Patrick Robinson
Famous West Seattle resident, Jim Whittaker, who lent his name to the project proposed for 4755 Fauntleroy Way S.W. spoke before a crowded Seattle City Council chamber meeting of the Transportation Committee. It was their task to take public comment on the project and make a decision on approving an 'alley vacation' meaning the project could go ahead or not. They chose to delay the decision until April 8.

City Council committee delays Whittaker/Whole Foods decision until April 8

Public comments reveal how politicized the project has become

In a packed Seattle City Council chamber on March 11, hundreds of onlookers listened to nearly three hours of the pros and cons of the Whittaker/Whole Foods project proposed for 4755 Fauntleroy Way S.W.

It was up to the Transportation Committee of the council to decide to approve a requested 'alley vacation' to permit the project to go ahead or not. In the end, the committee chose to defer the decision until April 8 when they meet again. But the hours that led up to the decision had their moments. The comments made revealed how politicized the process has become and those both for and against seemed to not be addressing the issues the others were bringing up.

You can watch the entire proceedings online here. Click on Transportation Committee.

Chairperson Tom Rasmussen, who lives in West Seattle played a robo call phone message recorded by Deb Barker he got the night before from the group, Getting it Right for West Seattle that, as part of its message urged him to "Call Tom Rasmussen," which drew laughs from the crowd.

Then the committee took comments from those who had signed up to speak.

On the pro side of the development everyone from Tracy Dart to the famous Jim Whittaker rose to deliver their allotted two minutes of support.
The focus of those favoring the project was essentially that the current site is a blight on the community and that the project will bring jobs, housing, and economic revitalization to West Seattle. They spoke in praise of Whole Foods. Those against talked about income inequality and concerns about traffic, personal safety and walkability.

Their comments follow:

Deb Barker, who is member of the coalition opposing the alley vacation and favoring alternate proposals said, "I am not a NIMBY. I want this prime West Seattle intersection to be well developed," explaining that she was also talking about the public benefits included in the plan. "In my opinion these purported public benefits are insignificant and inappropriate when you compare the size and scale of this project..."

She listed the voluntary building setback noting that there is 6.5 feet on Fauntleroy Way S.W., 3 feet on Alaska Street and 8.5 feet on 40th S.W. "but all of those voluntary setbacks they extend back over the voluntary setback area on floors two through six. We lose the set back in the upper level. Is a ground floor setback worth a public benefit?"

Barker mentioned the "mid-block connector" (the source of a lot of contention and conjecture from both sides) required by the neighborhood plan that would essentially take the place of the current alley and allow both pedestrians and delivery trucks access to the rear of the planned Whole Foods store. "Who gets to use it? All of the 600 cars going in and out of the parking garage. All of the daily 30 plus trucks. All of the delivery vehicles for the over 300 units oh and yes the pedestrians, they do get eight feet of that area for a sidewalk but it kind of bisects the loading dock access. Which public is this benefitting? Is it benefitting the developer? Or is it benefitting the pedestrian? In some ways this alley vacation sets terrible precedents, it wastes our public land for profit."

Sharon Meeks is the co-chair of the SW District Council and spoke for the project and talked about the lengthy nature of the process so far and mentioned the fact that the West Seattle Triangle plan has been fully vetted. She said, "I'm anxious to have this project move forward. We cannot wait any longer. We could lose anywhere from three to five years and an excellent developer with a reputation who can bring it to fold."

Steve Williamson spoke against the project and used a "bucket" metaphor to spell out why. " There are four buckets of reasons to vote no on giving away our public property under this proposal. Bucket one, public benefit. The SDOT report does not recommend granting a street vacation. Instead it leaves it to determine whether the public benefit of this proposal is adequate. It's a very rare SDOT departure from the norm of recommending nearly every street vacation. How can you determine whether public benefits are enough today, absent a full investigation of your own?... Bucket two land use including safety. You are about to hear many land use reasons to vote no but certainly one of the most important is that this proposal is unsafe precisely because it does not conform to community based planning. The mid block connector, which some call the mid block collider, is inherently unsafe and if flies squarely in the face of the community developed triangle plan that calls for a pedestrian oriented passageway. Bucket three is lack of community input. The street vacation review process is broken. Our attorney provided letters both in the middle of the process and a summary afterward about how there has never been an adequate give and take consistent with our shared values of openness and opportunity for public discourse....Bucket four is public interest. Giving public property to private interests either will advance the economic welfare of our communities or it will hurt them. Not examining that impact is simply abrogating your responsibility to protect us, the public. The public outcry for addressing income inequality has intensified exponentially and failing to consider the public interest such as whether it destroys good jobs when permanently giving away our public property is an increasingly narrow, naive and frankly i suggest negligent proposition. We continue to assert that the Council has the authority within existing ordinances and the obligation to consider the public interest when giving away our public property. Absent the conclusive legal opinion that you cannot consider public interest a no vote is the only responsible response.

