Belltown News


By Steven Hsieh

The city council on Monday passed regulations that will cap the number of residential units a property owner may rent out to vacationers and other visitors through services like Airbnb.

Today’s unanimous vote marked the third ordinance passed by the council in recent weeks intended to slow down the explosion of condos and properties rented out for fewer than 30 days at a time. Council Members Debora Juarez and Kshama Sawant were absent during the vote.

Supporters hope the new regulations will prevent speculation and return units from short-term listings to the long-term housing market. They argue Airbnb and similar units crowd the market and help push out low-income workers and people of color.

report from the nonprofit organization Puget Sound Sage published last year estimated that, without controls, Seattle could lose more than 1,650 long-term units to short-term housing services by 2019. More than 6,500 units are currently listed on Airbnb alone, according to an analysis of data of the site.

 The new regulations are complicated, chockfull of carveouts and exceptions. Here’s a breakdown:
  • Under the regulations, anyone who wants to operate short-term rentals must obtain permits for each unit they put on the market. Per an ordinance passed in November, the city will also tax short-term rental services $14 per night.
  • Property owners will be allowed to list two short-term rental units: Their primary residence (where they live) and one other unit.
  • People who are already operating short-term rental units will be allowed to rent out up to two units at first. After a year, they will be eligible to operate a third unit if it is their primary residence.
  • The regulations provide a carveout for downtown property owners to keep any short-term rental units they’re currently operating. On top of that, they will be allowed to operate an additional unit and their primary residence.
  • The council also approved an amendment, sponsored by Council Member Lisa Herbold, that asks the city finance’s department to figure out how much it should charge service providers to cover the costs of administering the regulations.
  • The regulations go into effect in 2019.

A previous version of the legislation would’ve allowed property owners to continue operating “grandfathered” short-term rentals in a larger area than just downtown, including Belltown, South Lake Union and Pioneer Square. Council member Rob Johnson advocated for this larger carveout, arguing that the city should seek the additional revenue generated by the tax to fund anti-displacement and economic development initiatives.

But an amendment introduced by Council Member Sally Bagshaw and passed by the council today shrunk the “grandfathered” zone to its current downtown area, a move opposed by several short term rental operators during a lengthy public comment session.

Kevin Dares, who told The Stranger he owns and operates six short term rental units in Belltown, implored the council to reject the amendment. “Quite a few vacation rental owners do not own the unit outright and will simply be left without a job, forced to fire the employees they have servicing the unit, and will likely join the collective of persons struggling to pay rent in Seattle and ultimately choose to leave,” he told council members before they passed the amendment shrinking the carveout zone.

Security officers escorted several short-term rental operators out of the chambers after they shouted at the council for passing Bagshaw’s amendment 5-2.

Supporters of shrinking the “grandfathered” area argued that the larger carveout conflicted with the ordinance’s goal of returning rental units to the long-term housing market. Residents of a condominium complex called Belltown Court have been particularly vocal in speaking out against the larger carveout, arguing that a high proportion of short-term rentals in their building raises safety and affordability issues.

“The unit next to my unit was just listed with no regulations. That could’ve been a family’s home,” said Chris Chaney, president of Belltown Court Association.

Purple represents the area where existing short-term rentals will be grandfathered in. Blue was the original proposal for the exempted area.

Purple represents the area where existing short-term rentals will be grandfathered in. Blue was the original proposal for the exempted area. SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL

Council Member Mike O’Brien had previously proposed an amendment that would charge $2 per night to help cover the costs of implementing the regulations. That figure was based on an estimate by city researchers using incomplete data. O’Brien did not re-introduce his amendment today.

The ordinance passed by council today results from two years of negotiations between city officials and companies in the short-term rental and tourism industries. Representatives from Airbnb and Expedia thanked the council today for bringing forward Herbold’s amendment to ask the city to study an appropriate fee, rather than approving O’Brien’s proposed $2 per night.

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A smaller Italian restaurant, Mercato Stellina, opened December 1st less than a block from the north end of Pike Place Market. It creates a diverse compliment to its neighbors in the same building: the long-established and fine seafood restaurant Cutters Crabhouse, and Mercato Stellina’s also newly-opened sister restaurant Chavez, which serves Mexican food.

