In the Hall
Council members were somber and fussy and noticeably on edge this Monday, after a harrowing briefing by two SPD detectives on Saturday's Capitol Hill shooting rampage. The briefing was followed by a lengthy back-and-forth between Peter Steinbrueck and Jan Drago about a proposal to allow a new drive-through bank in the U-District, which concluded with the following exchange. Steinbreuck: "Well, you can vote against it," Drago: "Well, you don't need to be so snippy."
The snipping continued unabated, however, at the full council meeting later that afternoon, when a proposal by Richard Conlin to extend a temporary ban on new gas stations in Crown Hill ran into a wall of unexpected opposition from Drago and Richard McIver, two council members who had themselves voted to initiate the moratorium just one year before.
The council passed the moratorium as a temporary measure pending the passage of a "pedestrian overlay," which would permanently ban certain car-oriented uses, such as new gas stations, in a small part of Crown Hill. Conlin moved to extend the moratorium when he realized it was scheduled to expire two weeks before the council planned to take it up.
McIver opposed extending the ban, he said, because doing so "would be unfair to the Safeway Corporation," which wants to build a gas station at its store on Northwest 85th. Drago, meanwhile, objected to designating the moratorium an "emergency," which enables legislation to go into effect immediately. Sensing he didn't have the two-thirds majority needed to pass emergency legislation, Conlin proposed removing the emergency tag, allowing the moratorium to pass with just five votes—a move Drago called "disgraceful."
Safeway supporters like Drago and McIver could rest easy, however, because Conlin's moratorium contains one giant loophole: It won't go into effect until 30 days after the mayor signs it, well after the moratorium expires on April 1. That "creates a gap," Conlin says, between the current moratorium and the moratorium extension, and he's "pretty sure Safeway will find a way to drive through it." If Safeway files a permit while the moratorium is lifted, it can build anything that's legal under the looser regulations—including its proposed six-pump filling station. The bottom line, says Peter Steinbrueck, whose committee heard the legislation: "We should have gotten the work done sooner."
On Monday, council newcomer Sally Clark, reportedly operating under Drago's tutelage, proposed an amendment to legislation approving the mayor's South Lake Union streetcar that would allow the city to tap a special transportation fund, currently earmarked for things like traffic lights and sidewalks, to pay for any cost overruns on the $50.5 million streetcar. (Currently, funding for the streetcar is $2.8 million short, although optimists like Drago believe the shortfall will be made up by still-outstanding federal grants.) Steinbrueck, who answered his phone at 5:30 Monday afternoon from the Collins Pub in Pioneer Square, decried the move as "smoke and mirrors," noting that if the city funds the streetcar out of the special transportation fund, it may have to use general-fund dollars to pay for basic transportation improvements—an end run around a law prohibiting the use of general-fund dollars on the streetcar.
Steinbrueck did get a bit of good news, however, on Tuesday, when council analysts came up with three options to require downtown developers who exceed current height limits to help pay for affordable housing in the center city. The council will decide which of the three proposals—which average $17.15, $18.04, and $18.94 a square foot—to adopt on April 3. But whatever housing bonus is adopted (Steinbrueck is pushing for the highest level), the re-framing of the debate is a major victory for Steinbrueck, and a defeat for Mayor Greg Nickels, who pushed for a paltry $10 a square foot.
Nickels has had more success on another front lately: selling his $4 billion Alaskan Way tunnel as a smarter choice than rebuilding the viaduct, an option he's dubbed the Big Ugly. "We can't afford to magnify past mistakes by building a bigger, uglier double-decker highway through the heart of our city," Nickels said earlier this month. "We're saying no to a bigger, uglier rebuilt viaduct and yes to reclaiming our waterfront for"—ugh—"living, working, and playing."
Nickels's proto-campaigning may come to an end, however, when the council puts the viaduct advisory vote on the ballot later this year. Under the Seattle Municipal Code, elected officials can't use city resources (money and time) to make statements "for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition."
"If the council does put it on the ballot, that certainly does raise some pretty serious issues," city ethics and elections director Wayne Barnett says. Last year, the ethics commission found Nickels guilty of violating elections rules by creating and distributing a "purely promotional" flyer on with city funding prior to his 2005 reelection. Council members could vote to put the measure on the ballot now or as late as September 22, the deadline to send ballot measures to the county elections office. The sooner the better.