This morning the Transportation Committee reviewed a fairly routine request to vacate an alley in a block that Amazon wants to build a new office building on. But during the public comment session, there was a lot of anger directed at Amazon for a variety of practices. The city, by policy, does not simply “give up” public space to private owners without getting a clear public benefit in return. Often these projects include developing “public space” surrounding the buildings that expand pedestrian access. Sometimes they specifically involve street and sidewalk improvements, transit stops, etc. In this case, the main public benefit does indeed include additional pedestrian areas surrounding the building. Unfortunately, as was raised by speakers both last week and this week, private companies, including Amazon, can be pretty half-hearted about those public spaces; they often police them as if they were private property, including removing people who are exercising their First Amendment rights. One speaker today even suggested that Amazon maintains a secret “BOLO” list among its security staff of people who are to be kicked off the property if they show up.
Some people complained about the review process for this project, claiming that it was not open enough to the general public. Others have complained that the proposed building will cast a large shadow over the adjacent Denny Park and that the full effects of that have not been fully understood.
Some of these points are debatable. The list of community outreach meetings is here, including a summary of feedback. The city staff reported that the public meetings were very well attended. The shadow analysis is here, and the city staff’s interpretation is here.
Committee chair Rasmussen did a good job of grilling the city staff on the concerns raised by the speakers. Council president Burgess mentioned that the Council will be reviewing all of its alley and public space vacation policies next year.
The city staff pointed out that one of the benefits of vacating the alley is that it allows for greater setbacks from the streets — essentially pushing the building back into the center of the block. The developers, with push from the city, have particularly proposed landscaping the additional setback areas with trees, seating, and other pedestrian access. This presentation shows a lot more detail.
Council member Licata reiterated the concerns that Council member O’Brien raised last week: that “privately owned public space” or POPS is troublesome because, as raised by the public commenter, property owners often control access to those spaces. Licata proposed an amendment that borrows language from another city ordinance enforcing rules that forbid removing people from POPS for reasons other than conduct and specifically protecting free speech rights. Rasmussen didn’t like this proposal because it’s inconsistent with how prior alley vacation requests were reviewed, emphasizing that due process is important, and recommended that Licata bring it up for including in the policy review last week. Licata did not get a second for his amendment so it failed, but he made a passionate case for ensuring that public spaces are not overly restricted and pointed out that there are precedents for this sort of standard.
Burgess pointed out that Council member O’Brien is likely to chair the Transportation committee next year and has clearly stated his intent to review the vacation approval policies, including the issue of restricting access to POPS.
In the end, the committee approved (4-1, with Licata voting “nay”) recommending the vacation request to the full Council for approval. As an aside, a split decision means that the bill would normally wait an extra week before coming before the full Council, unless the committee chair and council President agree to waive that rule. That presents some awkwardness since next Monday’s meeting is the last meeting of the year — and the last meeting of the current Council before newly-elected members take office. Licata argued that this is important enough not to waive the rule, but in the end Rasmussen and Burgess waived it anyway — feeling that the next week is sufficient time for the public to provide comments.