Wednesday, 27 May, 2020

Talking it Out, Together


He was talking about his dog. After rush hour and after sunset, there is time for dog conversations.

“I don’t let people pet them though,” he said. He was a younger man like myself, at the in-between moment of your thirties– neither young anymore nor old. You’re merely there, hopefully aware the prime of your life is drifting by with each passing second. These are the days of laughter before forgetting, when we still remembered the lessons of careless youth, but could temper them with the insight of the years. The problems in your life may be harder than before; but you’re now better equipped to handle them.

He reached a hand down to his pet’s affectionate lapping tongue. “Just today I was walking them right over there by Safeway and this white girl wanted to pet them and I said no and she called me a nigger.”
“Oh no,” I moaned. I wanted him to know I cared. “In this day and… man, stuff like that breaks my heart. People using that word.”
“It took me back… She called me a nigger!”
“That word’s just got too much awfulness behind it.” 

Convention Center Seeks $300 Million Federal Bailout to Complete $1.8 Billion Expansion

WSCC Addition construction progress. (Courtesy of the WSCC)

The Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) announced today that it was seeking $300 million bailout from the federal government to stay afloat. The WSCC’s ambitious $1.8 billion expansion project is midway through construction but in jeopardy due to the economic crisis. The project will run out of money in 10 to 12 months without intervention, project developer Matt Griffin said.

Local leaders like King County Executive Dow Constantine and MLK Labor Council’s Nicole Grant backed the WSCC in their request and emphasized that thousands of jobs were at stake. The estimate cited throughout the presentation fluctuated based on how many indirect jobs were lumped in with figures. Griffin said about 1,000 construction workers would be on site in 10 to 12 months when the funds are expected to run out and force the project to pause.

Executive Constantine seemed to emphasize both regional vitality and strength and the vulnerability that the convention center represents if it was not completed: “There are few [projects] that are more important to the region than the Convention Center Addition.”

“We have one of the best economies in the world here. We’re a hub of innovation that connects the rest of the region and the rest of the world,” Constantine said. “Delaying the project would have devastating effects on the construction industry and the hospitality industry… It would have a ripple effect across the region.”

Those ripple effects also include timely payments on the $161 million land sale Executive Constantine authorized on behalf of King County. The convention center is rising from the former footprint of the County-owned Convention Place bus station.

“On behalf of the workers we represent, I want to say the completion of the convention center is a major priority,” Grant said. “There is no way to stop this work. We must persevere. That is why I’m appealing, really appealing to our federal delegation…”

While not invited on the call, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn criticized the WSCC Addition project and publicly questioned the value of bailing it out.

“Business powerbrokers will claim today in a press conference that a bailout for the Convention Center Expansion is essential to Seattle’s economy,” McGinn tweeted. “But what if, hear me out, expansion is just digging a deeper financial hole?”

Help Site the New Green Lake Community Center in Seattle Parks’ Survey

Green Lake Park itself is a destination for the whole city.

In March, work began on site analysis and predesign for the Green Lake Community Center/Pool redevelopment. The existing community center is over 90 years old. Seattle Parks and Recreation intends on demolishing and replacing the old facility. Designs for a new community center are meant to meet the growing demand on one of Seattle’s most iconic parks.

This month, Seattle Parks and Recreation began their online open house and returned with six potential site options. The organization has identified the following sites:

  • Site A: Current location
  • Site B: Pitch & Putt
  • Site C: Lower Woodland Tennis Courts
  • Site D: Woodland Park Lawn Bowling
  • Site E: N 50th St and Aurora Avenue N
  • Site F: Bathhouse Theater
The six sites under consideration in the survey. (Seattle Parks)
The six sites under consideration in the survey. (Seattle Parks and Recreation)

The criteria for site selection Seattle Parks is using includes accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, and proximity to transit. Proximity to the lake, nature, and commercial areas also factor into the agency’s calculations. 

Of the six sites, the City plans to select up to three for further study over the summer. On the project website, Seattle Parks is looking for community feedback to narrow down their choices. The survey will remain open until May 22nd.

A community’s center should be accessible to all modes of transportation. For the other sites to overtake the existing one, they should show they are up to the task. So let’s take a closer look at the transportation options at each site.

Seattle Council Postpones Business Tax Debate Over Protests of Morales and Sawant

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

Council President M. Lorena González has postponed budget committee meetings on the big business tax proposal sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales until such time as the council can meet in-person again or negotiate a work around to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act (OMPA). Backers say the tax is urgently needed to raise revenue to help struggling Seattleites weather the pandemic.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold has led the charge in calling for a delay in considering the tax and other legislative items like emergency design review ordinance (which passed despite her objections), while Council is meeting electronically during the stay-at-home order, pointing to the OPMA and the risk of lawsuits. Some of her colleagues seemed convinced when it comes to the big business tax, which unlike the emergency design review ordinance, is designed to be permanent.

Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order relaxed some Open Public Meetings Act requirements, but Herbold has argued the exceptions are very narrow–too narrow to pass a new tax on 800 of Seattle largest companies, as Councilmembers Sawant and Morales have proposed. The bill’s sponsors disagreed.

“Our council leadership made a choice to enforce the strictest, most conservative legal interpretation of the Governor’s proclamation without a serious conversation about the risk. Consequently the crucial conversation about emergency relief is halted,” Councilmember Morales said. “For now, the Select Budget Committee meetings are cancelled and the legislation Councilmember Sawant and I co-sponsored is delayed until after the Governor’s OPMA proclamation expires.”

The sponsors emphasized the pressing need for economic relief.

“I wasn’t elected to tell my community what we can’t do. I was elected to help lead this city even through a crisis and even when it’s hard. I’m not giving up on the fight to protect out neighbors,” Morales continued. “Tens of thousands of our constituents–hundreds of thousands of Seattleites have been left twisting in the wind, and without immediate financial relief many of our constituents, if they survive the pandemic, will have no way to recover from this crisis. This decision effectively pulls the rug out from under people who were already on the brink of disaster…”

Ban New Gas Stations and Require Cleanups to Tackle the Big Polluter on the Corner

Wallingford's Shell gas station. (Photo by Matthew Metz)
Wallingford's Shell gas station. (Photo by author)

In the midst of the lively local restaurants and coffee shops on N 45th Street in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood is a business bearing the logo of a famous multinational corporation.  

State records indicate that discharges from this business have been contaminating the groundwater flowing into Lake Union with benzene, a known carcinogen and fish toxin, at a level more than 360 times the legal limit for at least 10 years. Its vents spew benzene vapors at the window of a neighboring house just 10 feet away and at the tightly packed, expensive homes clustered nearby. Assuming industry averages, 6 million pounds of carbon flows from the business into the atmosphere every year. Could such a business really get away with such copious and hazardous pollution in progressive, environmentally-conscious Seattle? 

The business is the Wallingford Shell gas station, and its pollution is typical of gas stations throughout Seattle. A survey of Seattle gas stations’ environmental records reveals that 74 of 109 gas stations have a documented history of contamination of the soil or groundwater. Forty-eight of those gas stations have single-walled underground gasoline storage tanks installed before 1990 that are past their useful life and at high risk of leaking. The Wallingford Shell’s tanks are single-walled and were installed in 1984.

The problem isn’t confined to the tanks. Gasoline drips and small spills from fueling are a routine occurrence at gas stations, and the spilled gasoline finds its way into stormwater and groundwater. Gasoline vapor leaks while customers pump gas or during tanker truck fuel deliveries are common. A recent study of fuel vapors emitted from gas stations found that benzene levels emitted from underground storage tank vents were at unsafe levels up to 150 meters from a gas station. Roughly half the carbon which Seattle emits passes through its 109 gas stations.

Pierce Transit Seeks Feedback on New Pacific Bus Rapid Transit Designs

Daytime rendering of the suspension station option. (Pierce Transit)
Daytime rendering of the suspension station option. (Pierce Transit)

Pierce Transit has moved into the design phase for the transit agency’s signature bus rapid transit (BRT) project. The project is set to deliver a 14.4-mile BRT corridor stretching from Downtown Tacoma to Spanaway with much of BRT line having exclusive or near exclusive right-of-way. As with other regional BRT projects, transit signal priority, off-board fare payment, all-door boarding, and quality stations will be provided to improve passenger experience and speed buses along the corridor.

Pierce Transit has settled on a mixed-BRT approach with some portions of the corridor in mixed traffic and some in dedicated transit lanes. Generally speaking, the corridor will run along Pacific Avenue/SR-7, but in Downtown Tacoma the corridor will jog to Tacoma Dome Station and run on Market Street. The deviation is an odd choice since it will be largely duplicating other service while inflating project cost, but the Market Street corridor is at least unique.

The corridor is currently served by Route 1, which is the highest-ridership route in the Pierce County with 1.1 million rides annually. The BRT upgrade is expected to more than double ridership.

The general right-of-way design and station locations planned for the BRT project. (Pierce Transit)
The general right-of-way design and station locations planned for the BRT project. (Pierce Transit)

Stations will be typically on the right-hand side of the street requiring passengers to load and unload from the right-hand side of buses. The exception is some stations planned for locations in the median of Pacific Avenue/SR-7. In these cases, stations will be situated in such a way that they are located toward the left side of through lanes and paired with an exclusive lane left of the station platforms. Significant rechannelizations at intersections will be necessary to accommodate this type of design. The location of the stations will enable riders to reach platforms at marked and improved crosswalks, much like the Seattle Streetcar stations on S Jackson St in Seattle.

