MAKING IT WORK
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city. You can request additional information or comment on the newsletter by emailing email@example.com.
SR 520 PROJECT MOVES INTO FINAL DECISION MAKING
On Thursday, June 9, Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) published the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program. This begins the last stage in a decision making progress that started in 1997. The next step will be a federal Record of Decision (ROD) and then formal approval of the project by the federal and state Transportation Departments.
The City Council has worked closely with WSDOT through the 14 years that this project has been in development. While the City is not a formal partner in this project, WSDOT has been very responsive to City and community concerns, and the continued involvement of community members has contributed greatly to the quality of the final design. There is no perfect design for any transportation project – there are always tradeoffs and changes that will impact the community. Our task as Councilmembers is to ensure that this regional project serves the 50,000 Seattle residents and businesses that use SR 520 every day while protecting the interests of the Seattle communities and ecosystems adjacent to the corridor and contributing to the health and success of our region and its transportation system. While I personally advocated for a different alternative for the Montlake interchange, I am satisfied that WSDOT has made a responsible and reasonable choice that appropriately meets those interests.
The Final EIS confirms that the preferred alternative, a six lane corridor with a new transit/HOV lane in each direction and a new bicycle/pedestrian path, will improve transit connections and travel times, accommodate future light rail, reconnect neighborhoods using landscaped lids, reduce noise, and improve parks and wetlands habitat. By implementing separated transit/HOV lanes and tolling the facility, the project design reduces annual vehicle miles traveled on SR 520 by 5 to 10% and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by almost 10% over the no-build alternative.
The final design incorporates almost all of the design elements requested by the City Council in our review of the project proposal, including:
- Reducing the width of the Portage Bay Bridge, considering a boulevard design, and eliminating the proposed auxiliary lane and replacing it with a managed shoulder.
- In the Montlake area, locating transit/HOV ramps at 24th Ave E, including a full lid over SR 520 between Montlake Boulevard and the Arboretum, providing dedicated transit/HOV lanes on Montlake Boulevard and priority signals for transit, enhancing the Montlake Boulevard streetscape, and including a set of triggers that will determine whether a second bascule bridge is necessary.
- Splitting the bridge corridor, narrowing shoulders, and adding wetlands and park improvements in Arboretum, along with removing the ‘ramps to nowhere' and the current Arboretum ramps, implementing traffic calming in the Arboretum, and including coordinated environmental restoration work.
- Reducing the height of the cross-lake bridge deck to 20 feet and ensuring that the bridge is constructed to accommodate high capacity transit.
The preferred alternative provides a new four acre park and eight acres of open space on the lids, funds Arboretum improvements, and restores all park properties affected by the construction. The Corps of Engineers has designated this alternative as the "Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative", its highest standard for wetland protection; full compensatory mitigation for all wetlands impacted will be required. The Preferred Alternative reduces traffic noise below current levels through design changes, without requiring noise walls in the Seattle side. The new design will reduce travel time by up to 25 minutes between I-5 and Redmond and up to 12 minutes on local streets in the Montlake area.
A letter from some neighborhood organizations ("Coalition for a Sustainable 520") has raised four criticisms of the project.
- They allege that the project will take a lane away from I-5 and cause traffic problems. This statement causes confusion. The SR520 project design affects the 1-5 express lanes only, not the mainline. To improve transit/HOV times, there will be a direct connection from SR520 to the existing 1-5 express lanes. This will require a slight change in today's I-5 express lane configuration. I-5 mainline travel times will improve.
- They criticize starting the project without full funding. There is no question that we all need to work together to secure full funding for the project. However, using the current funding to replace the floating bridge portion of 520 addresses the most critical safety problem, and this plus the eastside portion will greatly improve mobility, especially for transit, by providing five miles of dedicated transit lanes.
- They suggest that it will be ten years or more before the vulnerable Seattle structures are replaced. The Seattle approaches are the next highest safety priority. Construction could begin as early as 2013 if funding is secured. The West side project is complex and includes numerous neighborhood mitigations. Simply shoring up the West side approaches without the neighborhood and transportation improvements would seriously shortchange Seattle residents, bridge users, and the environment.
- They claim that there are Seattle traffic impacts that are not understood. The FEIS clearly documents that Seattle traffic will be significantly improved as a result of this project.
