Showbox Property Owners Respond to City, Seek Depositions from Council Members Bagshaw, Sawant

A lot has happened since I wrote about the city’s response to a lawsuit by the owners of the Showbox last month. (The lawsuit, in very brief, alleges that the city council violated land use processes in spot-downzoning the Showbox property when they expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the property on a temporary basis, preventing a 44-story development, and that the historic designation represents a taking of about $40 million—the amount for which the owner, Roger Forbes, planned to sell the land to the Vancouver developer Onni.)

Back in September, the city asked a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss Forbes’s land use claims claims (technically,  an LLC created by Forbes that owns the property, but we’ll stick with Forbes for clarity’s sake) on the grounds that Onni hadn’t formally sought any permits from the city, that inclusion in the historic district didn’t constitute a land use decision restricting how Forbes could use his property,  and that in fact nothing in the “Save the Showbox” legislation said that the Showbox must be saved.

The property owners—sounding spitting mad—filed a brief last week objecting to the city’s motion to dismiss the land use claims in the lawsuit, arguing that the decision to add the Showbox property, and only that property, to the historic district—effectively reducing its development potential from 44 stories to two—constituted a “reverse spot zone” and therefore was a “classic taking.” In their defense, they cite a number of cases that reducing the height of what can be built on one piece of land is considered a zoning decision, regardless of whether a permit has been filed. (The council made it much less likely that Onni would file a permit when they started talking about killing the development immediately after the developer started a pre-application process with the city, and passed fast-track “emergency” legislation barely one week later to ensure that Onni couldn’t go forward with its plans.)

Violating almost all of its own rules for a property use decision, the City enacted an “emergency” ordinance – not to abate a public nuisance – but rather because it wanted a private music venue to be an asset of the City. To try and accomplish that, it had to circumvent and carve this parcel – and only this parcel – out of its own prior and lawful zoning actions that previously upzoned the property and surrounding properties twice for high-rise development. The most recent upzone occurred just last year when the property (and other similarly situated properties) were upzoned by the City to allow additional floors if property owners provided certain financial support to the City’s efforts to increase affordable housing. The City’s reverse spot zoning of this property, stripping only this property of the same development potential similarly situated parcels enjoy, was not an exercise of “police power” to protect the public. It was instead an eminent domain powerplay to appease a vocal “Save the Showbox” group at the expense of a single property’s development and use rights.

Forbes’ attorneys also lays out the case that the city violated the state 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. If the court finds that they did, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the need to “Save the Showbox” as a music venue in  perpetuity will have happened in violation of the law.

The response to the city makes one novel point: The Pike Place Market Historical District was not only created to protect small farmers and craftspeople from commercial development in the 1970s, it was formed by the city under the power of eminent domain—and, to this day, almost every single property in the district is publicly owned by the Pike Place Market Public Development Authority. That PDA has the right to regulate virtually every aspect of all businesses in the district, down to which tenants are allowed in each building, the size and materials on their signage, and what their storefronts look like on the inside. The Showbox building across the street, in contrast, is privately owned, making its inclusion in the historic district, the plaintiffs argue, even more of a taking than if the city had simply said Forbes couldn’t sell to a developer for an apartment tower.

This week, Forbes’ attorneys also filed a request to depose five city officials, including city council members Sally Bagshaw and Kshama Sawant, to get “information about the decision to single out this property, and only this property, for inclusion in the Pike Place Market Historical District, the process that the City employed in drafting, introducing and passing the ordinance, and the City’s real intentions in passing the ordinance (to maintain the property as a music venue in perpetuity).

“This information,” the request continues, “is relevant to Plaintiff’s contentions that the ordinance is invalid as an illegal spot zone, is otherwise procedurally invalid, was improperly passed because the Council violated the Appearance of Fairness statute, and violates Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by forcing Plaintiff to maintain the property as a music venue.”

The hearing on that motion will be held next Friday, October 19. The trial is currently scheduled for February.

Note to readers: The reporting I do isn’t free! For example, court records cost 25 cents a page—a charge that can really add up when a case involves hundreds of pages. The time and effort it takes to bring you stories like this one, not to mention all my in-depth, on-the-ground reporting on the Showbox and other city issues, is made possible only by support from people who read this site. So if you enjoy my work and want to see it continue, please continue becoming a sustaining or one-time donor. Thanks for reading, and for your support!

City’s Showbox Defense: “Save the Showbox” Law Doesn’t Require Saving the Showbox

Council member Kshama Sawant’s “Save the Showbox” rally and concert outside City Hall last Wednesday, one hour before the required public hearing on the legislation.

On Friday, City Attorney Pete Holmes quietly filed a response to a lawsuit by the owner of the building that currently houses the Showbox, seeking partial summary judgment (essentially, a partial dismissal) on a number of grounds. The most telling: The city maintains that the “#SavetheShowbox” legislation that made the Showbox, and only the Showbox, a part of the Pike Place Market Historical District does not require the building owner to keep the Showbox as a tenant. This completely contradicts the city council’s contention that the legislation had to be passed—and passed on an emergency basis, bypassing the usual public hearing process—right away in order to assure that the Showbox remains in business.

In its motion, the city attorney’s office argues that King County Superior Judge Mary Roberts “should dismiss Plaintiff’s compelled speech claim because the Ordinance does not, as Plaintiff alleges, ‘requir[e] continued performances at the Showbox.’ City law does not force Market property owners to perpetuate their existing uses.” This is quite a claim, considering the intense effort by Showbox fans, activists, and council members—particularly council member Kshama Sawant—to “Save the Showbox” on the grounds that it must be preserved specifically as a music venue in perpetuity. From an email Sawant sent to supporters just last week: “If we stay organized and mobilized, and unrelenting in our demand that Council make the Pike Place Historical District expansion permanent, then we can absolutely #SavetheShowbox!”)