Mercato Stellina has an intimate feel: the narrow galley shape of the space, low lighting, sophisticated high-end music, and the combination of tables and counters, some at which you can directly watch chefs/cooks as they prepare your dish. Seated at another counter, you can sometimes glimpse head pasta maker Joe Obaya creating fresh pasta for the restaurant through a glass pane. He has worked extensively in the restaurant business, doing his internship at the Herb Farm after culinary school years ago and now exclusively forms pasta for both Mercato Stellina as well as Cantinetta’s two locations. Last summer, Joe spent time in different areas of Italy researching and shopping for good Italian pasta-making machines and also studying techniques used by generations of pasta makers in the little town of Lecco.

Mercato Stellina’s Tagliatelle and also Sausage Pizza.   All photos:  Alethea Myers

Some of the ingredients on the menu are somewhat adventurous, such as utilizing unusual seeds grown at Steel Wheel Farm in Fall City, WA for pickled watermelon pieces (similar to sharp chutney) which accompanies honey on the burrata cheese antipasti. Or giant Alaskan octopus, cracked raw egg, rabbit, and toasted grasshopper, all featured on different pizzas or pasta.

Aspects of the menu will be changing out 4-5 times per year depending on the season, including some cocktails, and eventually may include a special Market Menu that features specials of the day. If you live in this zip code or work in the restaurant industry, you can receive 10% off your bill with their Neighborhood Discount. A 20% service charge is added in lieu of tip.

By Chris Daniels

The Seattle City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a new $660 million package to build a new arena at Seattle Center, perhaps paving the way for a Seattle NHL franchise in the immediate future.

The vote came after a more than year-long process, at least eight different public meetings, and the day after a deal with SoDo arena investor Chris Hansen expired. Seattle agreed to the Memorandum of Understanding with the Oak View Group (OVG), led by Tim Leiweke, after months of debate. OVG has agreed to privately finance the $600 million building, in addition to spending millions more on transportation and community improvements. Leiweke was in attendance at the Council Chambers on Monday.

OVG has claimed it can begin construction next year and open the building by October of 2020. Final transaction documents and a traffic plan are still elements which need to be resolved before the project can begin in earnest.

There is widespread belief inside Seattle City Hall that Oak View will now make a serious pitch to the NHL to be an anchor tenant in the new building. UW grad and billionaire David Bonderman has met with multiple council members. Bonderman is an investor in the project and a minority owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. OVG has publicly identified him as the potential lead investor in an NHL franchise. The NHL Board of Governors is meeting later this week. Jeremy Jacobs, of the Boston Bruins, is the head of the BOG and also an identified partner of OVG.

New Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to formally sign the legislation on Wednesday.

She released a statement immediately after the vote, which reads in full:

“I’ve said consistently that I’m committed to bring back our Sonics, recruit an NHL team, and invest in our City. Under this plan, arena construction is 100% privately financed and will provide good family wage jobs for decades to come. Nothing in this MOU precludes other private investors from privately financing other arenas in Seattle, but it does establish a pathway to making Seattle Center vibrant for future generations. I commend the leadership of Councilmember Juarez, Council President Harrell, and Councilmember Bagshaw and look forward to reviewing and signing the MOU later this week.”

Unlike past arena votes, the council chambers were not full and there were not a lot of Sonics jerseys; however, a couple of people testified that the SoDo arena should still be looked at as a possible option. It has been almost 10 years since the city agreed to allow the Sonics to leave Seattle for Oklahoma City.

Most of the public comment was positive about a new arena in the Uptown neighborhood. Nicole Grant of the King County Labor Council told the council “Vote Yes.”

“We think KeyArena is crucial to our strong quality of life here,” she added.

YouthCare, which is expected to get $10 million from the MOU, also testified how the project will be helpful to youth in need.

Council member Mike O’Brien was the lone voice of opposition, and even attempted to float a last-minute amendment to kill “exclusivity” language in the deal. After that failed, he said he couldn’t vote for the MOU without it.

Leiweke said very little in the chambers, but issued a statement late Monday.

“On behalf of OVG, we want to thank the Seattle City Council, City staff, and City consultants and representatives for the cumulative work that signifies a monumental moment with today’s 7-1 vote. We feel extremely good about the partnership between the City of Seattle and OVG and respect and applaud the City in its ability to be thoughtful, collaborative, and deal focused throughout this process while maintaining the best interest of its citizens.

The process over the last year serves as an example of the transparent public/private collaboration that has led to a great outcome that other municipalities will emulate. We have enjoyed getting to know our neighbors in Seattle Center, Uptown, South Lake Union, Belltown and Queen Anne. We look forward to continuing our work with the community over the next year as we complete our long form agreements and full entitlement. We will continue to be good partners and good neighbors and look forward to a collaborative and beneficial ongoing relationship will all community stakeholders.

