How the GMA’s ‘Vesting Loophole’ Works in Practice

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A photo shows an empty lot with tall grass on a suburban street.
A empty parcel sits for sale in a suburban development in Five Mile Prairie in Spokane County. Despite landslide risks and critical habitat in the area, the vesting loophole has allowed some building permits to proceed forward. (Credit: Keller Williams Spokane)

This is the second installment of a 3-part series that is breaking down what the Growth Management Act Vesting Loophole is, what it looks like in practice, and how Futurewise is working to fix the loophole in 2022 to protect our rural lands and communities. The first installment was Goodbye Farmland, Hello Mega-Mansions.

In our first article of this series, we discussed what the Vesting Rights Doctrine is and how it undermines the intent of the Growth Management Act (GMA) to manage urban growth and reduce sprawl. For a brief recap, this is how it works:

A graph of the GMA's vesting loophole using a red arrow pointed right. Steps moves from left to right in the sequence: step 1, county votes to expand UGA, step 2, decision is appealed to Growth Management Hearings Board, step 3, county issues permits to developers, step 4 permits remain valid despite GMHB decision.
Credit: Futurewise

With a bit better grasp of what we mean when we say ‘vesting loophole’, let’s dive into the damaging impacts that it has had in communities across the state. 

Spokane County

An photo showing an aerial view of the Spokane airport terminal and runway with planes.
Despite opposition from the Spokane Airport, who contended that new growth would adversely impact operations, the slow decision-making process by the Growth Management Hearings Board resulted in a developer vesting 640 new lots whose permits were allowed to proceed forward even though the GMA expansion was later deemed illegal. (Credit: City of Spokane)

Spokane County expanded its urban growth areas (UGAs) in July 2013. The expansions had many problems including no funding for the new schools that the UGA expansions would require, even though existing schools in areas outside of the expansions had available capacity. One of the expansions also threatened the viability of Fairchild Air Force Base, the county’s largest employer. 

It took just over four months for the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) to decide the expansions violated state law and to issue an order of invalidity which prevented new subdivisions from vesting. However, during this short time prior to the Board issuing its order, subdivisions that will create 640 new lots vested to the illegal UGA expansions. That is an average of five lots a day. Because the permits had been vested prior to the GMHB decision, the development proceeded despite the ruling. 

Baltimore’s Harborplace: Elegy to a Dead Mall

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Closed stairs to the upper level of Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace Baltimore (Ray Dubicki)

Lessons from a one-time crown jewel of urban renewal.

Recently I got to be a tourist in my hometown. The hard part about going back after a long while away is seeing how badly the current stewards have screwed things up. My visit to Baltimore this summer was the first I’d been in the city for a few years, and it was the first time I got to hang out by myself in the city in much longer. It’s hard to visit.

Downtown Baltimore was once a case study in bringing a city back from the brink. A decrepit waterfront that was too small for modern container ships was cleaned up and turned over to vibrant and exciting attractions. Harborplace spent decades as a draw for a new Baltimore. It brought in conventions and tourist traffic, and justified a wacky plan to put a baseball park downtown. Harborplace changed how folks considered cities, how Baltimore considered itself. 

Now it’s a dead mall. 

As we emerge from pandemic (hopefully), perhaps new lessons from Harborplace can make it a case study again. Our downtowns have taken a beating, and there’s going to be a push to do something brisk and conclusive to rejuvenate them. However, Harborplace’s unique history and subsequent deterioration suggests easy solutions will also be temporary.

My Harborplace

Harborplace has a special spot in the cockles of this decrepit heart. It was one of my first case studies in trying to understand the whole concept of urban planning. I picked it because I grew up with it. Harborplace opened in 1980 when I was three. I don’t remember the waterfront or downtown before it existed.

A photo of Harborplace shows a tall ship docked in the harbor surrounding by small colorful boats. Tall modern buildings line the waterfront.
Baltimore’s Harborplace during a busy day in 2012. Looking towards Pratt Street Pavilion and Baltimore’s World Trade Center. (G. Edward Johnson, Wikimedia Commons)

To outsiders, Harborplace is a sprawling complex that encompasses a whole bunch of attractions around the Baltimore waterfront. National Aquarium, Science Center, Rusty Scupper, Power Plant (and its extension Power Plant Live!), plus a flexible edge of hotels and restaurants depending on how many lanes of traffic you’re ready to cross. At the east end, the pentagonal Baltimore World Trade Center rises like an exclamation point. Then there’s the ships to be toured and paddle boats to go out on the water. Dozens of school field trips took us to the Science Center (Only one went to the Aquarium. That was expensive.)

