Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn says his proposals to create jobs and housing by easing development rules — drafted by a group largely composed of folks in the building industry — should not be judged by the process. But critics argue the mayor hasn't been transparent, and some of the reforms aren't necessary.
Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposals to create jobs and housing by easing development rules were drafted by a group largely composed of folks in the building industry, with key elements that would save developers money.
Seattle neighborhood leaders complain they had no say and contend McGinn has been less than transparent about where the “regulatory reform” proposals originated and whom they might benefit.
Records show the mayor’s group worked to stay out of public view and communicate “more confidential stuff,” as one put it, via private email.
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The group also appeared to consider, then avoid, inviting those who weren’t like-minded, such as City Neighborhood Council leader Chas Redmond.
Critics include Yusuf Cabdi, a Seattle Housing Authority commissioner, immigrant activist and contributor to McGinn’s campaign for mayor. “I’m very disillusioned with this administration,” Cabdi said. “McGinn said he would be open and transparent. But we see he’s only listening to this group of urban elites. It’s not good for his credibility.”
McGinn vigorously defended his proposals in an interview, saying they should be judged on merit and not on who drew them up. “There are some people who think these are bad policy ideas, and they’re welcome to argue with me about the ideas,” McGinn said. “But to suggest I’m not listening to everybody, it just ain’t so.”
The mayor, who built his reputation as a neighborhood activist, sees something else at play in the conflict — a rekindling of the debate about growth and density that was simmering before the recession put a lid on it.
With construction cranes popping up again, McGinn sees neighborhood angst rising. “That’s a hard debate, and it’s easy for people to say you only listen to these people or those people,” he said.
He says his panel represents a broad range of interests; besides, he contends he’s allowed to convene a like-minded group to help him advance his vision for the city.
“I do get to, as mayor, ask people to give me advice, and I do have the discretion to ask some to be closer than others because I’ve worked with them or dealt with them and feel like I can get good advice from them,” McGinn said. “I feel entitled to do that.”
Members of McGinn’s advisory group are “very smart, and I respect each and everyone of them,” City Council President Sally Clark said. “There is a challenge, though, when you have a self-selected group of people coming together to make recommendations on how to make their lives easier.”
Dumping “moldy laws”
The most controversial of McGinn’s proposals would eliminate a layer of environmental review — and citizen appeals — for new buildings of a certain size, or with fewer than 200 apartments; allow more businesses in some residential zones; and drop a requirement to build parking stalls for housing near transit lines.
They’re modest changes, McGinn says, that would jettison “moldy laws” to encourage apartment construction and discourage driving.
The proposals came from a “broad group of developers, neighborhood representatives, labor leaders and environmentalists,” he said.
After starting with two sets of invitees — developers and environmentalists — the group coalesced around those with the time and expertise to stay involved, according to several members.
“It was clear after a few meetings the people who had the most to say were more oriented toward the development community, and I didn’t feel I had the expertise to weigh in on their level,” said Dave Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council. Freiboth said he attended two or three meetings.
The mayor’s office counted 28 people as part of the advisory, or round-table, group. Twenty work in, or with, the building industry. They are developers, architects, contractors, land-use lawyers, an economic consultant, a civil engineer and a planner.
The others include environmentalists and municipal planners.
The mayor’s group does include three undisputed neighborhood activists — Rob Mohn, Ref Lindmark and Mike Kent. But they also have occupations related to McGinn’s density agenda. Mohn is a developer. Lindmark is a transit planner. Kent is an urban planner and co-sponsor of the “City Builder Happy Hour” event that seeks “audacious ideas” to support growth in Seattle, according to Roger Valdez, a leader of the mayor’s group.
City records show Lindmark was invited months after the group started meeting, to add a neighborhood leader to the mix. Around the same time, Clark inquired about the group’s balance; city planning chief Diane Sugimura reported to the mayor’s office in an email: “She asked about diversity (oops).”
McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, said 12 of the members were chosen simply as “residents.” They include three members of the Seattle Planning Commission who have disclosed potential conflicts of interest because their jobs as architects and land-use lawyers could have them working on projects impacted by the mayor’s proposals. They also include Valdez, an unabashed advocate for dense development and critic of what he calls the “NIMBY mafia” in neighborhoods.
