Proposed Changes to Single Family Zones

July 17th, 2015

There has been a lot of discussion and disagreement about some of the recommendations that came out of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee (HALA), specifically around the recommendations regarding the future of our single family zones. It appears that even among some members of the HALA committee there are different interpretations about the single family zone recommendations. Regardless of the intent of the members of HALA, the recommendations are now before the City Council, and we will be making decisions on which recommendations we will be moving forward and in what form and on what timeline.

I am writing today with my position on the recommendations and the role that single family zoned land should play in addressing affordability.

  • On Backyard Cottages: The HALA report suggests expanding opportunities for backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in our single family neighborhoods. I support this recommendation. These housing types are already allowed in all single family zones in Seattle and often provide more affordable opportunities for people to live in our great neighborhoods without dramatically changing the physical scale of the neighborhood. Last fall the council passed Resolution 31547 asking DPD and HALA to explore ways the encourage more of these housing types in our single family neighborhoods.
  • On Rezoning Single Family lots to Multi-Family: The report also suggests rezoning a small portion of single family property within our urban villages and along arterials with frequent transit to multi-family or mixed-use zoning (see this map of proposed changes). This would amount to a change to only 6% of all of the land currently zoned for single family use. Along with Downtown and South Lake Union, our urban villages throughout the city are where we have chosen to direct the vast majority of our growth in Seattle. Most land in our urban villages is already zoned commercial or multi-family (see this map for detail), and I believe that in order to provide additional zoning capacity for multi-family uses, it makes the most sense to first look to our urban villages.

The idea of rezoning single family properties along arterials with access to frequent transit is intriguing and requires further exploration and study. I can envision areas where this would make sense and areas where it would not. I believe this portion of the recommendation should be examined on a case by case basis with particular focus on ensuring that areas where we decide to allow multi-family housing are well served by transit and other amenities that residents would need.

  • On other changes to Single Family Zones: Many people are concerned that the HALA recommendations call for rezoning all single family zoning to multi-family zoning. I do not support zoning changes that would lead to rapid redevelopment of our single family zones and the replacement of existing single family housing with newly constructed multi-family housing. I don’t believe this will help with affordability. However, if there are creative ways to allow families to convert existing housing in single family zones to allow families to share a house, beyond the mother-in-law apartment model we already have, I am open to exploring that. On properties where redevelopment makes more sense for structural reasons or out of necessity, I would like to see the new buildings take the same size and scale of buildings already allowed in the neighborhood, even if it means more people live in those buildings.

A critical factor for me in evaluating policies in these areas will be supporting policies that maintain existing structures in single family zones and opposing policies that encourage replacement of existing housing stock within the single family zone.

I want to also share a bit about process going forward. None of these changes will happen without significant City Council deliberation and public input. This fall, the Council plans to craft and pass a resolution that would identify which of the recommendations from HALA we plan to prioritize in our upcoming work, what committees that work will go through, and what the anticipated timeline for that work is. We may also use the resolution as an opportunity to clarify the Council’s interpretation of any HALA recommendations that are causing confusion. This resolution itself will go through its own public process which will include at least three special committee meetings and a public hearing between now and the end of September. Our first meeting of the Select Committee on Housing Affordability will be this coming Monday, July 20, where we will receive a briefing on the whole HALA package of recommendations. You can sign up here to receive the agendas for these meetings via email.

With the exception of the ordinance to create the Commercial Linkage Fee for Affordable Housing, which I intend to pass in 2015, all other ordinances will happen in 2016 or later.

I will soon have another post describing the historic agreement we reached in the HALA negotiations that will sets a progressive new paradigm for development in Seattle—soon all new buildings in the city will include or contribute to affordable housing.

Thanks and let me know if you have any additional questions, comments or concerns.


Linking Affordablility to Growth: The Best & Fastest Way to Create the Most Affordable Housing in Seattle

July 13th, 2015

Click the graphic below to view a larger version.

Why linking affordability to growth is the fastest way to create the most Affordable Housing in Seattle


Update on the lowrise legislation

June 25th, 2015

Last week in the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee (PLUS Committee), we voted out the lowrise legislation that we have been deliberating over for the past couple of months. The bill makes several changes to the multi-family code to ensure that new development in lowrise zones is at-scale with the neighborhood, while continuing to produce significant new housing throughout the City.

For background on what the bill is all about and what changes it proposed to Seattle’s lowrise multi-family zoning code, check out my blog post from April of this year.

