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Whole Feuds

Mike McGinn turns a supermarket darling into a villain, and juices up Seattle's mayoral race.
Whole Foods' wages spark dispute over W. Seattle development.

Whole Foods' wages spark dispute over W. Seattle development. Credit: Will Merydith/Flickr

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 7:13 a.m. Inappropriate

If only all grocery stores would have such high end service and employees as Whole Foods. The issue exposes most of Seattle's political paralysis.

animalal

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

You haven't been to the Whole Foods on Roosevelt. The service and the goods (specifically seafood) has gone way down.

westello

Posted Wed, Jul 31, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I went in January looking for a prime rib roast for a family dinner, and got fantastic, friendly service from the gentleman behind the meat counter.

I've been in and out of that WF location many times since then, and it is not kept as clean as it should. The staff all seem like dropouts, young and "earthy" and the great customer service has definitely dropped. I hope the guy behind the meat counter is still there, and is considered an example of the service orientation that many of the other staff should try to emulate.

I've been going to QFC when I'm in this part of the city instead of this WF. The Bellevue WF seems far cleaner to me, and has more attentive customer service staff. So does the WF at Interurban.

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 7:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the Mayor's stance on this one. Yeah, I am still kind of pissed about how he flipped on the tunnel, saying in the campaign he'd not oppose it if the voters approved it and then he did, but he lost on that issue. Whole Foods is a new age version of Walmart. Why are they needed here when we have PCC? Money from here goes to Austin, Texas, like Walmart money flees towns when people shop there. We need the multiplier effect to have a robust economy and PCC is a much better option when it comes to organic grocery stores. Remember, LOCAL is more important than ORGANIC. As for the "Seattle Process" ugh. It's ignored when the powers-that-be see fit to ignore it as in baseball stadiums and the monorail, to name just two. Finally, I LOVED the mayor's short comments at the opening of the Tin Umbrella cafe in Hillman City Saturday. (Taped and posted here: http://paulenelson.com/2013/07/28/tin-umbrella-suggests-hillman-citys-coming-up/)

Splabman

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

The mayor's stance on Whole Foods is beyond stupid. Here's a guy who met in secret for a year with a favored to developer and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money to bring in an unneeded and expensive arena -- an arena that its proponents like Steve Ballmer could pay with their own resources, but would instead require an increase in property taxes -- an arena where the pay for jobs would be much lower than at Whole Foods, and employee benefits for most likely non-existent, an arena in the wrong place that would have sacrificed family-wage jobs for low-paying service jobs, now taking this hypocritical stance against good, better-paying local jobs. What absolute hypocrisy.

An arena, by the way, for which all polls have shown that Seattle voters oppose any public financing.

If Seattle voters are addled enough to vote this guy another term, then any claims to having a shred of common sense will be demonstrably false.

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Great analysis. This is classic McGinn -- find the wedge issue to make it through the primary and then move back towards the center or the consensus. The great thing for him is that the council won't take this up until after the election so it's a free one. The only problem for him is that people might be seeing a pattern.

Here's an interesting question: What will he do with his time in office if he gets bounced in the Primary? Will anyone seek his endorsement?

Jordan

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Whole Foods is not the darling Knute makes it out to be.

Splabman wrote: "Whole Foods is a new age version of Walmart. Why are they needed here when we have PCC? Money from here goes to Austin, Texas, like Walmart money flees towns when people shop there." Bravo! Besides that, WF employees are unfriendly and pretentious. When I shopped there (no longer) I'd leave the store feeling lonlier than when I walked in.

McGinn is probably a little desperate, which explain his stance on WF's vacation, but that aside, WF is a non-union blight on our community.

Plus, we should all vote for Peter Steinbrueck.

mandyv

Posted Fri, Aug 2, 7:52 a.m. Inappropriate

How many people know how much money WF donates to support NOT labeling GMSO foods?
Years ago I worked for a small healthy-food chain in Boston called Bread & Circus. B&C; wouldn't carry anything in the store that contained white flour, refined sugar, or aluminum. We discounted slightly bruised produce which benefitted the elderly/poor and kept our margins in line. It makes me sick to think that WF gobbled up Bread & Circus, which was voted Best of Boston when I worked there.

