MAKING IT WORK
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COUNCIL ADOPTS NEW TOWNHOUSE REGULATIONS
On Monday, December 13, the City Council unanimously adopted a comprehensive update to how townhomes, apartments, row houses, and cottages are developed in Seattle's low-rise multifamily zones. These changes will allow for more variety in housing types, improved landscaping and open space use, incentives for green building, and greater flexibility and improved building design.
The goal of the new code is to address the complaints that have been raised over the past few years about the proliferation of ‘cookie-cutter' designs that are not compatible with neighborhoods. The new code creates a Streamlined Design Review (SDR) process that will allow for closer scrutiny of project design. SDR will be required for townhouses with three or more units, but not for row houses, cottages or apartments in multi-family zones.
The new low-rise multifamily code will:
- Encourage a diversity of housing types;
- Require better design features, such as varied building materials and that at least twenty percent of street facing façades must be windows and doors;
- Provide incentives for "green building" features and hiding parking underground or at the back of the lot;
- Use the City's "Green Factor" landscaping requirement, which provides incentives for keeping trees and/or planting new ones;
- Simplify the code by reducing the number of zones from three to five (LR1, LR2, LR3);
- Change the low-rise height limits to match the height limit for single family zones in most cases:
- Allow for shared open space, for larger usable common areas;
- Waive parking requirements for projects in growth areas and within .25 mile of frequent transit service (15 minute headways), allowing the market to dictate the level of parking to provide;
- Waive density limits for certain housing types when good design features are achieved; and,
- Use a new flexible standard for measuring floor space, "Floor Area Ratio", rather than previously restrictive setback and lot coverage requirements.
The multifamily code update was adopted after substantial rounds of review and feedback from neighbors, architects, builders, and other design professionals. Multifamily zones comprise approximately nine percent of the developable land in Seattle and are meant to serve as a transition between single family and commercial zones.
More information about the Multifamily Code Update is available on Councilmember Sally J. Clark's website.
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NEW DIRECTIONS IN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
The Council advanced five new policy approaches in the 2011 budget process as part of our continuing work on economic recovery. In listening to the business community, we heard that there were several gaps in our approach. The Council adopted directives to City Departments to:
- Compile a list of all City-issued licenses and permits required to open and operate a business in Seattle, and identify opportunities for consolidation or change of licensing and permitting requirements and the feasibility of developing a Master Licensing system (one stop license and permit service).
- Formally establish an Interdepartmental City wide Business Advocacy Team, to bring together the work of different Departments that businesses have to interact with.
- Coordinate, integrate, and improve access to the array of City environmental sustainability services as part of our business expansion and retention work.
- Develop a promotion and communication strategy to make the City's business support services more accessible to micro-businesses.
- Develop market research support to small business.
One-Stop Licensing. Businesses have long bemoaned the multiplicity of regulatory and licensing requirements in Seattle. We were surprised to find that there is no central listing or inventory! We have asked the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) to identify and categorize all City-issued licenses and permits required to open and operate a business in Seattle, and to work with departments to analyze the original purpose of each license and permit requirement and analyze whether the license or permit continues to achieve its intended purpose. Once this is completed, FAS will identify opportunities for consolidation or change in licensing and permitting requirements, and analyze the feasibility of developing a Master Licensing system (one stop license and permit service).
Business Advocacy Team. The Office of Economic Development has a Citywide Business Advocacy Team, but this team should include OED, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle City Light, the Seattle Fire Department, Department of Planning and Development, and Finance and Administrative Services. The mission of the team would be to:
- provide business assistance and case management for businesses that need assistance in working through specific issues related to one or more city departments;
- identify systemic and/or recurring issues, barriers that unintentionally impact specific industries (e.g., biotech, farmers markets, street vendors, etc.) and regulatory challenges;
- recommend policy modifications and process improvements to Departments, the Council, and the Executive.
Business Services Support. The Office of Economic Development (OED) manages a business services program to help businesses navigate permitting and regulatory issues, access financing, and provides other technical resources. Seattle also provides a suite of services to help businesses become more environmentally sustainable. From a business owner's perspective, it can be challenging to navigate the array of environmental services that the city offers and evaluate what may be appropriate for their business. The Council wants these two services to be coordinated so that businesses receive the most effective and efficient service.