While this vote marks another important step in the process, we have work to do. Out of respect to our new leader, Mayor Durkan, and our continued commitment to follow the appropriate process, we will reserve our comments until later this week when we anticipate the Mayor signing our agreement.”

Hansen, and his investors, also released a statement after the vote.

“More than six years ago, we began our effort to bring the Sonics back to Seattle. That remains our goal today.

While we respect the City Council’s decision to approve the Oak View Group MOU we continue to believe our plan to build a 100% privately funded arena in SoDo represents the best chance to bring the NBA back to Seattle.

Our team of local investors first came together because there was no effort underway to bring the NBA back to Seattle. We purchased land in Seattle’s Stadium District, paid for a lengthy environmental review, traffic and parking studies and economic impact studies. We worked with the Seattle Arena Review Panel, King County Expert Review Panel, the City and County Councils through numerous hearings, the Seattle Downtown Design Review process and Seattle Design Review Commission. In short, we did everything asked of us by Seattle officials. We believe this lengthy review, along with the input we heard from the broader community, resulted in a better proposal for everyone.

Today we remain steadfast in our goal to have the NBA once again playing in Seattle, so we will
keep the land we own in Seattle’s Stadium District until that commitment has been made.
Having two viable arena options puts Seattle in the best position to attract an NBA team. If some future NBA ownership group is unable to reach a competitive deal at Seattle Center, having an alternative is vital for the City and Sonics fans.

We ask the City Council to consider our revised application for a conditional vacation of a one-block section of Occidental Avenue South. We will not break ground on an arena unless a team is secured, so granting the conditional vacation poses no risk to the City and it doesn’t impede Oak View Group’s arena plans.

And if Seattle Center does indeed end up once again being the home for the Sonics, we’ll be right there with you to cheer them on.”

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By Clair Enlow

Sure, the Alaskan Way Viaduct is coming down — in 2019, after the new deep-bored tunnel route takes over. But don’t forget, there’s another large concrete structure now carrying state Highway 99 traffic through downtown Seattle, the Battery Street Tunnel. It’s not being dismantled.

The old tunnel would make a handy disposal site for the rubble of the viaduct, says the state of Washington, which built it. Not so fast, says the neighborhood of Belltown. Residents love the 60-year-old highway structure, and want it to have a new life — whether that be as a place for mushroom farming, recycling or wastewater.

A mini design competition, titled Recharge the Battery, brought a rich collection of ideas for reusing the tunnel presented in September at a neighborhood space called Block 41 in Belltown. Sponsors included the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Seattle) along with the Downtown Seattle Association. Over 40 display boards showed how the underground structure could be put to work. Some of them believe it could be a great place for a park, a thrill ride, or maybe a combination of the two.

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A mock-up of what a Recharge The Battery submission for mushroom farming would look like in the Battery Street Tunnel. (Credit: Jon Kiehnau)

Coming up with bold ideas is the kind of thing Seattle citizens do well, and Recharge Battery is no exception. But getting them done takes political will as well as imagination.

So how about sustainable wastewater infrastructure in the Battery Street Tunnel? A series of neighborhood initiatives and workshops in Belltown have shown deep interest in being an eco-neighborhood, a place where sustainable systems are tested and lived.

It’s also the kind of huge subterranean space Belltown has been wanting for decades, according to one of its prominent citizens, public artist Buster Simpson. He and his neighbors have been looking for something like this ever since they discovered that the mains beneath the neighborhood were filling up in rainstorms and dumping raw sewage into Elliott Bay, right at the foot of Vine Street. They’d like to turn that around.

It so happens that with just a couple of jogs downhill, wastewater captured and filtered in the tunnel space could be naturally polished in special planters along Vine Street. Growing Vine Street is a kind of homegrown super-green-street project dating from the 1990s and spearheaded by architects, including Carolyn Geise and Don Carlson. It’s still far from completed but it has some real accomplishments. Along with hard-working street planters, a series of functional art works by Simpson includes special downspouts, a cistern and stately steps. Simpson is credited with coining the term utilidor: utility plus street corridor.

The Battery Street Tunnel could hold almost 13 million gallons of water. Some sewer pipes go right above the tunnel, and some go below. All of this could make it a key piece of infrastructure in an evolving eco-city, and not just a tank. Think of it as a laboratory for capturing and filtering sewage. It could be a high-tech swamp or a smart detention vault, building on local experiments like blackwater treatment tanks at the Bullitt Center. Even better, it could combine this kind of thing with other industrial uses.

