Ideas in Open Streets: Make Them Permanent, Seattle

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

Councilmember Strauss looks towards long-term café streets.

Councilmember Dan Strauss is enjoying Seattle’s outdoor dining cafe streets, even outside of his own district. “I love them. I was out at Rione XIII having dinner. It was really nice to have some semblance of normalcy while I was feeling safe in a place with public health protections.”

His meal and enjoyment are well earned, if neighborhood apostasy. The councilmember was ahead of many in City Hall asking that businesses be allowed to use nearby right-of-ways to accept guests while complying with pandemic seating limits. Last May, Strauss was at the forefront (yet still behind The Urbanist) in looking to public areas for improved public health. It took negotiating with the Mayor’s Office, the Fire Department, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), and many others through the summer for the first permits to be issued. 

But even through Seattle’s notorious winter drizzle, the program has taken off. Stretches of streets in all corners of the city have been turned into lively outdoor eateries. The car lanes have been narrowed and people have taken over. Strauss shrugs off credit. “These programs have been successful because business and restaurants have been inventive and successful and have seized the opportunity at a trying time. I just got government out of the way and helping.”

And now, Strauss wants the open streets made permanent. 

Why We Need an Affordable Talaris

A map of Laurelhurt with a pop out of the Talaris site.
A view of the current satellite of image Talaris in context next to Seattle Children’s Hospital. (Illustration by Francesca Oakford)

Many areas in the North End of Seattle historically kept out communities of color. It contained a patchwork of racial covenants, and banks furthered exclusion by discriminating who they would loan to and where through a system of redlining. Most of Seattle’s anti-displacement efforts have rightly centered on areas in the Central District, Chinatown-International District, Rainier Valley, and the Duwamish Valley. Seattle’s growth is happening in narrow areas of our city, while other areas have continued to live in a suburban-like bubble. 

Recently, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver stated: “It’s no secret that Seattle has a legacy of exclusionary zoning, and our zoning has played a huge part in the problem as to why we don’t have enough housing. About 12% of the land is getting 85% of the development, and it’s happening in such a way that not only is it not developing enough housing, it’s also creating displacement in neighborhoods where people are already very much at risk.”  

The lack of land use changes that would allow more affordable housing options in areas like Laurelhurst, near Children’s Hospital, has increased pressure on other areas of the city for development. There is a scarcity of housing, particularly for working class families around the University of Washington, too. Bad zoning policy is one culprit that forces people out of our city, and into long, stressful, climate-unfriendly commutes. 

Single-family zoning ensures that if a new home goes up, it will likely cost more than a million dollars. (The Magnolia homes in the tweet above are giant McMansions valued over two million dollars). In most of Seattle, apartments are banned. The lack of housing for students, workers, and residents who lack generational wealth for a down payment on a million-dollar home is happening throughout Seattle. Sharp relief is especially needed near the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital. Near Husky Stadium light rail stadium, communities like Montlake and Laurelhurst have avoided adding new apartments.

Anti-displacement work is essential. One way to address this issue is to confront the hypocrisy of wealthy communities, whose home values rise exponentially as existing neighbors say ‘no’ to land use changes. Share The Cities is focused on one parcel of land in the north end of Seattle that we feel exemplifies the uneven growth in our city. We want to make the case here that South Seattle needs an affordable Talaris and an affordable Laurelhurst.

What is Talaris? 

The conversation around the Talaris parcel is a case study in how our city touts equitable development and reversing and dismantling racism, but layers of entrenched land use laws are standing in the way of real equity. 

The current plan is to build over 65 luxury homes that would cover most of the privately owned lot, with an owner selfishly committed to single family zoning. As Ray Dubicki previously covered in The Urbanist, the Talaris Mansion Plan Is an Unmitigated Disaster. It is shocking in the context of dual climate and housing crises. In 2018, the 43rd and 46th Legislative District Democrats agreed. They passed our resolution asking “Seattle City Council to halt the current plan for Talaris and implement an equitable development outreach process using the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative Framework to build more homes on or near Talaris.”