But in reality, Harborplace proper is actually just two buildings: the Pratt Street Pavilion and the Light Street Pavilion. The buildings are privately owned, but they sit on City land. Pratt Street is the narrower, with its two stories of shops running in the thin strip along east-west Pratt Street. It’s a barbell, with restaurants at either end and kitschy shops along the corridor between them. Here is the Cheesecake Factory where we went for my college graduation lunch that took so long to get seated it became a college graduation dinner.

Envisioning a Car-Free Aurora Avenue

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A modern tram runs along grass in Nice with midrise building and trees flanking.
The tramway in Nice, depicted here on Boulevard François Mitterand, offers an example of what a car-free Aurora Avenue could look like. (Credit: Kurt Rasmussen)

Livability would flourish in surrounding neighborhoods if cars were removed from one of Seattle’s deadliest and most polluted streets.

Today’s Aurora Avenue in Seattle is a wall, a loud, dangerous, polluted wall that divides communities. However, solving Aurora’s problems also provide an exciting opportunity to rethink sustainable mobility, undertake visionary climate protection, add ample social housing, and provide much needed high quality open space.

Doing so would require a bold change: removing car traffic from Aurora and replacing it with tramways, bike lanes, and parks and plazas at intersections.

A satellite image shows SR-99 bisecting North Seattle.
A highway runs through it. (Image via google maps)

Critics might say that such a change is impossible, but cities the world over are re-thinking mobility in the midst of changing work patterns due to Covid, our worsening climate crisis, and the pedestrian safety crisis. Visionary Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is in the process of removing half of the on-street parking spaces and converting them to parks, wider sidewalks, and bike lanes. Cities from large to small are developing plans to remove cars, while simultaneously increasing livability and mobility. Amsterdam, which was choked with traffic in the 60s and 70s, is at the forefront of this — but they aren’t stopping with where they are today. The Agenda Amsterdam Autoluw (Autoluw is Dutch for nearly car-free) includes incredible transformations — both underway, and in planning — to make space for green mobility, eliminate thousands of on-street parking spaces, and ensure a healthier and cleaner city for present and future residents.

The International Panel on Climate Change report released in August also highlighted how climate change is, at this point, inevitable. Drastic courses of action will be needed to slow the extent of warming, as well as mitigate and ruggedize against unavoidable long-term effects. Seattle’s heat dome may no longer be an anomaly — wildfire smoke now has its own season — and we are constantly reminded of the devastation that downpours can do — Germany’s floods from this summer alone will cost $35 billion for recovery.

A graphic shows cars becomes a much smaller share of transportation and walking, biking, and transit becomes larger.
The Mobility Transition requires a rethinking about movement of goods and people, towards sustainable modes of transportation. This is the Essen, Germany’s adopted goal. (Credit: City of Essen)

Unfortunately, Seattle’s own climate goals will continue to be missed with a mayor and transportation department that continue to prioritize the least sustainable form of transportation over efficiency and livability. Seattle is in the midst of a massive housing crisis, and a deepening climate crisis, exacerbated by our city’s inability to meet our climate goals. The main reason we are unable to meet our climate goals is private transportation. Simply replacing combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles does nothing to address the worsening pedestrian safety crisis, the embodied carbon of parking and sprawl, rampant noise pollution, or the die-off of salmon populations. Without a re-visioning around sustainable movement of goods and people, Aurora Avenue will stand as a stark memorial — much as the SR-99 tunnel does — of failed leadership on climate action and safe, livable streets.

The current situation sets up a future environmental justice disaster

There are four Urban Villages (UVs) that straddle or abut Aurora Avenue — Fremont, Wallingford, Aurora-Licton Springs, and Bitter Lake. Greenwood’s UV boundary is just a few blocks to the west. These UVs all have massive deficiencies of park and open space, with almost no major spaces planned to be added in the future. However, much of the land on either blockface of Aurora is zoned for buildings 55 feet to 75 feet in height. Thus, as Aurora continues to develop, it will see five- to seven-story buildings along either side. Unlike in walkable European and Asian cities, this density steps down quickly to low-rise and single-family housing. An Aurora with fully developed buildings on either side would put thousands of residents directly facing an incredibly dangerous street on which few given the choice would prefer to live.

