Tag: Waterfront

Morning Crank: If It Isn’t Anybody’s Job It Isn’t Anybody’s Job

Friends of the Waterfront Seattle chair Maggie Walker gives Mayor Jenny Durkan a medal at a press conference announcing an agreement on the waterfront funding plan yesterday.

1. Waterfront property owners have reached a deal with the city in a longstanding dispute over how much they will pay for improvements that are expected to dramatically increase their property values over time. The deal, which Mayor Jenny Durkan announced at the Seattle Aquarium yesterday, is essentially the one I described back in December: Property owners impacted by the one-time assessment, known as a Local Improvement District, will pay about 20 percent less than the city originally proposed—a total of $160 million, rather than $200 million, total—and, in exchange, will agree not to challenge their assessments. A nonprofit established to help fund and operate the waterfront, Friends of the Waterfront, will contribute $110 million to the project ($10 million more than originally planned), while the city will kick in an extra $25 million from commercial parking tax revenues, for a total city contribution of $249 million. The total waterfront budget will be reduced very slightly, from $717 million under the old plan to $712 million under the new one.

At Thursday’s press conference, Durkan said the city would pay for the additional $25 million by issuing additional bonds against the city’s existing commercial parking tax as existing bonds are retired. Besides requiring the Friends to come up with $110 million, the legislation Durkan will transmit to the city council tomorrow commits the city to spending $4.8 million a year (adjusted upward annually for inflation) on park operations and maintenance for the park, a catch-all term that includes the city’s contribution to security. That money would come from the existing parks levy (passed in 2014), the parking tax, and the city’s general fund. The legislation includes an emergency clause that allows the city to spend less on maintenance and security if general fund revenues decline in a future financial downturn.

2. The press conference included an awkward moment, when the mayor introduced Pike Place Market Public Development Authority council chair Rico Quirindongo (pictured, clapping, above), as Brian Surratt, the head of the city’s Office of Economic Development under former mayor Ed Murray, who also happens to be black but does not look like Quirindongo. After Quirindongo introduced himself and said a few words, Durkan returned to the mic and, without missing a beat, spelled his (actual) last name out loud for the press.

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3. Durkan also answered several questions about her decision to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, who was a runner-up for the Seattle Department of Transportation director position, as “mobility operations coordinator” during the “period of maximum constraint,” when mobility downtown will be pinched by several major projects around the center city, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the construction of the Washington State Convention Center expansion, and the closure of the downtown transit tunnel to buses. Worden, whose career spans more than 30 years in the Air Force and six years as a director at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, has little direct experience in transportation planning.

Durkan announced her selection of Sam Zimbabwe, most recently the chief project delivery officer for Washington, D.C.’s transportation department, as SDOT  director last month. By choosing Worden for the newly created $195,000-a-year position, Durkan was effectively able to hire both of the remaining SDOT finalists—one for the position that both men originally sought, and one for a position created specifically for him. (A third finalist, Sound Transit division manager Kamuron Gurol, reportedly dropped out of the running late in the process). A similar scenario played out in Durkan’s selection of a new police chief, a drawn-out process in which she rejected, then reconsidered, then appointed then-deputy chief Carmen Best to the position, while also hiring one of the finalists, former Philadelphia police chief Cameron McLay, as a senior policy advisor.

The mayor said yesterday that she made the decision to hire Worden with Zimbabwe’s full collaboration and support. “He was very much in favor of having a person who would coordinate across all departments, because this isn’t just [about] the Seattle Department of Transportation. It’s much [bigger] than that,” Durkan said. For example, the city might need to redirect fire trucks to go around a traffic jam downtown, or offer flexible hours for people to file permit applications. “If it’s nobody’s job, it’s nobody’s job,” Durkan said. Currently, though, coordinating the city’s response to the so-called “Seattle squeeze” is somebody’s job—SDOT’s own Heather Marx, whose job title is “director of downtown mobility.” Marx did not play a role during yesterday’s press conference, and I didn’t see her in the crowd.