The new SR 520 will accomplish a number of things including:
- Improving safety. The new structures will be designed to modern standards that better resist windstorms and earthquakes.
- Improving cross-lake, local and regional travel. Travel times will improve in the SR 520 project area, compared to the No Build and it adds new commuting options for bicyclists, pedestrians, and bus riders.
- Incorporating neighborhood recommendations. Adds lids, improves transit stops and transit stop locations, reduces noise, and minimizes potential road closures during construction.
- Protecting and enhancing the environment. Achieves the greatest environmental benefits compared to other alternatives.
The Council is committed to continued work with WSDOT and citizens on project commitments and public engagement. In addition to mitigation that will be described in the final EIS, WSDOT will implement funding for the Montlake Triangle Project, traffic and environmental mitigation improvements in the Arboretum, and developing a Community Construction Management Plan and a Seattle Community Design Process.
The Council is currently negotiating an agreement with WSDOT to implement neighborhood traffic management planning and implementation, to establish triggers for the decision on whether to construct the second Montlake Bridge, and to establish commitments for engagement in the final design of the Seattle side. We expect this agreement to be completed in the near future.
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YESLER TERRACE REDEVELOPMENT TO COME TO COUNCIL
The Seattle Housing Authority has been working for years to create a redevelopment plan for Yesler Terrace, the last of its WWII era housing projects. The other three (New Holly, High Point, and Rainier Vista) have all been redeveloped as mixed income communities, with new and better housing for the low income residents.
Now the SHA Board has completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and formally adopted a plan for Yesler Terrace. The proposal will require several actions from the City Council. I will Chair a Special Committee on Yesler Terrace with all nine Councilmembers participating, and we will consider the authorizing legislation over the next few months.
Yesler Terrace currently has 561 low income units. SHA proposes to dramatically reshape this community by adding the area between 12th and 14th to the east of the current property, and then building up to 5000 units of housing (4.3 million square feet) in the combined property, along with 900,000 square feet of office, 65000 square feet of neighborhood services, and 88000 square feet of neighborhood retail. The plan is designed to take full advantage of the property's proximity to downtown and the First Hill medical centers to develop significant density and to be affordable to SHA through a complex financial structure.
While developing low income housing has always relied on financial structures that leverage public dollars many times over through private investments and tax credits, the three earlier projects were given financial boosts by the federal HOPE VI program, a Clinton initiative that focused on rebuilding the nation's low income housing stock. Unfortunately, HOPE VI lost its funding under the Bush administration, and federal funds will likely be much more limited in this project. Fortunately, the Yesler Terrace property offers the best opportunity to leverage other investments due to its high value characteristics.
Included in the 5000 units of housing will be 661 extremely low income units (less than 30% of median income), 100 more than currently occupy the site, along with 290 very low income units (less than 60% of median income) and 850 low income/workforce units (less than 80% of median income). These units will be partially financed by the market rate housing and office space also incorporated in the project.
The Council will be asked to:
- Adopt a land use code amendment that will allow the diversity of uses, set limits on non-housing development, and provide for the overall density and building heights.
- Approve a Planned Action Ordinance that allows all future development consistent with the EIS to proceed and adopts design standards.
- Adopt a street vacation ordinance that reorganize the street grid and vacates some streets while rededicating other rights-of-way.
- Approve a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that establishes phasing and timing for the replacement housing, approves any City funding, and establishes sustainability parameters.
The land use code amendment and street vacation ordinance are the same instruments used for the other three developments, with the major controversy here expected to be over the density and height of the project. The Planned Action Ordinance is a new mechanism that has been used in other cities, but never before in Seattle, although it has been suggested for the Northgate area. The MOA will identify and define performance metrics for the sustainable infrastructure plans for the new development, and may include a water and energy district as well.
SHA has already secured a $3.1 million grant from HUD to rehabilitate the historic steam plant as a job training, daycare, and community meeting space, and is one of six finalists for a $27 million Choice Neighborhoods Grant (3 or 4 will be awarded), which will develop 154 low income housing units and fund other community improvements.
