The Stranger weighs in on SE Seattle appeals

Organizers set up tables at the Festival Street opening last December in front of El Centro's empty south lot. Photo by Jason.
Cienna Madrid at The Stranger has written a story about the recent appeals filed against the North Beacon Hill, Othello, and North Rainier (Mount Baker) neighborhood plan updates. The article discusses El Centro de la Raza’s plans to develop the land just south of their building, plans which are—for now—on hold. State law allows neighborhood plans to be amended only once a year. Whether the appeals are upheld or not won’t be determined until it is too late to meet the deadline for this year, so the appeals are automatically forcing a one-year delay to any plan changes.

Madrid interviewed Estela Ortega from El Centro, Bill LaBorde of Transportation Choices Coalition, City Councilmember Sally Clark and David Goldberg of the Department of Planning and Development, and also attempted to speak with North Beacon appellant Frederica Merrell and the appellants from the other Southeast Seattle neighborhoods—for the most part, however, the petitioners aren’t talking. (The exception is Jenna Walden of the Othello group, who suggests that the reason for her group’s appeal is that it is a protest against marginalization of neighborhood groups.)

The resulting article pulls no punches; it concludes, “…Merrell and her cohorts appear to be more concerned with winning than pursuing the best interests of their neighborhoods and the city.”

Responses from The Stranger‘s readers on the website have been mixed.

The article is here. Seattle Transit Blog also posted about the Stranger article.

(ed. note—Frederica Merrell occasionally contributes opinion articles to the Beacon Hill Blog.)

24 thoughts on “The Stranger weighs in on SE Seattle appeals”

  1. I didn’t think the article was very fair at all. I may not agree with Ms. Merrell and I hate to see plans delayed, but she has every right to challenge the plan and the process. The Stranger’s conclusion that Ms. Merrell and others were delaying inevitable city “improvements” was quite an assumption by the author. Development isn’t always an improvement.

    I noticed many of the comments on the Stranger blog ranted about Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) efforts. Frankly, I’m just happy there is some debate – that people on Beacon Hill actually give a damn about what is in their back yard.

    There are worse things than challenging development, most notably, apathy.

  2. I find the appeal from Ms. Merrel very frustrating. It is difficult for me to understand if she acting alone or for the community. Since she is unwilling to “show her hand” it leads me to think she is acting as an individual. If she believes she is acting in the best interests of the community we have the right to know her motivations for the appeal. It seems to me that Ms. Merrel is more motivated by demonstrating her skills at gaming the process than actually moving things forward constructively. There are far more important things to appeal than 20′ of additional height.

  3. Heather, the thing you have to remember is we are talking about the appeal process for a SEPA determination, not a mechanism to protest big development. The net change that was the subject of the appealed SEPA review amounts to an additional 25 feet of allowable vertical construction in a very limited area of the core of the light rail overlay. These areas are already NC-40 except for the El Centro lot. The previously approved neighborhood plan (which Freddie directed) had already recommended upzoning the El Centro lot to NC-40. The empty lots near the station are already zoned NC-40 as a result of the previous Plan. Therefore, the SEPA process should have considered only the net effect of increasing construction from 40 to 65 feet rather than the total effect developing on those lots. The current SEPA review conclusion of nonsignificance for the net change of conditions seemed appropriate to me. The problem is that the appeal seems to be more an attempt to throw a wrench in the process than a true appeal of the facts of the SEPA determination. Unfortunately we have to wait until April to find out what the entire story is.

  4. One of the parties to the appeal is Pat Murakami, of the Mount Baker neighborhood. I spent many years watching her in meetings. She consistently demonstrated behavior which was mean, verbally assaultive and highly inappropriate, and resulted in bad feelings and the shut-down of public processes.
    When I saw that she was party to this process, it certainly shed some light on it for me. I lost my confidence that she had anything except her own aggrandizement in mind when she spoke or acted. I could not tell if it was intentional or based in ignorance, the impact on the group was always the same – total shut down of an open and equal exchange. It is so sad that she chooses such tactics.

