The debate over the Seattle’s downtown density plan by Mayor Greg Nickels heated up this week, after more than 120 people attended a forum at the Gethsemane Lutheran Church on Thursday, hosted by Real Change, the Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone (SAGE), Seattle Human Services Coalition, Transportation Choices Coalition, and Meals Partnership Coalition, called – Zoned Out: Who wins and who loses in the new downtown plan.
The forum was kicked-off by an interactive trivia game facilitated by Joshua Heim, from Meals Partnership Coalition called, “Wait, wait – don’t evict me.” If attendees answered questions correctly, they received a t-shirt provided by Real Change saying, “Developers stole my city, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”
Four City Council Members attended the forum, including Peter Steinbrueck, Jean Godden, David Della, and new appointee, Sally Clark, along with a hodge-podge of housing activists, low-income renters, journalists, union organizers, and other concerned citizens.
The mayor’s new plan is meant to be an environmental friendly plan to thwart sprawl, and bring high paying office jobs, and new residents downtown by building more densely situated, and taller buildings with open green space. On it’s face, it looks like great urban planning, but it’s social ramifications fall well short.
Housing advocates want $20 per square foot sold by developers to be diverted to an affordable housing bonus for new residential buildings. The current plan is slated at $10.
Power brokers say if ten more dollars are added to the plan for housing, developers will go elsewhere.
Council Member Steinbrueck disagrees, saying, "The decision was determined behind closed doors with no public involvement, no input, no council, no staff, nobody. I didn’t even know these meetings where going on,” said Steinbrueck. “It’s like walking into a permit office, and deciding what I’m going to pay for my permit.”
After inquiring about profit margins with the developers Steinbrueck in his own words said, “the developers responded with it’s none of your f*@#ing business what we make downtown.”
It’s at that point that Steinbrueck commissioned a new study for the plan. The difference between the mayor’s, and Steinbrueck's plan is 1.6%. The mayor’s plan for $10 a square foot going towards affordable housing would cut into the developers pockets by 1%, compared to the new plan for $20, at 2.6% “Is that going to drive developers away? I don’t think so,” says Steinbrueck. “That’s pocket change.”
Condos downtown are currnetly being sold from $500, to $2100 per square foot.
Sharon Lee, the Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute, who also spoke at the forum said, “It’s an outrage that it’s another year with no more money for the 10-year plan to end homelessness, no more money for housing in South Lake Union, housing in the International District, and housing in Pioneer Square. These are all downtown neighborhoods crying out for affordable housing.” Lee encouraged people to not only look at the density plan itself, but to look at the city budget for significant resources for low-income housing.
Tim Allen, a security officer living in low-income housing talked to the audience about his experience of living and working in downtown for more than 19-years, and being forced to move out of the downtown that he loves.
Allen's presentation highlighted the irony of being a security officer working to protect the very office buildings, and condominiums that have priced him out of the market.
Transportation/environmental/labor impacts of the new plan:
Fearing a ripple of sprawl in surrounding areas - many believe the new plan; minus adequate public transportation would be a nightmare.Critics argue that if we’re not careful we may find ourselves looking more like Atlanta, or Los Angeles, than the utopia sought.
According to the mayor’s website “by 2024 it is projected that this area will produce 50,000 new jobs, and over 22,000 new housing units.” Due to an archaic transportation system people who can’t afford to live in downtown will have to drive - thus attributing to sprawl, and more pollution.
One of the questioned posed during the “Wait, wait – don’t evict me” was if you take the bus from a location in the suburbs, and work at a job downtown at 5:30AM - when would you have to leave to be on-time? The answer was the night before, with more than 2 hours of idle time before your shift even starts the next morning. Thousands of workers already face this dilemma.
In a joint press release with former Vice President, Al Gore on February 16, Nickels said, “We have a lot to be proud of in Seattle. But we have a lot of work left to do. We will continue to show the world that we can power a city without toasting the planet. The time to act is now."
Never-mind, the mayor axed an extensive monorail plan last year, and now wants to build a tunnel for cars marked in the billions to replace of the Alaskan Viaduct due to traffic congestion.
Could Oregonians feel the ripples of more growth in Seattle? The answer is yes.
Seattle dumps around 900 million tons of garbage in landfills out of state in Arlington, Oregon, a town 140 miles east of Portland on the Columbia River.
According to Brent Stav, Senior Public Relations Specialist with the Seattle Public Utilities, commercial office space and restaurants account for the cities leading waste provider at 40%, meanwhile apartments, condos, and single occupancies, which will be the majority of the 22,000 new housing units, yield the least in recycling – with only 25% of those individuals recycling at all.
The City of Seattle currently recycles around 40% of all the waste produced. San Francisco recycles more than 60% of its waste, while Portland is at 54%. While the city may be ahead of the curve, it’s far from being the leader in the fight against global warming as claimed by the mayor.
More so, Seattle is a union town, but many fear the 50,000 projected jobs will not come with fair-wages, and health care. Union leaders are asking the city to step up to the plate, and require construction companies, and developers to hire at a fair wage. Not to mention thousands of service industry jobs that will be created to fulfill the influx of high-paid office workers in the new plan. Union organizers are ready to pounce.
Council Member Steinbrueck, followed Sally Clark, who was less than inspiring at Thursdays event. “We are putting a human face on the issues we are discussing,” says the council member. “This issue is not about a city for tall, it’s about a city for all," pointing to the banner behind him saying, “A Downtown For All.”
The sky is the limit; it's whose sky that has become the question.