City Hall NOT YET responsive to neighborhood livability concerns
Last Tuesday (4/19/16), Mayor Murray hosted a Livability Night Out between 6:30 and 8:30PM at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) at the south tip of Lake Union. The first section of the evening program (6:30-7:15PM) encouraged participants to “mix and mingle” with various City departments that had set up tables and white boards surrounding the MOHAI lobby. The thirty City departments included among others: Parks, Sustainability & Environment, Transportation, Codes & Inspections (formerly DPD), Planning & Community Development (also formerly DPD), HALA, Neighborhoods, Housing, and Arts & Culture.
The second section of the evening (7:15-8:30PM) began with 3-minute presentations by each of the Mayor and ten department directors. That was followed by a question and answer period mainly with Mayor Murray, but also including the department directors. The main emphasis in questions was on HALA, the Mayor’s Housing Affordability & Livability Agenda, which is expected to greatly increase the density of some Seattle neighborhoods. The following video segments constitute a representative sample of development-related questions asked of the Mayor.
Many neighborhoods (e.g. Wallingford, Eastlake, Phinney Ridge) are experiencing projects that replace a single building, like a duplex, with a multiple-story building with 20-60 units AND NO PARKING. In this video segment, a Wallingford resident complains about a four-story building with 63 units being built with absolutely no parking. The resident suggests that one way to mitigate the overcrowding caused by these so-called “efficiency” units is to deny RPZ (residential parking zone) parking stickers to occupants since they are opting for a car-free life style. Mayor Murray doesn’t really answer the question, first suggesting that we can “have a conversation” about this and then saying there are different types of RPZs. Finally, the Mayor claims there is difficulty getting the balance right between number of units and number of parking spaces in a building, but it’s hard to see how providing ZERO parking spaces for a 63-unit building represents a “balancing” of parking needed for units.
According to Mayor Murray, Seattle is growing faster than it has in its entire history. In this video segment, a Wedgewood resident complains about the loss of trees caused by dense development. Again, Mayor Murray doesn’t really answer the question, admitting that Seattle hasn’t done a good job with trees, but claiming that at some unspecified future time we should re-tree Seattle. The questioner was really asking about PREVENTING large trees from being lost, which is an increasing problem with the higher neighborhood density expected with HALA.
In this video segment, a resident, who clearly resents car drivers, asks the Mayor what HALA will do for residents who cannot afford a car, but rather walk, bike, and take public transportation to get around the City. The Mayor responds that “the heart of HALA” is giving folks AN OPPORTUNITY to live near where they work. Those folks living in close proximity to work won’t need to use a car, which the Mayor describes as a win-win situation, reducing travel time for lower income residents and reducing the number of cars that need to use the road. The unanswered question is how HALA will guarantee that affordable housing is built near workplaces. The Mayor admits in the next video segment that affordable housing doesn’t “pencil out” for downtown and South Lake Union. Furthermore, the increased density caused by HALA will likely increase traffic congestion since, even if some affordable housing is built, much of the increased population density will depend on cars.
Keeping Faith With Voters
In this video segment, a Wallingford resident likes the nice talk around HALA but questions whether the affordable housing will ever be built in the new developments, since there is no guarantee in HALA. Mayor Murray responds that this is just the beginning of the discussion of the HALA proposal. The Mayor admits that affordable housing that was promised in the past wasn’t delivered. He concedes that HALA won’t work if the affordable housing units aren’t built in the new developments.
One resident complained that his property taxes were going up “exponentially,” and was interested in the Mayor’s views of housing affordability for homeowners. In this video segment, the Mayor claims that he would prefer to have other revenue sources besides the property tax, but blames Tim Eyman’s initiatives for eliminating other sources. The Mayor makes three claims: (a) that Seattle’s property taxes are lower than property taxes in surrounding cities; (b) that property taxes have risen, in part, because property values have risen as we’ve come out of recession; and (c) that the City has essentially no tax options beyond the property and sales taxes. Property tax is a complex subject that we intend to consider in future articles. One tax that surrounding cities use but Seattle doesn’t is “impact fees,” which can be levied to support roads, schools, and parks.
Mostly, Mayor Murray and the department directors in their presentations and answers to questions treated neighborhood concerns with seriousness. The note of frivolousness was provided by the controversial Director of the Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland, who made a content-free presentation in rhyme! Since the purpose of the Livability Night Out is to connect with neighborhoods and get input from neighbors, it’s important that the City’s interface with neighbors, the Department of Neighborhoods, be as aware of neighborhood concerns as possible. In this video segment, viewers can decide for themselves whether Nyland’s doggerel evidences any awareness of neighborhood concerns.
The City is on the threshold of adopting HALA land use policies that will greatly increase the population density in many neighborhoods. The Mayor says that Seattle has twice the land area of San Francisco so there is plenty of room for expansion, but the density is targeted toward neighborhoods that already are relatively dense, not spread out to Seattle neighborhoods that have less density. If the “heart of HALA” is affordable housing that allows lower income residents to live near work, the HALA must have GUARANTEED ENFORCEABLE provisions that assure the affordable housing is built. The City is currently NOT addressing the neighborhood problems caused by increased development, like lack of parking and loss of tree canopy, so without a substantial change in City Hall responsiveness, the problems caused by increased development will inevitably continue to increase.