Micro-Business Support. Our smallest businesses (1 to 5 employees) often are not aware of and do not access City resources. The Council is looking for collaborative efforts with community partners to let new micro-businesses know about City and community services tailored to their needs, and opportunities for improving current services.
Market Research. One of the challenges for small business retention and expansion is the capability to do market research. Currently, OED's work in this area is limited to connecting companies to opportunities within the City of Seattle and informal match-making, but does not include providing GIS data, customer segmentation information, and other market research that large companies depend on to identify new markets. The Council wants OED to develop options for providing market research support to small businesses, including using services currently in existence, such as the Western Washington University, Business Competitiveness Center, as well as new ideas such as establishing a "corporate librarian" as part of the Seattle Public Library system.
Economic recovery requires careful and patient attention to making the City nimble, responsive, and thorough in its work with the business community. These five policy approaches will move us in that direction, and will hopefully make a difference in our economic development.
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A proposal to allow signs on the upper floors of downtown office buildings has been developed by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and transmitted to the Council with the support of Mayor McGinn. Because it relates to economic development, the proposal is currently under consideration in my Committee. It was initiated in response to a request by Russell Investments when they decided to relocate to the former Washington Mutual Building at 1301 2nd Avenue.
The legislation would limit signs to employers who occupy at least 200,000 square feet in a single building over 500 feet in height. There are only six or seven companies who would qualify, so the proposed change is modest in scope. However, because a number of questions have been raised, the Council has decided to ask DPD to respond to questions and consider possible modifications, and to hold the legislation until March of next year.
Most commenters have expressed fears that this could compromise the appearance of the downtown skyline, particularly if it was only the first in a series of changes that could open a wider door for signage. I appreciate the seriousness of this concern, and we will consider ways to prevent unintended consequences. Among the ideas under consideration are explicit limits on the number of signs or a sunset provision that would allow signs for an interim period and require them to be removed at the end of that period if the Council determined that there were problematic impacts.
Other commenters have more visceral concerns about corporate signage representing an increase in the proliferation of advertising and corporate presence that is a broader cultural issue in our society. I understand this perspective and the uneasiness about this aspect of our society and economy.
However, the actual impact of the legislation before us is very limited. It allows only about 1000 square feet of signage on a limited number of buildings. It does not allow 'giant lighted billboards' or turn the Seattle skyline into Las Vegas. Seattle currently allows similar signs, in some cases larger than those that this legislation would permit, in the following locations:
-- Outside of downtown, such as the UW sign on the former Safeco building in the University District, the Starbucks symbol on the former Sears building, and the new Harborview building;
-- Within downtown below 65 feet, such as the Pike Place Market sign;
-- Within downtown above 65 feet for hotels.
The proposed code change would limit the signs to letters ten feet in height, would require signs to be on the sides of buildings (not tops), would require them to contain only company names, with no blinking, flashing, scrolling, or video lighting (only a soft white backlight), and would not allow them in historic districts. These signs would be small enough that they would not be noticeable in the iconic images of the Seattle skyline. The proposed corporate identification signs would be similar to the signs currently on the Sheraton and Westin hotels, which have raised no concerns that I am aware of since hotels were permitted to have them in 1996.
Seattle's economic development strategy is designed around supporting and growing businesses already in Seattle. We believe that using subsidies and incentives to draw businesses to relocate here from other places is generally ineffective, and is also not compatible with our governmental philosophy.
When Russell Investments approached us, therefore, to tell us they were considering relocating to Seattle, we welcomed them and their 900 jobs, but did not create a package of proposals to subsidize this move. They requested that we use the same Business and Occupations tax rate that they paid in Tacoma, which was approved in 2009. Russell also asked that Seattle allow them to have a sign identifying their business. We told them we would consider it if there were no adverse effects. DPD analyzed the environmental impacts through the SEPA process, and concluded that there would be no adverse environmental consequences. The DPD determination was affirmed on appeal.
While the proposed signage is a very minor component of any economic development strategy, it was also a modest request, and one that conceivably could be useful in the future for another company that wanted to relocate. Company names on buildings assist in identifying companies and in wayfinding. Given the lack of environmental or visual impact, it seems like a modest request in a time when filling downtown office space and providing jobs is a high priority in this severe recession. For those reasons, I continue to believe that this can be reasonable legislation, and I hope that we can develop adequate information and safeguards to assure those who are concerned so that it can proceed forward.
