Month: May 2012

Mayor McGrowth

Many people who voted for Mike McGinn to be mayor of Seattle thought they were voting for a green candidate. But his reputation as an environmentalist was based mostly on his campaign stance against building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct; hence, voters mistakenly assumed he was anti-development.

To polish his green credentials, McGinn played up his past as a former state chair of the Sierra Club, a mainstream environmental group known more for its compromises than its activism. He also heavily promoted his chairmanship of the 2008 parks levy campaign and his work to defeat Proposition 1, a state initiative that would have spent millions building new roads in King County while directing only a small portion of its funds to transit.

Often overlooked was McGinn’s past as head of the Greenwood Community Council, where he worked in cooperation with developers, including Triad Development, Harbor Properties, and Vulcan Inc., on neighborhood development priorities.

So it should come as no surprise that McGinn is at it again. Last week, Mayor McGinn presented his jobs proposal to the city council, and it was a wish-list for developers and the building industry.

At the top of the list was a request for the city to allow more businesses in certain neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences. The city council rejected this piece of the proposal, after hearing testimony from neighborhood activists who complained that the neighborhoods listed already contained many small businesses, were already great “walkable” places (a stated goal of the mayor’s proposal), and the mayor had not solicited input from neighborhood groups before proposing these changes.

The mayor’s advisory group that put together the jobs proposal consists of 28 people, 20 of whom are from the building trades (developers, architects, urban planners, etc.) and the other eight are in agreement with Mayor McGinn’s pro-density position. In other words, they are also pro-developer, and some are dismissive or downright hostile to any neighborhood input for urban planning changes.

This attitude is reflected throughout the jobs proposal. It would allow the city to eliminate a layer of environmental review for new buildings of up to 75,000 square feet or with fewer than 200 apartments. It would also remove the requirement to provide parking spaces for housing built near bus lines or other types of transit.

Now, 75,000 square feet is not a small building. For an apartment building with units that average 500 square feet (these are small units in today’s housing market), that would be a building with about 150 apartments. If it had 15 units per floor, that would make it a 10-story building. Likewise, a condominium building with 200 units averaging 600 square feet per unit (again, small units in today’s market) would be 120,000 square feet. These are developments that are high-rise and often take up an entire city block. Removing a layer of environmental review–and, hence, the ability for the public to weigh in on the project–is outrageous.

Pro-density supporters often criticize environmental reviews as a forum for people who own single-family homes to complain about condo projects and big box stores. But environmental reviews address other important issues, including: building heights, light levels, and views; maintaining the historical value of nearby buildings or the character of a neighborhood; providing adequate green space, parks, and sustaining the city’s tree canopy; issues of traffic density and flow; and even the potential for nearby schools and fire departments to handle a sudden increase in area population. All of these issues, many of them environmental ones, would be thrown by the wayside without an environmental review process and neighborhood input.

Mayor McGinn’s pro-density position does have its attractions. Seattle, like most U.S. cities, needs to avoid more sprawl and do something about the serious traffic problems that we already have. But Seattle also needs to consider carefully which parts of the urban area best qualify for taller buildings and more density.

Simultaneously, the city must address inadequate transit funding and availability. King County, which provides bus service in Seattle, has been cutting bus service for budgetary reasons at a time when bus ridership, particularly inside the urban core, has increased dramatically because of the economic downturn and high gas prices. Seattle’s response has been to build an expensive street car line that primarily serves tourists and day-trippers.

The goal of the mayor’s jobs proposal is, of course, to create jobs for the moribund construction industry. However, the mayor presented it to the city council as a way to create more walkable neighborhoods in Seattle similar to Chicago’s neighborhoods.

But let’s think about what makes a great walkable neighborhood. When I recently visited Chicago, I was impressed by its neighborhoods of apartment buildings–most of them were no taller than 6 stories and almost none of them took up an entire city block–near thoroughfares with low-rise, small businesses. In short, these neighborhoods looked a lot like the Broadway neighborhood on Capitol Hill, the Pike/Pine corridor, or the Uptown neighborhood on Queen Anne.

So building more human scale apartment buildings of 5 or 6 stories with small-scale retail at ground level would be reasonable, if the goal truly is to make our neighborhoods more like Chicago’s. But the mayor’s job proposal doesn’t do that. Instead, it gives developers a free ticket to build high-rises.

