MAKING IT WORK
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city.
EMERGENCY RESPONSE TO WINDSTORM TO BE REVIEWED
On Wednesday, January 3, at 5:30 PM, the City Council will hold a public hearing on the City's response to the December windstorm. As Chair of the Environment, Emergency Management, and Utilities Committee, I will co-chair the hearing with Councilmember Jean Godden, Chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. This hearing is the second step in a review that has the goal of strengthening our capabilities so that we can be better prepared and more efficient in handling the next emergency. On Friday, December 22, the Council received a briefing from Department Directors, and gave them a set of questions to respond to.
This newsletter is not likely to reach most of you before the hearing, so please send emails or letters to my office if you have observations or insights that would be useful in this review.
While damage from the windstorm was more extensive than had been predicted, this is by no means the worst case disaster scenario, and a number of issues have already been identified, including:
What steps can be taken to improve communication between the City and citizens, especially those without access to electronic communications because of loss of power?
What can be done to reduce City Light's vulnerability to storm damage, and what management improvements would improve the timeliness of the response?
What improvements could be made to better coordinate the emergency response system among departments?
How could services to the most vulnerable communities (including Seattle Housing Authority residents) be improved and provided in a more timely fashion?
Are there improvements in the drainage system that would increase flexibility and resilience, both in the infrastructure itself and in managing it to reduce damage from this kind of event?
In addition to this storm, predictions of intensity were also exceeded during a storm event in May that flooded the area around University Village. Scientists believe that the increasing intensity of storms around the world is one of the most probable impacts of global climate change, and these two storms are likely to be connected to that phenomenon. Seattle's drainage systems are designed to absorb large quantities of rainfall covering the entire city over relatively long periods of time, the historic Seattle climate pattern. The future, however, may involve concentrations of rain over relatively short periods of time, often in limited geographic areas (the December storm exceeded the 100 year storm event in the Central area and Madison Valley). If this is the case, Seattle must begin rethinking the way we design and manage drainage systems.
The failure of the federal government to act to reduce the impact of climate change is a major cause of the need for what may be major drainage investments. The City should not only lobby to secure mitigation funding, but consider legal action to compel policy changes at the federal level.
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POTENTIAL NORTH HIGHLINE ANNEXATION APPROVED
On Monday, December 11, the City Council designated the North Highline/White Center community as a Potential Annexation Area (PAA) as part of a package of Comprehensive Plan Amendments. The vote was 6 (Conlin, Clark, Della, Godden, Licata, and McIver) to 3 (Drago, Rasmussen, Steinbrueck).
Designation of a PAA is not a commitment to annexation, but the first concrete step in a path that includes resolving outstanding financial issues, negotiating boundaries with the City of Burien and King County, a vote by the residents of the area, and an ordinance accepting the annexation. It is likely to be 2008 before these steps can be completed and a final decision made.
Under the Growth Management Act, all unincorporated urban areas in King County must become parts of cities by 2012. Studies show that North Highline is not financially viable as a city on its own, so all or part of it must be annexed by either Seattle or Burien. Designating the PAA keeps Seattle at the table for discussions as to what will be the best future for this community on our southern doorstep.
The North Highline area is already part of the Seattle community, which should not be divided by an arbitrary line on the map. Anyone who goes to White Center can see that SW Roxbury, which divides Seattle from North Highline, runs down the middle of a neighborhood. Most people in North Highline have a Seattle mailing address, many work in Seattle, and there are anecdotes suggesting that some may not even realize that they are not in the City already.
Seattle welcomes newcomers, from the immigrant seeking a better life in America to the young entrepreneur who sees a future in our high-tech business to the musician drawn by our vibrant arts scene to the climber entranced by our mountains. We do so because we know that they will contribute to Seattle's future. The only difference between that and an annexation is that land comes with the people, so annexation makes an even more valuable contribution. There is no similar unincorporated area adjacent to Seattle, and this would be the first annexation to Seattle since the north end neighborhoods between 85th and 145th Street, in the 1950's. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to complete our boundaries and strengthen the Seattle community.
Most opposition to annexation seems based on the shortage of revenues generated in North Highline compared to the services needed in the area. There are real needs for public safety improvements and human services in North Highline, and Seattle, with its large budget and anticipated assistance from King County and the legislature, is best able to support these needs. The worst case for Seattle would be to have this community languish on our southern border without adequate resources. That is a recipe for disaster for the adjacent Seattle communities. No Seattle residential community generates enough revenue to support itself, but North Highline has a significant commercial area that would likely make it more self-supporting than most of our residential neighborhoods.