And while the legislation itself is silent on whether the Showbox must be retained as a music venue specifically, it goes on at length about the value of the Showbox—a tenant using a rented space—as an irreplaceable cultural institution, the “loss” of which “would erode the historical and cultural value of the Pike Place Market neighborhood.” That’s pretty hard to square with the city attorney’s claim that the emergency Showbox preservation ordinance, which stopped a 44-story apartment development that would have provided around $5 million for affordable housing, had nothing to do with “saving the Showbox” as a music venue—unless you believe that what the council meant, when it drafted and passed the legislation, was that the unremarkable two-story building that houses the Showbox is what contributes cultural value to the neighborhood.

In its motion, the city attorney’s office argues the “Save the Showbox” “Ordinance does not, as Plaintiff alleges, ‘requir[e] continued performances at the Showbox.’ City law does not force Market property owners to perpetuate their existing uses.” This is quite a claim, considering the intense effort by Showbox fans, activists, and council members—particularly council member Kshama Sawant—to “Save the Showbox” on the grounds that it must be preserved specifically as a music venue in perpetuity.

The rest of the city attorney’s petition has to do with two basic issues. The first is whether the land owner, strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, has the right to sue under the land use petition act, and whether he has standing to claim that legislation barring him from developing his property constitutes an illegal property taking. The city argues that because Forbes and the developer to which he planned to sell his land, the Onni Group, didn’t file a permit application for the proposed 44-story development after initiating a pre-application process for the development on July 24, they haven’t exhausted every option for appeal. (This is also the argument the city makes in claiming that the reduction in Forbes’ property value can’t be considered a taking).  Of course, council members made it much less likely that Onni would file for a permit when they began discussing legislation to kill the development a few days later, and when they passed a new law in early August, on a fast-tracked “emergency” timeline, to prevent Onni from moving forward with its proposed apartment tower.

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The second is whether the city violated appearance of fairness rules that require council members to remain neutral (and not take public testimony) on quasi-judicial land use matters such as spot rezones, which the Showbox property owner claims the extension of the historical district was. The city claims that because Forbes didn’t file a permit application, the decision couldn’t have been a quasi-judicial land use decision, and instead is a mere “development regulation.”

Want the legalese version of all this? Check out the city’s full motion here.

Evening Crank: Showbox Supporters Get Extra Notice of Upcoming Hearing; Anti-Head Tax Consultant Spady Seeks Funds to Kill Education Levy

1. “Save the Showbox” activists, including city council member Kshama Sawant, put out a call to supporters  this past Tuesday urging them to show up next Wednesday, September 19, for a “Concert, Rally, and Public Hearing” to “#SavetheShowbox!” at 4pm on Wednesday, September 19, to be followed by “the City of Seattle’s formal public hearing on the Showbox.” That notice to activists went out three full days before the general public received notice of the hearing, at which the council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee will take public testimony on whether to permanently expand the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the building that houses the Showbox. That official public notice went out Friday afternoon. (A post rallying supporters on Facebook (or any other social media) does not constitute a formal public notice of an official city hearing.)

Advocates who favor the Showbox legislation, in other words, appear to have received an extra three days’ notice, courtesy of a city council member, about an opportunity to organize in favor of legislation that council member is sponsoring. This advantage isn’t trivial—it means that proponents had several extra days to mobilize, take time off work, and organize a rally and concert before the general public even received notice that the hearing was happening.

Sawant’s call to action, which went up on her Facebook page on Tuesday, reads:

At the start of the summer, the Showbox, Seattle’s 80 year-old iconic music venue, seemed destined for destruction. Then the #SavetheShowbox movement came onto the scene, gathering more than 100,000 petition signatures and packing City Hall for discussions and votes. By mid-August, our movement had pressured the City Council to pass an ordinance put forward by Councilmember Kshama Sawant temporarily saving the Showbox by expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District for 10 months.

This was a historic victory and a huge first step, but the movement to #SavetheShowbox is far from over. The current owners of the building have sued the city and we know the developer Onni will do everything in its power to bulldoze the Showbox, and corporate politicians will certainly capitulate, unless we keep the pressure up.  

Why does it matter if a council member gives one interest group advance notice of an opportunity to sway public opinion (and to bring pressure to bear on her fellow council members) on an issue?  For one thing, the city is currently being sued by Roger Forbes, the owner of the building that leases space to the Showbox, who had planned to sell the land to a developer, Onni, to build a 44-story apartment building. Forbes’ lawsuit argues, among other things, that Sawant and other council members  violated  the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires 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. Organizing a rally, and giving one side several extra days to mobilize for a public  hearing, could be seen as evidence of bias in violation of these rules.

A key question will be whether adding the Showbox to the historic district, and thus dramatically restricting what its owner can do with his property, constitutes a land-use decision that is subject to quasi-judicial rules. In the lawsuit, Forbes argues that by including the Showbox in the historic district, the council effectively downzoned his property, and only his property, from 44 stories to two, the height of the existing building. Forbes had planned to sell the land to Onni for around $40 million, and is seeking that amount in damages.

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2. Dick’s Burgers scion Saul Spady, whose PR firm, Cre8tive Empowerment, took in $31,000 during the four-week campaign to defeat the head tax, is hoping to raise $100,000 to oppose the upcoming Families and Education Levy and to fill the seven city council seats that will be up for grabs next year with “common sense civic leaders.” The money would, according to the email, go to Spady’s firm for the purpose of “digital outreach.”

In an email obtained by The C Is for Crank, Spady says he held a meeting last week with a group of potential 2019 candidates, with the goal of “engag[ing] likely candidates & potential donors to build support for a digital outreach campaign partnering with my advertising agency Cre8tive Empowerment to engage likely Seattle voters via Facebook & Instagram to help them learn more about important city issues in late 2018 and 2019 ranging from:

• 2018 Education/Property Tax Levy [$683 million over 6 years]
• Did you know increasing Property Taxes increases your rent?
• 2018 Ballard Bike Path Costs rising to $25 million for 1.4 miles
• Lack of Safety, Property Crimes, Affordable Housing & Homelessness [2019 Core Issue]”

The first two bullet points are about the Families and Education Levy, a property tax measure which funds preschool, summer school, early childhood and school-based health services, and other programs aimed at closing the achievement and opportunity gap for students in Seattle Schools. That levy passed in 2011 with 63 percent of the vote. Part of the strategy to kill that levy, apparently, will involve informing renters, who make up 53 percent of Seattle households, that their landlords use their rent to pay for things.

