Meetup Video: May 2021 with Sam Assefa

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Sam Assefa joined for the May meetup as out guest speaker. Assefa formerly served as Director of the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development. In March, he retired from the agency after serving the the city for nearly five years. Assefa looked back on the city’s planning priorities and principles and what is doing now.

What We’re Reading: Furthering Fair Housing, Grand Plans, and Curbless Streets Debate

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Furthering fair housing: The Biden administration is bringing back fair housing rules that were scrapped by the previous administration ($).

Thank goodness: IndyGo bus rapid transit in Indianapolis will still get funding from the state after an anti-transit bill failed.

Tiny house town: A massive tiny house village expansion in Austin is set to move forward.

Pandemic moves: How did the pandemic change where Americans did and didn’t move ($)?

Swindlers renegotiate: Foxconn swindled Wisconsin out of extensive tax breaks for basically no jobs and investments, but a new deal dramatically changes the terms.

Not consulted: Publicola reports on how lived experience groups weren’t consulted on a homelessness initiative for Seattle.

Preventable crashes: Streetsblog explains how the federal government could have prevented a fatal Tesla car crash.

Auditing the rich: President Joe Biden is proposing a significant investment in the Internal Revenue Service to crackdown on the super-rich who flout and break tax laws ($) to help fund his American Families Plan.

As expected: Opponents of Washington’s new capital gains tax have already filed a lawsuit to block it.

Pioneer Square’s Streetscapes To Get Upgrades with Waterfront Project

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Main Street in Pioneer Square (Photo by Ryan Packer)

With construction on the complete rebuild (and expansion) of Alaskan Way well underway, the long-planned new Seattle waterfront is happening before our eyes. Traffic patterns are getting shifted around as different segments of the new waterfront boulevard, which will have nine vehicle lanes at its widest point, fall into place. Below Pike Place Market, a new bridge over the BNSF railroad tracks is forming the basis for a brand new connection to Belltown. These changes set the stage for the Overlook Walk connecting Pike Place with Elliott Bay and an extension of aquarium by way of a new waterfront promenade and protected bike lanes.

There are other changes moving forward that you might not connect directly with the waterfront project. A set of revamps to east-west streets in Pioneer Square that connect with Alaskan Way falls into that category. Planned to start construction next year, the plans for these improvements are still underway, with the Office of the Waterfront seeking feedback on the designs that have reached the 60% level. The open house to give feedback is open though Monday, May 17.

The improvements to Pioneer Square’s streetscape are going to do a lot to rebalance the neighborhood’s streets away from their current auto-oriented state. But they still don’t take advantage of the amazing opportunities this unique situation presents. The Office of the Waterfront says they heard feedback that the project should maximize pedestrian space, but the current design does this in a way that treats vehicle access as a fundamental given, even as Pioneer Square offers Seattle’s best example of the public space that can be created if that assumption is not treated as sacrosanct, with two blocks of pedestrianized Occidental Avenue that have existed since the 1970s.

You can see a bird’s eye view of the proposed changes here, outlined in red:

The proposed improvements in Pioneer Square will impact segments of four east-west streets. (City of Seattle)

Durkan Destroys 10 Months of Text Messages in Apparent Coverup

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Mayor Jenny Durkan gave soon-to-retire Police Chief Carmen Best some flowers to express her gratitude during a press conference about blocking police budget cuts in the Norm Rice room at City Hall. (Seattle Channel)
Mayor Jenny Durkan gave soon-to-retire Police Chief Carmen Best some flowers to express her gratitude during a press conference about blocking police budget cuts. (Seattle Channel)

It was well known that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is running a secretive administration, but a whistleblower complaint last week revealed a bombshell revelation that Durkan likely committed a felony while seeking to shield her personal text messages from the public eye in an apparent coverup. Stacy Irwin, a public records officer in the Mayor’s Office, filed the whistleblower complaint, and she told The Seattle Times that Durkan placed her on unpaid administration leave in apparent retaliation. Irwin’s coworker Kim Ferreiro supported her whistleblower complaint and resigned, partly out of fear in retaliation.