4. Also conspicuously absent: Deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan, the former Transportation Choices Coalition director who oversees “major transportation-related policy” for the mayor’s office and who would seem to be the natural choice to oversee Worden’s work in the mayor’s office. Instead, that role will go to deputy mayor Mike Fong, who also oversees almost a dozen city departments. Asked why she decided to have Worden report to Fong instead of transportation expert Ranganathan, Durkan said, “Again, this isn’t just about transportation. Senior deputy mayor Fong is the senior deputy mayor so [Worden] actually reports to me [and] coordinates with senior deputy mayor Fong.”

In October, when Ranganathan’s portfolio was reduced in a reorganization of the mayor’s office, she told me the changes would give her time to focus on “major initiatives” like congestion pricing downtown. Yesterday, both she and Fong echoed Durkan’s line that Worden’s job will mostly involve coordinating between departments like police, fire, and utilities—a point everyone at the mayor’s office hammered home so consistently that I started to wonder if traffic coordination had anything to do with transportation at all. SDOT—the agency everyone was so keen to de-emphasize—is, of course, the primary agency that will have to deal with traffic backups, transportation construction, transit access, illegal parking, bikesharing, enforcing new restrictions on Uber and Lyft, and any number of other initiatives related to center-city mobility.

Afternoon Crank: Competing for a Limited Number of Units

1. While the city of Seattle was debating over the merits of the head tax last week, the King County Auditor’s Office quietly released a report on the region’s response to homelessness that concluded, among other things, that “rapid rehousing”—which provides short-term rent vouchers to low-income households to find housing in the private market—isn’t working in King County. The city of Seattle’s adopted Pathways Home approach to homelessness suggests investing heavily in rapid rehousing, which assumes that formerly homeless people will be able to pay full market rent on a private apartment within just a few months of receiving their vouchers.

For this system to work, either: a) formerly homeless people must get jobs that pay enough to afford full market rent in Seattle, currently over* $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment, before their three-to-12-month vouchers run out, or b) formerly homeless people must find housing that will still be affordable after they no longer have the subsidy. The problem, the King County report found, is that there are only about 470 private units available throughout the entire county, on average, that are affordable to people making just 30 percent of the area median income—and the competition for those units includes not just the hundreds of rapid rehousing clients who are currently looking for housing at any given time, but all the other low-income people seeking affordable housing in King County. Seattle’s Pathways Home plan would dramatically increase the number of rapid rehousing clients competing for those same several hundred units.

“Given market constraints, difficulties facilitating housing move-ins could limit rapid rehousing success,” the auditor’s report says. “As local funders increase their funding for RRH, it is possible that move-in rates will go down as more households compete for a limited number of units. Given the importance of client move-ins to later success, if this occurs additional funding spent on RRH may have diminishing benefits relative to its costs.” Additionally, the report notes that a proposed “housing resource center” to link landlords and low-income clients seeking housing with vouchers has not materialized since a consultant to the city of Seattle, Focus Strategies, recommended establishing such a center in 2016. In a tight housing market, with rents perpetually on the increase, landlords have little incentive to go out of their way to seek out low-income voucher recipients as potential renters.

2. Learn to trust the Crank: As I predicted when he initially announced his candidacy at the end of April, former King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober, who was ousted as both chair of the King County Democrats and spokesman for King County Assessor John Wilson after separate investigations concluded that he had engaged in unprofessional conduct as head of the Democrats by, among other things, bullying an employee, pressuring her to drink excessively, and calling her demeaning and sexist names, will not run for state legislature in the 47th District.