The rest of the initial $100,000 would go toward “build[ing] strong & vibrant grassroots communities in Seattle that want to engage on major issues & will vote for common sense civic leaders in 2019,” described elsewhere in the email as  “candidates focused on common sense, fiscally responsible & accountable government mixed with active citizens who are concerned about the continuing slide of Seattle into the ‘corruption of incompetence’ that we’re witnessing across all sectors of city hall.” The campaign, Spady writes, will aim to place “positive articles from local leaders” in the Seattle press and to “deliver 3,000,000+ targeted Facebook/Instagram impressions among core targets” over the next three months. Just something to think about the next time you see a slickly produced Facebook ad opposing some proposed homelessness solution, or explaining to you in patient, simple language that when your landlord’s costs go up, your rent does, too.

Emails Reveal Council Drafted Pro-Showbox Talking Points; City Lawyers Expressed Concerns About Landmark Status Based on “Popularity”

Emails obtained by the C Is for Crank reveal the extraordinary measures city council members and staff took to promote legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, scuttling a planned apartment building on the site and prompting a lawsuit claiming that the council violated numerous state and city laws when they voted to effectively downzone the Showbox property from 44 stories to two. The emails also reveal that the city attorney’s office advised the council against pursuing landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue, and warned that making such a designation based on popular sentiment in favor of the Showbox, a tenant, could raise legal concerns about whether the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Among other machinations, the emails reveal that the city council’s public information officer drafted talking points for Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, who testified in favor of the legislation in early August, based on comments he made to an NPR reporter about the Showbox the previous week. Gibbard was listed as one of the “advocates” for the legislation in an email from the spokeswoman, Dana Robinson Slote, suggesting actions council members could take to promote the legislation; the advocates were listed in contrast to the “‘pain point’ players” in the debate, which included Onni, the developer that planned to purchase the land and build a 440-unit apartment building; Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson; and Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In the email, Robinson Slote writes,

Ben— Thanks for your time by phone yesterday. As promised, below you’ll find suggested talking points for Monday’s Full Council meeting. In short, I summarized many of the themes from an interview you gave in June this year, which seems to fit well with the Resolution and Ordinance CM Sawant will introduce to #SaveTheShowbox

Also as discussed:

• I’ll plan to meet you on the first floor of the City Hall lobby approx. 1230p (Lyft can bring you to the 5th Ave entrance), and feel free to call if I can help guide you here.

• We’ll meet first with Sawant for fewer than 15:00; and,

• Then I’ll take you to O’Brien (Ballard, Fremont) and Herbold (West Seattle), followed by Citywide elected Gonzalez & Mosqueda (and the remaining Councilmembers Johnson, Juarez, Bagshaw and Harrell) as time allows. Public comment begins at 2:00 p.m., so we can decide in advance if you’d still like to speak (and sign you in) or watch from the Green Room. Thank you once again for sharing your time and talent on this important occasion and for this critical cause.   

Slote then lays out a full page of potential talking points, many of which focus on Gibbard’s experience growing into middle age in Seattle after moving here and falling in love with the city in the 1990s.

Kshama Sawant and  her staff used private gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was run out of Sawant’s office.

Robinson Slote says she did not give Gibbard special treatment during the Showbox debate, and points out that the “talking points” she wrote for Gibbard were based on his own previous comments. Gibbard ended up writing his own testimony, which differed significantly from the draft  Robinson Slote provided. However, the council’s solicitous treatment of Gibbard—which also included shepherding him from council member to council member and offering to host him in the council’s “green room,” away from the general public, during the council meeting—is not the standard treatment accorded to most members of the public, who must line up to speak, write their own testimony, and sit or stand in council chambers along with the rest of the general public.

Also unusual is the fact that legislation sponsor Kshama Sawant and her staff used private Gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was largely run out of Sawant’s office using city resources. It is standard practice for elected officials and public staffers to use their city email addresses to do public business, both because this practice just makes sense (all the other council members and staffers who are cc’d on the email use their public @seattle.gov addresses for all communications), and because private emails can more easily be withheld from public disclosure. If a journalist or member of the public requests email communications from an elected official or government staffer, it’s up to that staffer to volunteer their private emails for disclosure; the city’s public disclosure officers have no authority to go searching through people’s private email accounts. Additionally, public emails are archived by the city; private emails are not.  Sawant and her staffers’ email addresses all use the naming convention Firstnameatcouncil@gmail.com.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett says the city’s ethics code is silent on the issue of whether city officials and employees are allowed to do city business using personal email addresses. The city IT department’s policy on use of city resources, however, does prohibit “The use of personally owned technology for conducting City business, where official City records are created but not maintained by the City.”

In another email, Sawant’s staff discusses the wording of a poster, ultimately produced by Sawant’s council office, urging the council to vote to “save the Showbox” by including it in the historic district. An early version of the poster included the suggestion to “Call in sick – go protest!”

The fact that Sawant and her staff, as well as Robinson Slote, were discussing how to influence the legislation could—if the inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is deemed to be a spot downzone of the property—give the owners of the property important evidence in their case that the council and staffers engaged in illegal “ex parte” discussions and failed to remain impartial on a zoning decision.

In another exchange that could help the Showbox’s owners make the case that the council intervened improperly on a zoning decision, the city’s own attorney cautions against seeking landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue. (The inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is different from landmark status, but the emails demonstrate that the city’s attorneys cautioned against such a political approach to historic designation.) In an email dated July 31, assistant city attorney Bob Tobin told city council member Lisa Herbold that it would be “premature” for the city council to “take the position that the [Showbox] qualifies as a landmark, without first allowing the (expert) Board’s process to play out, and without applying the standards in the code, seems premature at best. From a legal perspective it is preferable for the Council to consider the designation decision in due course, pursuant to City ordinances. And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.” The Showbox owners’ lawsuit, of course, claims precisely that the council’s decision to include the property in the Pike Place Market Historical District was “out of step with the founding of the Pike Place Market redevelopment and is the definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

The city’s own attorneys advised the council against making the argument that the Showbox should be granted formal landmark status because of its “popularity” with the public: “And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.”