The Seattle Times reported that 10 months of text messages from one of the Mayor’s work phones had been deleted in violation of public disclosure laws. The period covered the first four weeks of protests following George Floyd’s murder when Mayor Durkan oversaw the repeated tear gassing of Capitol Hill, brutal police tactics against protesters, and the abandonment of the East Precinct building.

“Durkan’s texts were not retained from late August 2019 to June 25, 2020, a whistleblower investigation report revealed last week,” Lewis Kamb and Daniel Beekman wrote. “In an email Tuesday responding to several days of questions about how that happened, the Mayor’s Office said a forensic analysis has determined that Durkan’s text retention was set to 30 days ‘on one of the three phones issued’ to her at some point between late August 2019 and July 24, 2020.”

“At all times, the Mayor believed and had assumed all her text messages (iMessages and SMS messages), calendar and emails were backed up and available to anyone and would be quickly and fully produced,” Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, said in a statement to The Seattle Times. That claim hardly holds up to scrutiny for a number of reasons.

No innocent mistake

First off, anyone who had submitted a public disclosure request to the Mayor’s Office can testify they are never completed quickly and fully. A request often takes six months and comes heavily redacted typically.

Erica C. Barnett of Publicola noted she had placed six requests specifically asking for text messages and reported she had never been informed that a huge chunk of text messages was missing and had received responses with only emails pretending like the missing text messages never existed — nor has she received an explanation now that the news is out. Apparently, only The Seattle Times and KUOW were deemed worthy of that information. That means they violated public disclosure laws again by not informing journalists who made public records requests for text messages that they had lost them and filling those requests as if nothing was amiss.

Secondly, Durkan had been reprimanded in a 2019 settlement stemming from Deputy Mayors deleting text messages during the head tax debacle. She and the legal counsel (Michelle Chen) she continues to employ were instructed to get “refresher training” on public disclosure rules and recordkeeping practices. To proceed to destroy 10 months of text messages within the next year does not seem an accident. It would appear either grossly negligent or a purposeful coverup.

Rainier Ave Crosswalks to Receive Pedestrian Improvements in Form of ‘Hardened Centerlines’

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In Portland, the "hardened centerline" treatment shown here has reduced vehicle turning speeds and increased visibility of pedestrians. (PBOT)

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has announced plans to implement a new kind of pedestrian improvement that other cities have begun to add to crosswalks to reduce the frequency and severity of collisions between people walking and rolling and people turning left in vehicles. The improvement, which is referred to as a “hardened centerline” treatment, discourages people driving who are turning left from crossing the line between the travel lane and the opposite oncoming lane, including where the line is invisible in the crosswalk itself. This has the effect of squaring turns, slowing speeds and preventing people using the crosswalk from being cut off by an impatient driver.

The announcement that these are getting added to the tools in Seattle’s pedestrian safety toolbox was made to the Pedestrian Advisory Board at their meeting last night.

Hardened centerline treatments guide people driving toward making more sharp turns. (SDOT)

This treatment has not been systematically applied in Seattle, with only a few specific applications over the past decade. New York City, Washington, D.C. (where our current DOT Director was last employed), and Portland, Oregon are being cited having great success in implementing these treatments.

Last year, Portland released the results of a pilot program intended to calm left-turning traffic. The hardened centerline treatment was installed at 42 intersections across the city. The result? “Left turn calming consistently reduces turning speeds by modest but potentially significant amounts (median speed reduction of 13 percent, from an average median speed of 14.0 to 12.1 mph, across all locations with hardened centerlines),” according to the report. Not all of the Portland intersection treatments included what’s referred to as a “nose,” where the centerline extends past the crosswalk into the intersection. Perhaps not surprisingly, the intersections with these were more effective. “Hardened centerlines that include a ‘nose’ that extends into the intersection are approximately 50 percent more effective at slowing speeds relative to centerlines without a nose (median speed reductions of 16 percent with noses compared to 10 percent without noses).”

We Need a Holistic Traffic Model that Actually Works for Our Goals

I-5 cut a wide path of destruction down the spine of Seattle. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

It is time for America to get off the highway hamster wheel. Our dull-eyed pursuit of building more highways is a disaster for the climate and the urban environment for little return to even the motorists the highways are supposed to serve best. The empirical data shows that adding or widening highways induce more cars and trips, which means new lanes end up just as congested after a few years time but pumping out more pollution. And yet, America just keeps building more highways and our state is no different. 

