Council shouldn't squander opportunity to create jobs
Special to The Times
Creating more jobs in Seattle's neighborhoods is vital to the health of our city and region. Three of these neighborhoods — the University District, Northgate and South Lake Union — are essential ingredients in any successful effort to create more jobs and pull our region out of recession. Each neighborhood has its own challenges, and the Seattle City Council has both an opportunity and responsibility to help solve these problems.
But some council members have recently expressed concerns that we're actually creating too many jobs in certain parts of the city.
First, let's look at the U District and Northgate — two areas with real needs and exciting possibilities for revitalization. For both Northgate Mall and the University of Washington, the city has deemed it necessary to provide unique and excessively burdensome regulations and processes that result in no greater protections to surrounding neighborhoods.
For the UW, the extra layer of process is known as the "lease lid" and it imposes an arbitrary cap on the amount of off-campus office and lab space the UW can lease near the main campus. This cap prevents the university — Seattle's largest employer — from putting people to work in more space in the upper floors of Ave buildings, or from being an anchor tenant in new development in the U District.
There is no good reason for this lid to continue and no other institution in the city has such a stifling regulation with which to comply. Fortunately, Mayor Greg Nickels has submitted a plan to remove the lid, freeing the UW to create new labs, offices and employment that will contribute to the revitalization of the U District and simultaneously protect its residents from unintended consequences, already prevented by reasonable zoning provisions. The council should approve the plan to lift the lid and start the renaissance of the U District.
Northgate is in a similar situation. The city has overregulated the mall's ability to use its space to the point where investments in it have become nearly impossible. Through a complex set of regulations known as the general development plan (GDP), the city currently requires the mall to estimate what its needs will be many years into the future, and then rigidly locks in those plans, regardless of changes in the market or people's retail preferences.
The mall's owner, a firm that operates first-rate shopping centers throughout the United States, has identified Seattle as among the most difficult cities in the country in which it conducts business. Like the lease lid at the UW, the GDP is a unique layer of regulation that inhibits creative solutions. Again, the mayor has submitted to the council a proposal to remove the obstacles on the mall's ability to improve and thrive. The council should approve the proposal and allow Northgate to truly become the dynamic and tax-generating retail center of a thriving urban setting.
South Lake Union is another story altogether. With little government intrusion, people have recognized the potential this area has for Seattle. Business people and residents envision a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, a solution to the "Mercer Mess," reconnected streets over Aurora Avenue North, an expanded park on the lake and other improvements that would benefit everyone in the city. It has been called the most exciting new neighborhood on the West Coast.
None of that vision is possible, however, without a robust economy and more jobs in the neighborhood.
The good news is that biomedical, pharmaceutical and other high-wage jobs are already being created in this exciting part of the city and even more jobs from a diverse set of businesses are on the way. These are jobs that other states are spending millions of dollars to try to attract. At a time when Washington's unemployment has reached 7 percent and our economy is reeling from the dot-com crash and Boeing's contraction, we have an opportunity to embrace and foster this emerging new job engine.
Some members of the City Council have questioned whether this job growth is good for Seattle, and have even requested a "special review" of the job growth in South Lake Union. Their rationale? Employers are creating more jobs in South Lake Union than originally estimated when the council put together a plan for the city (about 5,950 jobs rather than 4,500). Such a rationale is misguided — we should be embracing more people working in livable-wage jobs in Seattle, not reviewing whether those increased jobs are appropriate.
Overregulating our neighborhood business areas will do nothing but discourage investment and kill business. We should be encouraging both job creation and revitalization in these neighborhoods, not killing job providers with uncertainty and excessive process.
City Council members are elected to be stewards both of our community's quality of life and its economic vitality. They have clear choices in the University District, Northgate and South Lake Union to either boldly invest in our city's future prosperity or needlessly squander these golden opportunities. Vision, leadership, action. City Council, we need them all — and we need them now.
Steve Leahy is president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Carl Behnke is president of REB Enterprises and co-owner with his wife, Renee, of Sur La Table.