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Bad ideas whose time has come

A state income tax, higher Seattle parking rates, private waterfront development: budget woes can turn bad ideas into timely ones.

Paying parking tickets has been part of Seattle's urban life for decades. The parking enforcement person handed out this ticket in August 1960 near the 51 University St. in downtown.

Paying parking tickets has been part of Seattle's urban life for decades. The parking enforcement person handed out this ticket in August 1960 near the 51 University St. in downtown. Seattle Municipal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Who's got the money?

Who's got the money?

Hard times mean hard decisions. Every budget cutter from Olympia to King County to City Hall knows this. No bubble is going to save us next year, no sudden outburst of generosity. We have less money, we have to tighten belts and rethink how we do things. Some ideas that we've resisted in the past have to be considered if we're going to get through this.

I am a small-government progressive. I think liberals ought to be fiscally conservative, that government ought to be lean and compassionate. It cuts a couple of ways: We need to spend less and empower people to do more for themselves without fear of litigation. I believe in activist government, faster and smarter, but also in reforms that reduce the need for lawyers, insurance companies, selfish unions, and bureaucratic ass-covering.

While many people say this isn't the time to raise taxes, I disagree. As a fiscally conservative liberal I believe you have to cut spending and raise revenues. My experience managing budgets over the years says you have to work them from both sides of the ledger. Which is why I think the state, county and city have to increase revenues while they are slashing people and services. You have to get to something sustainable without drowning the baby in the bathtub, Club for Growth-style.

So as much as I hate tax increases, I think voters ought to support the sales tax increase for King County as an odious emergency measure. At the same time, we need to keep the state tax on soda pop and candy. And while I think the state ultimately ought to be out of the liquor business, and at the very least deregulate it, I don't see any crying need right now to make it easier for the public to buy more and cheaper booze. I like Costco, but they'll do just fine without selling the hard stuff to suburban drunks. The state, counties, and cities, however, need the revenues state liquor sales generate. So, for the time being, I say keep the state in the booze business and figure a graceful exit when there's no government funding crisis.

I'm not a fan of income taxes either, but I applaud the efforts of the two Bill Gates, especially Senior, in seeking passage of I-1098. I think this initiative demonstrates two things.

One, it makes the case that any income-style tax must come with the goal of tax fairness, of easing the burden on lower income people and small business. This proposal starts us on that path: moving the tax burden to the higher earners while easing state B&O and state property taxes. It attempts to do the right thing, and rather than dismissing it as the camel's nose under the tent, we ought to be rewarding the sanity and precedent of the progressive trade-off it tries to accomplish. The wealthy in this state pay too little, everyone else pays too much.

I will also quote from the inscription on the statue in Olympia of Washington's only Populist governor (and my favorite), John Rankin Rogers: "I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves."

The wealthy have a larger responsibility and this initiative with the Gates' supporting it makes a huge positive statement about the need for the haves to do more for the have-nots. Weirdly, in this day and age, the Republicans seem to think it's the other way around: that the rich deserve the tax cuts and the government should be taking care of them. I think it's time for rich people welfare reform.

Second, the initiative is an example of the need for citizens initiatives, which liberals, especially, love to hate. Win or lose, its backers are trying to accomplish what only a very few elected leaders have been willing to address: comprehensive tax reform and a more progressive tax system. The I-1098 supporters have grabbed the third rail of local politics and are swinging it like a club. More power to them.

On the city side, Mayor Mike McGinn is taking fire for his desire to boost parking meter rates up to $4 per hour downtown (cheaper than Chicago, more expensive than New York), and generally to tax cars and parking at a higher rates. I hate high parking meter rates and remember fondly my college years in Olympia when there were still penny parking meters downtown just like it was 1909.

Odious as expensive meters are, I think it's a sound proposal. The revenues are needed, but also, the higher $4 rates are still a bargain compared to piratical private lots. I parked under a downtown high rise during lunch with a colleague not long ago. I was an hour and ten minutes and was charged $17. This spring, I also paid a ridiculous one-hour rate at a Diamond lot (no street meters available) near the Pike Place Market. I was a few minutes late returning and received a Diamond overtime parking fine of $43 on top of my parking fee. So much for grace periods and customer service.

