Weekly Update: 01/17/2021

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Weekly Updates7 Comments on Weekly Update: 01/17/2021

If you check the site you’ll see a few tweaks. The Public Service Announcements now have their own page so you can always see what’s current. And the COVID-19 info has moved to the top next to the hat. You should check there because there are some big changes to do with finding out where/when you can get vaccinated and which new benefits are available for small business and unemployment.

Public Service Announcements

  1. The new round of Federal PPP loan program just opened up. And it is much better than the first round last year. If you need more information, here is a presentation from the Small Business Administration with lots of links to more information.
  2. There is new State Unemployment Benefits. But you gotta read and follow the instructions!
  3. Last month’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved! She is compiling a mailing list and is coordinating efforts to save the place. 🙂
  4. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  5. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  6. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”

This Week

  1. Thursday: Environment Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  2. Thursday: Transportation Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  3. Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)

You can (and should) attend any of these meetings by signing up at:  https://www.desmoineswa.gov/FormCenter/City-Forms-3/Council-Meeting-Comments-49 by 4PM the day of the meeting.

Last Week

  1. Wednesday: I attended a small business administration webinar hosted by Congressman Adam Smith. There was some great info on the new PPP loan program. Check it out!
  2. Wednesday: Des Moines Marina Association meeting.
  3. Somewhere in there I had a meeting with the University Of Washington Department Of Environment And Occupational Health Sciences (UWDEOHS), the people who are doing so much great work on air quality around Sea-Tac Airport. This meeting was  to finalize the air quality monitor proposal. Please read that proposal. Now!
  4. Saturday: There was a Downtown Clean-Up organized by Salon Michelle’s Michelle Fawcett-Johnson. And I had absolutely nothing to do with it. But that ain’t gonna stop me from talking about it, no sirree! 😀

Now what?

As I said, I conveniently missed the downtown cleanup. So I walked along MVD and 7th Avenue today seeing the results and talking to local business people. Everyone is grateful of course, but there’s also the question of, “OK, Now what?”

One reason I am so jazzed about the idea of ‘cleanups’ in general is not about the trash per sé, but because they can act as a catalyst towards much more transformational change.

For example, what got Midway Park turned around was at least partly the cleanups and the Garden organized by Alena Rogers. At first, it was a bit disheartening to me because the trash began re-appearing almost immediately. So… another one was organized. And then another. And another. And for whatever reason, after a couple of years the changes became somewhat ‘sticky’. The cleanups are necessary less often. The crime has been reduced dramatically. It turns out that if people pay attention, good things happen. And after the area became more inviting, then the City came in with grants and new equipment. Next year the park will be extended even further. That’s one way real change occurs.

I’m so glad that Michelle got fired up enough to organize this. She did a great job. And I’m sure she’ll get even more people for the next cleanup. So perhaps, as with Midway Park, it will become a ‘thing’ beyond one person’s activism and drive much more substantial change.

But again, what will that change look like? I ask because we’ve already made a number of cosmetic improvements to MVD in the past few years–like the summer planters that everyone loves. Cool. But my feeling is that it’s time to really consider moving beyond cosmetics. You can make the place cleaner. You can reduce the number of vagrants. Those are good things and I am not minimizing those changes at all. They are real. But then you gotta take it to the next level.

So what does that look like? How can we leverage this enthusiasm into something more transformational–as is happening at Midway Park and Pacific Ridge?

Backwards

One thing that young people don’t realize is that what we think of as ‘the ‘business district’ along Marine View Drive isn’t where it’s supposed to be.  The reason MVD acts as such a traffic magnet is because it was always supposed to be the road heading south. The ‘business district’ should actually have been along Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Those two streets are the ‘walkable neighborhood’ that everyone always dreams about.

Somewhere along the way, previous city governments made the absolutely terrible decisions to literally flip those two functions–zoning for apartments and condos where the walkable business center should be. And then promoting businesses on cockamamie strip malls along MVD. That is what now makes it so difficult to create a cohesive ‘downtown’. And we did it for the same reason we’ve always done such things: short term cash from developers, with no consideration for the long-term implications. And that Dear Reader, is why I always grouse about ‘planning’.

Apparently, it’s not useful crying over spilt milk. But at the end of the day, that’s gonna be the challenge if we ever want to make Des Moines a ‘destination’. We’re gonna have to start incentivizing development to move the gravity of downtown back to where it was always meant to be. Which should take, oh I dunno, five maybe six weeks, right? 😀

Seriously, it’s gonna be hard. And it’s gonna take years. Which means that there will be resistance–as there is to anything challenging.  There is a momentum to planning mistakes which often keeps nudging one down the road to even more mistakes (like losing the Masonic Home and the Van Gasken House). It’s like a strong current in a river. But at some point, if you ever want your City to live up to its potential, you gotta start pushing back against that current.

Where was I?