One day after sending the email to council member about landmark status, Tobin responded to an email from Sawant staffer Ted Virdone, who had posed several questions about what would happen if the city included the Showbox in the Pike Place Market Historical District, rather than seeking to make it a landmark on its own. Virdone’s questions are in italics.

Hi Ted. Here is a quick response to your questions below, in red.

  1. Is it possible to extend the boundary of the historical district to cover a property if the property owner objects? I believe the answer is yes, as owners typically can’t veto regulatory measures.
  2. If the Historical District is extended to cover this property, could it effect this development, or would the develop be vested in some way that would trump the procedures of the historical district? I believe that vesting of such a project would likely occur at the time that the Design Review process begins (SMC 23.76.026), and I doubt that process has begun. If the district were enlarged before the projects vests, then the applicant would be subject to historic district regulations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Showbox would be preserved.
  3. Are there any other considerations we should be aware of? There likely are, but I would need more focus on your questions and goals. Bob

Five days later, Virdone’s boss, Sawant, introduced legislation to extend the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox and about a dozen other properties on the east side of First Avenue. After property owners ultimately objected, that legislation was scaled back to encompass (and effectively downzone) just the Showbox property. Less than a month after that, the owners of the Showbox sued the city, seeking $40 million in compensation for legislation that, they say, drastically devalued their property.

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Saving the Showbox Just Took a Big Step Forward, But What’s Next?

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Efforts to “save the Showbox” theater moved forward Wednesday, though not in quite the way council member Kshama Sawant envisioned when she proposed legislation on Monday to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District on a two-year “interim” basis to include more than a dozen buildings on the east side of First Avenue, including the Showbox.

On Wednesday, council members Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw whittled down Sawant’s legislation to expand the historic district to encompass just one new property—the Showbox—and for just ten months, rather than two years. The amended legislation passed the committee unanimously, and could go before the full council on Monday.

The council got its first look at the plan to “Save the Showbox” by expanding the Market on Monday when Sawant introduced a proposal to increase the size of the Pike Place Market Historical District to include all the properties on the east side of First Avenue downtown between Virginia and Union Streets—the largest expansion in the history of the district, which was expanded twice in the 1980s.

Sawant said the council needed to pass her proposal quickly—just one week after it was introduced—in order to halt Vancouver, B.C.-based developer Onni from building a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

By Monday afternoon, dozens of Showbox supporters had mobilized at city hall, waving signs (distributed by Sawant’s staff) that read “Save the Showbox” and “Music for People, not Profits for Onni Group” and testifying about the importance of preserving the historic venue, which first opened as a dance hall in 1939. Since then, it has served as a bingo hall, a party room, an adult “amusement arcade,” a storage facility, and a live music venue with a rich history.

Supporters’ comments focused on the Showbox’s value as a music venue, but the legislation Sawant proposed would have had implications far beyond the Showbox property, rendering brand-new buildings like the Thompson Hotel on First and Stewart as well as vacant parking lots, a 1985 condo tower, and the Deja Vu strip club “historic” by virtue of their inclusion in the historical district.

Buildings in the district, which was established in 1971 to protect small farmers, artisans, and retail businesses that were threatened by plans to bulldoze the Market, are subject to a long list of restrictions that regulate everything from which tenants are allowed to the color of first-floor interior walls to the wattage of exterior lighting and signage. (More on what the new strictures would have meant for the buildings on the east side of First Avenue here.)

Sawant said it was urgent to rush her proposal through in just one week, without the usual process that a large expansion of a historic district would ordinarily require, because Onni was scheduled to vest the project “in about three weeks’ time,” which would make it subject only to current land use laws, which allow it to build an apartment building on First Avenue.

“I’m convinced that there’s a reason to rush,” Sawant said Monday. “I don’t think we should be misleading community members into thinking they have the time” to “save the Showbox” in a more deliberate way, she added. Historic designation would give “breathing room to the community and prevent Onni’s luxury project from becoming a fait accompli.”

Things moved quickly from there. Sawant’s office sent out emails calling on her supporters to “pack city hall” before a Wednesday meeting of the city council’s finance and neighborhoods committee to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

By Wednesday afternoon, when the committee met, city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Sally Bagshaw had countered with amendments to Sawant’s proposal that would reduce the size of the historical district expansion area to eliminate everything but only the Showbox property and reduce the amount of time the new controls would be in place from two years to ten months.

This amended legislation passed out of Bagshaw’s committee unanimously on Wednesday and headed to full council, where it could be heard on Monday.

On Wednesday, the timeline to pass the legislation was officially moved more than two months into the future, when Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, told council members that Onni will not submit its application for early design guidance, a necessary step in the approval process, until October 17, meaning the absolute earliest the project could vest is October 18.

That gives the council some breathing room to come up with some kind of agreement to preserve the Showbox as a music venue in a number of ways: 1) by permanently expanding the historic district to include the building, 2) by landmarking the building and arranging for a nonprofit to purchase and run it—possibly, as council member Lisa Herbold suggested, as part of the city’s existing historic theater district, or 3) by coming up with a compromise in which Onni agrees to reopen the Showbox in a new space on the ground floor of its new development, preserving any significant interior features of the current concert hall.

This proposed new expansion of the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the Showbox would give the Pike Place Market Historical Commission broad authority over both the physical building and its use, down to the choice of food and beverage vendors and any interior alterations or improvements. “If someone is selling bags in the market and they want to sell shoes instead, the commission reviews that,” Heather McAuliffe, the city’s coordinator for the historic district, told the council committee Wednesday.