The initial legislation will come before the Council later this year. The redevelopment of Yesler Terrace is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a whole new community in this important location. The Council will carefully scrutinize the SHA plans to ensure that they are workable and appropriate. We will recognize that there are significant financing challenges that require carefully balancing subsidized housing with market rate and office development that will be essential for SHA to be able to finance the low income housing. We look forward to a partnership with SHA on this important project for Seattle's future.
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EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS REVIEW INITIATED BY COUNCIL
The City Council and my Regional Development and Sustainability Committee will conduct a review of the City's emergency preparedness, with special attention to lessons learned from the recent earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan. Over the next few months, City staff and guest engineers, professors and scientists will brief Councilmembers on what was learned from those earthquakes and what has been done here in Seattle to respond to this information.
Our goal is to ensure that we are continually improving our readiness for these kinds of emergencies. We will conclude this process with a prioritized work plan that focuses our resources and attention on those measures that will assure the best possible response to and recovery from what is certain to be a defining moment in our City's history.
The experiences we have witnessed in the past year from earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan have come at great human, environmental, and economic cost. It is our obligation to learn the key lessons from these events and apply those lessons to our own readiness here in Seattle – another spot on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
We will ask questions such as:
- What can we count on in terms of assistance from the newly adopted Intrastate Mutual Aid legislation, state-to-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and the federal government?
- Are our waterfronts prepared for water hazards such as a seiche, liquefaction, and/or landslide?
- What is our capability to shelter large numbers of people – facilities, staff, feeding, accommodating functional needs? How do we move these people to transitional and then recovered housing?
- How well are our Departments prepared for critical roles --Fire and Emergency Medical, DPD doing building assessments, SPU maintaining and/or restoring the water system, SCL recovering electricity?
- What have we learned especially from New Zealand about the adequacy of our building codes?
- How can we enhance our neighborhood emergency preparedness network system to cover greater areas of the City?
- How can we resolve the issues of unreinforced masonry buildings and other hazards that can be mitigated?
- Can we create a Readiness and Safety Center to further public awareness and training on how to respond to disasters?
- What plans do we have for Regional Catastrophic Planning, and how will we practice them?
The following is the planned schedule for this review:
June 13, Full Council, 9:30 AM: High level review of the City's earthquake planning elements and a ten year report on progress since the Nisqually earthquake.
June 21, Regional Development and Sustainability Committee (RDS), 2 PM: Earthquake risk, hazard, and consequences; safety, response, and warning systems; immediate response strategies: Fire, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle City Light, Transportation, and Planning and Development
July 18, Full Council, 9:30 AM: What did we learn from Japan, New Zealand, Chile; what do we know about the Seattle Fault and Cascadia Subduction scenarios; how did buildings fare in Japan, New Zealand, and Chile, and how do their codes compare to ours; what would a similar earthquake do in Puget Sound and what more should we be doing
August 2, RDS, 2 PM: Effectiveness of seismic mitigation; Unreinforced Masonry retrofit study and ordinance; recovery planning
August 16, RDS, 2 PM: Shelter and interim housing; New York model for post disaster interim housing; preparing for and meeting the needs of seniors, children, ESL, low-income, culturally isolated, variably abled, and other vulnerable populations
September 12, Full Council, 9:30 AM: How do we define and achieve resiliency?
September 20, RDS, 2 PM: Personal, neighborhood, and district preparedness; community HUB update and expansion strategy; Disaster Readiness and Safety Center; Regional Catastrophic Planning; worst case scenarios; Evergreen 2012 regional earthquake exercise
September 26, Full Council, 9:30 AM: What we've learned; gaps and priorities for next steps
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SEATTLE'S LEGISLATIVE STRATEGY WORKED
This year Seattle set out to challenge a saying that's often quoted about how the legislature operates: "It's Republicans against Democrats, East of the mountains against West of the mountains, and everyone against Seattle." We worked closely with our legislative delegation, reached out around the State with our Seattle for Washington campaign, spent a lot of time in Olympia explaining our goals – and set a realistic legislative agenda (click here for the details).
We have now reviewed what the legislature did this year, and the good news is that we were pretty successful. The budget was, of course, the big issue, and while the major cuts in education and human services programs will be very difficult to manage, we were able to score some successes in fighting off even more drastic reductions and saving some programs. And, even though the budget dominated the session, by limiting our big asks to a few items and focusing attention on small but important pieces of legislation that did not raise major controversies, we were able to have one of our most successful sessions ever.
