By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“I just want to thank you.”
Midway through our coffeehouse conversation with four local neighborhood-group reps about why they’re part of a citywide challenge to the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda upzoning plan, a woman walked up to the table and addressed that to them.
She admitted she had been eavesdropping and “figured out what you were talking about.” She says she lives in the Junction area – which is where we were talking – and doesn’t want the upzoning to happen.
But, she added, “I don’t know what I can do to help.” The four offered suggestions immediately. Earl Lee of the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Coalition said, “We need every soldier we can get.”
Amanda Sawyer, who has led the Junction Neighborhood Organization for half a year, mentioned JuNO’s Land Use Committee will be talking about HALA and the appeal at a meeting tomorrow (6:30 pm Thursday, December 7th, Senior Center of West Seattle).
Equipped with ideas, the woman moved on. The four were heartened by that unsolicited feedback. What their groups had joined is not universally popular – some supporters of the proposed upzoning accuse opponents of being elitist, wealthy, interested only in keeping their theoretical white-picket-fence gates slammed shut to newcomers.
Not at all, these four insist. But before we go further, introductions and backstory.
We spoke the day after the coalition of two-dozen-plus groups from around the city announced it was appealing the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the HALA component officially called Mandatory Housing Affordability, proposing upzoning that will expand development capacity in exchange for requiring those who build housing to either include a percentage as “affordable” units, or to pay into a fund that the city will use to bankroll development of “affordable” housing.
In addition, nine neighborhood groups from around the city filed their own appeals, including the Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO) and Morgan Community Association (MoCA).
Those groups offered representatives to talk with WSB about the West Seattle view of this fight, so we sat down with WWRHAH’s Lee, Sawyer and Carl Guess from JuNO, and Deb Barker from MoCA.
None of their groups had just jumped into HALA for the endgame. They all have been monitoring and participating along the way. Barker – a retired land-use planner for a city south of Seattle and former Design Review Board member – has even helped lead educational sessions for other groups to explain the process, like a pivotal one that drew standing-room-only turnout a year ago.
And a caveat – these four were not speaking for the coalition, only for themselves.
“We’re all here because we love our neighborhoods,” Guess said. “We’ve been trying to help our neighbors navigate a time of intense growth.” And by neighbors, they mean “renters, seniors, businesspeople, homeowners,” everyone.
The major beef with the city’s proposal, as Guess sees it: “It would have you believe that all neighborhoods are created equal and that’s not true. We all have different geographies, histories, cultural touchstones … The central failure of the FEIS is that it wants to skate over those differences … doesn’t want to look at its neighborhood impacts. When you peel back its shallow analysis, there’s not nearly enough affordable housing going into the neighborhoods themselves.”
That’s for two reasons – one, the relatively low number of units the city expects will be created, only triple digits per year. And two, it’s expected that developers/builders will generally opt to pay the fee instead, and that means money from a project in Neighborhood X has no guarantee of going toward affordable housing in that same neighborhood.
“We’re at risk for losing a lot more neighborhood economic diversity,” Guess laments.
So what specifically led these neighborhoods’ groups to get involved at this level, a formal challenge?
MoCA’s Barker explained that Morgan “saw the writing on the wall” because its then-board member Cindi Barker was on the original HALA advisory committee appointed by Mayor Murray, the committee that came up with more than 60 recommendations. “We knew our neighborhood plan was threatened,” particularly the part that called for protecting areas zoned for single-family homes. “And we have been vocal in saying, neighborhood planning is beyond Shelby’s” – a reference to the chaotically executed city open house one year ago at a Junction restaurant (that has since closed down).
“So MoCA has really taken steps to jump in and go outside the box, file a Comprehensive Plan Amendment request …. so our plan can’t just be run over and ignored. The neighborhood plan from the ’90s was a neighborhood effort” – Barker points out she hadn’t yet moved to the area by then – “and they negotiated it down to what mattered to the entire neighborhood. No one has told us that doesn’t matter (now) – except the city. We want that process again. We know change is coming but we want change that our neighborhood has a stake in, a voice in. We don’t want to lose our starter homes, our affordable housing, our low-income housing that someone would like to tear down.”