Jim Whittaker spoke in favor of the namesake project. As one of West Seattle's most famous residents (he was the first American to climb Mt. Everest) and was one of the founders of REI, he lent his name to this development. He spoke of his West Seattle background and of his love for this area. He said, "This building will represent a lot of nature," and described how the early REI has now been replaced by a "Huge, huge building in its place. That happens. It's growth. This building grew and so did REI. It's a two billion dollar corporation now, so it's progress..." concluding with "Let's get out of base camp and climb this mountain." That last remark drew applause from the crowd.

Dr. Sharon Sutton, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Washington who was contracted to draw up "alternative" designs by the opposition group spoke next. She discussed three points. "The first of which is to reiterate the unusual decision by SDOT not to recommend on the public benefits, suggesting that they need further vetting. So I'm simply asking you to allow time for further discussion of what constitutes a public benefit." Her second point was ,"to advocate for my favorite public benefits, the first one of which is a beautifully designed building. This is a very important block at the end of a street that diagonally cuts across the West Seattle fabric from the bridge carrying 40,000 cars. Looking at this site it intersects with another street that historically brought people into the area via street car. It's an important block that deserves a well designed iconic building that can serve as a landmark for the area." She went on to say she favors a "pedestrian environment on Alaska which as a matter of fact has a pedestrian overlay. The proposed project has the retail either four feet above the street or six to seven feet below the street, depending on where you are. That's not pedestrian friendly. I'd like to see shops that open out on to the street." She also noted that SDOT made the recommendation that the building "go back to the full design commission for review."

Clark Bowen who used to work for the Huling Bros. car dealership once operated there and who is now a businessman with his own company Seabee's Nuts said, "Whole Foods was responsible for the beginning of my business," and talked about how Whole Foods has helped his and other businesses get off the ground.

Claudia Newman, a land use attorney at Bricklin and Newman and spoke about land use impacts. She said that the SDOT recommendation given to the committee was, "missing some key items of public input that we attempted to inform the design commission of and SDOT. The SDOT recommendation concludes that there are no adverse impacts related to the mid-block connector," and that it can "provide a safe and functional private street." She said that SDOT's comment "relies entirely on the Transpos study, the Transportation Impact Analysis that was submitted." She said that it "was not the final say on the issue. We submitted a considerable amount of information that contradicts those conclusions," noting that it was submitted with a letter last May. Newman explained that "SDOT concluded that there are no adverse land use impacts associated with the proposal. The analysis in the recommendation did not support that conclusion. There was a clear disconnect. The neighborhood plan envisioned a pedestrian connection through the block. It did not anticipate a vehicle connection...The primary function of the mid block connector as it's proposed by the applicant is to serve as a service corridor for cars and trucks. The entrance to the parking lot is located there and an enormous loading dock is located in that so this is not a pedestrian corridor this is a service corridor for the grocery store.

Denise Braley spoke for it noting she is a forager for Whole Foods and read a statement from Jeff Miller a farmer who is from Monroe, Washington. He produces organic salad mix for the grocery chain and was able to expand with the help of the company. She said Miller noted that the impact of Whole Foods on local farmer's markets and other areas businesses. did not diminish business but in fact increased it since it brought it more people.

Natasha West Baker read a statement from Ames Rheinhold a West Seattle resident who is a cheese monger and chef at Metropolitan Market. He was injured in an accident on Feb. 25 in the West Seattle Junction. He is a cyclist and said he was "very excited early on about the Triangle plan and its vibrant pro pedestrian, and the pro transit community it will create. As I learned more about this project I was shocked to see how little the developers had considered this very important aspect of the plan. When I heard that the developers needed the approval of the City to develop this project the decision seemed like a no brainer. Of course the City would say no to giving public land to a development that did not honor the community." Noting that he faces future medical challenges he said that, "Firstly this plan takes an already unfriendly pedestrian area and makes it even worse. The exact opposite of what the Triangle plan intended."