Even jacked up, however, street rates are still relatively affordable, and if not you can always pay a couple of bucks to ride the bus or train. The fact is, the high rates do deter people from driving; I certainly ride the bus much more than I did during Seattle's cheap parking days when you could even find free street spaces downtown. It hurts, but it works.

I also have no sympathy for the jerks who aren't paying their fines. I had a friend many years ago who was arrested at work and jailed one Friday afternoon for not paying her parking tickets. It cured her and the city got the money it was owed. I just paid a $42 ticket for mistakenly parking in an illegal space on Capitol Hill. I paid the damn thing because I was in the wrong. So Mr. Mayor, go get 'em.

Lastly, I read a column by Publicola's Dan Bertolet who writes about urban development in Seattle. Bertolet is a booster of the big and the dense. His column, formerly a blog, is called Hugeasscity, and that's what he wants Seattle to be, unapologetically. Needless to say, I disagree with most of what he writes.

But he wrote a recent provocative piece that actually makes a good point. He thinks the city is making a mistake by ruling out private development in the old Alaskan Way Viaduct footprint. Granted the waterfront park and public space is a great idea, but it has to be integrated with the commercial reality and potential of the waterfront. The city has hired a first-class firm to look at waterfront design, so why not allow them to consider ways in which the city might selectively integrate private development on city-owned property which will link downtown and the waterfront?

Bertolet worries that a windswept public plaza is something to fear. I agree.

I'm also concerned about preserving the older buildings on the waterfront and the adjacent Commission District and along Western Avenue and doubly concerned by the knee-jerk reaction some people have that tourism is unimportant (tacky, therefore expendable) and that the piers are barriers that need to be removed. No, the neighborhood needs to be renewed and restored, update and revitalized, and some of those piers are designated landmarks. I think creative minds can cope.

Bertolet fears that the old Viaduct swath will under-achieve because of a perceived anti-developer bias in Seattle. How anyone can think that the Seattle of the early late 20th and early 21st century is or was anti-devlopment is beyond me, but I do agree with the sentiment that many developers have earned their lousy reputations with bully tactics and bad design, and that there is some warranted public skepticism. But Bertolet is right that creating more activity and commerce down there should be a city goal and the last thing we need is green dead zone, the urban equivalent to Hood Canal: it looks nice, but there's no oxygen for the fish.

Bertolet writes, "[S]ince the city controls the land, we have the opportunity to stipulate exactly the kind of development we want." Ideally, that might be true, but Seattle has a history of botching such opportunities (see Westlake). Usually, it's the business community that stipulates to a cowed or collaborationist City Hall (Nordstrom will have cars on Pine Street!). Still, he's right that some private development should at least be considered and could be very beneficial if, and it's a big if, it's handled right.

(Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides some of Crosscut's funding.)

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 6:55 a.m. Inappropriate

If the city wants to support the waterfront neighborhood with walkable development, as Bertolet claims to favor, it will put a streetcar from King Street to Pier 91. In fact, they would have to, because the neighborhood is about thirty times as long as it is wide.

The idea that private development is being shut out at the waterfront is absurd, doubly so when we consider the revolving developer-mayor chair occupied by the Royer-Schnell (sp?)gang, who, I hasten to add, did good work with perfect propinquity, and who, I am equally sure, still have some good ideas they haven't yet shared with us.

What is needed is to preserve the old buildings and allow variances for oddly shaped or sized parcels of land in private hands there now. Traffic in the area should be restricted to service vehicles for the buildings in the area. (Bertolet does not understand that the no-tunnel option involves building a six lane highway on the waterfront, which really would be windswept, desolate, and prevent walkable development.)

There's your real green development- plan a walkable neighborhood with streetcar transit and service vehicle access, and sell the remaining land from the through-streets to developers. Cut the amount of land in the neighborhood that's used by cars by a half or more- making the land you sell taxable in the process.

