Thursday, December 13, 2018

Candidates are Blitzing to Join the Fray in Seattle Council Races

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2018 Seattle City Council. (City of Seattle)

It’s been a busy week for candidates jumping in the 2019 Seattle City Council race. The seven district-based council seats will be up, and some of them will be open seats (the two at-large seats aren’t up until 2021). In District 4, Rob Johnson announced earlier this month he wouldn’t be seeking reelection. Sally Bagshaw made her retirement official on Tuesday, opening up the District 7 seat.

The rush was clearly on in District 4, with Democratic Socialist Shaun Scott (a historian who authored a series on Forward Thrust for The Urbanist) joining the race on capitalist mega-holiday Black Friday. Given the website, former Tim Burgess aide Alex Pedersen is clearly running, and apparently so is Pat Murakami, who ran against Lorena Gonzalez in 2017 and lost mightily. Murakami, a long-time Mount Baker homeowner and tough-on-crime activist, apparently has moved northward, perhaps to be closer to Wallingford’s anti-HALA supercrew, which was the namesake on Mandatory Housing Affordability appeal which just got shot down.

Mediation Meltdown: 35th Avenue NE Still Needs Mayoral Leadership

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A collision on 35th Ave.

After more than a year of contentious wrangling over proposed safety improvements to 35th Avenue NE, mediation between two local groups is now over and two alternatives have been sent to Mayor Jenny Durkan.

As previously reported, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had slated 35th Avenue NE for safety improvements that include adding bike lanes, enhancing sidewalks and crosswalks, and restriping the arterial based on community input and compromises to the Bicycle Master Plan. However, late last year, local businesses finally began paying attention and since the improvements include removing parking from one side of the road, they launched a campaign, melodramatically called “Save 35th,” to retain their parking and not allow the implementation of bike lanes.

In response, several neighbors formed Safe 35th–a local, community-based organization intent on seeing the safety improvements implemented as they were designed (I am a founding member).

Despite three parking studies indicating the neighborhood only uses 40% of its parking during peak times, the fact that every business (except one) has a parking lot, a lengthy history of community involvement, the sabotaging of measurement equipment for a fourth study and life-threatening vandalism of construction equipment, as well as a lack of any engineering or design to support any of their arguments, Mayor Durkan capitulated to the demands of the Save 35th group and scheduled mediation to try to bring the two sides into agreement.

This process was begun by John Howell of Cedar River Group in September 2018. Each side was scheduled two meetings with Mr. Howell, with the suggestion that if they could come together, a final meeting would include both sides. Earlier this month, the final one-on-one meetings were completed, and two alternatives have been sent to the Mayor.

The original design includes protected or striped bike lanes where feasible and sharrows in other places, and parking consolidated to the east side of 35th. This design is a modified version of the Bicycle Master Plan (after compromises with the community) and was prepared by SDOT and several design consultants.

Everett Adopts Rezones Topping Out at 25 Stories

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In September, the Everett City Council adopted a comprehensive overhaul to zoning and development regulations in Downtown Everett and several adjacent districts. The adopted changes are fairly similar to the proposal that was highlighted on The Urbanist this past summer. The Metro Everett process was the culmination of dozens of public meetings and community outreach efforts that began as far back as late 2016.

Zoning Changes

Zoning throughout the Metro Everett was overhauled by largely consolidating existing zones into three categories: Urban Mixed (UM), Urban Light Industrial (ULI), and Urban Residential (UR). Layered on the zones are several key development standards for minimum and maximum building heights, orientation and design in relation to street classification, drive-through restrictions, and off-street parking requirements by parking zone.

Adopted zoning changes for Metro Everett. (City of Everett)
  • Metro Everett Zoning. As their might names suggest, the types of uses allowed in the new Metro Everett zoning types differ. Urban Mixed allows the most intensive commercial uses like office, dense residential, retail, and service. Urban Light Industrial helps maintain and encourage flexible light industrial uses as well as some office and urban residential. Urban Residential generally permits a spectrum of residential uses that could large apartment buildings and townhouses to cottage housing and single-family homes in some cases.

Mandatory Housing Affordability Rules the Day in Hearing Examiner Decision

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Rendering of Low-Rise 2 zoned block with MHA. (City of Seattle)

Just before Thanksgiving, housing advocates got some good news as Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil released a ruling mostly in favor of the City’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) rezones.

The reason why MHA isn’t the law of the land in most of Seattle’s urban villages and commercial districts is because homeowner advocates, under the umbrella group SCALE, brought an appeal on just about every aspect of the program’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). Getting through the 43 issues SCALE raised took the Hearing Examiner nearly a full calendar year.

A recent memo sent by the director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to the City Council estimated that the delay on implementing the program across the city has resulted in a loss of 653-717 units of affordable housing.

After sifting through SCALE’s scattershot nitpicking, Hearing Examiner Vancil sided with the City, but he did instruct the City to come back with a bit more analysis about impact to historical sites. He also offered the City some free political advice.

“While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year,” Vancil said.

People who have closely followed Seattle’s housing debates may disagree that housing opponents can be so easily appeased. Was there somehow a number of hoops the City could have jumped through to win the support of SCALE groups without comprising the program? It seems doubtful.

