Highlights from Wednesday night’s Southwest District Council meeting, covered for WSB by Christopher Boffoli:
First up was the Southwest Precinct‘s Lt. Norm James, who gave a quick briefing on some crime stats. Compared to the same time a year ago, major crime overall is down about 2 percent, while residential burglaries are down 10 percent. This decline in burglaries has helped the overall decline for crime rates across the SW Precinct.
According to Lt. James, there has been a modest decrease in violent crime compared to other precincts, but the violent crime rate is so low anyway in our precinct that even one incident can cause a statistical spike. Property crimes are down 2 percent overall, but what is troubling across all precincts is a rise in auto thefts. This is linked to a wave of auto theft arrests/aggressive sentencing that occurred several years ago. The theory is that those thieves are being released from prison about now and many are returning to what they used to do. Car prowls remain relatively low and stable.
Lt. James touched briefly on the smash-and-grab burglary suspect who is believed to have been responsible for 11 burglaries in the SW Precinct, 8 in the South Precinct, and 19 in King County overall, for a total of 38 smash-and-grab burglaries. He said the man arrested had been out of prison for several months (he had previous theft convictions) at the time the burglaries began. The case was a tough one, owing to the hit-and-run nature of the crimes and the fact that they had very little video footage. But he commended the SPD detectives for doing a great job coordinating with King County detectives and ultimately apprehending the alleged burglar (who pleaded not guilty this week to the three Burien cases in which he is charged so far).
Lastly, Lt. James spoke of the citywide pilot program in which SPD officers have been going door to door in neighborhoods, surveying residents for their opinions on safety and crime issues (first reported here during a trial phase). This survey is a supplement to statistical information collected when citizens call 911. The program started in the North Precinct and will soon be officially heading this way. Pigeon Point will be the first neighborhood where officers will be knocking on doors in the evening (beginning next month). Their goal is to contact every household. So he said not to be surprised to see an officer knocking on your door soon. Read on for more from the SW District Council meeting:
Carol Vincent of the Genesee-Schmitz Neighborhood Council asked if police patrols have been increased since children are returning to school. She mentioned a specific incident in one neighborhood in which a “drifter” was accosting kids on the street and unnerving them. Lt. James reiterated that citizens should not be shy about reporting suspicious activity to 911.
Next up was a presentation by Joanne Donohue and Tamsen Spengler from Senior Services. They talked about their Aging Your Way program, which seeks to reach out to Baby Boomers to solicit ideas and opinions about what services, programs and support systems they would like to see in their communities for their physical and mental needs can be met as they age. Senior Services believes existing resources, both local and federal, are insufficient to meet the needs of older adults. But they assured the Council that they do not have a front-loaded agenda. They say they are really trying to encourage ideas to bubble up from the community.
Their program has rolled out in southeast areas of the city, as well as Shoreline, and they say they have been impressed with the level of participation. They will be bringing the discussion to West Seattle on September 23rd, from 5:30 – 8:30 PM, at Fauntleroy Church, 9140 California SW. They ask that you please RSVP no later than September 20. The program will be led by Jim Diers. They recommended that participants arrive at the start, as opposed to joining the session in progress, to realize the full benefit of the interactive session.
City Councilmember Sally Clark took the floor next. She said that she has been spending the year touching base with all of the District Councils, talking about a number of subjects related to her areas of focus. She is still chairing the Committee on the Built Environment, which is closely involved with neighborhood planning and updating the Multi-Family Code (MFC). Progress with this committee has been good this year and at the same time she says that they are hung up on certain things and waiting for some challenges to play out.
She explained that the MFC is the whole raft of rules on how you develop smaller-scale multi-family housing in the City. For about five years the City has been engaged in trying to modernize those rules. The way they do this is that they focus on different chapters of the code and take a number of years working on each chapter. In the last few years it has been the Single-family Code that has been updated. The Commercial Code was updated. The downtown zoning codes were updated a few years ago. Work on the MFC began last year.
