Councilmember Rob Johnson is misleading the public about upzones


Johnson’s new law will intensify demolitions and displacement. (Alex Pedersen)

Northeast Seattle’s city councilmember twists truth to support irresponsible policies

by Alex Pedersen

Do you recognize this bulldozer? It’s hard to tell because there are so many rumbling in Northeast Seattle these days. (It’s the one on NE 50th and Brooklyn).

Seattle leaders should prevent demolitions and displacement. Instead, our local government officials — led by Councilmember Rob Johnson — have been spending an enormous amount of time and taxpayer resources to quickly implement polices that will benefit their for-profit developer campaign donors and intensify demolitions and displacement.

Councilmember Johnson’s recent Op Ed entitled “U District leads the way in citywide rezone effort” was misleading and irresponsible. Johnson, who was elected to represent Northeast Seattle in “District 4”, was not only celebrating his efforts to enact a law massively upzoning the U District but also giving notice to the rest of the city that he plans to upzone their neighborhoods, too. Disturbingly, many of his statements lauding the upzones were false.

In this troubling era of government officials spreading alternative facts to push their agendas and confuse communities, Johnson’s twisting of the truth must be corrected.

Misleading Statement #1: Johnson wrote, “for the first time in Seattle’s history we will require affordable housing as we grow.”

Reality: The U District and other neighborhoods in Seattle already had “Incentive Zoning” that required contributions to affordable housing (and child care and parks) if for-profit developers wanted to build higher. While the new mandatory approach could have been better, Johnson blocked amendments that would have increased affordable housing from just 9% to 10%. Without showing his math, Johnson claimed it would hurt for-profit developers. “The Urbanist” organization pointed out that other, bolder cities set-aside 20% for affordable housing. Unfortunately, the upzone enacted by City Hall may actually reduce affordable housing, as noted by The Seattle Times in their recent piece entitled “Build-Baby-Build Frenzy Leaves Affordability in the Dust.”

Misleading Statement #2: Johnson wrote that the upzones are “living our values as a welcoming, sustainable and inclusive city”

Reality: Johnson gave for-profit developers a loophole:  they can write a check rather than housing low income people in their buildings. Not requiring affordable housing onsite is the opposite of inclusive.

Misleading Statement #3: Johnson wrote, “We required developers to provide more open space”

Reality: Johnson dismissed an ongoing, grass-roots effort to create a public square above the light rail station.

Misleading Statement #4: Johnson wrote, “By investing in citywide assets like…schools…we encourage more people to live in high-amenity areas.” 

Reality: Johnson did nothing for schools. In fact, he had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to charge developer’s impact fees by which developers would finally to pay their fair share of growth as they do throughout the country. State law specifically allows impact fees to pay for schools, parks, and fire stations. Schools in Northeast Seattle are bursting at the seams, but Johnson ignored community requests for impact fees.  What Johnson did NOT mention in his editorial is that his election campaign was funded richly by for-profit developers. (CLICK HERE).

Misleading Statement #5: Johnson wrote that the upzones are “contributing to stable neighborhoods, businesses, and schools”

Reality:  Borrowing the term from legendary urban thinker Jane Jacobs (who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Rob Johnson’s massive and rapid upzone is “cataclysmic” and therefore the opposite of stable:  it will de-stabilize the neighborhoods and the small, local businesses we cherish.  Demolishing existing buildings to construct more expensive units that require higher rents will push people out and economically gentrify neighborhoods.

Misleading Statement #6: Johnson wrote that upzones will “continue to lower our greenhouse gas emissions”

Reality: Johnson’s upzone is an environmental shell game:  by pushing people of modest means out of the U District as wealthy tech workers snatch up the expensive new buildings, the former residents will need to commute longer distances in their cars, thereby doing nothing to curb emissions

Misleading Statement #7: Johnson wrote “we delayed zoning changes along a stretch of the Ave so a study on the potential impacts on small businesses could be completed.”

Reality: This “delay” was a cynical tactic to allow passage of the larger upzone everywhere else in the neighborhood. Because Rob Johnson is the Councilmember representing the Ave, it’s like having the “fox in the hen house”. He has shown no intention of letting any “study” stop him from upzoning the rest of the Ave to benefit his developer donors. It seems he and the bureaucracy are simply waiting out the neighborhood, hoping they tire of fighting City Hall. Fortunately, there is a growing movement to Save the Ave.

Misleading Statement #8: Johnson wrote, “This legislation includes changes made in direct response to feedback”

Reality: As shown above, Rob Johnson constantly ignored feedback from community members.  In fact, he shoved several more blocks into the upzone at the last minute, ignoring pleas to preserve the affordable housing there.

Sadly, Rob Johnson stooped to a new low by comparing concerned communities to Trump for challenging his bulldozer approach to city planning.  Reality: The people in the neighborhoods wanted more affordable housing whereas Johnson pushed for less.  Trump is a developer and developers funded Johnson’s campaign. Trump abuses the reins of government by spreading fake news to confuse communities. We see that cynical tactic coming from City Hall, not from communities trying to have a say in their future.

We expect our government officials to listen and lead, not to spout misinformation and mislead. Thankfully, residents are not letting the U District upzone get them down and are still turning up the volume on City Hall.

What can you do?  Engage. Fight Back. City Hall is coming to develop your neighborhood whether you like it or not. Why? Because most of City Hall is representing the moneyed-interests, not the public interest. While they complain about “wealthy” homeowners (many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes), our elected officials take money and direction from local billionaires.

Save the Ave:  There is a new and growing effort to preserve the funky, small businesses on The Ave (University Way NE). Many of these have been featured as “Stores to Adore” on, such as Scarecrow Video and Gargoyle Statuary.

  • For the small businesses devoted to preserving the Ave, CLICK HERE.
  • For the “Save the Ave” website, CLICK HERE.

Support Councilmember Lisa Herbold: Make the 1% pay more than 2% !! Make downtown developers pay their fair share for the cost of growth and congestion. Write today to reach all nine City Councilmembers. Ask them to support Lisa Herbold’s amendments to increase the affordable housing obligations for developers in downtown and South Lake Union. Since Rob Johnson blocked neighborhood requests to increase affordability in the U District, making the Council increase affordability for downtown will set a better precedent as City Hall plots to redevelop other neighborhoods.

Need Inspiration?  For news footage of neighbors banding together recently to protest City Hall’s top-down, pro-developer policies, CLICK HERE.

Alex Pedersen is a former Legislative Aide to the Seattle City Council President with an expertise in affordable housing. Alex, who has resided in the Ravenna neighborhood with his family for the past decade, publishes the Northeast Seattle newsletter
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