I’ve received numerous calls and emails with concerns over the rate of growth and scale of development throughout our city, but in particular in our lowrise zones. Many people are calling for the City to slow down growth and development altogether. Others just want a say in how this growth is impacting the look and feel of the neighborhood. While I believe this bill helps address some of concerns about development being out of scale with what we anticipated in our lowrise zones, I believe we must allow for additional growth and development to accommodate the job and corresponding population growth Seattle is experiencing.

One of the primary reasons I support new density in the lowrise zones and our urban villages is due to the environmental and sustainability benefits of putting more people closer to the amenities they need: jobs, schools, retail and recreation. In denser areas, people travel less to access these amenities, they do more walking, biking and transit trips to get there and they burn less fossil fuels. If we stop growth in Seattle, that means more people in cars commuting to all the great jobs, parks, restaurants and more that make Seattle such a great place to be.

In our last meeting on The PLUS Committee on June 16, we considered eight amendments to alter the bill before moving it out of committee (nine were proposed but the final amendment was not moved for a vote because the adoption of an earlier amendment made it irrelevant). You can learn more about those amendments by checking out the Council Central Staff memo and appendix from our last committee meeting.

Of the eight amendments that we considered, the PLUS Committee voted to accept three of them.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: The Committee voted to include all unenclosed exterior stairs, hallways, and breezeways in the Floor Area Ratio calculations, which will have the effect of slightly reducing the bulk of buildings with these corridors and simplifying the code by treating all such corridors the same.
  • Change rounding rules: The Committee voted to apply a higher rounding requirement—up from the proposed 0.5 to 0.85 on all lots in lowrise zones. This will make it more difficult for developers to get more dwelling units on their properties that they otherwise would be allowed, by subdividing their lots.
  • Add side setback for rowhouses: The existing code does not include side setbacks for rowhouse development, but the Committee voted to add a 3.5’ side setback for projects adjacent to structures other than other row-houses to allow for landscaping, basic maintenance around the building, as well as the possibility of windows.

The amended bill will now move on to the Full Council on July 6 for a vote. That will take place at 2pm in Council Chambers, and if you are unable to make it but want to provide comment, you can email the entire City Council at council@seattle.gov.

If you have comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at mike.obrien@seattle.gov.


Infographic: How Arctic Drilling Violates Our Laws, Values & Planet

June 15th, 2015

The people of Seattle are doing everything possible to stop the myopic environmental damage caused by Arctic drilling.

Some critics have tried to foment a feeling of futility and kowtow popular opposition by shaming ordinary people for participating in our fossil fuel economy. But the point of the popular outcry – its very essence – is that fossil fuels are inescapable in our daily lives. People are demanding a sustainable economy instead.

Life as we know it depends on bold, immediate action, especially when a harbinger of catastrophic climate change is moored in our backyard.

Drilling-Down-Infographic_CM-Mike-O'Brien


SHELL NO! Why I am out on Elliott Bay today

June 15th, 2015

The past few months, I have been one of thousands of activists trying to stop Shell Oil’s irresponsible, reprehensible plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. We’ve fought to prevent Seattle from becoming the home base for Shells Arctic drilling fleet, but the bigger fight has always been about stopping Shell’s drilling plans.

ShellNoActionWe already have enough oil to safely transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy future, but Shell’s attempt to drill in the Arctic is a blatant move of corporate greed at the expense of destroying the planet through climate disaster.

I’ve done everything I know how to do as a citizen, an activist, and as a City Councilmember to try and stop this disaster from happening. Today I am on the water to try one last attempt at stopping Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. And I am not alone.

Millions of people around the world have already spoken up to say Shell No to Arctic drilling at sHellNO.org. Hundreds in Seattle have been involved in protests, and today there will be dozens of us on the water.

I’ve never been arrested before, and I have always been one to play by the rules. Shell on the other hand has a long history of violating the law in search of profits. Shell was in violation of City permits just being moored at T5. The State ruled their stay may be unconstitutional. And in their last trip to the Arctic, they pled guilty to eight felony counts of violating environmental and maritime laws.

This is a company that is willing to do whatever it takes to profit from Arctic drilling, including breaking the law. We simply cannot trust Shell to do the right thing.

I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions today, because if Shell is successful in drilling in the Arctic, billions of people around the world will suffer from the climate devastation that oil poses to the planet. And those billions of people aren’t here today; they may not even know who Shell is or what they plan to do in the Arctic. But we are here today and we are doing everything we can to stop Shell’s disastrous plans for Arctic drilling.

