A Very Cool Thing About McGinn, But...

How the Green mayor became the Blue mayor.

By Josh Feit September 6, 2013

With additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett.

Mayor Mike McGinn has done something most other Democratic leaders have had trouble accomplishing: He's become a standard-bearer for both greens and blues.

Progressives typically fall into either the arugula camp (environmentalists pushing what's perceived as the elitist NPR agenda to lower your carbon footprint, eat better, and live like the Jetsons) or the Bruce Springsteen camp (fighting the man for better jobs, wages, and benefits.)

The two agendas often appear to be in conflict. For example, building a freeway along the waterfront is great for hard-hat jobs and freight, but it perpetuates the 1950s urban design ideal that's destroying the planet. Here, Democrats diverge between those who drink Budweiser and those who drink kale smoothies.

(For the record, I get that the two agendas don't have to be at odds, and in fact, are actually in sync when you start thinking about upgrading our infrastructure for sustainability and efficiency. I also drink kale smoothies.)

McGinn entered public office squarely from the arugula—or the woonerf!—camp. He quickly earned the derisive nickname Mayor McSchwinn for promoting bike lanes in neighborhoods, and he simultaneously got bogged down in a year-and-a-half long battle with labor over that watefront tunnel.

But have you noticed something lately?

Mike "Sierra Club" McGinn, who's now been enthusiastically endorsed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21, the hotel and restaurant workers union (both unions have even started funding independent political committees for McGinn), a couple of the Service Employees International Union locals, and the machinists, among many others, is running for reelection, convincingly, from the labor side.

The most recent blog posts on his campaign website, in addition to the top one announcing this week's SEIU Local 925 and SEIU Local 6 endorsements, are titled "Growing effort to fight for living wage jobs and benefits in Seattle" and "A robust discussion on fighting a rising tide of inequality" with McGinn quotes like this one: “I am committed to continuing to fight for better working conditions and jobs for all Seattle residents. We are not going to compete in the global economy by racing to the bottom and setting policies that allow big business to scoop up as much profit as possible at the expense of everyday workers.”

(Footnote: McGinn couldn't quite win the blue ribbon, the King County Labor endorsement, because as impressive has his labor bonafides have become, state Sen. Ed Murray, his opponent, also has strong labor cred, with a 95 percent lifetime labor voting record in Olympia. The KCLC board recommended endorsing both, but the divided membership split and opted out for now.)

But the fact that McGinn was even competing with a state Democratic senator for a sole labor endorsement is something to pause and reflect on. Think about it. The first thing that comes to your mind when you think about McGinn is no longer the Sierra Club, is it? It's the grocery workers and his seeming connection to the national living-wage movement. This is not your 2009 McGinn. Oh, he's still got the Cascade Bicycle Club and the Sierra Club and the green urban planners hyping him—and get him talking about the environment and saving the planet for his children and he still gets misty—but he's also got the hotel maids and the grocery workers and the machinists.

In 2009, McGinn stitched together a coalition of greens and anti-tax grumps; this year he appears to be putting together a more powerful one—basically, two mainstay blocs of the Democratic Party: the blues and the greens.

Very cool, but how'd he do it? Standing behind the City Council's paid sick leave ordinance helped—though, as we noted in Fizz this morning, that ordinance, curiously, gives unionized businesses the option to bargain that right away.

This key move, which recast McGinn, wasn't just a cosmetic one. In order to go blue, he had to sacrifice the green.

Really, what solidified McGinn's new image as a Woody Guthrie Democrat as opposed to a Michael Pollan Democrat, was his big stand against the Whole Foods development in West Seattle last July (see the mayor's letter).

But this key move, which recast McGinn, wasn't just a cosmetic one. In order to go blue, he had to sacrifice the green.

The City Council and the city's transportation department are in charge of granting Whole Foods its permit or not; the standard criteria are here, but focus primarily on land use issues.

Sounding a little loopy, sort of like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas and his "penumbras," McGinn—"Based on review of the details of this project through the lens of these values"—decided that good wages were the key "public benefit" that should determine whether or not the Whole Foods development should go through.

"Public benefit" is definitely one of the criteria, though it's not clearly defined. The city simply requires that a development seeking an alley vacation permit like Whole Foods must create a "long-term benefit for the general public"—a requirement that is bookended by two other criteria about land use and the environment, which are subsequently spelled out at length in the code with rules and regs about topography, parking, curb cuts, bikes, peds, and traffic circulation.

It's these types of elements that used to guide McGinn's thinking. And on that score, the Whole Foods proposal seems to fit with McGinn's 2009 goal of building green communities and "complete streets," focusing on density and transit oriented development (TOD). Apparently, though, it doesn't jibe with his 2013 election-year pro-union persona.

Check out the plan, which would put the Whole Foods (and apartments) at the site of what is currently a funeral home, a gas station, and a car lot: On the density and TOD front, the project will add 370 apartments along SW Alaska Street, adjacent to several transit lines (including a Rapid Ride stop); they will widen Fauntleroy Way SW to add a new five-foot bike lane; add 65,000 square feet of street-level retail space, activating the sidewalks Jane Jacobs-style; turn 40th Ave. SW into a "green street" (wide sidewalks, traffic calming infrastructure); and build a ped-friendly throughway between 40th and Fauntleroy with a new park on the west side.

In addition to his complaint about livable wages, McGinn did make a gesture to his green roots. But, given the facts on the ground, failed.

In his letter, he wrote: "The particularly large footprint of the anchor tenant, and its orientation within this proposed development, does not support" the city's goal of pedestrian-friendly development. "Moreover, the pedestrian-oriented mid block connector called for … exists but has been diminished by the plan for access by truck delivery for the large grocer."

One look at the plan itself, though, makes it clear that those objections are purely perfunctory. The proposed Whole Foods, at 40,000 square feet, is the same size as the Whole Foods in South Lake Union—a development McGinn signed off on that (unlike car lots and funeral homes) generates a ton of pedestrian traffic. (The hip urbanist downtown Target, meanwhile, is nearly 100,000 square feet.)

And the "orientation [of the Whole Foods] within this proposed [West Settle] development" was planned specifically with pedestrian access in mind: The Whole Foods would have an entrance on both Alaska, where people will be walking to and from the RapidRide stop, and on 40th, the new green street.

As for the truck access: It's tucked away in the middle of the block, as opposed to major streets where more people will be walking; and trucks will be making deliveries in the early morning, not throughout the day—because that's how a grocery store works. 

Meanwhile, Whole Foods claims the starting wage at its West Seattle store will be around $11 an hour, about two dollars higher than Washington state's $9.19 minimum, which calls into question whether or not McGinn was truly concerned about wages or just grandstanding against a non-union shop as a sop to UFCW, which endorsed him and spent $15,000 on a new pro-McGinn independent expenditure.

You can start wading into our coverage of last July's Whole Foods controversy: here, here, here, here, and here.

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