Note that Queen Anne Community Council continues to block the backyard cottage proposal even after more than a year of further analysis (after the homeowner group appealed and convinced the Hearing Examiner to block an earlier Determination of Non-Significance that hoped to avoid a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process in that case). The EIS found that wealthy homeowners would gain substantially from the backyard cottage proposal, but nonetheless they persisted in obstruction.

Transportation Budget Sails Through City Council with Only Minor Tweaks

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Mounted police in Pioneer Square. (Doug Trumm)

Despite the Seattle Department of Transportation having the distinction of being the largest city department, excluding the twin utility behemoths of City Light and Public Utilities, the city council spent relatively little time discussing tweaks to Mayor Durkan’s proposed 2019-2020 transportation budget.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is now on its second interim director under the current administration (with the search for a permanent director still underway and not begun in earnest until late this year). Revolving leadership or not, SDOT is also expected to deliver major progress on some of its biggest capital projects in the coming two years, from long-planned bridge replacements to capstone mobility projects. The 2019 budget is set to be the largest spend year for SDOT over the entire nine-year life of the nearly $1 billion levy.

A last-minute decision to take advantage of increased red light camera funds, which had previously seen a portion of their funds restricted to safety projects, and was diverted into the general fund for councilmember-selected projects outside the transportation realm. This led to transportation advocates feeling like they suffered a big loss. In another light though, the council’s lack of appetite to have a policy discussion around the issue in the middle of budget belies a larger truth that the department is not making significant progress on safety.

SDOT still has not released its annual traffic report for the year, which includes finalized safety performance information for last year, but all signs point toward stagnation on our commitment to ending serious and fatal injuries on our streets by 2030. This budget doesn’t reflect that reality.

The mayor’s proposed budget already took advantage of camera revenue to move forward “deliverables” promised to the voters that SDOT was likely to come up short on funds for, but when the department is already convinced that it is on track to meet the most important goal of the levy–eliminating fatalities–and the mayor has not shown any interest in recommitting herself to the goal either, then it is not surprising that the budget we have now reflects a steady-as-she-goes mentality. And the council is not likely to make much of an impact on that goal during budget season.

Sunday Video: Street Transformations – Sunnyside Lanes

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In this video, Streetfilms highlights how the New York City Department of Transportation recently upgraded dangerous bike lanes in Sunnyside, Queens to safe protected bike lanes.

Nathan on the Sev—Whoops I Mean 21

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I suspect my early formative days, spent as they were in the predominantly black and otherwise ethnic neighborhoods in South Central LA, have left within me with a certain positive bias, a subtle sense of long-ago comfort toward certain culture groups. It’s not really a sensation based on specific experiences; just a feeling, the everliving hints of your earliest self.

Should we really be surprised that my favorite Seattle neighborhood to work in, Rainier Valley, just happens to comprise almost exactly the same proportional  demographics as South Central LA? Some things don’t change. Our yearnings reveal the children we once were. Writes the German poet Novalis, more than two centuries ago: “I am always going home. Always to my father’s house.” 

Recently I was driving in West Seattle. I’m doing the 5 and 21 this shakeup for boring contract-related reasons pertaining to reblocked shifts and forced overtime on the 7 that I wish to avoid. I miss the 7/49. I’ll get back there soon enough. I always get back. 

Seizing the Bellevue Grand Connection Opportunity

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Bellevue Grand Connection is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How do we get the most out of it?

Downtown Bellevue is amidst its biggest growth spurt over the past 10 years. The Seattle Times identified it as the region’s second-fastest growing neighborhood after South Lake Union. Its population increased by a whopping 73% from 2010 to 2017. Its population density sits at 18,000 people per square mile, which is nearly identical to South Lake Union. Combine that with the fact that about 40% of downtown Bellevue is ripe for redevelopment and one can imagine how the population and density will double once more.

What can we expect from all of this? Certainly an increase in the number of people walking the streets. And that’s a good thing—more people make for a livelier and safer space. But one of the common remarks people make about Bellevue, especially when coming from Seattle, is that it is not very pedestrian-friendly. Wide and loud streets like NE 8th St make for an alienating place that few people want to hang around and indeed 8th gets few pedestrians.

Luckily, the City of Bellevue has recognized this unmet need and is working on a plan for an improved pedestrian link for the city’s key amenities—the downtown parks, shopping destinations, transit infrastructure, and trails system—all amid major office and residential buildings. This is known as the Bellevue Grand Connection and even includes ambitious plans for a lid over I-405.

Bellevue’s Primary Grand Connection route is on 6th St. (Image by Balmori Associates)

Goals for the Street

This is truly visionary thinking on behalf of Bellevue city planning—every city needs to have a central public space—where friends and family meet, business meetings can occur, or people can do some of their errands. This can form the heart of the neighborhood that people identify with.

Now, of course Bellevue has a number of great streets like Main Street and Bellevue Way, but the central core of downtown going east-west is really missing that. So the Grand Connection effort aims to fill that gap.

What can we expect to do in such a space?