Somewhat lost amid the furor over Mayor Mike McGinn's decision to oppose a Whole Foods-anchored apartment building in West Seattle because of Whole Foods' labor policies is the fact that the city council, not McGinn, has the ultimate say over the decision.
That's because the council, not the mayor, decides whether to grant or deny alley vacations—essentially, the sale of public land for private development. The developers of the property (Whole Foods would only be a tenant) need to take over an alley to redevelop land in West Seattle currently occupied by a funeral home, a gas station, and a car lot.
McGinn has argued that "livable wages" should be among the "public benefits" Whole Foods has to provide in exchange for the alley vacation.
We were curious what the city council thought about that—whether Whole Foods should have to provide living wages to get the alley vacation, and whether living wages should be a required public benefit. So we asked them. Four of nine council members, so far, have responded.
Jean Godden: "We haven’t received a proposal from [the Seattle Department of Transportation, which will recommend public benefits and a fair-market value for the alley], so I cannot comment on specifics at this time. But I will say that I am intrigued by the idea of taking a more expansive look at public benefits as it relates to living wages."
Richard Conlin: "I think most of us are going to be fairly cautious. We are going to wait to see what the documents look like and review them and see what we're going to do.
"Speaking for myself, of course I'm concerned about wages and those sorts of things. But on the other hand, there's also a lot of questions about whether [McGinn's recommendation to deny the alley vacation] was the right thing to do, whether it has the right policy grounding, and whether it exposes us legally. So there's lots of question involved with all this."
Sally Clark (via text): "Short answer—I don't know what will happen with the Whole Foods street vacation. We won't take it up until late this year. [At which time, of course, there could be a new mayor-elect.–Eds.] Lots of time to hear lawyers disagree about whether we can take employment conditions into account for land use decisions.""Who the tenant will be on a particular project has never been been brought up in right-of-way vacation petition. So that is very interesting that McGinn is saying that because a developer is going to be renting to Whole Foods, we shouldn’t issue the vacation."–City council member Tom Rasmussen.
And finally, Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council's transportation committee (who, as the council's resident street vacation expert, was the most voluble on the subject): "The petitions [from the developers] have been going through for nine months or a year. The city council has developed pretty specific provisions in the municipal code in terms of what the process is, and the reason for that is that in years past, alley vacations were given pretty haphazardly, at the whim of chair of the transportation committee. We decided to develop more guidelines for how the council makes a decision.
"So the petition now says, 'Here’s what you have to do.' So that’s what this petitioner has been doing. They’ve been meeting with the community review board and me as well, to try to transform [the site] from a parking lot, auto dealership kind of environment to an environment that’s safer and more walkable.
"They were getting there. Then Whole Foods’ pay and benefits were raised by labor.
"Who the tenant will be on a particular project has never been, to the best of my knowledge, been brought up in right-of-way vacation petition. So that is very interesting that McGinn is saying that because a developer is going to be renting to Whole Foods, we shouldn’t issue the vacation.
"What about the drugstore [going in across the street], the landscaping services—does that mean we should look at labor practices for all services [associated with the development]?
"I would ask Mike McGinn that question: You say, turn it down because you don’t support Whole Foods' practices—what about the practices of the other tenants?
"What if they leave in two years? What if they never actually sign their lease? No one even looked at what the practices are of the developer itself.
"This not consistent with the standard that we have set for street and alley vacations, and we’ve set the standard over the years to ensure predictability. fairness, and equity. There is a high bar for petitioners to hurdle to get an alley vacation."