Please join us in doing whatever you can to say sHELL NO to Arctic drilling.

 


Statement on today’s oil fires in Tacoma and North Dakota

May 6th, 2015

Today’s oil train explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota and the fire raging at the oil refinery in Tacoma are stark visual evidence of the need to transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels. My thoughts go out to the first responders in both cities, and I hope they are able to safely combat those fires.

Oil trains are ticking time bombs, and each one passing through a small town in North Dakota or a large city like Seattle is a risk to the people, the property, and the environment of that community. There is no safe way to transport this oil, and local municipalities should not bear the risk while the railways and oil companies rake in all the profit. We urgently need stronger local, state, and federal protections against these dangerous oil trains rolling through our communities.

Beyond the immediate public safety impacts, we also have to consider the impact on our climate that burning all this oil poses to our planet and the future we are leaving for our children. This is why we are fighting Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling exploration here in Seattle. Contrary to the short-sighted editorial in today’s Seattle Times, which raises the tired old trope of jobs versus the environment, our future economy is tied to the future health of this planet. If we truly care about the long-term economic health of our Port, we cannot stand idly by and aide in the drilling and burning of fossil fuels that will leave Terminal 5 and most of our industrial lands in Seattle underwater. This is why the City Council is on the verge adopting a new resolution stating the City’s opposition to Arctic drilling and urging the Port of Seattle to reconsider its deal to host Shell Oil’s Arctic fleet.

There is no choice to be made when it comes to good jobs and the environment. We can and must choose both. The choice we actually face today is whether we embrace the dirty, fossil-fuel dependent economy of the past that is destroying our planet for generations to come, or do we embrace a sustainable economy of the future that provides good, family-wage jobs and ensures a healthy, inhabitable planet for our children. To me, the choice is clear. It is frankly shocking that the Editorial Board of the Seattle Times cannot see it, but perhaps their vision is clouded by the black plumes of smoke wafting up from Tacoma.


Changes to Lowrise zoning regulations

April 30th, 2015

On Monday, the Council will introduce a bill that makes several changes to the multi-family code to ensure that new development in Lowrise zones is at-scale with the neighborhood, while continuing to produce significant new housing throughout the City.

Background

In 2010, the City Council adopted a comprehensive package of changes to the multi-family code. Lowrise zones are our smaller-scale, multi-family zones where we see rowhouses, townhouses and smaller-scale apartment buildings. Lowrise zones cover about 10% of the City (by acre). LR1, the least dense of the Lowrise zones, is often located adjacent to single family areas and in areas outside urban villages. LR3 is the densest of the Lowrise zones and is generally present in urban villages and centers, near frequent transit, and in popular growing neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard. Here’s a map of all the low-rise zones.Lowrise map

Between September 2011 and September 2013, 414 projects were permitted in Lowrise zones creating 2,376 housing units – largely townhouses, rowhouses and small apartment buildings.  In 2014, an additional 310 projects with 1,918 housing units were permitted in Lowrise zones.

The Council heard concerns from residents that buildings in LR3 zones were taller and bulkier than expected and the micro-housing projects were popping up  without any opportunity for neighborhood input or design review. Several Councilmembers agreed and in response, Councilmember Clark asked Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to take a second look at the code regulations and what was being produced in Lowrise zones. That research also revealed several additional issues related to townhouse and rowhouse development in LR1 zones.

In May 2014, after several months of research and community meetings, DPD published a Director’s Report and draft ordinance that recommended several adjustments to the City’s Lowrise zoning regulations.

Council review of the legislation was delayed through the summer and fall of 2014 as SmartGrowth Seattle appealed DPD’s environmental review for the bill in order to delay its implementation. In late October of 2014, the Hearing Examiner affirmed DPD’s findings.

In January of 2015, Councilmember Clark and I asked members of the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee to weigh in on DPD’s proposed bill.

