MAKING IT WORK
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SOUND TRANSIT TOD AND PARKING POLICIES
As I noted last month, the Sound Transit Board held a retreat in April, primarily to discuss parking policies and valuing transit oriented development (TOD). My goal was to change Sound Transit's perspective on these issues, and to get the Board to agree to revise long-standing policies that encouraged Sound Transit (ST) to focus on providing parking at stations and discouraged significant investment in TOD.
The Board did agree to develop new policy approaches, and ST staff have now prepared summaries of the Board's direction. The next step is to take these summaries and prepare resolutions that will formally create new policies. Here are the key points that will guide those resolutions:
Transit Oriented Development
- The ST Board wants a new, consolidated TOD policy, strategies, and work plan.
- A key outcome is encouraging and supporting land use change and/or other desirable economic development, such as improving quality of life, allowing achievement of comprehensive and regional plans, and maximizing transit ridership and its related benefits.
- The high-capacity transit system should remain the focus of ST's resources.
- ST should develop a specific process for assessing and implementing TOD opportunities and other transit-supportive land use changes during project development.
- The ST Board should be involved very early in project planning, and it should remain involved to guide implementation during all phases of planning and project delivery.
- ST should financially evaluate TOD policies and investments, assigning an appropriate value to their potential to contribute to ridership.
This change in policy will take some time to implement, but it will make a significant difference in the way in which ST develops stations, treats property it has acquired, and collaborates with local governments to integrate land use and development issues with transit development.
- ST needs to initiate actions to address immediate parking issues while reviewing and updating policy as appropriate to support long range parking management strategy.
- ST should be responsive to local land use and travel patterns and integrate access strategies that include parking, bicycle, pedestrian, and transit feeder service.
- Existing parking should be managed to optimize use by and availability to transit users before capacity is expanded.
- Management and expansion of transit parking are regional, multi-agency issues and need to be addressed through an integrated, coordinated, regional effort.
Like the TOD discussion, the parking discussion has long-range implications, but it also has very immediate applications. ST will immediately begin looking at issues around pricing parking, managing existing facilities to maximize their use by transit riders and HOV, and initiating a regional discussion about inter-agency coordination.
In the longer run, changing from an emphasis on parking at station areas to multi-modal (bike/ped/bus) station access will hopefully lead to a more well-honed set of decisions on how to decide on whether and how much parking to develop at each station. This will immediately inform decisions about the strategy for managing transit access at Northgate, which the Board will be working on over the next few weeks. As the decision options become clearer at Northgate, I will be emphasizing the opportunity that this discussion has opened up for a policy around parking and access that integrates into the long-range vision for the Northgate Urban Center.
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SEAWALL FUNDING PLAN MOVING FORWARD
The City Council has begun the process for placing a 30-year property tax bond measure on the November ballot to complete the financing package for the Seawall replacement and strengthening. The Council must make a decision by July in order to place this measure on the ballot.
The City has been working for almost ten years on plans to protect the safety of the waterfront. The Seawall does not meet modern earthquake standards, and has sustained damage and deterioration over the time since the three different segments were constructed. The plan has always been to replace the Seawall as part of the overall project to replace the SR 99 Viaduct, and the City has coordinated the timing of this replacement project with the State's highway construction project.
The Elliott Bay seawall:
- Protects Seattle's downtown waterfront from wind-driven storm waves and the erosive tidal forces of Puget Sound and Elliott Bay.
- Supports and protects major public and private utilities, including power for the western seaboard and downtown Seattle, natural gas, and telecommunications.
- Supports State Route 99, the ferry terminal, and rail lines, all of which transport local commuters and visitors as well as local, regional, and international freight.
The funding plan for the highway replacement project includes the reconstruction of Alaskan Way, the surface street along the waterfront. However, the repair and replacement of the Seawall itself is not funded under the state package. For the last several years, the City has been working on design and environmental analysis in cooperation with the State and the US Army Corps of Engineers (which has permitting jurisdiction over water-related projects as well as the ability to participate financially if that is authorized by Congress).
This spring the design process reached the point where the City was able to provide a well-grounded estimate for the overall cost of the Seawall project. With that in hand, the Council is ready to advance the funding plan to the voters for approval, and intends to do so as rapidly as possible. Between now and mid-July, the Council will develop the proposed bond measure during the course of a series of open public meetings.
The projected cost for the Seawall replacement is approximately $300 million. Of that amount, the City has already secured approximately $60 million: $30 million from the King County Flood Control District, and $30 million from the City's general fund and other sources.
