by Knute Berger
Whole Foods' wages spark dispute over W. Seattle development. Credit: 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.)
The mayor cites the city's Comprehensive Plan as the impetus for his opposition. The Comprehensive Plan informs street and alley vacations, and states that development projects should "support key sectors of Seattle's economy to create jobs that pay wages that can support a family, provide necessary benefits, and contribute to the vitality of the City including, but not limited to, the industrial, manufacturing, service, hospitality and retail sectors.”
The mayor may also have another agenda.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union would like to unionize Whole Foods. It has donated to the mayor's re-election effort in what many observers and critics have alleged is a quid pro quo: The union will support the mayor in a tough campaign's final weeks if the mayor blocks the 4755 Fauntleroy project by inserting a new standard for approval. The union begs to differ. Union leaders say they are backing the mayor "because we felt like he would be a champion for workers and the people in the city." (Socialist mayoral candidate Mary Martin, eat your heart out!)
Essentially, Whole Foods is being singled out for treatment that no one else has gotten before in the street and alley vacation process. The mayor is apparently looking for some new leverage to boost wages and help the union cause. The City Council, by the way, is the decider on vacations. Whether the 4755 Fauntleroy developers can persuade enough councilmembers to ignore the mayor's recommendation is unclear.
Needless to say the developers were gob-smacked: Such public benefit demands about wages were totally new. Plus, they wonder, why is the city making it difficult for an desirable employer like Whole Foods? "Candidly, it's just embarrassing," says someone close to the project. "Their jobs and wages aren't good enough? I wonder if it's the height of [Seattle's] own hubris?"
Many in the business and development community are also crying foul. The Chamber of Commerce called the mayor's response "a whole new hurdle … introduced at the eleventh hour." Some who have strongly supported the mayor in the past and are sympathetic on the living wage issue, are very unhappy. That group includes David Meinert, the nightlife entrepreneur, who calls McGinn's move "political insanity."
Meinert says that McGinn's objection is "terrifying," and should be to all business people because it suggests that the permitting process has no predictability, that a politician can make up rules and block a project for purely political reasons after businesses have spent huge amounts of money upfront following a set of rules that no longer apply. In short, Meinert thinks every business person in Seattle should be alarmed. (Though the McGinn campaign lists Meinert as an endorser, he denies having endorsed McGinn or any other mayoral candidate in this year's race.)
Not surprisingly, the mayor's opponents have all jumped in. Peter Steinbrueck took the side of developers by defending the current process, saying that the move was "potentially illegal" and an "intentional act to thwart established procedure." If you want to argue for public benefits like low income housing, day care or a living wage, says Steinbrueck, it should have been done earlier in the process, during rezoning for example. Street and alley vacation rules shouldn't be rewritten on the fly.
"If we want social policy added to street vacations, there is a process for that," he says. In a Danny Westneat column about the brouhaha, Steinbrueck said, "You can't use land-use laws to curry favor with the unions. That’s an abusive political act. They do this in East Coast cities, and it’s properly called 'graft and corruption.'"
To be fair, land use is the cornerstone of city politics and thus always political. There's no reason to be shocked! shocked! by that. The political maneuvering ranges from developers such as Vulcan lobbying for more height at South Lake Union to blatant attempts to buy off politicians. Remember the 2003 Strippergate scandal? Illegal campaign donations were funneled to city council members for what? A parking lot rezone in Lake City. There's a lot of ground between Whole Feud and Strippergate, of course, and there are power differentials and legitimate arguments over the public good. For Steinbrueck, the main issue is what he calls the "integrity of the process."
City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell issued a statement that acknowledged the legitimacy of the issues McGinn raised, but added that the mayor's case was "very shallow in substance and provides a weak argument as to why we should drastically change historic practice."
Voters could be excused for feeling some whiplash while listening to the supposedly anti-development Steinbrueck argue for developer rights while pro-density McGinn opposes a dense development. One of the confused apparently is Ed Murray who slammed McGinn's move: "The mayor has suddenly decided to attack this particular development based on politics," charged Murray. "He has usurped the role of the City Council and subverted an impartial process to pursue his own advancement." Unfortunately for Murray, The Stranger unearthed Murray, on tape, suggesting that the street vacation process might be used as "soft leverage" to get wage concessions. Oops.
If McGinn is monkey wrenching, Murray stumbled into an embarrassing flip-flop.
The political question now: Who is helped by the controversy? McGinn picked up union support, and many people in the city are sympathetic to the cause of better wages. We tend to be a pro-union town, even if most of us aren't in a union. We also tend to be a pro-Chamber of Commerce town.
Steinbrueck is helped by his critique, which capitalizes on the feeling among many voters that McGinn is an obstructionist (the tunnel standoff, the DOJ settlement) too willing to overturn process if he doesn't like the outcome. Steinbrueck isn't likely to siphon off developer support even with a pro-business stance, but the controversy plays to his consistent we're-not-managing-growth-right message.
Murray looks foolish, yet he stands to gain business support as a guy more likely to be both pro-development and predictable. He's worked hard to establish himself as the mainstream's "Not McGinn" candidate.
Another unexpected winner could be opponents of McGinn's generally pro-development bent. John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, is convinced that McGinn's position is nothing more than "grandstanding." Fox has opposed McGinn and many development projects because they do not mitigate the loss of low income housing. Fox advocates a one-to-one replacement of affordable and new. The affordability issue isn't simply a wage issue, it's a cost-of-living issue too. Growth, he argues, is hurting affordability.
If McGinn really cared, argues Fox, he could recommend new rules and code amendments to make the living wage issue a formal part of the process, or make it part of the EIS and SEPA review process. The mayor could have weighed in earlier on the West Seattle project with the kinds of concessions he wanted to see. In other words, the living wage can be legislated and integrated into the permitting process. It could also be enacted by public vote (wages are on the ballot in SeaTac). Part of the slippery slope is that opening the vacation process to new criteria — from the mayor or anyone — creates a new place where mischief can be made by politicians and pressure groups.
One Seattle land use expert calls the move is classic McGinn: "There's no surprise that an activist politician is going to use regulatory determinations to raise issues that are important to him and his constituency." That of course is consistent with the activist-lawyer-mayor who looks for leverage wherever he can find it, and who does not accept that consensus opinion is always correct.
At a recent forum at Microsoft, McGinn said that sometimes the consensus is wrong. As an example, he cited his opposition to the 2007 state transportation plan, which he considered too highway centric. Its defeat was a key victory in his activist career. So despite accusations of playing politics, the Whole Foods controversy puts the mayor where he often is most comfortable: playing naked politics, claiming the moral high ground and continuing to act as the outsider, even on the inside.
For his opponents, they're playing politics too. The feud fuels McGinn's image as a guy who is temperamentally unable to play by the rules that he selectively applies. For example, what about all the union jobs threatened by the SoDo Arena, funded, in part, by public loans? What about the displacement due to gentrification and development? Density advocates have previously argued that density is in itself a public good. The mayor has opened a Pandora's box, and what could be an important debate about what public benefits are and how best to achieve them. Whole Foods, says McGinn spokesman Robert Cruickshank, is merely the "entry point" for the issue.
Not to mention a spark in the primary campaign's final days.