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Council Bucks Residents, Planning Commission in Chapel Hill Rezone
The Planning Commission recommended against it and a roomful of residents opposed it - but the Council’s plan to privately develop the former civic center site moved forward
The plan, as the City had described it to constituents, was a shared library and city hall campus that would combine adjoining Sno-Isle and City properties at 99th and Market — architectural drawings pictured a multi-acre campus surrounded by interpretive paths, rollings lawns, water features and edged by forests.
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In the center: low slung modern buildings housing a new community library, city offices, a cafe and shared meeting spaces. Residents were shown art that brought to mind high-end university campuses and then polled to ascertain which of the choices they preferred. This was high end stuff. A 100 year landmark, on acreage, with residents asked to choose between aesthetically pleasing options.
A month ago, City residents learned at a Planning Commission meeting that the aforementioned Civic Center plan was dead, and in its place, the City had surplussed the underlying land, which City electeds now wanted to rezone to facilitate private commercial development.
In that meeting a month ago, the Planning Commission recommended against approving the rezone of the public land.
But last night, in front of a standing-room only crowd, the City Council disregarded the Planning Commission recommendation and voted 4-2 (with one abstention) to rezone the property, clearing the way for the land to be sold and developed.
Clearly, the large crowd of constituents, almost uniformly opposed to the rezone, weighed heavily on the Council members in attendance. (The sailing seemed a little clearer for Marcus Tageant, who appeared by video and apparently abstained from the vote).
The construct, as laid out Wednesday, was a choice between parks and revenue. According to proponents, Lake Stevens has so little remaining commercial inventory and such great financial constraints that the City was all but forced to surplus land previously marked for a library and sell it to developers.
Sure we’d all like parks, but we need to fix our roads, the argument seemed to go, and, as a staffer wistfully stated, the recently adopted budget operates at a $2 million deficit.
This argument failed to explain or account for the nearly $10 million in Federal ARPA funds sitting in a City account - money that could be used to immediately pay for a park at Chapel Hill and a senior center and a couple million in direct rebates to citizens or businesses (that’s what neighboring municipalities are using it for).
Or the fact that City retail tax revenues are up over 300% since 2015.
Or the fact that City 2021 financials show an unexpected $24.5 million surplus.
Or the fact that constituents just approved the City’s Transportation Benefit District proposal, in effect agreeing to tax themselves in order to provide the City with an extra $1.5 million a year in funding earmarked for fixing roads and sidewalks.
Or the fact that — far from lacking in any commercial future — current revenues do not account for the opening of COSTCO — the Northwest warehouse behemoth set to open next month. According to numerous City releases, Costco is expected to generate significant uptick in revenues.
Or the fact that City planning documents reveal plans to unfurl significant tracts of undeveloped commercial property along the 20th Street Corridor.
And then there’s the massive Soper Hill commercial development with its double-digit retail plots on a highly desirable swath of land.
In other words, arguments based on reports of dire City finances and red-alert levels of new commercial development arguments weren’t put forth in a transparent fashion.
Which may be why so many of the constituents who decided to be heard on this matter were upset.
Councilmember Kim Daughtry remarked at length that he was “pissed off” by angry constituents continually showering him with a barrage of “adjectives” and inferring that he and other council members were motivated by a desire to line their pockets in supporting this externally surprising 180.
“My wife keeps asking me where all the money is,” Daughtry cracked.
Now to be fair, it’s patently ridiculous for anyone to infer that Kim Daughtry is on the take. Kim is a veteran, a civil servant and a well-respected member of this community. He’s repaired many a house in the greater Lake Stevens area and you can go ahead and check his online reviews.
The dude is honest and it’s ridiculous that he’s facing abuse.
On the other hand, if people are feeling that profit might be at the heart of some councilmembers motivation, it’s only because multiple journalistic outlets including the Times and the Herald reported that existing council members profited off the Costco development.1
Regardless, it was a contentious meeting Wednesday and one unlike we’ve seen in our time covering City Hall on and off since 2006.
It’s a rare thing for an entire room full of motivated constituents show up to voice their displeasure with a Council …that is considering bucking a Planning Commission recommendation… in order to rezone and develop public land… previously earmarked for a popular public project.
Simply put, politically, this is a shit position for a local elected to find themselves in.
How’d we arrive at this spot?
Rewind back in time to Community Development Director Russ Wright, briefing the Council and Mayor on August 27, 2021 at the culmination of the City’s year-and-a-half long public library/civic center campaign.2
“At this point,” Wright told the Council, “the preferred alternative includes separate buildings for City Hall and the library situated around a shared courtyard. The preferred alternative would include shared parking and infrastructure. It also includes outdoor gathering and learning areas. A small café space is reserved as part of City Hall.”
After describing the preferred alternative, Wright rattled off the previously completed deliverables that formed the well-vetted public foundation of this City-sponsored initiative, the anchor of which was “a community survey published and summarized that 70% of respondents support the creation of a new Civic Campus …”.
