Omigod! "Street vacations!" It's the arcane real estate development procedure that suddenly everybody is talking about! In a Seattle mayor's race long focused more on style than substance, it was incumbent mayor Mike McGinn's recommendation to reject a request to "vacate" and sell a city-owned alley to developers of a proposed West Seattle Whole Foods Market that has inexplicably set the race afire. Citing the downward pressure the nonunion Whole Foods might have on wages and benefits at the six existing supermarkets in the neighborhood, McGinn instructed the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to advise the city council that selling the alley is "not in the public interest."
I know. Electrifying, right? Well it is, apparently, if you're a political opponent or pundit eager to characterize the mayor as "divisive."
State senator and mayoral front-runner Ed Murray saw an opportunity to go on the attack, issuing a statement that accused McGinn of "dividing people," and "usurping" and "subverting" the process. Challenger Peter Steinbrueck, a former council member who is struggling to break through our August 6 top-two primary, slammed the mayor's recommendation as "hypocritical," "abusive," and "perhaps illegal," breathlessly telling Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat: "They do this in East Coast cities, and it's properly called 'graft and corruption.'" And Westneat appeared downright startled at the suggestion that Whole Foods be asked to back up its unsubstantiated wage claims with actual payroll data, characterizing the very notion as "vaguely communistic."
It's the biggest mayoral scandal, apparently, since Greg Nickels failed to personally shovel the snow from our driveways! Quelle horreur!
It's also, a complete and utter load of crap.
For not only did both Murray and Steinbrueck mischaracterize McGinn's position, they also appear to have mischaracterized their own. "It's not a new idea," a somewhat befuddled McGinn says of the harsh response to his effort to leverage street vacation requests in support of higher wages and benefits. "In fact, Ed Murray proposed doing so himself."
When developers want to incorporate a city-owned street or alley into a proposed project, they petition the city for a street vacation as part of their design proposal. The city typically receives, and usually approves, about a half-dozen such requests a year, with the city obtaining fair market value for the right-of-way, plus, depending on circumstances, additional public benefits, such as bike lanes, public plazas, and other infrastructure improvements. As part of the review process, the request is evaluated by the city's transportation department, which then recommends to the city council whether it finds the vacation to be in "the public interest." The council has final say on the decision; there is no mayoral veto.
What is novel about the Whole Foods request is McGinn's decision to start applying established economic development goals of "living wage jobs"—as defined in the city's Comprehensive Plan—to SDOT's "public interest" standards. "The policy has not changed," insists the mayor. What's different, he says, is the application of this policy to the evaluation of this and all future street vacation requests. "I don't think it's okay to sell to a company that depresses the wages and benefits of workers that are already in the neighborhood," says McGinn.
And at a June 17 mayoral forum, when a low-wage worker asked that exact question—"As mayor, what would you do to keep low-road retailers like Walmart, Whole Foods, and WinCo out of our city to protect union jobs?"—Murray and Steinbrueck seemed to agree.
Steinbrueck railed against companies like Walmart, calling them "exploitive, predator nature species," and strongly arguing in favor of blocking their developments in support of wages and benefits. "I can say that as a land-use expert and architect and planner, there are ways to use the land-use code... to discourage this type of development," insisted Steinbrueck.
But Murray wins the prize for specificity: "There are things that big developers or a big entity like Walmart want when they come in, that have a public benefit," Murray told the pro-union audience. "Sometimes it might be a street vacation or something like that, that we can also have influence in sort of a soft leveraging place, to get the kind of wages that are needed."
Murray refused The Stranger's request for an interview. But in a statement issued after a video surfaced that caught Murray in his flip-flop, the campaign attempted to clarify Murray's critique: "To be clear, Ed is not opposed to a substantive discussion with the Council about changing the criteria by which these street vacations are judged."
But since Murray is the one who went on the attack to make this a major controversy of the mayor's race, let's revisit his claims: First, he specifically suggested that a mayor could use street vacation requests as "leverage" for getting "the kind of wages that are needed." Then he attacked Mayor McGinn for doing exactly that: "He has usurped the role of the City Council and subverted an impartial process to pursue his own advancement," Murray had claimed. And now Murray says that he "is not opposed to a substantive discussion" about street vacations.
Flip. Flop. Flip.
Steinbrueck at least is willing to walk back his outrage. He acknowledges that McGinn "has only voiced his opinion," and insists that he is "not accusing the mayor of graft and corruption." And while Steinbrueck stands by using land-use codes to block predatory retailers, unlike Murray, he outright rejects similar use of the street vacation process.
Finally—an actual, if tiny, tidbit of a policy dispute in what has otherwise been a virtually substance-free election season.