The timing is now at a critical point. We now know that the federal environmental review will be completed and permits issued within the next two years. The timing for the state highway project requires the Seawall project to begin in that time frame and be completed by 2016, when the viaduct is slated for demolition and the funding will be available to replace the surface street on the waterfront. In order to be ready to go to bid on the project, it is crucial that the City have committed funding in hand within the next year.
The City does not realistically have the resources to fund the remaining $240 million without having a revenue stream to cover these costs. That is why we are planning to go to the voters to ask for a property tax increase for the bonds.
The good news is that this project is exactly the kind of project that voter-approved bonds are designed for, which means that, unlike a levy, the costs will be relatively modest on a yearly basis since they will be spread over a thirty year period. Interest rates are also at record low levels. The result is that a30-year bond for $240 million would cost the owner of a $400K home about $55 to $60 per year. Unlike a levy, however, which only requires a majority vote, a voter-approved bond requires a 60% majority. The last voter-approved bond in Seattle was the 1998 Libraries for All measure; 70% of voters supported that measure. The costs for the Libraries for All bonds, incidentally, were front-loaded onto the first ten years, so there is only a modest remaining annual payment.
In addition to the Seawall and the replacement of Alaskan Way, the overall waterfront project includes other repair/renovation work on the piers and city infrastructure, as well as the construction of the new waterfront promenade and park. The Council will consider including some of the repairs on the piers as part of this bond issue, as there may be efficiencies in timing of the repairs that may be advantageous as well as less disruption to waterfront businesses.
The funding for the park development will be considered in future years, and will include a special assessment on property owners near the waterfront whose property will increase in value, as well as contributions from private philanthropy and some additional public funding. That plan will be developed in the next couple of months.
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CLEAN WATER CONSENT DECREE
Seattle and the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) have completed negotiations on a historic consent decree that opens the door for a more thoughtful and effective approach to promoting clean water in Seattle and Puget Sound. The Council is now reviewing this decree, and will vote on whether to endorse it in the near future.
Cities around the country are required to meet standards for cleaning up Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO's). CSO's take place when a single pipe carrying both sewage and stormwater to the treatment plant becomes overwhelmed by a rain event. Under this circumstance, the pipes are designed to spill the untreated sewage and stormwater into the city's waterways, threatening human and aquatic health and the region's quality of life. While it would be prohibitively expensive to completely eliminate these events, state regulators have set a standard of an average of no more than one such event per year for each outfall as an achievable goal to meet the objectives of the Clean Water Act.
For decades, cities have been working to build the expensive holding tanks and other systems that will attain that goal. Seattle has reduced its overflows by more than 80%. However, the ones that remain to be managed are those that are the most expensive, and/or most difficult to manage.
At the same time, over these decades there has been growing evidence that the toxic materials carried by stormwater exceed the effects of CSO's on water quality. Cities have also been struggling to find ways to effectively manage stormwater, and Seattle has been a leader in developing new green infrastructure that can be both effective and affordable.
The problem is that there has not been a way to set priorities that integrates the issues of stormwater and CSO's so that the most cost effective strategies for clean water can be implemented as rapidly as possible. That's why for years Seattle and other cities around the country have been asking EPA to rethink the way it regulates such investments. Finally, last fall, EPA issued a letter indicating that it was open to looking at doing the best investments first, rather than relying on a more prescriptive set of rules that don't always deliver the most effective and immediate water quality improvements that could be optimum.
The proposed agreement allows SPU to integrate the full set of tools — rain gardens, street swales, low-impact development, larger diameter pipes, larger storage tanks, and treatment — with street sweeping and best operation and maintenance practices. Seattle continues to have the obligation to clean up sewage overflows under a specific and regulated schedule, to the regulatory standard of an average of one overflow per outfall per year. But this schedule is supplemented by being able to mix and match clean water actions to deliver pollution prevention. Seattle's plan will be the first in the nation to give flexibility to set priorities for both stormwater and combined sewage overflow control measures.
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REMOVING MINIMUM PARKING REQUIREMENTS WHERE UNNEEDED
On Wednesday, May 9, the Council's Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee agreed to a revised proposal developed by the City Planning Commission that adds portions of the City to the area already exempt from minimum parking requirements. The action is part of a larger package of regulatory reforms designed to stimulate economic activity by removing unnecessary and redundant regulatory requirements.
Removing minimum parking requirements does not prohibit developers from including parking in their projects, and is not intended to suggest that cars will not play an important role in most household's transportation system. What it does is allow the market to play a greater role in determining how much parking will be included in a particular project.