JuNO’s Sawyer speaks next, saying they could echo much of what Barker had just said on behalf of MoCA. “The unique thing (for The Junction) is that we (will) have light rail, and that will be for generations.” So they want more than neighborhood planning, they also want planning that takes the future light-rail line into consideration. Without that, this would be a “missed opportunity,” she says – one that could envision offices, park space, mixed-use properties surrounding a station. Referring to what Barker had described, Sawyer said that she and her husband have “the perfect example of a starter home,” which if torn down and replaced would have made way for $800,000 townhomes. They “would have ended up renting here (anyway) because we love the Farmers’ Market and Easy Street,” but she sees a need for “a planning process that identifies what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood – to get community buy-in, and plan for increasing livability, instead of just saying ‘it’s going to get worse’.”
While Lee lives in the Westwood area, he had been a longtime small-business owner in The Junction, so he has a view from multiple neighborhood perspectives. He saw multiple generations staying in the area – “I had my store long enough to see the parents, and then the kids become adults and come back into the business … (under) this type of plan, that is going to be nonexistent. The kids won’t be able to come back and live in the same community. Westwood and Highland Park are still among the areas that are still affordable – starter homes, diverse population … the way they’ve got (HALA) set up, that’s going to be totally eliminated.” As a retiree with a “limited income,” he also is concerned about rising property taxes pricing him and others out. “Once they get the developers in and start having their little wars between each other, we’re not going to be able to stay in our homes, and that’s what scares me.” He hopes to stay in his home another 20 years, but is worried he won’t be able to afford to. He has neighbors “who have been there for 30 years, 40 years” who he’s worried will be in the same straits. And he sees that as not just their loss but the community’s loss: “The quality of community is important.”
To the technical points, JuNO’s Guess says infrastructure is “near and dear to my heart.” While The Junction has been the fastest-growing urban village for a decade and will continue to be, it’s “still playing catchup on water and sewer and parks, all the investment we’ve been needing …The city made investments in South Lake Union – I don’t begrudge them, but we need the same kind of investments here.”
That’s an issue in Westwood-Highland Park, too, Lee adds. And to his point about quality of community, it often is the community that makes such investments happen, such as the Roxhill Park play-area overhaul early this decade. “It took the community to get Roxhill Park to where it is today; the Parks Department wasn’t stepping up … we had to start a coalition to get the park done.”
Having excited community members involved with projects should be heartening to city departments, Sawyer observed.
That led Barker to recall that city Office of Planning and Community Development – the HALA lead – staffers were observing the coalition’s appeal-announcement news conference a day earlier. She wondered whether they were considering the announcement more “like a punch in a gut” to their hard work, or “seeing something must be wrong if this many people are piping up” with concerns.
Might the challenge provide them a chance to step back? Sawyer wondered.
“The one thing that gets me is that, for a year and a half, going to these different meetings, and listening to all the input, seeing what’s been written on chalkboards … and I have yet to see any of that implemented in the final results,” Lee said. He recalled another recent process, changing Metro Route 120 to the RapidRide H Line, with community feedback seeming to have been disregarded.
“I think there’s a big difference between feeling you’re part of the solution, (as compared to) trying to flag down problems – there are some exciting ideas (on which) we would like to partner with the city,” said Guess, explaining that those involved with the appeal are “just against and not for (anything).”
And he said he’s seen this kind of process from another side, having worked with Seattle Public Schools during a boundary redraw, reading “5,000 e-mails” to search for “the best idea … I represented families at the table” during what he recalls as an inclusive process, which is what he believes can be possible with this. “It doesn’t have to be indefinite; it can be exciting.”
Barker says collaborating with other neighborhoods has been enjoyable in this process so far: “I think it really has brought the bigger community together.”
Sawyer also sees lots of potential for shaping West Seattle’s future, “especially when we talk about (growth) with transit, there are so many possibilities … (the city is) missing out on this opportunity.”
Guess sees it as a missed opportunity because the city didn’t bring “the general public” into the process until the plan “was well under way … so the anger I feel rises from the fact that people were kept in the dark and all of a sudden this was just dropped on them, it was like, take it or leave it.”
Lee observes that “if they work with the community peolpe from the start … this process would go a lot faster and easier.”
“It’s not about everybody getting exactly what they want,” Guess says, “it’s about being heard and getting the best ideas. When the process is so superficial …then you wind up joining appeals.”
To the contention that the city not bringing the public into the process soon enough, we note that the city has emphasized how many feedback opportunities it’s offered over the past few years. Why weren’t those enough?