Tell the ferry system they're not getting any more for cars there, and that they need to bring more foot passengers instead, and then meet the passengers with good city transit, a streetcar at the water's edge, and another on First.

The streetcar is the marker that tells developers, businesses, and future residents that the city is committed and will follow through. Zero-emissions and low labor costs are requirements for transit, and the streetcar, which can add more cars without adding more drivers, scores well here.

The sad fact is that the state and city are planning to use most of that space for roads and parking. The 'greens' and 'enviros' have been given a 9-acre scrap of land to play with as a park. The currently planned roads couldn't even be built before world events would make them obsolete, but the agencies and departments will plow on automatically until someone takes the helm or they run out of gas. Perhaps, like Sisyphus, we're doomed to repeat this task in the future.

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Anyone who would like to see a working model of the best transportation solution for the waterfront should just take a look at the existing structure. The elevated solution clearly offers more benefit for everyone than any of the other designs, and eliminates this endless noodling about how the transportation matrix may or may not work itself out when the viaduct is gone. It was never a barrier to anything and can be easily incorporated into any number of designs with provisions for pedestrians, bikers, tourists, locals, noise abatement, etc. It’s that no one EVER considered it on this basis…it was always TEAR it down. It’s as if contemporary egos can't accept the fact that anyone from decades past could have possibly got it right the first time.

By retaining the only effective bypass for the core, the viaduct offers the best way to modulate, or even eliminate traffic downtown thus accommodating virtually all of the considerations raised by -serial_catowner, except for it being visible. But after learning that our moving, shaking waterfront committee has chosen a design firm that proposes elements that are “edgy” “quirky” “working class” and “blue collar” for their neighborhood park, it sounds like the Alaskan Way Viaduct might now even be aesthetically acceptable? The park could be larger too.

No other proposed configuration for the AWV matches the existing viaduct in any transportation related category. The rights of ways already exist. The configuration already can handle 110,000 vehicles a day. It already provides a bypass for downtown and off ramps for the core, Ballard and West Seattle. It already meets the demands for commercial vehicles. It can incorporate modern seismic protections and other enhancements for noise abatement, bikes, pedestrians and aesthetics. It acknowledges the fact that rubber-tired, multi-passenger vehicles are still the choice of over 90% of us. And it’s billions of dollars cheaper than this present mistake in the making.

And unlike speculative videos and drawings of solutions with unfinished engineering details and unknown capacities, you can see a real working elevated model down on the waterfront right now doing its job every day.

A retro / rebuild of the viaduct should be considered again. It works, it's affordable, and if a vote were held tomorrow it's the solution that would be chosen.

jmrolls

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

In the retail world, convenience stores charge the highest prices for items easily available at the moment of need while big box stores charge low prices for those buying in bulk for later use. This model is inverted for parking, with the cities socializing the cost for the benefit of the core businesses. When our leftie blue/green mayor proposes to boost parking rates to less than half of the bulk rates, non-lefties throw up their hands in horror and then clutch their pearls that too much money is being spent on crazy bicyclists and mass transit. Nothing wrong with socialism when it benefits them! And Knute, you should reflect on your attitude towards Bertolet's thinking. As another Chinook with century-deep roots in the area, it breaks my heart to see the Kent valley turned into box stores and parking lots, surrounded by cheap, ugly condos where people drive to stores, entertainment, and workouts if they exercise at all; and strip development all the way to Mt Rainier. There are a lot more of us than there used to be, we have to belong someplace, and we can either clutter up our beautiful landscape while burning lakes of oil as we do now, or we can concentrate better, integrate exercise into our daily tasks with close and convenient merchants and parks. Oh yeah, Bertolet is a fan of rail transport, long and short. He's your pal, even if you don't know it yet c

NickBob

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

I haven't seen anywhere how much the state would save if the it were no longer in the liquor business (fewer employees, warehouse/office space, etc). I have heard repeatedly the loss of income, but does anyone know or can guess the other side of it?