A.P. Heard spoke next. She works at Touchstone and teaches at the University of Washington but spoke as a representative of NAIOPthe commercial real estate development association. She spoke in favor of the alley vacation. "I understand that on this project the developer is providing $2.4 million in public benefit and more open space that what was in the original alley. From personal experience Touchstone is developing a project in the Troy block which did not have an alley but is a super block and we have been able to do some really creative things with the public space there. Sometimes you can make more interesting buildings and better public spaces if you don't have all of your open space in a bar in the center of the project and there's more room for creativity. I've always understood that the thought behind the alley vacation process was that if it resulted in a better space for the public and a better project that those were the conditions of getting the alley vacation. Certainly pedestrians need to be taken care of but I'm not sure if every decision about pedestrian safety needs to rise to the Seattle City Council. There should be guidelines for that and they should be predictable. This is especially important because if we want to have not just big developers in this city but small and medium size local developers, people need more predictable process. It seems to me we're like on the fringe of doing the opposite here. Taken to the extreme I've understood that some of the concerns here are about Whole Foods being a non-union retailer. If you take that to its logical conclusion you could wind up with projects that get approval based on the contingency of who the tenant is going to be in the project. You can't have a city that's got every building ear marked with a specific list of allowed and not allowed tenants. So, I would ask for a predictable and consistent land use process and that it be applied to this project as well.

Tracy Champion urged the committee to vote no on the alley vacation. She spoke as a grocery business employee and said of the deliveries planned for the Whole Foods store that the number the store claimed was, "not correct especially since they are a specialty store. She made a visit to the Roosevelt Whole Foods store and sat outside from 5am to 2pm with a camera for two days. "On the first day I counted seven tractor trailers. 32 box trucks, 14 vans, five other delivery vehicles for a total of 57 deliveries and that was only until 2pm. On the next day it was four tractor trailers and their numbers don't add up to what is really going on. While I was there I witnessed tractor trailers pulling up on sidewalks, blocking the whole road. Pedestrians having to walk around the trucks to try to walk on the sidewalk. I saw them parking in the street, lining up at the loading dock to try to wait for the truck that's unloading to be able to unload themselves. This was happening multiple times a day." She had previously submitted a report on her findings. "If they are misleading us on how many deliveries they are getting, what else are they misleading us on? That alleyway is supposed to be for pedestrians. When you have delivery trucks coming in and out all hours it's not safe for people. Try a person against a big semi. It just doesn't work.

Gordon McHenry Jr. President and CEO of Solid Ground an organization working to end poverty and racisim, spoke to the committee.
He spoke about their work in West Seattle which he said was dependent on both public funding and corporate partners like Whole Foods with whom they've had a partnership since 2009, calling it their "most comprehensive partnership."
They received more than $48,000 from Whole Foods in 2013.

Jim Gunther spoke against the project. Gunther is a former Director of Public Works for King County and a Director of Strategic Management for Washington State Dept. of Transportation. He said the "mid block connector... is supposed to be pedestrian driven. It is not. It is all for vehicle traffic and is a major emphasis in this plan. You mix people and talk about turning trucks in there and talk about objections, you do not provide adequate safety provisions. You have landscaping there. If any of you have ever driven a truck, try and drive a truck and put it in that mid way connector without either going over the curbs or hitting the landscapes. There's plenty of places in Seattle where I can show you where that activity takes place. Tracy already gave you pictures of what happened at Whole Foods in the other location. Second, this mid block connector that's going to have vehicles in it sits right in the thoroughfare that goes to the Washington State Ferries. I was amazed there was no comments. I asked the Washington State Dept. of Transportation if they had any reaction to that. That street at one time was owned by the State of Washington... You cannot turn a truck in that area in the right hand lane into that slot. If you co-mingle pedestrians with trucks, you have a severe legal liability.

Susan Livingston, who works for Whole Foods said they have gotten hundreds of emails and she brought two to read, the first from Thomas Fender, "I'm in 100% favor of the alley vacation and development of the Whole Foods complex in West Seattle. This project is in line with the Triangle Development plan that was created for this neighborhood." Desiree Gibson wrote," your new project in West Seattle has stirred up a bit of controversy by a group who are posing as concerned citizens. Unfortunately these are not really concerned citizens but rather union representatives." She offered her support of the project.

Sean Turgeson who lives nearby the site spoke about the Triangle Project and its original goals. "One of the most important points to them was the pedestrian corridor that connects the Triangle to the Junction...The important point is that West Seattle is going to have 300% of the density that we agreed to in the comprehensive plan so we are going to be a very, very, very urban neighborhood. The way that you have a vibrant urban neighborhood is you get people out on the street, walking. The Triangle Plan called for the pedestrian oriented commercial street with vibrant retail." He referred to a photo of Alaska Street as it exists now and described where the other local grocery stores are located. "This is the ugliest block in West Seattle. There is nothing to engage pedestrians on the street." Then he noted the Spruce building across the street. "Again, the Alaska Street side, no entrances, no interest to pedestrians whatsoever." He pointed out that the plan as it now exists offers, "a door at one end and a door at the other end of the block and a dead zone for pedestrians."

