Morning Fizz

Morning Fizz: Two Deputy Mayors

Caffeinated news and gossip featuring mayoral hires, district energy, incentive zoning, and education funding.

By Morning Fizz December 11, 2013

1. Mayor-elect Ed Murray is announcing some mayoral staff and city department hires today.

Watch for Murray to name two deputy mayors; we'd heard Murray had tried, but failed, to get popular King County Budget Director (and former Mayor Nickels budget director) Dwight Dively to come on as one of his deputy mayors.

Murray dismissed a few Mayor Mike McGinn department heads late last month, creating openings to head the Department of Transportation, the budget office, the city's lobbying shop, and the Department of Personnel

There's also an immediate opening in the department of housing where director Rick Hooper has announced his retirement.

2. Speaking of city department directors, yesterday, Office of Sustainability & Environment Director Jill Simmons briefed the city council on a project that Fizz (and Seattle Met writer Matt Halverson, evidently) is excited about: district energy.

The urbanist innovation uses "waste heat" and "heat capture" technology—and what Simmons jokingly referred to as "energy voodoo"—to basically recycle and "upcycle" heat from sewer lines ("we have an energy source running right under the street," Simmons said) and server farms in South Lake Union to provide heating and perhaps electricity. 

With opportunities in First Hill and South Lake Union (where data center energy could be converted to heat Amazon offices), Simmons, who's been hyping the project to the council for years, pledged that after a couple of more studies, 2014 was the year the city could begin building the systems.

3. The council's energy and environment committee passed legislation yesterday that will (as we reported in Fizz) effectively require developers downtown to pay the same amount to the city if they want to build more residential density than the current zoning code requires.

Update: The new downtown fee comes with a substantial caveat, however. The way the legislation is written, South Lake Union developments would have a lower "base" after which the new fees would kick in than developments downtown, making downtown more attractive to developers than SLU, critics say.

Quick background: The program, known as incentive zoning, allows developers to build taller, denser buildings if they either build affordable housing or child care on-site or pay a "fee in lieu" of doing so to a city affordable-housing fund.

Earlier this year, the city increased the fee for South Lake Union developments to $21.68 per extra square foot of density, prompting some South Lake Union advocates to argue that downtown, whose fees were lower, should have to pay the same amount.

However, the fix comes with this twist: Say you have two potential developments across the street from each other—one in the South Lake Union zone, one in downtown. Both are allowed to be as tall as 400 feet as long as they pay the required fees. On the South Lake Union side, though, the "base" is 125 feet—meaning that the developer must pay $21.68 for every foot of new density above 125 feet. On the downtown side, the "base" is 290 feet, meaning the $21.68/foot fee only applies above that level.

That differential—275 feet that cost extra money in South Lake Union, compared to 110 feet downtown—is a pretty strong incentive to build downtown instead of in South Lake Union, critics say. 

Committee chair Mike O'Brien says the city's housing director has always had the ability to increase the incentive zoning requirement downtown by the rate of inflation, but never has; this legislation, he says, effectively does so retroactively. "When these programs were originally established, we certainly allowed for inflation adjustments each year—some folks would say it was expected," O'Brien says. "What we did this year was to retroactively do that and make sure there would be inflationary adjustments going forward."

Seattle has a general policy of lowering density gradually outside the downtown core—some call it the "wedding cake" effect. But that raises another question: Why allow 400-foot-tall buildings in South Lake Union if you really want 125-foot buildings?

"It’s fair to say because there are so many unique characteristics of properties in South Lake Union and downtown, to pretend that it’s a truly level playing field—that’s not the case," O'Brien said.

4. The Washington Education Association (the teachers' union) says the alarm bells about losing federal money—that have led to a legislative proposal from state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-1, Bothell) to superimpose state testing standards on local school districts—are inaccurate.

The state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction confirms the WEA's case. With a footnote.

Without McAuliffe's fix (which is backed by Republicans, who were actually pushing for it last year and the year before over Democratic objections) the state would still get the federal money—about $20 million.

However, without meeting the federal mandate (the feds are demanding we go with the state standards), the money—20 percent of our federal grant—would have to be earmarked for private "Supplemental Education Service" providers rather than going directly to local districts' general budgets.   


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