard cottages in Seattle won a victory that will further delay a proposal to make it easier for homeowners to build accessory units and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in the process.

This week, city council member Mike O’Brien announced that thanks to activist Marty Kaplan‘s successful effort to delay new rules that would loosen the regulations that currently make it prohibitively expensive for many homeowners to build accessory units, the city will do a full environmental impact statement to determine the impact accessory units will have on the city’s environment. The intuitively obvious conclusion would be that backyard cottages improve the environment, because they add density, which helps prevent suburban sprawl and reduce auto dependence. In addition, they allow homeowners to age in place, promoting multigenerational households and preventing the development of lot-line-to-lot-line McMansions that often sprout in neighborhoods when single-family properties change hands.

O’Brien proposed his backyard cottage legislation in May 2016. With any luck, he will be able to introduce new legislation sometime in the summer of 2018.

3. Bikesharing advocates will say goodbye to Pronto with a group ride tomorrow afternoon. Pronto riders will gather at 3rd Ave. and Broad Street at 5pm (there are two Pronto stations within two blocks, but the clunky green bikes are available all over downtown) and ride slowly up Capitol Hill, ending at a bar TBA. “Ed Murray’s house for bell ringing party optional.” Murray announced he was killing the money-losing bikeshare system in January.

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

Pedestrian Safety and Equity in the Rainier Valley

This post, a more detailed account of the pedestrian-safety announcement I reported on in yesterday’s Morning Crank, originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

Less than an hour after Mayor Ed Murray wrapped up a press conference to announce new pedestrian-safety improvements along Rainier Avenue South, a collision between a car and a semi shut down the intersection of Rainier and South Alaska St. — an in-your-face reminder that whatever the city has done to calm what is frequently referred to as “the most dangerous street in Seattle”, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. 

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, but that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero” — the city’s goal of zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030 — has stagnated.

Murray chose Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Brighton to announce new investments in pedestrian safety not only because the school won a $300,000 grant from the city to improve sidewalks in the area, but to highlight the city’s new emphasis on creating safe routes between schools and transit stops. In the next year, Murray said, the city will build 50 new blocks of sidewalks at a cost of $22 million; by 2024, the city plans to add an additional 200 blocks.

The plan announced yesterday would also accelerate by one year the extension of new pavement markings and crosswalks that have been added along Rainier from Hillman City to Alaska Street — improvements Murray credited with limiting “off-roading” by speeding cars like the one that plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon in 2014 — further south, at a cost of $2.25 million. Over the next two years, seven more streets across the city will get the Rainier Avenue treatment. The funding for all the new projects will come from the $930 million Move Seattle levy voters passed in 2015.

Less flashy and expensive, but potentially more impactful, were some of the small changes Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly said the city was making to improve pedestrian safety at individual intersections — and the process the city will use to determine which intersections get upgrades. Instead of reacting to incidents after they happen — say, by reducing the speed limit and width of a road where cars have a habit of jumping through windows — the city will use modeling to figure out intersections that are likely to be problems before accidents occur.

SDOT-Director-Scott-Kubly-Speaking-About-Planned-Rainier-Ave-S-Improvements-at-March-2017-Conference-at-Brighton-School
SDOT Director Scott Kubly speaks about planned improvements to Rainier Avenue South in front of Brighton Elementary School (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

For example, Kubly said, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns” — a regular green light without a left-turn arrow — “particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian. At intersections where the city knows accidents are likely, SDOT will preemptively add what Murray called “pedestrian-friendly signals” — walk signs that allow pedestrians into an intersection before drivers’ light turns green, giving walkers greater visibility — and traffic lights with left turn signals, which reduces conflicts between left-turning cars and pedestrians (or trucks) heading straight through an intersection. By adding leading pedestrian signals at 40 intersections citywide, Kubly said, the city expected to reduce crashes by 50 percent at those intersections.

Pedestrian safety, Murray said, “is an equity issue,” and that’s certainly been true in the Valley, where, neighbors have been requesting pedestrian safety improvements along Rainier for the past 40 years. Historically, Rainier has had more crashes per mile than arterial streets that carry more than twice as much traffic. Further east, surface-running light rail trains pose a particular challenge to pedestrians, who must traverse unprotected light rail tracks to cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; earlier this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the tracks in a crosswalk.

Asked whether SDOT planned to follow danger “indicators” wherever its traffic engineers found them, even at the risk of abandoning its commitment to geographic equity, Kubly responded, “the mayor has made it abundantly clear to me and the department that we need to be equitable in our work… One of the things that is true in Seattle and a lot of other cities is that the incidents of serious and fatal crashes, and just collisions in general, tend to be in areas that also present more need for equitable investment” — that is, poorer and historically neglected areas like Southeast Seattle — “so I would anticipate that by following the data we’ll be investing more in neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley.”