In the budget, the legislature saved at least some funding for people currently on Disability Lifeline; approved more funding for health programs than initially proposed; and saved the Basic Health Plan (although with frozen enrollment) and the Housing Trust Fund (although with much reduced funding), both of which had been targeted for elimination.
We joined with the Association of Washington Cities to stave off major cuts to the state's revenue allocations to local governments (we will lose about $350,000 rather than the several million proposed), secure legislation giving us more flexibility in our use of real estate excise tax, and fought off an attempt to exempt hospitals and universities from the commercial parking tax (which would have cut our transportation budget by some $5 million). We joined with King County to win passage of a bill that provides a short-term funding option that could save 600,000 hours of Metro Transit service if adopted by the County Council or voters.
In the Transportation Budget we secured $4 million to improve the NW Market/45th St Transit Corridor and $1.25 million for King Street Station. In the Capital budget, we secured $4 million for the Midvale Stormwater Facility and $6 million for the Airport Way/Argo Bridge reconstruction, as well as $2.4 million in arts funding for the Seattle International Film Festival, Taproot Theater, Seattle Musical Theater, and Town Hall. We were also able to secure an increase in the budget for remediation of sites with toxic contamination and a new grant funding program for stormwater projects.
Among the other pieces of legislation that we successfully advocated for are:
- Legislation giving the police new tools to address the sexual exploitation of minors.
- Legislation reducing sentencing and supervision requirements for persons convicted for the first time of certain minor offenses.
- New penalties for drivers who injure vulnerable roadway users, such as pedestrians and bicyclists.
- Compromise legislation that authorizes local jurisdictions to allow certain private carriers to use transit facilities and lanes (not mandatory, as had been proposed).
- Legislation allowing the King County Flood Control District funding flexibility – we expect to secure $30 million from the District for the Seawall.
- A new program allowing mutual aid agreements between local governments to assist each other in emergencies.
- A set of unified licensing requirements for child care facilities, which will make it much easier for child care providers to use school districts.
- Authority for Seattle to add limousine services to our taxi regulations.
- Legislation to promote water quality by limiting the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus and phasing out copper-based antifouling paint for recreational vessels.
- A law supporting home production of food by exempting ‘cottage food operations' from certain regulations and permitting requirements.
While all these are positive developments, perhaps the most important success was in preventing any legislation from being adopted that imposes extra costs or penalties on Seattle – steps that have often been taken in the past. We are hopeful that our communication and outreach strategy has turned the corner on creating a new atmosphere of cooperation and mutual goodwill, and intend to keep pursuing that in the future.
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SOUTH HALF OF VIADUCT COMING DOWN IN OCTOBER
The south half of the SR 99 viaduct, the section between South King Street and South Holgate Street, will be demolished in October, six months ahead of schedule. This will save taxpayers almost one million dollars, as well as allowing WSDOT to reduce the contingency for risk by $500,000. And it will mean that the construction of the replacement section of the south half of Viaduct will be finished almost six months ahead of schedule, in mid-2013. This section includes about half of the earthquake risk area of the elevated highway.
The south half of the viaduct is being replaced mostly as surface street, with some overpasses and elevated sections. The original contract for the south half of the viaduct replacement came in at $114 million, which was 25% below the State's engineering estimates. The cost of the modified plan will be $2.6 million, but there will be $3.5 million in savings, leading to the net savings of about one million dollars.
Under the new schedule, the highway near the stadiums will close for up to nine days during the demolition in late October. It will then reopen with a temporary connection to the north half of the viaduct along the central waterfront. Traffic will be two lanes in each direction through this section until the remaining portion of the viaduct is replaced.
In order to keep people moving during this construction and the future construction of the central section, WSDOT, the City of Seattle, King County, and the Port of Seattle are spending more than $125 million in city street improvements, transit service, and trip reduction programs.
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ROOSEVELT NEIGHBORHOOD AND TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT
In 2008, voters approved the Sound Transit II ballot measure, which funds light rail from the University District through the Roosevelt neighborhood in Northeast Seattle, continuing on to Northgate and Lynnwood. Light rail transit stops are great places for additional housing and job development, and the Roosevelt neighborhood has recently endorsed an update to neighborhood zoning to add capacity for approximately 350 additional housing units. Some observers have suggested that this does not take full advantage of the light rail station, and that the City should further increase the height and density around the station.