2catsmom

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

The tunnel "solution" STILL requires a 4-lane highway on the waterfront... and anyone can easily look southward to San Francisco, or to other cities around the country and world, for beautiful waterfront boulevards that are destinations places to be.

Mickymse

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute, fine article! I agree with NickBob, though, that you should give Bertolet another look instead of relying on your Watsonian lesser Seattleism (which, I admit, is appealing).

My take on HugeAssCity is that they are (were?) advocating a strict trade off of greater density for more public amenities and better design. Imagine if the SLU amazon development where allowed to go much higher, but with much more open space and better design? We would have ended up with more of a Vancouver, BC look than a Bellevue Square look.

andy

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 2:42 p.m. Inappropriate

A point about the relationship of private parking prices and public meters. If you raise the latter, the former will happily follow suit, since there will be more demand for private spaces when street parking (hard to find, in the rain, perhaps far from your destination) seems not worth the price and hassle. Indeed, I would imagine that those "piratical" lot owners are rubbing their grubby little hands in glee over the mayor's proposal.

A second point, one being made by the Downtown Seattle Association. Imposing a steep increase like this requires months of studies, outreach, and calming of nerves of the affected parties. DSA says that San Francisco spent a full six months in such an exercise before jacking up the meters. If you want to score political points by punishing drivers, but not pay the political price of having your proposal actually adopted, McGinn's approach is the way to do it. Boosts won't happen, McGinn gets to blame the Council for "caving," and the public gets more frustrated about how little real change we can bring about in this town's dysfunctional political order.

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with JMRolls-There ought to be a way to reinforce the viaduct and fix the sea wall that would still be a lot easier than the alternatives.
henrykuh

henrykuh

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 4:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Parking costs in private spaces have gone down as the economy has gone down. In Seattle and Bellevue.

But that's no reason to raise parking taxes, and meter rates, when far too many buildings downtown Seattle are practically empty.

For a guy who says he wants to grow green, Mayor McGinn has a knack for doing things that sprawl people to the burbs and beyond.

Jan

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 5:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Ok Mr Brewster, that's correct. But how about a little thought experiment? Libertarians elect a mayor after a recall, and part of her downsizing of government is to award street parking as a privately-run franchise. After all, private enterprise outperforms government every time! Do you think that these street spaces which are convienient to businesses and events will continue to be cheap compared to lots away from the front doors people are headed for? I'd bet against that.
@Jan, many buildings are empty downtown, but street parking rarely is. If you're as cheap as I am, you will search a long time before finding one and then have a good brisk walk to wherever you're going.
To sum up- this issue is another example of how progressives fail at framing. This isn't a tax hike or raising a fee. "Business parking subsidy cut by 15%" is what is really happening here, because to promote business in a zone where real estate is scarce and thus expensive, the taxpayers socialize the cost of the parking to benefit business in order to provide employment and a tax base. Government, despite what Saint Ronnie said, is a solution.

NickBob

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Nicely said Jim Rolls, way to fair and sensible to happen.

DMorrill

Posted Fri, Oct 1, 10:16 p.m. Inappropriate

In the past, I've criticized Mayor McGinn for what I and others perceive to be a "war on cars". But putting aside the labels and perceptions for a moment, I think that raising the parking rates downtown is a wise and necessary measure, given the nature of the budget shortfall and the relative lack of reasonable cuts or revenue options.

Regarding David Brewster's points, in the ideal world there would be more public notice and discussion of a significant increase in parking rates. Also, in the ideal world, the city wouldn't be in a severe budget crunch. The armchair economic in me thinks that even if some drivers go to the private lots due to the combination of $4 street parking and rain, this should not increase demand on private lots, and thus prices, unless a significant number of street slots are left vacant. This is theorizing, of course, and I don't know what the demand elasticity is, only that supply elasticity is zero.

Posted Sat, Oct 2, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

1098 cuts property taxes.

WA residents do not pay fair, or equitable property tax.

1098 makes the middle class shoulder an even greater burden.

Vote no on 1098...it's a bad bill.