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TUNNEL BID ON TARGET FOR BUDGET
The SR 99 Bored Tunnel Project passed its last critical milestone in early December, when bids were opened and the design-build contract was awarded to Seattle Tunnel Partners, a joint venture of Dragados USA and Tutor Perini Corp. The team also includes Frank Coluccio Construction, Mowat Construction, HNTB Corp. and Intecsa. Their bid price is $1,089,700,002, and the team was also credited for more than $71 million in value added elements. These include finishing a year ahead of schedule, providing wider, safer, shoulders, and revising the south portal to reduce the footprint and impact on Pioneer Square – as one headline read, ‘Bigger, Faster, Cheaper'.
This is a lump-sum, fixed-price contract that covers most of the work included in the tunnel portion of the SR 99 Replacement project, and the bid is consistent with the parameters developed by the State. Specific elements include building the tunnel boring machine and boring the tunnel; building the road within the tunnel with ventilation and emergency and electrical systems; constructing two operations buildings and tunnel portals; and mitigation for ground settlement. In addition to bidding as a fixed price, the tunnel contractor is required to carry eight different kinds of liability insurance and post a $500 million performance bond.
The total cost of the proposed bored tunnel is estimated to be $1.96 billion, which also includes design, right-of-way acquisition, construction management, future construction contracts for roadway connections at the north and south ends of the tunnel, and more than $200 million set aside as contingency for risk.
The tunnel project's Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) was published earlier this fall, and the comment period ended on December 13. While actual construction cannot begin until the Final SEIS and the federal Record of Decision are published early next summer, design work can begin as soon as the contract is finalized in the next few weeks.
Although this is a State project, the City is a partner and co-lead on the SDEIS. City staff participated in the development of the SDEIS, and the City has been a participant in project development since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Freeing the waterfront for parks and open space by building a tunnel was endorsed by the Mayor and Council in 2002. Since then, almost a hundred alternatives received review and several were carried forward for full analysis.
Following an advisory vote in 2007 that turned down both a replacement elevated structure and a proposed cut-and-cover tunnel, the City and State convened a Stakeholder group. In December of 2008, the Stakeholders unanimously recommended to "Move forward with an Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Plan that includes improvements to I-5, transit, surface streets and potential for construction of a deep bore tunnel," and to bring a bored tunnel design forward in the SDEIS.
Governor Gregoire, Mayor Nickels and King County Executive Sims agreed in January of 2009 that the new design for a bored tunnel was affordable, and committed to proceeding with a 4-lane $1.9 billion bored tunnel as part of a $4.2 billion plan that included a number of associated road improvements, replacement of the seawall, and a significant transit component. The State has allocated $2.4 billion in gas tax to the project for constructing the tunnel, replacing the south half of the viaduct with a surface road, and a number of other elements. The City has committed funding for utility relocations, the federal government has committed funds for several projects, and the Port has committed $300 million for improvements that promote freight mobility.
The State has projected $400 million from tolling the tunnel to complete its share of the funding package. The City expects to submit a property tax proposal to the voters for the Seawall, and to fund the waterfront park through a special tax on downtown property owners. While the State has committed $93 million for transit associated with the project, long-term funding for transit is still needed and is expected to be part of a comprehensive transportation package which will be considered by the 2011-2012 Legislature. The City has tabbed transit funding as one of our six key priorities for the Legislative session.
The final major action remaining for the City is to confirm the three agreements for utility relocations and street design that the Council endorsed by resolution in August of 2010. The Council will not take up these agreements until we have reviewed the signed contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners and determined that it is consistent with the proposed agreements. Since the agreements protect the City by outlining how the utilities are to be replaced and roadways designed, it is important that they are adopted so that the contractor can take into account the City's preferences in their work. If the City does not proceed with these agreements, the State could adopt legislation that preempts the City's authority, as they did in the replacement project for the I-90 Bridge, and the City would then lose most of our ability to influence the project.
Fortunately, preliminary review indicates that the Seattle Tunnel Partners proposal is consistent with the contracts agreed to by the State and City Departments and endorsed by the Council last year, so there do not appear to be any obstacles to moving forward with the project, despite the continued opposition of the Mayor.
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REGION AGREES TO CREATE FOOD POLICY COUNCIL
We have achieved a significant new milestone in our campaign for healthy, local food! The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the regional planning body for King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties, has agreed to form a Regional Food Policy Council (RFPC) as a working group under the PSRC umbrella. The RFPC "partners with community, business, agriculture, and government in King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties to develop integrated and sustainable policy and action recommendations that strengthen local and regional food systems."
