Historic Sheridan building in downtown faces demolition; under old housing bonus program the developer was required to replace these 56 low cost units… but not under HALA-MHA

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Sheridan Apartments at 5th and Virginia

The incentive zoning or ‘housing bonus’ system in place for years in downtown required developers to replace 1 for 1 any low cost housing they demolished as a condition for increasing the height and density of their buildings. The new HALA-Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) Program does not include this requirement.  And wherever incentive zoning still applies in Seattle, city planners intend also to remove the obligation.  Hundreds of existing low cost units in Seattle will be lost if this occurs.  

A 44-story luxury apartment building at 2005 5th Ave (NW corner of 5th & Virginia) is proposed by a Taiwanese developer that would rise above the empty shells of the historic Griffin Building and the Sheridan Apartments, and will remove 56 units of currently occupied and very affordable downtown housing ($990-$1170/mo. rent at time they applied for permits).  Only the facades of these two buildings would remain.

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Griffin Building

Under the old housing bonus program in place for years downtown, the developer would have been granted slightly less added density, and required to contribute to construction of the 18 units, and replace 1 for 1 the housing they removed.  Now under the HALA-MHA program, they’re on the hook only for the 18 units.

A preliminary recommendation giving the go ahead to the project already has been made by the Design Review Board with only relatively minor modifications suggested by the Board.

The developer however must return to the Board with a response before they’re given final approval.  No date has been set as yet for that to occur but unless Continue reading

Posted in Affordable Housing, Density, Displacement, Housing Preservation, Upzoning

Amazon spheres: new Seattle icon or glorified food court

AmazonspheresSeattle shows off it’s “world class” inferiority complex: gaudy bubbles highlight drab sameness of downtown buildings going up around them

The newspapers, TV, and radio were all agog, as were several county and city elected leaders, downtown chamber types, and other assorted poobahs.  After some saccharine speeches and the prerequisite obsequious genuflection by our Mayor and County Executive to the God of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, the spheres finally were open to view…well sort of….  In keeping with Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable and exclusive character, the city’s newest expression of postmodern architecture (and conspicuous consumption) is not ‘public’ at all. It’s open only to Amazon’s employees and occasional guided tours.

Its been done before and better

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Belfast Ireland’s Victoria Square: a public space

Like the hoopla that surrounded Rem Koolhaas “avant-garde” Downtown Public Library and Frank Gehry’s “MoPOP” mash-up on the edge of Seattle Center grounds, our city’s downtown cognoscenti showered praise on the spheres, insisting they proved ‘once again and beyond doubt’, we are a ‘world class’ city.  Their effulgence over what looks to me more like a glorified employee food court wound up only highlighting our city’s world class inferiority complex.  And attempts by some to compare these spheres to the Space Needle, Pike Market, and other true iconic Seattle landmarks only further drives home the point.

Screenshot 2018-02-01 at 2.25.43 PM - EditedFrom the sidewalk, the garish bulbs punctuate a streetscape increasingly crammed cheek to jowl with taller and taller buildings, uniform in their sameness.  The spheres just remind us of how drab in general Seattle’s architecture has become.  A lot of that has to do with city leaders too willing to adopt land use and zoning rules that pay little or no heed to the existing physical, social, and historic character of our communities.  Instead of encouraging creativity or better yet requiring it, the rules now are geared primarily to accommodating the developer’s profit and maxing out density. Try distinguishing our urban core or South Lake Union from downtown anywhere USA.  Amazon’s supersized terrarium only serves to accentuate that reality.

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Posted in City Hall, Density, Humor, Neighborhoods, Politics, Upzoning

How Columbia City (and Seattle) became richer and whiter

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Violet Lavatai says, “The faster they’re building; the faster people are going on the street.” (Photo: Cliff Cawthon)

The Tenants Union’s Violet Lavatai talks about displacement, gentrification and growing up in the Rainier Valley

By Cliff Cawthon, Contributing Writer

While walking along in Columbia City’s business district, I noticed and shuddered at the installation of paid-parking zones. My mind started to contemplate the re-structuring of Seattle’s newest “hip” neighborhood. The orange flags identified new pay meters, but they also meant something more: Columbia City, like the commons of old, was being enclosed and reserved. There definitely wasn’t any going back.

