Mayor Jenny Durkan announced today that the city will sell the “Mercer Megablock” property—three parcels in South Lake Union totaling just under three acres—to Alexandria Real Estate for a total of $143 million. (I was first to report that the city had chosen Alexandria as the buyer last month.) The sale of the property, one of the largest undeveloped properties in South Lake Union, will net $78 million for various affordable housing uses (including both low-income and middle-income housing); pay back several loans the city took out against the future sale of the property; and provide $5 million for unspecified homelessness-related programs—including, perhaps, the restructure of the city and county’s homelessness response systems into one regional agency.
The $143 million price tag includes a $38 million “discount” in exchange for Alexandria’s guarantee to provide affordable housing; the price without affordable housing would have been just over $171 million. “It’s a new benchmark number in terms of price for square foot” on the portion of the property Alexandria plans to develop, Steven Shain, from the city budget office, told reporters during a briefing on the plan last week. “I think we did a great job negotiating. … I don’t want to characterize in the press that they’re overpaying [but] they are going way above to make sure that they won this project.”
During last week’s briefing, Mayor Jenny Durkan called the deal “one of the most consequential property deals the city of Seattle has ever done. … I think it will be one of those things that people look back and say, that really was a generational opportunity for the city of Seattle and they were able to seize it and make our city better because of it.”
Here’s a detailed look at what the project will look like and where the money from the sale will go.
What will be included on site:
The project will primarily be a life-sciences campus like the ones Alexandria has already developed in cities like San Francisco, San Diego, and in South Lake Union—”creating … hundreds of new jobs, if not thousands of new jobs, that will lead to our ability to be the city that cures cancer and other things like that,” Durkan said. In addition to commercial space, the project will include a community center of up to 30,000 square feet, according to Shain, at no rent to the city, and will a single, large building (up to 12 stories tall) combining 175 units of low-income housing—the minimum number the city asked for in its original request for proposals—with about 38 moderate-income units built under the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) program, which grants developers a property tax break if they keep units affordable to moderate-income households for 12 years. (City officials who briefed reporters on the plan last week said the developer could build as many as 190 units in addition to the affordable ones, but has not committed to a specific number, which will determine the exact number of MFTE units).
The affordable units, according to Shain , would be distributed throughout the same building as the market-rate apartments—”there wouldn’t be two separate doors”—and would be available to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle area median income, or about $45,600 for a single person. The new units would mostly be studios and one-bedrooms, not the family-sized units that are most lacking in Seattle, particularly in the downtown core.
Alexandria would also be responsible for building two blocks of protected bike lane on Mercer St. and to open a pedestrian path through the campus on the block between Mercer and Roy. The company has agreed to pay for pay for environmental remediation on the site, which has been the site of a dry cleaner and a gas station, among other things; Shain said the cost would probably be a “significant eight-figure number.” Continue reading “Mercer Megablock Sells to Real Estate Equity Firm for $143 Million”→
1. The city council finally adopted legislation to loosen regulations on backyard and basement apartment construction Monday, 13 years after the city allowed homeowners to build backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle on a “pilot” basis in 2006. The city’s analysis found that the new rules, which would allow homeowners to build up to two accessory units (such as a basement apartment and a backyard cottage) on their property, will add up to 440 new units a year across Seattle, or about one unit for every 80 acres of single-family land.
Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter by signing up to make a monthly contribution through Patreon now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.
The city expanded its initial backyard cottage pilot to include the rest of Seattle in 2009, but it never took off in a major way, thanks in large part to restrictions on lot and unit size, owner-occupancy requirement, and parking mandates that made accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, difficult and expensive to build. Efforts to make it easier to build second and third units ran against the usual objections from single-family homeowner activists, who claimed that changing the law would turn Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods into triplex canyons, and from left-leaning development opponents, who claimed that loosening the rules would lead to a frenzy of speculative development, with builders snatching up affordable single-family rental houses and destroying them to make way for new houses with two additional units, which they would rent out at higher prices or turn into Airbnbs.
Litigation by a group of homeowner activists dragged the process out for years, but the city prevailed in May, enabling the legislation to finally move forward. Although council members generally supported the proposal, some of them wanted to add new restrictions, such as owner occupancy and ownership requirements and even a ban on leasing the units as short-term rentals, which would have subjected backyard cottages and basement apartments to more stringent anti-Airbnb rules than any other kind of housing in the city.
