In a July 15 letter (pdf) to Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) director Peter Hahn, Mayor Mike McGinn has instructed SDOT to reject a request to vacate a city alley and transfer ownership to developers of a controversial Whole Foods megaproject proposed for 4755 Fauntleroy Way South in West Seattle.
It's also a letter that appears to expand the notion of "public interest" in such transfers to include the promotion of living wage jobs. I'm dubbing it: "The McGinn Doctrine."
The mixed-use development, which would cover most of the block along Fauntleroy between Alaska and Edmunds, is opposed by a coalition of labor, businesses, and residents, who worry about the project's impact on traffic congestion, pedestrian safety, living wage jobs, and small local businesses. Their website—Getting It Right for West Seattle—includes a ton of details on the project. It's worth a look.
The city typically receives about five street vacation petitions a year, and it is up to SDOT to recommend to the city council whether to approve or deny the request. Because a street vacation involves a permanent transfer of city property to a private developers, there are established guidelines to assure that a vacation is only granted if it is determined to be in the public interest. In addition to fair market value, the city often negotiates some sort of tangible public benefit in return—for example, the 7th Avenue cycle track that Amazon will fund in exchange for being granted street vacations.
McGinn has determined that given the West Seattle development as currently proposed, "it is difficult to see how the alley vacation proposal meets our public benefit standards when it does not support equitable economic development as stated in our Comprehensive Plan, does not support community vibrancy and walkability, and does not support our local urban design plans."
In his letter to SDOT, McGinn asserts that the street orientation and large footprint of the current design run counter to both the West Seattle Triangle Urban Design Framework and the city's Pedestrian Master Plan by transforming a "pedestrian-oriented midblock connector" into delivery truck access for Whole Foods. But more interesting than McGinn's critique of the project design is his critique of the project's "economic development elements":
One of our core economic development goals is to provide fair and livable wages and benefits for our residents. The Economic Development elements of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan contain clear language to this effect: “seeking a greater proportion of living wage jobs that will have greater benefits” and "support key sectors of Seattle’s economy to create jobs that pay wages that can support a family, provide necessary benefits, and contribute to the vitality of the City including, but not limited to, the industrial, manufacturing, service, hospitality and retail sectors." The primary retail use in the proposed project is a 41,000 square foot Whole Foods Market. There are already seven large supermarkets within a mile and half of the site, at least six of which offer employer-paid, comprehensive affordable health benefits for full and part-time employees and their families, as well as family-supporting wage scales. Family health benefits and employee wage scales offered by the proposed anchor tenant are significantly lower than other similar businesses, particularly for the growing percentage of employees who work part-time.
So what is McGinn asking in exchange for handing over a city right-of-way that would add tremendous value to the development? He doesn't specify. But project opponents are clear in demanding that the city negotiate a "Community Benefits Agreement" that could presumably include wage and benefit concessions. Whole Foods is notoriously anti-union while the national supermarket chains it competes with here—Safeway, Albertsen's, and QFC/Kroger—are all union shops. So it is reasonable to question whether it is ever in the public interest to advantage low-wage/non-union Whole Foods against competitors that provide living wage union jobs.
In the past, the public benefits secured in exchange for street vacations were either inherent in the project itself, or delivered in the form of physical infrastructure improvements—sidewalks, public art, landscaping, cycle tracks, etc.—but the McGinn Doctrine appears to seize upon existing language in the city's Comprehensive Plan to expand the notion of the public interest to include human infrastructure benefits as well.
Of course, the final decision is up to the city council, and word is that the developer is already pressuring council members to reject SDOT's recommendation and approve the alley vacation request as is. It will be interesting to see whether council members follow the mayor's lead and live up to all the talk we hear about their support for living wage jobs, or whether they once again bow to the interests of private developers?