A city document also shows Redmond, the City Neighborhood Council leader, was listed as a potential round-table member. But the document, which has no apparent author, notes he would be “likely opposed” to some proposals.
Redmond said he never was invited. His citywide neighborhood group has criticized the mayor’s proposals for “neglecting and diminishing the usefulness and fairness of neighborhood planning” in setting development rules.
The mayor said he’d welcome Redmond in his group and didn’t know why he was excluded.
It’s not unusual, McGinn said, for people who disagree with proposals to attack the process that produced them.
“That’s standard operating procedure,” he said. “Then after that, they move to attacking the motivations of those proposing the policy and say it’s only profit-driven by a narrow set of people.”
But some critics simply dislike the proposals.
In an unusual move, two land-use analysts who work for the City Council felt compelled to critique the proposals in letters written as private citizens.
One, Michael Jenkins, noted the mayor would allow seafood processing, restaurants and medical laboratories in residential zones without “any analysis that shows more land is needed” for such businesses. The other, Rebecca Herzfeld, called the mayor’s idea a “solution in search of a problem.” Both live on Capitol Hill.
Even Freiboth, a member of the round-table group, says he has not endorsed the proposals because of concerns expressed by union members about stripping away citizen appeals for new buildings up to 75,000 square feet.
But Freiboth says he doesn’t believe McGinn was trying to be subversive with his advisory group.
“Remember where he comes from,” Freiboth said, referring to the pro-density Great City organization McGinn founded before running for mayor.
“They’re urbanists,” he added. “To do that, you have to have developers put that stuff up.”
“There’s no conspiracy”
Stirring the debate is Valdez, a former city Department of Neighborhoods manager who says he believes neighborhoods have too much sway.
No one ever calls out the self-interest of affluent and educated single-family homeowners, he says. In protecting their investments, Valdez says, they stymie development that’s good for the larger community.
A frequent writer for Crosscut.com, Valdez created a personal blog to push pro-development changes and his “urbanist creed” that density “boosts our best human characteristics: creativity, compassion and conservation.”
Valdez scoffs at the idea that a cabal of developers with bags of cash is manipulating City Hall. “I wish there was,” he said. “If you can find one, tell me because I’d love to go talk to them.”
When five City Council seats were up for election last year, Valdez tried to organize a slate of urbanist candidates. But the plan went nowhere. Developers didn’t want to contribute to challengers, he said, “because of fear and anxiety about attacking sitting council members.”
As for his email to a mayoral aide asking him to remind round-table members to use “a non-City channel for more confidential stuff,” Valdez says he meant nothing sinister.
He maintains the idea was to have the group discuss strategies without involving city officials — and disclosure laws.
“It was supposed to be our initiative,” he said. “There’s no conspiracy there. It was just an effort to keep it an authentic community panel so it didn’t look like it came from the bowels of city government.”
Valdez didn’t appear to act improperly, said Tim Ford, an open-records expert for the state Attorney General’s Office. The mayor’s advisory group wasn’t formal enough to require disclosure of emails between its members, Ford said.
Councilmember Richard Conlin’s land-use committee has been publicly vetting the mayor’s proposals and modifying some. The panel wants to reduce, not eliminate, parking requirements; parts of the “moldy” environmental review may be preserved.
The committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on recommendations to the full council.
Conlin calls the proposals “not much to fuss about.”
But he says he feels the rising tension around growth issues. A recent zoning debate about a future light-rail station near Roosevelt High School became emotional, he notes. The “incredibly small” but polarizing issue, he said, amounted to 25 feet of additional building height on three blocks.
Conlin says he hears similarly “overheated” rhetoric on the mayor’s proposals.
It’s the mayor’s prerogative, Council President Clark says, to handpick advisers. But she says it’s hard to defend the process as open, and its ideas as diverse, when neighborhood groups are shut out.
“Unfortunately, when you hand them a process that clearly has excluded their input,” Clark said, “you set up that dynamic to have your proposal seen as flawed.”
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