In the last several years, the neighborhoods of North Highline have secured more than $300 million from the Technology Access Foundation, the Casey Foundation, and many other private, community, and public sector investors, to help build the brighter future that community leaders envision. These neighborhoods can become active, positive partners with Seattle on community development if they join our City.
Almost one hundred years ago, Seattle had the foresight to annex Ballard, Columbia City, and several other communities, because the Mayor and Council then had the courage to recognize that we all benefit from undertaking the mission of creating a common community. Boundaries divide and prevent us from solving common problems -- few things are more frustrating in government than having to negotiate King County transportation issues with 30 suburban cities, or persuading relatively affluent communities to take their fair share of low income housing or responsibility for homelessness. Annexation gives Seattle communities the opportunity to make decisions together about our future. With this vote, the Council has taken a major step towards bringing about that future.
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VIADUCT REDUX AGAIN
Just as the project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall seemed to be moving towards a final design, on December 15 Governor Chris Gregoire proposed another delay rather than making a decision between a tunnel and an aerial rebuild for the Central Waterfront. Instead, the Governor suggested that an advisory vote be held in Seattle on the issue.
The City has already made its decision on this issue, determining that a tunnel is the first choice if funding can be secured for it, and that a surface boulevard combined with a transit expansion plan is the fallback position if the tunnel cannot be funded. There are many other aspects of the project that are ready to proceed, including the entire section of the project south of King Street, where there is agreement on the design, engineering, and funding plan.
The Governor does not have the legal authority to compel the City to conduct an advisory vote, which would cost the City approximately a million dollars. In the spring of 2006 the legislature passed a law giving the City a choice between an advisory vote and making a recommendation by ordinance, and the City chose the ordinance route. We did so because this is the kind of decision that elected officials are chosen to make in a representative democracy.
It is not clear what will happen now. There is genuine concern about the funding for the tunnel, even though the Governor's own Expert Review Panel determined that the funding plan was realistic. The City has explicitly rejected building a new aerial structure, which would be even wider and more imposing than the current structure. The surface/transit option has never been fully developed or studied. Over the next month, City and State officials will have to enter into another set of negotiations.
There are two possible ways forward. First, there could be a decision to split the project and begin work on the parts that have agreement (notably the area south of King Street). This would begin to remedy the safety situation while further negotiations on the Central Waterfront take place.
Unless either the advocates of the tunnel or those who favor the aerial rebuild are willing to be more flexible than it currently appears, the only other possibility would be for a new alternative to emerge that could bring the sides together, such as a smaller tunnel that would be less costly combined with an improvement in surface streets.
Ideally, moving forward with the southern half could be combined with taking the time to design a compromise alternative for the Central Waterfront. In any event, January is likely to be a very intense month on this issue, and hopefully a direction will emerge by the end of the month.
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SR 520 TAKES STEP FORWARD
On Friday, December 15, Governor Chris Gregoire endorsed the six-lane alternative for the SR 520 Replacement project. This is a major step towards the urgent task of replacing the SR 520 Bridge, which is vulnerable to earthquakes and windstorms, with a new structure that can be designed to both improve safety and transportation for the region. The next steps are to develop a realistic financial plan for the project, and to select a design for the Seattle side that will most effectively promote the health of our neighborhoods and environment.
The six-lane alternative retains the existing four lanes for general purpose traffic, and adds a lane in each direction for transit and High Occupancy Vehicles only. By dramatically increasing transit reliability and decreasing travel time between the Eastside and the University area and downtown Seattle, this alternative would result in significantly more people choosing transit. Traffic projections show a major increase in the number of people going across the Lake with virtually no increase in the number of vehicles.
The six-lane alternative works best with the Pacific Interchange, which was initiated by community members, and has been endorsed by the Montlake and North Capitol Hill Community Councils as well as approximately two-thirds of the comments to the State on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. This option creates a fast and reliable link from buses to light rail at the University of Washington, connecting two multi-billion dollar transportation projects and providing significant transit benefits to students and staff at the UW. It is the only option that fixes the Montlake Bridge and Montlake Boulevard bottlenecks, saving up to 20 minutes in travel time on Montlake Blvd between NE 45th Street and SR 520.
The Pacific Interchange is also the only option that allows the restoration of a continuous greenbelt with trails from Portage Bay to the Arboretum, including a complete lid over SR 520 in Montlake. All options will have environmental impacts, and the City Council will work closely with the state to ensure that these impacts are fully accounted for and mitigated, and that the ultimate project design offers the greatest mobility while improving both the natural environment and livability in Seattle neighborhoods.
