Mayor Mike McGinn said his recommendation to deny a street vacation request in the West Seattle Whole Foods development was intended to start “a robust discussion.”
Mission accomplished. The controversy, now two weeks old, has roiled business circles, providing a template for how to (sorry, Dale Carnegie) lose friends and influence an election.
Shorter version: in mid-July, McGinn recommended denying vacation of a city-owned alley critical to the long-planned redevelopment of the former Huling Bros. property because Whole Foods, the anchor tenant, doesn’t pay its workers enough. Longer: He made up new city land-use policy to win support from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which immediately endorsed him.
The state chapter of the national commercial real estate development association NAOIP sent a protest letter to the Seattle City Council, saying McGinn’s decision “defies Seattle’s regulatory requirements” and sets the city on “an untested and dangerous path,” according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. The chapter’s local government affairs chairman, Donald Marcy, donated $500 to McGinn’s leading challenger, state Sen. Ed Murray, the day McGinn made the recommendation.
McGinn’s play also seriously ticked off one-time supporter David Meinert, a Seattle entertainment entrepreneur. Meinert (who donated to McGinn’s campaign in 2009 and to the McGinn-backed tunnel petition in 2011) contributed $700 to Murray on July 23.
The next day, Meinert, as first reported by Publicola, emailed a blistering critique of McGinn’s “political insanity” to the city council (which has ultimate authority on alley vacation issue):
The mayor’s actions seem purely political and fly in the face of creating a friendly culture for opening new small businesses in Seattle. The project followed a process and was approved at every step. To then have a permit denied in order to get votes, endorsements and donations in an elections year is insane politics.
As a business owner, and someone wanting to open more businesses in Seattle, it terrifies me to know the permit process is completely unreliable and that even if my project meets every code and is properly moved through the permitting process, it could be denied for purely political reasons.
Meinert told me he backed Murray because of Murray’s work in the Legislature, and the donation and his email aren’t related. But his objection stands, because McGinn’s position throws predictability in the permitting process out the window. “I can’t predict I’m going to get a permit. And if I can’t predict I’m going to get my permit, I’m not going to start it,” Meinert said.
He agrees with me that McGinn’s decision appears linked to the grocery workers’ union endorsement, creating a perception that land-use decisions are made for political purposes. “That’s a really scary proposition for business,” said Meinert. “It really allows for corruption of the process.”
That was also McGinn opponent Peter Steinbrueck’s take. The city can demand a public benefit in exchange for an alley or street vacation, but that is usually tied to infrastructure, said Steinbrueck, who estimates he heard 20 or 30 street vacation requests while on the city council. For example, Children’s Hospital agreed to build a connection to the Burke-Gilman trail as part of its vacation request.
But with the Whole Foods project, public benefit is being redefined, without any public debate, as a living wage. If a city living wage had been a priority for McGinn, why is this being raised now, four years into his term, amid a hot election, aligned with a political backer?
“It would be without precedent,” said Steinbrueck. “The onus on the city is to strive to be fair an equitable and minimize uncertainties, especially when it affects jobs and the economy, which is what we’re supposed to be talking about here.”