Clark says they made good progress but quickly realized they opened up a big can of worms in terms of changes that councilmembers wanted to make. So the process was carried over into this year. Then they had teams dissect the proposed changes to see if they would really fix some of the things that people were most aggrieved about. They looked at some of the development that had happened over the course of the last boom cycle and wondered aloud, “Really? That’s the best we can do? Why did the rules make that happen?” She said they tried to take that perspective into the review process to examine what had been proposed as a fix for some of the things they all agreed they wanted to address, like all of the really “car-centric townhouse projects.”
They ended up with a package of changes this year that try to turn the old rules on their head, moving away from having cars be the primary design element of defining how people are going to live in their homes. They worked the changes through the committee, then issued required notices for environmental impact, etc. This latter part has been playing out through the Hearing Examiner, who is supposed to deliver a decision in October, on whether the package of changes can progress or is in need of further environmental assessment.
The other big thing that has been occupying the committee’s time right now is a package of changes for the South Downtown (Pioneer Square, International District, Japantown, Little Saigon, South of Dearborn, etc.) portion of zoning. That’s working through committee and should be done by year’s end. It involves changing rules on building heights with the goal of trying to impart more residential density into the respective neighborhoods (which aims to have more people actually living in and having a presence there at all hours) while simultaneously somehow not displacing the qualities that currently make those neighborhoods special. Clark said the challenge is to balance new development with affordable housing and making sure that square-foot-rental rates don’t displace mom and pop businesses. But as much as they want to preserve the qualities that are beloved, they also want to address the qualities of certain neighborhoods that need improvement.
Clark said that additional information on this package of changes is available on her website, including what she called a bonus program that allows developers to, for instance, ask for an exception on height zoning limits by conceding off-sets; like providing affordable housing units, more open space, or preserving a local landmark, etc.
Next she talked about the budget. She said that, not surprisingly, the City was going to struggle to balance budgets for 2011 and 2012. The process is that the Council gets a two-year budget from the mayor. Revenue estimates are still being developed. But right now the number being floated is that they’ll be $60 million short. The economic bubble nationwide is obviously a factor. But also there were many in Seattle who are dependent on the construction industry and the impact of the downturn has rippled out across our local economy. Clark said that people are spending less money, which is a good thing considering the last bubble was caused by overspending. But it is a bad thing for a City economy that depends on sales tax revenue and business/occupation tax revenue. The less people spend at local stores, the more it is a challenge for the City to figure out how to pay police officers. This means the City will have to re-size local government a bit, which will not be enjoyable considering that general fund dollars pay for the kinds of services, such as parks, new sidewalks, police officers, bike paths, etc.
Mayor McGinn will deliver his budget to the Council on September 27th. Clark explained that the way this works is that the initial budget is his “first crack” at it. The process prior to that is somewhat collaborative, but for the most part it is a starting point. Then the Council will take until a week or two before Thanksgiving to pick through it. They’ll look at where cuts were made and where money was re-allocated. And Clark said she does not envy the Mayor’s position, being a new and without the benefit of going through this process before, with the challenge of making deep cuts while at the same time producing a budget that aspires to make Seattle great. After that, there will be a series of public meetings on the budget in the fall. Clark joked, “That’s always a good time.” But then quickly said that actually she derives great benefit in hearing various entities appear before the council as, beyond the repeated mantra of Please don’t cut my program, the details they share about how proposed cuts will affect their programs provides new and important information.
The final part of Clark’s remarks for the evening focused on the City Council’s plan this year to make the topic of climate change a priority for the City. The goal is to make the City of Seattle carbon-neutral, though she recognized that the term has become a bit contentious so they’ve recently been moving toward other terms such as “climate-positive.” During the course of the year there have been some groups working on steps the City could take to move towards becoming a carbon-neutral City at some point in the future. The separate groups have focused on: neighborhoods, land use, transportation, community gardens.They have looked at timeframes and they had discussed appropriate costs associated towards realizing this goal. These multiple teams that have informally coalesced and Clark says they will be presenting what has been done so far at an event on September 14th at 6:30 pm at Town Hall (downtown at 8th & Seneca). Seattle has been looking at other city plans and Clark said there are a few interesting ones out there: Vancouver, Portland, New York City. They are all approaching this in different ways. There are some costs that will come with this endeavor and we need to make some decisions as a community about how to take this on.
