What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Streetcar

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last week, defying early expectations that she would abandon the planned downtown Seattle streetcar after pausing construction nearly a year ago, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she would ask the city council to proceed with the project. The caveat? The council will need to come up with additional $65 million to help the Seattle Department of Transportation pay for the project, whose price tag has swelled to an estimated $285.8 million from an original estimate of $134.9 million. (The city’s utility departments will have to come up with another $23 million for utility work that the city says is long overdue with or without the streetcar project.)

In 2015, the city’s estimated cost for the streetcar was $143 million; in 2017 it went up to $197 million; and last August, the estimate was $252 million.

This streetcar line, known as the Center City Connector, would connect the two existing streetcar lines: one that travels from Pioneer Square to First Hill and the other that goes from Westlake through South Lake Union. In doing so, it would create an almost-complete loop from First Hill to South Lake Union.

The latest budget increase is the result of delays to the project timeline (besides the 10-month pause in the project, the city now estimates that it will take 18 months for the Federal Transit Administration to review the project for funding—see below for more details—pushing the opening date from 2022 to 2025); extra costs that Durkan says SDOT failed to account for under her predecessor, Ed Murray, including a new maintenance facility and bridge reinforcements; and the need for large ongoing operations subsidy, which could swell to $19 million a year by the second full year the center city streetcar is in operation.

“It is clear now that the previous SDOT management in the last administration had failed to do the proper due diligence to account for all the costs,” Durkan said in a statement. “As a result, this project was not set up for future long-term financial success[.]”

So what does last week’s announcement mean, and what happens now? We’ve put together some questions and answers to explain where the streetcar goes from here.

Does last week’s announcement mean the streetcar will actually be built?

The streetcar still faces a number of hurdles, including the need for funding at the city and state levels. In December, the Federal Transit Administration told the city that the project remained in the running for a $75 million federal Small Starts grant, but the federal funding is not yet secure; without it, the total SDOT funding gap will be $140 million.

Even assuming a smaller shortfall, the city will have to come up with at least $65 million in additional funding, possibly by issuing bonds against an existing revenue source such the commercial parking tax, or as part of a future transportation levy. The city council will now have to work with the mayor’s office, and incoming SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, to find a source for the additional funding.

Why was there a delay in the first place?

Durkan halted the streetcar project last March after a preliminary review of the project found that costs had ballooned to more than $200 million. The nine-month pause allowed outside evaluators to analyze the cost to build and operate the system as well as SDOT’s engineering work on the project, which a spokeswoman from Durkan’s office says did not include the cost of reinforcing several bridges in Pioneer Square that will need to be strengthened to carry the heavier new trains—which are already on order and weigh about 12 tons more than the existing streetcars.

Why is a streetcar on First Avenue even necessary? Who will it serve?

Business and community groups that support the streetcar, organized as the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, say the First Avenue trolley will do several things: connect downtown businesses and provide a convenient one-seat ride between downtown destinations; serve thousands of low-income downtown residents; and be a speedier option than buses because it will run in its own dedicated lane on First Avenue. Skeptics, meanwhile, counter that Seattle already has a grade-separated light rail train, which runs in the Downtown Transit Tunnel just two blocks east. And, of course, there’s also plain old nostalgia—for more than two decades, the historic George Benson Trolley ran along the downtown waterfront, until its maintenance barn was demolished to make room for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Courtesy of Seattle Streetcar Coalition

The existing streetcars seem like they’re always empty. Will anyone ride it?

The mayor’s office acknowledges that ridership on the South Lake Union streetcar, which was built partly with private contributions from major SLU landowner Vulcan Real Estate, has declined in recent years. But, they are quick to add, ridership on the First Hill portion of the streetcar—which was built as a kind of consolation prize after Sound Transit killed a planned First Hill light rail stop—has been going up dramatically.

According to the city, once the full line is open, ridership—which on the two existing lines was about 1.4 million a year in 2017—will rise to 7.4 million in 2027, the Center City Connector’s second full year of operations. The mayor’s office also says that the city has studied alternatives to the streetcar—such as reviving a bus route on First Avenue, which was a replacement for the original waterfront trolleys—but says they don’t perform as well in ridership projections as the streetcar.

