City Hall

Council Members to Mayor: Slow Down on Nickelsville

By Erica C. Barnett November 15, 2010

Conversations with all nine members of the city council, as well as members of the neighborhoods around the site, reveal many unanswered questions about Mayor Mike McGinn's proposal last week to move Nickelsville, the roving homeless encampment, to an industrial site in SoDo that formerly housed the Sunny Jim's peanut butter factory, which burned down last year. As we reported last week, Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith offered few details about the plan when he rolled it out last week.

Council members' concerns break down into several areas:

• A permanent or semi-permanent encampment contradicts the goals of the city's ten-year plan to end homelessness, which calls for the city to focus on getting people into permanent housing, not tents or camps.

"I don't think we should accept the idea that people are doomed to be homeless and live in tents," council president Richard Conlin said. "I don't see why, in a society with as many resources as ours has, that that should be allowed."

Mike O'Brien, a frequent ally of McGinn's, agreed that tent cities aren't a long-term solution, but said that "to focus exclusively on permanent housing when we know there are hundreds and probably thousands of people out on the street" is unrealistic.

• Concerns about the site's proximity to the Jungle.

Conlin said the fact that the proposed encampment would be just across a ridge from the Jungle is "one of my biggest concerns. ... There's a lot of predators in that area who prey on homeless people, so this is not necessarily a great place." City council member Sally Bagshaw, who generally supports the mayor's proposal, agreed that the Jungle is dangerous but said she expected new fences and bike lanes to make it safer.

Oddly, at last week's briefing, Smith seemed unaware of safety concerns around the Jungle, saying only that he hoped the residents of the new encampment---which he dubbed "Sunny's Place"---"would feel just as safe [living there] as you or me."

• The site is has been an industrial site for decades, and most of the neighborhood around it is contaminated with various industrial waste products from earlier uses. At last week's briefing, Smith said he did not know if the mayor's office planned to study the site for contamination.

"We know that area has a lot of environmental hazards, and I think those need to be very carefully assessed before we put people down there," council member Tom Rasmussen said. "I don't know if there's radon or turpentine or lead in the ground." Finding out would require an environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act, which typically takes at least four months. Cleaning up any contamination would, of course, add more months to the process. Or years: Down the street in Georgetown, SuttonBeresCuller's Mini Mart City Park, a park on the site of an old convenience store, has been locked in environmental cleanup and testing since it was first permitted in 2005.

Additionally, the encampment would be directly adjacent to I-5 (as well as two rail lines); study after study has shown that living next to a freeway (that's in a house, up the street, not outside and directly adjacent) is bad (as in, cancer-causing, asthma-inducing, and generally-shortened-life-span-producing) for pregnant women, children, and pretty much anything with lungs.

O'Brien, a longtime Sierra Club activist, said the proximity to the freeway "is a concern. It's the first thing that jumped to mind for me. Is it fair that people that are homeless have to breathe dirtier air than people who can afford a house? I think there is a social justice question about whether we site this housing there. At the same time, I'm not sure what the alternative is."

• Residents of the nearby neighborhoods, Beacon Hill and Georgetown, say the mayor's office has not contacted them or provided any details about his plan. Last week, Smith said he had not reached out to the adjacent neighborhoods because the property is in SoDo, not Georgetown or Beacon Hill. "This site is not, as has been incorrectly reported, in Georgetown,” Smith said. ”I am reaching out to the SoDo community.” However, given that the site is just a mile from Georgetown and right across the freeway from Beacon Hill, residents are concerned that they're not being kept in the loop.

"I'm getting the impression that he didn't follow his committee's own recommendations to do community outreach" before unveiling a proposal, Licata said. The committee that recommended seven potential encampment sites to the mayor also recommended that the mayor "ensure that neighbors are provided appropriate notice of and have an opportunity to comment.” Licata continued: "I get the impression that the mayor keeps stumbling over his own feet by not paying proper enough attention to the details."

Rasmussen added, "I don't think that's going to win over many people, finding out on such short notice. If they don't have outreach to the communities, it will just increase suspicion and concerns. ... That doesn't mean they don't want them there. I'm not hearing that at all. They're just saying that this is an area that does have problems and we need to make sure it doesn't get worse."

• The mayor's office has so far provided the council (and the public) very little information about his proposal.

To a person, council members said they had not seen a specific plan from the mayor's office to relocate Nickelsville, and several seemed taken aback by both last week's announcement and by this morning's announcement that Nickelsville would be moving temporarily to Lake City (a move that was also announced to Lake City residents just this morning.)

"I had heard that they were going to bring down a money proposal [to the council floor], but then the next week, I heard that they didn't have a money figure yet," said council member Sally Clark. "I would have expected them to have a money figure before coming out with a proposal."

• Finally, council members say moving ahead as quickly as McGinn would like---the mayor has proposed moving Nickelsville to a permanent site in four to six months---may be impossible.

In addition to the inevitable environmental review, the city will have to change its land use code to allow long-term encampments in industrial areas and change its building code to allow semi-permanent private structures that don't meet the standard for housing. Those aren't necessarily endless processes, but they aren't quick either; council land-use committee chair Clark estimates that zoning changes take about six months. In theory, the city could get around those requirements by making the new encampment a "temporary" use; but that would mean Nickelsville would have to get out after six months, and Smith and Nickelsville residents have made clear they intend to keep the camp at its new location at least a year.
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