The Roosevelt neighborhood has a long track record of embracing light rail and adding development. As part of Seattle's implementation of Washington's Growth Management Act (passed in 1990), the 1994 Seattle Comprehensive Plan called for an additional 340 units in Roosevelt, and in 1999 the neighborhood endorsed zoning changes to achieve that density goal. In 2005 Sound Transit suggested that it bypass the Roosevelt neighborhood business core and place an elevated station near I-5 instead. The neighborhood rallied under the banner of ‘YIMFY' (Yes, In My Front Yard) and persuaded the City Council and Sound Transit Board to commit to the extra funding to put the station underground in Roosevelt. The new plan update commits to twice as many new units as the 1999 plan.
It is critical that we recognize and respect the community's good faith work. There is also a valid question about whether the neighborhood recommendations achieve ‘enough' density to fully take advantage of the regional investment in light rail.
The problem is that this guidance was not given to the neighborhood in the first place. Roosevelt has been designated as a ‘residential urban village' – a designation that requires a modest level of growth, not an urban center, where development is supposed to be concentrated under the Comprehensive Plan. When the community was given a specific target in 1994, it met that target. When it was told to increase density for light rail, the neighborhood added capacity to its target. If we are looking for more, the City must take the initiative to tell the neighborhood what we want.
Telling the neighborhood to go through a process and then responding with ‘that's not enough' feels very classic Seattle passive aggressive. City leadership knew that the individual neighborhood targets established in 1994 would be controversial, and convened a city-wide neighborhood planning process to address the challenges and benefits of increased density. We should do the same with transit oriented development, and do it in a comprehensive way so that each affected community understands what will be expected.
If a neighborhood reacts in bad faith, we may need to disregard their recommendations – but none of our 37 neighborhood areas did that in the neighborhood planning process (somewhat to the surprise of many observers!). That was a great demonstration that Seattle residents care about their neighborhoods and meeting our growth management goals, and are willing to roll up their sleeves and find ways to bring those goals into harmony.
Given that this mistake has been made, that it will take time to rectify that, and that the neighborhood has put forth a proposal in good faith, what should we do now?
I don't know what the ‘right' level of density would be in Roosevelt, that would both fully take advantage of the light rail opportunity and maintain neighborhood character. But in the near term I think we should honor the work of the community and take it as the starting point for legislative action. The Mayor and Council may modify it to some extent, but maintain consistency with the neighborhood's parameters. That may mean increasing heights, as was done in the Capitol Hill update in 2006 when the neighborhood suggested 40 foot buildings on Broadway, and the Council increased that to 65 feet (if the additional height was residential) – a change that has raised little concern since it was made.
When we do that, we should also be clear that a Transit Oriented Development process may recommend additional capacity in the Roosevelt neighborhood, and proceed to create a comprehensive strategy that develops targets for each area that will have major transit investments. Then we can go back to each neighborhood and engage them in an honest dialogue as to how to meet those targets. Our planning process should encompass neighborhoods targeted for increases in all modes of transit, including bus rapid transit or street cars, as well as light rail.
Fortunately, there is plenty of time in most of our transit neighborhoods. The economy is still sluggish, and there is little likelihood that areas that could be rezoned for greater density will have new construction that might compromise future options. The Roosevelt Station, for example, is not scheduled to open until 2020. There is time to do some serious planning and decide whether the capacity provided by the current proposal (or a modified version) meets the City's goals for transit communities.
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SEATTLE FARM BILL PRINCIPLES ADOPTED BY COUNCIL, TO GO BEFORE NATIONAL LEAGUE OF CITIES
On Monday, May 23, the City Council adopted resolution 31296, supporting the Seattle Farm Bill Principles as policy guidance to the Federal Government in the renewal of the 2012 Farm Bill. Our goal is to have Seattle's actions will serve as a model for other jurisdictions. On June 4, I presented the Farm Bill principles to the meeting of the Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee of the National League of Cities in Kansas City in early June (I am a member of the Committee), and they unanimously approved developing a resolution based on them. The resolution will be considered for adoption by the National League of Cities, representing more than 1600 cities, at our November annual meeting.