Two teens walk along the edge of Aurora with no sidewalk and streams of cars going by.
Pedestrians walking on Aurora Avenue where sidewalks do not exist. (Credit: Lee Bruch)

Nearly half of Aurora Avenue doesn’t have sidewalks. It is also one of the noisiest streets in Seattle. Motorists routinely drive double the speed limit, and it remains one of the deadliest streets in the city with yet another deadly crash just last week. All of this occurs with six elementary schools, two middle schools, four high schools, several private schools, and at least 30 preschools and daycare centers within a half mile of the road. Our families avoid walking or biking on it due to its numerous problems, and trying to cross in the handful of places where it is actually legal requires waiting several minutes. I personally can’t imagine living on Aurora. Simply adding tens of thousands of new residents on it, as many people advocated for during Housing Affordability Livability Agenda (HALA) outreach a few years back — without addressing the pollution, noise, and safety impacts, let alone its inaccessibility, will do nothing to make for future livable neighborhoods in the corridor. Instead, business patrons, children and families frequenting nearby schools, and new residents will be situated in an environmental justice disaster. There is, however, another way forward.

Metro and Sound Transit Unveil Proposed East Link Bus Restructure

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A rendering of the Redmond Technology Station with a train and passengers at the platform. (Credit: Sound Transit)

Author’s Note: Some information in this article has been updated based upon new information from King County Metro. Several pieces of information are still subject to change since some route-level information remains incomplete on the online open house.

In 2023, light rail will reach the Eastside with Sound Transit’s newest extension: East Link (to be known as the 2 Line). This is precipitating further bus restructures among King County Metro and Sound Transit bus networks. Service planners are targeting better bus-to-light rail connections while maintaining good local service and achieving equity goals. The bus restructure process is in its second public phase with formal draft proposals, which would affect bus routes throughout the Eastside and could impact routes originating as far away as Seattle, Shoreline, and Renton.

The proposed bus restructure is best thought of as five subareas, which the transit agencies have neatly developed information around. Those include:

  • Seattle Subarea (Seattle);
  • South Subarea (Renton and Newcastle);
  • Central Subarea (Bellevue, Redmond, and Issaquah);
  • East Subarea (I-90, Mercer Island, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, and North Bend); and
  • North Subarea (Kirkland, Bothell, and Woodinville).
A map of the 2 Line extension shows stations at Judkins Park in Seattle, Mercer Island, South Bellevue, East Main, Downtown Bellevue, Wilburton, Spring District, Bel-Red/130th, Overlake Village, Redmond Technology Center, SE Redmond, and Downtown Redmond. The latter two Redmond stations will be added in 2024.
A map of the 2 Line extension. (Credit: Sound Transit)

More than 40 bus routes could be affected by the restructure proposals and cover 19 different cities. The 2 Line extension will deliver ten new stations in four cities by 2023 and two additional stations in Redmond in 2024, providing service from Northgate all the way to Downtown Redmond via Capitol Hill and Downtown Seattle. Light rail travel times are estimated to be 18 minutes from Downtown Redmond to Downtown Bellevue, 24 minutes from Downtown Bellevue to Westlake Station in Downtown Seattle, and 50 minutes from South Bellevue to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

  • Phase 1 study area cropped to Seattle and the Lake Washington bridges.

In developing the proposals, Metro initially sought general feedback earlier this year from the public and directly engaged with a 27-member Mobility Board. Key themes that came out of that process were a desire for more local connections, reasonable transfers, keeping fast travel times, additional weekend and off-peak service, and a focus on primary locations like Downtown Bellevue and Redmond, Microsoft’s campus, colleges, and the Spring District.

Council Rejects Pedersen’s Push for SPD Hiring and Retention Bonuses

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Police hold nightsticks in full riot gear behind a metal fence as protesters march by.
Police barricade during a June 3rd march and protest at City Hall. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has a $15 million budget surplus resulting from a high rate of officer attrition over the past two years. With Mayor Jenny Durkan’s backing, Councilmember Alex Pedersen (District 4) introduced an amendment to the mid-year budget update that would have allocated $3 million of the surplus toward an officer retention program and $15,000 hiring bonuses for transfers from other police departments. The amendment was rejected by the council, 7-2, with only Debra Juarez (District 5) voting in support in addition to Pedersen.

Pedersen also offered a second $1.1 million version of the police hiring incentive amendment that failed as well, though at a much narrower margin, a close 5-4 vote with Pedersen, Juarez (District 5), Dan Strauss (District 6), and Andrew Lewis (District 7) all voting yes.