In many cases, developers are already including greater amounts of parking than required under code, and this is likely to continue where projects are designed to serve a market where tenants are willing to pay the extra cost of having parking. However, for buildings that serve populations that do not tend to own as many vehicles and rely more on transit or other transportation alternatives (such as low income housing projects, senior housing projects, projects in areas well served by transit, and projects that serve students and younger adults), removing mandatory requirements allows the builder to plan for the appropriate amount of parking, thus reducing the cost of the building. This can mean lower, more competitive rents, or, in the case of publicly financed low income housing projects, more units of housing for the same amount of funding.
The City currently exempts projects in downtown and certain commercial and multifamily zones from minimum parking requirements. About 5670 acres of the City have no minimum parking requirements for residential development. The new legislation removes approximately 540 additional acres from minimum parking requirements, in areas that have the highest level of transit service. Another 2590 acres with frequent transit service would have the required minimums reduced by 50%.
Parking would continue to be required in areas where the presence of readily available street parking could tempt developers to reduce the amount of parking in a project to the point where parking congestion is created that adversely affects neighborhoods.
The proposal on parking requirements has been consistently misrepresented as a major change, and Councilmembers emphasized that this was a modest expansion of the current code and that it in no way prohibits parking – merely leaves the number of spaces up to market factors.
The package of regulatory reforms will next be discussed in Committee on Wednesday, June 13th, and may be voted out to Full Council at that meeting.
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ONE LESS TRUCK! EVERY OTHER WEEK GARBAGE COLLECTION
The Seattle City Council has voted unanimously to authorize a pilot program to test the idea of moving to garbage collection every other week. The pilot program, which will be implemented for 800 customers in four neighborhoods from July through December, will examine what rate structure best rewards people for minimizing their garbage, while avoiding unwanted negative impacts.
Every other week garbage collection could provide one more incentive for waste reduction, cut garbage truck traffic in our neighborhoods by 20%, cut fuel consumption, greenhouse emissions, and air pollution by a corresponding 20%, and reduce overall system costs by $6 million annually. If people can adapt to this change, the cost savings will be passed on to rate payers as the Council adopts new rates in the future. Seattle is rightfully proud of our commitment to recycling and waste reduction. We have adopted universal recycling and organics collections and dramatically reduced the amount of garbage we send to the landfill. We've banned disposable items that have readily available substitutes, like Styrofoam takeout containers and plastic grocery bags. We're designing the rebuilding of our transfer stations to make it easy and convenient to recycle building materials and other items. And we continue to work to find new ways to reduce garbage costs.
Since the Zero Waste Strategy was approved by the Council in 2007 we have accelerated our rate of progress. Universal organics collection was a key step for single family residences, and we are now extending it to multi-family residences. The things that actually have to go into the garbage can are down to a few kinds of plastics and some other items (like kitty litter and disposable diapers) that are pretty challenging to recycle. Many customers, even those with the smallest garbage containers, either do not set out their containers every week or set them out half-empty.
The question that the pilot program will test is whether moving to every other week collection is possible for Seattle customers, and what rate structure will be most effective in preserving fairness and the incentive to reduce waste. The 800 customers who will be enrolled in the pilot program will have an immediate rate reduction in their solid waste rate. If they choose to increase the size of their can rather than increase their waste reduction efforts and make sure that they are using their recycling and organics cans to the greatest extent possible, they will pay a higher rate.
The pilot will test how many customers will increase the size the of their container and whether the rate structure makes a difference, if there are any negative impacts to customers and the neighborhood, and whether there is decreased waste as a result of implementing this change.
We hope to learn whether we can implement such a program citywide. If the pilot demonstrates that people can adapt to this change with little or no negative repercussions, then the City can proceed with implementation, and we can realize the benefits of reduced waste, reduced truck traffic, and reduced cost to ratepayers.
A number of other cities are experimenting with this collection model, but few have a population as committed to recycling and waste reduction as Seattle. Because of that, we are hopeful that we may be able to implement one more step on the road to zero waste.
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UPDATING THE COMPREHENSIVE PLAN
On Monday, May 14, the Council adopted a resolution describing how we will carry out the second ever update of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan. The Plan was first adopted in 1994, and then updated in 2004. The next update is scheduled for 2015, and will respond to lots of changes in the City (for example, we now have light rail and streetcar lines, with more under construction), new learnings and understanding about how cities work, and new approaches to successful City planning.
