Lift, but Don't Separate

Jill Nishi didn't want to talk about it. Unfortunately for Nishi, everybody kept bringing it up.

On Wednesday morning, May 7, Nishi, the director of the city's Office of Economic Development, was trying to give a presentation to city council on the status of the U-District's Ave. However, thanks to insistent council members like Jan Drago and Richard Conlin, the conversation kept gravitating toward a different matter: the city's proposal to lift restrictions on the University of Washington's ability to lease property. The plan, one of Mayor Greg Nickels' priorities, is known simply as "lifting the lease lid." Nishi is Nickels' point person on the issue.

(A bit of history: To prevent the UW from gobbling up property in the U-District--spiking rents and driving out indie businesses on the Ave--a policy has been in place since 1985 that limits the amount of space the UW can lease in the immediate area. The UW is capped at 500,000 square feet, but Nickels--in an effort to free up the UW as an engine for Seattle's next-big-thing biotech economy--has said the lease lid must go.)

The council is expected to vote on the lease lid on May 29, and it was clearly using Nishi's presentation as a warm-up for challenging Nickels on the issue.

The council's tactic was clever. Nishi's presentation focused on a study that called for developing housing in the University District as a means toward revitalizing the Ave. The council shrewdly jumped on the housing point and recast it in the context of the lease lid debate. In short, council leaders like Drago say they won't agree to lift the lease lid unless the move is legislatively linked to promoting housing. Nickels' office isn't opposed to promoting housing in the U-District, and says it is preparing a proposal for the council. But they clearly don't want the issue legislatively tied to Nickels' unconditional demand for scrapping the lease lid.

Indeed, after Drago reframed the issue and after Conlin dropped bombshells like, "It's more important for economic development for us to work on housing issues [than to lift the lease lid]," Nishi jumped in, trying in vain to untangle the two issues. "I just wanted to distinguish for the council that there are multiple strategies," she emphasized for the third time in as many minutes. "Housing is a critical component, [but lifting] the lease lid should be taken as a separate strategy."

Not so says Drago, who'd like to craft lease lid legislation that includes incentives for the UW and developers to generate housing. She says the council will probably lift the lease lid, but "not without conditions." One condition Drago supports has already been drafted by council. The option stipulates that council will retain the right to intervene if the neighborhood's job/housing balance gets out of whack. "We've asked the mayor's staff, 'What incentives can you put in place [for housing]?'" Drago says. "So far, we have not gotten one proposal. Well, we want to get something. This is my cannon shot across their bow."