Despite declaring the Evergreen State a climate leader, the state legislature and governor have failed to change course on transportation. After ladening the last state transportation bill in highway pork, state Democrats seem intent on doing the same with the next one. How can policymakers justify such a move? What benefit are the people of Washington getting to counter the growing costs — in money, in jobs, in emissions, in suffering, in habitat lost, and budgets starved — of adding more highway lanes? Free flowing traffic, swift travel, and dependable trip times? Not when congestion stubbornly persists. So why do the policymakers continue to layer one pork-laden freeway bill on top of another? Why do we let them?

A large clue lies with the first step in any new highway or highway lane’s life: the transportation study. Here, hundreds of pages and dozens of graphs serve to obscure the fact that these studies are more alchemy than science. And this alchemy creates traffic models that predict never-ending traffic growth and then show how new highway miles ease the congestion. When they need to, they even claim less climate emissions by the magic of reduced idling (Myth #1 in our Five Myths of Road Widening). These claims do not hold up to scrutiny, but the absurdity only has to hold up long enough for another turn of the highway hamster wheel. Just long enough for another project to be “too far along to stop now” or “have an environmental impact study completed and ready for federal funding.” 

In search of a better traffic model

However, take only a small step back and the pattern of bad decisions following bad models is clear, as a study of California freeway expansions showed a consistent pattern of underestimating how much extra traffic the existence of wider freeways would create and the impact of that additional driving on society. Transportation experts refer to this pattern of congestion persisting or even worsening after widening highways as “induced demand” or the “fundamental law of road congestion”. If our models miss this basic empirical relationship and don’t help traffic engineers, politicians, and the public that employs them to make good decisions, then we desperately need new models. With climate change bearing down and the ongoing human suffering piling up, we are running out of time.

To undo this planet-cooking feedback loop, we don’t just need better numbers, we need a better way to judge transportation spending as a piece of a larger whole. We can no longer ignore that the decisions we make about roads and highways are inseparable from their consequences on where we live, play, and work, and our hopes of avoiding the worst of climate change by building a carbon-free economy for all. It is long past time that these aspects were included in a more dynamic and transparent traffic model that truly reflects the consequences of these decisions and helps our leaders make better ones.

Governor Inslee called the new SR-99 tunnel, which allowed the state to cram more highway lanes into Downtown Seattle, the “eighth wonder of the world” before cutting the ribbon. (Credit: WSDOT)

This new model would be a way to better translate the priorities of the people into the transportation system of the future. Instead of talking about climate change and carbon emissions and then building a highway on top of a four-billion-dollar car tunnel or adding lanes while rebuilding a $4.5 billion floating bridge — as Seattle is doing — we could get a sense of the consequences beforehand. Part of the problem with today’s approach is that it has an incredibly narrow goal — free-flowing traffic. Instead we need to broaden that goal and stop presuming the solution (i.e., more cars).

We believe that holistic transportation model must include and provide transparency on (at least) the following five factors:

  1. Safety;
  2. Racial justice;
  3. Land use and Mobility;
  4. Climate and Environmental Impact; and
  5. Cost and Jobs.

Predictions will always be hard, particularly those that include human behavior, but the right model — even conceptually — that illuminates the connection between these factors can help the community and their elected leaders make better decisions. Balancing these priorities will take consideration and strong engagement with the community. We are willing to bet that the result will not be a transportation budget that spends 90% on widening highways.

Heroes and Zeroes of the Washington State Legislature, 2021 Edition

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The State Capitol in Olympia. (Photo by Stephen Fesler)

The Washington State Legislature’s 2021 session adjourned on April 25th with some big wins and some big whiffs. Republicans did jack all and were in lockstep against climate action, and it basically goes without saying they’re zeroes. But even within the Democratic Party, not everyone in the canoe was rowing in the same direction, so The Urbanist wanted to highlight some of the heroes and zeroes from this session.

First off, let’s go over the biggest happenings. Three things really stand out. The legislature passed a capital gains tax for the first time ever and put a price on carbon — two huge strides on progressive tax reform and climate action. The legislature also passed significant Growth Management Act (GMA) reform for the first time since the Act went into effect in the early 1990s; HB 1220 will make it easier to site affordable housing and encourage cities and counties to plan for housing abundance, as Futurewise recapped recently.

