The city has hired a mediator to lead a discussion about possible changes to the road redesign of 35th Avenue Northeast. Now, a disagreement over the choice of mediator joins other clashes over bike lanes, lost parking and more.

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Tensions have reached such a boil over a road redesign of 35th Avenue Northeast in Seattle that the city has hired a mediator to take the temperature down and lead a discussion about possible changes to the project.

The action comes after fireworks were found on construction equipment in July, vandals damaged equipment used to measure speed and traffic volume on nearby streets, and rhetoric about the project escalated into threats against city officials and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) employees.

“Having had death threats because of my support for this project, having had individual SDOT workers be targeted, I think has resulted in a real anxiety both for me, my family, and I would imagine for members of the SDOT team,” said Councilmember Rob Johnson, whose District 4 includes the project in the Wedgwood, Ravenna and Bryant neighborhoods.

More than a year of contentious public meetings have produced two opposing coalitions: Save 35th Ave NE, a group of about 400 people on Facebook that primarily opposes bike lanes displacing parking on the corridor, and Safe 35th Ave NE, a group of about 115 people on Facebook that supports the bike lanes.

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Both groups also have mailing lists and have gathered signatures for petitions.

At least 3,400 people — both those for and against the project — have reached out personally to Mayor Jenny Durkan, said Stephanie Formas, spokeswoman for the mayor.

Save 35th leaders have denounced the fireworks, vandalism and any alleged threats, and said the organization had nothing to do with them.

In a subsequent interview, Johnson said the threats he was referring to were a post on Twitter about the project that included the message “Yup, Former CM Johnson… dead man walking” and a post on NextDoor about homelessness that identified the address where he lives with his family and called for “ratty motorhomes” to be parked there.

In July, after conversations with state representatives and city officials, Durkan intervened, inviting representatives from both groups to participate in special talks behind closed doors.

It’s unclear what will result from the process, with all elements of the project up for discussion. Work is already underway on the corridor.

It’s possible that the discussions could lead to the bike lanes being at least partly eliminated. “I do have concern,” said Johnson, a bike-lane proponent.

Durkan and SDOT will make the final call on how to move ahead.

Though previous administrations held private discussions with neighbors and business owners about projects on Stone Way and on West Nickerson Street, SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson says the mediation is unprecedented “in recent history.”

Meanwhile, people concerned about proposed street changes in other parts of the city are watching closely. The unusually bitter battle along 35th has led opponents to register a political-action committee with a citywide agenda, indicating more fights could be on the way.

The process 

Representatives from the mayor’s office and SDOT have been meeting with each side “to discuss their ideas, concerns or suggestions” for 35th Avenue Northeast, the mediator, John Howell, wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

The mediator may bring the opposing sides together at a later date.

It was Johnson who approached Howell, describing the Cedar River Group partner as “a very skilled facilitator who has deep knowledge and credibility with both the pro and con bike lane community.”

Howell will be paid $14,000, from the city’s bicycle facilities budget, for the work.

In addition to adding bike lanes, the 2.3-mile project also includes changes to parking, transit, intersections and curb ramps.

It’s unclear why the process needs to be private.

No one has threatened to sue the city, so the mediation is not an attempt to prevent that, said Formas, the mayor’s spokeswoman.

There remain other ways for people to weigh in on the project, Formas added, saying any changes will be made public.

Johnson offered another reason for the mediation, which involves 14 people, not counting the mediator: “When you get 200 people in room to try to have conversations about nuances of things like this, it can devolve into shouting matches.”

The Durkan administration likely isn’t violating any laws by holding the mediation meetings in private, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

The state Open Public Meetings Act generally applies to City Council-related meetings, rather than meetings set up by the mayor, Nixon said.

But that doesn’t mean the talks must be carried out behind closed doors, he said.

“The best practice in any situation is transparency in order to build public trust,” said Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member and former state legislator.

Nixon said some people will invariably “assume the worst.”

“Without a doubt, it’s more convenient to do things in secret,” he said. “But that’s not what the people of the state expect from their government.”

How they got here

Andres Salomon, who lives in the Ravenna neighborhood and is part of the Safe 35th group that supports the bike lanes, was involved in the mediation discussions earlier this fall.

He said he dropped out amid concerns over a connection between Howell, the hired mediator, and Jordan Royer, a participant in the mediation process on the other side. From 1977 to 1980, Howell served as a special assistant to then-Mayor Charles Royer, Jordan Royer’s father.

Salomon said he feared that a personal relationship between Howell and Jordan Royer, who opposes the bike lanes, could bias the outcome.

“Whether or not the setup was done well, I’m angry that it has come to this,” Salomon said.

Johnson said he’s “not at all worried” that Howell may be partial. I don’t believe he would have taken the job if he has a strong personal opinion one way or the other.

Jordan Royer, a Wedgwood resident, said the project has attracted so much opposition because the city initially sold it to the neighborhood as repaving work rather than a major re-channelization set to remove street parking that small businesses rely on.

Had SDOT talked more to business owners earlier, “all this could have been avoided,” he said.

Royer said the Save 35th group has drawn up its own plan for the corridor but declined to share details. He said the plan covers elements such as signalization and crosswalks.

For their part, SDOT officials want to clear up how they design their street projects.

Dan Anderson, a communications specialist, said his team begins by asking neighbors broad questions, such as, “How do you get around your neighborhood today?” and “How do you wish you got around your neighborhood?”

SDOT takes community responses into account but street projects also are based on data and guidance from the city’s master transportation plans.

In most cases, later outreach is meant to keep the public informed, rather than to solicit ideas about changing projects, said Maribel Cruz, another SDOT communications specialist.

Community precedent

Other communities are watching to see how the mediation plays out for clues as to how it may influence their own projects.

Royer and others active in the Save 35th group have started a political-action committee called Neighborhoods for Smart Streets to raise money for City Council candidates in 2019 who support policies that benefit small-business owners, he said.

The PAC has raised more than $15,000 in contributions from more than 40 individuals. All seven of the council’s district seats will be up for election next year.

Marty Oppenheimer lives in Seward Park near Wilson Avenue South, where the city is planning a similar road redesign that would eliminate some parking in order to install a bike lane.

“Our main concern is that SDOT sought out to go forward without community input,” he said. “Now, they’re doing some backpedaling, but they’re not really listening.”

Oppenheimer said mediation “could make sense” in his neighborhood but admitted it would be “very difficult” to gather 3,400 signatures there.

“We have a few hundred concerned people, not a few thousand,” he said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include information from a subsequent interview with Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson that explains the nature of the threats he said were made against him. Also, the story has been corrected to say traffic counters installed as part of the project were vandalized on nearby streets, not on 35th Avenue Northeast.

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