“I’m Here Because I’m Worried”: South Seattle Responds to Scaled-Back Bike Plan

Sarah Shifley, with Tyrell Hedlund, points to the circuitous, hilly route the city suggests for cyclists traveling north from the city’s south end as Department of Neighborhoods facilitator LaKecia Farmer looks on.

The Seattle Department of Transportation will wrap up the last of four “café-style conversations,” the public’s final in-person opportunity to give feedback on the city’s plans to build a dramatically scaled-back version of the Bike Master Plan, in Phinney Ridge tonight.

At last night’s meeting at the Van Asselt Community Center in Rainier Beach, about 50 people sat around tables and responded to a list of prewritten questions from facilitators about their “values,” how the bike plan reflects those values, and those values could best be realized as the city works to build out its bike infrastructure. (I did two detailed reports on the projects that the city has proposed delaying, downgrading, and eliminating here and here.) Although large maps of the South End dominated every table, the “conversations” offered no opportunity to discuss those maps in detail—to note, for example, the conspicuous gaps in the supposedly “connected” bike network at major intersections like Alaska and Rainier (and Alaska and Martin Luther King Jr. Way S), portions of major bike routes like 15th Ave. S., and throughout Georgetown and SoDo, where the plan shows short, random-seeming new stretches of bike lane that end abruptly when they approach arterial streets,  suggesting (on the map at least) that cyclists will simply fly over the major intersections where they are most at risk of being hit.

At my table, the mood was somber as a group of both casual and commuter cyclists—two from Columbia City, one from Georgetown, two from South Park, one from Beacon Hill, and one from Capitol Hill—said they worried that no matter what they said during the facilitated discussion, SDOT, under the current mayoral administration, wouldn’t build anything that was remotely expensive or controversial.

“I’m here because I’m worried,” said South Park resident Maris Zivarts. “I’m worried that people will look at what happened with 35th”—a long-planned bike lane in Northeast Seattle that Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to kill after a group of residents complained that it would eliminate parking for businesses— “and say, ‘We can stop bike lanes [by complaining.]’ I don’t  think I would be here if what happened with 35th hadn’t happened.” Charles Hall, a member of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, noted that when Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff and SDOT asked the board to list their top projects, they decided to focus exclusively on projects in South Seattle, where the bike system is most disconnected and where equity concerns are greatest. “We just really pared it down. We didn’t even put the projects in order,” Hall said. Instead, “We specifically prioritized the south end. And none of the projects that we wanted are even in the [implementation] plan.”

Sarah Shifley, who lives in Columbia City, put an SDOT staffer on the spot about why, exactly, the city decided to reject the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s explicit recommendation to focus on creating safe, convenient bike connections between Southeast Seattle and downtown before saying, basically, that she didn’t buy it. “I don’t what the political block is. You can say it’s funding, but it feels like we all agree on the specific projects and then they just get shot down. … That’s my takeaway. It’s just sad.” Shifley pointed to the circuitous, up-and-down greenway route that the city recommends people riding from Southeast Seattle use to get to the rest of the city, then back to the map, where three major north-south thoroughfares—Beacon, Rainier, and MLK—were bare of any planned bike infrastructure. “It just seems crazy to me that there are so many major thoroughfares going north-south, and on a bike there’s not a safe one,” Zivarts chimed in.

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SDOT says it plans to “incorporate” the feedback it receives at all four facilitated discussions into the final version of the implementation plan. (For good measure, the bike board will likely send a “sternly worded letter” to the mayor’s office, another board member told me at last night’s meeting). But without any specific recommendations from the public, particularly the bike-riding public, about what routes should be prioritized for safety, convenience, and equity, it’s hard to see how “incorporating public feedback” will amount to much more than a summary of the comments SDOT staffers dutifully scribbled on easel paper at last night’s meeting.

At the end of the night, the cyclists in the crowd scrambled to unlock their bikes from the rack outside the community center. The city had hauled it in for the bike discussion and took it away as soon as the meeting was over.

Morning Crank: Prohibitive and Frustrating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post has been updated (March 25, 2019) to reflect the fact that Ari Hoffman submitted a claim to the city for $230,000 in “homeless-related damages”; he did not, as KIRO Radio originally reported at the link provided in this article, which has since been altered, sue the city.)