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Seattle View
June, 2010 E-News

Current Issues:

Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Schools

A while back, close to two years ago, I met with a group of parents of elementary-school-age kids in Northeast Seattle. This was a small group of moms who were more than a little aggravated at what to them seemed to be a constant case of myopia on the part of school district planners. How could so much time, sweat and tears be spent on decisions to close and reopen certain schools and still have over-crowded classrooms in North Seattle and painfully under-enrolled (and under-performing) schools in South Seattle? Who was planning for capacity and how? Don't the city and the district talk about which neighborhoods are planned to boom and which aren't?

Since then the district has addressed the immediate over-crowding problem in Northeast, but the underlying questions posed that day by those moms remain. That's what inspired me to pull together a joint meeting of the City Council's Committee on the Built Environment (the committee I chair) and the Seattle School Board's Operations Committee (chaired by Peter Maier). We met in the Eckstein Middle School Auditorium Monday, May 24, and had a great primer in how the region, the city and the district plan for changes in capacity over time. We were joined in the audience by many PTSA leaders and neighborhood planning advocates.  (Click here to view the meeting.)

After going through the fundamentals of regional and city growth planning, and the basics of facilities planning, one issue became clear. While the State Growth Management Act requires cities to ensure adequate infrastructure exists to support job and household growth over time, the definition of infrastructure to this point has comprised things like housing, sewer pipes, drainage systems, sidewalks, electricity and transit. We've never officially included education as part of the required infrastructure to support growth. While education is mentioned in the Human Development element of Seattle's Comprehensive Plan, there's no state requirement that education – the single most important thing to most families when they're choosing a neighborhood in which to live – be considered at all. This is something we could fix.

Committee on the Built Environment

6/22, Wednesday
9:30 a.m.

For more information, please call us at (206) 684-8802

Upcoming Seattle Events:

Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)
5/20 – 6/13
Various Seattle Theaters
Various Prices

Festival Sundiata: African-American Celebration
6/12 – 6/13
Seattle Centerhouse

Bicycle Sunday
6/13 & 6/27
Lake WA Blvd

Free Concerts at City Hall
6/17, noon
City Hall Lobby,
600 4th Ave

Iranian Festival
Seattle Centerhouse

Fremont Fair
6/19 & 6/20, All Day
Downtown Fremont

Seattle Pride Parade
6/27, 11 a.m.
Downtown, 4th Ave

Public Meeting at Eckstein The Councils Committee on the
Built Environment and the School Boards Operations Committee discuss how we can better coordinate planning efforts

By highlighting this disconnect between the district's long-range facility planning and the city's long-range neighborhood planning, the evening kick-started what I think will be a better collaboration. With neighborhood plan updates underway, the next major update of the City's Comprehensive Plan coming up in 2012, and the new "neighborhood schools" model rolling into reality this fall, we have opportunities to work with each other to the benefit of Seattle neighborhoods and families.

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Budget: Community centers safe for now

Last fall when the Council and Mayor buttoned up the budget for 2010 we made what we hoped were low enough estimates of revenue for the year. We eliminated positions, laid off some staff, furloughed most others, cut library hours, lengthened the lifespan of computers and cars, trimmed back on outside consultants, scooped up whatever unspent money we could find, and raised a little revenue by hiking the fines on some parking violations.

Unfortunately, a worse than expected economy means that we should have shot lower. Based on the revenues in the first few months of this year, we'll be short approximately $12 million at the end of 2010 if we don't make mid-year changes. The new estimates for the likely mismatch between revenues and spending planned for 2011 totals approximately $56 million. For context, the total General Fund budget (meaning without the utilities) sums to $904 million.

Over the past two months many of you emailed or joined the Mayor and Council at public meetings about the budget shortfall in order to speak up for your favorite and critical city programs. Some of you attended the meeting at New Holly or at North Seattle Community College to argue for new taxes to support parks. Thanks to everyone who waited hours to testify and kudos to the parents who organized the packs of community center pool polliwogs and pint-sized nature education lovers.

Earlier in the spring the Mayor asked city departments to propose cuts to make up the $12 million shortfall for this year. While the Council traditionally holds the purse strings to the budget, no Council action is needed to allow the Mayor to underspend. The list of cuts he has decided to implement includes more layoffs and deferred maintenance across the city, but parks programs are almost entirely spared. Wading pools are the exception where you'll see some, but not all, wading areas dry this summer.

The 2010 cut of biggest concern to me is the mayor's decision to not hire the 21 additional police officers slated for this year as part of the five-year commitment to increasing the number of officers in the patrol division. While I realize ongoing increase in salary expense will be tough to handle in the continuing recession, I would like to have a more open review of alternatives.

