Maren is smiling and wearing a blue scarf.
Climate organizer Maren Costa is running for Seattle City Council in District 1. (Courtesy of campaign)

Last week The Urbanist took a peek at how the Seattle’s Council District 1 race is shaping up, and former Amazon tech worker turned climate organizer Maren Costa is among the crowded field trying to win over voters. All are competing to replace retiring Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who has represented the West Seattle district for two terms. The Urbanist recently chatted with Costa to hear more about her bid.

“I’ve lived in West Seattle for 20 years,” Costa said. “I’ve lived in Seattle for 33 years. I am just deeply committed to my district and Seattle as a city. And I really believe in starting where you are. And, I’m raising my family here. I have… two of my own and two step [kids]. They’re all in public schools here in this District 1 region… All my roots are here.”

Beyond roots, Costa pitched herself to voters as the proven candidate with the sharpest climate justice and community safety focus.

“I think I’m the candidate in the race who has the most proven track record of getting stuff done, of bringing people together and getting big stuff done. I also am more focused on the alternative response for police, and my opponents are more about just focusing on hiring more police. And definitely the climate justice angle. I’m the candidate with by far the most experience and knowledge on that topic.”

She also identifies as an urbanist.

“There’s so much overlap actually between a climate justice agenda and an urbanist agenda or values,” Costa said. “The values of safe, sustainable, walkable cities aligns well with the fact that we need to stop relying on individual cars. We need density. Density in housing is one of the best solutions to the climate crisis. So there’s just so much overlap; I couldn’t not be an urbanist.”

Costa worked at Amazon for two decades as a user experience designer, but the push into politics started when she was fired from the retailing giant for her organizing work. That work began with climate organizing but later pivoted to advocating for better conditions at distribution centers in solidarity with warehouse workers.

“I had been proud to work there for many years,” Costa said, “But I realized that Amazon had no climate plan whatsoever. They were sort of this huge carbon footprint and kind of poster child for what needs to probably change if we’re gonna have a sustainable society. Yet they were getting an F on every rating scale, zero on every rating scale. They were behind Walmart and everything. So I started to try to pitch projects that might change that internally. And when I had done that in the past, it had been like, here’s resources, here’s a team, go do it. I have 16-something patents that had great success changing Amazon in the past, but when it came to climate, it seemed like it was a political hot potato because nobody wanted to talk about it.”

Costa began her climate organizing with a shareholder resolution, but it soon grew.

“So I ended up kind of finding a group of people who had already written a shareholder resolution, which was a really powerful way to gather people together,” Costa said. “It was like a few people had signed. I immediately signed on, and then we took that same resolution and organized almost 9,000 tech employees to sign on publicly, which had never happened before.”

This then led to a global climate strike that Costa credited with pushing Amazon to making its climate pledge and Bezos to launch his climate investment fund.

“We had a global climate strike. We organized 3,000 people to walk out for that. I spoke on the steps of City Hall to 15,000 people while I was still working at Amazon. Amazon of course announced the climate pledge the day before the strike,” Costa said. “Huge win. And even the Bezos $10 billion Earth Fund is often attributed to the pressure that the group that I was a co-founder of created.”

After the pandemic hit, warehouse workers reached out to the climate group within Amazon seeking support to advocate for safer conditions, Costa said. Despite publicly talking up their frontline workers and calling them “heroes,” the company wasn’t treating them well.

“The warehouse workers contacted our group to say like, ‘hey, will you stand with us? You’ve had good luck pressuring Amazon to create change. We have no PPE, we’re not six foot distancing, we can’t take a day off without a positive Covid test. Takes a week to get a test, takes another week to get your results back. People are going to work sick. They disappear. They’re not next to you on the line the next day. There’s no transparency. You don’t know what happened.’ I mean, it was horrible.”

Getting fired by Amazon

The warehouse workers and tech workers sought a venue where they could come together and discuss these issues, which wasn’t very popular with management.

“Let’s set up just a town hall, a conversation between tech workers and warehouse workers,” Costa said. “Let’s let people hear from the people who are actually on the ground in the fulfillment centers. And we set up that town hall, the invitation for that meeting went out, it came from my group, not from me personally. And within two hours of that invitation going out, 1,500 people had accepted, but I was fired, and along with Emily Cunningham, a colleague. So within that same two hour window, and the invitation was pulled out of everybody’s inbox and off of everyone’s calendars.”

That aggressive action by Amazon leadership to snuff out labor organizing in turn led to a court case reprimanding the company.

“So the National Labor Relations Board took a look at that and said, that’s protected communication,” Costa continued. ‘That was just coworkers trying to talk to each other. That’s illegal.’ They took Amazon to court and we won. We settled out of court, but they had to publish internally that they had illegally fired us and pay back wages and all the things that you would have to do. So that experience was really powerful. It made me really see that we need, collective action is such a powerful force, more powerful than war in many cases and less deadly. But we need also then leadership on the other side to pick up the will of the people and translate it into policy and legislation.”

