The city council's transportation committee decided this afternoon to postpone a decision on a proposed alley vacation that would allow a Whole Foods-anchored housing complex to be built on what is currently vacant land in the heart of West Seattle. 

The Whole Foods has been controversial since the last mayoral campaign, when former mayor Mike McGinn—backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21—argued against the proposal on the grounds that Whole Foods is non-union and that the city should consider a tenant's wage policies when adding up the "public benefits" that are required as a condition of an alley vacation (essentially, the sale of an alley—marked, in this case, by the dashed orange line in the image below—for private development). 

Additionally, some neighborhood residents, allied with the union representatives, have argued that the new, 42-to-50-foot-wide alley Whole Foods is proposing as a "mid-block connector" to provide access to the store for cars, freight, and pedestrians, will endanger pedestrians because it doesn't include a signalized crosswalk and puts them in close proximity to large trucks and other vehicles (the original plan made the new alley pedestrian-only). The proposal includes 600 underground parking spots, including both parking for the retail stores and Whole Foods and a five-story housing complex on top of the new grocery store.

This week, robocalls went out across the city, but especially in West Seattle, urging people to call transportation chair Tom Rasmussen and tell him to vote against the alley vacation. (Rasmussen, who received the call himself, joked at today's meeting that "I was told to call Tom," which, he said, he found confusing.) The message, from "Deb from West Seattle," tells recipients that "a big out-of-state developer" (Houston-based Weingarten Realty) is "ignoring our [neighborhood] plan with a megaproject that's going to add traffic congestion and put pedestrians at risk." 

The calls, made on behalf of a group called "Getting it Right for West Seattle," were funded by UFCW. Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for the group, acknowledges that the UFCW's main interest in this debate—getting a union grocery store in West Seattle—doesn't address the issue brought up by the robocall; a unionized store, for example, would still create traffic and wouldn't alleviate concerns about pedestrian safety, making the neighborhood-union coalition a fragile one.

"Deb from West Seattle," AKA Deb Barker, was, as it turned out, the first speaker at today's meeting, where—after making the disclaimer, "I am not a NIMBY"—argued that the proposed Whole Foods development "wastes our public land for profit."

Steve Williamson, a community outreach representative with UFCW, added that a time when "income inequality has developed exponentially," the city council "has the authority and the obligation to consider the public interest when giving away our public property."

And Robby Stern, a former civil rights activist who heads up the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, argued that the council should reject the vacation because "the CEO of Whole Foods [libertarian John Mackey] was one of the most prominent spokespeople against health care reform in our country" and because "basically, it's going to drive down the standards for people who work in the grocery industry." 

The pro-Whole Foods contingent—also well-represented at today's meeting—argued that the development would bring needed density and affordable housing to West Seattle, highlighting a growing divide among Seattle liberals between labor and neighborhood activists on the anti-development side vs. environmental urbanists in the pro-development camp. 

West Five owner Dave Monture pointed out that "80 percent of this project is housing"—indeed, the proposal includes 389 units, 25 percent of them "affordable" to moderate-wage workers—"housing that we need in West Seattle." And he added: "Just because we have a tenant there now doesn't mean they're going to be there forever. Uses change over time." The building West Five is in, for example, used to be "a bowling alley with a shooting range in the back."  

And another West Seattle tenant, the Freemasons' Martin Monk, noted that the Masons were the only remaining tenant on the block of prime West Seattle real estate, which is, he said, currently a "horrible, hideous ... blight on this community." Indeed, the site residents are trying to "save" currently looks like this:

Responding to the most common objections to the alley vacation, developer and sustainability advocate A-P Hurd noted that while "pedestrians need to be taken care of, I'm not sure every decision about pedestrian safety needs to rise to the level of the Seattle City Council."

Hurd added: "I understand that some of the concerns are about Whole Foods being a non-union retailer, and if you take that to its logical conclusion, you could arrive at development decisions based on who the tenant is going to be. You can't have a land-use process that's [based on] a list of approved and non-approved tenants."

(Currently, the development plans include several large retail spaces that are supposed to be filled with other tenants, including retail and an unspecified drug store; neither of those spaces has been subjected to the same scrunity as the Whole Foods space.) 

At today's meeting, most of the council—with the exception of Kshama Sawant and Mike O'Brien—seemed inclined to grant the vacation, on the grounds that the city has been working with Weingarten for more than two years on its proposal, through round after round of design review as well as endless discussions about the pedestrian impacts of vacating one alley and creating another. Rasmussen's staff says the council will consider adding wages to the city's list of public benefits, but that that process could take the better part of a year. 

Over the course of today's nearly three-hour meeting, proponents (headed up most vocally by Rasmussen) and opponents (primarily Sawant) argued vociferously for and against the vacation. Sawant was quick to raise objections to the project, noting that the city's definition of "public benefits" "can be evolved if new issues come up that have not been addressed," such as the fact that Whole Foods is non-union. 

Sawant pointed out that there are already "four grocery stores within three blocks of the proposed site of the new Whole Foods," several of them with unionized workforces. "What happens [when businesses like Whole Foods move in] is not that new jobs are added, but that the current unionized jobs are replaced."Rasmussen responded that the city does not make land-use decisions based on whether it likes a particular tenant. "Tenants come and go," he said, pointing out that Whole Foods itself was slated to move in to a location across the street from the Weingarten development "and no one objected"; that project fell through when the economy took a nosedive in 2008.

(As committee chair, Rasmussen cut Sawant off no fewer than three times when her comments veered into soapbox territory, noting at one point that the council had assembled a panel of experts on street vacations and that the purpose of today's meeting was to ask them questions, not grandstand about, in Sawant's words, "gentrification and income inequality" produced by development. In response, she told Rasmussen, "I'm happy simply to ask questions, but if we are going to take a decision on this issue, we should have a discussion." After a brief and somewhat testy exchange between Sawant and Rasmussen, O'Brien jumped in with an unrelated question, defusing the situation.) 

Although Rasmussen, council president Tim Burgess, and council member Sally Clark all said they felt they had enough information to vote on the alley vacation today ("I don't know what information we would get that we don't already have," Burgess said), they agreed to put off a final committee vote until April 8 so that council members with questions or concerns can have those addressed. After that, assuming it passes in some form, the vacation will go to the full council, probably on Monday, April 14.


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