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Legislativepalooza April 25: Sodo Zoning – Wage Theft – Chihuly

On Monday, April 25, the City Council met for over two hours, and unanimously approved three major pieces of legislation – reflecting the wide range of issues that we deal with as a Council.  The SODO zoning legislation is designed to encourage good development while protecting the character of our South Downtown neighborhoods.  A new ordinance creates penalties for employers who commit wage theft – withholding wages or cheating employees out of what they are owed for their work.  And legislation approving an agreement to create a new Chihuly Exhibition at Seattle Center includes a series of public benefits negotiated over the last 16 months since this concept was first proposed. Council Bill 117140 rezones large areas of Pioneer Square, Chinatown, Little Saigon, Japantown, and the Stadium District (SODO – the South Downtown).   The goal is to increase housing and business development and support the livability and health of these neighborhoods.   Credit for the new legislation goes to Councilmember Sally Clark, who chairs the Committee on the Built Environment.  Her Committee spent many months painstakingly reviewing and analyzing proposals that have been developed through a community process, and ultimately adopted a set of new heights and development standards that balance the need for new development that will enliven the communities with maintaining the character that makes these communities unique and attractive neighborhoods. The legislation allows additional height for new buildings if developers include workforce-priced housing and use development credits from existing, lower-scale historic buildings.  The new rules also change parking requirements, designate new “green streets,” encourage breaking up mega-blocks (in Little Saigon), create new development credits for historic buildings to sell to fund renovation, and allow for increased commercial and office space (in the South of Charles St. area). A companion resolution passed by the Council lays out priorities for further work around small business support, rehabilitation of vacant space in historic buildings, public safety, open space, transit through the neighborhood and pedestrian connections. Council Bill 117143 creates new penalties for the crime of wage theft — intentionally withholding wages from workers.   Over 4,000 wage claims were filed in Washington in 2010.  The proposed law adds an explicit reference to theft of wages in the Seattle criminal code and lists circumstances that prosecutors can point to as proof of intent to steal wages. The legislation was developed by Councilmember Tim Burgess, who Chairs the Public Safety and Education Committee.  In addition to amending the criminal code, the ordinance allows the City to withhold or revoke business licenses from individuals found guilty of wage theft, a gross misdemeanor. It also allows the City to withhold licenses from those who have not paid assessed civil penalties for wage claims. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries is the primary investigator of wage claims. While this agency investigates and assesses millions of dollars in wages, it often lacks sufficient resources to collect from employers who do not willingly pay.  This legislation provides Seattle workers an additional method to seek remedy. Council Bill 117157 completes a long process involving the possible siting of a Chihuly Exhibition at the former Fun Forest site at the Seattle Center.   This was initially proposed 16 months ago, but there was significant community concern about making such a decision without a formal Request for Proposals and evaluation of possible options. Seattle Center did go through a formal process for accepting proposals, and subsequently Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, Chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee, facilitated a discussion and negotiation that led to accepting both the Chihuly facility and a proposed new location for KEXP. Center Art, LLC will fully finance and develop the Chihuly facility, and will also donate $1 million for the development of a creative children’s play area north of the Monorail.  In addition, the project includes enhancing 39,000 square feet of public walkways and landscaping around the exhibition site and a community partnership program with a focus on arts and education.   There will also be a new public art gallery developed in the Seattle Center House. April 21, 2011, marked the one year countdown to the celebration of “The Next 50,” Seattle Center’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair.  Center Art, LLC plans to open its exhibition hall to coincide with the 50th anniversary kick-off event on April 21, 2012. The Council also approved six other pieces of legislation on April 25, including protecting some 350 acres of salmon habitat on the Skagit River, making several adjustments to the City’s personnel titles, saving energy by authorizing a natural gas hookup for the Charles Street City shops, transferring the title for the convention center garage, approving funding for three projects to convert wading pools to spray parks, and renaming a street adjacent to El Centro de la Raza in honor of the late Roberto Maestas.  All in all, a very productive day!
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