Even with the sour ending, Costa seemed proud of her time at Amazon.

“I started at Amazon in 2002, when there was like 3,000 people at the company and it was up in the Pac Med Building on the Hill and just like tiny small meetings with Jeff Bezos. It was really actually a fantastic learning experience. There’s a lot that I take from that that I think is actually really valuable as far as shaping me as a leader.”

Costa noted that leadership experience included leading big teams, managing budgets, delivering products, and engaging users.

“I was actually Amazon’s first principal user experience designer,” Costa said. “So I really believe in listening and hearing from people, what works for them. And then also innovating on their behalf, as we used to say, because you can say like, Henry Ford said if he would have asked his constituents what they wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse. And then he went, it’s about problem solving and coming up with real solutions that work.”

About a 100 people rallied against Amazon for trying to buy the Seattle City Council elections. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
A crowd of people rallied against Amazon for trying to buy the Seattle City Council elections in 2019. (Doug Trumm)

That pride and fuzzy feeling doesn’t appear to extend to repealing or pausing the JumpStart corporate payroll tax as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has proposed (after failing to block the tax via legal challenges). Costa said she wanted more progressive revenue options, not fewer.

Bridgebuilder seeking to tackle urgent issues

Climate work inspired Costa to run, but she is aiming to tackle a number of urgent issues.

“It’s gonna be a whole new council and all of us are gonna need to confront public safety, homelessness, affordable housing,” Costa said. “These are the top issues I’m already knocking on doors. I understand there’s a lot of frustration with a lot of constituents that I’m hearing. There’s frustration with the way that police were sort of demoralized and have left and a lot of ideas that we need to rebuild the police force. There’s a lot of frustration with homelessness and wanting our streets and our parks back. And I get this, I hear this, I get it. But one of the things I love to say is to align on the vision and be flexible on the details. And I think we all want our parks and streets back. We all want safe neighborhoods. We all want thriving downtown. And how are we gonna get there together? And I think that 2020 was sort of kind of got everybody driven into their corners and there’s been a lot of rhetoric and it’s been harder to get things done. And I think we need to start talking to each other. I’ve been a bridgebuilder in my past in almost every role. I have spoken to that in any job interview. This is just one of the things that I do well. And I think we need some of that.”

Climate vision

But crisis brings opportunity, Costa argued.

“We have heat domes, we have atmospheric rivers that caused flooding when combined with a king tide in South Park. We have smoke season now. And we’re just not prepared as a city. And I see that as both an immense opportunity and an urgent crisis that we need to address,” Costa said. “And my vision for Seattle would be that we lead not just the nation, but perhaps the world as the most sustainable, equitable, safe, resilient city.”

Local climate leadership could then ripple regionally and nationally.

“And that’s what I love about the city council role is I love the very, very local. And I also love the way that there is potential for it to bubble up to a federal and maybe even a international level to say, this is how it’s done and we can do it. We are actually really poised to do that well. We have legitimate green roots. We have this beautiful natural surrounding that we’re set in. We have technology here, which is gonna play a big role. And I would love to see Seattle lead and then even at the District 1 level, I would love to see the South Seattle College become the school in the nation for skill building for a lot of these jobs that we’re gonna need to confront the climate crisis. And then that brings jobs and we can become a feeder school and it brings culture and vibrant neighborhoods and whatever along with it, which is great.”

Asked what the biggest things the city could be doing on climate that it isn’t now, Costa mentioned vehicle and port electrification, green building performance standards and retrofits, and free mass transit.

“A lot of great jobs can be created to retrofit and also then build new climate resilient buildings. And then transit, obviously, free mass transit is a fantastic solution. And then electrifying. We are a port town. I would love to see our port become fully electrified. So all of the vehicles, the ships coming in, the vehicles on the port, the short-haul trucking from the port to Kent and Renton, you know, that goes through the Duwamish, all the traffic and the pollution that’s going through the Duwamish, which is in my district. You know, I would love to see us become the first city to fully electrify our port.”

Boosting transit

Costa seemed to favor electrifying transit and making it fare-free over investments that would prioritize boosting service levels and stem waning frequencies and reliability in the near term, but she granted she had thought about it much yet and said “it would probably take further analysis than I can say here to weigh all of those tradeoffs.”

To boost transit ridership, Costa emphasized safety and convenience, with a way to do that boosting bus frequencies and adding more RapidRide lines like the C Line and the new H Line and also last mile taxi-like solutions. The C Line used to be her commute downtown before switching to work from home.

“The C Line made a big difference, because it was fast. Of course I was standing in the hallway because it was so crowded. When the solutions are right, people will take them. And I think it’s just creating that convenience and I would love to keep it free as much as possible. and then building in where we can. There’s a new line going in, there’s a new RapidRide line going in between Delridge and Burien, which is fantastic. And so just keep continuing with those, making sure those arterial roots are well-serviced.”