Oh yeah, Michelle’s cleanup. 😀 I’m so glad that so many people signed up and followed through. Whenever I see a group of Des Moines residents get organized to do something like this I gets to dreaming about bigger things. 😉

Mid-Weekly Update: 01/14/2021

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Weekly Updates3 Comments on Mid-Weekly Update: 01/14/2021

This Weekly Update is even later than usual due to a big outage at my web hosting company. The entire web site was down, up, then down again for three days. Apparently, someone forgot to feed the hamster. 😀 Sorry for the inconvenience, but as always, it’s interesting to see just how many people are actually even noticing this thing. 😀

And yes, I did get my car back. It’s in the shop now trying to determine why the check engine light is now on.  😯 Thanks for all the nice notes. 🙂

Public Service Announcements

  1. The new round of Federal PPP loan program just opened up. And it is much better than the first round last year. If you need more information, here is a presentation from the Small Business Administration with lots of links to more information.
  2. There will be a Downtown Clean-Up this Saturday January 16th at 10AM organized by Salon Michelle’s Michelle Fawcett-Johnson. Show up at Salon Michelle to take part.
  3. Last month’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved! She is compiling a mailing list and is coordinating efforts to save the place. 🙂
  4. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  5. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  6. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”

This Week

Well…. this week is almost over so… You’ll just have to read about it next week. 😀

Last Week

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video, Recap)

Council Meeting Recap

Executive Session

The meeting opened with an Executive Session regarding possible legal stuff involving land stuff. I was admonished by the City Attorney to not be any more specific than that. 😀 No, really. But I will say that there was one attorney there who was not Tim George and who spoke for almost 50 minutes about how bad it might be for the City if any CM talks in public with regard to that possible legal land stuff. And then I asked some questions about how the public might do something about… er… something. The most titillating moments of the discussion involved the phrases ‘safe sex’ and ‘abstinence’. 😯 And then a couple of other CMs asked some questions… regarding this blog.  😀 Because, at the end, when the attorney who was not Tim George said at least twenty times, “I’m not singling out any particular Councilmember” I got the clear impression that about 50% of the whole thing was definitely for the benefit of one particular Councilmember.

But as I said from the dais: I’m about 100% sure that almost none of this should have been private. In fact, it contained information that the public should know about the proper role of the City (and Councilmembers) when it comes to…er…. ‘land stuff’. 😀 But ironically none of it was about that ‘land stuff’. Rather it was mainly about how concerned Cities must be about litigation. In short: it was an interesting civics lesson that we should try to find a legal way to present to interested residents.

Tree Cover

There was a really good presentation by Ali Lakehart of the Green Cities Partnership on tree cover in Des Moines. For me, the takeaway is that we have to find ways to have more trees in DM. The current estimated tree cover is 29%–which is a lot less than in the past due to the Port and commercial development. New residential developments tend not to have as many trees as older neighborhoods. Plus businesses have very few trees on their properties. Aside from aesthetics, trees are especially important in an airport community to maintain air quality and provide noise reduction. They can even improve yer mood. 🙂 (Seriously–look at the presentation.)

Masonic Home

But speaking of something which could not possibly have anything to do with the aforementioned Executive Session, City Manager Michael Matthias gave a great presentation on the current state of the Masonic Home.

And… that was about it. 😀 No, actually there was a Consent Agenda which was, unlike so many other meetings, exactly what a Unanimous Consent Agenda should be. Non-controversial. 🙂

Councilmember Comments

There were three sets of comments that were noteworthy. Which is about… oh… three more than usual. (I’m keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeding. 😀 )

Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney spoke practically about the storm water situation–how residents can and should report problems. Here is the City Fixit Form for reporting any kind of general problem you want the City to look at. He also reminded residents that it’s fine (and appreciated) to help out  and clear minor storm water clogs. (I would caution trying to unclog big openings, especially during storms like last night. The drains process tons of water and it’s slippier than ya think. We don’t want anyone getting injured trying to be a good citizen. 🙂 ) Frankly, as a member of the Environment Committee, I should be making those sorts of suggestions. Darn him. 😀

Luisa Bangs made a speech regarding the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol in Washington D.C. I generally don’t comment on national events unless they have a direct connection to something specific for Des Moines , but I agree with much of what she said and especially her passion on issues of racism.

The bulk of my comments had to do with a national issue that definitely has a direct link to Des Moines: The large number of people, especially people who serve the public, who are deciding not to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Frankly, I find this to be completely unacceptable.

All the leading scientists are quite clear: we will not get past COVID-19 until 80-90% of people are vaccinated. If electeds, public employees, front-line workers, business owners, religious leader and other influencers opt out that sets a horrible example for the rest of the public. We simply must create a sense of shared civic duty around this issue. I want to encourage every employee of the City Of Des Moines to set the right example and get vaccinated the moment it is offered. And as a resident, I want you also to get the shots as soon as possible! I know many of you have your reasons for not wanting the vaccine (eg. if yer a Black person in America you totally have yer reasons.) But do it anyway.  This is the only way we will all be able to be safe and go back to living normal lives.

As a nation, we’ve done just about everything wrong when it came to dealing with the pandemic. This is our chance to take control of the situation and finally put it to an end. Do the right thing. Get vaccinated. No excuses.

Weekly Update: 01/03/2021

Posted on Categories Airport, Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Weekly Updates6 Comments on Weekly Update: 01/03/2021

Happy New Year!

I’ve been on the job for one year. And frankly, it’s sometimes hard to tell how I’m doing–especially being in the minority, where one rarely wins the day. But perhaps one metric is this mailing list. Like so many things during the pandemic, it went up, down and sideways. But most weeks I got over 500 views. That’s either a lot of love or a lot of the other thing. 😀 But either way I got people talking.  I am very grateful for all the feedback.

2021 will be a big year for Des Moines. Once we get past this little pandemic-speed bump thing there will be an election for four Council seats. (not mine, Thank God. 😀 ) So I hope you’ll stay engaged and start making yourself heard!