Dave Montoure, owner of West 5 restaurant and former Chamber of Commerce President, said, "This process has been very politicized and it hurts me as an individual to spend so much volunteer time trying to improve my neighborhood to see how this whole process has been hijacked by politics. I urge you to consider the noise and distraction. Let's put that behind us and vote on this hearing today. I wanted to remind you that 80% of this project is housing. Housing that we need in the City of Seattle. I also wanted to remind you that retail tenants do change. Just because we have a tenant in the building now doesn't mean they are going to be there for the life of that building." Montoure noted that his own location has served many purposes.

Sandra Adams spoke on behalf of wine store Bin 41 owner T. Frick McNamara whose background is in landscape architecture and who sits on the S.W. Design Review Board. She's wrote that, "I was the member that did not vote to approve it due to fundamental design issues that did not adequately meet the intent of the design guidelines." She noted however she was sharing her views not as a board member but as a West Seattle resident and from the perspective of an urban designer. She wrote, "According to the Triangle Plan we should be creating a viable, appropriately scaled gateway space, the new mid block connector should be pedestrian focused not vehicular dominated. We need to create a vibrant pedestrian oriented commercial street along Alaska. In summary I urge the commission to deny the alley vacation..."

Nancy Woodland, Chair of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Exec. Dir. of Westside Baby in White Center spoke in favor of the project. She mentioned that the Chamber had submitted a letter in support of the project. "As the Chamber of Commerce our focus is on the economic vitality of the West Seattle peninsula," she said. "I've personally participated in almost every single meeting of the design review board and all of the processes leading up to this project. I've had the opportunity to speak directly to developers and ask very hard questions and I've had my questions answered. I believe that adjustments have been made along the way. I have reviewed and walked down the alley in question. I've walked by it for 12 or 13 years with kids in strollers and on bikes. I know exactly where this alley is. It's a blight. You can't combine the alley as it currently is with cars and walkability and I think that it should be vacated and the mid block connector is a vast improvement. I also believe that this developer is working very hard to add other increased public benefits." Woodland went on to note the developer plans to improve the sidewalk width, the "look of an atrocious corner," noted setback enhancements and said that the open spaces are "places I would want to sit and be outside."

Robbie Stern, Pres. of Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action mentioned he had a letter signed by 20 organizations opposed to the City's approval of the alley vacation. He spoke about the "crisis of income inequality," and noted that Whole Foods would be competing with eight other area grocery stores including two that are "home grown" that offer health care, benefits and pension. He noted that the "President of Whole Foods was one of the most prominent spokespeople against health care reform," and said that for employees of the store, "scheduling is a nightmare, substandard wages, takes a long time to get the benefits, basically it's going to drive down the standards for people that work in the grocery industry." He challenged the committee members to deal with the issue of income inequality.

Tracy Solona spoke in favor of the alley vacation. She explained as a small business owner she wants to see a more walkable community and looks forward to welcoming new people. "After looking at the plans for the proposed development at the site I feel that what is being planned fits right in which will create a vibrant gateway to West Seattle. The plans are pedestrian friendly and will lead to increased foot traffic for many small businesses in the area. The Whittaker is what West Seattle needs."

Patrick Keating, spoke about the impact on traffic and said that it "has not been studied enough. It will have a huge impact on public transportation, including breaking up some of the stops of the smaller lines that go along Fauntleroy. The bus stops will need to be moved and redone. I don't know if the developers are paying for that. They will certainly be impacted during the construction period." He went on to say that RapidRide across the street will also be affected noting increased traffic will make "crossing the street difficult... much worse." He acknowledged some new development must be accepted but called for further review.

Tracy Dart, well known for her cancer support efforts and a West Seattle resident since 1974 spoke in favor of the project. "I've seen many changes over nearly 40 years. As our neighborhood grows i find it crucial to support developers and businesses that encourage new small businesses." Dart, a business owner herself said she supports a walkable environment. She said it is critical, "we support our community and a developer who is looking out for our neighborhood. I'm willing to get it right for West Seattle. I'm not willing to get it right for a union."