Ultimately, the only one of those amendments that saw the light of day on Monday was Lisa Herbold’s proposal to require homeowners to own a property for one year before building a second accessory unit—a provision Herbold said was necessary “to address the speculative market that will flip these units”—with even socialist council member Kshama Sawant saying that she saw no reason for the restriction. While she is concerned about “corporate developers” building luxury apartment towers, Sawant said, “I have not seen any speculative ADU bubble anywhere.”
The legislation, which Sightline called “the best rules in America for backyard cottages,” passed 8-0, with council member Bruce Harrell absent.
2. Often, when the council passes a piece of legislation they have been working on for some time, Mayor Jenny Durkan sends out a press release praising the council for passing “the Mayor’s legislation.” That didn’t happen with the ADU bill that passed yesterday—not because Durkan didn’t have her own version of the proposal, but because she never sent her own version of the ADU legislation to the council. Instead, after a team of staffers spent months working on draft legislation and crafting an outreach plan for an alternative proposal, the mayor apparently decided to support O’Brien’s legislation after all.
It’s hard to quantify how much staff time the mayor’s office and city departments dedicated to drafting legislation that never saw the light of day, but the sheer volume of communications in the first three months of 2019 suggests it was a substantial body of work. (I filed my request at the end of March and received redacted records in mid-June, which is why I don’t have any documents dated later than March 31).
At the moment, it’s also hard to know what problems Durkan had with O’Brien’s proposal, since most of the documents her office provided about her strategy and legislation look like this:
I would show more, but it just goes on like this.However, series of text messages between two mayoral staffers that were provided without redactions shows that one of the changes Durkan was considering was an even longer ownership requirement than what Herbold proposed—two years, rather than one, before a homeowner could build a second accessory unit.
I’ve asked the mayor’s office for unredacted versions of the documents I received in and will post more details about her proposal when I receive them. In the meantime, here’s one more page from those redacted documents—this one a list of ideas the mayor’s office had to “further allay concerns” about “speculative development.”
1. The city’s hearing examiner heard final arguments late last month in the latest effort by Queen Anne activist Marty Kaplan to prevent homeowners from building mother-in-law units and backyard cottages (accessory dwelling units, or ADUs) on their property. (Kaplan has been filing legal challenges “as a Seattle native” since 2016, arguing that allowing two ADUs—e.g., a backyard cottage plus a basement apartment—will destroy the character of Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods and lead to rampant speculation by developers). The preferred alternative (there’s no actual legislation yet, since the proposal has been locked up in litigation) would also remove the existing parking mandate; establish restrictions on the size of new single-family houses in an effort to thwart McMansion-style developments; and lift the current owner-occupancy requirement in favor of a new rule requiring that a homeowner who has one ADU and wants to build a second must own the property for at least a year before beginning to build.
If the hearing examiner rules that the environmental review of the ADU proposal, sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, was adequate, the council can move forward with actual legislation as early as next month. Their goal is to finalize and vote on the legislation no later than August.
But hold up. Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly hopes to negotiate with the council to get some amendments to the legislation, starting with the owner-occupancy requirement. ADU opponents, including Kaplan, have argued that allowing up to two secondary units on a lot will open single-family neighborhoods up to “speculative development,” unless the city mandates that any homeowner who wants to build an ADU has to live on that property in perpetuity. The specter of developers descending greedily upon single-family property for the privilege of building a secondary unit (and then, after owning the property for a full year after that, building a third) might strike anyone familiar with Seattle’s existing real-estate market as absurd, but to spell it out: There’s no evidence of a speculative boom in backyard apartments in other cities, like Portland and Vancouver, where they’re easier to build; the scenario in which developers build backyard apartments, then sit on those properties for the year before building another unit, makes little financial sense; and fans of missing-middle housing for middle-class people who can no longer afford to buy anything in Seattle might consider a little development a good thing. Nonetheless, Durkan reportedly wants to put owner-occupancy requirements back on the table, and to reopen the discussion about parking requirements. Council sources say the parking idea in particular is probably a nonstarter.