Public Service Announcements

  1. Last month’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved! She is compiling a mailing list and is coordinating efforts to save the place. 🙂
  2. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  3. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  4. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”

This Week

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)

The highlight (as of this writing) will be something you don’t get to see: an Executive Session regarding the Masonic Home. And yeah, we’re starting the year the way we ended last year: I have been admonished by our City Attorney against speaking up in support of saving the place. Way to go First Amendment. NOT! 😀

I am not a fan of Executive Sessions–except to say that they are the only place I ever get to talk to my colleagues in any meaningful way.

The City (for the 46th time in 2020) stonewalled my basic requests for information on the Masonic Home. All the info that I (and CM Buxton) requested, which should be 100% public, has to (unnecessarily) wait for an Executive Session. I hope there is some seriously juicy info that I don’t know about which explains the lack of action over the past 10+ years. But for now, it just seems like another bit of vindictive behavior towards a Councilmember and that should not thrill you.

Last Two Weeks

Or: “How I spent my holidays.” 😀

Grand Theft Auto

First, my car was stolen from a well-lit public place. But the good news is that I got a first hand experience of the Des Moines PD handling car theft. The DM Officers were courteous as expected, but there were a few hiccoughs that other residents have told me about that I hope we can work on soon.

  • I got transferred 3xs during the 911 hand-offs. There are ongoing glitches in the whole 911 system. It’s not our City’s ‘fault’ per se, but it does need looking into as I hear this complaint from residents aaaaaaaaaall the time.
  • And I found out that if you want to get a routine copy of your police report, you have to make a public records request. My guess is that this confuses a lot of residents so I’d like to see a direct link on the PD page that says “Click here to get your police report.”
  • And in talking to both the police and residents and former police I get the distinct impression of “well, that’s life in 2021, whaddaya gonna do?” At the risk of sounding like ‘OK, Boomer’, I think we have to do something. It’s corrosive to the fabric of society to make what we used to call ‘grand theft auto’ into a collective shoulder shrug.

The Masonic Home

Second, I did spend a good deal of time researching the Masonic Home and I learned a few things: First, how totally aware the rest of Washington is about this building. I thought that at least a part of the reason it hadn’t been rescued was because no one else knows about it. Nope. Everybody at all levels of government and in philanthropy knows. And they want it to be saved. The message I heard over and over was that they’ve been waiting for our City to get fully engaged.

As I’ve written is at least part of the problem is philosophical. We have had an extremely strong tradition of property rights on our City Council, so no matter how special a building is, there will be lots of people who simply do not believe in the City getting involved. But the thing I want to stress is that no one I’ve spoken with wants anything but a healthy return for the current owner. Whatever solution that arises has to be a real win-win for all parties. And that shouldn’t be hard. There are many really great ideas for preserving the property and creating value for the owner.

The Airport and the water

Third, as you know, I’ve been continuing work on the History Of Sea-Tac Airport project with SeatacNoise.Info. Over the holidays, I did a ton of digging into the earliest days of Sea-Tac Airport–even before the big change of 1961. Now this whole ‘history’ game is not easy work because obviously, a lot of people are now gone. Also there’s the pandemic, so getting access to paper records is problematic.

This is Sea-Tac Airport c. 1948. The ‘x’ pattern is the original two runways. Shortly after Des Moines incorporated in 1959 the angled runway was removed and the horizontal runway was lengthened into what is now the First (east) runway–the one which tracks directly over so many of our schools on 24th. That was the ‘big change’.

I put this up because, if you’re under seventy-ish you probably don’t realize how much the entire landscape of our area has changed.  There was a marvelous wetland system that surrounded the airport (including underneath what are now the second and third runways.) There were houses and forests and active creeks with lots of fish from the back end on 188th all the way south to 216th.

Which is my way of leading up to telling you just how awful the Port (and the airlines) treated the surrounding environment until at least the 1970’s. But back then the issue was not so much noise or air pollution but water. For decades the airlines dumped raw aviation waste directly into every major creek as well as Puget Sound. One property owner famously demonstrated the problem by walking over to a rock in the north end of Des Moines Creek and setting it on fire with a lighted match! The damage the airport did to the entire eco-system is unbelievable and probably irreparable.

The Port has been successfully sued at least a dozen times to create and improve this state of affairs. In fact, those law suits over ‘water’ were the ones that held up Third Runway construction for over a decade; nothing to do with ‘noise’ or ‘air pollution’. Water. And the Port still hasn’t finished that clean up. Just this year they’re spending $800k to clean up Miller Creek in Burien. But that’s really just continuing to mitigate bad acts dating back to the 1950’s.

Other than giving you a sad story, the point for today has to do with expectations. See the Port is only paying to clean up that creek–nothing more. But when creeks die or the forests are cut down or homes are removed, it permanently damages the City. It reduces property values, increases our costs, makes our City less desirable, and it reduces our property tax rolls (which means we then have to tax you more to make up the lost income.)

Say I injured you in a car accident. You have surgery, but even after that you’ve got some permanent disability. I agree to pay for your surgery, but nothing else; nothing to help you deal with your ongoing problems, including permanent loss of income. Does that sound fair?

That has always been the essential problem with the airport–when it harms surrounding Cities it may pay the proximate costs (if one is willing to sue) but that is all. It never makes Cities whole by covering the true damages. And they can do that because, unlike other airports in America, we don’t own it. The Port does. And it is our failure, as airport communities, to have not fully recognized this inequity and done all we can to be fairly compensated.