While Pedersen stressed hiring more officers, his colleagues took a different approach and moved $5.2 million out of the department. They also allocated funding to SPD for timekeeping software geared to better manage a leaner police force. Of the money shifted out, $3 million will fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing, which will be administered by the Human Services Department. Another $700,000 will fund a new civilian crisis-response unit tentatively called Triage One. Despite rejecting the hiring and retention incentives, the council did lift three provisos freeing up the remaining $8 million for SPD for other department expenses. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted some of the surplus would fund recordkeeping resources — including two new positions in public records and IT — to help SPD reply to public record requests in a timely manner, hopefully overcoming their current pattern of tardiness and in some cases obfuscation.

During the meeting, Public Safety Chair Lisa Herbold argued against treating SPD separately from other City departments also experiencing staffing shortages related to pandemic hiring freeze and disruptions. While she voted no, Herbold said she would support hiring bonuses in the 2022 budget if other short-staffed departments also saw similar incentives.

SPD officers have left the force, but the reasons provoking their departure remain unclear

More than 300 officers have left the department in the past 18 months, Pedersen said. So far, SPD has been able to replace about 100 of them through new hires. While SPD was funded for about 1,400 sworn officers positions in 2020, the staffing shortage has kept the agency’s actual numbers lower.

Seattle police officers are some of the most highly compensated in the nation and some of the highest paid public employees in city, as Councilmember Kshama Sawant noted in her comments. In 2019, SPD’s median gross pay was about $153,000 and 374 officers pulled in more than $200,000 in gross pay, according to a Seattle Times analysis. Maxing out his overtime pay to a suspicious degree, one patrol officer managed to pull in $414,543 in 2019.

Why SPD is losing officers despite high salaries is a bit of a mystery, but it is a trend that has hit police departments across the country. One theory is that policing is suffering from its bad reputation and struggling to appeal to younger generations that are increasingly composed of people of color. On the other hand, people may be leaving the profession or certain departments because they feel unsupported by their governmental leaders and the public. Police interested in reforming the department may also be leaving because they see those efforts have stalled out.

A set of SPD exit interviews published by KUOW in 2019 tended to stress the unsupported narrative and fixate blame on City Council and Sawant specifically in some cases, but it’s not clear if the exodus since then follows the same pattern. SPD also appears to be one of the least vaccinated departments in the City and has seen some recent Covid outbreaks, with the police guild ardently fighting a vaccine mandate and declining to disclose its vaccination rate. In short, for all the hand-wringing about the “mass exodus,” some reasons behind it aren’t getting much examination.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz painted the department as facing a crisis and urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”

During the Council Briefing on Monday, Councilmember Pedersen opined that a hit-and-run collision that killed a pedestrian on Aurora Avenue in Wallingford might have a harder time being successfully investigated due to SPD’s staffing shortage. Officers did apprehend a suspect in the hit and run who apparently had been speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. It does not appear the staffing shortage prevented that arrest, but Pedersen did find it related and worried SPD might struggle to close the case or future cases like it without his hiring and retention bonus amendment.

Seattleites Support a New Funding Measure to Expand Light Rail, Poll Finds

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A view of an elevated light rail track with a train approaching.
The Sound Transit expansion is bringing light rail to Northgate in early October 2021. (Credit: Sound Transit)

This summer in the lead up to decision-making on whether or not to delay projects promised in the Sound Transit 3 measure, the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) released results from a poll conducted by Change Research Institute. Their data showed 71% of polled Seattle voters expressed support for a new transit funding measure to avoid ST3 delays. Fortunately, the Sound Transit board voted for a hybrid realignment plan that avoids the most substantial delays, keeping promises made to area residents largely intact.

Now NPI has released data from a second question included in the poll, and it shows similar high levels of support for a new transit funding measure.

Pollees want more of Seattle connected to Link light rail

When asked if they would support or oppose a new transit funding measure to connect the rest of the City of Seattle with Link light rail, 76% of Seattle voters polled voiced support, with 48% expressing strong support.

