Time to Immediately Sunset Houghton and East Bellevue Community Councils

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An aerial photo of the Houghton community council area

As a Kirkland resident, I was shocked to learn just this spring that one neighborhood in my city has outsized influence over the entire city’s land use planning. This power was created by a 1967 law, RCW 35.14, designed to entice smaller jurisdictions to merge with larger ones. It gave the smaller jurisdictions veto power over land use planning within their historical boundaries, creating community councils to exercise that authority.

Today, only two such community councils remain: The Houghton Community Council (HCC) in Kirkland, created in 1968, and the East Bellevue Community Council (EBCC), created in 1969. The others have been dissolved. Although I am most familiar with Kirkland, both these councils create a structural inequity that gives a very small portion of each city’s population outsized influence over land use planning in the entire city.

For over 50 years, Kirkland’s HCC has exercised its veto power (and veto threat) to “protect” itself from changes deemed undesirable — pushing densification and services into the other Kirkland neighborhoods which lack that power. 

(Credit: City of Kirkland)

Because of its veto power, the Houghton jurisdiction essentially acts a city within a city, leading to time-consuming and costly negotiations to either placate Houghton or exempt it from the city’s rules. Houghton even has its own version of the entire “missing middle housing” zoning code because of so many differences with the City of Kirkland’s policy. Houghton adds significant restrictions on duplexes, triplexes, and cottage developments, further exacerbating the housing shortage in order to maintain its neighborhood “character.”

Midweek Video: Why Great Cities Let You Easily Cycle to IKEA

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Not Just Bikes demonstrates how The Netherlands usually offers people many safe modes of transportation to reach their intended destinations, including to an IKEA. Doing this on bike isn’t a chore and comes with relatively good bike infrastructure. So why is it that other countries limit choices?

Recall Shaping Up to Be a Nailbiter as Sawant Trails Early

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Councilmember Sawant with Fight for 15 supporters after successful passage out of committee in 2014. (Credit: Office of Councilmember Sawant)

Polls closed last night in the recall election of socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Initial counts show Sawant trailing by almost 2,000 votes in the first ballot drop. King County Elections initially estimated 6,665 ballots remain to be counted, which makes Sawant’s six-point deficit steep, but not necessarily insurmountable. Wednesday morning King County Elections revised its estimate to around 9,000 ballots remaining, with 6,000 expected to be tallied by this afternoon’s ballot drop alone.

To hold on to her seat, Sawant would have to win about 61% of outstanding ballots to close the gap, based on the County’s latest estimate for remaining ballots, which is based on an educated guess of how many ballots will trickle in via the mail. If more ballots remain than the County expects, the math gets less tight. The upward revision to 9,000 ballots, already lowers Sawant’s win threshold from needing to win two-thirds of the remainder to a more manageable 61%.

Sawant has closed significant election night gaps before — including a 13-point swing in 2019 — but the recall election appears a bit unique with more folks voting early rather than waiting until the last-minute, as left-leaning Seattle voters often do. After eight years in office, most voters have made up their mind about Sawant one way or the other. Some prognosticators remain confident she will pull off another signature comeback. A recount also isn’t out of the question if the margin ends up razor-thin.

True to her style, Sawant was defiant on election night and delivered one of her signature hammer-and-sickle-dropping oratories, lambasting the corporate establishment, the Democratic Party, not to mention her colleagues on Council for not defending her or standing up for the working class. She even offered an analysis (albeit a simplistic one) of why Council President Lorena González lost her mayoral bid — namely that she campaigned on the defensive and failed to brand Bruce Harrell as the corporate candidate. González’s campaign manager disputed that assessment.

Metro’s 2022 Budget to Restore Service and Fund New Capital Investments

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A King County Metro bus in Black Lives Matter livery. (Credit: The Urbanist)

A revised budget for King County Metro will expand resources in 2022, allowing the agency to restore more service and focus on additional capital investments. Approved in November, the revised budget increases transit operations funding by nearly $55 million and appropriates $114 million in capital investments.

The revised budget will provide Metro with an additional $18.4 million for service restoration and improvements. That will provide enough resources for an additional 241,000 annual service hours and allow for service increases beyond restoration in some cases. Approximately 245 additional full-time employee equivalents are authorized by the budget increase.

New provisos in the operating budget also continue a special food delivery service program to populations in need and accelerate work on the RapidRide K and R Lines.