Weekly Update: 12/21/2020

Posted on Categories Airport, Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Weekly Updates3 Comments on Weekly Update: 12/21/2020

Merry Christmas! And Happy Holidays and all that sort of thing. Just pretend I know how to insert a really clever ‘meme’ or Santa emoji <here>. 😀

Public Service Announcements

  1. Sunday’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved!
  2. Working Washington Small Business Grants (Round 3) If you have a small business of any kind do this now!
  3. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  4. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  5. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”

Last Week

Tuesday: South County Combined Are Transportation Board (SCATBd) Meeting.

Tuesday: Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Ferry Study. This is different from the study the City has launched with private consultants. The PSRC did not find evidence of sufficient demand for a State-run ferry. This matters because a private ferry system would likely be funded by airport and cruise ship operations. And the last thing in Des Moines should be doing is enabling more flights from Sea-Tac Airport.

Wednesday: A conference with Congressman Adam Smith regarding an FAA Rule Change which would, in effect, make the language of the State law HB 2315 (which allows the Port to repair and update pre-existing sound insulation systems) as a Federal regulation and thus of benefit to all American airport communities. The news was not good. According to his staff, there has been push back from electeds in district with airports. I have another private meeting scheduled to understand the ‘why’? Frankly, any congressman who votes against this is basically telling his residents, “I could care less about your health.”

The Masonic Home

There has been a certain amount of the old Much Ado About Nothing on social media this week in response to a Seattle Times Article about the impending demise of the Masonic Home.

As you know, I’ve been a big proponent of saving the place since, basically forever. I even made that one of my main campaign videos when I ran:

I want to clear up some misinformation, which I hope you will help me share to the public, because frankly, I get worn out countering the same stuff over and over and over and over. And over…  (Ah… I do believe I hear the native call of the Whiny Northwestern Sextagenarian 😀 )

  1. Neither the Seattle Times or Thunderword articles contain any new information. So all previous comments expressing the sentiment that “I guess it’s decided” are incorrect. Nothing has changed.
  2. The current status of the building is that it is owned by a private developer who keeps renewing a demolition permit with the City (demo permits have a 180 day expiration date, but are renewable.)
  3. Other than renewing that permit, the City claims that have had no contact from the developer, nor do they have any ideas on their intentions.
  4. There will be public hearings if/when the developer takes next steps towards either demolition or planning.
  5. And that makes me want to know why the reporter chose to do the story now. IOW: there’s no ‘news’ so why run this now?
  6. It also makes me wonder how the reporter picked up the story. IOW: we don’t get a ton of stories about DM so someone must’ve convinced the reporter to write this and get it printed. Who?
  7. And then there’s a line in there where the reporter says that, according to the City, “it was sold without any pushback from local residents”. This is simply untrue. The public has made it clear for over a decade that they really want the place saved. What they (we) have been told over and over and over and over by the City is that “there is nothing to be done about it.” The City has never made any serious efforts to save the building. It has been the City’s position that this is like any other private sale and in fact have made every effort to downplay any possibility that the public could play a part in saving the building.
  8. This bears repeating: The public was told over and over that there was nothing they could do. But that is not true. If the City had taken a position of fully supporting restoration and preservation, things could have gone quite differently. There have never been any town meetings or substantial form of public engagement to discuss the situation and ask the public to consider other options. (Contrast that with the Burien Annex–where the Burien City Council held several public meetings to discuss alternatives and really listen to stakeholders.)
  9. Finally, apart from saving the building, I have very practical concerns about the current zoning. Note that it was re-zoned as ‘IC’ which means an institutional purpose similar to Wesley or Judson. I have been told over and over by residents in the neighborhood that you are not thrilled with a significant increase in traffic at that intersection. And I don’t blame you.

Irish Castles?

Many of you will make the decidedly free-market argument that, “It’s a nice building, but… the Masons let it rot, so why should we foot the bill?” And my answer is “Irish Castles”.

As many of you know, I grew up in Ireland. And when Ireland first gained independence in the 20’s, we had hundreds of broken down castles left over from English landlords who, just like the Masons today, could no longer afford the upkeep on their very nice private properties. Now Ireland as a whole was dirt poor back then. Like Albania poor. Americans have no idea. So the huge argument for leaders was: sell these lands to farmers or developers for much needed short-term cash or preserve it for future generations. That is essentially the same choice as here: the City can promote a private sale and pocket the one-time money or help to invest in the property for the long-term good of the City.

Now a lot of those fancy lands were sold off for development, but the most significant of these falling down estates were turned into ‘monuments’; a policy which made absolutely no short-term financial sense. But over the long term this strategy has been an absolutely genius move for Ireland, both in terms of tourism and more general economic development. It turns out that having a truly unique place drives a lot of good things to your neighbourhood.

Every time the City Of Des Moines has renovated a building it has paid big dividends. Want proof? Just visit the Field House on 220th or the Beach Park Auditorium. Done right, historic preservation always pays over the long -term.

As I’ve written, the Masonic Home is one of the top five most significant combinations of architecture/grounds in the entire region. The competition is extremely thin because Puget Sound has never really placed a high value on historical buildings. All the more reason to save this amazing property for future generations It’s completely unique and it’s all ours.

One last thing for me to gush on. As anyone who approaches Des Moines from the water, the Masonic Home is the defining landmark. Not the Marina; the Masonic Home. For me as a sailor, it literally guides one home to Des Moines.

Costs?

