Mega Hotel Project Lacks Adequate Public Benefits

LMN Architects

Seattle’s real estate market is back, which means big projects in downtown.  But as developers begin to sell the public and local government on the merits of their projects, community members in the downtown area are skeptical. Will big projects provide real benefits for Seattle residents, or create more problems?

After sitting on the land for years, Seattle’s R.C. Hedreen Company has launched plans to build a mega hotel in the heart of downtown Seattle.  The project will sit on the old greyhound bus site at 9th and Stewart and will reach the highest allowable height in downtown at 400ft tall.  The plans include 1620 hotel rooms, and 150,000 net sq. ft. of convention space. To give you a sense of the scale, the total proposed amount of meeting space is greater than the combined meeting space in Seattle’s Sheraton, Westin, Hyatt and Hilton hotels.

The project will employ over 1,000 workers (over 700 will work in the hotel). However, the jobs will likely be low-wage, no benefit jobs with unsafe working conditions.  Because of these characteristics hotel jobs have historically put significant pressure on tax-payer funded public services. For example, from 2006 to 2010, the State of Washington spent at least $44 million to cover an average of 4,224 uninsured hotel workers per year.

Existing area tenants, home owners and congregation members have begun to raise concerns about the impacts of the project.  Given the scale of the project, leaders argue that this project warrants an environmental impact statement (EIS) and increased attention to traffic impacts and pedestrian safety.

Local elected officials and public servants overseeing the design aspects of the project should follow the community’s lead. An EIS, typically required on large projects, would not only uncover potential environmental impacts, it will also examine the project’s impact on public services.  If hotel workers do not earn living wages and have opportunities to live close to work, will the project lead to higher burdens on city, county and state budget in terms of social, health and transportation services? These are important questions that must be investigated in a public process, with input from residents and other community stakeholders.

Community members know the potential impacts and envision a different reality for this project.  Their efforts hinge on making the project stronger, with an eye towards the experience of project neighbors, the environment and the impact to our local economy.

The Greyhound hotel project is currently under design review.  Before it goes forward, the project will go to the Seattle Design Commission and to City Council for an alley-vacation approval – a process to privatize the publicly owned alleyway that will allow for the 150,000 square feet of convention space.  This process requires process requires an in-depth review of community benefits provided by the projects, look for a future post on the process and what the community benefits packages need to include.

Gentrification is Underway in Rainier Valley

Gentrification is in full swing in Rainier Valley.

Over the last 10 years, demographic data reveals a clear trend of gentrification in Southeast Seattle. In King County, people of color populations grew 47%, while the white population shrank 2%. However, in Rainier Valley people of color populations only grew 5%, while the white population increased 17 %.

Race & Ethnicity in Rainier Valley

The presence of light rail in Rainier Valley is likely perpetuating gentrification in the coming years. Since construction of the light rail, land values and rents around the stations have increased dramatically. Accessed land values surrounding the Othello station increased by an average of 513% since 1999. Additionally, the presence of new buildings around the light rail stations helped increase the average monthly rent in Rainier Valley from $700 in 2008 to $1,000 this year for apartment buildings with 20 or more units . The acceleration of gentrification with light rail is a trend that has been seen in other major urban areas .

What does this mean for South Seattle residents? To answer that question it is important to consider that gentrification in and of itself does not necessarily lead to current residents being pushed out of neighborhoods, or the rise of racial homogeneity. It is when gentrification is mixed with other destabilizing factors that displacement occurs (read our post on gentrification and displacement.)

It also means that it will be critical for policy-makers to take proactive steps to ensure that transit-oriented development (TOD) takes race into account, and prioritizes the needs of families and communities of color. For more information on policy solutions that help address displacement see our article on the Five Ways Seattle Policy Makers Can Promote Racial Equity in Southeast Seattle.

For more information, read the full report Transit Oriented Development that’s Healthy, Green & Just.

Sea-Tac Living Wage Initiative will go to the Ballot in November

The King County elections department has verified signatures for a new initiative in the City of SeaTac that would promote living wage jobs.   Several weeks ago 40 Sea-Tac workers, residents, business owners, faith leaders, and labor organizers handed the signatures to the SeaTac City Council.

Puget Sound Sage’s Below the Radar report, released in March, revealed that Sea-Tac airport has substandard working conditions compared to four major West Coast airports that have taken action to address the adverse effects of low-wage jobs and outsourcing. The initiative adopts many of the recommended workforce standards outlined in the report.

If adopted the initiative would cover SeaTac transportation and hospitality workers and ensure that they receive paid sick leave and  earn a living wage of at least $15 an hour.  For existing part-time workers it would allow the opportunity for full-time employment, and would require contractors taking over for another business to retain existing employees for at least 90 days.  It would additionally stop employers from holding onto “service charges” and tips that workers are owed.

So which workers would benefit? The new policy would cover low-wage SeaTac transportation workers, including baggage handlers, passenger services workers, cabin cleaners, aircraft rulers, security staff in and around the airport, private car rental and parking lot services, as well as many SeaTac hospitality workers who work hotels within or at the airport. Small businesses that have fewer than 10 workers, hotels with less than 30 workers, and other businesses with fewer than 25 workers would not be affected.