What changed Durkan’s mind?

In nine months, Durkan went from being a streetcar skeptic to the kind of mayor who says things like, “As we reconnect downtown with our new Waterfront for All, we have the opportunity to create a downtown with fewer cars and where residents, workers, and visitors can walk, bike, and take transit.” In her statement last week, Durkan continued, “A unified streetcar route provides a unique opportunity to build on our investments for the next generation.”

Perhaps the latest round of overruns was smaller than Durkan expected. But she is also responding to the political reality (reportedly communicated to her by her political advisors) that the streetcar enjoys strong support from many constituents, not just the lefty urbanists and transit advocates who voted for her opponent Cary Moon in 2017, but business leaders, developers, and others she needs to have on board if she wants to get reelected in 2021.

The Seattle Streetcar Coalition, which includes the Washington State Convention Center, Transportation Choices Coalition, Uwajimaya, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Downtown Seattle Association, said in a statement immediately following Durkan’s announcement that they were “thrilled” that the streetcar has been revived. In a press release, the coalition “commend[ed] Mayor Jenny Durkan for her leadership on transportation and her commitment to delivering the critical next piece of Seattle’s streetcar system.”

Can We Toll Our Way Out of Congestion?

This story originally appeared in the print and online editions of Seattle magazine.

Downtown Seattle rush hour traffic

Image credit: Alex Crook, Seattle magazine

January 2020: The downtown Convention Center is under construction, kicking almost 600 buses out of the downtown transit tunnel and closing down the ramps that now give buses direct access to the Interstate 5 express lanes. Those buses now share city streets with more cars than ever, as hundreds of drivers divert to the street grid, avoiding the new Alaskan Way tunnel, which has a $2.50 toll (during nonpeak hours) and no downtown exits. Meanwhile, the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is still being demolished, KeyArena reconstruction is creating traffic chaos in South Lake Union, and a growing number of commuters are choosing Uber and Lyft over buses that are often off schedule or full, adding to congestion.

But what if there was a way to alleviate all this predicted chaos—a period the city refers to, drily, as the “period of maximum constraint”—without forcing people to get up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic, or work from home? Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, think they may have found a solution in a concept called congestion pricing. The idea is simple: Charge people to drive into the center city during the times when congestion is worst, and use the revenues to fund alternatives to driving, such as increased bus service. Voilà: fewer vehicles, faster transit, improved air quality (car and truck trips account for half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions), and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Most people have already made the decision [not to commute downtown by car],” says City Council member Mike O’Brien, referring to the fact that the majority of those who work downtown don’t get there by driving alone. O’Brien, with the mayor, is leading the congestion-pricing charge. “For those who haven’t [decided], this will give you more options, and for those who want to keep driving, you can keep driving, and your commute’s going to be faster—it’s just going to cost you more.”

In practice, of course, it isn’t so simple. In 2017, the Seattle City Council authorized $200,000 for a study on the effects of tolling downtown streets—an idea that will require voter approval to move forward—as well as other options, such as taxing Uber and Lyft rides, that would not require a public vote. In September, Durkan released a budget that provides another $1 million for the city to study congestion-pricing options in more detail and to conduct outreach to community members and businesses, with the goal of implementing congestion pricing by 2021, when the mayor’s first term ends.

While tolling may be controversial—a 2015 poll by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that 54 percent of King County residents opposed the idea of universal highway tolls—Durkan pointed out that in other cities that have implemented tolling, such as London and Stockholm, “People who have to drive [found] that it’s actually more efficient and more effective” than the previous free-for-all system. However, Durkan warned that before the city puts a tolling plan on the ballot, “We have to engage people deeply…and make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit, because we can’t ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles until there are meaningful alternatives.”