The 'Comp Plan', as it is known informally, sets a framework for City actions to change, develop, and manage Seattle over time. It is required by Washington's Growth Management Act, and the core policies are required to plan for the City's share of projected state growth. For Seattle, that means 70,000 housing units and 115,000 jobs over the next twenty years.
The resolution lays out a three year timeline for completing the update. It asks the Executive to address the themes that have been developed after a round of broad and inclusive public outreach process:
"a. Promote economic opportunity. Foster a business environment where employers are encouraged to stay in or to move to Seattle because of the available labor pool, the amenities and services provided, and the regulatory environment.
b. Leverage growth. Encourage shops and services to locate where existing or planned residential and employment densities are sufficient to make delivery of services efficient; and where the City and the private sector can collaborate on further enhancements to the urban environment.
c. Become a climate-friendly city. Guide the form and location of growth and transportation infrastructure to reduce greenhouse gases produced in the city, even as the city grows, and identify strategies for coping with the likely effects of a changing climate.
d. Build healthy, complete communities. Develop policies that further the Comprehensive Plan's current Urban Village strategy by improving the availability of services within convenient walking and bicycling distance of where people live.
e. Create housing choices. Continue to encourage a sufficient land base that is appropriately zoned and with regulations in place that allow a wide variety of attractive and affordable housing types in sufficient quantity to serve current and future Seattle residents and workers.
f. Balance transportation investments. Continue to maintain existing transportation facilities, while encouraging expansion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and increasing transit service to densely developed neighborhoods.
g. Build on transit. Encourage appropriate levels of development near existing and planned high-capacity transit stations in order to make it possible for more people to easily take advantage of the access that transit service can provide to jobs, services and entertainment.
h. Invest strategically in neighborhoods. Direct public improvements in neighborhoods where growth is occurring, so that those neighborhoods can continue to serve current residents and attract additional ones.
i. Encourage great design and innovation. Identify ways that new development can respect the natural beauty and unique neighborhood identities that make Seattle an attractive city. At the same time, look for ways to attract new industries that can thrive in the city."
The resolution also lays out a set of recommendations to make the document more accessible and usable, and a plan for public engagement. Finally, there is a specific schedule for the next three years of work.
In 2012-2013, the Council will consider early action on crucial issues where the City is already developing recommendations to address social and community change. These include adding more explicit urban design considerations; policies related to the City's Climate Action Plan; policies regarding appropriate development types and densities near existing and planned transit investments; and policies that encourage equitable access to healthy food.
In 2013-2014, the focus will be on identifying citywide policy issues requiring further review, reconfiguring the online Plan format to improve readability, and recommending new citywide growth expectations and appropriate policy revisions.
Finally, in 2014-2015, the new Recommended Comprehensive Plan will be submitted, reviewed, and adopted by the Council. The resolution calls on the Executive and City Council to review amendments suggested as part of the annual Comprehensive Plan processes for 2013 and 2014 to determine whether those amendments fit with the schedule and guidance described in this resolution.
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DEMOCRACY AND CORPORATE 'PERSONHOOD'
On Monday, May 14, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution joining some 100 other cities and other governments calling for a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision that granted corporations political rights as 'persons'. The 5 to 4 decision, in the case known as 'Citizens United' (the name of the corporate front organization that brought the lawsuit against campaign finance laws), essentially undid campaign finance regulation at the federal level and freed corporations to spend as much money as they want to influence elections. It is not yet clear to what extent this also undoes state and local campaign finance regulations and even disclosure requirements.
It is unusual for the Council to take a position on a federal issue that is not directly related to the City's ongoing work. In this case there is a direct connection, as Seattle has long been in the forefront of campaign finance reform. We pioneered disclosure and limits on contribution size, and even had a form of public financing in place in the 1970's until the Washington State Legislature took away our authority to implement that. While we are always searching for ways to improve our campaign finance management system, we are proud of what we have accomplished. We believe that we can defend it against the implications of the Citizens United decision, but there is some risk that it could be affected as lower courts construe the Supreme Court action.
But beyond the integrity of our own election system, there is a larger concern with the future of democracy in America. There have been many struggles over how to effectively regulate and limit the disproportionate influence of money in the American political system, and an ongoing effort to find the best model at the federal, state, and local levels. That reflects the vitality of our democracy, as we work through such complex issues to come up with the fairest solution. Many such situations wind up in court cases, and courts often have to make careful determinations about fairness and appropriateness.