City Council Passes Right to Counsel for Tenants Facing Evictions

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Councilmember Tammy Morales flanked by co-sponsor Kshama Sawant. (Credit: Seattle City Council)

In a unanimous vote Monday, the Seattle City Council guaranteed the right to counsel to tenants facing eviction proceedings. Sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales, and Andrew Lewis, the legislation sought to get ahead of a wave of evictions feared when the eviction moratorium, put in place to lessen transmission risk and improve public health during the Covid pandemic, is lifted.

Earlier this month, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Governor Jay Inslee extended their respective eviction moratoriums through June. However, once the pandemic eventually subsides, those protections will lapse and tenants will be at risk, especially if they have amassed significant back rent. The Seattle City Council did seek to provide a six-month off-ramp once the eviction moratorium is lifted, but eventually it will be back to normal and eviction courts are expected to be very busy. With unemployment rates high during the pandemic, many people have racked up considerable housing debt.

That’s where the right to counsel comes in. Often landlords can force an eviction through simply by either no contest or steamrolling tenants that in addition to being too broke to pay their rent, also often can’t afford a lawyer either. Tenants can seek services from nonprofit legal aid providers, the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association is the primary provider in the county. However, these organizations have limited capacity and funding.

Sponsors estimate the Right to Counsel legislation will cost an estimated $750,000 in a normal year to pay for the additional services, though they admit that will fluctuate with demand. Backers argue that investment will actually save money overall since evictions are expensive in terms of the King County sheriffs enforcing them and subsequently in City-funded homelessness services for those evicted.

“It is orders of magnitude more expensive not to pass a right to counsel,” Councilmember Sawant said.

Councilmembers stressed the evictions fall hardest on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, often simply filing a vacate notice is enough to scare these tenants into leaving their housing without asserting their rights in court. “This is especially Black community members who are getting eviction notices at three times the rate of other tenants,” Sawant said. This helps explain why Black and Indigenous people are also vastly overrepresented in our region’s homeless population.

“The 2018 report Losing Home: The Human Cost of Evictions [by the Housing Justice Project] found 87.5%, nearly nine out of 10, tenants who are evicted end up homeless,” Sawant said. “Some tenants even died after being evicted.”

Shelving Parking Plans Would Help Keep ST3 Transit on Schedule

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Construction workers and heavy equipment at the light rail station near Microsoft's Redmond headquarters.
A large parking garage being built at Redmond Technology Center, an East Link station funded through ST2. Progress as of November 2019. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Parking is a huge billion-dollar capital outlay in Sound Transit’s capital expansion program. Delaying construction of parking as part of new transit projects could salvage much of the program, which currently faces an $11.5 billion affordability gap.

At a briefing to the board last week, agency staff presented several additional illustrative realignment scenarios of the Sound Transit 3 capital expansion program — a similar exercise was conducted in February. These scenarios provide a window into the ways projects can be bundled together and delivered. Based on adopted criteria, projects are packaged into tiers and then ranked by years of delay in relation to original delivery dates. This ranking comes in four varieties, depending upon how much additional financial capacity (e.g., additional federal and state revenue, reduced project scopes, and value engineering) is provided, if any.

Matrix showing the original project delivery dates for Sound Transit 3 projects. (Sound Transit)
Matrix showing the original project delivery dates for Sound Transit 3 projects. (Sound Transit)

Of the new illustrative scenarios, the delayed parking strategy was a notably intriguing one. Agency staff prepared it based upon a request by Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar, who has long questioned the value of parking investments by the agency.

The “delay parking” scenario uses a strategy of smaller incremental light rail projects and separating parking elements of projects into standalone projects. This means that smaller light rail extension segments would be delivered as individual projects — allowing for phasing like Delridge-Alaska Junction, Delgride-Smith Cove, and Smith Cove-Ballard (three projects) versus full West Seattle and Ballard extensions (two projects) — and parking projects could be placed at the back of the line.