Sawyer goes back a year, to the now-legendary open house at the Junction restaurant that was known at the time as Shelby’s (where the Great American Diner and Bar is now), on December 7, 2016. She learned about it from a flyer “welcoming me to my new neighborhood.” She went, and “waited in a line to filter through a restaurant, and we circulated around a table with maps (and) we didn’t know what they meant …it was so rowded … someone said, ‘You should get invoved in JuNO.’ I got (moved) out of the line, no information.” She did get involved with JuNO, and half a year later, found herself agreeing to become its new director. There was more participation in the HALA feedback process, but “none of the input was reflected in the ‘preferred alternative’ (that came out last month) …all of our comments from the draft EIS (were simply) ‘noted’… It’s disheartening to participate in a process which isn’t always the easiest … you take the time out of your life to try to be involved, and then you realize it was just checked off and noted.”
Lee says many of the meetings had already taken place before the community was “really informed.” He had attended several events “with a handful of people” that he recalls as presentations with very little time for Q&A, or perhaps “you had a question and you were told to wait until the end.” He considers the open houses, like the Shelby’s event (which folded multiple other city initiatives in with HALA), events where you were expected to “come in and applaud what (the city had) done … and they were surprised when all of a sudden the roof blew off.” He went around and knocked on doors on weekends to show them the city collateral he’d gathered and to explain to neighbors what was being proposed, “this is what they are trying to do, have you ever heard of it? People said ‘no’. … They had the opportunity to bring the community in but they didn’t let people know.”
Sawyer recalls that the language in the city communications seemed disingenuous, using the terms “affordability” and “livability” without mentioning anything about rezoning (as noted in one of our reports a year ago).
Guess and Sawyer mentioned the difficulty of using some of the feedback tools (such as the hala.consider.it site) and how the data could be skewed because, for example, he said, one advocacy group that “didn’t like where our neighborhood was going” in visible feedback “had people jump on that area,” regardless of whether they lived in the Junction or not, and the city had no way to sort that out. “What use was the data at that point?”
The city experimented with other means of feedback without much notice, he added, such as “announcing a Reddit session the same day” it was scheduled.
“And that was all going on at the same time the neighborhood district councils were being defunded,” Barker added.
Despite all that, the neighborhood groups went to some lengths to educate residents about what was being proposed and how to participate. “We as a neighborhood have done so much work to help the city get feedback that was informed and useful,” Sawyer noted. “We really tried to make the conversation meaningful.”
Like the appeal process now, that involved neighborhood collaboration, too; Deb Barker and Cindi Barker from Morgan worked with several other community groups to provide HALA primers, for example, explaining how to read the maps, among other things.
So, we asked, having read through the appeal documents, which of the points do they think might get traction?
For Morgan’s appeal, Barker suggested, the failure to mention Fauntleroy ferry traffic as an environmental impact – “something that affects 100,000 people trying to get (off the peninsula).”
“Each neighborhood is different, is the gist of it,” Sawyer underscores. “Each neighborhood has specific impacts that were glossed over and generalized. You really need to look at those things.”
Lee suggested the effects on small businesses have to be taken into account – including taxes.
“Whether the appeal is a success or not, it shows the new mayor and City Council that we’re serious about (concerns) and can organize, and that there are a lot of people who will stand up and (fight back),” Sawyer adds.
And if the appeal itself doesn’t succeed, Lee expects community members will find other ways to push back. “The momentum has just gotten started, so many people whose eyes have gotten opened.” He hopes to see the neighborhood collaborators keep their eyes on a “common goal – to make our community better.”
In the meantime, as of this writing, the appellants are waiting for a pre-hearing conference to be scheduled by the Hearing Examiner’s office. The coalition also has launched a fundraising drive to pay the lawyers they’ve hired; many, if not most, community groups, including the three West Seattle groups that have signed on so far, don’t charge dues or have other funding sources.
You can expect updates on the process at the groups’ meetings for some time to come. The JuNO Land Use Committee has its meeting tomorrow as mentioned above (Thursday night, December 7th, Senior Center, 4217 SW Oregon); MoCA’s quarterly meeting is coming up in mid-January; WWRHAH next meets in early February. Official information on the coalition appeal is on the website of Seattle Fair Growth, a party to the appeal.
As for what’s next with the city’s proposed “preferred alternative” separate from the appeal process, you can see the maps here, and/or use this interactive map to look at how any specific property would be affected. It is up to new Mayor Jenny Durkan to send legislation to the City Council that would codify any zoning changes, and the council would have the final say, with additional opportunities for public comment along the way. That process is expected to take so long that two events scheduled by the city in our area are still at least five months away – an open house on May 9th, and a public hearing on June 5th.