Fresh off his ouster from his $98,000-a-year job at King County, and with a $37,700 county payoff in hand, Stober told the Seattle Times‘ Jim Brunner that he planned to run for the state house seat currently held by Republican Mark Hargrove. Stober’s splashy “surprise” announcement (his word) came just days before a candidate with broad Democratic support, Debra Entenman, was planning to announce, a fact that was widely known in local Democratic Party circles. In a self-congratulatory Facebook announcement/press release, Stober said that he decided not to run after “conversations with friends, family, and supporters,” as well as “informal internal polling.” Stober went on to say that his “many supporters” had “weathered nasty phone calls and texts; awful online comments; and rude emails from those who opposed my candidacy. We chose not to respond in kind. They went low and my supporters went high.” In addition to routinely calling his employee a “bitch” “both verbally and in writing,” the official King County report found that Stober “made inappropriate and offensive statements about women,” “did state that Republicans could ‘suck his cock,'” and “more likely than not” referred to state Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski as “bitch, cunt, and ‘Waddles.'”

3. On Monday morning, Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman announced $1.2 million in funding for prepaid-postage ballots for the 2018 election. The only county that won’t receive state funding? King County, which funded postage-paid ballots for the 2018 elections, at a cost of $600,000, over Wyman’s objections last week. 

County council chairman Joe McDermott, a Democrat (the council is officially nonpartisan but includes de facto Democratic and Republican caucuses), says he was “really disappointed” that Inslee and Wyman decided to keep King County on the hook for paying for its own prepaid ballots, particularly given Wyman’s objection that the decision should be left up to the state legislature.

“She was against it before she was for it,” McDermott told me yesterday. Wyman’s office, McDermott says, “wasn’t working on the issue last year in the legislature, and yet all of a sudden she can find emergency money and appeal to the governor when King County takes the lead.”

In their announcement yesterday, Wyman and Inslee said they will “ask” the legislature to reimburse King County for the $600,000 it will spend on postage-paid ballots this year, but that funding is far from guaranteed. Still, McDermott says their decision to backfill funding for postage-paid ballots for Washington’s remaining 38 counties could set a precedent that will create pressure on legislators to take action next year. If the state believes it’s important to make it easier for people to vote in 2018, he says, “why would they argue that they’re not going to do it in the future? If it’s valuable this year, it should be valuable going forward.”

4. Dozens of waterfront condo owners spoke this afternoon against a proposed Local Improvement District, which has been in the works since the Greg Nickels administration, which many called an illegal tax on homeowners for the benefit of corporate landowners on the downtown waterfront. The one-time assessment, which homeowners could choose to pay over 20 years, is based on the increase in waterfront property values that the city anticipates will result from park and street improvements that the LID will pay for. Several homeowners who spoke this afternoon said they rarely or never visit the downtown waterfront despite living inside the LID assessment district, either because they live too far away (one condo owner said he lived on Fifth Avenue, and considered the hill leading down to the waterfront “too steep” to traverse) or because the waterfront is always clogged with tourists. Another, homeowner Jonathan Mark, said the city was failing to account for the decrease in property values that could result from “turning Alaskan Way into a freight highway.”

The median assessment on residential property owners, who own about 13 percent of the property that would be subject to the assessment, would be $2,379, according to the city’s Office of the Waterfront.

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Relief and Skepticism Over Seattle’s Closed-Door Waterfront Settlement

Earlier this afternoon, the city council approved a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Pioneer Square over the city’s plans to build an eight-lane highway on the waterfront. 

I wrote about the settlement, which took place behind closed doors and with no input from transit or pedestrian advocates, on the blog in March. This story, which takes a broader look at what the settlement will mean for the waterfront once the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, appeared in the June issue of Seattle Magazine

This past march, Leslie Smith found herself in an unusual position.

For years, Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, had criticized the City of Seattle for its plan to build what she describes as a “nine-lane highway” on Seattle’s waterfront, near the downtown ferry terminal, after the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down. Instead of expanding the roadway, Smith had supported a proposal to move most of the 600 buses that use the Alaskan Way Viaduct off the waterfront and onto streets in neighboring SoDo (including S Lander Street, and First and Fourth Avenues), to enable the city to make do with a narrower roadway on the waterfront.