And now WF secretly wants to sell GMSO foods? And is paying lobbyists to push the legislation? Won't catch me in one again! Besides, their prices are criminal.

Lauriem

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Although I'll probably vote for Steinbrueck (which, if he should get through the primary ALONG WITH McGinn, could conceivably help the latter), I REALLY LIKE how our Mayor can so easily and effectively upset the applecart of Seattle's ostensible 'consensus-style' politics. Just when everyone thought he was 'coming around' and finally playing nice as a strategy for re-election, he abruptly reverts to his old bull-in-the-china-shop self. Right on!!!

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Is McGinn lied about his position in the tunnel to get elected. He claims to be an environmentalist, then supported giving away the downtown skyline to giant illuminated advertising signs. He claims to be for ordinary people, but he supported the most pro-development (meaning least affordable housing, fewest public amenities) approach to South lake Union. Now he seeks to subvert a land use regulatory process to gain a union endorsement. Does he believe in anything other than his own re-election?

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Mandy, WF is a grocery store, not a personal support group. Why do people keep comparing WF to PCC? There is nothing good about PCC, they are not the same!

MissRuby

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with the writer above who compares Whole Foods to Walmart. WF is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Their workers are not well paid, they are well intimidated. Their food is not carefully scrutinized like it is at PCC. In short, WF is a sham and good for McGinn for stepping up on this issue.

I think McGinn has proven that he has human values which hopefully are shared by the voters of Seattle. I was on the fence and headed toward voting for Steinbrueck until this story came out. I hope that the landscape of Seattle has a place for real thinking and the application of solid human values after all.

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Easy to read the McGinn supporters here!
The issue, at least from my table, is not the obvious need for a serious community look at wages and income inequality. The issue, at least for the primary election, is a mayoral candidate's intervention very late in an alley vacation process, to demand union and wage concessions that were never on the list previously.
That may please certain anti-WF folks in West Seattle, and it certainly pleases the food workers union, but it is also, and rightly seen by the Mayor's critics, a last-minute political maneuver a week before a primary election. It may bail McGinn out, but it's an awful precedent.

If McGinn were truly serious, we'd have seen, long before this, some proposed legislation re: wage/benefit/unionization, etc. requirements for development permits. But no, we just get a letter very late in a process that contained no such rules, and just a few days before a primary.
It takes no advanced degree to figure out what's going on here. Politics 101.

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 1:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Buying back an alley dedication is hardly a "bonus," but "bonuses for benefits" gets termed a slippery slope because once the first politician tumbles to "why give away a sellable commodity like zoning," justifications flow in and rule-of-law ebbs out.

William Whyte exposed it all long ago in a chapter over-optimistically called "The Rise and Fall of Incentive Zoning" in his 1988 "City." Then three things then happened:

1) Cities, falling all over themselves to copy fashionable NYC, increased the complexity of their codes so that even those writing them can no longer keep track of what rule affects what other loophole, and vice versa, and certainly not keep it all in the head at the same time.

2) Shared growth (most things affordable) was always hard to find in GMAs, but disappeared entirely in favor of smart growth (nothing affordable), requiring even more studious avoidance of the fact that contradictory objectives produce win-loses, not win-wins.

3) Politicians rose "save-the-planet" to sainthood; redevelopment industry heard its rallying cry (order unclear).

Consequence clear: all politics, all the time, and especially when it's that or out-in-the-cold.

The clash of online comments indicate citizens generally are last to get it or have given up, but once in a while someone spots one of the last remaining rule-of-laws simple enough for a judge to understand, and produces a momentary win:

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021495017_benchviewcourtrulingxml.html

West Seattleites are feisty.

afreeman

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 1:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the informed layout of some of the issues.