By delaying parking, Sound Transit would be able to keep most of the light rail projects closer to their original timelines without any additional financial capacity. Big ones like Lynnwood-Mariner, Federal Way-Fife, and Delridge-Smith Cove would only experience two years of delay. With five years of delay, Smith-Cove, Delridge-Alaska Junction, Mariner-Everett, and Fife-Tacoma Dome could be delivered. However, Eastgate-Issaquah and Hilltop-Tacoma Community College light rail projects would face painful 14-year delays under Sound Transit’s projections.

With modest additional financial capacity ($4 billion), nearly all light rail projects would face just two years of delay. This also has the benefit of salvaging timelines for Sounder regional rail enhancements and Stride bus rapid transit projects to the same period of delay. Stepping up the latter with $6 billion in additional financial capacity means that projects in the lowest tier — including parking — could mean only four years of delay, but presumably further delaying parking could shorten the wait for infill light rail stations, bus projects, and Sounder extension to DuPont. It also bears mentioning that $9 billion or more in additional financial capacity essentially limits all project delays to just over a year.

Incidentally, The Urbanist had sent a letter to the board prior to last week’s meeting asking for consideration of delay or paring back of parking.

SDOT Proposes Route 20 to Improve Northgate Restructure and Boosts West Seattle Service with Prop 1 Revenue

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RapidRide C hasn't been as rapid since the viaduct came down, and the West Seattle Bridge was closed for emergency repairs in March 2020. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) shared planned September service changes to the City’s bus network once the new Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) kicks in later this year. The biggest change is the addition of new Route 20 running from Lake City to Northgate Station and then south to University District Station, primarily using Route 26’s path.

Seattle voters approved the new STBD by a margin of over 60 points, increasing the current STBD’s 0.1% sales tax to 0.15%. However, due to threat at the time that I-976 would survive a court challenge (it didn’t), the old $60 vehicle license fee (VLF) was not included in the STBD and expired. Overall, funding from the STBD will decrease with the renewal, dropping from an annual $50 million to $39 million and forcing King County Metro to reduce service hours within Seattle. The City Council voted to add $20 VLF back in, but SDOT plans to invest the extra $7.2 million in annual revenue in primarily in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance rather than bus service.

SDOT categorizes their upcoming STBD services changes into three buckets: West Seattle emerging needs, Northgate link project area reinvestment, and service reductions. In the changes, West Seattle primarily seems service increases. Seattle north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal sees mostly service improvements, and its fair share of losses. The remainder of the reductions fall in band from Magnolia all the way east to the Central District, which have presumably seen the most ridership drops as the agency recalibrates the system to address pandemic realities.

Meeting West Seattle’s emerging needs

With the closure of the West Seattle High Rise Bridge over a year ago now, West Seattleites and the City have been scrambling to move Seattleites in and out of the peninsula and mitigate traffic impacts. One strategy under Reconnect West Seattle has been to encourage and improve bus ridership, a goal clearly reflected in the service adjustments these adjustments. The target originally was a 30% transit mode share during the bridge closure, but that has since been modified down to 25%.

A 25% goal for people on transit, up from 17% if no action was taken. (Credit: SDOT)
A 25% goal for people on transit, up from 17% if no action was taken. (Credit: SDOT)

With low bridge access restricted for the time being, it’s evident that demand for bus travel that utilizes that connection has increased in demand and will receive frequency boosts in September. Affected low bridge routes Route 50, Route 120, and RapidRide C Line. Route 60, which serves badly affected South Park and Georgetown, will also see a service increase.

