Last week, Mayor Mike McGinn sent a letter to Seattle Department of Transportation director Peter Hahn ordering SDOT to recommend that the city council reject a proposed alley vacation necessary for a Whole Foods-anchored megaproject (including 370 apartments and a parking garage) in West Seattle, on the grounds that Whole Foods (unlike other grocery chains affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which, not coincidentally, has endorsed McGinn), is not unionized and does not pay workers "livable wages and benefits."
(McGinn also argued that the building is out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood and fails to enhance the pedestrian environment.)
In the letter, McGinn justifies his opposition to the alley vacation—essentially, a handover of a public street to a private developer—by saying it doesn't meet the city's "public interest" standard for alley vacations:
As our city grows, we must be careful stewards of our public rights of way. I believe that it is time to view street and alley vacations in the same way we view any investment of public funds or property, and consider whether they support the City’s vision for sustainable economic development with shared prosperity, as embodied in the Comprehensive Plan, and numerous other city policies and goals. [...]
Based on review of the details of this project through the lens of these values, I do not believe that approval of the alley vacation petition in its current form is in the public interest. It does not provide adequate public benefit. It falls short of meeting specific Comprehensive Plan core values and the Administration’s overarching commitment to just and sustainable development.
The city's design commission unanimously recommended approving the alley vacation. According to Whole Foods, the average wage for its Seattle workers is $16.15 an hour (however, the company does not provide traditional health insurance, offering only a "health savings plan.")
Simultaneously, the city is considering another alley vacation, for another megaproject—this one a convention center hotel to be built on the site of the former Greyhound bus terminal at Ninth Ave. and Stewart Street downtown. That project is controversial because the developer, Richard Hedreen, has refused to promise union leaders with Unite Here Local 8, the hospitality workers' union, that the hotel will be a unionized operation, accusing the union of trying to kill the project by stirring up labor opposition. The hotel would have about 1,700 rooms and employ around 1,000 workers.
So, our One Question for the mayor (and our two questions for the mayoral candidates) today is this: Should the city approve the alley vacation for Hedreen's hotel development even if its workers make, in Unite Here's words, poverty wages? And did the mayor make the right move by opposing Whole Foods on economic grounds? "The regulatory system does not exist to be used as a tool to advance certain social goals."—Mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck
Here's what three of the four leading contenders had to say (city council member Bruce Harrell has not yet returned our call).
Mayor Mike McGinn's city spokesman, Robert Cruickshank, says that when it comes to the Hedreen development, "We’re definitely going to look at the same factors there as we did with Whole Foods.
"If you look at the letter, [McGinn's reasons for opposing the development included] economic development factors as well as land use factors ... Are they paying the kind of wages and opportunities that our comprehensive plan calls for? What we found with the Whole Foods development that it was lacking on those assessments. We were concerned that the wage scales at Whole Foods were significantly lower than other competitors and retailers in the area and that the benefit package were not in the same scale."
McGinn opponent Peter Steinbrueck couldn't disagree more. He told us McGinn's letter was "an abuse of the city’s regulatory functions. ... There is a process for alley vacations and it has nothing to do with prevailing wage rates. It's fine to speak up, but it's not up to the mayor to interfere with the regulatory process.""I would love for it to be [unionized]. ... But a hotel of that size could create so many other jobs at livable wages."—Mayoral candidate Ed Murray Steinbrueck continues, "It's perfectly legitimate for the mayor to speak out personally on his views on social goals and social justice such as living wages and housing affordability, but ... the regulatory system does not exist to be used as a tool to advance certain social goals. ... All I’m saying is that the regulatory frameworks should not be used manipulatively and in fact I think it’s illegal."
Steinbrueck adds that he would apply the same principle to the Hedreen hotel development—wages, he says, shouldn't be a factor in whether to approve the alley vacation.
State Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill) takes a middle-ground position: He says he doesn't know whether the Whole Foods letter was justified (because he hasn't read it yet), but says he wouldn't want to deter a huge development like Hedreen's—which, he notes, will create many jobs for Seattle, at no public cost, at a time when other cities, like Portland, are contemplating spending tens of millions to bring similar projects to their downtowns.
"This is all private development ... to me, that's a very positive development in terms of what it would do for the convention business. I would love for it to be [unionized]. ... But a hotel of that size could create so many other jobs at livable wages."
Although he hasn't "had a chance to wade into the details," Murray adds, he thinks "the city would really have to weigh some of the implications of not having a hotel" when deciding whether or not to grant the alley vacation that would make it possible.
Worth noting: Hedreen, along with his wife, Betty, and his company, R.C. Hedreen Co., has given a total of $2,100 to Murray and $500 to People for Ed Murray, the independent PAC set up to support Murray's mayoral bid. Unite Here, which is behind the Hedreen fight, has spent $18,000, so far, on a mailer for McGinn. And the UFCW, which is behind the Whole Foods fight, hasn't contributed yet ... but contribution reports are due out tonight.