West Seattle Alley Vacation Decision

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Whittaker ProjectThe City Council has heard from many residents, businesses, labor groups and advocates in favor and opposed to a proposed development at 4755 Fauntleroy Way SW in West Seattle. At the intersection of SW Alaska Street and Fauntleroy Way SW, this corner is considered by many to be the gateway to West Seattle as drivers arriving into the area from the West Seattle Bridge will see the building on this block directly in front of them.

The Council’s Transportation Committee voted 5-3 this morning to grant conceptual approval to the vacation of a city-owned alley as long as specific conditions are met. The full Council will vote on Monday, April 21. I voted in support of approving the alley vacation and would like to explain why.

First of all, I want to clarify that this project has come before the Council only because it involves an “alley vacation,” a unique process in which a private individual or group asks the City to sell public right-of-way in exchange for fair compensation (based on the appraised value of the land) and for specific public benefits, which are delineated in City policies and have historically involved physical and tangible improvements related to mobility of pedestrians and vehicles.

Development at this site could happen regardless of whether the Council grants the alley vacation. The vacation was requested because it allows for a better and less bulky design. The project will provide a mid-block connector accessible to pedestrians. The Seattle Department of Transportation Director wrote to the Council last month, “No adverse impacts were identified and the proposed mid-block connection can provide a safe and functional private street when designed as outlined…”

We have heard two sets of objections that I would like to address.

Some community members are opposed to the proposal because they are concerned about the impacts of the development. However, no city department objected to the alley vacation; all the technical issues raised by departments are addressed in the conditions associated with approval. According to the Department of Planning and Development, the project is “generally consistent” with the West Seattle Triangle Urban Design Framework for this block.

The Southwest Design Review Board, a panel of citizen technical experts, recommended approval of the project’s design with conditions that will be incorporated into the final design. The Seattle Design Commission, a city-wide panel of architects, landscape designers, and others, recommended acceptance of the public benefit package, which includes green street improvements, plazas, art, a new bike lane, and other improvements that altogether total $2,417,050. I have not heard a compelling rationale to overturn these citizen recommendations.

Others, including former Mayor McGinn, have raised concerns about the proposed ground-level anchor tenant for the project, Whole Foods, and the salaries and benefits earned by its employees. The argument here is that the assessment of the public benefit package should include whether or not the jobs provided by the project provide adequate wages and benefits and whether the workers are members of a union.

As I mentioned above, public benefit packages related to the sale of public lands have historically focused on physical and tangible improvements around the development as these benefits are more directly related to the “public trust” as defined in the City’s laws and policies. Whether or not to expand the scope of public benefits to include other factors, such as wages and benefits, is a discussion that involves complicated legal and policy questions. This discussion, in my opinion, should take place separate from an individual vacation decision.

The City government’s review of this project started two years ago. The City followed its normal process until former Mayor McGinn objected to the alley vacation last July and attempted to change the rules. The public deserves consistency and fairness in the government’s process. It is not fair to change the rules after the project has gone through years of process to get to this point.