King County Urges Residents to Wear Face Coverings in Public, Pledges to Provide 115,000 Masks

Currently closed, the Central Cinema uses its marquee to promote wearing face coverings. (Photo by author)

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, people have watched the world around them transform in unexpected ways, but for many Americans the sudden ubiquity of people wearing masks and other facial coverings in public is one of the most visible indicators of the virus’s impact on society.

While the President of the United States might remain mask adverse–going so far as to decline to wear a mask while touring a mask factory in Phoenix while the Guns N’ Roses’ song Live and Let Die played in the background–the Centers for Disease Control has urged Americans to wear masks in public, declaring that wearing masks in public is an important way to curb transmission of the virus.

To that end, King County has issued a directive recommending that people wear a face covering whenever in any indoor or outdoor public space where you may be within six feet of someone who does not live with you.

Credit: King County Public Health
Credit: King County Public Health

According to King County, places where people are strongly urged to wear face coverings include:

The System Is Broken for Us Already

People walk and roll across the street in the rain with a car in the background.
"This system is broken for us already. We want change. We want a different and a re-imagined transportation system." (Photo by David Seater)

For the last hundred years, oil companies, car companies, airlines, global hotel brands, and the tourism industry have sold us travel as the ultimate elite experience. We are lured to enjoy the open road, the great outdoors, exotic white sand beaches and charming villages, made affordable by colonialism and global capital markets. 

In big ways, the pandemic flipped the script. Rather than travel being a luxury, those with wealth and privilege now stay home, while essential workers, the people who stock our warehouses, pick our food, and care for others, are in motion. But patterns of who travels and doesn’t travel were nevel simple. Climate catastrophes, free trade policies, gentrification, and displacement lead to forced migrations. For others of us who can’t access cars, transit or safe routes to walk or roll, travel, even regional travel to a job or community meeting, isn’t possible. 

And so in some ways, this pandemic, and the subsequent relaxing of requirements for “in person” participation has been revolutionary. Disabled and chronically ill folks who repeatedly have been denied work from home or school from home accommodations are suddenly seeing such accommodations widely available. Conferences have adopted all-online formats. City Council and other public meetings have found ways to accommodate public comment and participation remotely.

Granted, this is all with a huge caveat–there remain many people without access to reliable high speed internet or smartphones, as we’ve seen as schools have tried to move online. This extends to many disabled adults in group homes or assisted living facilities. At the most basic level, we hope this pandemic helps us make inroads to breaking down the digital divide so that everyone in our state can access online services. 

But we also have the opportunity to ask bigger questions about our patterns of travel and participation. First, what would happen if we stopped idealizing the jetsetting lifestyle and questioned the value we’ve allowed capitalism to place on experiencing the exotic and new? What if we didn’t define freedom as travel? What if we defined freedom as community and place? You can ask chronically ill and disabled folks who long before COVID-19 learned how to build communities from home. What would it mean to build a new economy not centered around practices like jet travel that we know have extremely high environmental and public health costs? 

But it’s not just about rethinking luxury travel. We need to think about how we configure the travel patterns in our daily routines. We’ve all seen the dramatic improvements in air quality by reducing non-essential travel and allowing more people to work from home. Can we maintain these gains by creating communities where we can get what we need with less travel, and less of us needs cars to get there? 

At its core, reducing the number of cars on our streets and the miles they drive is a health equity issue. Air pollution from gasoline, diesel fuel and brake pad dust creates significant health risks to poor people and people of color who are more likely to live near high-traffic roads, industrial sites and airports. The impact of these health disparities have only been amplified by COVID-19.  In story after story, we see the “underlying health condition” disclaimers attached the lives of people seriously sickened or killed by COVID-19, as if their lives were somehow more disposable. This was only reinforced when hospitals and medical professionals developed triage plans to ration access to care based on assumptions around the projected length and “quality” of the patient’s life. 

We know the high public health costs of our auto-dependent communities. Scientists are finding a connection between exposure to air pollution and an increased risk of dying from COVID-19. And yet, because that cost is borne mostly by poor, disabled, brown and black folks, our elected leaders aren’t willing to challenge the status quo. But now is a moment of possibility. Both the highly visual manifestation of health inequities in COVID-19 deaths, and the radical shifts in travel patterns we’ve seen with the stay-at-home orders are providing an opening to push for more meaningful change.