The hearing examiner is expected to make his ruling by mid-May.
Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.
2. The city’s Human Services Department found itself on the defensive in late February, after Mayor Durkan claimed in her state of the city speech that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing.” As I first reported, that number was misleading at best—the city actually counted 7,400 exits from programs, a number that almost certainly overstates the number of actual people who have gotten out of homelessness because it counts every program as an exit (so that, for example, a household of two who stopped using five homelessness programs would count as five “exits.”)
At the time, HSD officials and the mayor’s office expressed frustration to reporters who asked questions about the discrepancy, insisting that they should have “known all along” that when the city said “households,” they really meant “exits from programs,” and that reporters should focus not on what the numbers specifically represent, but on the fact that they’re going up. “No matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said. Nonetheless, several other reporters considered it newsworthy that the city did not know how many people it was actually helping, despite the city’s insistence that it was not a revelation.
Even as the city was telling reporters that they shouldn’t have been surprised that “households” does not mean “households,” internal communications between mayoral and HSD staffers, which I obtained through a records request, show that prior to the mayor’s press conference to discuss the numbers the Monday after my story ran, the city decided to remove all references to “households” in a talking-points memo bound for the mayor’s desk.
The shift was fairly abrupt. On Thursday, February 21, for example, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding wrote in an internal email that one of the department’s top speaking points was “30% More Households Exit (Maintain) to Permanent Housing.” One day later, and several hours after my initial story on the “households” vs. “exits” discrepancy, the mayor’s homelessness advisor, Tess Colby, emailed the mayor’s office and HSD staff to say that she had “revised the memo to Mayor to replace ‘HHs’ with ‘exits’ solely in the interest of precision.”
In all, 12 references to “households” were removed from the memo. For example, the top bullet point, which referred to “the 7,400-goal … for exiting households from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients” was changed to “exits from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients.” A sentence that originally read, “In 2018 431 Native American/Alaska Native households exited homeless services programs …and 2,979 Black/African Americans households exited homeless services programs” was changed to read, “In 2018 there were 431 exits among Native Americans/Alaska Natives from homeless services programs … and exits of Black/African Americans increased to 2,979.” And a reference to enhanced shelters “exiting nearly twice as many households” in 2018 than the previous year was changed to say, “Exits to permanent housing increased nearly two-fold.”
These changes may seem minor, but they (and their timing) are significant. The mayor’s office got called out for overstating its success in responding to homelessness. Publicly, they went on the defensive, telling reporters they were making a big deal out of nothing. Privately, though, the mayor’s office appeared to realize the confusion was warranted.
3. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites, held a forum for District 2 council candidates Thursday night, although only four of the seven declared candidates decided to attend. (Two, Tammy Morales and Christopher Peguero, had previously stated their intent to boycott the forum). The remaining candidates were bounce-house rental company owner Ari Hoffman, Socialist Workers Party Henry Dennison, Seattle Police Department crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon, and Rainier Valley community organizer Phyllis Porter.
I live-tweeted the event, which was attended by an incongruously white audience given that D2 is the least-white district in the city. I’ve included a few key moments below, and collected all my tweets in a Twitter moment here.
Ari Hoffman, D2 candidate, suggests removing homeless people from streets and relocating them en masse to trailers in "a place like Harbor Island" where they can then be "triaged" into services and treatment.
Phyllis Porter: "We need to stop allowing people to live in the unsanctioned encampments. We need to have them moved to the sanctioned encampments. Take them away from the encampments that are unsanctioned."
Ari Hoffman, who previously said that he has had multiple bullets whiz through his office, now says an RV fire next to his office almost took out two businesses yesterday. He also says he's witnessed rampant "child prostitution" outside his office.
Phyllis Porter says her brother entered drug treatment three days ago (a disclosure that, frankly, I think was not hers to make). Says he wouldn't have gone into treatment if safe injection sites existed.
Ari says he spends time sitting in on recovery meetings and says that the thing people say over and over is "thanks God I hit rock bottom." Says "forced treatment" might be the answer for "people who refuse to accept services."