  • Route 50 (Alki to SoDo via Admiral and Alaska Junction) — This route will see a doubling of frequency, from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes on weekdays, 6am to 7pm. Just under half of the vested service hours (14,000) will go to bolstering this route.
  • Route 120 (Burien to Downtown Seattle via the low bridge) and RapidRide C Line (Fauntleroy to South Lake Union via Alaska Junction and low bridge) — These routes will receive similar slight service increases to help with crowding and expectations of high ridership post-Covid. Weekdays from 6am to 7pm, 7- to 12-minute headways will improve to every 7 to 10 minutes. Weekdays from 7pm to 9pm, 15- to 30-minute headways will improve to every 15 minutes. Around 9,000 additional service hours will be dedicated to these routes.
  • Route 60 (South Park to Capitol Hill via Georgetown) — This route will see a slight increase or doubling of frequency depending on time of day. On weekday from 6am to 7pm, headways will decrease from every 15 minutes to every 12 minutes. On weekdays from 7pm to 10pm, headways will halve from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes. Around 7,000 annual service hours will be dedicated to this route.

Nikkita Oliver’s March to City Hall Continues with City Council Bid

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Nikkita Oliver projecting into a microphone.
An image of Nikkita Oliver from their campaign website.

Nikkita Oliver entered the race for Seattle City Council with instant name recognition, having finished a close third four years ago in a run for mayor. Oliver’s profile rose even farther last year during the months of protests against police brutality.

Perhaps the most iconic moment of the summer was the June 3rd march to City Hall when Oliver stood with Mayor Jenny Durkan and delivered a set of demands from a broad coalition that united under the banners of Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now. The images and policy conundrums that march generated may have cemented Mayor Durkan abandoning her reelection plans.

The Mayor stood with her riot police on the steps of the City Hall looking like a nervous despot gripping to power rather than a poised and affable mayor calmly guiding an aspiring utopian city. Oliver reiterated the coalition demands to stop prosecuting (and tear gassing) protesters, halve the police department’s budget, and fund community-based health and safety. The Mayor came across as disingenuous while offering empty promises and explaining why she couldn’t pledge to stop tear gassing protesters that day. It was downhill from there for the Mayor.

“It was a very surreal moment,” Oliver said. “Standing with 12,000 people delivering a pretty clear set of demands to City Hall, I got to see what people power looks like.”

Oliver (who uses they/them pronouns) is a community organizer, cultural worker, artist, attorney, and member of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America Afrosocialist caucus running with the backing of the Seattle People’s Party. They are executive director of Creative Justice, an art-based nonprofit specializing in restorative justice and healing youth who’ve served time in juvenile detention. Oliver organized with No New Youth Jail to oppose the creation of a new juvenile detention center on 12th Avenue. That campaign convinced the County to reduce the number of beds in the facility and commit to eventually reaching zero youth detention, but ultimately the County persisted in building the jail.

Nikkita Oliver at a No New Youth Jail rally. (EPIC Seattle)

This time Oliver is running for Council Position 9, an open citywide seat vacated by Council President M. Lorena González’s run for mayor, rather than in the crowded field to replace Durkan as mayor. Their platform stresses transforming our system of community safety and justice, but it also draws a web of connections to housing justice, zoning reform, environmental justice, mobility justice, and stopping the homeless sweeps. Oliver said they want to continue the work of the 2020 rebalancing package and budget that redirected about 17% of the Seattle Police Department budget to more community-focused investments, in particular housing.

Housing for All

“We need to take money from an ineffective system and invests it in things we know not just based sociologically but based on what people with a lived experience have told us would actually help them,” Oliver said. “Housing is such a huge part of that. We often talk about issues around public safety and policing as separate from housing, but I think the lack of housing is part of the problem, and creating housing is a huge part of the solution.”

In their South Seattle Emerald interview, Oliver called for spending at least $400 million per year creating social housing, and their platform zeroes in on exclusionary zoning that is shielding much of the city from growth and limiting housing access for working class people.

“It’s no secret that Seattle has a legacy of exclusionary zoning, and our zoning has played a huge part in the problem as to why we don’t have enough housing,” Oliver said. “About 12% of the land is getting 85% of the development, and it’s happening in such a way that not only is it not developing enough housing, it’s also creating displacement in neighborhoods where people are already very much at risk.”