But wait. There are some daunting obstacles to reuse. Put simply, the state owns the tunnel structure. Even if it could be an asset to the Belltown neighborhood and the City of Seattle, it’s little more than a liability to the state. Before construction funding is found for adaptive reuse, the city faces a thicket of legal issues involving the limits of city control .

And there is little time. The question of whether the tunnel will be filled with rubble may ultimately be up to the winner of the design-build contract to demolish the viaduct. That contractor will be selected next spring, based on proposals presented in February by firms already shortlisted.

This submission seeks to shift the Battery Street Tunnel's focus towards biodiversity. Credit: Miller Hull Partnership
This submission seeks to shift the Battery Street Tunnel’s focus towards biodiversity. Credit: Miller Hull Partnership

Tunnel reuse advocates are organized. Backed by Growing Vine Street, the neighborhood is hosting a slate of ongoing events around efforts to save the tunnel, including a popup storefront sponsored by Bellwether Housing, and a panel at AIA Seattle. They are launching a signature campaign to “mothball” the Battery Street Tunnel underground structure until a productive use can be identified, according to Recharge the Battery advocate Jon Kiehnau. The group is accepting donations through Seattle Parks Foundation.

The viaduct itself was once the key piece of an infeasible initiative called Park My Viaduct that would have derailed existing designs for acres of waterfront and roadway. Is interest in the Battery Street Tunnel a similar end-run, reversing key decisions already made?

No. It’s better. It deserves a chance. Underground spaces have been productively reused around the world, for industry, infrastructure and fun. The tunnel’s potential value to Seattle is clear, and should be studied.

In the meantime, there is a very practical reason for keeping the tunnel space open: city utility pipes are accessed from it.

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw is in favor of mothballing the structure while waterfront reconstruction goes on. “I have asked SDOT and the Mayor’s Office to give the community time to consider options rather than using the Battery Street Tunnel as a dump site,” she said.

Belltown’s hunger for more open space has been well documented. But there’s more at stake. There’s pride and identity. Planned landscaping of future infill around the portals to the old tunnel should help fulfill that wish, but it’s just leftover space. The real prize is underground. With a tunnel volume about the size of the top of the Smith Tower, Belltown could have it all.

Visions from Recharge the Battery show the tunnel as a cathedral-like void where anything could happen, including a linear park. One vision has a subterranean walkway with green walls, amphitheater-like openings with steps on the side and a linear light display through the ceiling — a park without the rain. It could be a destination in winter months, when the open air waterfront is too wet.

A mock-up of what the Battery Street Tunnel could look like as an indoor park.
A mock-up of what the Battery Street Tunnel could look like as an indoor park. Credit: Aubrey Davidson

After a shooting earlier this month that killed two and injured another, Belltown residents and Seattle Police are concerned about neighborhood safety. On Wednesday, November 8th, the SPD shared some new strategies for fighting crime, during the Belltown Community Council’s monthly meeting.

“One of the priorities I pushed out to all my sergeants and watch commanders is that we have officers take time out of their cars to walk foot patrol in certain areas that we designated,” said Capt. Thomas Mahaffey, Captain of SPD’s West Precinct. “We have to start having officers out, engaging with the community, walking the beat, going to businesses, meeting with people.”

Some of the new steps within the strategy is for officers to stay out of their vehicles for at least 45 minutes per day. Previously, some residents and shop owners have expressed concerns about a lack of police presence, which this strategy will likely help to change.

Another change, in the attempt to address car prowls, is the posting of leaflets and signs warning people not to leave valuables in their cars and the adjustment of some officers’ work shifts to focus on crimes involving property and car prowls.

“Car prowls in particular are a significant issue for us,” Capt. Mahaffey said. “There’s a lot of parking garages, open garages in the Belltown area.”

Crime in Belltown has unfortunately been on the rise, increasing overall this year as compared with 2016 and 2015. However, these new crime-fighting strategies seem to be the right step to helping improve the safety of our neighborhood.

With regard to the November 2nd shooting, SPD is confident that it will be resolved quickly, since it was not a community-based homicide, according to Cap. Mahaffey. “We have a small amount of prolific offenders that are committing the majority of our crimes, so whether they’re involved in property crimes or potentially other crimes as well is likely,” he said.