The Farm Bill is the primary piece of legislation that determines our nation's food and agriculture policy and will be renewed in 2012. The 15 Federal Farm Bill titles address important issues including supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, formally called food stamps), farm, trade, conservation, rural development, research, and food safety programs.
The policies, programs and funding included in the 2012 Farm Bill will affect how successful Seattle can be in achieving our goal of strengthening the local and regional food system, improving the economy, and emergency preparedness.
Seattle, along with other municipalities, faces multiple health, social, and environmental problems connected to food. In 2007, 11% of adults in Seattle ran out of food. In 2008, the incidence of obesity in King County adults was 21%. Currently, 42% of Seattle's public school students are enrolled to receive free or reduced meals.
Knowing how critical the Farm Bill is to the success of our work to support local food and create a sustainable food system that promotes health, reduces hunger, and supports regional economic security, we endorsed reforming the Farm Bill in the Resolution creating the Local Food Action Initiative in 2008. This action implements that policy direction.
The ‘Seattle Farm Bill Principles' were developed by a group of community leaders facilitated by Phyllis Shulman of my staff. The goal is to use them to guide decisions by our elected officials in developing policies, regulations, programs, funding opportunities, technical support, and research priorities for a healthy and sustainable food system when the Farm Bill is renewed in 2012.
More information on the Seattle Farm Bill Principles
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MAKING COMMUNITY TREE PLANTING WORK
Seattle residents love planting trees, and Seattle has been helping them to do so for many years. We have an array of tree planting programs scattered among different Departments, without either central coordination or dedicated oversight to ensure that trees are planted in a coherent fashion and are maintained and retained after planting. On Monday, June 13, the Council adopted legislation that will provide a unified focus for these programs, with a new, full time position located in Seattle Public Utilities that will staff a consolidated community tree planting and education program.
This legislation is one part of a long range program to increase our tree canopy cover, a goal which I sponsored adding to our Comprehensive Plan. That program will include both regulations to protect existing trees and incentives and programs to add and maintain new trees. We have created an Urban Forestry Commission to help guide our work in these areas. Our Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) provides a set of detailed guidelines as to how we can increase the tree cover, emphasizing residential zones as primary areas for canopy increase, since those zones make up 67% of the City.
However, while the effort to plant more trees in residential zones has had some success, it needs a significant improvement if we are to reach our long range goals. In 2009, the City Auditor reviewed our tree planting programs, and recommended that we create a full-time position to implement education and outreach under the UFMP. The Council, during the 2010 budget process, adopted a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) directing the Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) to develop and review options for the Council to provide a more effective administrative structure for the tree planting and education programs that involve the public.
OSE worked with an interdepartmental team of City staff from the Budget Office, Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Departments of Parks, Transportation, and Neighborhoods to review the proposed five-year implementation strategy for the UFMP and the recommendations of the City Auditor. This work concluded that centralizing tree work in a single department will increase efficiency and effectiveness, provide the best level of technical expertise and educational outreach, improve long-term tree survival through education and outreach, and best coordinate grant funding and direct services to the public.
Historically, the Department of Neighborhoods, the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and Seattle City Light have all provided trees to public planting programs. The Seattle reLeaf program educates the public and engages them in taking care of urban trees. The other Departments all have various levels of responsibility and engagement with communities around tree planting and maintenance.
After looking at all of these programs, OSE recommended, and the Council adopted, the proposal to consolidate all these programs in Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). SPU has numerous education and outreach programs, great technical capability related to trees, sustainable funding through the drainage rate, and a series of programs that are relevant to its mission that can be coordinated with the programs migrating from the other Departments (Restore Our Waters, Natural Lawns and Gardens, Rainwise, the Aquatic Habitat Matching Fund, and the Green Seattle Partnership).
During 2011, tree programs will be phased into the new relationship with SPU. In 2012, SPU will fully manage community tree work, with funding from SPU, City Light, and the general fund consolidated into a single program.
Expanding Seattle's tree canopy will require a series of steps over a long period of time. This is one major step in that direction.
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WHY DOES SEATTLE HAVE A MULTI FAMILY TAX EXEMPTION PROGRAM?
Seattle's multi-family tax exemption (MFTE) program has come under fire recently. It has been suggested that the program subsidizes apartments that are too expensive, and that the program effectively serves as a subsidy to developers to build projects that they would have built anyway.