Oliver said the City shouldn’t miss the opportunity that the 2024 update to the Comprehensive Plan provides, and suggested a broad zoning reform like Portland pursued–as have cities like Minneapolis, Olympia, and Sacramento, with Berkeley and Tacoma close behind. Those reforms have sought to welcome Missing Middle Housing, like triplexes and fourplexes, in zones where only detached single family had been allowed.

“I think we could take some advice from Portland with their Residential Infill Project, which relegalized Missing Middle housing citywide,” Oliver said.

Previously the maximum single-family house size in Portland was a 6,750 square feet. The infull project lowers the square footage cap for single-family homes to 2,500 square feet but allow duplexes up to 3,000 square feet and 3- and 4-plexes and cottage clusters up to 3,500 square feet. If developers meet the affordability requirement, the cap goes up to 6,000 square feet for up to six homes. Parking request are optional.
Portland’s Residential Infill Project allows a variety of “Missing Middle” housing types like fourplexes in any residential lot in the city. If half the units are affordable, Portland bumps up the cap to sixplexes. (Credit: Alfred Twu / Sightline Institute)

Oliver also argued for urban village expansions via the Comprehensive Plan update–which echoed The Urbanist‘s ultimately unsuccessful push to add and expand urban villages during the last major update in 2015.

“Our urban villages are very limited, so [we should be] expanding our urban villages and ensuring more parts of the city are taking on the multifamily zoning,” Oliver said. “We need a diversity of options. Our current zoning has created a bifurcated city, where two-thirds of land is not accessible for most, except for those at the highest incomes.”

Interbay Armory Legislation Approaches Approval

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Wide view of Interbay/BINMIC facing south towards downtown and Mt. Rainier. (SDOT)

A bill to set up a public ownership authority at the Interbay Armory site is in the last stages of the legislative process. On Tuesday, the Washington Senate Ways and Means committee will hear House Bill 1173 at its 1:30pm session. The bill has already passed the House. From the committee, the bill will be sent to the full Senate and then the Governor. If approved, it will mark a new chapter in the development of one of the largest and last mostly empty parcels near downtown Seattle.

Rep. Liz Berry (D-36th Legislative District) is one of the bill’s sponsors. Via email, she summed up the legislation: “The Washington National Guard’s eventual departure from the Seattle Armory property will transfer 25 acres of land in the center of the city into State hands. The establishment of the Interbay State Lands Development Authority ensures that this unique opportunity will be carefully considered by multiple stakeholders and community members. By forming the Authority now, we will be ready to go when the land is officially signed over to the State.”

The last underdeveloped site of similar size and location got a football stadium put on it. To build and manage Lumen Field and the attached events hall, the state also set up a public development authority. That seven-member group was tasked with constructing, owning, and maintaining a stadium/event center and making deals with tenants. Their work continues.

The Interbay State Lands Development Authority will be somewhat different. Its 11-member board will be appointed by the governor from a list of public officials and specialists in housing and workforce development. They will be charged “to oversee and manage the redevelopment of the Interbay property [to] be useful and beneficial to the community within and adjacent to the Interbay neighborhood in the city of Seattle.”

Establishing an ownership authority is a significant step. Moving beyond committees or studies of the past, HB 1173 creates the actual mechanism for the state to own and develop the Armory site after the National Guard moves. Recognizing that such a move will happen is pretty big. The United States military has maintained a presence in Interbay since before the land was, well, land. 

Prior to displacement by Whites, Interbay was a tidal flat, a mostly soaked source of seafood and waterfowl for Tribes in the area. As the region was organized into a territory, claims were staked in the 1850s allowing construction of piers and nearby railroads. The U.S. Navy took control of the site in the 1920s and maintained facilities there through World War II and the Korean War. The current Armory was built on fill soils in 1974.