The gentrification of Columbia City isn’t a new topic. This recent small, but noticeable parking change, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, was designed to address the “absence of available parking” in the neighborhood.

For the better part of two decades now, longtime residents and newer residents who’ve reflected the neighborhood’s traditional non-white and working-class character have been pushed out. Many have been lamenting this phenomenon, confronting it, trying to adapt to it, and/ or fighting like hell against it.

Violet Lavatai, the Interim Executive Director of the Tenants Union of Washington, is not just someone who is currently fighting displacement but she has also been forced out of Columbia City. (Full disclosure: I am co-chair of the Tenants Union board of directors.)

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Posted in Affordable Housing, City Hall, Cliff Cawthon articles, Displacement, Gentrification, Homelessness, Neighborhoods, Politics, racial justice, Upzoning

The good, bad and ugly: a look back at Seattle politics in 2017 and towards an uncertain future for 2018


Put on hold… again. In 2018, don’t expect progress addressing homelessness, not as long as city leaders remain incapable of tracing the problem back to their own policy decisions that promote redevelopment at the expense of our existing low-income housing stock. (Photo by David Bloom)

  • by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, reprinted from our January column appearing monthly in City Living and other Pacific Publishing newspapers 

They were the best of times; they were the worst of times. Okay, looking back over the last year at the actions of locally elected leaders, more often it was the worst of times.

Sure, if you are a developer or a higher-income earner, likely things are just peachy but if you’re low-income, homeless, a person of color, senior citizen, retail or service worker or even an average working class person, likely 2017 was not your year. Nor was it a good year for those who care deeply about preserving the livability and affordability of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Yes, Seattle’s job picture has remained strong, and thanks to a required increase in the minimum wage, workers at the bottom earn more. But real wages continue to lag behind rising prices, especially Seattle’s record rent increases. And if you’re poor, you’re getting hit with much higher taxes and bearing more than your share due to the most regressive state tax structure in the nation.

Our city’s leaders have only accentuated that regressivity by covering the cost of new infrastructure demanded by growth with special property tax levies, increased parking meter rates, car tab hikes, utility rate increases, increased user fees, and tax hits on small businesses.

Yes, Seattle electeds in 2017 adopted an income tax on high-income earners. But everyone knew it was a trial balloon facing enormous legal and state constitutional hurdles.  It looks like grandstanding to us when the same officials sit on legally viable progressive options they could adopt tomorrow, like developer impact fees, the office head tax, and increased utility rates for large users.

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Posted in City Hall, Displacement, Housing Preservation, racial justice, Upzoning

Hearing on EIS appeal of HALA upzones set for April but CM Johnson moves ahead anyway with Council review; has he crossed a legal red line?

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Update of appeal by 27 neighborhood and housing groups; they’re seeking donations to help cover the cost of their appeal while CM Johnson pretends there is no appeal (and no widespread opposition to the city’s massive upzoning plan)

The City’s Hearing Examiner has scheduled the appeal of the planned city-wide HALA upzones for April in a hearing expected to take several days if not longer.  Twenty seven neighborhood and housing groups filed the appeal late last year charging the city had failed to adequately assess the adverse impacts of HALA upzones or offer adequate mitigation for damage to the livability and affordability of their communities as is required under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

Given the Hearings Examiner’s full schedule of appeals, the number of groups involved in the appeal, and its expected length, dates could not be found until at least April.  And there is a chance it could be postponed even to a later date. The city has said it may need extra time to prepare it’s defense and produce an extensive amount of documents and analysis requested ‘in discovery’ by those filing the appeal.  