Then Clark opened up for discussion. Southwest District Council co-chair Chas Redmond asked about the rough start that Mayor McGinn seemed to be having with the City Council and what the current status of that relationship was, principally in reference to the budget and whether Clark anticipated the City Council being surprised by the first iteration of the budget that the Mayor will soon be submitting to them.
She answered that some city departments have been pro-active about approaching City Council with revenue-generating ideas. The Parks Department has come forward with some ideas: for instance, potentially adding $5 or $10 to dog licenses to fund off-leash park areas and open spaces in parks, etc. They’ve run through a list of ideas for feedback. And the council has seen a range of ideas, though they still have no yet seen the range of potential cuts to these programs.
Clark said that the people from the Seattle Public Library are the most strategic about dealing with City Council because they have the Friends of the Seattle Public Library and the Seattle Public Library Foundation. She said they are “masters” at how to talk to the Council.
She said that she did have a sense that the mayor last week was getting close to making final decisions. But she understood why those will not be shared with the Council until just before the budget is released. And she said that’s not very different from how the previous administration would handle it. What she said was different was rolling out initiatives, which would require council support to live, without talking to anybody about it before taking it public. She said she thinks there have been some improvements along those lines. Clark said her perception is that it is a green team and that Mayor McGinn has a particular way he wants to present himself and that’s good, that’s his choice. “He’s the Executive. He has four years (or better) to put his stamp on how he wants to do things.” But then she finished answering the question by saying that she had said enough and really doesn’t want to fuel the drama of the Mayor and City Council and at the end of the day citizens want to see government work and to see that someone’s taking responsibility for it.
Southwest District Council Co-Chair, and president of the Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO) Erica Karlovits followed up with a question about what could be done about the “holes” from stalled construction all over town. She quickly briefed Councilmember Clark about the frustrations of dealing with the owners of “The Hole” at the site once known as Fauntleroy Place.
Clark responded that there is an impending piece of legislation that will come forward in the 4th quarter of the year, after the budget process, which is being referred to as Interim Uses. It looks at the whole process of what can be done, while development is stalled because of the state of the economy, to ensure that these stalled sites don’t at best become unattractive nuisances or at worst present real safety issues. Clark said there are different ways of looking at the issue. First, she said that some of the things that can be done on these sites does not require any legislation, providing you have a willing property owner. Beyond that there are situations where you might require a little bit of legislation because the interim use may be something that is a zoning issue and may not currently be allowed in that zone. She said the Office for Economic Development and the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs have been working jointly with the Seattle Design Commission on a request for proposals and have been working on trying to match up the finalists for those proposals with willing landowners. (That list, reported here previously, is online here)
Karlovits followed up by saying that when you have a situation which involves lawsuits, as “The Hole” does, progress is even more of a challenge. Clark agreed that the situation is indeed more complicated as then it gets into a matter of who has legal responsibility for what happens on the site. But she added that if a bank was willing to let an agent, like the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, negotiate an interim use, then something might happen. But you still have to get a bank to acknowledge responsibility for a site and authorize its use. Clark brought up the similar situation with the empty site across the street from City Hall, the former location of the old Public Safety building. Because it is expensive to fill it in and dig it back out again, the best solution they could come up with was to ring it with plywood fencing that has been colorfully decorated with public art. She said that in that case the property owner is paying $40,000 per month to ensure that the plywood enclosure is kept clean and graffiti-free.