Follow Sound Progress to find out more about what is in the initiative and what it would do.  Howard Greenwich, Puget Sound Sage Research and Policy Director, will be posting an analysis in early July.  In the meantime, read the recent Opinion Editorial in the Puget Sound Business Journal, Wages: Sea-Tac’s self-inflicted wound.

How Can Sea-Tac Airport Become a First Class Port?

sea-tac airportSea-Tac Airport has fallen behind minimum workforce standards set by other major West Coast Ports. Other cities and ports in the coastal region have made significant gains toward reducing poverty, increasing customer service and creating safer and more secure operations. However, Sea-Tac Airport’s governing body, the Port of Seattle, has yet to lay out a serious agenda to keep up.

So what can the Port of Seattle do to ensure that Sea-Tac is a First Class Port?  How about taking a cue from San Jose, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland:

Raise Worker Wages: All four airports raised wages to reduce poverty in their cities.  Thousands of airline contractor employees on the West Coast currently earn $3.74 to $6.18 more per hour than their counterparts at SeaTac.

Paid Sick Leave: Concerned with the public cost of care for uninsured airport workers, as well as the risk of exposure to H1N1 and potential pandemics at the airport, LA’s City Council offered paid sick days and offered a health insurance incentive for workers at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Develop and Implement Workforce Standards:  San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors implemented workforce standards at San Francisco International Airport to address the adverse effects of low wages and high turnover.  Fifteen months after implementing these standards, employee turnover fell dramatically, decreasing by an average of 60% among firms that experienced average wage increases of 10 % or more.  How did they do it?  By implementing minimum compensation standards, enhanced hiring practices, improved working conditions and increased training.  They also established a Health Care Accountability Ordinance, which guaranteed quality health insurance for most port workers.

Implement a Living Wage Policy:  After learning about low-wage working conditions at Oakland International Airport, Oakland voters overwhelmingly approved (78%) a living wage ballot measure for all airport workers.  A similar policy will go to the voters of the City of SeaTac in November 2013.  For more information about this initiative read our post on the Good Jobs Initiative.

For more information about what the Port of Seattle can do read the report Below the Radar

SeaTac Airport Falls Behind West Coast Workforce Standards

SeaTac Airport plays a big role in the regional economy generating $13.2 billion in economic activity and 138,000 jobs in the Puget Sound Region. That should be good news for the regional job market. However, Sea-Tac Airport has fallen behind minimum workforce standards set by other major West Coast Ports.  SeaTac airport jobs offer lower wages, and significantly fewer paid days off (see chart below.)

In sharp contrast to Sea-Tac Airport’s governing body, the Port of Seattle, public officials in four West Coast cities – San Jose, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland – have implemented quality work standards for airport workers. Such standards aim to reduce poverty, increase customer service, and create safer and more secure operations.  Although notable decisions at the Port have set new standards for a “race to the top” for executives including Port Commissioners and the CEO, many other airport workers rank near the bottom in terms of pay and benefits among the airport’s west coast peers.

Below the Radar 1

How can the Port of Seattle make Sea-Tac a First-Class Airport?  Follow the example of their west coast counterparts.  These same four airports have implemented standards to reduce poverty, strengthen safety and security, improve public health and minimize the public cost of their workforces.  For more information about how, read our blog article or visit our website to view the full report.

Gentrification + Destabilizing Factors = Displacement

Rainier Valley Kids
photo by Carina A. del Rosario

It is a widely held belief that economic development in an under-invested neighborhood inevitably – though regrettably – leads to the displacement of people of color, immigrants, refugees and low income people regardless of race.

“When a neighborhood is targeted for investment, people get pushed out and that’s just the way it is,” or so the story goes. This presumption is a dangerous and erroneous oversimplification of a very complex situation.

Gentrification alone does not necessarily cause displacement, but it creates the conditions for it. Largely by increasing the cost of living, gentrification creates a downward pressure on low-income residents. Without anywhere to gain an economic edge, low-income residents are eventually forced to seek housing elsewhere and are displaced from their neighborhoods.

But it doesn’t need to happen that way. Public policies can ensure that current residents benefit from economic growth and investments in their communities. See our article on Five Ways Seattle Policy Makers Can Promote Racial Equity in Southeast Seattle.

Unfortunately current gentrification trends in Southeast Seattle are likely to increase displacement pressures on communities of color. There are multiple factors that make Rainier Valley households more vulnerable to increases in the cost of living and therefore more susceptible for displacement .

  • High percentage of renters: Renters comprise a significant number (44%) of Rainier Valley residents and the vast majority of people from Rainier Valley who live in poverty are renters (90%). Low-income renters are most vulnerable to increased costs in the housing market.
  • High unemployment: Residents of Rainier Valley are unemployed at a rate 50% higher than the rest of Seattle.
  • Low wage Jobs: Rainier Valley residents fall short in earnings compared to the rest of the city. Only 18% of residents earn more than $65,000 compared to Seattle as a whole, where over 46% of the population earns more than $65,000 annually.
  • High foreclosure rate: Rainier Valley neighborhoods have experienced significantly higher rates of foreclosure than central and northern Seattle neighborhoods.

For more information about how gentrification trends are affecting South Seattle neighborhoods, read our full report Transit Oriented Development that’s Healthy, Green & Just.