Technologically, congestion tolling is pretty simple: The city would create a cordon of virtual checkpoints at the edges of the tolling area and charge drivers, using special car-mounted transponders, whenever they enter the area during the times when tolls are in effect. This is exactly the system most states, including Washington, already use to toll state highways, such as the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Where it gets more complicated, according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington–affiliated Washington State Transportation Center, is when the city starts making choices about who to charge, and when, and where. If South Lake Union is included in the tolling area, should people who live on Queen Anne get a free pass because they need to go through the neighborhood to get to I-5? If some low-income workers have no choice but to drive downtown, should the city create a low-income or nighttime exemption to the pricing scheme? All of these choices have consequences, and costs.

“The question is really, what do they want to achieve and how will they design the system to achieve it,” Hallenbeck says. “Pricing is a wonderful mechanism, but you have to design the system correctly, and you have to understand where the pain points are and apply money to those pain points. And they have to be the pain points that matter.”

Currently, only about 25 percent of people who work downtown get to and from their jobs by driving alone. That number has declined steadily in recent years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), thanks to improved transit downtown and incentives for employees to commute by bike or bus, such as free transit passes and showers in office buildings. DSA CEO Jon Scholes points to this improvement as evidence that the “carrot” approach to reducing congestion can be as effective as the “stick.”

“It’s not clear to me what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Scholes says. “[Durkan’s announcement] feels a little divorced from any clear strategy or plan. The constraints we have are the need for more transit capacity—more buses are driving by full, and the light rail system is taking longer to build than anyone wants—and the need for more housing. Generally speaking, we think we should focus our efforts there,” not on tolls, Scholes says.

Other skeptics of congestion pricing have expressed concern that tolls will disproportionately harm low-income people who have no choice but to drive to work, often from homes far outside Seattle city limits. “The suburbanization of poverty is real,” says City Council member Rob Johnson, who supports creating a program to reduce costs for low-income drivers, similar to the existing ORCA LIFT low-income transit pass. “We’re pushing people out of the city and we’re not going to be able to build transit” fast enough to serve all the low-income workers who would be impacted by congestion pricing, Johnson says.

It’s unclear exactly how many low-income workers would actually be impacted by congestion pricing. In 2017, a Puget Sound Regional Council report concluded that low-income commuters “were much more likely to walk and take transit than the overall population”—a finding that corroborates a 2009 Washington State Department of Transportation report that found that “The poor are less likely than the non-poor to commute in a personal vehicle and more likely to commute using public transportation or other modes that would not be subject to tolls.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 37 percent of Seattle residents under the poverty line drove to work alone, compared to 48 percent of those making more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

“One of the things you hear whenever you talk about a congestion-pricing scheme is, ‘This will be unfair to low-income people,’ and there are a lot of anecdotes that get brought up that are certainly real,” O’Brien says. “But in a city like Seattle, where parking’s pretty expensive”—as much as $4.50 an hour for on-street parking downtown, and $10 an hour or more in private garages—“my sense is the majority of people who drive downtown are people who have a lot of options.” The way to address the needs of lower-income people who must drive downtown isn’t to reject congestion pricing altogether, O’Brien says, it’s to “design the system around their needs” so they won’t be burdened by extra costs; for example, by making it free to drive downtown at off-peak hours, when many shift workers start their jobs.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, says she sees no inherent contradiction between promoting alternatives to driving alone and creating an equitable, affordable transportation system. “[Congestion pricing] is a big, bold idea, so let’s go big with our policy asks,” she says. “If the goal is building a more equitable transportation system, that will inherently include a lot of things around transit speed and reliability and safe bike and pedestrian access.”