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COMMERCIAL ZONING OVERHAULED
On Monday, December 11, the Council unanimously approved major changes to the City's commercial land use regulations. The legislation was developed after a thorough process of public review, including panels of community representatives before the UDP Committee and a series of public meetings, public hearings, community forums, and opportunities for written comment. It simplifies the current code and provides better development standards for Seattle's commercial and neighborhood commercial zoned areas.
The most important changes are designed to further promote a pedestrian friendly environment in these areas. A key element is a change in parking standards to lower parking requirements for commercial uses citywide, and for residential uses in commercial zones. While developers are free to build additional parking if they so wish, the new standards are based on studies that show actual demand for parking in these areas. The legislation eliminates the parking requirements for all uses in commercial zones in Urban Centers and Station Area Overlay Districts, recognizing that these areas have dense enough development that the market can determine how much parking to build. This is the current situation in downtown, where there are no requirements to provide parking. The legislation also includes provisions that allow shared use of parking between daytime and evening uses (such as an office building and a movie theater), provides a credit of three parking spaces for each space provided for a car-share vehicle, and increases the amount of required bicycle parking, especially in urban centers and station areas.
The legislation also creates more rational regulations on street level development requirements and pedestrian zones. Current regulations require residential uses at the street level in all Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zones, which unfortunately has resulted in many vacant commercial storefronts in areas that lack significant pedestrian traffic. The new legislation differentiates between area that can support commercial uses, defined as Pedestrian designated areas (P zones), zones with height limits of 85 feet or more, and the Lake City and Bitter Lake urban villages (as recommended in these neighborhood plans). In these areas, residential uses are limited to 20% of the street level space, ensuring retail/café streetscapes where pedestrians are likely to be present. In other NC zones, where there are fewer pedestrians to make the commercial uses viable, residential uses will be permitted at street level. This provision will come into effect after the completion of a mapping project that will finish defining the network of P zones.
The legislation also combines the current P1 and P2 pedestrian zones into a single modified P zone. Based on the recommendations from the relevant communities, new P zones are added in the Eastlake and Madison-Miller neighborhoods, and P zones in Columbia City, Lake City and Greenwood/Phinney Ridge are expanded.
Open space requirements are also modified by creating a new provision called the "Seattle Green Factor" (SGF) to replace most of the current "usable open space" requirement. The SGF requires that developers select from a menu of landscaping features, each one of which has a weighted value. More credit is given to features with greater environmental or public benefit, such as on-site water retention, low water usage, and landscaping that is visible to pedestrians. Developers must achieve a certain number of points from the menu, in addition to providing "residential amenity" space, which is defined as 5% of the amount of gross floor area in residential use.
The legislation also continues the prohibition on lodging uses (except bed and breakfast) in NC1 zones, allows lodging uses within certain size limits in NC2 zones, and limits the number of gas pumps in Neighborhood Commercial zones to four.
This overhaul of the commercial code included a variety of other more technical provisions. Together, the changes should help Seattle in our goal to have high quality development throughout the City, under a rational and reasonable system of regulations.
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GOODWILL/DEARBORN STREET PROJECT BEGINS
On Monday, December 11, as part of the package of Comprehensive Plan amendments, the Council approved an amendment that would permit rezoning of the Goodwill/Dearborn site to allow more intense commercial and residential development.
Although there is general agreement that a positive development on this property could be a great community asset, an alliance of nearby communities, the Dearborn Street Coalition, opposed the Comprehensive Plan amendment because of their concerns about the impact of this major development on nearby communities. They believe that the development should only proceed if it includes a number of community improvements.
Councilmembers generally agree that most of the community improvements that the Coalition seeks are doable, and the developer is also willing to enter into discussions about them. The Council therefore decided to proceed with the Comprehensive Plan amendment, but with a commitment to facilitate these discussions in order to come up with a package that improves transportation, protects the Little Saigon small business community, and improves the relationship between this project and the nearby area.
It would be inconsistent to include such a package in the Comprehensive Plan, which is designed to give general guidance to City policy. However, the development requires both a quasi-judicial contract rezone and the approval of street vacations. Appropriate measures agreed to in the developer-community negotiations can be included as part of the conditions for approving these. The Council is hopeful that there will be a way to make positive things happen in a cooperative way between the coalition and the developer/Goodwill.
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"The chief function of a city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity."
-- Lewis Mumford
"To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in the land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships."
-- WEB Dubois
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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