On Monday, the full Seattle City Council approved a woonerf in South Lake Union along 8th Ave between Harrison and Thomas Street. The plan sparked a tense debate between Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and Mike O’Brien on the Transportation Committee two weeks ago. Ultimately Rasmussen won out with a vote of six to two (breakdown below).
Both Rasmussen and O’Brien started out the discussion by recounting their positions, summarized in our previous post. Rasmussen argued that the project was a steal for the City, with the private company Vulcan bearing the bulk of the cost to build a premium public amenity for the neighborhood. O’Brien countered that the project wasn’t enough of a public benefit to justify the $500,000 cost.
Councilmember Nick Licata offered a successful amendment to designate the corridor as a festival street. As such, Vulcan would be able to apply for an annual permit to conduct street activities such as dance and art festivals and celebrations. The stretch of 8th Ave will join just two other festival streets across the city—S Roberto Maestas Street on Beacon Hill next to the light rail station, and Nord Alley in Pioneer Square.
In full debate, Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the project a corporate “infomercial” for Vulcan. She said the company wasn’t motivated by good will for the neighborhood, but by profit from the increased property value the premium amenity would bring—though it is unclear why an alignment of public and private profit is disagreeable. Ultimately the City would be giving up over $500,000 in street use fees to support the project—money that could be spent on affordable housing or sidewalk upgrades (excluding a woonerf, apparently).
Quick to rebut her point, Councilmember Jean Godden accused Sawant and O’Brien of being disingenuous for supporting Licata’s festival street amendment while voting against the full legislation. The project is good for the environment and good for the neighborhood, allowing them to shape their own community.
Finally, Councilmember Nick Licata, usually a dependable ally for O’Brien as one of the most liberal members of the Council, spoke in support of the project. While sympathetic to Sawant’s point that Vulcan was ultimately motivated by profit, not people, he knocked down O’Brien’s central message that the money would be better spent elsewhere. If this project were rejected, the $500,000 in revenue would go to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) general budget; it wouldn’t be earmarked for another woonerf. And even if it were, design costs alone would eat through funds. The question before the Council is not whether to support this woonerf or another; it’s whether to support this woonerf or none.
Licata also tested O’Brien’s claim that the corporate project would taint the welcoming residential feel of the neighborhood. The new zoning allows for residential buildings up to 240 feet, allowing for what he called a “residential canyon street” with tall buildings lining both sides. This claustrophobic image is usually conjured by anti-density NIMBYs, making it a surprise to hear from Licata, who used it to draw contrast with the open and inviting woonerf.
The Council agreed with Licata and approved the woonerf plan. South Lake Union can now look forward to what may become the most engaging street in the city, with wide landscaped sidewalks dotted with street furniture, pedestrians, and cyclists, just a block from Denny Park.
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