Morning Crank: Indicators, Not Incidents

1. As the Trump Administration prepares to cut billions from the federal transportation budget, starving transit and road-safety projects across the city, Mayor Ed Murray announced at a press conference in Southeast Seattle yesterday that Seattle is taking a different path, funding new sidewalks and pedestrian-safety improvements through the $930 million Move Seattle levy that passed in 2015. Over the next two years, Murray said, the city will accelerate Phase 2 of the Rainier corridor safety project (restriping Rainier Ave. S. to calm traffic and provide space for bikes and a left-turn lane, for $2.25 million) and build 50 new blocks of sidewalks (at a cost of $22 million), with a goal of completing 250 new blocks of sidewalk by 2024. The city will also add more “pedestrian-friendly signals,” Murray said.

Then, looking like he’d reached his capacity for transpo-jargon, Murray turned the press conference over to Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who fielded reporters’ (okay, my) wonky questions about stop bars, leading pedestrian intervals, and protected left turn phases. (For the record, those are: The lines on the street telling drivers where to stop; signals that let pedestrians start walking into an intersection before the light turns green for drivers; and signalized left turns, where drivers turn left on a green arrow while pedestrians wait.)

Those are all pretty standard (though necessary and important) pedestrian safety improvements. More interesting was the new safety “tool kit” Kubly said the city would use to inform its safety investments in the future, a tool kit he said might be “the first of its kind in the entire country.” According to Kubly, instead of looking at “incidents”—data about accidents that have already happened—the city will focus on “indicators”—signs that an intersection is inherently dangerous, even in the absence of accident data. For example, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns”—a regular green light without a left-turn arrow—”and what we’ve found is that with those permissive left turns, we’re seeing crashes, particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian.

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians. But that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero”—zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030—has stagnated. Right after the mayor’s press conference, a truck and a car collided dramatically on Rainier and South Alaska Street— right at the northern edge of the Rainier Avenue S improvement area.

2. Back in 2004, after then-mayor Greg Nickels made a gross attempt to buy the support of newly elected city council members Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen by hosting a chichi fundraiser to pay down their campaign debts, my Stranger colleagues and I started a new political action committee and learned that, like filing ethics reports and counting envelopes full of cash, coming up with a clever campaign acronym was harder than we imagined.

Fast forward 13 years and say hello to “Homeless Evidence, Transparency, and Accountability in Seattle,” or HEATS. It’s one of two new campaigns to stop the new levy, I-126, which will help move some of the 10,000 or so homeless people in Seattle into apartments, treatment, and supportive housing. The person behind it is a blogger who wrote a 1,600-word post mocking a homeless woman for having a criminal record, filed a frivolous ethics complaint against a council member for providing public information to a reporter, and took surreptitious photos of me and posted them with comments mocking my appearance. So far, HEATS has raised $0.

3. Speaking of the Stranger, Crank has learned that the paper has hired a news editor, after posting job ads and interviewing candidates for more than a year. Steven Hsieh, who has  worked as a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter and has written for The Nation, will join the paper officially in the next few weeks.

Deal Reached in Waterfront Highway Lawsuit: Build 102-Foot Highway Now, Narrow It When Light Rail Opens

THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED, with comments from King County Metro and Transportation Choices Coalition.

The Alliance for Pioneer Square has reached a settlement with the city, county, and state in its lawsuit seeking to stop the construction of a 100-foot-wide, 8-to-9-lane roadway on the waterfront in Pioneer Square, The C Is for Crank has learned.

The settlement stipulates that the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will be able to build the 102-foot-wide surface highway as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, with lanes for transit, general traffic, parking, and ferry queues, on the condition that once Sound Transit opens its light rail station in West Seattle in 2033 and Metro no longer needs to run RapidRide buses from West Seattle to downtown, the city will narrow the surface Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lanes and replacing them with new sidewalks, landscaping, or parking lanes. That will eventually bring the roadway down from 102 feet at its widest point, between S Washington St. and Yesler Way, to 79 feet. In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is supposed to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, is scheduled to open three years later, meaning that the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about ten years.

According to the settlement, which came in response to the Alliance’s appeal of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement on the waterfront reconstruction project,

Within fifteen (15) months of the opening of the Alaska Junction station of Sound Transit Light Rail service to West Seattle, the City will retrofit SR 519/Alaskan Way between Yesler Way and South King Street to narrow Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lane on each side of Alaskan Way, and converting the area of the former transit lane to sidewalks, landscaping, and on-street parking.

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower, so that in the interim we are accommodating the transportation needs of a rapidly changing city, and in the future we will be more accommodating of the pedestrian and bicycling needs of the waterfront and the historic district,” Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith says.

