When Mayor Mike McGinn instructed SDOT to recommend rejecting a street vacation request for a proposed Whole Foods in West Seattle, citing "fair and livable wages and benefits" as a public interest that should be considered before transferring city right-of-way, I thought the decision was interesting because of the new precedent it set.

Whole Foods and the real estate developers building the project had a different, more defensive reaction. In a statement released through a public relations consultant (full statement after the jump), Whole Foods denied as "factually inaccurate" the implication that it is a low-wage/low-benefit employer, claiming that it compensates its "team members with fair and livable wages and benefits":

We offer training, competitive benefits, stock options for all team members, gain-sharing and much more. Company benefits include a team member store discount of 20-30%, health care coverage for domestic partners and a health spending account to help cover health care expenses. Nearly all of our part-time workers can participate in our health care benefits. Our average wage for non-leadership Team Members in our Seattle stores is $16.15/hr. which is excellent for grocers.

For their part, the developers of the project, Lennar Multi-Family and Weingarten Realty Investors, issued their own statement expressing surprise at McGinn's comments, and defending the integrity of the development's design. The proposal went through "exhaustive vetting," and includes a public benefit package they value at "more than $2 million":

· Activation of a city-designated Green Street on 40th Ave. SW
· Creation of 5,000+ s.f. of public plazas and open space on site
· Widening 40th Ave. SW on the north end of the block
· Creation of 6-10’ wide bands of landscaping around the project
· Addition of a 5’ wide bike lane on Fauntleroy
· Curation and installation of public art
· Funding for design of a new city park on 40th Ave SW

Wow. So Whole Foods is a worker's paradise, while the proposed development creates "safe, walkable streets" and enjoys strong public support.

Not exactly, argues Tom Geiger, the communications director for United Food & Commercial Workers Local 21, the union that represents workers at the six unionized grocery stores the non-union Whole Foods would compete with in the immediate area (and that just today endorsed McGinn, lauding him for his "willingness to take action for regular working people "). When asked to respond (again, his complete statement after the jump), Geiger disputes Whole Foods' wage and benefit claims, pointing out that by refusing to publish their wage policy and pay scale, they make apples to apples compensation comparisons impossible. UFCW members, Geiger says, receive an additional $4.50 per hour in health care benefits, whereas Whole Foods workers are offered catastrophic care plans. "The Whole Foods Health plan is far more expensive for much lower benefits," argues Geiger.

Geiger also criticizes the current design for putting "safety and pedestrian traffic at risk." But more importantly, Geiger emphasizes, is the precedent that McGinn's letter sets:

This whole thing is not about Whole Foods or what they do or do not do. This is about whether a proposed development that wants to get public property is in the public interest. We clearly feel it is not and many UFCW 21 members and staff have said so for months at hearings in front of city staff. We as a union feel like elected officials should be doing everything they can to protect the communities we all live in AND protect and improve the wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers. This proposed development – as proposed – threatens both. We applaud Mayor McGinn on this letter.

Which gets back to the thesis of my original post. For regardless of the virtues of the project's design, of the public benefits package, or of Whole Foods itself, McGinn's letter represents an expansion of the notion of the public good that reaches beyond physical infrastructure to for the first time include human infrastructure. As such McGinn's letter serves as a policy statement that could guide the evaluation of future vacation requests, regardless of whether the council follows or ignores his recommendation on this particular project.

[Full statements after the jump.]

Whole Foods statement:

I wanted to contact you directly because the information that Mayor McGinn shared in his letter regarding Whole Foods Market is factually inaccurate and it’s important for us to set the record straight. The vast majority – 70-80 percent, depending on the store – of Whole Foods Market’s team members work full time and that will be reflected in the team members we hire for our West Seattle location. That’s opposite of many other supermarkets, where part-time employees are the norm.

We do more than provide team members with fair and livable wages and benefits. We create a great place for our team members to build a career. We offer training, competitive benefits, stock options for all team members, gain-sharing and much more. Company benefits include a team member store discount of 20-30%, health care coverage for domestic partners and a health spending account to help cover health care expenses. Nearly all of our part-time workers can participate in our health care benefits. Our average wage for non-leadership Team Members in our Seattle stores is $16.15/hr. which is excellent for grocers.

In addition to our team members, we are also committed to the health and well-being of the communities where we do business. In every local community, we cultivate valued partnerships with a wide range of organizations – from school districts to non-profits to academic institutions. Programs like our Local Producer Loan Program and funds made available through the Whole Kids Foundation to add salad bars and school gardens are examples of this commitment to community. In addition, quarterly 5 Percent Days provide direct funding to local non-profit partners.