    The very fact that Ms. Merrel is both unwilling to be open about her concerns, and is allied with Ms. Murakami certainly shows me that part of this “poker game” is to scuttle a public and community dialogue. Combine this with the fact that what Ms. Merrel is stopping is affordable housing, services, and small business opps for the neighborhood, all the while she claims to speak for the community – not me! – says to me that it is her personal agenda that is at the heart of the matter.

    Lacking any reasonable, open, and authentic communications from Ms. Merrel directly to the community concerned certainly does nothing to undo the image of someone working towards their own ends. I look forward to communications from Ms. Merrel changing, for her heart to be opened to the community, and for genuine and authentic communications to happen. Perhaps that will change minds about her actions. (And if she ditches Ms. Murakami along the way – she will be taken much more seriously then.)

  5. One thing I forgot to add: There will be several opportunities to “challenge the plan and the process” as you suggest, in the form of public or written comments where one person’s opinion is worth no more or less than the next. Being granted a hearing that completely interrupts the process should be limited to legitimate concerns specific to the document being appealed. That very well may be the case, but Freddie’s “game” suggests otherwise.

  6. I see from past posts that Ms. Merrell uses her Seattle Public Schools email address for communications on this blog. Is her blogging or community actions a part of SPS?

  7. I agree with The Stranger that appeal is ridiculous. The fact that one person, without any input from the general public, can hold up development for a year (during a tough economy nonetheless) shouldn’t happen. We are only talking about a few blocks in our commercial district here.

    I think we can all agree that we want more access to local businesses on Beacon Hill. Many of us will be spending more time walking and biking to nearby businesses instead of driving to other neighborhoods. It will make Beacon Hill a more attractive and friendly part of Seattle. Frederica Merrell should withdraw her appeal and step up and present viable and productive alternatives, which is something that she hasn’t done. And yes, there are alternative ways to reach a sustainable level of development. I for one, am all for the Post Alley idea behind the Light Rail station.

  8. It’s great to see this issue get so much attention, and to hear that neighbors support (smart, sustainable) development around the Light Rail Station. Hurray for the Beacon Blog and our other local media for getting folks engaged!

    The next step is to transfer this energy to where it matters: if you live in N. Beacon Hill, please attend the next meeting of the N. Beacon Hill Neighborhood Council on Thursday 3/4. Meetings are held at the Beacon Hill Library branch at 7pm.

    It’s vital that as many people as possible participate in the neighborhood council process. The collective voice of the council is what City Council and the Mayor’s Office hears.

    If you are already a member and cannot attend, you may be able to suggest a motion and/or vote by proxy. You are a voting member after attending one meeting.

  9. I’ll recommend reading Jessica Van Guilder’s article on Transit Oriented Development, in City Living, South Seattle Beacon. Its not on-line yet, but you can pick up the paper at Red Apple, MacPherson’s or the library. There are some interesting quotes. David Goldberg, Senior Planner at DPD says, “So the big goal, everybody agrees on. Its the specifics . . . how does this development fit into what we want our community to be like?” and, “The next steps are to refocus efforts on community amenities. We need to focus on making sure the community who already lives in these areas share in the benefit of development, rather than it being gentrified. We have to market and make sure from a design and living perspective that these are places people find attractive and want to move to.”

    Sound Transit Transit Oriented Design Program Manager Scott Kirkpatrick says, “What is often not understood is none of this stuff happens instantaneously. Light Rail doesn’t directly create that market; a whole bunch of things have to come together.” Kirkpatrick goes on to say, “Part of the lesson we learned coming out of the (Rainier) Valley, is that it does require advanced thought about what you’re going to do with the property and and helping to formulate a process that makes sure you bring the right partners to the table.”