Landmarking the building, in contrast, would preserve just the structure, without dictating how it could be used. Late on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that three historic preservation groups— Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown—had filed an application to landmark the venue, potentially circumventing a parallel application from Onni. The developer announced plans to seek landmark status for the building shortly after announcing plans to replace it with a 44-story apartment tower last month—a fairly routine practice for developers that want to expedite approval of their permits—but apparently had not yet filed its application with the city.

The third option—save the Showbox, demolish the building—would likely present the fewest legal issues for the city.

Landmarking the architecturally unremarkable two-story building where the Showbox is located or expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox would amount to a selective downzone in a part of town where the city just adopted new zoning guidelines designed to encourage more housing construction. Barring Onni from building its apartment tower would also mean foregoing the approximately $5 million the developer would be required to contribute to affordable housing under those new guidelines.

That would likely lead to a protracted legal battle involving the property owner, Roger Forbes, who also owns Deja Vu, and Onni, who could argue that taking away the value represented by 44 stories of development potential amounts to a taking of private property. A compromise that would allow the Showbox to stay on First Avenue but does not restrict the owner’s ability to sell to Onni or Onni’s ability to build apartments could circumvent that potential legal dispute.

Building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself likely isn’t an option. The building, which is made of unreinforced masonry and covers basically the entire property on which it sits, would have to undergo a massive seismic upgrade to support a 44-story tower, if such an upgrade is even possible. Developer Kevin Daniels did a less significant seismic upgrade to preserve the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church building on Fifth and Marion, which did not involve placing a building on top of the church, and that cost an estimated $40 million.

Of course, no historic district or landmark designation can force the Showbox to remain the Showbox. Forbes, the owner, could decide to sell the building. AEG Live, the subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group that operates the Showbox, could decide not to renew its lease, which expires in 2021. Forbes could also decline to renew AEG’s lease.

Neither Forbes nor AEG responded to requests for comment.

If the building became an official part of the Market, the market historical commission could stipulate that it had to remain a music venue in perpetuity—and the building’s owners could fail to find a suitable tenant. There are many scenarios, in other words, in which the Showbox might close even after a successful effort to “save” it.

It was unclear after Wednesday’s vote whether the council would vote on the Showbox legislation on Monday, as Sawant originally proposed, or wait a few weeks to let discussions with Onni play out.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who initially supported Sawant’s proposal to move quickly because he believed the council only had three weeks to act, said he now believes “it would be prudent” to look at other models for saving the Showbox before going with the plan Sawant proposed. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that whatever happens, she plans to draft a resolution “that lays out in clearer form what we expect to occur over the next nine to 12 months.”

The Showbox isn’t “saved” just yet. But it might have just bought some time, and gained a few new routes to salvation.

The J Is for Judge: Trump Would Feel Right At Home In Anti-Amazon Seattle

If, as they say, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, Donald Trump is Seattle lefties’ besty.

Just as many Seattle progressives cast Amazon as a bogeyman during debates over affordability and the city’s “character,” Trump routinely directs his Twitter ire at Amazon and the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

Here’s a typical Trump tweet trashing Amazon from this spring:

Of course, like most of Trump’s Twitter testimony, these claims strain credulity.

But the crux of Trump’s sentiments are in sync with Seattle’s own animosity toward the the South Lake Union tech magnate. As the recent head tax debate showed, Seattle’s left—like Trump—doesn’t think Amazon pays enough in taxes. Seattle’s leftist City Council member Kshama Sawant has personally used Trumpian language to demonize Bezos, saying “Jeff Bezos is our enemy” at a city council meeting in June.  (That’s right—the Washington Post owner is an enemy of the people.) Activists in Seattle have taken up the anti-Amazon crusade. In fact ,the coffee shop where I’m writing this very column is currently selling anti-Bezos postcards that say “Rich Uncle Bezos” featuring a picture of the Amazon leader in a “Monopoly” top hat.

Echoing Trump’s line that the company is killing mom and pop businesses, conventional wisdom here in Seattle holds that Amazon, the engine of our hyper growth, is destroying Seattle’s homegrown culture and authenticity. For both Trump and Seattleites who believe the company is ruining the city, Amazon represents an existential threat. The fact that council member Sawant is now organizing rallies to save the Showbox from being replaced by a new housing and retail development is unmistakably part of the same reactionary sentiment that demonizes change, and Amazon transplants, as corrosive forces—these new Seattle residents aren’t neighbors but “Amazombies,” as I overheard someone quip at a bar last week.

I agree that Amazon should be a better corporate citizen; their resistance to paying higher taxes to help address the homelessness crisis displayed a callous lack of concern for a city that has invested heavily in their success. And their crass bad faith at the negotiating table during the head tax debate (turning around and making a $25,000 contribution to the campaign to kill the tax after apparently agreeing to a deal) was shameful. For the record, I supported the head tax. Without an income tax (something else I support), it’s our only option to mark the clear nexus that exists between Amazon’s growth and the housing crisis.

On the flip side: A report that Amazon pays an estimated $250 million in local and state taxes  highlights the real benefit of having a Top 10 Fortune 500 company (#8) based in downtown Seattle, with its 45,000 current Seattle employees, 50,000 new hires planned, and all the secondary and tertiary jobs they create.

The similarity between Seattle progressives who scapegoat Amazon as a corrupting influence and Trump’s populist tweet tantrums that accuse Amazon of cuckolding the feds (turning the Post Office into a mere “delivery boy” for the all-powerful Bezos) is worth calling out because it’s part a consistent, ugly defect we also see in Seattle populism.

As insightful Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson once pointed out: The intransigence of Seattle’s largely white, single-family homeowners who oppose allowing more access to their neighborhoods is similar to the heated provincialism of Trump’s pro-wall base. Johnson, an even-keeled mass transit and density advocate, is now on his heels against an onslaught from angry single-family neighborhood constituents. And so it goes in Seattle, where the current strain of parochial leftism isn’t out of place in Trump’s America.