But the Supreme Court did not carefully review the law and strike down areas that could be problematic. Instead, they rendered a decision that essentially swept away the playing field, ending virtually all possibilities for federal campaign finance reform. As journalist Jeffrey Toobin put it: "The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom the raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections."
It appears that the only way that can be reversed would be to amend the Constitution (unless the Court itself backs down in some fashion). And the only way that will happen is through a grassroots movement for change. That's why so many cities, counties, and states are passing such resolutions, and why it makes sense for Seattle to weigh in. Our own laws are at stake -- and the health of our democratic system and the long term future of the republic.
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WALMART, SEPA, AND NEIGHBORHOODS
The Council is working on changes to the way the City implements the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) in the regulatory reform legislation now under consideration. The goal of this component of the legislation is to encourage development in areas that the City has identified for future growth by eliminating redundant regulations. That means not putting these projects through two reviews covering the same issues. The changes, which follow guidelines set by the State Legislature, will ensure that review of proposed projects under SEPA is targeted to developments of a large enough scale that potential issues may not be covered by other regulations. We are proceeding carefully with this to ensure that there are no loopholes or unintended consequences.
Under current Seattle law, projects in Urban Centers or Station Area Overlay Districts are exempted from SEPA review if they are below a certain size, generally 30 to 80 housing units and up to 12,000 square feet of commercial space, with some variation depending on the zoning. The proposed legislation increases the size limits for exemption to 200 to 250 residential units or up to 30,000 square feet of commercial space when that space is located in a mixed use project. This only applies to residential or mixed use projects within the 6 Urban Centers and 6 Urban Villages with light rail stations, and only in areas that have not yet met adopted Comprehensive Plan Growth Targets for jobs and density.
All such projects will be required to comply with environmental regulations, which cover most of the issues included in SEPA. Many of Seattle's environmental regulations were adopted or strengthened since SEPA was first adopted, which is why SEPA has become somewhat redundant. For example, Seattle now has a Shoreline Master Program that regulates development on the shoreline, and an Environmentally Critical Areas program that limits and regulates development on steep slopes and in other environmentally sensitive areas. Council has reviewed the areas that SEPA covers, and identified transportation impacts and historic preservation as areas that might not be adequately covered if these changes are adopted. The legislation now adds provisions covering transportation issues, and the Council is preparing another ordinance that will cover the issues around historical preservation
(which are currently covered for projects exempt from SEPA through an interdepartmental agreement between DPD and the Historic Preservation office). The Council will also require DPD to make an annual determination as to whether each area has met its growth target and thus is no longer subject to this exemption.
In addition, the Council will amend the legislation to define "mixed use" to mean a building with at least 50% of the gross floor area in residential use. This will eliminate a loophole that could have provided an incentive for a developer to avoid SEPA for a commercial project by providing a code-compliant dwelling unit that may never have been occupied.
Our assessment is that the exemption of SEPA review will only apply to the Downtown, South Lake Union, Northgate, and University Urban Centers, and the North Beacon Hill, North Rainier, Rainier Beach, and Roosevelt Station Areas. That list could shrink as the pace of economic recovery and development increases. Analysis of permits applied for and appealed over the last few years suggests that the exemptions will apply to perhaps about 15% of projects per year, and will reduce the number of legal appeals by less than 10%. This will save paperwork and staff time, but continue to encourage the use of SEPA for the larger projects where it is most useful (and that are most likely to be appealed).
The initial proposed legislation raised the threshold for mixed-use commercial projects from between 4,000 to 12,000 square feet (depending on the zone) to 75,000 square feet. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) raised concerns that this change could limit opportunities to challenge the development of Wal-Mart stores (or other retailers they see as irresponsible and harmful to local businesses) that might be sited in Seattle. After reviewing the legislation, we agreed with UFCW that lowering the proposed commercial threshold from 75,000 square feet to the now recommended 30,000 square feet would still capture much of the benefits of changing the thresholds without potentially limiting the appeal opportunities where those are important.
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"The interesting question is whether our greater powers and our greater knowledge – and by that I don’t mean our deeper knowledge, I mean our more extensive awareness of what’s going on everywhere at once – are going to be helpful or harmful. The possible harm of knowing too much is that it excludes possibilities that might work. You say: 'Oh, we can't do that! Look at the statistics!'"
-- Jacques Barzun
"The past is not a prologue to the present; it is the present -- morphed a bit, stretched, distorted, and with different emphasis. It's a structurally similar, though very much contorted, version of the present.... We think we're going in a line through time, making progress, advancing, but we might be going in circles."
-- David Byrne
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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