    Capital Hill TOD Stakeholders Committee member Cathy Hillebrand says, “One of the real upsides of this is that we have had a much longer lead time to work on TOD and what its going to look like than other places have had. We have a lot of work to do in terms of prioritizing community amenities we want, but we plan to keep working closely with Sound Transit to shape what happens here. We have a whole list of things developers will have to show us they’ll do.”

    None of these folks quoted sound unreasonable, and I’ll argue that the points they make are the same that Ms. Merrell has made.

  10. Your post highlights exactly what the problem is with the appeal, David. If the Senior Planner at DPD agrees with Ms. Merrell, then what positive value is there in blocking the process from going forward for a year?

    I’ve seen people say that the city needs to give us more if we’re going to accept upzoning. But I see the upzoning itself as the gift. Other stuff does not need to be included in the plan update to happen. That’s what the Senior Director of DPD calls “the next steps” and we’re missing our chance to take them for a year because of the appeal. When we do get to take them, it will be at a time when the city will probably be even more broke than it is now. Nothing about this works in the favor of the community.

  11. Aaaaaargh. This is infuriating. Ms. Merrell certainly does not speak for me. And as others have noted, her unwillingness to “show her hand” doesn’t invoke confidence that she is doing this for the good of the community. From my experience of going to community meetings, the issue of development on north beacon hill has already been discussed to death. It is time to start moving forward. As a community is there anything we can do to abort this appeal?

  12. We can’t abort the appeal–only the person who filed it can decide whether it’s going to go forward or not. The Hearing Examiner will hear the appeal on 4/7 (unless the date slips).

    What we can do as a community is make it clear to the neighborhood council, the district council, and the City Council that this appeal does not represent all of Beacon Hill. Letters of support for El Centro’s counter appeal might help, as well.

  13. Man you people need to relax and stop freaking out on the people that filed the appeals. It’s all part of the planning process. Anybody can file an appeal. If you don’t like it maybe you should be looking at changing the process.

  14. The stranger article is irresponsible journalism at best, a smear piece at worst. It does not even mention the DNS. The author praises the “plaza” {festival street} on lander without even understanding that it came out of the same public process that she now derides. The tirade of misinformed insults in the comment section reveals a complete ignorance of the neighborhood planning process by people who have obviously never participated or plan to.
    The so called Neighborhood Plan Update consisted of two distinct conversations:
    1. The upzoning options and the potential effects.
    2. A planning discussion centered around options for remaking the business core, in order to mitigate those effects.
    If it were truly an “update” then the next step would be to create a detailed plan with a matrix of actionable items that the city could use to guide infrastructure improvements in the future, just like they did in 2000. Instead DPD filed a DNS on the upzone and left the planning part of the process without an enforcement mechanism. Without a matrix, the planning work is meaningless.
    If you like what is happening at Jefferson Park, if you like the festival street and want to see more innovative projects and ideas for our business core, then you should support the appeal. All of the major improvements on Beacon Hill over the last ten years came out of the matrix developed in 2000. Now that most of those items are done, we need to add more. The city is saying no to updating the matrix but still trying to call the process a neighborhood plan “update”. We should be worried why the city is resisting an update of the matrix, not vilifying our neighbors who try to hold the city accountable to our neighborhood plans.

  15. It’s not about who goes to meetings and who doesn’t. I’ve never attended a session of the United States Senate, yet I feel perfectly entitled to have an opinion on the matters debated by our senators. Sometimes I worry I’m more informed than they are.

    It’s also not about inevitable steps in a process. Any senator can fillibuster a bill, but if I don’t agree with the reasons for the fillibuster I can say so.

    It’s also not a “democratic” process as has been claimed in other comment threads. This is purely a legal process. No one has a binding vote, there is no majority rule. In legal matters a single person can prevail over any number of other people, if they can make the case that their rights are being violated.