As jazzed as I am about the place, I fully acknowledge that the costs of renovating the place would be somewhere between ‘seriously expensive‘ and ‘are you shitting me, dude?‘.

In addition to all the other work that was never done, there are probably earthquake retrofits, hazmat remediation and on and on and on. It’s not a money pit, it’s probably a money crater from that asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs.

And. I. do. not. care.

This is the one time you will hear me talk about going big on public spending because I believe I can make a strong case that, in addition to the historic importance of the building, the Masonic Home is essential to the City’s long term financial and civic success–certainly as much as the Marina.

I hope it goes without saying that we can’t do it all on our own. We should aggressively court investors and Federal and State funding. And we’ve got some of the best legislators at both levels to help us do it (as well as infrastructure spending likely coming in the next administration.) But we have to be willing to do at least our part.

The South End

The City of Des Moines is actually a collection of about a dozen annexations from the original very small geography established in 1959. And since then almost all of the City’s resources have focused on this northern end of town. But nowadays, the majority of residents actually live in the southern portions of town acquired through all those annexations.

But despite being the true majority, the South end of Des Moines has no public buildings, no community center and a complete deficit of parks. Reclaiming the Masonic Home as some combination of City Hall, Community Center, light commercial space (restaurants, professional) would give the South end the connection to the City they have been missing out on for decades.

Destination Des Moines?

We’ve been talk, talk, TALKING about ‘making Des Moines a destination‘ since I’ve lived here. And I know many of you are sick of all that talk. I know I am. The last time we really invested in this City’s future was in 1971 when we opened the Marina. I think once every fifty years isn’t too often to put our money where our mouth is. That is, if we ever hope to get to that destination.

How I got so interested in Code Enforcement

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Public SafetyTags , Leave a comment on How I got so interested in Code Enforcement

In 2010 I moved away for a year and rented out my house here. Now back then, in order to rent out yer house, the City required aspiring landlords to do a couple of things: first you paid a $40(?) fee and second you became part of a database with your current address and phone number so that your neighbors could track you down if your renters were misbehaving and finally you had to take a class run by Community Service Officer Tonya (which was great by the way.) The class taught all kinds of neat-o stuff like how not to discriminate, your relationship with renters, etc. Sweet.

In 2011, I moved back and shortly thereafter I found that several of my neighbors had flipped their houses (as was so popular back then.) And the new owners were using their homes as rental properties. Unfortunately, the renters who had moved into these houses just suuuuucked. I mean suuuuucked. So I went to the City, because I knew from my ‘landlord class’ that we had a Code Enforcement Officer. And she told me that since my time as a landlord the City had rescinded the above landlord code. No fee, no database, no school. Which meant no accountability.

What I learned first hand is that when landlords cannot be easily held accountable for their renters, chaos tends to ensue. The City’s Code at the time made it almost impossible for people like me to locate the landlords of these bad renters (because, let’s be honest: a lot of these landlords did not particularly want to be found.)

And I did call the City. And SKFR. Many times. They were on a first-name basis with all the ne’er do-wells. They were sympathetic to me, but told me plainly that there was nothing they could do ‘until a crime is committed.’ The City Code was not designed to deal pro-actively with these kinds of situations.

So after many months of frustration I walked up the hill to City Hall on a Thursday night at 7pm and made my first public comment. And the Council just stared at me. (Just like they stare at you.) Which totally pissed me off. So I kept coming back. And kept getting stared at. But in the meantime, I found that the City had been threatened with a lawsuit from the Rental Housing Association–a group I had joined in order to be a ‘good landlord’. They objected to any form of ‘regulation’ on landlords and rather than litigate the City caved. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the whole thing seemed started to sour me on the Des Moines government. My issue seemed like exactly the sort of basic ‘blocking and tackling’ that City government should handle: keeping your street safe, clean and quiet.

Plus, since we were in the dark times of Des Moines financial problems, the Code Enforcement program was gutted–which I thought was just a terrible policy choice. It sent a very clear message about values.

The net effect of this on me personally and my street was this: Three of my long-time neighbors moved away–specifically because of these jerk renters. One of the rental homes was burned down to the studs by the renter. And another home was completely trashed by a meth-head who would store 10-20 thousand pounds of stolen wire (stealing copper was his day job) in the back yard. All it to0k was two crappy renters (or should I say, crappy landlords) to devastate my street. A street with half a dozen school-age kids.

To his credit, a few years later, at the end of his mayoralty, I got a nice letter  Dave Kaplan, informing me that the City had taken my complaints to heart and was revamping its Code Enforcement program. As you can imagine, I was initially very skeptical.

I’ve got a nose for it…

Fast forward to 2020. I am pleased to report that the situation is much better. Because of my bad experience, I had developed something of a ‘bad property radar’. I can spot troubled properties from far away. And during my campaign, I walked every single block of Des Moines. And I heard hundreds of complaints about ‘that one house’ that makes the entire block nervous. And. I. get. it.

Animal Control Officer and Code Enforcement Update

The thing that is not on the presentation Officer Batterman gave was a very good comment from Chief Thomas: Code Enforcement pays. If done properly, it should basically pay for itself. You can see that it’s at least $100k a year in City revenue when done well. That’s not a bad thing like some speed trap. It’s a good way to measure effectiveness simply because there’s a lot of work left to do in Des Moines.

