For Seattle's District Five (North Seattle), sidewalks, a seemingly mundane public amenity, are a hot political issue. Consequently, the two contenders in the North Seattle race—pastor and homelessness advocate Sandy Brown and Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and tribal attorney—are in something of a sidewalk brawl.
It’s no secret that North Seattle is a pedestrian nightmare, particularly when it comes to basic infrastructure. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, sixty-eight percent of District Five’s city block faces are without sidewalks, with only a meager thirty-two percent paved for use by people. (SDOT spokesperson Marybeth Turner estimates that a single block face of sidewalk costs anywhere between $250,000 to $350,000.)
Turner attributes the District Five sidewalk shortage to the historical mishmash of scattered sidewalk development. According to Turner, in the 1940’s and 50’s, when developers were parceling up swaths of newly annexed land in Northeast Seattle and weren't required to build sidewalks under the standards of unincorporated King County (current city land use code requires private development projects to include sidewalks).
Both Brown and Juarez have raised the signature North Seattle issue numerous times at forums. But it's Brown who is campaigning on a specific plan.
Brown recommends creating local improvement districts (LIDs) to pay for sidewalks. LIDs are a taxing mechanism where property owners in any given area can vote to tax themselves to pay for new infrastructure. The logic being: the upgrade will increase property values, covering the cost of the investment. LIDs require a majority of property owners to give the thumbs up. Last year, the city considered creating a downtown LID to help fund the waterfront revamp. The University District Business Improvement Area utilizes a somewhat similar funding strategy as well, though it gives property owners, whose individual property is equal to 60 percent of the total valuation of all property in the district, final say in whether a progressive property tax will be enacted.
Brown's LID would would chop up North Seattle into individual taxation districts to fund additional sidewalk development. The residents of these districts (both renters and property owners) would vote democratically on enacting localized property taxes to fund more pedestrian-friendly pavement. The plan is still in the strictly campaign rhetoric conceptual stage (Brown hasn’t drawn a mock-up map indicating where he thinks the various LID boundaries should be), but Brown maintains that LID’s are the best way to address District Five’s chronic sidewalk shortage.
He’s big on the facts that LID’s would be democratic (he called the concept “democracy at its best”) and could also force property owners—whose property values benefit from improvement to public amenities and infrastructure like sidewalks—to have “some skin in the game.”
“The property owner is going to get a increase in valuation by virtue of having a sidewalk in front of his or her house,” Brown told PubliCola. "It’s not as though it’s money out of their pockets and they [property owners] wouldn’t necessarily recapture."
Juarez criticizes Brown’s LID plan, telling us it unfairly favors wealthier neighborhoods in District Five who can afford to tax themselves to pay for much-needed sidewalks.
“While I wouldn’t completely reject the idea of funding sidewalks through Local Improvement Districts, I do have serious concerns regarding their potential negative impact on lower income people, working families and seniors,” Juarez wrote. “Sidewalks can cost well over $100,000 a block to build and some of our community members may not easily be able to pay a sizable new property tax in addition to the (very worthwhile) Move Seattle levy and the Sound Transit 3 package.”
She also said it wasn’t a comprehensive district-wide solution. “I don’t think that’s [LIDs] a realistic plan because it seems scattered and patchwork.”
While Juarez’s critique of Brown’s LIDs was specific, her alternative is a little vague. She says she supports imposing developer impact fees to pay for sidewalks, in addition to pushing to ensure that District Five receives the “lion’s share” of funding designated for sidewalks within SDOT’s budget and the Move Seattle levy, prioritizing blocks near schools, senior centers, and densely populated areas. Essentially, she wants to raid the budget on multiple fronts for a comprehensive, District-wide investment in sidewalks. “There is supposed to 150 blocks of sidewalk development available under the Mayor’s Move Seattle plan. I plan on being on top of that,” Juarez says.
Brown says the LID boundaries would be drawn in a way to avoid segregating less affluent neighborhoods. “It really comes to the question of what are the boundaries of the neighborhoods and her assumption is that we would preserve or we would create neighborhoods that would ghettoize poorer people … that’s not the way we would want to do it,” he says. “Until details like that are worked out it’s not a legitimate criticism.” (It’s a good comeback, though making sure the LID’s incorporate both affluent and non-affluent neighborhoods might require some tricky gerrymandering. Brown also said that during his campaign door-knocking, he’s found that support for additional sidewalks among residents of single family homes is roughly split fifty-fifty, implying that there may be some resistance to further taxation.)
Of Juarez’s proposal, Brown said “I don’t see anything new there.” He also supports utilizing SDOT and levy money for sidewalk improvements, but would like to see those funds go towards heavily trafficked arterials. “Arterials are different in my mind because that’s about getting people to needed facilities and amenities. That’s where the highest pedestrian danger is as well.”