    As has been pointed out, the BH appeal filed by Ms. Merrell is essentially the same as two other appeals, one of which was filed by Pat Murakami. Ms. Murakami’s opinions about density are a well-established matter of record, and by aligning herself with Ms. Murakami, Ms. Merrell has made it clear that her actual agenda is to block movement towards increased housing density on Beacon Hill.

    Beacon Hill has long been a suburb in the original streetcar suburb model. The days are long since past when we think the best way to accommodate more people is to keep expanding our cities farther and farther out into undeveloped land around us. Density is how we save the natural world, and the urban lifestyle is one which is enjoyed all around the world. It’s not a crazy idea, and it’s not something the city is trying to force on Southeast Seattle because of income levels or racial demographics.

    If Ms. Merrell is motivated by anything other than sharing Ms. Murakami’s vision of Southeast Seattle as a suburb for all eternity, she can stop the discussion cold by participating in it and “showing her hand.”


    “People need yards and open space to be mentally healthy,” said Murakami, who lives a half-mile from the Sound Transit station being built at Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Othello Street. “Are we supposed to live like sardines crammed into a can?”

  16. If you read the article that Brook posted Ms. Murakami isn’t against development. She wants it. She doesn’t want Olympia to dictate it thru a bill. I agree development around Light Rail Station is not a State issue it’s a City and neighborhood issue.

  17. It’s not just that article and it’s not just the state TOD bill. It’s a pattern going back years of claiming discrimination and violation of property rights, whenever any zoning or transportation projects are proposed. Perhaps she wants it, but if she does, then she doesn’t think any political organization bigger than the Neighborhood Council has an interest in it. And the fighting over control of the SE District Neighborhood Council has been going on forever, suggesting that the real goal of limiting state and city involvement in neighborhood planning is to put it in the hands of a few people who dominate conversation at the neighborhood level and then have the government organizations follow along.

    I don’t want to make this about Ms. Murakami, but the tone she took in the posting below (not to mention the dubious nature of some of the claims) shows not only why her association with the appeal harm’s Ms. Merrell’s credibility, but also explains why a lot of people have been completely turned off to participating in neighborhood politics in SE Seattle.

    Making participation unappealing to people not interested in contentious personal squabbles, and then — directly or by proxy — criticizing those people personally for having opinions about matters that affect their lives and the their investment in property may or may not be an intentional ploy to control the conversation, but it is an effective one.

  18. I am very happy to see The Stranger call out Frederica Merrell on the hypocrisy of filing an appeal saying she speaks for us all and yet she’s unwilling to explain her reasons. I can’t help but agree with their conclusion that she is indeed more interested in winning than doing good for her neighbors…otherwise she would engage in an open and fair dialog both with neighbors and the press.

  19. Frederica was closely involved in the previous version of the N. Beacon Hill neighborhood plan and is very active in many other projects on the hill–Jefferson Park Alliance, the subcommittee on family bike & ped safety, etc. She’s a valuable asset to the community, and hasn’t been contentious in meetings I’ve attended. I’m glad I don’t attend meetings with people who bully and use personal attacks to shut down others. NBHC meetings are fairly tame. Folks seem to get it out of their system in the comments section…

    I hope Freddie doesn’t become less involved because of the criticism directed at her–and I hope that she realizes that her appeal has directly encouraged many people to become engaged in the community for the first time.

    I also completely disagree with using the appeals process in the way that it’s being used. It confusing. The appeals are either about a lack of environmental review or they’re about something else. They’re either the work of six individuals or the product of a group that doesn’t want to identify itself as a group.

    As written, the appeals are about a lack of environmental review. In comments, conversation, and between the lines, they’re a statement against the process used to create the updates and a larger protest against a perceived drive to overdevelop SE Seattle. The Hearing Examiner will (hopefully) be able to sort things out.

    Until the zoning issues are resolved, we as a community cannot begin the next phase process of creating our Urban Village. We have to work together, honestly and with trust.