1. Former council member Heidi Wills will soon declare her candidacy for city council in District 6, after District 6 incumbent Mike O’Brien announced that he did not plan to run for reelection. The news came courtesy of Wills’ Facebook page over the weekend, when Wills posted the following in the comments to a post by—of all people—former council member Judy Nicastro, who was ousted along with Wills in the wake of the Strippergate scandal in 2003:
Heidi WillsThank you, Judy! I ❤️ Seattle. We’re growing so fast and facing big issues. I’d like a seat at the table to elevate all our voices for a more common sense, inclusive, equitable and sustainable city. Campaign logistics will be in place soon. Stay tuned!
I first reported on speculation that Wills would run in December. After losing to one-term council member David Della, Wills spent almost 15 years as the executive director of The First Tee, an organization that teaches golf to disadvantaged youth.
2. City council member Rob Johnson denies rumors that he plans to leave his council position to start a new job advising the National Hockey League on transportation issues related to KeyArena as early as May. (A more recent rumor had Johnson leaving as early as next month.) “It’s not true,” Johnson says. “I have no plans to leave early.” However, in the next breath, Johnson appeared to leave the door open for an early departure, adding, “I’ve got a firm commitment from [the NHL] that we won’t even start talking about that until we have concluded MHA”—the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which will allow more density in some areas in exchange for affordable housing. That process is supposed to wrap up in mid-May.
If Johnson (or any of the other three council incumbents who have said they will not seek reelection when their terms end this year) does leave early, the council will have to appoint a replacement; the last time that happened was when Kirsten Harris-Talley replaced Position 8 council member Tim Burgess, who left the council to serve as mayor after former mayor Ed Murray resigned amid child sexual abuse allegations. Harris-Talley served for 51 days.
3. One issue that won’t come before Johnson’s committee before he leaves is a planned update of the city’s Incentive Zoning program—another density-for-public-benefits tradeoff that has been partly supplanted by MHA. Incentive zoning is a catchall term for a patchwork of zoning designations that allow developers to build more densely in exchange for funding or building affordable housing or other public benefits, such as child care, open space, or historic protection through a transfer of development rights (a program that has been used to protect historic buildings, such as Town Hall on First Hill, from demolition.) Once MHA goes through, incentive zoning will still apply in downtown and South Lake Union as well as parts of the University District, Uptown, and North Rainier neighborhoods.
The whole program was supposed to get an update this year to consolidate IZ standards across the city, strengthen some green building requirements (barring the use of fossil fuels for heating, for example), and impose minimum green building standards throughout downtown (currently, the city’s standard, which requires buildings to be 15 percent more efficient than what the state requires, are only mandatory outside the downtown core). The proposed new rules would also remove “shopping corridors” and publicly accessible atriums from the list of public amenities allowed under incentive zoning, since these tend to be public in name only.
Last week, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development sent out a notice saying that “Due to the volume of land use policy and legislation work that the City of Seattle is currently undertaking, the Incentive Zoning Update has been temporarily delayed.” The notice continued, “There is currently no revised schedule for release of public draft legislation or transmission to Council. While there is still a possibility that legislation could be transmitted to Council for consideration in 2019, it is likely that the legislation will be delayed until 2020.”
City staffers say the delay is largely because the city’s law department, which reviews legislation, has been backed up not just with MHA, but with a backlog of litigation, from challenges to city rules allowing backyard apartments to defending legislation gerrymandering the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox. Developers, meanwhile, may be breathing a sigh of relief. In a letter to OPCD last year, NAIOP, which represents commercial real estate developers, objected to the new green standards, arguing that they would lead to higher housing costs and jeopardize MHA’s ability to produce more density. NAIOP also argued that because the new energy standards have advanced faster than the technology that would enable builders to comply with them, the city should reduce the amount by which it requires new projects to best the state-mandated energy code. OPCD disputes NAIOP’s characterization of the current standards, but acknowledges that there may come a time when they need to be revisited.
For months, advocates for a denser, more affordable city have been waiting with gritted teeth to see how Mayor Jenny Durkan would put her imprint on the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which was developed under her predecessor, Ed Murray. The plan, which has already been implemented in a handful of neighborhoods, allows more types of housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings—in more parts of the city, including 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Given Durkan’s somewhat spotty record on key urbanist issues—stalling bike lanes downtown and in North Seattle, siding with housing opponents on the Showbox, and delaying the First Avenue streetcar—density advocates worried that any changes Durkan made would only water down the proposal.
