Early Morning Crank: Wills Confirms Council Rumors, Johnson Denies Early Departure, Incentive Zoning Delayed

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via Twitter.

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 Wills Thank 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.

 

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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.

Afternoon Crank: Polls Test Taxing Uber and Challenging Mike O’Brien

1. There’s a new poll in the field, to gauge support for a fee or tax of up to $3 per trip with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. The fee, according to the poll script, would raise “between $75 million and $100 million” for “housing for working families,” programs to help the homeless, “transportation programs to reduce congestion,” and benefits for ride-hailing drivers. The poll tests a number of positive and negative statements about the proposal, including (on the con side) the argument that higher prices will encourage more drunk driving, and (on the pro side) that drivers often make less than minimum wage and “are not entitled to many of the same work protections” as regular employees.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has been considering such a tax since at least September, when I reported that her office was considering a per-ride fee on ride-hailing customers. The city could unilaterally impose a fee on ride-hailing customers; in contrast, a toll on drivers who enter the center city—what most people think of when they hear the term “congestion pricing”— would require a public vote.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll. Representatives for both Uber and Lyft say it wasn’t them, although Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley says the company “would be concerned about any proposal that hurts low income riders and decreases trips for drivers.” The company has said it supports broad-based congestion pricing. Mayor Durkan’s spokesman, Mark Prentice, says, “This is not a City-funded poll.” I have a call out to the Teamsters Local 117, which is working to unionize Uber drivers, to see if the poll is theirs. The mayor’s office says they don’t know who’s behind the poll; they did not immediately respond to a question about whether Durkan plans to propose a ride-hailing fee in the near future, and, if so, which programs such a fee would fund.

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2. Another poll—this one a robopoll in Seattle City Council District 6, where Mike O’Brien is the incumbent—is testing voter support for two potential council candidates: 36th District State Representative Gael Tarleton and Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson, who ran for citywide Council Position 8 last year but didn’t make it past the August primary. Tarleton didn’t respond to a call for comment, but her Twitter feed has focused an awful lot on city of Seattle politics lately; Nelson declined to say whether she plans to run again. O’Brien hasn’t said whether he plans to run for reelection.

If he does, he may have another opponent who wasn’t included in the poll—former city council member Heidi Wills, who lost to David Della (a one-term council member who slapped Wills with the moniker “Rate Hike Heidi” after she voted to raise electric rates) in 2003. Wills, who has spent most of her 15 years out of office as the  executive director of The First Tee, an organization that teaches golf to disadvantaged youth, says she is taking the next couple months to decide whether to run, and will make a decision by the end of January.

One possible sign that Wills is leaning “yes”: The former council member is running for a position on the executive committee of the Washington State chapter of the Sierra Club. O’Brien first got involved in politics through the Seattle chapter of the group, where he has volunteered for more then 15 years; currently, he serves on the Sierra Club’s national board. A position on the Sierra Club’s state leadership team could help inoculate Wills against charges that she lacks O’Brien’s environmental cred. Or it could mean nothing. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to bookmark the city’s 2019 campaign page, because the race for Position 6 is going to be crowded.