Puget Sound Sage: Changing the Debate on Development in the Sound

December 20, 2007 -- Puget Sound Sage

By David West, Sage Executive Director

As 2007 closes, Metro Seattle is currently the hottest real estate market in country. This creates both challenges and opportunities for Puget Sound Sage, one of the Partnership’s newest members.  The challenge is trying to track numerous large projects slated for development over the next five years.

One example of where Seattle is going is the huge development coming in a large area of the Denny Triangle in downtown Seattle which has been put up for sale by Seattle's Clise family.  The 12-acres of mostly undeveloped property, which now consists largely of parking lots, is spread over seven city blocks.  With new zoning allowing larger buildings, as much as 13 million square feet could be built on properties, which could bring in as much as $7 billion in public and private investment. The size of the project could rival London’s Canary Wharf or the World Trade Center in New York. One of the likely bidders for the property is an investment company controlled by the Emir of Dubai.  Other mega-projects are being proposed for Seattle suburbs of Bellevue and Federal Way.

Sage’s opportunity and goal for 2008 and beyond is to make sure that such large development projects come with community benefits, including affordable housing, environmental sustainability, and living wage jobs.

This year, Sage focused on adding capacity for future accountable development work, bringing on a new Executive Director, David West; and a new Research Director, Howard Greenwich, formerly of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy in Oakland; and hiring a new community organizer to start in January 2008.  Sage opened a new office in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood, and is working to expand its coalition partners to include housing, neighborhood, immigrant, and environmental organizations.

Sage’s main focus in 2007 has been community benefit agreement campaigns, such as the Goodwill/Dearborn project near Seattle’s downtown.  After working with the Dearborn Street Coalition for a Livable Neighborhood (DSCLN) to organize a 500-person march and rally in April, Sage has pursued negotiations with developer TRF Pacific, while continuing to organize within neighborhood and community groups to pressure the developer to accept a CBA agreement with the DSCLN.  Sage has received key assistance from the Partnership for Working Families in organizing the Dearborn campaign along with analyzing possible CBA language for the project.

Sage also jumped into the debate over protecting industrial lands near the Port of Seattle from development into office parks and big box retail. While development interests proclaimed Seattle’s industrial base as “dying” to justify converting industrial lands to other uses, Sage worked with local manufacturers and the Martin Luther King County Labor Council to demonstrate the strength of the industrial sector and make the case that economic diversity is needed to protect the local economy from recession.   

Sage also publicized research showing that most of the 100+ businesses opposing the industrial area downzone were connected to the real estate and development industry.  These findings were shared with the City Council.  After several months of debate, a key City Council committee voted this month to change zoning rules to block large non-industrial uses in several large zones south of downtown; a real victory for preserving living wage jobs in Seattle.

Sage and its partners are also working to influence future city development policies by adding language to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan to make living wages a city development priority. The new language is: “Support key sectors of Seattle’ economy to create jobs that pay wages that can support a family, provide necessary benefits, and contribute to the vitality of the City including, but not limited to, the industrial, manufacturing, service, hospitality and retail sectors.”

Going into 2008, Sage has become the community/labor coalition in the Puget Sound region positioned to change the debate on development issues.  "Sage has been a steadfast coalition partner.  Our community has been very impressed with their progressive approach to dealing with development issues affecting Little Saigon," says Quang H. Nguyen, Director of the Vietnamese American Economic Development Association.  

Sage will expand its CBA work in the Puget Sound region beyond Goodwill/Dearborn to several new projects, will work with the Partnership to implement new development policy options, and begin a multi-year leadership development process with its community and labor allies.