QUESTION: When all Sound Transit 3 projects are fully built, more than half of Seattle’s densely populated neighborhoods will still not have their own light rail stations. Would you support or oppose a new transit funding measure to connect the rest of the City of Seattle with Link light rail?  ANSWERS:  Support: 76%  Strongly support a new transit funding measure: 48% Somewhat support a new transit funding measure: 28% Oppose: 19% Somewhat oppose a new transit funding measure: 6% Strongly oppose a new transit funding measure: 13% Not sure: 5%
The new poll question released this week. (Credit: Northwest Progressive Institute)

The poll was conducted among 617 Seattle voters and has a modeled margin of error of 4.3% at the 95% confidence interval.

Midweek Video: Lynnwood Link Construction Progress from Above

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Progress on the Lynnwood Link light rail extension is going well. This video offers an aerial view of light rail construction and new developments lining the corridor from just north of Mountlake Terrace to just south of Northgate.

19-Story Deep Green Tower Nearing Approval, Belltown Livability Coalition Plotting Appeal

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A rendering of the 19-story proposal with Belltown and Downtown skyline in the background.
A deep-green residential tower could soon be breaking ground in Belltown, but some neighbors are planning an appeal. (Image by GGLO)

Tonight the West Design Review Board will take another look at a proposal for a 19-story residential tower near the waterfront in Belltown. The building’s design was approved back in February, but the developer has identified a necessary design departure that breaks with existing guidelines, so they’re back for another design review meeting seeking a fresh recommendation. The meeting will take place at 5pm with a public comment period expected to draw neighborhood critics who have voiced opposition to the project.

Proposed at 2616 Western Avenue, the project is participating in the Living Building Challenge, which provides a height and density bonus in exchange for high-performing deep green features — 25 feet of extra height in this case. The developer plans to build 186 homes and 96 parking spots on the site.

An aerial rendering of the site of 2616 Western Avenue shows it in relation to surrounding buildings on 1st Avenue, Western Avenue, Cedar Street, and Vine Street.
Belltown already is a dense mix of midrise and highrise residences. (Image by GGLO)

The Living Building Challenge pilot initially saw mostly commercial buildings participate, but after the City Council recalibrated the requirements and the density bonus, more residential buildings have applied. The Living Building Challenge seeks to create buildings that generate more energy than they use, capture and treat all water on site, and are made using healthy materials. Under new rules, projects can also seek “petal certification,” which offers a variety of paths to meeting the performance standard. To be fully certified, the building must meet its performance targets within its first year of operation.

The Belltown Living Building project appears to have had its design review recommendation secured in February at its second recommendation meeting. The extra design departure sought at this third recommendation meeting stems from the podium being a bit taller than allowed in the code. The developer argues that matching the façade height of the neighboring Banner Building provides a better contextual relationship and meets design guidelines, providing a harmonious streetscape.

An excerpt from the project proposal shows how design department request #6 would improve alignment with the adjacent Banner building.
An illustration of the design departure sought at the design recommendation meeting for 2616 Western Avenue. (Credit: GGLO)

The confusion is likely a product of how complicated our land use code and design guidelines are. Apparently, nobody — from the City’s planner to the design review board members to the project architects — noticed the design departure was necessary through the first two recommendation meetings, but that wrinkle now provides another opportunity to delay the project. Problems like this are why housing advocates are seeking to pare back design review program, streamline the requirements and hurdles, and simplify land use codes.

Anti-highrise “livability” activists rally against Belltown towers

Belltown is among Seattle’s most densely populated neighborhoods. It’s also leading the way with new housing proposals, and the 2616 Western proposal is a part of that trend. However, some Belltown residents have rallied against new housing proposals, arguing taller buildings will detract from the neighborhood’s livability. So far, these appeals have not succeeded at blocking projects, but they have slowed them down a bit while the Hearing Examiner considers their appeals.

The opponents in this case have united under the moniker of the Belltown Livability Coalition and they’re raising funds to appeal the project. The group appears unpersuaded that participating in an environmental sustainability program is an asset, and they argue the building’s density bonus is unfair.

“The increase proposed by the developer of 2616 Western leverages an international conservation program –the Living Building Pilot Program (LBPP) to unilaterally change zoning heights based on the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) criteria irrespective of Belltown/Seattle current zoning laws and without community input,” they wrote. “The LBP program was not approved by Seattle citizens, although it is being allowed to change our cityscape. Builder’s documentation of meeting LBPP criteria is not open to public review.”

The rhetoric here is misleading because the Seattle City Council did craft and pass the Living Building Challenge pilot program and then finetune it a few years back, and that legislation happened with public comment each step of the way. People electing councilmembers to pass legislation is also how our city’s democracy is designed to work.