Katie Wilson, General Sec. of the Transit Riders Union. "We are not against development," she said," We know that urban density is a good thing and it is the future. We're fully supportive of development that is in the interests of the people who live and work in the city....What we do not support and what we will fight against is development that is not in the interests of the people of Seattle but only in the interests of contractors, developers and corporations that stand to profit from it." She went on to say that living wages were under stress from recent development and that housing was too expensive as a result. The development going on in Seattle she said makes it harder for smaller businesses and makes us "more dependent on cars."

Martin Monk, representing the Masons, whose meeting hall is just adjacent to the property under consideration said, they've been "resident for 64 years" and that "alley that does exist today has been our private driveway." They don't oppose the development. "We are living in a block that looks horrible, hideous. It's blight on the community. Something needs to be done. He acknowledged he didn't know if it was a great design but that "progress is relevant." He said he is working with the developers.

Pauline Bentsas of the Transit Riders Union said, "I saw this happen in Ballard a generation ago where blocks of houses were transformed into apartments and suddenly there was no place for anybody to park and the traffic got really bad. Finally the community rebelled and said 'whoa, wait a sec. Maybe we need to rethink this'. Now I'm also becoming personally involved because in Roosevelt, although I was living in seriously substandard housing, instead of upgrading it and allowing me to stay I was asked to leave. The same thing will probably happen again. Where there was two houses there are now four modular units and a whole bunch of new people that are going to add that much more traffic to the neighborhood. I'm noticing everywhere, especially in West Seattle the transportation grid has trouble because Metro has been forced to cut back there's less bus options. More people are going to probably get in their cars. I don't see how that's as friendly to the neighborhood which has always had a unique flavor. There's a small town atmosphere, there's something like Everett but friendlier I think. It wants to stay small. I'm not anti development. We need all of that but I hope that West Seattle could give people an option. Some people like to live downtown some people would rather have a smaller based type of community..."

Chris Matsumoto, Principal at the Experimental Education unit at the UW rose to speak in favor of the project noting that Whole Foods has been a community partner. He explained the nature of their support of the unit's efforts.

David Parsons spoke against the project as "both a union member and a concerned citizen, it is possible to be both." He is the President of his union UAW local 4121 representing over 4500 academic student employees. He's a West Seattle resident. "As a union we see this through the lens of income inequality. We stand for fair development that promote good jobs with fair wages and help bring about a healthy, thriving community. On this basis we're concerned about the proposal to bring in an employer who has a history of opposing worker organizing. Moreover the proposed workforce housing policy exacerbates the problem, if it provides unaffordable apartments which could drive people further away from their workplaces, strain their incomes and their transportation resources. As student employees we're keenly aware of this type of problem and are concerned about it elsewhere. As a West Seattle resident my partner and I frequent the Alaska Junction area and we've been frankly a little confused by the introduction of yet another grocery store, particularly since there are so many local organic, sustainable food options provided at stores nearby that do have good living wage protected jobs. Again all the more troubling is the consideration of giving up public land for a development like this..."

Joe Rogoth, Regional President of Whole Foods spoke last, and in favor of the development. He's a Seattle resident. "We've been wanting to be in West Seattle for a long time as you know. We've had a site there many years ago, the developer could not finalize it. We continue to get lots of calls, lots of emails from residents who desire us to be there. There are a couple of things I want to specifically address this morning with you. There's been a lot said about Whole Foods market over the past year and much of it is false. I want to clear up as much of that as I can. First, our wages and benefits. First of all I don't believe you should judge a project on the wages and benefits of a particular tenant. It's an unusual precedent and one that I don't think is relevant. I'm happy to participate with the city on any discussion about living wages or minimum wages. I believe in the highest wages possible for our team members and for everyone, I'd be happy to help in that effort. Our wages and benefits are now public record because I shared them with you in the past. We start at $11 an hour which is higher than any except PCC. We cap for non management wages at $29.50 an hour the highest of any grocer. Our average wage for a second year employee is $13.10. Our average wage for everybody, non-management is over $17 an hour. We provide great benefits because our team members are responsible for our success. We will create 175 new great wage, great benefit respectful jobs in West Seattle. To say no to this denies that as well as advancement for the team members who are here and desire to grow with this company who continues to add jobs." His remarks drew loud applause from the crowd.

The departments (SDOT, DPD) and applicant (Weingarten Realty) presentations followed the comments and most of the presentations centered around accessibility issues, how to deal with parking on 40th Ave. S.W., traffic flow and discussion about the concerns of the council/committee members regarding the project. You can watch this discussion online at starting about the 78 minute mark. Click on Transportation Committee.

In the end, the committee chose, despite Rasmussens wish to vote for approval, to defer the actual committee vote until they meet again on April 8.

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