Something wicked this way comes, and its coming is foretold in a seemingly innocuous grant application filed by the Mayor just last week. In many ways, everything we have written about over the last year has culminated in this story. Improper influence of a select group of private interests in City policy making, wasteful City spending, the hijacking of Winslow Tomorrow , double speak and lack of transparency by the City, withholding of information from City Council and a complete disregard of community priorities have all played a role in the City’s latest attempt to reanimate the corpse of Winslow Tomorrow.
Streetscape Lives!Even before the current global economic crisis, back when our own local financial woes were first, and finally, being disclosed, it was understood that the Winslow Tomorrow Streetscape was dead. With no money to fund critical road repairs and other important community priorities, the Administration announced that the only portion of the project that would go forward would be “a barebones utility project”. Even that simple replacement of the three utilities deemed inadequate or failing by City staff and consultants has remained highly controversial due to the lack of Winslow Way property owner participation in costs, the question of whether a lesser fix would suffice and the disproportionate burden that will be placed on 2,200 utility ratepayers.
The City Administration, with the help of four Councilpersons (Peters, Snow, Stoknes and Franz), has nonetheless continued to press forward with the utility project, calling it the “highest priority capital project” on the Island. They have argued that it is a matter of public safety and that it must go forward regardless of our financial circumstances. Why then is this “barebones” “emergency” utility replacement project – now referred to as the “The Winslow Way Reconstruction Project” – being described in the City’s application for an economic development grant as necessary to “stimulate private reinvestment” in the Core District?
When listing on the grant application which infrastructure improvements will be made during the project, it is not “replacement of failing sewer pipes” that tops the list, but rather “widening sidewalks”. And the list goes on to include other non-essential Winslow Tomorrow-esque elements including “accessibility and intersection functionality” and “enhancing landscaping”.
It would appear that despite the gravity of the City’s financial circumstances, having cited the need to cut funding for most community priorities, having co-opted the federal funds awarded to another decade old public safety project – Wing Point Way – and planning to hit utility rate payers with as much as a 44% rate increase, the Administration is still pursuing funds to “enhance the livability and vitality of Winslow Way”, and is doing so in the name of downtown revitalization.
The Phantoms of Winslow Way
City staff and officials have long dismissed as improbable citizen concerns that Winslow Tomorrow projects and zoning changes will result in an imminent and radical redevelopment of Winslow Way. Throughout the process, planning staff have successfully calmed any such fears raised before the Planning Commission with repeated reassurances that such redevelopment will not happen overnight and will not result in an urban canyon of three-story (or taller) mixed-use buildings along our Main Street. Yet the City now argues that not only will Winslow Way soon be the epicenter of a massive redevelopment effort, but that we must use City (and State, and Federal, and utility rate payer) funds to ensure its success.
The Mayor’s argument for the Economic Development District (EDD) grant is that we want to direct new growth into Winslow. The City argues that our Comprehensive Plan mandates this and that our “growth strategy goals cannot be accomplished without significant improvements to the existing infrastructure of downtown” – failing to recognize, of course, that such growth could be directed elsewhere in Winslow such as along Madison, High School Road, SR305 or the Government Way property.
Why the myopic focus on Winslow Way? Why threaten to destroy our community’s small town sense of place with the prospect of three-story plus mixed-use buildings when there are far more appropriate locations for such structures? And why not heed the voice of the community that has been so vocal about the sanctity of our Main Street and which ranked “downtown planning” as 30th out of 32 community priorities on the City’s own survey?
The answer is clear in the City’s responses on the grant application, which only verify what many have suspected for years – that the interests of two private corporations have dictated downtown policy and planning for at least the last two years, if not longer. These responses clearly show that the true impetus for the proposed Winslow Way utility upgrades is to facilitate redevelopment planned by Town and Country Markets and Haggar-Scribner LLC.
Apparently the City, which has long feigned ignorance of the extent and timing of these planned redevelopment projects, is intimately familiar with many of the key details. According to the grant application, Haggar-Scribner Properties, which has now reportedly accumulated at least seven contiguous parcels over the last few years, and which now controls half the land on the north side of the heart of Winslow Way, has shared a “redevelopment proposal” with the City. The proposal includes an expanded clinic, retail services, office space, housing and “associated parking” for an estimated cost of $40-60 million. Across the street, Town and Country Markets plan to invest $20-30 million in their own expansion project.