Now, am I 100% happy? Of course not. 😀 But I gotta be fair. It’s much better than it was. And I want you to know that, on a street by street level this is my number one issue. I moved here because Des Moines had a great reputation for its neighborhoods. Gardens were well tended. People understood that the way their house and street looked mattered.

If you have a Code Enforcement issue, please go to the City Code Enforcement Complaint page or call Officer Kory Batterman directly at (206) 870-7617.

Weekly Update: 10/25/2020

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Taxes, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesLeave a comment on Weekly Update: 10/25/2020

PSA: You may have heard that there is an election coming. There was a Candidate’s Forum October 14th and it wouldn’t hurt to watch it. Write me if you need a Voter’s Pamphlet: I have extras! And if you don’t get your ballot?  please email elections@kingcounty.gov or give them a call at 206-296-VOTE (8683). MONDAY IS THE LAST DAY TO REGISTER!

This Week

Tuesday: Port of Seattle regular Commission Meeting (Agenda) This meeting will present the 2021 Tax Levy. Their Budget proposes to increase  this item on your taxes by 3%, which I find outrageous given the pandemic.

Wednesday: have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Stakeholder Advisory Round Table (StART) Meeting (Agenda): The discussion will include the 2020 Legislative Agenda. Recognizing that this is also the Port’s agenda, it is fairly timid. I will testify as to the complete lack of understanding on Port Package ‘failures’.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) General Assembly (Agenda).

Last Week

Monday: Meeting with Finance Director Beth Anne Wroe. Not much to report on that in particular. Of greater concern is that fact that my City Manager literally refused to take a phone call to answer any questions on anything. Have I already used the word ‘outrageous’ in this article? 😀 That said, I mentioned last week that I wanted an improved web site like this and by using plucky initiative I’ve figured out what it would take to make it happen. One way or another, we are going to improve our public outreach during my time in office. Or I’ll… I’ll… I dunno what I’ll do. 😀

Tuesday: South County Area Transportation Board (SCATbd).

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee. (On their web site I got to the meeting info in two clicks. Which made me happy. 🙂 )

Wednesday: have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: Economic Development Committee Meeting. (Agenda)  This was a big deal. There was a Buildable Lands Study that I could do 2,500 words on and some talk about the Marina redevelopment which also deserves some real talk, but I’ll save that for another time.

Thursday: City Council Meeting (see below) (Agenda., Video).

Saturday: McSorley Creek with Trout Unlimited. Yes, it’s that time of the year again: Counting the Salmon! Show up at 10:00AM if you want to be a counter. 🙂

Now this is more like it…

Last week’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) and City Council Meetings (City’s recap here) were much more like what I expected when I ran for office. As you know, I ran as a ‘change’ candidate. I was able to convince enough voters that something had to change. But the job now is, in many ways, a lot harder because the things that need changing aren’t a bunch of evil men twirling their mustaches.

Des Moines has been heading in the wrong direction for a long time. Our government keeps doing things for short term benefit. But in the long run, have slowly lead further and further from making the City a ‘destination’ (to use that now tired cliche.) But because these policies often seem to make sense in the moment they have been difficult to change. They are well-intentioned; they’re just not in the City’s long-term best interest. It’s like telling me to lay off the ice cream when it’s right there on the counter. It’s a hard sell (sigh.)

You want it now

As I keep saying, a City is where the rubber meets the road. It’s the one place where voters actually expect responsiveness from government. And most voters are concerned with now, not ten years from now. When I moved here, everybody on my street had been here for two decades–and that was typical for homeowners in Des Moines. In 2020? The average homeowner sticks around for 5-7 years. So their interest is in ‘how can you help me now‘. Keep my taxes low. Keep me safe. And don’t rock the boat. I get it.

Unfortunately, many that thinking runs contrary to what it takes to make Des Moines (finally) live up to its potential as a waterfront community.

It’s coming…

The reason I have been yammering about the PSRC and all this ‘regional’ junk since I got elected is because, in addition to the short term interests of current residents there are intense forces at the State and regional level which also push Des Moines to only consider the short view.

We are on the cusp of having to make development decisions that I guarantee most of you will not appreciate if you care about Des Moines more than a few years out. But they will be irresistible because a) they will provide short term cash and b) the State and PSRC will be nagging us to do them–and attempting to punish us if we do not.

I see one of my primary tasks to push back. Because this is existential for our future and I am not being hyperbolic. Our long-term desire to (finally) make Des Moines the historic and unique place it was meant to be run smack into the desires of many developers, the State, the County, the PSRC and the Port Of Seattle. They will offer us lots of things that look fabulous in the short term, but will inevitably lead to minimizing the very things that make Des Moines special. City Councils come and go, but overall, our development plan has been wrong since before decades. I will explain my positive vision for the City in detail in the months ahead.

SKHHP: Affordable Housing

The actual City Council Meeting was pretty innocuous. I want to highlight a couple of questions I had which probably seemed like me grousing a bit, but they matter. The first was in response to Traci Buxton’s comments on this thing:

19054 ILA South King Housing and Homelessness Partnership

We were asked to approve a directive clarifying our City’s position on SKHHP–essentially, giving Councilmember Buxton guidance on the City’s goals when *she represents us. Here is the guidance we approved:

  1. Policy decisions that directly affect the City or that create mandates should be made by the City Council and not by the SKHHP board.
  2. Primary focus of SKHHP should be on the production and preservation of affordable housing as stated in the Interlocal Agreement that created the partnership.
  3. Policy decisions made by SKHHP should prioritize the preservation of affordable housing and the creation of affordable housing, while also balancing the interests of those who provide it.

