Balance

Posted on Categories Campaigning, Economic Development, Neighborhoods

This will be my last post before the election. And to sum up, I want to talk about ‘balance’. I know this post is a bit long, so if you want to save some time, I wouldn’t blame ya bit if you simply skipped down to THE CHALLENGE.

For those of you still here, I want to first mention my Public Comment at the City Council meeting on October 12, 2017 which has stirred a bit of controversy. You can watch it here. My comment starts at prox. 3:00.

Video

If you skip ahead a bit to where the Council Members are allowed to give their ‘report’ back to the Mayor for the record, every CM took an opportunity to get their licks on me for making what they strongly implied to be either racist or discriminating against the poor. I find this laughable given the fact that I know our current council’s policies pretty well and I think I know ‘me’ very well. But viewers who watched on the cable TV may not so perhaps some explanation is in order.

EXCUSES, EXCUSES

Now as disingenuous as this may sound, it never crosses my mind that people now watch council meetings on their TVs. I suppose I should feel good about that given the emptiness of the council chambers. But it also makes me forget that there is an audience. Despite what some may think, I am not making a speech. My Public Comments really are directed to the Council Members; I am not being rhetorical. I don’t go there to argue or lecture. I simply want them to think about what I’m saying! So my comments are often ‘inside baseball’, reflecting things that we already know about each other, but that you do not. And the comments I’m about to talk about refer to things they know I’ve been upset about for a while.

My comments that night, which I admit I made in a very poor way, had to do with balance. All cities need to keep a LOT of things in balance in order to thrive. We need a healthy mix of different housing stocks: single family homes vs. apartments, owners and renters. The city government also needs to keep a balance between sources of revenues: sales taxes, business taxes, property taxes. And there are also environmental balances. For example, it’s important to have a certain number of parks and trees. Right now, we’ve lost a significant amount of forest with the development of the new Business Park. So the city and people like me are negotiating back and forth as to how we regain as much of that tree canopy as possible.

THE CHALLENGE

What I was trying to get across is this basic challenge: Des Moines residents’ incomes and homeowner property values have been shrinking relative to the rest of King County. While the rest of King County has been seeing a huge increase in property values and their residents a rise in income, Des Moines residents are not sharing in that prosperity.

At the same time, we are also in the midst of a very large resident turnover. In fact most of the people living here now did not live here ten years ago. In short, we have a city of new residents, who, taken as a whole are less well-off than a generation ago. And this has real consequences for the city’s future.

THEN VS. NOW: NOSTALGIA

When I first moved to Des Moines, my neighbours were engineers at Boeing, accountants, a store manager at Albertson’s; solid middle class people who lived around the region and found Des Moines to be a great place to raise a family. Des Moines had, in my view, the best value proposition in the region. They (and I) moved here at a time when the city garnered most of its revenue from property taxes. You see, Des Moines was designed to be a ‘bedroom community’; primarily for homeowners and small businesses. That was/is its charm. A place for families on the water. Des Moines was never meant to be a place that supported large industry as we’re seeing now with the Des Moines Creek Business Park. And forty years ago, the balance of homeowners paying property taxes worked well.

But now? We simply cannot generate enough sales tax from property taxes. Earlier city leaders did not have the foresight to see that change coming and transition the city smoothly. So now we’re having to re-invent ourselves in very short order.

THE CURRENT STRATEGY: INDUSTRIALIZATION

To do that, the current leadership is aggressively increasing the industrialization of Des Moines. This strategy has profound implications for that ‘balance’ I referred to.

Now the very appealing part of this strategy is that it pays the city’s bills without asking you to pay more. Great, right? And on top of that, since we do have such low property values relative to the rest of the region, we’re now one of the last places in the area that is considered ‘affordable’. Hooray!

DES MOINES IS A WATERFRONT COMMUNITY

But we’re a waterfront community. And waterfront communities should not have some of the lowest rents in a given region. In fact, a waterfront community should be highly valued (think Edmonds, Shilshole, Mukilteo, Poulsbo, etc.) It should be a powerful asset that attracts residents with higher incomes and visitors with higher incomes and small businesses to serve those clientele. That’s the way you build a great Downtown and Marina organically, by making it more valuable; by attracting people who can afford to support it.

ANOTHER STRATEGY: MARKETING

So my desire has been to market the city to the rest of the region; a region which has very poor awareness of Des Moines but has higher incomes. I believe that we need that waterfront to be highly valued in order to make the Downtown, and in fact the whole city, thrive again. To do this, we need to be reaching people who work at Amazon or on the East Side who can’t find affordable homes elsewhere. We need to encourage that same middle class to locate here for the best value proposition as was the case thirty years ago. In short, we need to actively market to recruit higher income, long term residents.