When were the details and timelines of these plans communicated to the City? Under what circumstances? Certainly not in the public eye. According to our sources, representatives from these two entities and their supporters have met privately with City staff and officials countless times over the last several years. They have served on committees, advocated for zoning changes and were central figures in Winslow Tomorrow. They were the impetus behind the doomed parking garage study that we will be paying interest on for many years to come. Even when not physically present, their influence has been a constant pressure on the City Council and Planning Commission as City staff, the recently departed editor of our local paper of record and other advocates for Downtown redevelopment have repeatedly raised the spectre of “losing our anchor tenants if you don’t act now”.
The Monster that Ate Winslow
The cruel hypocrisy that has followed this project from its inception is the City’s claim, repeated in the current grant application, that Streetscape improvements and subsequent redevelopment will help us retain our small local businesses. In fact, the application argues that this project is “critical” to retaining them. But as Rod Stevens, a development consultant who specializes in revitalization, and many others have argued, those small businesses not killed off by the Streetscape construction itself will surely perish under the inevitable increases in rent that will follow redevelopment.
Another twisted irony is the City’s argument on the grant application that grant funds will help offset painful utility rate increases for Winslow residents. This creative response to the question of how the project will “significantly benefit an area experiencing or threatened with substantial economic distress” was less than forthright given the fact that it is the City itself that has chosen to charge the bulk of the project to those households unfortunate enough to be served by City utilities, while giving a free ride to Winslow Way property owners.
The City never directly addresses the issue of benefiting property owners’ financial participation – or lack thereof – in the project, though it does cite “private donations” as a portion of the necessary local matching funds. But this references the $1 million that Winslow Way property owners have offered to pay, not for any portion of the "necessary" utility replacements, but for the aesthetic improvement of under grounding power lines.
What then are the City’s sources for matching local funds? The City cites: “Utility revenue, the City’s general fund, state grant funds, federal grant funds and private donations.” The utilities currently have no reserve funds, so this money will come in the form of utility bonds that have yet to be issued. The general fund, by all accounts, is at best 100% encumbered, and at worst in the red, so any “general fund” money will come from future Councilmanic Debt that would have to be successfully issued on the current municipal bond market. It’s hard to imagine how other state and federal grants could be counted as local matching funds, especially if they each require local matching funds as well.
Death by Omission
While the Administration might successfully defend some of its less than accurate statements as standard grant writing spin, there’s no escaping the glaring omissions and misstatements in its response to the application question on “Community Support”. The application asks the applicant to describe “community involvement in and support for the project”. Not only does the City’s response fail to mention anything about the long and vocal opposition to the Streetscape project and the larger vision it advances (including two petitions signed by more than a thousand citizens), but it mischaracterizes the entire Winslow Tomorrow process.
Apparently it was not enough to claim that the process resulted in a plan that embraced large-scale redevelopment, which it did not. Now the endeavor is described as having been formed by “a group of citizens interested in the re-development potential of the downtown area”. Tell that to the dozens of citizens who thought they were working on a plan to limit the impact of “inevitable” growth on their community.
What is the ultimate goal of the Mayor, her Administration and the Councilors that support her in pursuing the redevelopment of Winslow Way? A wise citizen once asked why, if the underlying motivation is a desire to increase City revenues, we do not have an open and honest conversation about that. Perhaps it is because the type of development that is projected for downtown is primarily residential. A developer’s return on urban multistory mixed-use projects lies in the condos on the upper floors. The retail space below is practically an afterthought. In order to fill that retail space with successful tax paying tenants, there must be demand.
The City’s application claims that retail space is in short supply, but in fact vacancies abound. The City claims that our community will need an additional 350,000 square feet of retail space by 2025. That would be equivalent to more than the total square footage of Seattle's Pacific Place, or three and a half Safeway Shopping centers. Given that there is little danger of Costco, Target or Home Depot relocating to the Island, it doesn’t take an urban planner to realize that those projections are absurd.
The fact is that an overwhelming majority of Island citizens, who may or may not agree on the inevitability or desirability of growth generally, do not want growth directed onto Winslow Way. Given current economic conditions, it's safe to assume that an overwhelming majority would also agree that now is not the time for big capital projects of any kind. Unfortunately, now is an ideal time for the City to slip past the community any number of unpopular policy changes or project approvals. The drama of an intense national election and economic crisis has the full attention of the community and the Holidays are around the corner. We must nonetheless find a way to awaken the silent majority. If we fail, this nightmare is sure to become our reality.
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