Sally and Mayor Nickels thanked the Public Financing Advisory Task Force at their first meeting May 8. They have a lot to do in a very short amount of time.
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Paper & Plastic Bags
Cloth is the answer – except for drippy meat packages
You may have heard about the proposal to place a 20 cent fee on plastic and paper bags, along with a phased-in ban on non-recyclable food containers (Styrofoam). Every household in the city will get a free reusable bag before the fees take effect.
I'm aware that the over-all impact of the bag fee will be less than other actions, but I do think it's a significant step toward decreasing Seattle's hunger for bags. Currently, we dispose of more than 360 million bags per year. Think of all your trips to Safeway, Bartell's, QFC, Walgreen's and elsewhere. It's estimated that the switch will save 4,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year -- the equivalent of taking 665 cars off the road. All the money collected by the city will go toward waste prevention, recycling, city cleanup and environmental education programs. All in all, a pretty good program.
I've started carrying around two cloth bags in my car (and more often than not forget to grab them before entering the store). That's almost, but not quite enough when it's my turn to shop. If we had kids, it definitely wouldn't be enough. I would have to figure out whether to pay the fee or invest in a few more bags. I know that any fee dips into people's pockets. The true environmental cost of paper and plastic bags has been invisible, though.
Along with the bag fee comes a phased-in ban on non-recyclable food containers. This one seems like a no-brainer. Every piece of Styrofoam that humanity has ever thrown away is still sitting in a garbage dump – it doesn't decompose. Some restaurants are already making the transition. If the City Council votes to implement the ban, restaurants have a year in which to transition to recyclable to-go containers. Some of these new containers are corn-based, which presents its own set of environmental concerns, but, overall, this is a step forward. The biggest challenge I've heard about so far relates to packaging meat and finding a Styrofoam replacement that won't soak up meat juice. I trust the market will respond.
I'm looking forward to reviewing the details of the legislation in the Environment, Emergency Management & Utilities Committee.
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Neighborhood Plan Updates – Power to the people
In classic Seattle fashion this winter we've been conducting a process to review a proposed process. That's what you pay me for sometimes. Let's just hope it doesn't become a habit.
Last year I started talking about the need to check-in on our neighborhood plans. The Mayor's staff has come up with a proposal for how to update the 37 plans (minus South Lake Union which already did an update over the past few years) and we're reviewing that in PLUNC for effectiveness on several levels – intent, clarity of steps, time, cost, degree of neighborhood responsibility, etc. I think Executive-side staff have done a good job of shaping a proposal and have solicited a lot of community input. At Council we're doing our own due diligence through forums and dialogue.
In mid-April I attended the Neighborhood Planning Workshop hosted by the City Neighborhood Council (CNC) and myself. Approximately 100 people attended on a Saturday morning, which served as a testament to how important neighborhood planning (and how it is done) is to the people of Seattle. What I heard there was similar to the feedback I heard at the Neighborhood Plan Updates Forum held at the University of Washington Evan's School of Public Affairs earlier this year.
As the Post-Intelligencer's article well-describes, the leading issues brought up by CNC forum participants were trust and competency. Trust came up repeatedly with respect to the ability of neighborhoods to truly direct their plan updates if City staff are the ones carrying out the planning work, and with respect to the City's track record carrying out plan recommendations.
Implementation has slowed down, partially as a result of a slowing economy. But even so, it's easy to forget that many positive things came out of the first 10 years of planning, including new parks, fire stations, community centers and open spaces. The plans make actions possible.
PLUNC will have official discussions on the update proposal in June. Based on feedback gleaned from the forums and from many, many conversations with groups and individuals, I lean toward supporting the sector-based approach (with the guarantee that updates happen at the individual neighborhood level), but I am disappointed that it would take six years to complete all updates if we do one sector a year. I feel this is too long. I would also like to see neighborhoods have the option of working with outside consultants for the plan update. I say "option" because I believe City staff will do an outstanding job working with neighborhoods. I also trust neighborhoods to make the choice that works for them.
Feel free to sign up to receive agendas here, and keep an eye out for next steps.
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Planning and Land Use
Zoning for Affordable Housing
A couple of years ago much of Downtown was rezoned to allow great height in exchange for some amount of affordable housing in a project or payment into a fund used for building affordable housing. The City Council and Mayor decided that buildings could go higher, but developers had to pay as much as $18.94 for every square foot beyond a certain base.