$1.8 million will be focused on continuing a food delivery service program that serves low-income, people with disabilities, and senior populations. Access paratransit and other community access transportation resources will continue being used for the program, though the proviso is clear that this is only provided “as an incidental use to the extent that the Metro transit department is able to meet passenger demand for the Access paratransit and community access transportation programs.”

Another $400,000 will be focused on staffing up and restarting some project development, planning, and design work for the planned RapidRide K and R Lines, effectively shifting them out of a deferred status. The proviso suggests that the projects may be get additional funding the upcoming 2023-2024 biennial budget. For now the proviso stipulates that the RapidRide K Line (Totem Lake-Bellevue-Eastgate) should advance from 1% design to somewhere between 3% and 5% design and that the RapidRide R Line (Rainier) should complete the planning phase and toward project delivery in the next biennium. Both projects ended up on the chopping block last year when officials were unsure about financing and direction of the pandemic, but federal assistance and a more robust economy has changed the calculus since.

The budget revision also increased and added new funding for a variety of projects compared to the original adopted 2021-2022 budget in 2020.

Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang to Headline Urbanist Meetup on December 14th

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Dongho Chang at Monorail Espresso. (Photo courtesy of SDOT)

We are excited to be joined by Dongho Chang for our monthly meetup on December 14th. Our transportation reporter Ryan Packer will be moderating the conversation with Chang, who is a widely respected voice on transportation and traffic safety issues. Chang spent nine years as City Traffic Engineer at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), but in July he announced he’s leaving to accept a post at State Traffic Engineer at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Chang has earned a sterling reputation for fighting for safety upgrades and highlighting new improvements on his Twitter account, which has more than 12,000 followers.

Seattle Bike Blog’s Tom Fucoloro stressed the impact Chang has had at SDOT: “Since 2012, Chang has forever revolutionized what it means to be a traffic engineer in our city by bringing a level of personal care and genuine love for his community that has made him something of an unintentional local hero. He has had a direct impact not just on the physical shape of our streets but also on the culture of SDOT’s professional staff.”

We’ll discuss Chang’s plans for WSDOT, his proudest achievements at SDOT, and the work remains to be done to make Seattle streets safe. Chang previously worked for the City of Everett and did a previous stint at WSDOT to start his civil engineering career, so that may come up, too.

Mobile Home Park Protections to Preserve Up to 11 Acres for Affordable Housing in Bitter Lake

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A photo of a light blue and white mobile home with a driveway.
Seattle City Council is advancing protections for its two remaining mobile home parks. (Credit: Halcyon Mobile Home Park)

The Seattle City Council has passed another six month development moratorium for the city’s two remaining mobile home parks. The legislation, which passed 7-0, is the fifth and apparently final extension of the moratorium, which was first passed in 2019 after residents raised concerns about the pending sale of Halcyon Mobile Home Park in North Seattle. Developers had filed preliminary plans for constructing 196 market-rate townhomes on the seven and a half acre site, creating fears of displacement among tenants, many of whom were elderly and/or disabled. The filing followed the closure of University Trailer Park in 2017, which was replaced by a development of 89 townhomes.

A photo of a guard rail with signs reading "63 homes are being displaced" and University Trailer Park is being closed."
Signs placed on Lake City Way in Seattle informed passersby of the impending closure of University Trailer Park. (Credit: Wedgewood Community Council)

“I ask that we extend this moratorium one final time to prevent any loopholes before our long-awaited long-term protections can be adopted by the City Council next week,” said Dan Strauss (District 6), sponsor of the bill.

Councilmembers Strauss and Debora Juarez (District 5), in whose district Halcyon and neighboring Bella-B Mobile Home Park are located, have been working on a permanent legislative solution for the sites, which will be voted on by the full City Council on December 13th where it appears likely to pass with strong Council support based on past statements. Their legislation would create a mobile home overlay district, further restricting the sites’ development until it sunsets in 2051. In a special meeting of the Land Use and Neighborhoods committee on December 3rd, Ketil Freeman, City Council Central Staff, explained that the term “overlay” district is used because the additional specifications “sit over an underlying zone designation.”

A map of the proposed overlay district and list of the overlay district's requirements.
Credit: City of Seattle

In this case, both sites are located in the Bitter Lake Urban Village, which was rezoned to increase residential density as part of the City’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) legislation, passed in 2019. MHA requirements mean that the any new development constructed in the area either include affordable housing or contribute to an affordable housing fund. Both the Halcyon and Bella-B sites are currently zoned for commercial uses.