Karlovits and Susan Melrose from the West Seattle Junction Association said that, beyond the aesthetic issues with the Whole Foods site surround, they have been dealing with the safety issues related to the significant drop in elevation between the sidewalk and the bottom of the site below, which has them concerned because of its proximity to the intersection of Fauntleroy and SW Alaska, among the busiest in West Seattle. Their requests to have vehicle barriers at street level have been stymied by ADA requirements about keeping the sidewalks unobstructed. She said that, in order for the barriers to work, SDOT must give permission for the barriers to partially block the sidewalk and that permission had not been easy to come by. Clark acknowledged that the city does get “hammered pretty hard” by disabilities advocates about closed sidewalks which is what may be driving SDOT’s resistance to allowing the barriers.
The group asked if there was any legislation planned by which a developer would be required to put up a bond to address issues such as these if a project were to become stalled. Clark said no, and if a developer has gone bankrupt the bond would still be considered assets and there would be no way to go after those assets. Vlad Oustimovitch of the Fauntleroy Community Association reminded Clark that in this case the situation is complicated by multi-party litigation and suggested that it might be helpful if solutions could be designed which would provide an incentive for the parties to resolve those legal issues, as an alternative to a demand from the city to fill the hole or face other consequences.
Clark said it is her understanding that the city can mandate filling the hole if there is an imminent threat of collapse. A hole at 2nd & Pine fell into this category. Oustimovitch asserted that there really is a valid public safety argument here in that there is a 40-foot drop where the sidewalk ends. And if the discussion is pushed along the lines of a health-and-safety issue, even if a conversation about it were just started, that might be a way to move the owners to act. Clark said she would look into the issue of the city mandating filling or bracing.
Sharonn Meeks of the Fairmount Community Association asked about the results of the audit of the effectiveness of the District Councils. She told Clark that it is frustrating to sit there at a District Council meeting and hearing about how effective the Library is at lobbying City Council, while the Southwest District Council has been working for two years to get someone to address the issues, just discussed, with “The Hole.” She wondered, “How effective are the District Councils when we have to look for you to use this format to bring our questions forward and look for solutions, when we don’t get an answer?” Meeks said she would like to hear about the results of the audit and whether the District Councils need to change the way they operate because they currently don’t seem very effective, despite all of their meetings and work. She said she felt as though there were issues that the District Council has been working on for years and nothing is moving forward. “This format needs to be improved or abandoned,” she added.
Clark answered that, although she used the library system as an example of a group that’s effective at putting its agenda before the City Council, she did not feel that it was a valid comparison with the District Council system. She said that it has probably taken the Department of Neighborhoods too long to work on a response plan to the audit which will make recommendations on how to modernize the District Councils. But she added that a change of administrations has no doubt been responsible for some of that delay.
Clark said that most of the audit’s recommendations have to do with where the city government falls short in supporting what citizens are doing with the District Councils. But it did not deal with whether the overall system is effective, which is a more-difficult conversation. And that there may be people who have been involved with the District Council system who potentially could be holding it back in some ways.
Meeks said the Council would be greatly served if there were space on the web where there was a direct link for citizens to provide feedback directly to the City instead of continuing to hold neighborhood meetings that are lightly populated by the public. That way the District Councils would not be burdened with the responsibility of taking the temperature of the neighborhood, especially when such a small segment of the population is showing up. Clark asked for opinions for the group on what the District Councils are supposed to do, offering her own feeling that the are not necessarily places where everyone takes a vote and articulates a position on something, as then you get into a question of whether councils are truly representative of all the people who live within a certain area. She says that would be a very different system than what the city is providing support for and if the group thought that was the kind of system they wanted to have that they should have a very purposeful conversation about what a system like that might cost and how it would be managed.
Meeks brought up the recent meeting on the West Seattle Golf Course driving-range project (WSB coverage here), which only drew a handful of members of the general public. The Parks Department claimed to have mailed notices to residents within 1,000 feet of the proposed driving range. Clark said that may be an issue with the Parks Department falling down on how they’re doing their outreach. She suggested it might be an issue to put before the Mayor, as he has articulated a desire to do outreach that goes beyond the District Councils, especially with populations that are under-represented.