What “Save the Showbox” Really Means

The effort to “Save the Showbox” moved deeper into the murky waters of historic preservation earlier today with the introduction of a proposal, sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant, to expand the Pike Place Market Historic District on an “interim,” two-year basis.  The proposal would effectively kill plans by the Vancouver-based developer Onni to replace the two-story building the Showbox occupies on First Avenue with 442 apartments, and force the city to forego roughly $5 million Onni would have had to pay to build affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability law—a law Sawant opposed.

“This is what the working people of Seattle want,” Sawant said today, pointing to a change.org petition to “Save the Showbox” that has garnered some 90,000 signatures from around the country. Sawant-branded red-and-white signs emphasized this point, as did an email from Sawant’s official list urging “our movement” to—per usual—”pack city hall” to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

If we buy the notion that “the working people of Seattle” are preoccupied with the desire to save a venue where tickets typically go for $30 , $40, or more (plus $10 a ticket in nonrefundable “convenience fees”), it’s still worth asking: What are the working people of Seattle getting in this bargain? What does Sawant’s proposal actually do?

In 2016, a parking garage in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved.

First, Sawant’s proposal would compress the typically months-long process of expanding the boundaries of a designated historic district (in this case, the one created to preserve Pike Place Market in 1971) into just one week in order to prevent the property from vesting to Onni, the Vancouver-based developer that wants to turn the property into a mixed-use apartment tower. “I’m convinced that there is a reason to rush,” Sawant said today, adding that the council rushed through a repeal of the head tax as a point of comparison. The council agreed to move the legislation through committee this week, for possible consideration next Monday afternoon. (The lone committee hearing on Sawant’s proposal will be in Sally Bagshaw’s finance and neighborhoods committee in council chambers on Wednesday at 2).

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Digging into the details, the legislation would roughly double the geographic area on First Avenue in which businesses and property owners are subject to strict, legally binding controls on what they can do in and to their properties. Most speakers this afternoon didn’t talk about historic preservation or landmark status or the implications of taking rules designed to protect small farmers and artisans and applying them to buildings that most people would never consider part of Pike Place Market. But the council needs to talk about those things before they move forward with Sawant’s sweeping legislation, because it will have implications far beyond the Showbox, and for long after the crowds that show up to “Save the Showbox” have moved on.

The Pike Place Market Historical District, and the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, were established by ordinance in 1971 to “promote the educational, cultural, farming, marketing, other economic resources, and the general welfare; and to assure the harmonious, orderly, and efficient growth and development of the municipality.” The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage. (A full list of requirements and processes for approving changes within the district is available on the city’s website.)

The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage.

And, of course, any new development within a historical district is subject to a far more intense level of scrutiny than an existing business that wants to sell to a different owner (which requires the prospective new business owner to get a whole new certificate of approval after convincing the commission that they will abide by all the prior restrictions)  or add an awning (which falls under “Major Structures and Architectural Elements” and involves an approval process). In recent years, at least one building—a parking garage near the waterfront, in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District—was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners in a building across the street who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved. As it happens, Sawant’s proposed expansion area includes two parking lots, one right next to the Showbox, where any development would block the view of people who live at the Newmark Tower, a luxury condo building. If the parking lot, which currently serves the Showbox and the Showgirls Deja Vu strip club, is “preserved” as part of the district, count on the residents of the Newmark to object to any building that blocks their “historic” waterfront views.

The Newmark condos rise behind what could become a “historic” parking lot. Historic district status would give residents an opportunity to object to development that blocks their views.

Some other buildings and businesses that would fall into the newly expanded Pike Place Market Historical District include:

The Showgirls strip club and Fantasy Unltd. store, whose front windows advertise “low-price DVDs” and whose presence on First Ave. is itself a historical artifact—a holdover from the time when First Avenue was known for adult theaters, flop houses, and peep shows, not high-end jewelry designers and fancy tchotchke shops.

Smoke Plus Inc., which shares the First Avenue frontage of the three-story Hahn Building with a a 2-for-$10 t-shirt shop. This building, which also houses the Green Tortoise Hostel, is already slated for redevelopment as a hotel, but that proposal is controversial and remains under review. Opponents of the development have argued that demolishing the building would destroy the “market entrance.” Historic designation could give hotel opponents another tool to protest that development.

The 98 Union condo building, built in 1985 at the south end of the market:

Another parking lot, this one backing up to the Chase Bank tower on Second Avenue.

This Starbucks, which would potentially run into restrictions the historical commission places on duplicate businesses and chain stores within the market, where there is already a Starbucks. The Pike Place Market Historical District bars “multiple ownership” of more than one business in the Market district and does not allow any chains or franchises, and carves out an explicit exemption for businesses (like Starbucks and Sur La Table) “that originated in the Market and whose owners or controllers later opened another location or locations outside the Market.” (The original Starbucks was located at 2000 Western and “re”-opened at its current location in 1976).

And the brand-new Thompson Hotel at the north end of the Market expansion area—a gleaming 12-story hotel designed by Olson Kundig that the New York Times called a “stylish … hotel whose location can’t be beat.”

Designation as part of the Pike Place Market Historical District wouldn’t prevent any of the businesses in these newly “historic” buildings from closing down or changing their business model, nor would it prohibit new businesses from opening up. But the designation would impose strict controls on how the buildings can be used in the future, whether they can be remodeled, and how and whether they can be redeveloped. If the Thompson Hotel, which just opened last year, wanted to update its signage, for example, it would have to abide by five detailed rules imposed on all businesses in the district, the first of which is “Signs should be simple, clear, of modest size, and painted with plain lettering styles.” Adding a sidewalk cafe, modifying the facade, or painting an interior wall that happens to be visible from the sidewalk would all require approval from the commission.