THE ‘G’ WORD

If what I’m suggesting sounds a bit like gentrification, you’re not wrong. Des Moines has always been proud of its working class roots and more than a little bit suspicious of pretense. But as I’ve been saying, we’re actually less affluent than in past generations and our property values are now lower than they should be. So a little gentrification would not be a bad thing at all. I believe the reason the Downtown and Marina are not thriving is because they do not attract the kinds of traffic that can support small business. Our current mix of residents and visitors simply can’t afford to support a great Downtown and Marina. But if we turn that around by recruiting for (somewhat) higher income residents and small businesses this also improves the lives of lower income residents because they also benefit from the improved businesses and infrastructure. Sorry for the bad pun, but a rising tide lifts all boats.

THE LONG VIEW

However, if the city continues on the current course of industrialization, we will have an ever-increasing mix of lower income residents. If that’s the case, then we should have an infrastructure of services that are designed to meet those needs. And we should have the revenue to handle the increased needs of those residents. But we don’t. We have always depended on private institutions and grants to handle the needs of lower income people. Has that worked well? Just ask any of these groups. In public they may say that all is great because they need to work with the city, but in private, they will tell you just how overwhelming the situation is.

THE TIPPING POINT

So the question is: what kind of city do we want? Because every increase in industrialization means a change to the city. More traffic. Fewer trees. Less of that ‘bedroom community’ so many of us moved here for. And I believe that such changes make us less attractive to potential long-term, more affluent residents that we need to organically support our businesses.

I think we are at a tipping point. It’s up to us to decide what kind of city we’re going to be in the next forty years: a city with a valuable waterfront and a balanced mix of residents and visitors with the disposable income to support it? Or a city which depends primarily on income from industrial parks (and the airport) to service an increasingly lower income base of residents?

IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME?

To me, the current strategy is a passive one. It basically does nothing to compete for potential residents who might be unaware of Des Moines. The game seems to be that we build a new Marina or other ‘attractions’ and hope that they attract the residents and visitors we want–just like in that movie, “If you build it, he will come.” I believe this is a real mistake. I used to live in Detroit. They wasted billions building shiny new structures, only to see them waste away because the residents and local businesses could not afford the flashy shops and business offices. And people outside of Detroit? They continued to shop and work where they were.

I believe that many of the revenue problems we have would be lessened if we simply restored the income balance of residents to the same place we were at thirty years ago. This would then drive organic improvements to the small business health of the entire town. In short: we improve our city by actively encouraging a healthy mix of residents’ income levels. And we do that simply by marketing the city to the rest of the region.

RESTORING THE BALANCE

My campaign has been about restoring the balance I loved so much when I moved to Des Moines. And that means making the city more desirable to the rest of the region; not just people in the immediate area who are seeking the lowest possible rent. It means making Des Moines once again the best value; not simply the cheapest. And to do that I’ve been fighting the over-industrialization; the increasing influence of the airport on city planning; the ever-increasing noise and pollution. Because no one with a healthy income will want to live here if they don’t feel it is safe and healthy.

I always say: I want to make Des Moines a great place to raise a family or retire or have a small business. To accomplish those goals we need to work pro-actively to encourage a proper balance of residents at all income levels. I did not word that properly in my Public Comment, but it’s the truth. It may be a hard truth, but it is the truth. If we either cannot or will not work towards this re-balancing, we cannot expect to regain the quality of life which a great waterfront community should expect.

The main thing I want to leave you with is that I do not advocate trying to manufacture some artificially ‘exclusive’ community. Des Moines has been and always will be a city with down to earth residents. All I’m suggesting is that we get back to the value proposition people had come to expect. We can get there. But such a change will not happen on its own. And it will not happen by simply building some shiny new structures. It will happen; because we work to tell the rest of the region about what used to be our secret and let the market go to work.

Code Enforcement

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy, Public Safety

I know this is a dull subject. But it concerns everything from crime, to property values to the quality of life you can expect as a resident. Des Moines used to have a dedicated Code Enforcement Officer who’s job was to check that all properties were up to code. So, theoretically, if a property was obviously not being take care of, she could ticket them. Unfortunately, Des Moines has some of the weakest code in the entire state as far as upkeep goes. You can literally leave junk on your lawn for months at a time without incurring any penalties. So the Code Enforcement Officer, and police and fire department were often unable to take action when they saw properties in a sorry state. The rule was (and is) that they have to wait until an actual crime is committed in order to deal with obviously bad apples. It is for this reason that I got fed up enough to run for office. The good news is that we can easily fix this problem.

Now why would Des Moines have such weak code enforcement? Two reasons: one is that apartment building and other commercial owners tend to hate code enforcement. They complain that it adds to their costs and is unnecessary because ‘the market will take care of it’. In other words, people won’t rent if they don’t take care of their properties. That’s simply ridiculous.