As is often the case, the reality is more complex. The MFTE program is one of the few tools provided by the legislature to the City to encourage the private sector to build housing that is affordable to the "in-between households" – those who make too much to be served by low-income housing programs but make too little to be served by market-rate developers. One goal of the program is to assist developers in funding new moderate income housing in areas where market rate housing is being built, but more affordable residential development is not. Another key goal is to assist developers in financing new housing in areas where little to no residential construction is happening. The MFTE program can act as a stimulus to economic development in such areas by assisting with the production of not only low and moderate income housing but also market rate housing.
The MFTE program provides a 12-year property tax exemption, which was designed to be a component of the financing packages for multifamily housing projects in times when interest rates were relatively high and developers were having difficulty financing anything other than high income units in choice neighborhoods. The tax exemption also provides some additional resources to finance projects in revitalizing areas that may be perceived by some financial institutions to be risky investments. To qualify for the MFTE program under the City's current rules, at least 20% of the residential units in a multifamily housing project must be affordable to households earning between 65% and 85% of area median income (AMI).
Through the MFTE program, property owners are provided an exemption on the value of their project's residential improvements only; they continue to pay full property taxes on the land and non-residential portions of their property. Tax exemptions for MFTE projects remain in place assuming the property stays in compliance with the rules of the program. The City Auditor is currently reviewing the MFTE program to make sure we have good compliance checks in place.
In 2008, because the economy was booming and housing was becoming increasingly scarce, even for median income households, legislation was adopted that raised the income thresholds for the MFTE program. The examples cited in the news articles, where MFTE rents even exceed market rents for some buildings, were generally built under these provisions. In 2011, new legislation was adopted by the City to modify the affordability requirements to reflect the rapid changes in the market resulting from the recession. Projects built under the current regulations will be below current rents, and will stay so as rents rise with the economic recovery.
The MFTE program has been revised five times to address changing conditions in the rental real estate market and to strengthen required elements of the program. In current times, when the recession has reduced rents and interest rates are very low (although credit is still tight), the units produced under the MFTE don't look as worthwhile as they did during the mid-2000's. However, there are good arguments that over its twelve year history the program has successfully met many of its goals, and that it will look even more valuable when the economy recovers and rents begin to escalate again.
Over the past 12 years, the MFTE Program has contributed to developing almost 7,300 housing units, about 2,500 of which are affordable. Of the 2,500 affordable units developed, about 1,500 are affordable at or below 80% of area median income (AMI) and 1,000 are affordable at 80-90% AMI. While current market-rate apartment rents may serve these households much more commonly than was forecast, the affordability of MFTE apartments will still be guaranteed through the next economic cycle.
In addition, the program has helped to spur private development in Seattle neighborhoods that have not seen much new, multifamily residential construction for the past several years, such as Interbay, Rainier Valley, and Lake City. The MFTE program has also supported the construction of about 1,600 housing units in distressed or revitalizing areas of the city: Southeast Seattle, West Seattle, Bitter Lake, Lake City, Chinatown/ID, 23rd and Jackson. About 1,200 of those units are affordable at or below 80% AMI. Nearly 400 are affordable at 80-90% AMI. The program has also created affordable units in high-growth areas (Capitol Hill, Belltown, Eastlake, Queen Anne) that would not otherwise exist. This has allowed moderate-wage workers to live in or near their places of employment.
Providing affordable housing is one of the most difficult challenges facing growing cities like Seattle. The housing market is complex and can change abruptly. The MFTE program is an attempt to provide affordability to moderate income households. The plummeting of our housing market over the last several years took everyone by surprise, and the benefits delivered by the program during this time period were less than optimum.
Because of the volatility of the housing market, the City now reviews the MFTE program every year to determine if changes are needed. As a result of these reviews, changes to the program have been made to address unanticipated developments in the housing market and the economy. These changes and the ongoing review allow us to continue to improve upon a program that over its history has proved beneficial in providing affordable housing for our moderate income citizens. We are confident that we will once again see such benefits.
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"Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom."
-- Thomas Jefferson
"There is no man who is not in some degree a merchant; who has not something to buy or something to sell."
-- Samuel Johnson
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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