Now that all looks pretty sensible, harmless and vague. But it matters because what I’ve been trying to tease out from our City is the actual purpose of SKHHP. The fact that we need to add this sort of ‘fluff’ indicates that there is not a clear agreement (yet) as to the goals–or at least a concern that the process might be hijacked. If so, I want to know what the goals of other Cities might be that could conflict with ours? The title of the group includes the word ‘homelessness’. Great. We should definitely tackle that problem. But though the two topics converge, affordable housing is not the same thing as ‘homelessness’. Not by a country mile.

What I keep trying to get at is: what are we willing to do? I want transparency. The problem is that the issues SKHHP needs to tackle are, like all land use and zoning and housing issues totally nuclear divisive. I get why decision makers would want to keep it vague until the last possible moment. But I would much prefer that we do work to get buy-in from our residents up front, rather than working on programs that may come as a unpleasant surprises down the road. That is exactly what went wrong with the Woodmont Recovery Clinic. It was a noble cause (helping people climb out of addiction) but it was implemented in a way to generate maximum †FUD.

Video

Show me the numbers

The second question I had was during the Budget Public Hearing and was about ‘trends’. I referred to page 49 of the 2021 Preliminary Annual Budget , which is the only place in the document that charts a five year forecast.

I asked what I thought was a fairly easy question: How do you make that forecast? Now check out the responses from our City Manager.

Video

Now that you’ve watched that exchange, do you have any idea how the City estimates 2023, 2024, 2025? If so, please email me. Because I sure don’t. It’s the defensiveness that always gets my antennae up. I asked a perfectly reasonable question and got nowhere. And the end of the discussion was our Mayor saying, “Asked and answered.” As if this were a trial, not a reasonable discussion.

I’m not here to cross-examine anyone. I just wanted to know what any business person would want to know: What are your assumptions? It turned something routine into even more *FUD and I can never understand why. If they’d simply give me the information I request, I’d be happy as a clam. 🙂

You gotta sell me on this…

We often hear from candidates how they want to run government ‘like a business’. Our Mayor often talks about how the City Of Des Moines is structured like a Corporation. It’s not ‘like’ a corporation it is a corporation.

But municipal corporations are not  businesses. And definitely not when it comes to decision making. Yeah, you get to vote for City Council, but beyond that, the government gets to ram an awful lot of stuff down yer throat if it wants to. If it were a business, it would have to actually sell you on its ideas. It would have to market like crazy to get your buy-in on plans that you won’t necessarily like right now, but will ultimately make your life better ten years from now on.

Governments are not known for being particularly good marketers and the public often refuses to eat their vegetables. And more and more the public is interested in the short term. So it’s just a lot simpler for the government to do what it wants and not bother asking.

I strongly disagree. We have the obligation to be very clear on both the good and the painful parts of our policies. We should sell difficult ideas and only act unilaterally when absolutely necessary.

Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth? Sure thing. I’m a low rent politician. 😀 I’m going to propose a lot of ideas that you may find challenging in the short term. Because I’m certain these are things that will make Des Moines really special for you in the long term. And I’m also going to work my bananas off to get your sincere buy in. That salesmanship is something the City has not done well at all over the years–because, again, it doesn’t have to ask for permission. It doesn’t have to sell you. To the extent I can, I hope to change that approach.

*Minor detail: I am the City’s Alternate Representative to SKHHP. To date I have not been invited to any meetings or notified on any of its activities. I’ve already used ‘outrageous’ and ‘unprofessional’. Thank goodness I’m done with this article. I’m running out of adjectives. 😀

†FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

Weekly Update: 07/19/2020

Posted on Categories Engagement, Neighborhoods, Policy, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesTags , Leave a comment on Weekly Update: 07/19/2020

This Week

Monday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda and information on attending via Zoom)

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Highline Forum. There will be a discussion of recent studies on UltraFine Particulate pollution

Last Week

Wednesday: Lunch at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines meeting. The big news is that King County has recognized the great work they do and renewed their grant funding for another three years!

Thursday: Attending Municipal Facilities and Economic Development Committee meetings

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video). See recap below.

Meeting Recap

We’ve been in this state of emergency so long, I think it’s worth reminding people that our current meeting agendas are not ‘normal’. We’re jamming months and months of work from earlier in the year onto our Consent Agenda. It concerns me because all this stuff doesn’t get the same hearing it would in normal times–when such work would be regular agenda items. The view of my colleagues often seems to be “Stop worrying. We have the best City Manager in the State of Washington.”

But that’s not the point. Even if Mr. Matthias was the GOAT of City Managers, it sidesteps one of the two main purposes of a City Council: oversight. If you stop even questioning these decisions, you’re not doing your job. All muscles atrophy when not regularly exercised.

A Consent Agenda is supposed to be routine items that are so obvious as to require no discussion and that’s not what we have on our Consent Agenda. Here are the three items from this meeting, that my colleagues and I thought were worth at least some discussion.

Item #3 Trees

We were asked to approve what, at first glance, looked like a fairly routine adjustment to a building plan at Blueberry Lane. (I have had a lot to say about Blueberry Lane as it relates to the airport.) But in this case we were unknowingly allowing the developer to cut down three Sequoias planted fifty years ago by one of the original employees of Hammond Ashley Violin Shop (Remember them? I sure miss ’em.) Those trees are meant to live 2,000 years. Not 50.

