Political campaigns often turn on the unexpected. Did Greg Nickels ever think he'd be ousted by anger over snowplows? Hardly.
Did any pundits predict this summer's mayoral campaign would heat up over a West Seattle Whole Foods? If so, I missed it.
But that's what's happened, and it has opened up a big political can of worms that, like a classic Seattle controversy, is both about the superficial, the political and the deeply significant. There has been talk of corruption, insanity, flip-flopping and the greater public good. The controversy has turned growth skeptics into champions of developers' rights, and pro-density proponents into advocates of an approach that would make NIMBYs smile.
In many communities, a Whole Foods is an indicator species — a la Starbucks in the 1990s — of a hot market. The high-end grocery chain was a must-have in Belltown and South Lake Union. Developers in Bellevue's density-bound Bel-Red rail corridor have bragged about their proximity to the Whole Foods east of downtown. But in Seattle it's become — in one instant of mayoral maneuvering — either the symbol of anti-union evil or a golden goose about to be killed by dysfunctional process. And the political wedge it has opened up has turned a West Seattle project into a political battlefield among top mayoral contenders. Call it Whole Feuds.
A quick recap: A development in West Seattle by Lennar Homes (the residential partner) and Weingarten Realty (the commercial piece) has been moving through the approval process. This "gateway" project, known as 4755 Fauntleroy, is in the so-called West Seattle Triangle. It features some 350 units of housing, plus a few commercial tenants such as the Whole Foods supermarket, a project anchor. The plan for 4755 Fauntleroy fits what W. Seattle envisioned for the neighborhood, at least according to a development plan that was passed unanimously by the city council and signed by mayor Mike McGinn. The project has its critics. There are those who worry about traffic impacts and scale, those who question the need for more grocery stores — let alone big chains — in the neighborhood, and folks who just don't like what one West Seattle Blog commenter referred to as the "Ballardization of West Seattle". Still, the development closely hews to the adopted plan's vision.
The project has been revised, improved and approved by the Seattle Design Commission, the West Seattle Design Review Board, the Department of Planning and Development and Seattle Department of Transportation. The developers want to incorporate a city alley into the project. To do that, they have to agree to purchase the property from the city and prove that the exchange will result in a benefit to the public. (Sorry, you can't vacate an alley just to get a barbecue pit in your backyard).
The developers have ponied up, according to their estimate, $2 million for public benefits, including 5,000 square feet of public plazas and space, public art, funding for the design of an adjacent park the city wants to build, new bike lanes, etc. These are the kinds of offsets traditionally offered. By all appearances, the project is dense, transit-friendly — it's on a RapidRide line — and seemingly bike friendly. (Not only that, the project's site is an old Huling Brothers car dealership. It turns autos into apartments. What's more new Seattle than that?) But the mayor doesn't see it that way.
Mayor McGinn, who doesn't get to decide on the alley issue but can weigh in with a strong recommendation, has tossed a political monkey wrench in to the works by urging that the alley transfer be denied. Why? Because the developer is not providing enough public benefit. The mayor's chief criticism in this regard is that Whole Foods is not a union shop and is paying wages and benefits that are too low. (Whole Foods says it pays an average of more than $16 per hour.)
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