As for the Showbox itself: “Saving” the building—even stipulating that the interior of the building be preserved in its current form, which would effectively require any future owners to keep it open as a concert venue or let it sit empty in perpetuity—won’t necessarily save the Showbox itself. As my colleague Josh Feit pointed out last week, it’s the nature of thriving cities to change, not stay the same. If people my age, or the age of most of the people who testified in favor of Sawant’s legislation today, use the strong arm of government to “save” our favorite institutions (and make no mistake, the Showbox is no longer a place you can go to pay a $5 cover to see an up-and-coming band, if it ever was), the unintended consequences may go beyond forcing a bunch of other businesses to learn to live under a newly restrictive historic-preservation regime. It can also turn the city into a museum commemorating the youth of people who are in their 40s and 50s, at the expense of people in their 20s and 30s who may want to start new businesses—future beloved institutions—of their own. Worst case, Showbox operator AEG Live—whose lease for the venue runs out in two years—shuts the place down on their own, leaving a very expensive empty room for some other company to try to fill with a business that meets all of the historic district’s stringent requirements. There may be a way to “save the Showbox”—some have suggested buying it from AEG and running it as a Vera Project-style nonprofit, or striking a deal with Onni to reopen the venue in its new tower—but historic preservation is the bluntest possible instrument, and inevitably leads to some collateral damage.

 

Scratching Your Head Over Today’s Head Tax Defeat? Here Are Some Answers.

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After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?

Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.

So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.

Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?

Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.

Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.

Is this really all about Amazon? 

No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.

But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.

This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.

So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?

Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.

So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed? 

Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.

If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.

Head Tax Heads for Repeal. What Happened, and What Happens Now?

The city council will hold a special meeting at noon tomorrow—just two days before the deadline for head tax opponents to turn in 17,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to overturn a tax on big businesses to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis—to preemptively repeal the tax. The decision came just weeks after a bruising battle that resulted in the unanimous passage of a “compromise” head tax plan—$275, instead of the original $500—that was supported by all nine council members and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Much like that proposal, today’s surprise repeal announcement emerged after a round of secret weekend negotiations, in which council members who supported the tax just weeks ago concluded that it was time to concede the fight. Polling on the referendum to repeal the tax reportedly spurred council members to reverse their support.

Earlier this afternoon, seven council members signed off on a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office supporting the repeal measure; only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, who denounced the “backroom legislation” during Monday’s full council meeting, did not signal their support for repealing the tax. The statement from the other seven council members said, in part:

“In recent months, we worked with a range of businesses, community groups, advocates, and working families to enact a bill that struck the right balance between meaningful progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis while protecting good, family-wage jobs. Over the last few weeks, these conversations and much public dialogue has continued.  It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. 

“We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”

The $275-per-employee annual tax, which would have applied to the 585 highest-grossing businesses in Seattle,  would have funded $47 million a year in services, shelter, and housing for Seattle’s homeless population. Without the tax, hundreds of new apartments will not be built, hundreds of new shelter beds will not open up at night, and thousands of people who would have received rental assistance, case management, or mental health care through the levy proceeds will continue to go without those services.

Opposition to the tax came not just from the usual suspects in the business community—Amazon, which threatened to pull employees from the city over an earlier version of the tax, pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the repeal effort, as did Starbucks, Kroger, and representatives of the hotel and grocery industries—but from groups with names like Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle, whose members gathered signatures on their own time to repeal a tax on giant corporations. The tax, which was the product of five months of meetings by a 17-member task force, was chosen specifically because it would not directly impact ordinary citizens (unlike a property tax or sales tax), but enough ordinary citizens opposed it to convince at least some council members that their voices represented the majority of Seattle.

“I think it reflects majority sentiment,” council member Sally Bagshaw says. “I do, and I’m sad. … Everywhere I went, clearly businesses were unhappy, but half of labor was unhappy.  Neighborhoods and communities were saying, ‘We don’t see tents being moved off the street. We still see needles. We still see garbage. We’re not happy with this.'” Bagshaw did not mention polling on the head tax, nor did any of her colleagues.

Council member Rob Johnson, who was not directly involved in the weekend negotiations, says his primary concern in supporting a repeal of the head tax is the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds pre-K through college education and is on the ballot in November. A referendum to repeal the head tax, he worried, might have put voters in an anti-tax mood and swept preschool funding away with it.

“As the person trying to get the [FEPP] levy across the finish line in November, I’m obviously excited about the opportunity to have a laser-like focus on that, as opposed to a potential referendum and the  [FEPP] levy at the same time,” Johnson says. “I signed on because I think it gives us a much clearer pathway for success in November.” The last time the families and education levy was on the ballot, in 2011, it passed by more than 63 percent.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been targeted with an outsized share of the criticism from activists who oppose spending more money on homelessness (including a “town hall” in Ballard that immediately devolved into a profane one-way screaming match), says it became “increasingly clear” over the past couple of months “that the public is aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” which has run a well-funded campaign to reframe the employee hours tax, which would be paid by employers, as a “tax on jobs,” which would harm employees and the city as a whole.

In a statement, council member Lisa Herbold—who signed the joint statement supporting repeal—denounced the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which she said “has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites 1) of the tired, old conservative trope that increased levels of human suffering we see in our city is caused by government inefficiency rather than by the Gilded Age level income inequality in Seattle and elsewhere, and 2) that leading first with a regional funding approach, reliant on higher property or sales taxes for all taxpayers, is preferable to resources from those most benefiting from income inequality in Seattle paying their fair share.” Asked why she issued such a scathing statement after signing off on the joint statement supporting repeal, Herbold said, “I’m acting based on what I’m hearing” about the lack of support for the tax, but “I don’t agree with” repealing the tax.

Had Durkan brought the Chamber into the head tax negotiations earlier this year, instead of focusing on getting Amazon to stand down, the campaign might have looked much different, or not existed in the first place. But as things played out, “don’t tax jobs” became a rallying cry for both businesses and, importantly, citizen activists, who also glommed on to the idea that the city could get by without additional revenues by auditing its homelessness programs  and “spending our existing dollars more efficiently.”