More Dollars for Highways? Infrastructure Funding Is Not Necessarily a Gift

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A photo of cars in gridlock traffic on Interstate 5 in Downtown Seattle
If not invested wisely, Federal infrastructure dollars could end up doing as much harm as good. (Credit: Wonderlane, Creative Commons)

‘When is a gift not a gift?’ 

Baron Harkonnen answers a question with another in the movie Dune, based on the Frank Herbert sci-fi saga of royal houses’ murderous struggles to control the desert planet that produces the most valuable substance in the universe. 

With the infrastructure bill that the president signed on November 15, we would do well to ask ourselves the same thing.

There are some things in the bill that are just plain good. Getting rid of lead pipes in the water distribution system across the country. Making sure rural areas have broadband internet access. Upgrading power lines to deliver the clean energy that we will, hopefully, generate tons more of. Supercharging superfund cleanup. Protecting vulnerable communities against droughts, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires.

All very good stuff that advances environmental justice by addressing some of the heinous burdens of pollution and climate risk that Black and brown communities bear.

But the transportation portion of the $1 trillion dollar largess could prove as ominous as when the emperor kindly lent Duke Leto of House Atreides his dusty little planet Arrakis.

A depiction of Baron Harkonnen from the film and sci-fi novel saga, Dune, by Frank Herbert. (Credit: James Joel, Creative Commons)

Without forceful intervention from activists, and an unprecedented display of courage and imagination from state officials, the bill could very well end up driving up emissions and making inequality worse. 

Draft Regional Transportation Plan Could Fall Far Short on Climate Goals

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The transportation plan for the central Puget Sound could lead the region astray on its climate goals. (Photo: Ryan Packer)

Early next year, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the region’s four-county planning agency, will release a draft of the update to its Regional Transportation Plan, which unfortunately does not appear to be a climate-focused document. Updated every four years, the plan outlines shared priorities around transportation, many of which are driven by VISION 2050, the agency’s regional housing and employment growth plan. This update to the Regional Transportation Plan will extend the plan’s timeline from 2040 to 2050 to align with that growth plan, which was adopted in 2020.

Both plans are an attempt to dictate how the region as a whole responds to what is expected to be an increase in population of close to two million people across the central Puget Sound in the next 30 years, over a third of which is expected to be accommodated within the region’s five core cities — Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton. The transportation plan assembles all of the transportation projects that are expected to be completed by all levels of government during those decades and looks at how they serve the region’s overall goals.

The previous version of the regional transportation plan, from 2018, outlined a number of critical transit investments that the region needed to make over the next two decades, but ultimately set its ambitions very low, with the rate of overall trips regionally made by public transit only expected to rise from 3% to 5% in 22 years. 

Over the past few months, some details from the draft 2050 plan have been presented by PSRC staff to elected leaders from the region that steward these plans, so we already know a lot about what the plan will look like before it’s officially released for public comment.

Ultimately, the overall plan for transportation is for everyone to drive a little less, on average, but for everyone as a whole to drive a lot more. By 2050, the projection is that the average household in the region will drive 12,300 miles per year, a 23% reduction compared to 2018. Those miles will be offset by an increase in the average resident’s time taking transit and walking or rolling for transportation. Transit boardings across the region are expected to triple by midcentury, and the average central Puget Sound resident is forecast to spend 35 minutes per day getting around via active transportation, up from 29 minutes in 2018.

Those reductions aren’t enough to keep vehicle miles travelled (VMT) from the total number of passenger vehicles on the region’s roads from increasing by approximately 15% by 2050. To accommodate those extra trips, the region would invest in expanded road capacity in addition to expanding light rail, bus rapid transit, passenger ferries, and walking and biking trails. An associated project list includes $12.1 billion in road expansion projects that would add general purpose lane capacity, $10 billion to expanded interchanges to accommodate additional general purpose traffic, and $8.3 billion in brand new roads. 

Planners guiding the update looked at traffic congestion regionally as of 2018 and determined that 21% of the region’s roadways were considered congested. After that significant planned expenditure on road capacity, which is completely separate from maintaining and preserving the current street and highway network, regional planners now expect 25% of the region’s roadways to be congested in 2050, which is somehow considered a success when graded against the large increases in population. But a major outcome of this is that users of the road system without alternatives, including heavy haul truck drivers and residents of unincorporated areas of the region that lack transit access, are forecast to individually spend more time sitting in traffic in 2050, as part of our plan. A heavy truck driver spending 56 hours every year sitting in traffic is expected to spend 74 hours in traffic in 2050, really illustrating the urgent need for dedicated freight lanes to take priority over generic road expansion.