A 1936 aerial photo of Interbay showing the very wet Armory site highlighted in red. Rail lines crossed to the south on pilings and Armory Way connected to Magnolia. (King County Assessor)

While the Armory has been located in Interbay, the neighborhood has seen some changes. No longer is it a strictly industrial corridor between a deep saltwater port and the North Pacific fishing fleet. The neighboring city dump was capped and turned into a golf course. Thousands of new apartments have built up in the neighborhood, and thousands more to the north draw cars and buses through every day. New offices, retail, and mini storage compete with industrial uses and squander rail access. Infrastructure investments have gone unfunded, seeing deterioration in bridges. Plans have come and gone. More change is on the way as light rail extends northward and opens stations in Smith Cove and Dravus Street. 

The Armory’s 50-year lifespan is the outside limit for federal facilities, after which they are examined for renovation, replacement, or divestment. Besides the neighborhood change, two forces are steering the National Guard away from continued presence in Interbay. First, the site is not ideal for the Guard’s role in disaster response. In the event of an earthquake or tsunami, staff and soldiers would need to wind their way through a crumbling city just to rally. Also, the same fill dirt which created the site could liquify, turning into a slushy porridge and swallowing all the buildings.

Stay Housed Campaign Launches with King County Tenants Rights Push

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King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay is one of the speakers for the Stay Housed campaign launch. (Credit: Councilmember Girmay Zahilay)

A group of tenant advocates and progressive organizations are banding together to push for new renter protections in a “Stay Housed, Stay Healthy” campaign, starting with a kickoff event from 6:00pm to 7:30pm on Monday, March 29th.

The event is spearheaded by the Seattle Transit Riders Union (TRU) and co-sponsored by 16 other groups, including The Urbanist. Attendees can register for the virtual launch event to receive an email with Zoom information.

Many of the organizations backing the campaign have also urged Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Governor Jay Inslee to extend the city and state eviction moratoriums, which have provided renters temporary relief during the pandemic. That call helped convince Mayor Durkan to issue a three-month extension of Seattle’s eviction moratorium on March 15th, Governor Inslee followed suit on March 18th.

The tenant coalition is pressing for more and continuing to warn of a wave of evictions and displacement if policymakers don’t step up to protect debt-burdened tenants before the eviction moratorium is lifted.

“The campaign will be championing a suite of renter protections proposed by King County Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Girmay Zahilay,” TRU General Secretary Katie Wilson said in a press release. Both councilmembers will speak at the launch, as will “several renters who have accrued significant rental debt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and/or are at risk of eviction,” Wilson added.

A graphic shows an apartment building with "Stay Housed Stay Healthy" in cursive.
The Stay Housed, Stay Healthy campaign is a coalition of 17 groups and counting. (Courtesy of campaign)

Crucially, the County proposal would establish “just cause” provision that must be satisfied before a landlord can terminate a month-to-month tenancy, begin eviction proceedings, or fail to renew a fixed-term tenancy. Seattle passed a just cause law in 2019, but a court ruling has left a loophole in that law for tenants at the end of fixed-term leases. Representative Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) authored and passed a bill attempting to close that loophole out of the state house, but its fate in the senate is uncertain.

“State law doesn’t currently include just cause provisions for most tenancies, and while a bill is moving through the state legislature to add requirements to the books, that proposal falls well short of the King County proposal,” a King County Council press release states.

Other protections include:

  • Cap move-in, security and other fees and deposits and allow incremental payment;
  • Require landlords to give up to four months’ notice for significant rent increases;
  • Prohibit rent hikes in unsafe or unlivable housing;
  • Allow tenants to adjust rent due date if they live on fixed income;
  • Add protections against eviction over late rent;
  • Prohibit landlords from requesting Social Security number for pre-rental screening.

“After decades of gentrification and a full year of COVID-19 hyper-charging regional housing instability, people are struggling to stay housed. We have to come together and give tenants the housing security needed to survive this crisis,” Zahilay said. “Evictions, especially those inflicted without specific cause or reasonable notice, will exacerbate our homelessness crisis, crime, and public health issues. The legislation introduced today by Councilmember Kohl-Welles and I will be a difference maker for those already struggling.”