When then-Mayor Mike McGinn left office earlier this year, union activists lost an ally in the fight against a proposed housing project anchored by a Whole Foods in West Seattle—but during a public commentary yesterday, it was clear they'd gained one in Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
Following about an hour of testimony in front of a packed house, Sawant and Councilmember (and Transportation Committee chair) Tom Rasmussen squared off over the contentious megaproject proposal at 4755 Fauntleroy Way South, which has been riling NIMBYs, labor activists, and concerned citizens for over a year.
The project requires an "alley vacation," which is a process wherein a private developer can request to purchase an amount of public land—that's the alley—to build on. To grant an alley vacation, the City has to consider whether or not the project and whatever becomes of the land will benefit the public, since they are essentially giving them something that previously belonged to everyone.
Which is the hitch in this situation; some residents feel that the Whole Foods project is a good use of a piece of once-public land, and some do not.
Rasmussen, a West Seattle resident himself, has been a proponent of the construction, stating that the proposed project would be beneficial to the public—which, by the way, is currently a pretty hideous block of not-a-whole-lot—by bringing both density and affordable housing to the neighborhood.
"This project...meets the vision of the community, it develops the site in a way that is an incredible enhancement to the neighborhood, we will get a better pedestrian crossing in the midblock, versus where the current alley is...what we would receive in exchange for the vacation is not only compensation," Rasmussen said during yesterday's meeting.
However, for many of those who are opposed to the project, it's less about something being there, and more about this specific tenant being there. Opponents—including Sawant and McGinn—have brought up the issue of "the nature of public benefit," and whether or not bringing in a large business that is actively anti-union is beneficial.
"There are four grocery stores already within three blocks of the proposed site," Sawant pointed out with the help of a Google map, "...and several of those businesses have unionized workforces."
She went on to note that, in instances such as this, "what happens is not that new jobs are added, but the current unionized jobs are replaced."
Rasmussen, however, didn't agree that unionized labor should factor in to what's considered "public benefit."
"This is not a decision relating to Whole Foods, and I think that needs to be made clear. We do not make a decision in regards to an alley vacation based upon who a possible tenant will be. Tenants come and go."
In addition to labor concerns, the opposition has cited the fact that the developers—who operate under the comedically nefarious-sounding name "West Seattle Project X, LLC"—are not local, pedestrian safety and excessive traffic (you can watch a video about that here) as major potential pitfalls with the plan.