Since becoming chair of the Councilís land use committee I have encountered someone new almost everyday who tells me either: a.) development is out of control and destroying affordability, or b.) development is being choked by regulation destroying affordability. This is a never-ending argument. I donít know who is right, but I do know that development is a reality and that we can better involve the private market in producing housing affordable to middle-income works. Trading additional building height where it makes sense for some amount of affordable, "work-force" housing is one way to do that.
The Mayor's Incentive Zoning proposal currently before the Council would take the Downtown Incentive Zoning program and extend it throughout the city. In exchange for building higher, developers would have to commit to include some housing affordable to people making 80 percent (rentals) or 100 percent (condos) of our area median income. For how many years? That's an open question.
There are many questions about how this would work which is why I have been working with a group of for-profit and non-profit developers, housing advocates, open space supporters, City staff and the Mayor's Office on how to build the best Incentive Zoning program possible. I'm interested in determining if the downtown fee for additional height is appropriate for other neighborhoods and if there might be a way to better encourage developers to include affordable housing in their new buildings instead of paying a fee. The conversations have been smart and civil. I'm hoping they result in constructive recommendations to PLUNC for our committee debates on Incentive Zoning later this spring.
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Comprehensive Plan amendments move forward
Some of you may have heard of the city's Comprehensive Plan. Back in 1994, we created a document that set out goals, values and policies that will guide us as we accommodate growth over time. It's a blueprint intended to guide us in growing responsibly. Over time, it has also been seen as the way to raise issues that need further attention, although, may not truly be Comp Plan appropriate. We try to minimize amendments like that, but the reality is they happen.
Once a year, we have the opportunity to amend the Comprehensive Plan. Any Seattleite can suggest an amendment, including neighbors, business owners, councilmembers and city staff. This year, 26 amendments were proposed. After an initial screen to weed out issues that could be addressed better in other ways, Council forwarded most amendments for further staff work and consideration in the fall. That's when we'll review the staff work, hear from all of you, then consider adoption of the proposals.
Highlights of the amendments include changes to the Future Land Use Map for several areas currently zoned for industrial use (changing the FLUM is the necessary first step to a zoning change), stronger language for affordable housing, better definition of tree preservation, opportunities for lids over I-5 to connect First Hill and Capitol Hill to Downtown and a goal to reduce the number of miles vehicles traveled in Seattle.
I look forward to hearing from you and reviewing these later this year.
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I spent two days, Monday and Tuesday, May 5 and 6, on jury duty down at the Regional Justice Center in Kent. While waiting to not make it onto a jury I sifted through email and watched the action at Transportation Committee May 6 on whether to proceed with major improvements to the Spokane St. viaduct and 2-Way Mercer. In 2006 Council approved new parking and employee head taxes as ways to pay off bonds that would pay for improvements to Spokane, Mercer, a proposed Lander St. overpass in SODO and to the newly-City-owned King Street Station. Two years later, project costs have climbed such that we're shelving Lander and are "getting creative" about how to cover the new totals for Spokane St. and Mercer. Spokane St. viaduct is the consensus no-brainer. A wider viaduct and better transit connections down to Fourth and First Avenues are critical improvements, especially with the higher number of vehicles expected during Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement.
Mercer is the item that has lit up my InBox, as does any subject touching South Lake Union. The Mercer Mess has been just that for decades, long before Paul Allen thought real estate might make an interesting investment. We have 40 years of studies on the problems and possible solutions. In a congested, built-out area, no solution is cheap and no proposal cures all backups or slashes everyone's travel times. I think the proposal for a 2-Way Mercer and making Valley into a side street is a smarter transportation plan than what we have now and it does a good of job knitting together the right-of-way with the surroundings. This is something Seattle hasn't always done well. Often we design a street, but we forget that the street and the land and the buildings all affect the way we live. Mercer needs to move people and goods more safely and in a way that is better than the concrete scar we have now.
Pulling off the Mercer change requires tapping higher than projected revenues from the parking and employee head taxes (touching none of the voter-approved property taxes funding road and bridge maintenance), and banks on bigger than usual grants from the state and federal government. Council voted 8-1 Monday, May 12, to continue design, environmental review and property negotiations for this year. The project cannot spend money in 2009 until staff prove to Council that major progress has been made lining up the other dollars we need to make the project go. The jury is out as to whether we'll get that support, but I think we have to try.
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