Wright then moved through several other considerable processes staff had completed in order to provide due diligence to this project.3
In closing, Wright provided several technical documents and told the Council that basically, all that was left was for them to rank order the project in the 2022 Budget.
Given all of the above, one can hardly blame Lake Stevens residents for assuming that —because the City had gone through all this trouble to pitch them on the notion of this civic campus…that this civic center project must be something that the City…you know…like wanted to do.
As far as the public was concerned, a decision had been reached and a new library/campus was on the way.
But unbeknownst to City residents, the Civic Center project privately died as quick as its public unveiling was completed. City administrators hit the national meeting circuit early Fall 2021 and came back with new ideas from a retail consultant urging the commercial development of city-owned land… and from a library consultant that had all sorts of ideas about privatizing libraries.
Sorta the opposite of a publicly-owned civic complex shared with a library district.
In short, the City bookended a high-profile, public process… advertising the public use of land to house a new library and civic buildings… framed in a pleasing and sustainable natural setting….with a very private, opaque process that subverted the Civic Center project in order to surplus the underlying land and sell it to developers so they could deliver the — according to City polling — very unpopular multi-level commercial development use case.
Typically this is a juxtaposition that political advisors will advise their clients to avoid.
So what does it all mean? Corruption? Evil developers? Library-privatizers? Nah. In actuality, as we’ve said before, there are plenty of sound arguments as to why a civic center was never the best use of the property in question, not the least of which is the fact that nobody gives a damn about a City Hall. People did like the library. And they liked it because they trust their local elected officials. And since the local elected officials had spent all this time and energy making a big deal about this civic center plan…well that’s why residents thought this was a priority project. And that’s also why elected officials have zero room to blame anyone but themselves and their staff for the discontent of the audience last night. Nobody expects city leaders to be perfect. But we do expect them to pitch us on plans that they actually want to do, and keep us updated when and if these plans change. Further, if we can take another lesson from this less-than-well-managed series of events…its that the City needs to immediately do away with their push polling of residents. If taken at face value, there was never a need for the pervasive polling the City was undertaking anyway. This isn’t a direct democracy. We elect folk to immerse themselves in the details and then make decisions that we’d make if we had the same time and access to facts and staff as they did. This is leadership. Plot a path, take the path. Second, there’s no room for the type of “polling” the City was using anywhere in civic government. Surveys that begin with declarative statements and then narrow the universe of responses in a manner that steers the respondent down a certain path are not surveys at all. They aren’t designed to find out anything about the respondent — they are written to shape opinions and to provide manufactured data sets that can be used as (weak) political justification. To the elected leaders of Lake Stevens, we remind you that your office provides you the justification you need to make a decision, and your constituents expect you to support your decision on the merits of the argument, not on cooked numbers. Finally, any pretext that the polling data was being used altruistically was blown to hell Wednesday when the Council voted 4-2 to take an action that the constituents had overwhelmingly, directly and specifically stated that they opposed. On its face, that’s fine. Councnilmembers should have the courage to take an unpopular vote. Moving forward let’s hope they can scrap the pretext and the scant cover offered by the dishonest4 polling methods they’d leaned on recently.
Now, throw all the disclaimers you want but people just don’t have a lot of time to stay up on the details. Based on Kim’s righteous anger, I assume we can expect that no one —regardless of their day job or abstentions, is making money off this change of course.
August 27, 2021 - From Planning Director Russ Wright’s briefing of the Council and the Mayor on the culmination of the City’s year-and-a-half long public library/civic center campaign: Wright reminded City electeds they’d shepherded the process through their January 2021 retreat and ensuing May and June council meetings, during which “Council reviewed several factors to recommend a preferred alternative including public comment, agency missions, shared space(s), environmental impact, public space, cost and private development potential.”
Deliverables completed by the City during their Civic Center process outlined at the August 27, 2021 meeting included:
An updated city needs assessment for the city that recommended a slighter smaller City Hall than identified in a previous study;
A draft market analysis for private use that reviewed site information, basic demographic information for the city, housing stock, and retail development – ultimately under the preferred alternative there is little space available for private development;
Financing and delivery options that provide a comprehensive report on financing and delivery options using standard bond financing, design-bid-build alternatives and 63-20 project delivery; and a
Draft site alternatives leading to a preferred concept, as described above.
Dishonest may seem like a harsh term but it’s apt. As a member of the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers, I was required to sign an ethical pledge never to use push polling or to represent non-scientific methods of polling as legitimate. Why? Because it’s in an incredible breach of trust to position yourself as interested in soliciting the actual opinions and thoughts of someone when in point of fact you are running an exercise aimed at manipulating opinions or the representation of group opinions and/or pushing results towards a desired outcome. This isn’t polling, it isn’t research, and it’s dishonest use of public resources. If municipalities actually desire to ascertain public input on discrete topics, they need to avail themselves of scientifically appropriate methods of surveying, and all results need to be released immediately and transparently out of respect for the fact that legally, citizens own the results just as much as government does.