The other reason is more philosophical. The city council has traditionally had the attitude “a man’s home is his castle.” Obviously, I have a slightly different take on this. Yes, you have your right to do as you please. But you also have a responsibility, as a property owner, to your neighbours to keep your place looking decent and to not infringe on their rights. It’s called courtesy. You can’t leave junk on your front lawn or fail to mow for weeks at a time or let your house fall into total disrepair. It damages the community, is unsafe.

Several years ago the city ended the Code Enforcement Officer position. It also rescinded a number of ordinances that hold rental property owners to a special standard of property upkeep (again, based on complaints from commercial property lobbying). What that means is that when my neighbors and I would complain to the city, we had no way of locating the absentee landlords or hold them accountable for the damage their renters were doing to our street!

We should reinstate the Code Enforcement Officer position. We should also update the city code to make our city’s ordinances on property upkeep in-line with those of other cities. These simple, no-drama changes to our city would save a tremendous amount on policing resources, make the city far more pleasant to live in and make the city far more attractive to prospective home buyers.

Zoning

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy

Zoning is one of those ‘little’ issues that rarely gets talked about in campaigns. But it is an issue that is very important in a city like Des Moines. Zoning needs to be handled with great sensitivity for existing homes and green space.

Here is just one example. A friend of mine owned this property for many years. Before retiring, he divided the property, keeping the small house on the right to sell and also selling the portion of the property on the left to a developer to build a new home. But before selling the small house, he was assured by the developer that any new house they built would be built in such a way as to be respectful of the existing small house.

But the developer has a standard model of house they want to build so they went ahead and put that up. So now the two houses are less than three feet from one another and the new house looms over the old. The developers were able to do this because city code has no limits for this type of situation.

So now the new owner of the small house is quite upset. And I couldn’t agree more. By being so close, the new house simply overwhelms the older house.

I’m definitely pro-development for Des Moines. We need more good homes for families. But this is the sort of zoning nightmare that happens in Des Moines far too often. Properties are developed according to some fixed plan, ignoring common sense.

There must have been some way the city could’ve worked with the developer to build the new house in such a way as to be more respectful of the owner of the existing smaller house.

I want to find ways to build the new homes and businesses we desperately need, but do so in a way that is in harmony with existing structures and open spaces.

Downtown

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy1 Comment on Downtown

The Des Moines Theater DowntownThe core of the Des Moines downtown is defined by the two traffic triangles on Marine View Drive, the ‘head’ being the entrance at the flag pole on Des Moines Memorial Drive and the ‘tail’ being the traffic light Kent Des Moines leading into Zenith. And when I moved here that length was anchored by two businesses: the QFC Grocery to the north and The Des Moines Movie Theatre to the south. Sadly, both are now gone since the recession and I think their absence says something about the state of our downtown. To me, downtown still feels like a bit of a patchwork. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’ve still truly recovered. Many business remain, but some shops seem hobbled and a few are still boarded up.

The Des Moines Movie Theater was, like all local movie houses was kind of funky and shabby (was it ever). But I have fond memories of Saturday nights with popcorn in hand at the show. During those years I really felt like our downtown was coming together with new shops and a sense of community. But now? The fact that we still haven’t figured out what to do with that space since its closing speaks volumes for the current state of downtown.

As we can see from other recent theater closings throughout Puget Sound, icons like The Des Moines Theater are likely no longer viable. However, a unique and dynamic anchor must be a part of our downtown’s long term strategy. We cannot leave such a prime location to whatever business just happens to come along. We need a fresh plan for the area that will be a magnet for visitors and a gathering place for our residents.

As for the other end of Marine View Drive? Like many of you I was very upset when I heard that QFC was leaving. I felt that a series of very public meetings should’ve been held to discuss what could be done to try and retain QFC and failing that, to discuss the future of that space for the community. It all felt very sudden.

That said, I’ve heard good things from some locals about its replacement, The Dollar Store. However–I want to say this as carefully as I can–I have to say in all honesty that it would not have been my first choice for that key location. Again it has nothing to do with that business or its owners. It’s simply that for so many residents QFC was such a key part of the fabric of the community. It was our grocer and I still miss it.

The downtown is key to the developing a successful vision for Des Moines. And it is my view that certain anchor spaces are crucial to realizing that vision. These spaces are about more than just finding a buyer, collecting sales tax and hoping for the best. The community should have a voice in that. And then real urban planning skill need to be brought to bear to turn that into a fully realized vision.

Over time, too much of Marine View Drive has been left to the whim of one business or just plain happenstance. Sometimes it’s been good luck, but more often not so much. Given the unique gifts of our waterfront, it should be the policy of the city to develop the downtown thoughtfully and with a deliberate strategy. And at every step of the way we should engage the community fully in that process. Our goal should be to make the Des Moines downtown live up to the unique potential of our waterfront for residents, business and visitors.