O’Brien says that with thousands of people sleeping outside and in shelters and transitional housing across Seattle and King County, “finding efficiencies” isn’t enough to make a dent in the crisis. “We absolutely need more funding for housing and  services. We would have to make devastating cuts to other programs that everyone cares about to fund what we need to do with existing resources, so that’s just not possible,” he says. With the head tax, which the task force chose after rejecting other options as impractical or open to legal challenge, off the table, “there’s nothing that stands out that’s remotely promising, and that’s discouraging.” A city income tax is locked up in court, sales and property taxes are regressive and unpopular, and other options—like a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, or a tax on corporate profits—are prohibited by law. There really just aren’t many options that aren’t either political suicide or downright illegal.

For months, the mayor and council have talked about the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness—that is, a tax that would not be borne solely by Seattle. But the region has shown little interest, so far, in coming up with such solutions. Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a countywide sales tax as a replacement for a Seattle-only property tax measure floated by then-mayor Ed Murray, but that proposal has not been seen or heard from since. Meanwhile, a regional task force called One Table, which was supposed to come up with recommendations for funding homelessness services earlier this year, has canceled several meetings and is reportedly stalled. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed an earlier, larger version of the head tax and signed the council’s legislation for the “compromise” that will be repealed tomorrow, but has never come forward with an alternative proposal of her own, leaving the council in the driver’s seat on spending, for better or worse.

Mosqueda, one of the two council members who did not sign off on the statement advocating repeal, said today that the head tax the council approved was “the best idea at the time”—better, at least, than nothing, which is what the city is left with now. “I am happy to support an alternative strategy, but I need to know that there’s a proposal, so that folks have light at the end of the tunnel, so that there is housing on the horizon, so people can get off the streets and not continue to suffer and live outside.”

O’Brien expressed a sentiment that has been bubbling for weeks at city hall, on homelessness and other issues: “We need leadership from the mayor. We can’t say we’re not going to do anything. If there’s not a regional solution, we have to do something else. She’s been here six months now, and she needs to make this her top priority.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment beyond the joint statement. But she did not present a plan to deal with the defeat of the head tax, which would have funded her proposal to add 1,000 new beds at shelters around the city, announced last week. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Durkan joked at the time. And here we are.

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Sawant’s City Printer Usage: 26 Hours, One “Tax Amazon” Rally, 4,000 Copies

A little over a week ago, during the council debate over the head tax, council member Sally Bagshaw called out her colleague, council member Kshama Sawant, for using the legislative department’s shared printer to print out a huge number of bright red posters advertising a rally Sawant was holding over the weekend to protest Amazon and create public pressure on the council to support the highest possible tax. “I just don’t think it is right for us to be using city resources or the copy machines to promote something that not all of us agree to,” Bagshaw said.

I wondered just what kind of resources Bagshaw was talking about, so I filed a records request to find out how Sawant’s printer usage compared to other council offices’. (Each office has its own printer, but big jobs—like, say, 11-by-17 color posters for political rallies—must be done on a large color printer in the second-floor printer room).

Unfortunately, the city wasn’t able to provide the most recent month’s invoice to its printer company, Ricoh, because that invoice wasn’t available yet. Printer costs have accelerated steadily through the year, however, growing from $493.86 in January to $1,231.46 in February to about $1,300 in March (the exact total is hard to extrapolate because the March bill includes rent for the copier itself, plus various taxes whose rates are unspecified).

Fortunately, the printer itself does save records for the most recent several days, broken down by document name and the name of the staffer requesting the print job. I made my request on May 14, the day  Bagshaw chided Sawant for using the council’s shared, city-funded printer to create her rally posters, and got records showing all print jobs between 11:02 am on May 10 and 10:19 am on May 14. (According to the council’s public disclosure officer, the printer does not store print records long-term.) Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” rally was on Saturday, May 12.

The documents show that Sawant’s office—specifically, her legislative assistants Ted Virdone and Adam Ziemkowski—printed several thousand posters and other documents related to the rally, including hundreds of chant sheets to guide rally participants during the “March on Amazon.” The printing jobs dwarf other council office’s print requests; moreover, the council offices that did relatively large print jobs during the time when Sawant’s office was using the city printer to produce her rally posters were printing presentations, copies of studies, and agendas for council meetings—not posters for weekend demonstrations against Amazon aimed at pressuring council members to adopt a larger tax.

Between around 2:00 in the afternoon on May 10 and 4:00 in the afternoon on May 11, the day before the rally, Sawant’s office printed:

  • 1,004 copies of a document called “March On Amazon.doc.”
  • 50 copies of a document called “fight bezos bullying.pdf”
  • 75 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no loopholes, no sunset.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon – fund housing and services.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, 75 million, no extortion2.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “150m EHT.pdf” (Sawant was pushing for a head tax, or Employee Hours Tax, that would raise $150 million a year)
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no bezos durkan deal.pdf”
  • 400 copies of a document called “Tax Amazon chantsheet2.doc”
  • 2,198 copies of a document called “may 11 (two sided).pdf.

It’s unclear, given the limited period of time the records cover, whether Sawant’s office printed other posters and rally-related before 11am on May 10, the earliest time for which printer records are available. It’s unclear from the records which documents were large 11-by-17 posters and which were in full color. However, demonstrators at last Monday’s council meetings on the head tax held signs bearing the same slogans as those in the file names Sawant’s office printed out the previous Friday, and Sawant herself defended her use of the city’s official printer to produce anti-Amazon materials, telling Bagshaw, “You can choose not to use your office for really fighting for the interests of working people and to build movements. I strongly believe that council resources absolutely should be used to further social movements and not for the protection of the interests of the chamber of commerce.”

Overall, Sawant’s office printed out more than 4,000 copies in the approximately 24 hours between the afternoon of May 10 and the afternoon of May 11. (After the rally, their printing needs returned to a normal level—about 40 pages between May 12 and May 14).  No other office came close. Council member Rob Johnson’s office was in second place, with just over 600 copies in the same period (none of them posters), but that was skewed by a single 465-page printout—copies of a PowerPoint presentation on the Families and Education Levy for council members.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett told me that he considered Sawant’s use of the city’s printer to produce her rally signs acceptable under city ethics rules, because she was using the posters “to pass legislation.”

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