Seattle skyline from Prohibition Bar in Smith Tower. (Doug Trumm)

2017 was a banner year for Seattle. We led the country in construction cranes, in population growth rate, in transit ridership growth, and–much to the chagrin of tenants–in rent hikes. Seattle’s rapid population growth came with the milestone of crossing the 700,000 population mark early in the year and growth hasn’t appeared to have abated.

Four Mayors

Other currents events: Seattle had four mayors after former Mayor Ed Murray went from expected lock for reelection to expected sex offender in the Spring. After Murray finally resigned, Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell kept the seat warm for a few days, before his now retired colleague Tim Burgess stepped in for 71 days. Despite all the upheaval, Seattle went with the continuity candidate in November electing Mayor Jenny Durkan, who had Mayor Murray’s endorsement and establishment backing. One continuity Durkan did break was 90 straight years of male Seattle mayors dating back to Seattle’s first female mayor Bertha Knight Landes. About time!

Multimodal Transportation

Mayor Durkan prevailed over Cary Moon, who had the endorsement of The Urbanist and many other like-minded organizations, but, in a hopeful sign, she appointed Transportation Choices Coalition Executive Director Shefali Ranganathan as one of her two Deputy Mayors. We hope with Deputy Mayor Ranganathan’s guidance Seattle can build on its successes, such as leading the nation in transit ridership gains in 2016 with 4.1% growth. We also hope Seattle under new leadership can reverse a troubling trend with collisions involving pedestrians and get us on course for Vision Zero by 2030.

Reaching Vision Zero will likely involve building momentum on the protected bike network, which did see some big wins in 2017. Along the west side of Lake Union we got an improved facility, although advocates argued the Westlake Cycletrack design needs further refinements to protect safety. The Second Avenue Protected Bike Lane is being extended through Belltown. The campaign to build Basic Bike Network Downtown seems to have worked, and focus may shift to building out connections to the neighborhoods. The SR-520  bridge also finally opened to bicyclists and pedestrians in December. The very expensive floating highway bridge’s opening to people biking and walking was much later than its opening to motorists, but late is better than never.

Bertha Tunnel Update

The giant tunnel boring machine known as Bertha finally holed through in April and was disassembled and fully dismantled by August. Much work remains to lay the road surface and utilities, but the new SR-99 tunnel is on pace to open in 2019–barring setbacks from litigation with the contractor over cost overruns associated with the two-year delay when the tunnel boring machine got stuck and needed to be extracted and overhauled.

Pronto Dies, Private Bikeshare Rises from the Ashes

Another big to-do in 2017 was Mayor Murray pulling the plug on Pronto Cycle Share in January, which killed the fledgling City-run bikeshare program in March. The Seattle City Council authorized a privately-run free-floating bikeshare system that launched in July. Whereas Pronto was cash-starved, private bikeshare has benefited from copious startup cash and got off to a quick start in the first few months. The numbers have cooled down a bit in winter months but appeared strong enough to suggest the program is here to stay.

More Resources as Housing Crisis Tightens

Seattle passed rezones in several neighborhoods in 2017, which enacted the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program and guaranteed new market-rate housing developments includes a portion of affordable housing or pay in-lieu fees to a City fund. The Seattle City Council passed the University District rezone in February. Downtown and South Lake Union rezones passed in April, and an Uptown rezone passed in October. If all goes according to plan, every urban village in Seattle will get a MHA rezone in 2018.

In addition to making progress on inclusionary zoning via MHA rezones, the Seattle City Council came up with $29 million for affordable housing though bonding, which led to a record year for Seattle Housing Authority investments–more than $100 million. Another way the Seattle responded to growing needs in housing, social services, and transportation was by passing a city income tax after a concerted campaign led by the Seattle Transit Riders Union. That tax is currently tied up in the courts, but if rulings go the City’s way, Seattle’s income tax could push the Washington State Supreme Court to establish a new precedent overruling income tax prohibitions dating from the 1930’s.

Community Package Extract $83 Million in WSCC Benefits

Additional housing resources were also scrounged up by the visionary leadership of the Community Package Coalition. The coalition tirelessly advocated to push the Washington State Convention Center to quadruple the public benefits package to $83 million for its planned $1.6 billion addition. $29 million in benefits will go to affordable housing. (I should note we’re biased since Coalition leaders Alex Hudson and Scott Bonjukian are also board members with The Urbanist.)

Homeless Counts Still Rising

Even as more resources came in, homelessness continued to rise as measured by the One Night Count. This shows how much strain rising housing prices are putting on low-income residents. Affordable housing dollars don’t go as far as they would in a less heated market, and much work is still to be done.

Odds and Ends

Seattle elected labor activist Teresa Mosqueda to replace retiring Councilmember Burgess and reelected Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez in November. Washington’s 45th District was also kind enough to elect Manka Dhingra to give the Democratic Party a one-seat majority in the state senate. With Democrats controlling the governor’s seat and both legislative chambers, Washingtonians are hoping for big fixes on issues like education funding and climate change–or at the very least fewer special sessions.

HQ2: Amazon Wants To See Other Cities

Oh and finally, Seattle largest employer Amazon announced it was searching for a city to host its second headquarters in North America, responding to the reality that Seattle cannot accommodate the breakneck pace of growth the internet juggernaut hopes to maintain. Some local politicians worried Amazon was dissatisfied and rushed to console the 600-billion-dollar company, but the second headquarters could prove to be a bit of escape valve for the tremendous pressure Seattle is under to meet the housing, office, and transportation needs Amazon’s rapid growth brings.

We’ll look deeper at what to expect in 2018 in a future post.

Seattle’s 2016 News In Review

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.