Changes proposed in the Current Bill

The legislation, as introduced, does not include all of the changes proposed by DPD in 2014. Rather, it focuses on a few key provisions that I think best address the concerns that have been raised. Those provisions are:

  • Establish an upper-level setback on street-facing façades. The setback would be 16’ at a height of 44’ in a 40’ zone, and 12’ at a height of 34’ feet in a 30’ zone: The setback will ensure that a building, seen from the street, is at the expected scale of the neighborhood. Behind the setback, a building could go higher on sloped lots. Some limited projections, such as bay windows, eaves, and gutters, could project into the setback, and open railings and predominantly transparent parapets would also be permitted up to a height of 4’. Departures from the upper-level setback could be considered as part of design review if the designer demonstrates there is a better way to address building scale.
  • Place limits on the use of clerestories: The proposed changes would allow clerestories on 30% of a roof, rather than on the full area. This is to ensure that this design feature is available to let light into top-story units without creating opportunities for the construction of a de-facto extra story.
  • Change rounding rules and density limits in LR1 zones: In the least dense, LR1 zones, developers have been gaming the rules in a couple of different ways in order to increase the number of units they can construct. The first is subdividing 5,000 square foot lots into two 2,500 square foot lots, which allows them to round-up density limit requirements and build four townhomes, rather than the three that would be permitted on a 5,000 square foot lot. The introduced legislation applies a 0.85 rounding requirement to lots less than 3,000 square feet to close this loophole.

The second practice that involves the building of two or more rowhouse units (which do not have a density limit) in front of two townhouse units on subdivided 5,000 square foot lots where only three townhouses would have otherwise been allowed. For lots measuring less than 3,000 square feet in size, this legislation creates a new density limit for rowhouses (1 per 1,600 square feet of lot area) and also applies the same revised rounding requirements to rowhouses as it does to townhouses.

Both of these changes to the LR1 zone are consistent with the intended density that was legislated in the multi-family code changes in 2010. While they may result in a few less units being built per year, the trade-off will be better design and predictability for neighborhoods.  The impact of these changes on housing affordability city-wide should be minimal.

  • Clarify rules about exterior hallways: In the Lowrise zones, exterior hallways (imagine a 1950s era motel) are exempt from FAR. Several projects have been permitted with quasi-exterior hallways that have open air lattice work at one end of the hallway, but are otherwise fully enclosed. This legislation clarifies that hallways with walls on both sides are included in FAR and hallways that are more than 50% open on one long side are exempt.
  • Add design review threshold for LR2 zones: In addition to the changes studied by DPD, this legislation adds a design review requirement for projects in LR2 zones similar to what is currently in place for LR3 zones. This will require projects in LR2 zones that include more than 8 dwelling units to go through the full design review process.

Provisions that are not advancing

There were several possible options that DPD did environmental review on that this legislation does not advance. The most significant of these proposals was to remove an FAR exemption and additional 4’ of height for partially below-grade story apartments. The FAR exemption and height often make it possible for basement units to be included on steeply sloping lots. While these units in newly constructed buildings are not often affordable to low income families, they are generally the most affordable units in a building. Additionally, basement space often includes laundry rooms and other building services like bicycle parking that enhance livability but otherwise compete with rentable space in the rest of the building. I believe the upper-level setback requirement addresses community concerns about scale of buildings and that these provisions are not necessary.

Schedule for consideration

The Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee will deliberate on the Lowrise legislation at the following meetings, all of which will be held in Council Chambers at 600 4th Avenue, 2nd floor.

  • Tue 5/19/15, 2:00pm: Committee briefing and discussion
  • Tue 6/2/15, 2:00pm: Public Hearing
  • Tue 6/16/15, 2:00pm: Commission discussion and possible vote

 If you have comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at: mike.obrien@seattle.gov.


Creating a more pedestrian-friendly Seattle

April 21st, 2015

Today the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee voted on a CB 118327 which establishes a new “pedestrian designation” in 40 neighborhoods throughout Seattle.

A pedestrian-designation is a tool to support the development of walkable business districts in the City. The local businesses that make up our business districts bring the people and create the sense of community that makes our neighborhood businesses districts great. This legislation helps create the physical conditions for businesses to establish and cluster together in a way that neighbors can walk between them on foot.

What is a p-designation?

A pedestrian or “p-zone” designation is a zoning designation for an area that the City is trying to foster pedestrian-oriented retail districts. The p-zone establishes rules about the use and form of buildings in that area.

We’ll start with use.  Buildings that front a principal pedestrian street must have commercial uses that activate the street on 80% of their ground floor. This is typically retail, coffee shops and restaurants. In this legislation the Council expands the allowed uses to including some additional services that people like to see in their neighborhood business district like small scale office (no more than 30 feet wide), schools and childcare centers. The regulations also prohibit some uses like surface parking lots and drive-through businesses in these areas.