Smith has been one of the most vocal critics of the project. As the leader of a group whose mission includes promoting tourism in Pioneer Square, she spent years trying to convince city leaders that the planned 102-foot-wide roadway would cut off Pioneer Square from downtown, defeating one of the stated purposes of the tunnel project: to better connect the city with its waterfront.

In November, after spending nearly three years cajoling, testifying and negotiating with the city, Smith’s organization appealed the city’s environmental impact statement for the project. The legal challenge wasn’t in itself unusual. Plenty of groups have complained about the city’s plans for rebuilding the downtown waterfront. Part of the reason for this width is that the new tunnel will be two lanes narrower than the current viaduct, and won’t include any downtown exits. As a result, the new surface Alaskan Way will function much like a regional highway, with as many as eight lanes for buses, freight traffic and cars (plus an extra lane in some places for parking). What made Smith and the alliance’s case unusual is what happened next: Instead of fighting back, the city settled, striking a closed-door deal, with a private organization that will determine how thousands of Seattle residents and visitors experience the waterfront for decades to come.

The city’s Office of the Waterfront—along with King County Metro and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)—agreed to narrow the road to 79 feet, eliminating the two transit lanes when the West Seattle light rail station opens in 2033, reducing the need for most bus routes between downtown and West Seattle. Until then, Smith agreed to accept the 102-foot-wide roadway as originally planned, with lanes for general traffic, parking and ferry queues, plus those 600 buses, which will run in transit-only lanes.

“We actually have come up with what we think is kind of an elegant solution to what will be a pretty wide roadway for another decade,” Smith says.
In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the new Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, will open three years later. And the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about a decade.

To understand how this settlement came to be, it helps to know a little history. When the city and state agreed to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits, that created a problem: how to accommodate transit, freight and general traffic—including the cars lining up for the ferry terminal—as well as bicyclists and pedestrians, all on a surface street.

Smith supported moving Metro buses to SoDo, eliminating the need for transit lanes on the waterfront. Transit advocates and King County Metro rejected that idea, noting that those rerouted buses would have to contend with more than 20 traffic lights. The city agreed to two transit lanes.

Meanwhile, the Port of Seattle insisted on two travel lanes for freight, rejecting a proposal that its trucks share the transit lanes with buses. The city agreed to two general-purpose travel lanes. And Washington State Ferries insisted on two ferry queuing lanes. The city agreed to two ferry queuing lanes, and two northbound turn lanes for drivers headed for Colman Dock.

That, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide roadway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

Sitting in the vast conference room of a Fifth Avenue building that overlooks the Viaduct itself in the distance, Marshall Foster, director of the city’s Office of the Waterfront, says, “The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone.” Mayor Ed Murray established the office in early 2014 to oversee the redesign of the downtown waterfront once the Viaduct comes down.

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re [experiencing] growing pains as a city,” Foster continues. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition, where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough” to have light rail and buses integrate seamlessly, leading to an awkward 10-year period when they don’t.

Transit advocates aren’t thrilled with the settlement. Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the pro-transit nonprofit group Transportation Choices Coalition, had hoped for a compromise that would allow buses to stay on the waterfront while also narrowing the roadway, calming traffic and making it safer for pedestrians. She also says she had expected to be at the table when the fate of the waterfront was being decided.

“I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made with this sideways approach of a legal challenge, where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the environmental impact statement,” Ranganathan says.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now,” she says. “We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses now seems short-sighted.”

Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says.

There are a lot of “ifs” built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project is contingent on a successful negotiating process between the port, Metro, WSDOT, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants. The agreement stipulates that beginning in the late 2020s—before the West Seattle light rail station opens—these groups will spend five years working together to decide what the roadway will look like once light rail is up and running, according to the agreement.

The second is that conditions on the waterfront could change significantly over the next 10 to 15 years, in ways planners today may be unable to anticipate.

Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that over time, someone else might need to fight to ensure that the agreement is implemented. “But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.” She says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, or fighting for her vision for the waterfront, but she’s glad it’s over. “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”