EITHER-OR. That’s the way the recent controversy about Whole Foods’ alley-vacation petition has been framed. This debate has centered on questions of regulatory process and jurisdiction, rather than on the underlying policy question. Mayor Mike McGinn’s symbolically courageous or questionably divisive action, depending on one’s perspective, has lifted up this issue in public discourse.
How should a progressive city seeking to promulgate social justice and equity define public benefit, or the public good? As executive director of an organization with deep roots in neighborhood planning and organizing, I have been looking for leadership on this issue, and the current either-or framework leaves me wholly dissatisfied.
For those unfamiliar with land-use rules, an alley vacation is the process by which an individual acquires a public right of way, such as a street or alley, for private use.
While not the only reason cited for his recommendation to deny the petition, the mayor wrote that “family-health benefits and employee-wage scales offered by the proposed anchor tenant [Whole Foods] are significantly lower than other similar businesses” and therefore does not meet the public-benefit standards in approving the vacation.
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The mayor is running for re-election, and from what I have read so far, few of his leading opponents seem to disagree with him on policy, though they do mightily disagree on his approach.
So even opposing candidates have embraced the either-or framework: either the mayor overstepped, or he did not; either an alley-vacation process is the right arena to promote living-wage jobs in the city, or it is not.
But is it sufficient to focus on living-wage jobs as our new litmus test for approving or denying alley-vacation or other land-use decisions? What other criteria should enter into considerations about what constitutes a public benefit?
Neighborhood groups and leaders in Chinatown International District raised the latter question for many years before the City Council approved significant height increases as part of the Livable South Downtown rezone plan in 2011.
At the time, our neighborhood groups pointed out the need for housing development balanced between market-rate and more affordable options, for a dedicated fund to promote community-economic development, also known as a Growth Related Fund, for tools to support small businesses and for measurable outcomes related to the public-benefit goals when approving the new zoning.
Calling ourselves the Vision 2030 Group, we worked to identify holistic-community benefits that would come back to the city and affected neighborhoods in return for public rights that would be passed on to private developers.
In communicating our Vision 2030 recommendations, we were essentially asking policymakers to consider the following: If new growth or new development threatens existing communities and businesses, what is the city’s or developer’s responsibility to mitigate against those gentrification forces?
How do we define public benefit. Is there clear citywide policy to guide that definition and how are cultural-preservation goals reflected in our definition of public good?
In the absence of legislative or financial tools to help achieve targets, how can the city properly measure success or failure in meeting its own comprehensive plan or public-benefit goals?
While some of these important policy questions were addressed in the South Lake Union up zone as well as in the Yesler Terrace development plan, they have received scant attention thus far in this particular controversy.
An either-or framework tends to limit rather than broaden civic discourse. And in the rush to either attack or defend the mayor’s actions in the Whole Foods controversy, we risk missing an important opportunity for that broader dialogue about how we as a city can and should define public benefit inclusive of living-wage jobs, not limited to them.
Hyeok Kim is executive director of Interim Community Development Association based in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.