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower.” – Leslie Smith, Alliance for Pioneer Square

The debate over the surface street dates back to the mid-2000s, when a group called the the People’s Waterfront Coalition argued that Seattle should follow in the footsteps of progressive cities like San Francisco and tear down its waterfront highway—without replacing it. Thanks in part to state traffic modeling that assumed (incorrectly, it turned out) that the number of people driving downtown in single-occupant vehicles would increase indefinitely, that plan was rejected, and Seattle ended up getting not just a downtown tunnel, but a costly deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits that is currently four years years late and $23 million over budget.

With the tunnel mostly off limits to transit and freight, the city, state, Port, and Metro had to figure out how to accommodate transit, freight, bikes, and pedestrians, along with cars lining up for the ferry terminal and general-purpose traffic, on the surface. No one was willing to budge on their demands—not Washington State Ferries, which insisted that it needed two car queueing lanes on Alaskan Way, not Metro, which argued that putting buses in general traffic would slow down the system from White Center to Ballard, and not the Port, which dismissed suggestions that it share a lane with transit, arguing that 18-wheelers shouldn’t be stuck behind buses that stop every couple of blocks. And that, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide highway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

“The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone,” Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster said Friday. Sitting in a vast conference room on Fifth Avenue that looks over downtown construction and, far away, the viaduct itself, Foster said the city has “worked for years to keep it as narrow as possible, [but] with the viaduct coming down, we have to not only deal with just the basic background traffic that we know will have to operate in that corridor,” but all the surface freight traffic through downtown, 600 buses carrying nearly 30,000 people a day, and hundreds of cars that line up for the ferry terminal at Colman Dock every afternoon (585 a day, according to the EIS.)

“We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.” – Marshall Foster, director, Seattle Office of the Waterfront

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re in the middle of growing pains as a city,” Foster continued. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.”

I asked Nicole Macintosh, director of terminal engineering for Washington State Ferries, why the ferry division couldn’t use a reservation system, like the one it  just implemented in the San Juan Islands and Port Townsend, to reduce the number of cars that need to line up on the waterfront. Macintosh said “we don’t have the funding yet to bring the reservation system down to the more core car commuter routes, like Seattle, but I can tell you that with that reservation system we would definitely need two lanes”—one for people with reservations, and one for people who just drive up. What about running more passenger ferries? Macintosh said that would require a change in state law, and reminded me that the ferries are considered part of the state highway system—an objection Foster acknowledges, but also chalks up to “a cultural thing” within WSDOT that could be shifting. Macintosh also rejected the notion that some of the free parking that WSDOT provides to dock workers at Colman Dock itself—about 55 spaces in all—could be used as ferry queuing space, saying that the parking spaces are mostly in “unusable” areas of the dock.

Transit advocates weren’t thrilled when Smith filed her lawsuit challenging the waterfront plan, because Smith’s original proposed mitigation plan involved moving buses bound for downtown from West Seattle off the waterfront and onto S. Lander Street, where they’d have to traverse more than 20 traffic lights. “I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made through this sideways approach of a legal challenge where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the [environmental impact statement],” Transportation Choices Coalition director Shefali Ranganathan, who did not receive prior notice that the Alliance had reached an agreement with the city, county, and state, said Monday that she was disappointed that stakeholders like TCC hadn’t been involved in the settlement discussions, which she called “mysterious.”

“I was hoping for something that would bring our heads together, and this process limits that type of collaboration,” Ranganathan said Monday.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “I just don’t understand how we are making commitments about transit capacity so far into the future,” she says. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now. Maybe Link [light rail] will be able to take all this capacity, maybe it won’t.  We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses seems short-sighted.” Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves in the future. “The ferry system is going to change and adapt to the needs of its users, and that’s going to include how people access that facility, she says.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says. “Once rail is extended out to West Seattle, as we’ve done with every segment of rail so far, we would take full advantage of the capacity and speed of rail.”

Ferry queue traffic projection

There are a lot of ifs built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project—the first one in Seattle that Smith, a lifelong resident, can remember—is contingent on a successful five-year process involving the Port, WSDOT, the Alliance, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants, who are supposed to spend five years working together to decide what the post-light rail roadway will look like. That proposal will then have to be approved by a future city council and King County Councils, which are not legally bound to do what the settlement suggests. Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that “Yes, 10 or 12 years from now, somebody else may have to fight this the way I have fought it. But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.”

In addition, the proposal is still probably not enough to address many of the objections raised by the Transportation Choices Coalition, Feet First, and Cascade Bicycle Club in their letter commenting on the draft environmental impact statement last year. At 102 feet, the Pioneer Square section of the new Alaskan Way will be as wide as the reconstructed Mercer Ave. in South Lake Union—a vast, foreboding stretch of barren concrete that is a textbook example of pedestrian-hostile street planning—for a decade. And narrowing this short section, assuming it happens, still won’t address the fundamental issue at the heart of those groups’ objections—that widening roadways induces demand, leading to “immediate growth of vehicle miles traveled on a corridor.”

Smith, for her part, says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, but she’s glad it’s over. “It took a series of long and very painful conversations” to get to a settlement, she says, but “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”

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