The p-zone also requires some elements about form. These components require transparency (e.g., windows not obscured by product or signs) so that people can see in and out of the building, overhead weather protection for rainy days and limit driveways along principal pedestrian streets.

Where are these areas?

The City already has many neighborhoods with pedestrian designations – you can probably picture these neighborhood business Districts like the heart of Ballard, Capitol Hill, areas around all of our light rail stations in South Seattle and many more. In 2012, as part of the regulatory reform legislation, the Council adopted a map of 60 areas that they asked DPD to study to determine whether adding a pedestrian designation was appropriate. After their review, DPD recommended a designation for 37 of those areas.

Here is a link to the map of existing and proposed “p-zones.”  Please note, the map does not include the additions passed by the PLUS Committee, discussed below.

Council’s changes to the proposed ordinance

The PLUS Committee reviewed this legislation over the course of four committee meetings, including a Public Hearing. The Committee approved adoption of all 37 areas recommended by the Mayor, with a small modification to the proposed zone in Magnolia. In addition, the Committee made a few additions:

  • Added a pedestrian designation in Greenwood between 81st and 83rd Ave;
  • Added a pedestrian designation along N 34th St in Wallingford;
  • Added a pedestrian designation on Jackson between 23rd Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way;
  • Strengthen requirements for live-work units to require a business-license be on file with DPD for each unit (note: this applies outside of p-zones as live-work units are not allowed in p-zones).

More walkable, vibrant business districts

Collectively, these changes create a built environment that supports lively neighborhood business districts throughout Seattle. In some areas—like the four-corner nodes along 15th Ave NW at 65th, 70th, 75th and 80th—walkable retail districts are not yet realized. In others—like 32nd and McGraw in Magnolia—a great business district exists and the pedestrian designation will help it thrive as new or re-development occurs in the future.

No two neighborhoods are the same in Seattle, which is why we studied sixty areas in detail. This legislation is a step in the right direction to help our diverse neighborhood business districts grow and thrive while promoting more walkable neighborhoods.


My reflections on the People’s Tribunal on the Juvenile Justice System

March 30th, 2015

This past weekend I attended the People’s Tribunal on the Juvenile Justice System, hosted by Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and their community partners.

It was an inspiring day. Several hundred activists, concerned neighbors and community leaders came together to deepen our understanding of the systems that result in the mass incarceration of youth of color in our community and to envision a new way forward.

In the morning, leaders broke down the systems that contribute to mass incarceration: schools that fail to teach and support students of color, a social service system failing to meet the needs of students and families, and an economic system that profits off of incarceration. We heard powerful stories from people of color who have been imprisoned from a young age and forced to navigate the criminal justice bureaucracy that leads to recidivism.

In the afternoon, the room shifted to creating hopeful vision of a different future with real alternatives to incarceration. Community-sourced ideas included school discipline changes to end the school-to-prison pipeline, culturally relevant healing centers, restorative justice programs, mentoring programs, culturally appropriate mental health services, youth employment opportunities, and much more. What the youth are calling for is an alternative vision of a juvenile justice system that is made up of networks of programs, institutions and communities committed to truly serving and supporting youth of color in Seattle.

This week, King County is expected to release an initial report about a racial impact analysis of their proposed Children and Family Justice Center—a rebuild of the court and detention facility at 12th and Alder in Seattle’s Central District.

I am hoping the report includes:

  1. A new vision for ending incarceration of young people in our community. King County has reduced the number of youth in detention by about half over the past decade. Could we reduce that number be zero in the next 10 years? With real vision, commitment and community partnership, we could.
  2. A plan to authentically engage and accept the leadership of communities of color who are stepping up to help craft solutions. Community members in the room on Saturday were crafting a vision and People’s Plan to move forward. Neither City nor County government is equipped to dismantle a criminal justice system without the leadership of communities who live through it every day. EPIC presented data, stories and facilitated discussion in a way that was healing and empowering. These community leaders are clearly part of the solution, not the problem.

The press, the City and mainstream institutions will likely turn their attention to the County plan over the next week. As we do so, I am also going to be listening to communities most impacted by the County’s plan to hear how to advance their powerful work from this weekend.


The Trans-Pacific Partnership

March 16th, 2015

The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries — including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam — are  currently negotiating a significant trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The reach of this trade pact will likely extend beyond the 12 countries, as negotiators intend to be able to add countries to the agreement down the road.