And lets reform property tax first...the right way.

jabailo

Posted Sat, Oct 2, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

When are People going to stop trying to pass a tax that is not allowed, yes I wrote not allowed, by our own State Constitution any tax on income is not allowed, not allowed do you understand that now? So get over it and move on, well that is what an intelligent person would do. But no, not these wacko liberals and progressives. No, they want to tax everything, as many times as they can, some things 100 times more than others, and they won't be happy until everyone sends in everything they have and get and earn, so they can spend it all on social programs, security cameras, and more prison cells. This is not a Socialist country it is a Constitutional Republic. If you don't like that then move. But move or stay please spend some serious money on therapy because you all are obviously in desperate need of some kind of help for your conditions.

Slaptop

Posted Sat, Oct 2, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Raising property tax is a much better way to tax wealth than this half-baked income tax. Do you realize under 1098 you can't deduct medical expenses or charitable contributions? What if someone has to sell assets to pay huge medical bills? This needs more thought.

Posted Sat, Oct 2, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Berger writes: "I'm not a fan of income taxes". Pray tell, of which taxes are you a fan Knute?

busterg

Posted Sat, Oct 2, 5:26 p.m. Inappropriate

I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of using waterfront land for a mix of private, private/public and public (both park space and building spaces like museums etc.) uses. It would be infinitely better to have a vibrant place where people interact, socialize, live, shop, and play (something like the area around pike place market) than a place for only one class of people, or an occasional park goer and tourist. Social environments are what make dense areas exciting and enjoyable. Additionally in times like these (or any for that matter) the added revenue from rental, sale, or income producing usage of property would be quite useful.

Of course it is reasonable to weary because of the noxious potential for massive exclusive (no ground retail) condos, but these could easily be zoned out and as long as there is some overarching plan for the new land, I'm sure private development could be included more than effectively.

As for keeping the viaduct in place, the problem is a retrofit would also cost money, probably in the range of $100's of millions. Additionally I would argue that an elevated freeway on what should be some of the most valuable land in the city is not a good use of the space. Particularly because freeways almost universally dampen the property values of the neighboring properties (even with modern sound reduction techniques.

The reason I feel this way is because I strongly believe that when Jmrolls states, "No other proposed configuration for the AWV matches the existing viaduct in any transportation related category," he is answering the wrong questions. His categories all assume that there are a given number of trips (which will probably grow with population growth) and the best transportation solution is the one that accommodates the most trips the fastest. Instead transportation solutions should (to some extent) be graded on how many trips they eliminate. Why promote density? To reduce the number and length of trips. Why have cities at all? To reduce the number and length of trips necessary for manufacturing, commerce and people. The question shouldn't be "How do we move x number of people y distance in z time?" but rather, "How do we reduce y distance so it is easier to move x number of people in z time?" Not only is the current viaduct a nuisance for the neighborhood it doesn't effectively answer the latter question posed above and because of these reasons (and earthquakes) it should be taken down or (if REALLY well designed converted to some other use). The reason some people are so opposed to the tunnel, (or to a lesser extent the retrofit) is because they, myself included, think people are asking the wrong questions and therefore getting the wrong solutions.

I will agree that we should take a more minimalistic approach to are solutions to civic problems like these. For example, if were so concerned about freight traffic getting through why not prioritize fright traffic on certain city streets? Or since I-5 traffic through downtown will still be awful no matter what we do with the AWV why not take the billions a tunnel might cost and put it into redesigning I-5, which by its flawed feeder design inefficiently uses its right of way, thus killing to birds with one stone. Or alternatively, invest it in clever cheap transit ideas that can help shape land use and reduce auto dependency?

Posted Mon, Oct 4, 7:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The Mayor proposes to charge for street parking on Sundays, I understand. I think this a very bad idea. For many families, it's the prospect of free parking on Sundays (as on holidays) that permits excursions to the zoo, the downtown library, the aquarium and the waterfront, Seattle Center, etc. Ah, you say, but there are buses! Well, actually there aren't many buses on Sundays, and they're not free, and from some places - Whidbey Island, to take one example - there are no Sunday buses at all. As I say, a bad idea.

Cheonasty

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