Last week, it looked like the advocates were about to get the bad news they were expecting: Durkan, under pressure from the city attorney’s office, was reportedly poised to call for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to examine the plan’s potential impacts on historic resources (like the Admiral Theatre, above)—an additional layer of process that would have added months of delay and created new avenues for MHA opponents to appeal the plan, perhaps into oblivion. Instead, MHA advocates wanted the city to limit its additional historical-resources analysis—required by an otherwise favorable ruling by the city’s hearing examiner last November—to an addendum to the final environmental impact statement, which would require only a 14-day public comment period and could not be challenged. The ruling marked the conclusion of a yearlong appeal by single-family neighborhood activists, who argued that MHA should not go forward because of its supposed negative environmental impacts.
The city attorney, whose spokesman said he could not comment on any legal advice the office provides to the mayor, reportedly expressed concern that doing an addendum, rather than a full SEIS, could open the city up to legal liability.
Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about whether she initially leaned toward recommending the more arduous, time-consuming EIS process. But representatives from the Housing Development Consortium, Vulcan, the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority, and several city council members were apparently concerned enough about the potential for more delay that they planned a press conference this past Friday morning at Sound Transit’s Union Station to encourage the mayor to move forward quickly with the plan.
According to a planning email obtained by The C Is for Crank, pro-MHA city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s office billed the event—officially a kickoff to Affordable Housing Month— as an opportunity for participating organizations “to speak directly with members of the press about the importance of moving MHA forward by March… and why you and/or your organization is excited to support this legislation that has been years in the making!” In addition to Mosqueda, council members Rob Johnson and Lorena Gonzalez were scheduled to speak.
And then, without notice, the press conference was called off. One participant says they showed up to find no one there. Mosqueda would not comment on why the event was canceled; nor would Johnson, the chairman of the council’s land use committee and a longtime vocal MHA proponent.
However, sources inside and outside city hall who spoke on background say that Durkan met last week with a coalition of MHA advocates, including developers whose plans would be impacted by more delay, who strongly urged her to go with the less onerous addendum option. As, indeed, she ultimately did: The city’s Office of Planning and Development will publish the addendum on Thursday, eliminating one of the last potential roadblocks to MHA’s approval. At some point between now and March, the council will approve the plan (with amendments) and a companion resolution, which could call for mitigation plans to protect historical resources inside the MHA boundaries.
The mayor’s office provided a statement about the decision to move MHA forward:
Mayor Durkan believes the Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements are critical to building more affordable housing while ensuring that our fastest-growing neighborhoods can be vibrant, livable places for the next generation. In November 2018, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled that the environmental analysis of MHA conducted by the City adequately addressed the impacts of the proposal with the exception of the analysis of historic resources. As required by the Hearing Examiner’s remand, the City has been working diligently to conduct a thorough environmental review of historic resources, and this week OPCD will publish the addendum in order to move forward on a path for the City Council to pass MHA this Spring. Understanding appellants have challenged MHA every step of the way, the City will continue to successfully work to increase development capacity and support affordable housing requirements.
If MHA does move forward in March, it will mark the end of delay tactics that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of units of affordable housing, worth an estimated $87 million, over the year that MHA has been locked up in appeals. It will also represent a significant moment in the Durkan administration—a decision to move forward, rather than delay, a program that will create a significant amount of new housing despite the fact that it’s controversial with the single-family homeowners who helped the mayor get elected.
It’s not clear exactly why Durkan made this decision when she did—whether, for example, she was swayed by the specter of a big press conference starring three council members, Vulcan, and the county’s largest affordable housing coalition, or by direct appeals from developers themselves. But tensions were reportedly high at City Hall right up until Friday, after Durkan decided to support the fast-track option— if you can say that a process that has taken nearly two years is on a fast track.
Next week, the city council is expected to adopt an emergency one-year moratorium on development at the Halcyon Mobile Home Park in North Seattle, to prevent developers from buying the property while the council crafts legislation to preserve the park in perpetuity. That future legislation, which will be developed in council member Rob Johnson’s land use committee, would most likely create a new zoning designation allowing only mobile or manufactured homes on the two properties, similar to a law Portland adopted last year.