It’s normal in an appeal like this that the city would be asked and required to produce all materials relevant to its actions, but this is not a normal site-specific or even neighborhood-specific upzone.  It’s a sweeping set of upzones affecting every corner of the city with documents and analysis going back years for each affected community. 

The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) says that “decision-makers” shall have a completed environmental document placed before them “when considering the alternatives or their preferred action”.   Translated that means Councilmember Johnson as chair of the Council’s Land Use Committee cannot commit his committee to a course of action, in this case city-wide upzoning, until after a hearings examiner decision on the appeal.  Only then will the environmental process be completed and only then will Johnson receive a full record of environmental impacts and alternative courses of action for his committee to consider. 

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CM Rob Johnson: is he defying SEPA?

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Posted in Uncategorized

Art, activism and Vanishing Seattle

Cynthia Brothers

Cynthia Brothers uses photography and political organizing to fight displacement. (Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brothers)

Cynthia Brothers reflects on the politics of art and the art of politics

by George Howland Jr, Contributing Writer

Cynthia Brothers, 36, is an artist and an activist.

The main outlet for her art is Vanishing Seattle, a social media feed of photographs that documents what is being lost as redevelopment tears through the city. Since Vanishing Seattle started two years ago, it has attracted an extraordinary 25,000 followers combined from Instagram and Facebook.

Her main activist project is being part of the Chinatown International District Coalition (CID Coalition), aka Humbows Not Hotels. The CID Coalition is a collective that is fighting to stop the unique Asian American Seattle neighborhood being stripped of its inhabitants and its cultural identity. The CID Coalition is just one year old and has around 15-20 core members, but its community meetings have drawn over 100 people.

In December, I interviewed Brothers about both projects—their significance, their relationship to one another and what the future holds for them. Brothers has a dynamic, articulate understanding of what is happening to Seattle’s communities of color during the Amazon boom. While Brothers is modest about her own achievements, she is clearly a grassroots leader and artistic spark plug in the fight against displacement and gentrification.

George Howland (GH): Please talk about the relationship between Vanishing Seattle and the CID Coalition.

Cynthia Brothers (CB): They are related in a lot of ways. I use a very similar lens with both Vanishing Seattle and CID Coalition—i.e. anti-displacement. With Vanishing Seattle, I am approaching it with a documentation, arts and storytelling perspective. The CID Coalition is doing anti-displacement organizing. There are a lot of similar themes.

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Posted in Affordable Housing, City Hall, Density, Displacement, Gentrification, George Howland articles, Housing Preservation, Neighborhoods, Politics, Protest, racial justice, Upzoning

What is our new mayor’s plan to address police brutality?


Mayor Durkan inherits a police department under federal supervision for the unconstitutional use of excessive force. (Photo: Durkan campaign)

Durkan must choose a new police chief and address the ongoing problems of excessive force and racism

By Cliff Cawthon, Contributing Writer

Now that the election is over and Mayor Jenny Durkan has settled in, what can we expect the new administration to do about police brutality? Every day across the country, new examples of police misconduct are coming to light. Here in Seattle, in 2011, the United States Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department had engaged in the unconstitutional practice of using excessive force. In 2012, city hall entered in a consent decree with the federal government to eliminate the unconstitutional practices. That process is ongoing. All this has cast Seattle’s “progressive cred” into question.

When asked directly about how far the mayor would go to reform the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Durkan’s spokesperson Kamaria Hightower says, “[T]he reforms required by the consent decree created a foundation for lasting change, [though] the job of reform is never ending.” Part of that reform, according to Durkan, was her recent executive order that mandated a review of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative because of the “reality that policing has a disparate impact on people of color.”

In July, that disparate impact was all too evident when SPD officers murdered Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, a 5-foot 3-inch tall, 100-pound, African American mother-of-four. As The Guardian wrote, the SPD “treated a victim as a suspect.”

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Posted in City Hall, Cliff Cawthon articles, Neighborhoods, police accountability, Politics, racial justice