For now, the city remains in study mode, with more reports focusing on equity, race and social justice, and priorities for spending toll revenues due out later this year. Then it will have to sell the idea to the public, which could be a heavy lift, and not just because Seattle would be blazing a trail on congestion pricing for the rest of the country. People tend to hate the idea of paying for things that used to be free unless they can see concrete benefits. In Stockholm, leaders actually put tolls in place about seven months before seeking voter approval. Once voters saw how a $2.15 toll to drive downtown impacted the city—reducing traffic in the city center by 20 percent and cutting childhood asthma cases in half—they approved the plan by a majority of 53 percent. In London, where drivers pay about $15 to drive into the center city on weekdays, congestion went down by 30 percent, and public transit gained tens of thousands of new riders.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? O’Brien, the council member who started pushing for congestion pricing back in 2017, says he’s “feeling a lot more optimistic” now that Durkan “has shown that she is very interested in moving forward” with the concept. The trick, he says, will be demonstrating that people won’t get stuck in even worse traffic if they let go of their steering wheels. “Part of it is on [city leaders] to say, ‘We’re going to provide buses that have more space and aren’t stuck in traffic,’” O’Brien says. “If, in this new system, you can see that driving is more expensive and the bus will get you downtown faster, you’re going to see
the benefits.”

Editor’s note: The opening of this story, set in 2020, depicts a hypothetical situation. The Washington State Department of Transportation says that when the tunnel opens early in 2019, time-of-day tolls will vary from $1 on weekends to $2.25 during the afternoon peak. Currently, the Viaduct demolition is scheduled for completion mid-year 2019.

Seattle Considers Free Wi-Fi Downtown, But at What Cost to Privacy?

Photo: Intersection

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine

A Google-affiliated company called Intersection is in talks with the city of Seattle to provide free Wi-Fi service, phone charging ports, and real-time information about city services at bus stops throughout downtown Seattle — but there’s a catch.

According to New York-based Intersection, which has an office in Seattle, the kiosks provide steady revenue to cities through ad-sharing agreements while remaining “completely free for cities, taxpayers, and users.” The concept has its fans (New York and London have signed up), but also its critics, who have raised concerns about privacy, data sharing, and visual clutter on city streets.

The deal, proponents say, would provide the city with badly needed funding for transportation projects, promote digital equity for Seattle residents without access to the Internet at home or through their cell-phone provider, and enhance Seattle’s reputation as a “Smart City” that uses data to provide services more efficiently. But at a time when companies like Facebook are facing questions over their use of members’ private information, privacy advocates are cautioning cities to pump the brakes on partnerships with big-data companies that promise something for nothing.

Representatives for Intersection and LinkNYC, a division of New York City’s information technology department,  did not return multiple calls and emails for comment before press time.  According to the company’s website, the kiosks offer advertisers a “real-time, localized platform—fed by data-driven APIs—to connect with their audiences with more relevance, in the context of their journeys throughout the city.”

When reached after the initial publication of this story, Intersection spokesman Dan Levitan said the company does not collect browsing data or track users across the city. He did not deny that the technological capability for such data collection does exist, but stressed that the privacy policy for LinkNYC requires that this activity does not take place in any capacity. Intersection says that its privacy policy agreement in New York City protects users from data collection activity. Those agreements, however, are made on a city-to-city basis, and the issues now being raised by privacy advocates in Seattle draw comparisons to those raised by the New York Civil Liberties Union last year.

“Intersection takes user privacy seriously and works closely with our city partners to craft strong privacy policies for all our Link deployments. We do not track or record the browsing activity of our users,” Levitan said. “Advertising on Link displays is never targeted at any individual, and there is no advertising inserted on mobile devices that connect to Link Wi-Fi. Cameras are only used for monitoring and maintenance of the structures and cannot be used for advertising or any other purpose. Footage is only accessible by law enforcement with a court order or lawful request. We are proud of the LinkNYC program, our partnership with the City of New York, and the of the service we provide to over 3.7 million users.”

City council member Mike O’Brien says that when former mayor Ed Murray broached the kiosk proposal last year, the pitch was that the ad revenues could help pay for the downtown streetcar. Although the streetcar project has been put on hold because of cost overruns, the city is facing another imminent transportation funding challenge: Federal funding for the 2015 Move Seattle levy, which funds transportation projects across the city is falling short of expectations, which could lead the city to look for new revenues to offset some of the shortfall.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office declined to comment on the record about the Link Seattle plan, but is reportedly reviewing the latest version of Intersection’s privacy policy and could announce something publicly in the next few months. Mafara Hobson, communications director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, says SDOT “is conducting an initial research and feasibility study” on the plan, but adds that “the work remains a preliminary concept that would require executive approval and significant legislative review and requirements.” (SDOT is the lead agency on the proposal because the kiosks would be located in city rights-of-