We’re proud to have been part of Seattle since 1999, and that our 6 metro stores now employ over 1400 Team Members. Many of those Team Members live in West Seattle, and they’re excited to work in their immediate community. We’re also looking forward to being part of this vibrant community as we are in so many others – socially and environmentally conscious citizens who contribute in many ways. This store will employ another 150 or so Team Members, most of whom will be local.

We’re reaching out in hopes to meet with Mayor McGinn very soon to share the facts and discuss how Whole Foods Market is absolutely in line with the City’s core economic goals.

Statement from Lennar Multi-Family and Weingarten Realty Investors

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Mayor McGinn’s comments about our mixed-use re-development, located at 4755 Fauntleroy Way SW.

Less than two years ago, the City Council adopted, and Mayor McGinn signed, an ordinance creating the West Seattle Triangle Plan. The Plan calls for the vacation of the alley in this block and the creation of a new mid-block connector - goals this project has fully embraced.

Mayor McGinn’s comments are surprising given the Mayor’s past support of developments that add housing and retail along transit lines and bike lanes. In fact, our re-development is designed with alternate modes of transportation in mind. We orientate the project’s most prominent architectural feature with the West Seattle’s Rapid Ride bus stop, three transit lines run in front of the project on Fauntleroy and we are voluntarily widening Fauntleroy Way SW to add a bicycle lane.

The re-development furthers the Mayor’s sustainability and public safety goals, creating safe, walkable streets by adding wide sidewalks and creating a new ‘green street’ with public plazas and community open spaces.

This project is consistent with City process. Seattle has a very thorough process for deciding if a project has created adequate “public benefit” to vacate a site’s public alleyway. This process respects the inputs and recommendations from City Boards and Commissions and the public.

The proposal to vacate an on-site alley went through exhaustive vetting by DPD, SDOT, the Design Commission and the West Seattle Design Review Board. Under the City’s established process, the Design Commission unanimously recommended approval of the alley vacation and, just last week, the West Seattle Design Review Board also recommended approval of the project. Strong public support in favor of the re-development was seen at all meetings.

A public benefit package valued at more than $2M is the result for the West Seattle community and includes the following:
· Activation of a city-designated Green Street on 40th Ave. SW
· Creation of 5,000+ s.f. of public plazas and open space on site
· Widening 40th Ave. SW on the north end of the block
· Creation of 6-10’ wide bands of landscaping around the project
· Addition of a 5’ wide bike lane on Fauntleroy
· Curation and installation of public art
· Funding for design of a new city park on 40th Ave SW

The parameters for our project, including its size, footprint and scale, were guided by the vision set forth in the community’s West Seattle Triangle Plan and are strongly supported by the community. This was the Plan approved by the community and the Council, and signed by Mayor McGinn.

We look forward to continued dialogue with the City and our neighbors in West Seattle as the project moves forward.

Response from UFCW communications director Tom Geiger

1. This whole thing is not about Whole Foods or what they do or do not do. This is about whether a proposed development that wants to get public property is in the public interest. We clearly feel it is not and many UFCW 21 members and staff have said so for months at hearings in front of city staff. We as a union feel like elected officials should be doing everything they can to protect the communities we all live in AND protect and improve the wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers. This proposed development – as proposed – threatens both. We applaud Mayor McGinn on this letter.

2. On the Whole Foods claim – you cannot separate out wages from other benefits. You need to look at them as two parts to a whole. So on wages, we are willing to share the wage scale (a legally binding agreement voted on by the union grocery store workers and then signed by the Union and the Employer) and would ask that Whole Foods to provide theirs in return. Despite much effort, we have never been able to confirm wage policy/pay at Whole Foods. Frankly, I want to see the facts because I don’t trust their claim of wages on the face of it. On Benefits, our union grocery store workers have about $4.50 per hour paid from their employer to the health plan to cover costs for coverage. This has been accomplished only because the workers have negotiated hard for this over many, many years and have taken smaller wages than they would have had otherwise as a result. As Whole Foods does not provide quality affordable health care, it is inaccurate to compare their wages and benefits to ours. Far from it. Instead of paying $250-$300 for annual deductable (as a union grocery worker does), an individual at Whole Foods is paying over $2,000. Instead of a Max out of pocket as less than $3000 for a union grocery store worker, Whole Foods workers are having to pay over $6,500. Instead of paying $6 for a generic drug prescription (union grocery store workers), the Whole Foods plan would have a $1,100 deductable and then have to pay 20% of the costs after that as well. Instead of $0 for vision and dental premiums for an employee and family at a union grocery store, workers at Whole Foods would pay between $15 and $30 a week for this benefit. I could go on and on, but the point is clear. The Whole Foods Health plan is far more expensive for has much lower benefits .

3. Lastly, the proposed development would put a new grocery store smack in the middle of and area that already has SIX grocery stores. That is not in the public interest. And the proposal would put the safety and pedestrian traffic at risk in the very location where the City is trying to increase walkabilty.