If this is the first you’re hearing about the plight of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park, you’re not alone. Although the park, which houses dozens of low-income seniors and their families, has been on the market since last June, it recently caught the attention of council member Kshama Sawant, who called a special meeting of her human services and renters’ rights committee last Friday afternoon to discuss her emergency legislation, which she said was necessary to prevent “US Bank, a big financial institution that does not care about ordinary people, [from] selling the property to a corporate developer called Blue Fern.”
Urging Halcyon’s elderly residents to write to the council and turn out in force for public comment at the full council meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sawant did not mince words. “It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it,” Sawant said.
“It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it.” —Council member Kshama Sawant, urging residents of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park to write the council
The sudden “emergency” was news to council member Debora Juarez, who said she couldn’t attend Sawant’s special committee meeting on Friday due to a prior commitment. (Sawant’s committee ordinarily meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, although it has only met once since last July.) On Tuesday, after Sawant repeated her claim that “the developer, Blue Fern, could vest literally any day now,” Juarez took the mic to “correct the record.”
Among those corrections: Blue Fern has not filed plans to develop the property. The property is not owned by US Bank. And no development plans are in the offing.
It’s true that the property, which was owned by one family but is now part of a trust, of which the University of Washington is a beneficiary, is on the market—with US Bank as the trustee and Kidder Matthews as the broker—but Blue Fern, after inquiring about the preapplication process last October and attending a meeting with the city in December, has decided they do not plan to move forward with the proposal. According to a spokesman for Blue Fern, Benjamin Paulus, “Neither Blue Fern Development, LLC or its affiliated companies are under contract to purchase this property.”
The sudden panic—the last-minute committee meeting, the declaration of emergency, the chartered bus that ferried Halcyon residents and supporters to today’s council meeting—was, in other words, at least partly based on misinformation. Confronted by her colleagues about this, Sawant said the specific details didn’t matter, because “it is only a matter of time before another corporate developer comes along and decides to buy this property, so the residents haven’t been misled.”
Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reexamined single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council was busy arguing over every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere if we had built somewhere else for them to go.
Many of the residents themselves—one of whom fell down during yesterday’s council meeting, causing a brief hush in the room —appeared to believe, as late as yesterday afternoon, that they were at imminent risk of losing their homes. Several residents choked back tears as they testified, saying they were terrified about becoming homeless. These are real, legitimate fears—of nine mobile home parks that existed in Seattle in 1990, when the city council passed a series of similar development moratoria, just two remain—but it’s hard to see how stoking them, by suggesting that the bulldozers are practically at the gate, serves the interests of vulnerable low-income seniors.
Mobile homes are naturally occurring affordable housing, and developing them into other kinds of housing—in this case, townhouses or apartments—creates a very literal kind of physical displacement. It’s understandable that the city council, faced with the prospect of tossing dozens of senior citizens out of their homes, would do everything in their power to prevent that from happening, including creating special new zones that protect mobile home parks in perpetuity.
But there’s a larger question such parcel-by-parcel anti-displacement efforts elide: Why are apartments still illegal almost everywhere in Seattle? Every time the city decides to preserve one apartment building, or one mobile home park, without asking about the opportunity cost of that decision, they are putting off a crucial conversation about Seattle’s housing shortage, and how to solve it. Every time the city walls off another block from development—whether it’s the Showbox, which also got the “emergency moratorium” treatment, or a mobile home park for low-income seniors—without addressing the astonishing reality that two-thirds of Seattle is zoned exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, they are making a deliberate decision that this same thing will happen again.
None of these choices happen in a vacuum. Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reformed single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council and anti-displacement advocates were busy litigating the fate of every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe the residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere, if we had built somewhere else for them to go.
1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.
Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in 7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.
To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.
Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”
Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.
2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s] an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.
The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.
ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.
The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”
Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”
The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.
This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data. Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.
The full version of this story is available at Sightline.
As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.
Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.
To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.
But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.
How much publicly owned land is there?
Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.
Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.
The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.
“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says. “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.
Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing
Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.
Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.
The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.
