I just don’t understand the reason for the level of suspicion and nastiness I see on social media when talking about political issues.
We’ve all watched how social discourse has deteriorated over the last four years, but to see it bleed over into local politics and social media is just sad to see. There are so many baseless accusations, people spout unfounded suspicions that neatly fit into a preconceived view of the world. Welcome to the data-free universe of social media.
Example: West Bay Yards
We saw how this played out during the debate on the West Bay Yards project that came before the Olympia council. Many people didn’t like the proposal, which in its entirety was solely an agreement to vest the developer in order to maintain the existing zoning on the site while a formal project design was produced and submitted. Whether that was a good deal or not is certainly worth discussing, but many accusations about bending the rules and allowing an environmental disaster just weren’t accurate. Out of curiosity I read the agreement, looked up the zoning, and looked up the Hearing Examiner’s Determination of Non-Significance (DNS). As I read it:
Is this a good deal? Not in everyone’s eyes. Part of what allows the developer to build such tall buildings is that there is a height bonus for adding residential units to a building in and near the city’s core. This zoning language was originally created in order to get more residential construction in the city core. The working theory is that more people downtown of all types and financial ability will support the businesses and thus help keep our downtown alive and healthy. Another reason for passing the agreement was to get that nasty site cleaned up, a reasonable goal and certainly not underhanded or even hard to see. These are reasons we can understand. Whether these are good policies or not or what the zoning should be is certainly open to debate and should be discussed publicly.
Example: Griswold’s Building
In another example, Olympia recently sold the old Griswold’s building which burnt down. A developer who has built a number of buildings downtown responded to the city’s request for a proposal and was selected to do the job. Part of the deal is to build affordable housing as defined by one common definition of what constitutes affordable. The developer used the Multi-family Tax Exemption (MFTE) to make the project more affordable to build, or more profitable for the builder depending on how you look at it. We can certainly disagree as to how we should define affordable, and whether we think the city council made a good deal or not, but their goals are not that hard to see: get rid of a burned-out dead building shell and provide some lower-cost housing for a price. The deal isn’t evil, it isn’t collusion, it’s just a financial arrangement to accomplish previously stated goals.
Where did the Multi-family Tax Exemption come from?
The history of the MFTE is that it was put into place to get residences built downtown as a mechanism to support downtown businesses similar to the zoning bonus above. The policies seem to have worked in one sense, there have been hundreds of new apartments built recently. Now as people move in we’ll get to see if this actually does help keep our downtown healthy. We certainly hope so.
The question now is do we want to keep these policies in place, get rid of them because we don’t need them anymore or because they don’t work, or modify them to only support affordable or low-income housing however we choose to define it? This is precisely the type of question now being considered by the Olympia Planning Commission as part of the overall Housing Strategy the city is looking at. Now is a perfect time to let them and the council know what you think of these laws and what should be done.
Council members isolated
I recently had a conversation with a council member who told me they are not hearing enough from people. Seems to me that the Olympia city council has become very isolated, mostly due to covid but that’s not all. Over the last few months I’ve tried to communicate with the council to find out what’s going on and give my opinion but it’s very frustrating. I’ve emailed the council many times but got very few responses from Council members. Fortunately, the staff is much more responsive, which has been refreshing.
After watching a council meeting it is easy to see how isolating the meetings are. There’s no audience, no personal contact, no constituency to interact with at the meetings. Public comment only allows two minutes per speaker. You only get three minutes at a public hearing. There is no opportunity for nuanced discussion or presentation. Trying to find out what has been discussed is also a problem. The meetings are videoed but their technology for viewing the meetings is extremely bad: there is no index, plus it’s almost impossible to move around and find things in the recording. It’s simply poor technology.
We absolutely need people to communicate with the council and planning commission. We have to converse in a civil, mindful, and educated way so our input is appreciated. None of us hear each other if we’re rude, politicians and volunteers included. And they badly need to hear from us.
Pat Cole is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen, he is developing plans to assist with efforts to clean up the homeless camps in Thurston County.