Hero #1: Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, Climate Whiz

Considering how many false starts carbon pricing has had in our state — with two failed statewide ballot measures and a handful of failed legislative pushes — the key Climate Commitment Act (CCA) architects Senator Reuven Carlyle (D, North Seattle) and Representative Joe Fitzgibbon (D, West Seattle) deserve recognition. And since Fitzgibbon was instrumental in passing the clean fuels standard and GMA reform, we will honor him as our number one hero.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon speaks at a West Seattle Transportation Coalition (WSTC) rally for transit back in 2014 when Metro faced recession cuts. (Courtesy of WSTC)

The Urbanist Election Committee has been a big fan of Fitzgibbon with glowing endorsements, and it’s rewarding to see a great campaign vision translate into action and huge legislative success. Rep. Fitzgibbon recently did a far-ranging interview on David Robert’s Volts podcast for those who’d like to hear how climate policy came to fruition in his own words.

Zero #1: Senator Steve Hobbs, The Highwayman

Inversely, all three of those strides were opposed or obstructed by our number one zero: Steve Hobbs (D, Lake Stevens), who voted against the capital gains tax, the clean fuels standard, GMA reform, and sought to undermine climate legislation by tying it to passage of a transportation package, which he fought to keep heavily focused on highway expansion and hostile to transit. Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs proceeded to fail to pass his transportation package for the third-straight year because his vision was too far from the progressives in his party, who prefer greater investment in transit and walkability like the House version offered.

Senator Hobbs, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, at a youth rally in 2016. (Washington State Democrats)
Zero number one: Senator Steve Hobbs is Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. He’s pictured here at a youth rally in 2016. (Washington State Democrats)

The Climate Commitment Act (CCA) priced carbon through a “Cap and Invest” strategy, and its path through the sausage-making process wasn’t always pretty, but it did ultimately succeed in getting the votes. David Roberts, formerly of Vox and now of the Dr. Volts newsletter, argued Washington has passed “the most comprehensive and ambitious carbon pricing system in the country.”

Cap and Invest Plan hinges on passing transportation package

“On the upside, once it is in effect, the CCA is authorized to stay in effect until its emission goals are reached,” Roberts wrote. “This is a really big deal: there won’t be a big legislative fight over reauthorization like there was in California in 2017, which weakened that state’s program. There is no sunset or time limit on the CCA. It stays in place until the state is net-zero. A declining cap is now the status quo, and it’s always more difficult to pass a new bill to change the status quo than it is to keep it in place.”

The CCA is designed to meet the state’s carbon targets, which were updated last year, calling for 45% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, 70% by 2040, and 95%/net-zero by 2050. “Keep in mind: this is not just the electricity sector,” Roberts wrote. “It’s electricity and transportation and oil and gas and more — somewhere between 75% and 80% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Only California has comparable economy-wide aspirations, but Washington’s rate of reductions will need to be much more rapid than California’s to reach its targets. In terms of the sheer pace of change to which a state has committed, Washington has taken the lead.”

We published a CCA op-ed from Andrew Grant Houston that argued that the math didn’t add up and that frontline communities would bear the brunt of carbon pollution allowances. Roberts addressed those lines of attack saying that CCA marries a carbon cap with industrial regulations and investments to protect marginalized communities, including a robust air quality monitoring system. It might not be perfect, but it’s as good as any policy passed in the country at tackling the frontline communities problem, he contended, and better than the WA STRONG carbon tax bill presented as an alternative, which would have exempted “energy-intensive trade-exposed entities” — or to put in a less jargon-heavy way, export-heavy businesses like Boeing.

Roberts also acknowledged that tying the CCA to passage of a transportation package is a downside, even if the answer he ultimately landed on is it’s an acceptable price to pay. The toll could be lowered if the state legislature succeeds in wrestling the package far away from Hobbs’ backwards vision and toward greater investment in transit, walking, rolling and biking. A transportation package should be a climate package in a state where transportation is by far our number one source of emissions. Why take two steps forward and one back, when we can take three steps forward?