This is the kind of out-sized growth that everyone should oppose. Developers complain that they can’t make a profit unless they build big and tall, but this is simply not true in a hot rental market (as we have now in Seattle) where the city also gives incentives for building smaller to medium size buildings.

Instead of allowing uncontrolled growth, Seattle needs to reaffirm its commitment to managed growth. The city council must reject the mayor’s jobs proposal, and use this opportunity to come up with a better plan.

Voters Across Europe Oust Conservatives

Four years ago, European governments had to make a choice: do we deal with the economic crisis through more government spending (“stimulus”) or through government budget cuts (“austerity”).

Conservative governments were in power in Britain, France, and Germany. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron pushed through a tough package of austerity measures that matched his conservative party’s ideology that the less government interference in the economy, the better. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy did the same, followed by Angela Merkel in Germany. Although none of these countries had the deep public debts of Greece, Ireland, or Iceland, the problems in those “southern” European countries gave the conservative politicians in the larger European nations an excuse to impose cuts in social welfare programs and pass anti-union legislation.

Last week brought a major pushback from the voters in those countries. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency to Socialist Francoise Hollande who remarked, “Austerity need not be Europe’s fate.” Hollande promised to renegotiate the budget discipline treaty signed by 25 European leaders in March, a treaty that was meant to enshrine the policies that have plunged Europe even deeper into economic recession.

In Britain, local elections on May 3rd brought tremendous gains for the Labour Party, which had it’s best showing since 1997. Labour won 800 seats, while David Cameron’s Conservative Party lost 400 seats, sending his constituency into a uproar. British voters deserted the two main parties (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) and voted overwhelmingly for Labour and a host of third parties.

The same was true of the May 13th local elections in Germany’s most populous state, Northern Rhine-Westphalia, where Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats took only 26% of the vote, the party’s worst showing since World War II. The center-left Social Democrats took nearly 39% of the vote and will form an alliance with the Green Party, which took a little more than 12%. Other recent local elections in Germany have brought similar results, an ominous sign for Angela Merkel, who’ll be up for re-election in 18 months.

It’s impossible to view these elections as anything other than a public referendum on austerity measures. It erases the excuses the conservatives have been using for the past four years that economic stimulus programs are politically unpopular. The voters have voted according to their pocketbooks, and the conservatives have lost.

History has given us many examples of how politically unpopular austerity measures are. Leaving aside the historical fact that austerity measures imposed during an economic downturn only lead to a worse downturn, as the United States discovered during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, we need only look at the failure of neo-liberal economic policies on developing nations.

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a boom time for banks lending money to developing nations, many of which had just broken free from colonial governments. New, independent governments—some of them democratic, some of them not—were able to tap a flood of development money. It was the Cold War, and the U.S. and Western Europe wanted to buy allies wherever they could, and banks saw an opportunity to make a profit issuing sovereign debt at high interest rates. But the money also came with political and economic strings attached.

Developing nations had to agree to “liberalize” their economies. They had to remove trade barriers and labor protections, do away with limits on foreign investments in their countries, and use the money to build infrastructure that benefited multi-national corporations, like roads, port facilities, railroads, pipelines, and even factory shells. But all of this investment didn’t bring the economic gains these nations hoped for. Profits were taken home by U.S. and European corporations, and the wages paid to local workers remained too low.

Eventually, the loans came due. In the 1980’s and 1990’s a wave of developing countries were forced to restructure their debts. The International Monetary Fund imposed round after round of austerity measures on many countries, only to see those nations sink deeper into economic recessions. A wave of nations began to default on their debts, including Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. In fact, the Latin American Debt Crisis of those years led to what is commonly called the lost decade: a time when real wages across the region dropped 20-40% and Latin American economies showed negative growth of 9%.

So the results of last week’s elections in Greece came as no surprise. The two main parties that had negotiated Greece’s debt restructuring and austerity measures failed to take enough votes to form a coalition government. Greek voters deserted in droves to third parties, especially the far-left party Syriza, which campaigned on the platform of revoking the austerity measures and imposing a moratorium on Greece’s debt payments for three years—a technical default on their sovereign debt.

None of Greece’s parties won a majority, and no two parties won enough votes to form a coalition government, so unless a miracle occurs, new national elections will be called in June. When Greece finally forms a new government, the pressure to default on its loans and withdraw from the European Union will be impossible to resist.

Default was obviously the only choice for Greece from the beginning, but conservative politicians chose to ignore historical fact and impose the pain of austerity measures instead. And now they’re earning their just desserts at the polls.

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