Seattle City Councilmembers do not get to vote on United States trade policy. But the City of Seattle and the State of Washington are two of the most economically trade-dependent cities and states, respectively, in the country. Seattle in particular is home to numerous internationally recognized companies, which heightens our interest as a City Council in this new trade deal.

Proponents of the TPP say the deal is needed to expand opportunities for American workers and businesses by lowering barriers to getting our products to Asian markets. And yet, Seattle is currently prospering quite well under the current trade policies in place; we’ve got some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and have some of the most successful companies in the world headquartered in our region. So we must be certain that any changes to the way things are done now will actually result in the outcomes we want—improving conditions for our workers and protecting our natural environment.

While proponents also claim the TPP will be the most progressive trade deal in U.S. history, the deal has been negotiated completely behind closed doors, with only members of Congress able to receive briefings on its contents. Further, the White House is asking Congress for Trade Promotion Authority, commonly known as “Fast Track” authority, which would allow the TPP to be negotiated and finalized with no opportunity for Congress to amend it and strictly limiting the time and procedures under which it would be debated. It would restrict Congress to a simple yes or no vote on the deal with no opportunity to make amendments.

The only drafts available to the public are via WikiLeaks, and what we see in these leaked drafts of the TPP raise serious concerns about the ability of local governments like the City of Seattle to enact local labor and environmental standards in line with our own policies and standards. United States Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post highlights grave concerns over the “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” provisions included in the draft TPP.

She writes:

The name may sound mild, but don’t be fooled. Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.

ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws — and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers — without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court. Here’s how it would work. Imagine that the United States bans a toxic chemical that is often added to gasoline because of its health and environmental consequences. If a foreign company that makes the toxic chemical opposes the law, it would normally have to challenge it in a U.S. court. But with ISDS, the company could skip the U.S. courts and go before an international panel of arbitrators. If the company won, the ruling couldn’t be challenged in U.S. courts, and the arbitration panel could require American taxpayers to cough up millions — and even billions — of dollars in damages.

Given Seattle’s role in advancing some of the highest labor and environmental standards of any city in the country, such as new minimum wage law, we could be a prime target for these ISDS suits. These ISDS provisions were included in prior trade deals such as NAFTA, and to date multinational corporations have launched over 550 challenges against 98 different countries, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development 2014 report on ISDS.

If you don’t buy Senator Warren’s take, even libertarians at the Cato Institute are concerned about ISDS:

ISDS grants foreign investors the right to sue host governments in third-party arbitration tribunals for treatment that allegedly fails to meet certain standards, such as new laws, regulations, or policies that might have a discriminatory effect on foreign investors that reduces the value of their assets. Certainly, investors – and in this context we’re talking mostly about multinational corporations (MNCs) – should have recourse to justice when these situations arise. But under ISDS, U.S. investors abroad and foreign investors in the United States can collect damages from the treasuries of their host governments by virtue of the judgments of arbitration panels that are entirely outside of the legal structure of the respective countries. This all raises serious questions about democratic accountability, sovereignty, checks and balances, and the separation of power.

I do not think we can risk granting fast track authority to the President given what little we know about the TPP, especially since what little we know (e.g., ISDS) causes such concern. So tomorrow in the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, I am proposing a resolution co-sponsored by Councilmember Sawant that opposes fast track and raises serious concerns about the TPP as we understand it today. With all due respect to the White House, proclaiming something is progressive does not make it so. Transparency and democracy are key value for progressive politics, and should be for our progressive policies as well. Fast track goes against those principles.

The resolution we are proposing does three things:

  1. It says the Seattle City Council opposes “Fast Track” authority for the TPP and instead requests that the President and Congress carry out a fully transparent and inclusive legislative process for consideration of the TPP.
  2. It urges President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership to advance the interests of workers, to maintain the sovereignty of local governments, to safeguard our environment, to improve the quality of life in all countries that are signatory to the agreement, and to ensure the absolute sovereignty of U. S. courts and not agree to arbitration outside of the normal judicial process.
  3. It says that if these principles are not adequately addressed in the final Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Seattle City Council will urge our Congressional delegation to vote to reject this trade agreement.

I am pro-trade. And I believe the U.S. can negotiate truly progressive trade deals. But for that to be the case, it must be done transparently, and it must always strive to lift standards for workers and the environment here in the Pacific Northwest and across the globe, not subjugate those standards to the profits of multinational corporations.