O’Brien says he’s “skeptical” of Intersection’s proposal, both because it would require changing the city’s sign code to allows ads on city sidewalks—itself a major political lift—and because of a “growing concern about how companies are capturing our data and using it” without our knowledge. “When you’re realizing the stupid test you took on Facebook now is in the hands of some international conglomerate that’s trying to influence elections,” O’Brien says, it makes sense for cities to “be very careful” about authorizing companies to collect their residents’ private information.

Specifically, privacy advocates in other cities have raised alarms about how Intersection uses the data it collects. Although Intersection has said that it collects only “anonymous, aggregated” information about its users, digital privacy advocates say that “anonymous” information can be analyzed not only to extrapolate what type of ads a kiosk should display based on a user’s search history, but to identify and track specific people based on their “digital fingerprints”—a troubling capability in the hands of overzealous law enforcement, or immigration officials seeking to track down undocumented immigrants, or an employer who wants to know how many hours a perspective hire puts in at her current job.

“We hold government to a higher standard than businesses—they’re not supposed to be profiting at the expense of the people,” says David Robinson, a member of the Seattle Privacy Coalition who is skeptical of Intersection’s privacy claims. “If the data is being stored somewhere, then eventually someone will abuse it, no matter what the policy is. If you really don’t want people’s data to be misused, then you shouldn’t be be collecting it.”

Shankar Narayan, policy director for the ACLU of Washington, says “it sounds very much as though the price of free Wi-Fi is going to be Seattleites becoming the product—their movements, possibly the information on their cell phones, being downloaded and monetized by a company.”

Although proponents at the city argue that free Wi-Fi levels the playing field between people who have smartphones with unlimited data plans and those who don’t, Narayan says that’s a Faustian bargain. “Basically, we’re saying people who have the means to have an unlimited mobile plan don’t have to sacrifice their privacy to get Wi-Fi.”

Additionally, data collection opens up the possibility of data breaches, like the one at Facebook that allowed Cambridge Analytica to gather personal information on tens of millions of Facebook users.

Devin Glaser, the policy and political director of Upgrade Seattle, a group that advocates for municipally funded broadband service, says free Wi-Fi at bus stops does almost nothing to address the lack of digital equity in Seattle. “If you picture a 12-year-old child needing an internet connection to finish their homework, the fact that they can have access while at the bus stop doesn’t really cut it,” Glaser says. “We need to ensure that all of Seattle’s residents have a robust home connection, not an ad-driven boost to our Words with Friends games while we’re waiting for the 7.”

In New York City, where a consortium of companies, including Intersection, signed a 12-year contract with the city to install more than 1,000 kiosks under the brand name LinkNYC in 2016, the program has been a source of controversy. Touch-screen tablets had to be removed from the kiosks because passersby were using them to watch pornography, and privacy advocates raised questions about the company’s retention of personal data, including browser history. A spokeswoman for LinkNYC says that the city’s privacy policy prohibits Intersection from tracking user data or search history or targeting advertising based on personal information in New York City, although they have the technological ability to do so.

Although citizen activists convinced the city to revise Intersection’s privacy policy, which now says the company will not collect people’s private information, there are still cameras in every kiosk, which have raised concerns about how the video might be used. Intersection says it deletes that video every seven days unless it’s needed “to investigate an incident,” and a spokeswoman for LinkNYC, which operates out of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, says the city’s revised privacy agreement with Intersection does not allow the company to use its cameras to target individuals for advertising based on characteristics like gender or race. The spokeswoman, Kate Blumm, says only 37 of the cameras are currently operating, although she said the others could be turned on in the future.