Unfortunately for all of us, while the cut review for 2010 may be over, the budget building for 2011 is just beginning. The Mayor will present his proposed budgets for 2011 and 2012 in late September. While we have avoided major service cuts in the next six months I can't imagine that luck will continue into next year. Furloughs, deferred maintenance and trimming hours won't fill the $56 million gap.

Thank you again to those of you who have weighed in with budget priorities already. I'll need your help again this fall.

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Taco truck revolution

Do you have a favorite taco truck? Have you tried a sandwich from the roving pig truck? Have you tracked down Skillet? Did you vote for Marination Mobile when it won the title "Best Food Cart in America"?

Some people in Seattle are still nervous about lunch or dinner from a mobile van, but more and more of us are venturing out to try street food. Mobile food vendors are big business in cities all over the United States, and Seattle's scene is no slouch despite archaic rules for what you can sell on the sidewalk. I am part of work underway to modernize our city rules and our city-county health codes to better reflect the boom in creative street food.

Street food

Mobile food vending can be 1) A mobile food cart on the sidewalk (like a hot dog or pretzel stand on wheels), 2) a vehicle out of which food is prepared and served (like Tacos Los Potrillos at Graham and Rainier, Skillet or Maximus-Minimus) usually on private property like a parking lot, or 3) a temporary stand (not on wheels) on a private lot. Vendors who get into this business have a thin profit margin, despite not having the bricks-and-mortar expenses of restaurants and cafes. That's the way of the food world.

City sidewalk vending rules currently only allow hot dogs, popcorn and espresso. That may be why we see the more creative mobile vendors serving from parking lots. Mobile vendors may not pay rent and utilities in the same way as restaurants, but they have meet health and sanitation rules. The carts and buses themselves go through inspection as do the "mother ship" kitchens in which the carts do their prep work each day.

Street food

A team of city and county staff has been working with mobile vendors over the past months to review Seattle's rules and figure out how to bring us into modern times. The health code, street use rules (like not blocking sidewalks with carts or lines of customers), fire safety, and buffering from nearby businesses all have to be accounted for by a successful vendor. Also, we have to figure out what works in different neighborhoods. What's right for Downtown may not work in Lake City. One person's vibrant street scene is another's jammed sidewalk.

In a rough economy, creating opportunities for small businesses with low startup costs and investment, resulting in a greater diversity of food options is, in my mind, a great thing... so long as we do it right.

For more information, take a look at this story from the Seattle PI

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Committee on the Built Environment

Multifamily Code improvements – Design-reviewing our way to better townhomes

We've been talking about the Multifamily Code Update for quite a while now (how we design lower scale apartments, townhouses, rowhouses, and sometimes cottages). What started out as a quest to fix the four-pack, auto-focused townhouse, grew into a wider and deeper package of changes to yield "greener" and more varied housing styles designed more for living than for car storage.

In committee we continue to fine-tune a few things. One facet of the full package is the "green factor" as it will apply to multi-family housing. The green factor is a requirement that buildings perform to a certain minimum standard environmentally by smart use of open space, plantings and alternative drainage systems. We're evaluating what items make sense in denser residential projects. I'd like to see priority for trees and less ability for people to get away with cheap, short-lifespan shrubs.

Among other items left to be fine-tuned (like height measurements, alley development rules), there's one piece of the package that's larger and more critical to get right. Through all our work, it's clear that everyone has an opinion about what constitutes good design. Large projects go through neighborhood-based Design Review Boards. Smaller projects go through DRB’s if they include nine or more units, but smaller projects have, up till now, moved along with no design review. A streamlined, in-office form of design review could capture these smaller projects that can have so much impact on the neighborhood around them. Under this proposal, all townhouse projects of 3-or-more units would have their plans submitted to an experienced city permit reviewer who would be charged with ensuring the project truly satisfies the citywide design guidelines. The downside to some is that the permitting process would likely take more time, thus adding cost to the project that would be passed along to the homebuyer.

Only townhouses proposals would be required to go through the new streamlined version of design review. Other projects for rowhouses or apartments could elect to go through streamlined design review in order to gain departures from the standard development rules.

My original goal was to have the package of changes voted on by early July. However, a group has appealed the city's "determination of non-significance" related to the projected environmental impacts of the proposed changes. That appeal will be heard this month or next by the Hearing Examiner. We'll continue to work on the remaining questions and await the Hearing Examiner's decision.

If you'd like more information about the Multifamily Code Update, you can find this summary memo on my website highlighting key elements. You can also review this at-a-glance chart to compare what exists now versus what's proposed. This map will show you all the city's low-rise zones so you can know whether your property would be affected by the proposed changes.

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South Downtown Neighborhoods:
Changes in building heights, open space, streets and housing

Maybe you have a soft spot for the historic bricks of Pioneer Square, the light pole dragons of Chinatown,
a great restaurant in Little Saigon, the King Street Station clock tower, or a unique shop in Japantown. Maybe your bike route includes Dearborn or you’re a frequent shopper at the Dearborn Goodwill.