Creating a Food Policy Council was a goal of my Local Food Action Initiative, approved by the Council in 2008. Food Policy Councils exist in several dozen areas around the United States and Canada. They are where the many different actors involved in food policy come together, understand each other's interests and needs, hash out differences, and develop innovative and workable policies and programs.
We are especially fortunate to have the PSRC agree to host our Regional Food Policy Council. We knew that a Seattle Council, while it could help the City, would leave out the farmers, agricultural processors, and other critical elements of the food system, and had originally sought to create a Council covering King County. However, covering a four-county region greatly improves our ability to make this group work, and PSRC, the federally-recognized planning agency for transportation planning, economic development, and growth management, is an ideal location.
I have agreed to serve as Chair, with Brad Gaoloch from Pierce County Cooperative Extension as Vice-Chair. The Council has a wide range of members, including three County Executives and a Kitsap County Commissioner, as well as farmers, farmworkers, and representatives from labor, business, community, youth, education and hunger organizations. It is meeting monthly to develop policies that will support farmers, local food processing, regional markets, public health and nutrition education and action, and local economic and community development in the food system. Policy recommendations will go to the PSRC for inclusion in growth management, transportation, and economic development strategies, and to local governments and community-based institutions.
Examples of the kinds of topics that the Council will consider include:
- Clarifying inconsistencies between current regulatory frameworks and the needs of farmers.
- Assessing existing standards for nutrition in food service programs to set targets for improving the quality of food provided.
- Developing and promoting model policies that support scale-appropriate, USDA-inspected slaughter and cut-and-wrap facilities for processing Washington meat and poultry products.
- Developing and promoting model policies that will facilitate institutional procurement of local products, including improvements to processing, packaging and distribution networks.
The City of Seattle is providing startup funding for the RFPC, using funds set aside in 2008 for this purpose. A key initial task for the Council is to develop a sustainable funding model for the modest staffing needed to keep this work going.
For several years, a small group of food activists kept the local food movement going through an Acting Food Policy Council. The formal creation of this Regional Food Policy Council will take their work (including several of them as members) to a great new regional level. It helps us move local food work into the mainstream and create new relationships and policies that unite food producers and consumers around our common goals.
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YES WE CAN IMPROVE A BEACON HILL CROSSWALK!
It's great to be reminded that government can respond, make a decision, and actually get implementation going – fast!
Several weeks ago I received a message from a constituent, expressing concerns about the crosswalk on Beacon Avenue South at the VA Hospital. He noted that there was pretty consistent pedestrian traffic, that nearby crosswalks had been upgraded, and that this one did not have much to alert drivers and assist pedestrians. I agreed, and passed the concern on to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
SDOT has been steadily improving its responsiveness over the last few years – as staff has been given more authority and responsibility for decision making and encouraged to provide better customer service. Still, I was a bit surprised and very pleased by how fast they responded. In a few days, they had surveyed the location, analyzed the options, and committed to a plan of action.
By early 2011, "SDOT will reinstall the white thermoplastic on the north and south side of the decorative crosswalk. SDOT will also replace the existing signing with new fluorescent yellow-green pedestrian/crosswalk signs north and south of the crosswalk to alert motorists to the crosswalk as they are approaching." The review did not indicate that flashing beacons were needed at this time, but they considered that as a possibility.
When I became Chair of the Transportation Committee in 2002 there was an ongoing conflict between community members and SDOT over crosswalks. Many communities sought crosswalk markings because they believed these would promote pedestrian safety. SDOT was concerned because they saw crosswalks as marking the preferred location for pedestrian crossing, and studies have shown that in some locations, simply marking crosswalks did not provide significant protection for pedestrians.
We were finally able to develop a solution to this cross communication. We crafted guidelines that allow crosswalks to be marked in conjunction with other elements, like signs, flashing lights, raised pavement, or other measures to make the crosswalk more visible to drivers, if these enhancements are needed at the particular location. This Beacon Hill work is about responsiveness in implementing those guidelines.
Kudos to Tracy Burrows, Eric Widstrand, Brandon Bollinger, and William Burns of SDOT for their work on this.
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What we eat is as important as the way we travel in the fight against climate change."
-- Kurt Hoelting
Markets are a wonderful servant, but they are a lousy master, and they are a terrible religion.
-- Hunter Lovins
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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