1.The official request for proposals for developers interesting in buying the so-called Mercer Megablock—three sites that total three acres in the heart of South Lake Union—includes some revealing details about how the city is pitching itself (via JLL, its broker) to potential property buyers. Alongside standard marketing language about the city’s booming economy, growing tech base, and wealth of cultural and natural assets, the Megablock marketing materials tout the fact that Seattle has restrictive zoning and “high barriers to entry for homeownership,” along with some of the highest and fastest-rising rents in the nation, as positive assets that make the city a great place to build.
From the RFP:
This area is also one of the most dynamic real estate investment markets in the country, benefiting from a combination of strict land use planning, topographical constraints on supply, and employment growth that consistently ranks above the national average. Favorable “renter” demographics, positive job numbers, strong population projections and a low unemployment rate, together with high barriers for entry in home ownership, also position the region as a strategic market for multifamily investment gains.
What, exactly, constitutes “a strategic market for multifamily investment gains”? A pull quote in the RFP puts a finer point on it: “Housing prices have grown at the fastest rate in the country for the past 17-consecutive months. The 12.9% year-over-year growth is more than double the national growth rate. Multifamily rents increased by 3.1% year-over-year and vacancy is just 4.2%. ”
Obviously, when you put artificial constraints on housing supply (such as zoning laws that make multifamily housing illegal in most parts of a city), housing prices increase. Usually, we think of that as a bad thing, because it means that all but the wealthiest renters (and those who can afford to buy $800,000 houses) get priced out of neighborhoods near employment centers, transit, and other amenities. But the city’s marketing materials turn this idea on its head: Restrictive zoning, “high barriers” to homeownership, and spiraling rents make Seattle the perfect place to buy one of the city’s last large parcels of public land—a parcel which, if housing advocates had their way, would be used for affordable housing that might help address some of those very issues.
2. After I reported yesterday on the city’s decision to hire a mediator with the Cedar River Group to facilitate a series of conversations with groups that support and oppose a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, architect/intrepid YIMBY Mike Eliason dug through the city’s elections website and discovered that the mediator, John Howell, has given money to both Mayor Jenny Durkan (who directed SDOT to initiate the mediation) and onetime city council candidate Jordan Royer (who, along with attorney Gabe Galanda, is representing the Save 35th Avenue NE anti-bike-lane group in mediation). Howell, who is a principal and founder of Cedar River Group, contributed $275 to Durkan last year and $250 to Royer in 2009.
Rules adopted after the passage of Initiative 122 in 2015 bar contributions from contractors who made more than $250,000 from city contracts over the last two years; according to the city’s contractor list, Cedar River Group made $399,757 from city contractors between 2016 and 2018. However, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year dismissed a similar case involving contributions from Paul Allen, who owns a large stake in City Investors (the real estate arm of Allen’s Vulcan Inc.) , concluding that restricting Allen’s ability to donate to local candidates would violate his right to free speech. The “rationale,” according to SEEC director Wayne Barnett, was that “giving a campaign contribution is protected speech under the First Amendment.” I asked Barnett if that finding might also mean that (under Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that unleashed unlimited political spending by corporations) that the contractor contribution restrictions themselves were unconstitutional. Barnett said that was an interesting legal question but that it hasn’t been tested (yet).
In a move so predictable it hardly even merits an I-told-you-so (but I did tell you so), the owners of the building on First Avenue that houses the Showbox have sued the city in response to a land-use decision that effectively downzones their property from 44 stories to two, arguing (among other things) that the move constitutes an illegal spot zone and a taking of private property worth $40 million—the sum for which the owners had planned to sell the land.
To unpack the story—which David Kroman broke on Crosscut earlier today—it helps to recap a bit of the whirlwind history that led us to this point. Last month, news broke that a Vancouver developer called Onni Group planned to tear down the Showbox and redevelop the property as a 440-foot-tall apartment building with 442 units, which could have included a new ground-floor music venue. The city council had just upzoned the property as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which grants developers in some areas, including downtown, the right to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable housing. However, a public outcry—spearheaded by music fans and amplified by anti-development council member Kshama Sawant, who saw the controversy as an opportunity to stop a “greedy developer” from profiting from a new high-end development—prompted “emergency” legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox property for at least the next ten months. (The property is owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, who also owns the Deja Vu Showgirls club down the street; the Showbox itself is operated by a tenant, AEG Live, which describes itself as “the world’s second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events.”) Initially, Sawant proposed a dramatic expansion of the historical district that would have effectively downzoned a dozen existing properties and forced property owners to obtain permission from a historical commission before renting to new tenants or making any visible changes to their property, but that was eventually scaled back and only the Showbox property got the “historical” designation. The new rules last for ten months—long enough for the city to decide whether to extend them and make the two-story Showbox building a permanent part of Pike Place Market, and long enough (or so the “Save the Showbox” crowd hoped) to convince Onni to go away and for supporters to put together a plan to preserve the space as a music venue in perpetuity.