“I would love to see — I honestly don’t know if this is possible, so I’m gonna sound a little bit like a naïve dreamer here — but I would love to see a city, it’s almost like a city Uber fleet, where when… you’re in a little bit of a transit desert and, and, you know, Seattle is really hilly and sometimes to get to the nearest transit you’re walking up a strenuous kind of out of your way long hill, you know, could we put in some links with electric vehicles that you can almost kind of call, especially for senior citizens or anyone any type of disabilities could you call something that would just take you to the stop? Like that kind of short run to the nearest transit stop, and not having to not having to also drive your own car and then try to find parking there if you want to park and ride. I have no idea if that’s possible, but I would love to see something like that.”

King County Metro has pioneered such services with Via2Transit and its “Ride2″ shuttle offering in West Seattle, which was aimed at grappling with the Alaskan Way Viaduct closure. The agency ended the Ride2 pilot program in late 2019, citing dismal metrics. Via2Transit survived for awhile, but was recently phased out in favor a new Metro Flex program. The issue with such shuttle services has been that operating costs per rider tend to be very high, which makes it difficult to sustain the program once grants and other startup funds are exhausted and the programs are competing with higher performing services.

Streetcar supporter

When it comes to the streetcar, Costa said she’s in favor of completing the network with the proposed (but long in limbo) Center City Connector extension tying together the two existing lines.

“Let’s just finish that and make that connection,” Costa said. “It just seems like something we’re gonna need to do. We’re gonna want it there. And it’s probably one of those things that just do it now, and the sooner we do it, the sooner we start to reap the benefits from it.”

The position stands in sharp contrast with Herbold, who has been the most vocal critic of the streetcar in her time, deriding it as a “shopping shuttle” and backing then-Mayor Jenny Durkan’s move to pause the project, which may have been completed by now if not for that move to delay.

Pedestrianization and bike lanes

While saying she was still digging into traffic safety and Vision Zero campaign to eliminate traffic deaths, Costa signaled that she is open to superblock-style pedestrianization of some street sections to create vibrant commercial districts and is a fan of new bike lanes.

“We have some good-looking safe bike lanes that have been put in here in my neighborhood,” Costa said. “I love the idea of more pedestrian-safe streets and zones, superblocks. I would love to see a superblock go in at the 4500 block of California Avenue and talking to the businesses along there just to find out if they would support that.”

Zoning for four floors and corner stores

Costa sees the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update as a “tremendous opportunity” to create a more sustainable city, and she wants to see zoning changes that further that and allow for more flexibility and housing options. She thinks those changes can help create 15-minute neighborhoods, where everyday needs can be met within a safe 15-minute walk, as popularized by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

“I love the idea of four floors and a corner store,” Costa said. “I have a single family house. I’m in a mostly single family neighborhood, but right across the alley from me is fourplexes with retail sometimes. Some of them have retail on the bottom. It’s fantastic. They are my neighbors, just like my neighbors in the houses next to me, the single family houses left and right. It adds diversity, vibrancy to the neighborhood. I love the small shops that go in along the main level, the foot traffic, the walkable neighborhoods. So I think increase flexibility with zoning, streamlining the permitting process, doing everything we can do to add density, particularly around these main transit routes so that you have that 15-minute neighborhood walkability.”

Fan of social housing and microhousing

Costa said she voted for Initiative 135 in February, did some canvassing for the campaign, and is a fan of social housing.

“[Social housing is] such an important thing that we move forward with. We need all of these types of innovative things that we can bring to address the housing crisis and the affordable housing crisis and the density. And we need microhousing, we need tiny homes, we need SROs [single-room occupancy homes], we need everything we can get and figure out ways to fund that and make it happen. So I’m a fan.”

Mayor Bruce Harrell has also signaled some support for expanding microhousing options, but a plan has been slow to come together.

Standing up alternative response to deal with police shortage

On public safety, Costa acknowledged that police hiring bonuses haven’t solved the shortage of officers yet and pointed to the need for alternative response to make the community system less brittle.

“We cannot put public safety on hold while we wait to hire 500 officers. You know, it’s gonna take years to do that,” Costa said. “And we’re already offering bonuses and it’s not working, and it’s a national nationwide problem. It’s not just Seattle. So I think this is the perfect opportunity to invest in and stand up the alternative response models that we’ve looked at that have been successful in other cities. This police-only system that we sort of have found ourselves in is not the best. And now we see when there is a shortage of officers, we’re left without a lot of alternatives, and we need to invest in those alternatives that probably should have been there all along. We have been using police where there is another skilled professional that could have done a better job.”

Watch for The Urbanist Elections Committee’s endorsements in July.

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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.