Though not a big fan of WF, but this is just political grandstanding at its worse. And it's moving the goal posts for a business. Consumers will make their decisions based on any number of items - some cost, some social benefits, others for convenience. It's not government's role, other than putting in a base level minimum wage, to dictate how a business pays it's workers.

Treker

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 1:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice analysis. I agree with the key point that McGinn's interest on this issue seems opportunistic. Making land use approvals unpredictable, without a consistent standard will favor developers who lobby, make donations, etc so it becomes a vicious circle.

One thing I would add is that the differences in compensation and need its between WF and the unionized markets are less than McGinn implies. My son has worked for Safeway twice. They structure many part time shifts to avoid paying benefits. His impression is that very few workers get a full 40 hours a week.

BR

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 2:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Whole Foods is just a tenant here, they are not the developer nor the applicant for the alley vacation. McGinn is clearly politicking this for all it's worth -- which is turning out to be not much, thankfully. Alleys exist only to provide access to properties on the blocks they bisect. They are not thoroughfares connecting blocks together. Alleys are there because early developers platted the property that way. They are a gift of the developer; the City does not buy them. So when the owners of an entire block decide they don't need alley access anymore, that's a compelling case for vacating the alley.

It's become apparent the only candidate with a sound grasp of development issues like this is Peter Steinbrueck. Not surprising given his career as an architect and urban planner, and ten years on city council. Peter's got my vote, and my family's votes.

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if people have read the actual letter and realize that it little more than a policy door opener to a debate over what the public interest means. This is not disapproving a permit, and street vacations are not predictable decisions to begin with.

See http://www.thestranger.com/images/blogimages/2013/07/16/1373995781-4755_fauntleroy_alley_vacation_memo_hahn.pdf

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

For a better way, watch the video voters guide http://bit.ly/19t1R6U and vote Joey Gray.

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 3:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, talk about a slanted article. I came to read this to find out what this issue was, but seeing the ham-handed slam job on McGinn I question most everything else in the article. First off, go back and just read the bolded caption lines for the whole article - see a trend? "The mayor may also have another agenda." "If McGinn really cared..." I'm not entirely happy with McGinn myself, but rather than talking to half of those running against him, maybe talk to the focus of the article to get a quote? Maybe?

And what the hell difference does it make what Whole Foods claims their "average wage" is? If you add in those at the top I'm sure it comes out looking pretty good. The question is "What is the wage the largest amount of your employees recieve?"

Many of Seattle's current woes can be traced directly to developers and the pliant City Council bending over backwards to break rules and blight the city for them (apodments anyone?) so some rules demanding a benefit to the city in return is exceptionally warranted - even if just an alley. But with developers being able to phrase the situations, suddenly McGinn doing something the Unions approve of is "currying their favor" (in much the same was that those complaining about 16,000 apodments cramming into 2,000 units on Capitol Hill is somehow being "NIMBY").

So if on one side of the issue we have developers blighting the city, the horrifying, slandering owner of Whole Foods with his near-slave labor PLUS a biased article - I guess I'll go with the other side.

Zurls

Posted Tue, Jul 30, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd place stock in your initial complaint if you hadn't then left the administration out of your complaint about pliant bending of the laws that the Council writes on the administration's recommendation and in most cases only upon the final approval of the Mayor, the chief administrator who is thereafter charged with enforcing the law. The danger of convolution—only the kings men have the key.

afreeman

Posted Mon, Jul 29, 4:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Whole Foods is not the issue. It is overpriced but if I want to shop there I am free to do so.

The issue is what is the City's role in what the Mayor calls "social justice." If the trend continues, I can think of a lot of businesses that fall short of Whole Food's mark, some of which are union shops paying very good wages.

Boeing, for example. I think those high union wages contribute to high airfares and impede my ability to freely travel. My "social justice" rights have been violated. Or the wages at City Hall, for a union shop that provides services I do not think I need.

We each have our ideas regarding "social justice" but applying them in such an arbitrary and capricious manner as McGinn is doing is beyond the pale.

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