Plotting Against Progress
Neighbors Delay Improvements Around Light Rail for a Year or More
In late January, six activists claiming to represent South Seattle neighborhoods filed legal challenges that will delay planning for more housing and stores around light-rail stations. Due to the appeals and an annual cycle for new rules relating to neighborhood planning, "we can't move forward on these issues until next year," says David Goldberg, a senior planner with the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD). If the neighbors hadn't filed their deliberately timed appeals, the city could have begun studying the impacts of taller buildings within blocks of the light-rail stations—where density is needed most—in March.
But more than an abstract delay (while construction around the city waits during an economic lull), the appeals affect pressing needs for some people suffering the most in the recession.
On north Beacon Hill, El Centro de la Raza is struggling to provide a raft of social services, including language lessons, housing assistance, and classes on navigating foreclosure. In 2009, it provided services for 25,497 individuals and 12,282 families—a 31 percent jump from the previous year. Currently operating out of an old school, the organization also owns a vacant parcel of land adjacent to the new Beacon Hill light-rail station, where the nonprofit wants to build low-income-housing units and street-level retail next to a vast public plaza. But before it can cement its plans, the city must study the impacts of changing current building codes from single-family homes to mixed-use buildings, with a jump in height limits from 40 feet to 65 feet. Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro, says it would be impractical to build at the current 40-foot height when the neighborhood and need for the group's services are growing so rapidly.
One woman is standing in the way of this study for better development around light rail on Beacon Hill: resident Frederica Merrell.
On January 29, Merrell filed paperwork with the city hearing examiner that claimed the DPD failed to adequately study the environmental impacts of increasing density when drafting an update to the North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan. Her appeal claims that residents will be severely impacted by "building height changes... loss of breathable space... aesthetic impacts"—among 39 other complaints. The Seattle City Council cannot review the updated neighborhood plan until the appeal is resolved. In effect, Merrell—who lives four blocks from the station, which opened in 2009—is postponing the inevitable city improvements that come with building a major mass-transit network.
"How is it that one individual can stop the process when hundreds of people participated?" asks Ortega. "[Merrell] filed this appeal as an individual but claims to be a spokesperson for everybody. She didn't speak on our behalf."
Merrell's appeal is not unique. Two groups of residents from other neighborhoods with new light-rail stations, Pat Murakami and Barbara Marino from Mount Baker, along with Ronald Momoda, Patricia Paschal, and Jenna Walden from Othello—also claiming to represent "neighbors, businesses, students and school families, customers, visitors, commuters, recreation users"—filed nearly identical appeals on January 29 in an orchestrated strategy. Walden, the only petitioner willing to comment, says the Othello appeal is a protest against the marginalization of local neighborhood groups.
However, Bill LaBorde, policy director of Transportation Choices Coalition, condemns the tactics as simply obstruction. "They're not about how to develop better neighborhoods; [the petitioners are] saying we don't want to develop, we don't want change."
For their part, the petitioners insist that the city failed to adequately consider the environmental impacts of development in their neighborhoods, per the State Environmental Policy Act.
But that is not true.
Environmental-impact studies accompany every step in the planning process, explains Goldberg. "There are likely two more layers of environmental review in store for these neighborhoods, each with increasing specificity." But the petitioners claim the first study wasn't thorough enough. "They have a long list of things that weren't enough," says Goldberg. "In an appeal, one tactic is to throw as many darts as you can and see what sticks."
Moreover, public-outreach liaisons held 80 workshops for the neighborhood plan updates, attracting roughly 1,650 people, according to DPD spokesman Bryan Stevens. The department gave public notice and held eight separate meetings for each plan update. DPD representatives also attended 30 community meetings to discuss the updates. El Centro had roughly 300 individuals commenting on its expansion at these meetings.
Still, petitioners complain that they weren't involved enough in the planning process. Seattle City Council member Sally Clark, who attended many of the neighborhood meetings and chairs the council's Committee on the Built Environment, disagrees, saying the city reached out to residents in a variety of languages, so that more people were included in this planning process than a similar process a decade ago. "Part of the test is not whether everybody is happy at the end of the process, but whether as many people as possible participated," Clark says.
Per state law, the city council can only amend neighborhood plans once a year, in March, and the DPD can't study the impacts of these neighborhood plans—zoning, building height changes, etc.—until this happens. Clark and others say discussions on the neighborhood's future can continue; they just can't study it—a necessary step. The city hearing examiner is scheduled to hear the three appeals in April, pushing back the study until next spring. The hearing examiner can send the DPD back to do more thorough studies in these neighborhoods or dismiss the appeals.
"Currently, every [station] in southeast Seattle is pretty heavily underutilized in terms of development," says LaBorde, who adds that the areas around the Beacon Hill, Othello, and Mount Baker stations are perfect to become urban villages. LaBorde's opinion is shared by scores of planners who say developing around light rail increases transit ridership, decreases dependence on cars, cuts carbon emissions, and in general builds healthy, independent communities that represent responsible city planning at its best.
According to Sound Transit, ridership doubled on Tacoma Link's first week of service when compared to the previous bus route. And the National Personal Transportation Study found that 70 percent of Americans will walk 500 feet to transit stops for daily trips. More housing in proximity to light-rail stations increases the number of people who ride transit and decreases the number of car drivers.
But Merrell, who refused many opportunities to comment directly, defends her tactics. In a post for Beacon Hill Blog, she writes, "An appeal is kind of like a poker game. One important strategy for winning the game is not showing your hand. So I'm not going to answer a lot of specific questions right now... I want to win my hearing determination!"
But Merrell and her cohorts appear to be more concerned with winning than pursuing the best interests of their neighborhoods and the city. El Centro, at least, has filed a motion to dismiss Merrell's appeal on grounds that the conflicts listed in the appeal aren't within the examiner's jurisdiction. If the motion is granted, it won't regain a lost year, but it will provide El Centro the satisfaction of fighting back against an appeal that would stifle the development of a diverse and growing neighborhood.