  20. Nice comment, Melissa.

    I think it’s vitally important in civic discourse to make a distinction between disapproving of a person’s actions or disagreeing with their opinions, and making personal attacks. Over the years I’ve seen Ms. Merrell achieve remarkable things in areas where I admit I have only observed, not only in neighborhood planning but also in co-authoring “Seattle’s Beacon Hill” with Mira Latoszek. As frustrated as I am about losing a year of constructive dialog due to the appeal, I have tried very hard to make it clear I’m not passing judgement on Ms. Merrell as a person.

    As the same time I’m no fan of “Seattle nice.” Ideas are there to be challenged, and I don’t think anyone should hold back challenging them. But to keep the dialog constructive everyone neeeds to understand the difference between challenging ideas and challenging people. “Don’t make it personal and don’t take it personal.”

    Some of the comments on The Stranger piece are way beyond the pale.

  21. One more comment in the interest of fairness.

    Since I quoted from Ms. Murakami, I’m going to also quote from Ms. Merrell. I don’t know that this is reason she filed the appeal, but it does help bolster the case that she is not entirely against upzoning:

    From Ms. Merrell’s comments on

    Another thing I realized yesterday is that this is only a ten-year update to our neighborhood plan. The zoning recommendations we make are only for a limited time period. Which makes me think the “40 PLUS” proposal is a good ten-year idea. Let’s see what happens with a new zoning code, kind of unique to our neighborhood. The 40 PLUS allows for one more story than current zoning.

    I strongly suggest anyone who cares go back and re-read that entire post and comments. Not only does it document what seems to be the genesis of the appeal, it also has a description written by Ms. Merrell of discussion at the meeting as “contentious.” I wasn’t there, but it was interesting to see that term used. Given the broader context of SE District neighborhood politics, and in particular the public breakdown of civility that was reported from the meetings about the state’s TOD bill at about that time, perhaps it was easy to read more into the word “contentious” than Ms. Merrell intended. But the whole tone of the piece and following discussion left me with the sense that attention was shifting to the process and away from the outcome. I still have that sense. A lot of people in Seattle are very impatient with process and choosing the side of process taps into that impatience.

    For the record, I disagree that we should wait another ten years before upzoning to 65′.

  22. That meeting is one of few that i attended. The contentious issue had nothing to do with the actual zoning or other Plan components, but rather the consolidation of what should have been separate neighborhood-specific public review meetings into one meeting that wasn’t even in Beacon Hill. Freddie and many others felt that not bringing the Plan document to Beacon Hill was an important piece of “process” that the City denied the neighborhood.

    One thing you’ll notice in the description of the meeting was the idea of tying development restrictions to the upzone in the form of open space, set backs or step backs, etc. That was described in the context of option 2, but was discussed as a general concept, if I remember correctly. Personally, and this has nothing to do with the appeal discussion but is more a response to something Brook said, I think these considerations will be important if the 65-foot zoning is chosen in order for the inevitable development to fit in the neighborhood, particularly when you consider that the lots across 17th are still SF zoned. The notion that the upzoning to 65-feet is some sort of “gift” to the neighborhood that we should accept with a thank you and a handshake is odd to me. It may make sense with respect to TOD and growth, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it a gift. In my mind, it is only a gift to the property owners who get to build an extra 25 feet high, El Centro included.

  23. Chris, I see property owners as members of the community. (I should, I am one.) So, if something happens that makes it possible for El Centro to build something that I think is good for the community at large, I’m fine with it. I don’t see it as any sort of “us vs. them” thing.

    In the latest “Post Alley” thread, someone commented about how much they like Alley 24 and the other development around the REI flagship store. But these developments are also central to the accusation that Greg Nickels gave South Lake Union to Paul Allen. It seems very similar to what I hear up here.

    It makes me feel like people want development, but can’t accept anyone profiting from it. I don’t get that at all.

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