These are some of the higher-profile elements marking Seattle’s South Downtown neighborhoods. North of the stadiums and south of the government core, from the waterfront over to Rainier Ave. S. we have a handful of adjacent neighborhoods that include Seattle’s original (well, post-Alki) neighborhood and a living, breathing International District. The area includes lower-intensity industry to the south and includes the busiest transit hub in the region with light rail, heavy rail, buses and, soon, a street car again. The area has the city’s highest concentration of low-income, subsidized housing and enjoys the best and worst of being adjacent to two sports stadiums.

South Downtown Neighborhoods

Over the past few years community advocates, business owners and property owners from all parts of South Downtown have worked with city staff to evaluate the zoning and other land use rules in the area with the idea of increasing the residential population and the business success in this area of town while also protecting our historic and culturally important buildings. They produced a package of rezones and related housing, open space and streetscape proposals. That package of ideas is now before the Council’s Committee on the Built Environment (COBE).

The package of proposals is large since it spans several neighborhoods. COBE will likely review the package over the next several months to understand how the proposed changes would yield the balance between new development, great streets for people, new open space and historic preservation we hope to see.

In early presentations staff from Department of Planning & Development and representatives from the neighborhoods have said the intent of the changes (which include upzones) is not only to provide more building capacity, but to have that additional density or height yield great public benefits desired by the neighborhoods in South Downtown for a long, long time. In some cases, a proposed rezone might create more height above an existing historic building in Pioneer Square or Chinatown. That height could be sold as a way to generate money to invest into the historic building.

Briefings to COBE have already started. You can find archived committee meetings here. COBE agendas will list when South Downtown is up for discussion and the specific elements of the proposal up for review in each meeting. DPD has a webpage dedicated to the proposal, here.  Watch my South Downtown Neighborhoods webpage, available via my homepage, for notice of special meetings related to South Downtown.

Feel free to contact David Yeaworth in my office for more information.

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Random Thoughts

Pneumonia, and Living-wage Jobs

I've been sick for most of this spring. Pneumonia in April. Bronchitis in May. I finally visited an "ear, nose and throat" doctor last week to determine if I'm really getting better or if I'm about to stumble into something worse in the month of June. We debated whether or not to do a CT scan of my head to rule out sinus trouble and I finally decided to do it since I was there and had the time. That's probably not the best way to describe the decision to have the test, but I really didn't think I had major sinus trouble as part of my spring package of illness. I did the CT as a way to completely rule out sinus trouble and move down the list of possible troubles.

CT scan

It turns out my sinuses are a mess!
Here's one of my CT scans:

Honestly, I’m not clear on how to read the scan, but the doctor was quite taken with it and not in a good way. I have a three-week course of antibiotics now.

This is all oversharing except that it is in service of a bigger topic – how we figure out where in the recovering economy good paying jobs will grow and how we funnel job seekers into those careers that pay well and are stable in the long run. Seattle Jobs Initiative, the independent non-profit workforce development policy shop and job training connector for low-income people, just released a new study called "Skills Required: Examining King County Middle-Wage Opportunities in Science, Math, Engineering and Technology." The study took our region’s growing conversation about STEM training as a path both out of the Great Recession and toward a livable wage for low-income people, and studied the likely workforce demands and likely wages for people entering STEM careers. 

The SJI report shows that the intersection between STEM occupations and middle-wage occupations is surprisingly weak. Not that many STEM occupations fit the "middle wage" definition. Not surprisingly, some STEM jobs pay well, but not all STEM jobs pay equally well. Tax preparers fall into the math career category and some make $12.98/hour. Still, the median hourly wage for King County STEM occupations is $31.98. STEM occupations pay roughly 70% more than the national average wage ($64,560 versus $37,870).

Of the 94 STEM occupations identified in King County, only 12 are middle wage occupations – providing a living wage while requiring some training or education beyond high school, but less than a college degree. The 12 are all in the Engineering field and include service, repair, maintenance and "diagnostics" of systems like in transportation, aircraft and other mechanical engineering areas. These jobs require basic logical and tech skills, as well as math. Counterbalancing the relatively low number of middle wage STEM occupations is the reality of the Boomer retirement wave. The study estimates that more than 50% of the current science and engineering workforce is nearing retirement age and that 25% will reach it this year. The Boomer exodus creates opportunities.

The SJI report drives home the need to better prepare young people and low-income people seeking a career path for the realities of job competition. In Seattle we have a better foundation in STEM jobs than most places around the country. We have great cutting-edge, world-leading companies that are predicted to grow. We must prepare more Seattle residents, including the kids in school right now, to compete successfully for those jobs. Maybe one of them will perform my next CT scan and be able to explain it to me.

You can check out the full report here.

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