How Ballard Avenue Got Its Unique Pergolas

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The Sunday Farmers Market in Ballard takes over pergolas constructed by Ballard Ave. restaurants. (Ray Dubicki)

The Urbanist spoke with business owners and leaders who have spent the last year trying to keep restaurants, shops, and the farmers market working along Ballard Avenue. The result, after a series of more makeshift shelters over the course of the pandemic, has been a row of sturdily built wooden pergolas to shield street cafes that double as farmers market stalls on Sundays. Read on to see how Ballard businesses innovated and teamed up to make it happen.

Comments are edited for clarity. Each interview, whether over the phone and by email, started with the question, “It’s been a long year. How are things going today?”

Mike Stewart – Executive Director, Ballard Alliance
2020 was a challenging year that required constant change and adaptation for the Ballard Alliance, business owners, and city government. The Mayor’s Office, Councilmember Strauss, and city department leaders were very responsive to the needs of small business owners and I applaud their efforts to help us make outdoor street cafes and merchandise displays a reality. 

Adam McQueen – Founder/Owner, Skål Beer Hall
The last year has been a challenge. Thanks to the wonderful support of our loyal customers we are emerging from the pandemic on solid ground. More permanent, covered outdoor seating saved us during the winter when indoor dining was banned. We’re a Viking beer hall after all. Our customers are tough. They weathered the elements. I mean who doesn’t want to sip boozy hot chocolate next to a roaring fire pit?! We did not have any outdoor seating prior to the city allowing us to use the curbside space, so we are happy to have it as the warm weather arrives.  

Jeff Gardner – Owner, Standard Goods
It’s been a tough year. Coming out of lockdown, getting set up with these pergola structures was huge. It brought people, it’s not about me as the restaurants. That they hustled and got outside. They got people coming down from Shoreline and the whole west side of the city. You could come out and get a meal or cocktail. It’s good to have our stuff outside. And it gets us some more square footage. Ballard revenues have been twice as good as our Capital Hill store, I think it’s all about the environment outside that we’ve created outside on the street.  

Doug Farr – Executive Director, Seattle Farmers Market Association (Ballard Farmer’s Market)
We had to fight. There were a lot of farmers during the shutdown that still kept showing up on the street because they don’t have the option to just shut down. Crops are still there and animals need to be fed and farmers do not get unemployment. There were a lot of farmers that kept showing up without our permission. The Mayor’s Office told us they need to go home. That’s not my problem, you took my permit away which took my authorization for that street away, so I’m staying home. 

We first created the model of a drive through for a number of months, then pivoted to a walk-drive through. Then we evolved back to a walkthrough market. But we opened up an on-line market that customers can order online without coming into the market. We pivoted so the shoppers, whether for health or safety concerns or they cannot come down to the market for whatever reason, we’ve made it different options for them.

Because of health department rules, we have to have social distancing and lowered our capacity. About half of the vendors are back at the market. So a lot of those vendors that we don’t have enough space for are on our online market so the customers can place orders and pick them up.

[Requests to the Mayor’s Office for comment were gently directed to SDOT, who replied: “Currently, we are developing the next steps for our Safe Start permits and will let you know when we have more to share. To answer your question on the Farmers Markets, during COVID we will continue to permit these out from SDOT in partnership with the Mayor’s Office and Public Health. However, we will return to regular permitting out of the Office of Economic Development (OED) post-COVID.”]

The newly constructed cafe street dining areas welcome visitors. (Photo by Ray Dubicki)

How has your setup changed over the course of the last year? How was it working with the City?

Jeff Gardner – Standard Goods
First thing we did was get a tent. Then the tent blew over. Then we got sandbags and we got another tent after a particular windstorm. We had to tear them down at the end of the day or they won’t be there. Effort and work and rolling out stuff. We also set up a space with rabbit fence we’d have to take the whole thing down every Saturday night for the Farmers Market. It was like a lot of work and more hours for everyone. 

When we had the opportunity to build the pergolas. We shared with Other Coast Cafe and so my part was $3,000. That was after probably $1,000 on tents and $500 on outside equipment. And the extra 3 hours of pay at $20 an hour to move things outside and in. It adds up pretty fast. Each and every day. Now it takes 15 minutes to set up, but we made a big investment up front.