That brings us to the present, and the lawsuit filed last week. The suit claims that the city council violated the owners’ property rights by passing a spot rezone that reduces its value by tens of millions of dollars; that they violated the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires officials like council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented and to make their deliberations in public, not behind closed doors; that the inclusion of the Showbox in a historical district designed to protect farmers and small-scale artisans is “the definition of arbitrary and capricious”; and that the “illegal spot zone” violates the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for more density in places like downtown Seattle. “The Decision [to expand the historical district to include just the Showbox] bears no rational relationship to promoting a legitimate public interest; it singles a small area out of a larger area for use and development restrictions that are not in accordance with similarly situated neighboring properties and not in accordance with the City’s Comprehensive Plan.”
The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate.
The argument that the council’s vote to put the Showbox in the Market historical district represents a spot rezone—that is, that it effectively turns a property with a 440-foot height limit into one with a limit of just two stories, the height of the existing Showbox building— is critical. If the court accepts this argument, they may also be inclined to accept the property owners’ argument that council members, particularly Sawant, violated the law by discussing the decision outside the public eye, and participated in a campaign in favor of the rezone. The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate. (If this argument sounds vaguely familiar, you probably remember it from Strippergate—a scandal that contributed to the defeat of two city council members who violated quasi-judicial rules when they discussed, and voted for, a rezone to allow strip-club owner Frank Colicurcio to expand the parking lot at his Rick’s strip club in North Seattle. In an odd turn of fate, Showbox property owner Forbes purchased Rick’s from Colacurcio in 2011.)
The lawsuit echoes a point that I have made numerous times at The C for Crank about basing policy on the wishes of a vocal few—in this case, music fans and industry employees who sign petitions and hold signs that say “Save the Showbox” and write songs bemoaning the inexorable fact that cities change: “When politicians cater to populist calls – whether those calls are ‘lock her up,’ ‘build the wall’ ‘ban Muslims,’ or ‘Save the Showbox’ – civil and other rights are placed at risk. Populism, and politicians’ desires to appease their loudest constituents and generate headlines must, however, yield to the rule of law. Luckily for those who prefer protection of civil, constitutional and property rights, the courts exist to preserve, protect and enforce the rule of law.” Indeed, the suit argues that the council caved to public pressure in order “to enhance its political popularity” and “enacted an unlawful ordinance that was intended to, and did, place all the burden of providing a public music venue to City residents onto the shoulders of a private landowner. The ordinance greatly and instantly devalued the property and will scuttle its redevelopment unless the City’s improper spot down zone is declared unlawful.”
The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit. But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.
The complaint also takes a swing at the notion—which several council members, particularly Lisa Herbold, made explicit during the debate over the historical designation—that the squat, repeatedly remodeled Showbox building itself is “historic.” The city, the lawsuit notes, hired a consultant to consider the Showbox for historic landmark status in 2007, but found that the building lacked “any redeeming landmark features.” This, the complaint continues, “was partly because the building had been remodeled during its many uses in the past including as a comedy stage, an adult entertainment arcade, a furniture store and a bingo hall.” When Showbox preservationists talk about “silencing the ghosts of Seattle’s history,” as one of the venue’s bartenders did last month, is that the history they’re thinking of?
One final note. Ordinarily, when the city makes land-use decisions, it puts those decisions through a rigorous Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) analysis to determine what impacts the decision might have, positive or negative, on marginalized and low-income communities. As far as I can tell, the city did no such analysis when it decided to effectively downzone the Showbox block—a decision that also meant foregoing about $5 million in funding for affordable housing under MHA. The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit, perhaps because such goals are hard to quantify (and harder still in the absence of the usual analysis). But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.