Privacy advocates say Seattle has done a better job than most major cities, including New York, of protecting its residents from public and private surveillance. Last year, the city council passed an ordinance that gives the council some oversight over city departments’ use of surveillance technologies—things like the controversial “wireless mesh” system that gave Seattle police the ability to track people using wireless devices throughout the city, or the Acyclica system, which tracks travelers’ progress through downtown using a series of devices that detect and identify people with Wi-Fi-enabled devices. (A full list of the 28 city-operated surveillance technologies identified last year is available on the city’s website.)

Seattle could consider beefing up its privacy ordinance to make it harder for companies to track and misuse user data. But that would require leaders to educate themselves on emerging privacy concerns proactively, the ACLU’s Narayan says. “Cities are not often sophisticated actors in this space—they don’t know when they’re getting a bad deal.” Narayan says that before cities sign deals with companies like Intersection, they should take the time to understand how the technology operates and put the appropriate safeguards in place.

“When automobiles first came in, there were no speed limits and no red lights, and people were getting run over and killed all the time,” Narayan says. “The automobile didn’t die because we invented red lights and air bags and better brakes and put bumpers on cars. The technology better and everyone got a better deal out of it.”

Illuminated Billboards: Coming Soon to a Street Near You?

Four years ago (an eternity in technological innovation terms) the Seattle City Council adopted new regulations intended to address what they worried was a coming onslaught of large billboards on the sides of Seattle buildings, especially downtown. The rules cracked down on the proliferation of “off-premises signs”—signs advertising products or services that weren’t offered in the buildings where they were displayed. Among other changes, the legislation closed some of the loopholes that allowed Alaska Airlines, for example, to claim it operated out of a building in Chinatown because it placed an ancient computer terminal in the lobby where people could theoretically buy plane tickets;, it also limited the size of new wall signs to 672 square feet (previously, there were no specific size limits.) The off-premises sign rules are still far from strict or strictly enforced, which is why you’ll see a sign advertising energy drinks, for example, on the wall of a building that houses a gym or convenience store.

Separately, back in 2011, the council rejected a proposal, pushed by Russell Investments, to allow companies (other than hotels) to display large illuminated logos on the tops of downtown buildings, which is why you don’t see logos all over Seattle’s downtown skyline. The council’s decisions didn’t make ugly signs go away (on-premises signs are still subject to few restrictions, which is why visitors to SoDo will still see huge video displays advertising “Amateur Night!” outside the Dream Girls strip club), but they kept them (sort of) down to size.

Fast forward to 2018, and the intersection of Fourth and Union downtown, where the owners of one building (1408 Fourth Ave.) are testing the limits of the city’s sign ordinance, with a large electronic billboard that alternates between ads for an eye clinic and leasing opportunities in the building and large-format images of screensaver-style images of flowers and hot air balloons. Paula Rees, a Seattle-based planner and designer who specializes in building public spaces, says the sign, which is located across the street from her downtown office, goes “against everything the code states as its intention”—it’s distracting, it creates visual pollution, and it advertises multiple businesses inside a single building.

 “This sign was predicted,” Rees says. “Many professionals testified about this mess coming when Sally Clark’s ill-considered legislation was before Council.” The reason there haven’t been more digital signs before now “is that nobody could afford it. When I first started seeing this stuff at conferences, a Barco [digital] sign that was 45 inches square could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can buy this stuff for hardly anything.”

The owner of the building is an LLC registered to Ann and Danny Schnitzer, who also are the registered agents for Sun Advertising, a billboard company registered at the same address, 11221 Pacific Hwy SW in Lakewood, as 4th Avenue Bldg LLC and at least 18 other businesses. I left messages for both Ann and Danny Schnitzer; Ann called me back and said she would respond to my questions by email; I called back several days later to make sure she had my correct email address and never heard back.

Council member Mike O’Brien bikes by the sign every day on his way home from work and says he noticed it a few weeks ago. ” I was like, ‘Holy cow, that has to be illegal,'” O’Brien says. “If the guy doing like my eye appointments can put up a sign like that, I can only imagine every building [with a business that] that sells Coca-Cola would be jumping at that opportunity.”

Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesman Bryan Stevens says the sign doesn’t violate any rules. “When the permit for this changing image sign was issued, we stipulated that the sign was only for use by the building owner (4th Avenue Building LLC) and is authorized to only display static images that change no more than 7 times per minute (otherwise it becomes video), no off-premises advertising, no flashing, no video display methods (movement) or moving text/images, in accordance with our land use code for on-premises signs in downtown zones.” The sign code allows one sign like the one at Fourth and Union every 300 “lineal feet” of street frontage, which works out to about one sign per block.

To Rees, the sign might as well be a giant, illuminated Pandora’s Box. “Since the ’70s, we’ve just kept burying our heads in the sand on the sign code,” Rees says. As long as the city fails to get ahead of technology, she adds, “we’re going to get whatever we get.”

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Westlake Tenants Take “Disorder” Into their Own Hands

1500 4th #700

Once again, the city and Downtown Seattle Association have proposed a new initiative, called Urban Parks, to “clean up” downtown Seattle. Last time, it was the nine-and-a-half blocks centered around Third and Pine, where the city addressed a longstanding open-air drug market by moving bus stops to less-convenient locations, closing down several public alleys (belying the city’s much-praised efforts to “activate” vacant alleys downtown), and arresting more than 100 drug dealers and users.

This time, the city and the downtown merchants’ group is focused on Westlake and Occidental Parks, which, as a KOMO story on the new effort put it, are “not the most comfortable” places for people (you know, normal people like you and me) to walk through—”as anyone who’s been there has likely noticed.”

Speaking of Westlake Park, KOMO continued, “The city would like to get rid of the the park’s dirt and grime and shady elements and replace them with things like food trucks, lunchtime music, and ping pong tables.”

That’s kind of a weird reason to spend more money since the city has already done all those things, but apparently they weren’t enough to eliminate the “shady elements” who congregate in the city’s public spaces, so the DSA and city plan to spend another $700,000 and hand over management of the two parks to DSA to tackle the problem.

Displaying IMG_0556.JPG

Tiny, but effective. Or so I’m told.

They aren’t the only ones trying to push “shady” people out of sight of downtown’s public spaces. (During the announcement, Murray emphasized that he wanted Westlake and Occidental Parks to be welcoming to homeless people, but not the kind that make people uncomfortable). In the absence of complete cleanup at Westlake, some local residents are taking matters into their own hands.

The condo owners’ association at the Seaboard Building, a historic landmark structure that anchors the northwest edge of Westlake Park, recently installed a noisemaking box called a Mosquito on the outside of one of its lower floors. According to the website of Moving Sound Technologies, the company that manufactures the device, the box emits a high-pitched noise that is undetectable to people older than about 25 (non-ruffians) but is unbearably shrill to people 25 and under. (Ruffians. The company has also started making an all-ages Mosquito box.)

Matt Griffin, head of the Pine Street Group, which owns the Seaboard Building, says Westlake “was a pretty scary place” before the city implemented its nine-and-a-half-block strategy. “I was accosted one night and threatened [with stabbing] with a knife right at the entrance to the Seaboard Building,” Griffin says.

“The problem with the park at that point was a number of people who were younger who were in the park. You may remember the story, a couple of years ago, when we had a concierge beat up.” The concierge, Joseph Crudo, was standing outside the Seaboard Building. “It was urban youth who did it,” Griffin says.

Neither DSA nor city’s Department of Planning and Development (which oversees permits) or police department (which enforces the city’s noise ordinance) knew anything about the machine or had received any complaints about it.

Maybe that’s because most adults can’t hear it. I know I can’t. So one recent afternoon, I picked several younger-looking people who happened to be wandering through the park to describe what it sounded like. “Unbearable!” said one. “Really shrill,” said another, covering his ears.  At any rate, city officials told me that if it doesn’t exceed maximum decibel limits (the issue with the machine is the pitch, not the loudness) , it doesn’t violate the noise code.

At any rate, the machine, which costs about $1,000, could be coming down. Griffin says the city’s efforts have been making so much difference in downtown disorder, “maybe we should reevaluate” whether the machine is necessary anymore.