Dick Miller of the Genesee-Schmitz Neighborhood Council wondered if Meeks’ concern was shared by others on the Council. Karlovits said that prior to the meeting that night she, Oustimovitch and Redmond spoke with the intern from the Department of Neighborhoods who is putting together focus groups to examine if the District Councils are functioning, if there should be consistency across the councils, what the role of the CNC should be, etc. Karlovits said she does not know the timeline of the study but the conversation is happening. But that they did articulate to the intern what they think their role is, what they want their role to be, and how they have created some good guidelines about how they operate that seem to work well for the Southwest District Council. But it has been a year since they talked last, so she did not know how long it would be until they heard what develops.
Southwest Neighborhood District Coordinator Stan Lock said that he understands Meeks’ frustration and thinks there needs to be a deeper discussion about whether the existing system is inadequate and, if not, how it needs to be changed. Oustimovitch said he doesn’t think that any District Council can really ever have enough time or people to resolve political issues. But what they should do is identify issues and leave it to the elected officials to resolve those issues. “We’re just part of a larger political framework,” he said. Karlovits said she liked the idea of the websites because then there would be a repository of information that government could use to know what the issues are in a given neighborhood. Clark said that part of the audit process was to analyze better ways for information to flow between government and the District Councils. Melrose suggested that a website could also help citizens connect with the issues that their respective district council is working on.
Oustimovitch brought up the example of how citizens catalyzed the process for the City to modernize the Multi-Family Code. But in the end he felt that the Master Builders Association was more effective at lobbying City Council throughout the process that in the end he felt that many of the issues that were identified as problems by the neighborhoods were not resolved. Clark fundamentally disagreed, saying that everything that could be salvaged out of the team presentations was seriously looked at and incorporated into the changes as best they could be. She said that in her opinion there was a huge amount of community input in the changes, and that it’s vital to remember that, as much as everyone wants to have input, there will sometimes be decisions that you don’t agree with.
Melrose asked for an update on the process of King County Metro looking at replacing electric “trolley” buses. Clark says she heard that they are just finalizing the scope of work for the study which will hopefully yield an answer about how to replace the fleet. A decision must be made by 2012.
Karlovits asked whether the City Council has been looking at reviewing and improving the Design Review process. Clark said she has heard about it, and from different points of view, including those who think that the best way to stimulate the economy is to get rid of the process all together. Others think it is a sham anyway and that is reason enough to get rid of it. Karlovits said she thinks the real deficiency is in DPD not holding developers accountable when they fail to comply with guidelines.
Miller asked Clark about the closed Genesee Hill school building and what could be done with it so that it did not become a problem property. She answered that things can be done with surplus properties. There is a community planning process through the Department of Neighborhoods. The district might keep the school in their inventory if they think they will need it again for educational purposes, whatever the timeframe that might be. Some problems are that if the building stops being used for educational purposes for more than a year it loses its education occupancy. And if a for-profit user of the property is going to come in, the School District has rules about companies making profit on public property. The State Constitution says they cannot give away public stuff so market rate must be charged. There was a discussion of some other neighborhoods that were able to find alternate uses for surplus school properties.
Clark briefly talked about some of the steps the City Council is taking to stimulate jobs growth, including retraining for jobs where there is an industry demand, training people to be home energy auditors (in order to take advantage of available federal funds), and streamlining the business permitting process.
The final section of the night’s two-hour meeting was a presentation by Karlovits who reviewed for the Southwest District Council the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Plan, which she and others have been for years seeking to update. At the time it was written it was intended to address growth in the area for a period of twenty years. But Karlovits presented some data, projections versus actual demographics, clearly demonstrating that only 11 years later the plan is woefully out of date. The City is currently considering whether the plan for the West Seattle Junction, which includes a vast area well-beyond just the Alaska Junction’s “urban village,” will be updated. But Karlovits has concerns that the City’s budget woes may prevent the update from happening.
Southwest District Council meets the first Wednesday of the month, 7 pm, at the SSCC board room.