What bugs me in this case is that we have all these policies talking about ‘how much we value our tree canopy’, blah, blah, blah. But there is nothing in the City building code that requires a builder to work around that situation, or even inform that Council when it comes up. In a terrible example of data processing (since fixed–thanks, Bonnie) Councilmembers only got to read an email from this resident ten minutes before the meeting!  For decades we say we’re working to protect the City’s trees, but every time we face a decision? We say, “Oh what a shame” and do nothing. Between the Des Moines Business Park and all the housing developments of the past decade we’ve lost a tremendous amount of tree cover. And we have got to start doing a better job of protecting what remains.

Item 6: Another vote I regret

On the Consent Agenda was approval of a significant raise for our union workers (primarily at the Marina). The negotiations were well under way just before COVID-19 struck. And the Council had an Executive Session to discuss it. We were not given many specifics except that, before we were asked to vote on it, there would be another briefing to flesh out the details. That second briefing never occurred. Instead, the Agenda Packet simply included the contract plus a lengthy explanation of why it was a fantastic deal for all concerned. However, in the Item Description there was also this rather ominous paragraph describing what might happen if we voted ‘no’:

The Council could choose not to approve the Agreement and direct the City Manager to continue negotiations with the Teamsters. However, that would likely damage the City's relationship with the Teamsters following a collaborative negotiation process...

And then…

Should the Council choose not to approve the Agreement, there is a possibility the Teamsters would file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

This is what is known as an ultimatum. By making a handshake agreement with the union before talking to the City Council, the City essentially dared the Council to not approve it. And I don’t like that because my job is to represent you the voters. In other words: the City is not management. You are. It’s your money the City is negotiating.

So I would have preferred to hold off on approving any spending increases until after our August 6th Budget Retreat; or at least to have the promised Executive Session. Because you want to be able to ask questions without annoying the workers (who did negotiate in good faith, of course) and putting the deal at risk.

See here’s the thing: We have been told time and again that we will not understand the City’s finances until that Budget Retreat. So until August 6th none of the Council have any idea where the City’s finances are. My colleagues keep going on about how we can’t approve any spending until we get the numbers. And I could not agreee more. Which is why I find their willingness to sign off on this with no questions asked a bit puzzling.

And let’s be clear: I have been a very happy member of three unions in my career. Organised labour is something I believe in deeply.  But Executive Session (the kind we were promised) was made for this situation. As I keep saying, the Open Public Meetings Act make talking things like this over outside of council meetings almost impossible. You need a way to be able to discuss difficult things like this with candor and Executive Session is that way.

So since I wasn’t able to have that private conversation, I voted with the majority to approve this. Because a deal is a deal. But next time? I want to be asked about the deal before it’s made. Because it’s your money we’re spending.

Item #8: Financial Management System Software

This is really good news. We’ve had absolutely ancient software for years and years. This has made it tougher to get the work done, slowed resident services and basically cost the City a lot of money in reduced productivity. It’s hard to spend money on ‘accounting software’ but this is one expenditure I am glad to say yes to.

The only reason I wanted a discussion is because I had a question about the possibilities of an add-on component which allows for self-service. Self-service is easier to show than tell. So to give you a small taste of what that is, check out ClearGov. Think about how many questions the public routinely asks (like ‘paid parking revenue’ which was supposed to be on this week’s Agenda.) Imagine if the public could get answers to pretty much any routine question about the budget or their taxes or how the city works with a simple search–and without bugging already over-worked staff? That’s one purchase I’d be thrilled to approve.

Coda: Public Records Requests

On a related note: there was all this ricketa-racketa this week about Paid Parking. Many people know I talked it up last year and asked me for all kinds of detailed stats and it was a busy week and I just didn’t have a lot of time for re-litigating that whole thing–especially when it wasn’t actually on the Agenda. So I blew everyone off! There, I said it! 😀 I did not spew back copious stats proving once again what a money-loser that who….

Not gonna do it. 😀

But the silver lining is that even if I let you down, information-wise, you can always do a Public Records Request (PRR) at the City web site. And unlike me, the City will do it’s best to answer your question.  That is State law. So if you have super-detailed questions on anything, the PRR is your friend and more people should use that tool.

Now, no City is necessarily thrilled to hear me advertise this service. PRRs take staff time so a lot of Cities consider them a real pain in the municipal derriere. To which I say, Tough Noogies! Your right to information from your government is constitutional, baby. So take advantage of the service. 🙂

One caveat: we currently have a really onerous PRR system. But that is also something I want to change as we improve our IT systems. You’ll see what I mean when you do your first one–it’s not as quick or easy as it should be. Again, since it’s easier to show than tell, if you want to see what the luxury model PRR System looks like, check out The Port Of Seattle NextRequest System. That is what we need in Des Moines.

Why do we need this? Well, if you look at the Port’s system, maybe the first thing you’ll notice is that you can search through all the historic PRRs. In many cases, someone has already asked exactly the same question (or a very similar question) so you can get the answers you want without even creating a new PRR. That not only improves transparency, it saves them money on staff research. Our PRR system? It has no index. No ‘search’. So you have no idea what has been asked or when or by whom. Maybe ten people have already asked a question like, “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” But you can’t see that.

(Philosophical loop of the day: You would have to place a PRR in order to find out how many people had previously done PRRs asking “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” Trippy, right?)

My fondest wish is to make as much of our government’s work as easy to access as possible, both for you and for our staff. The thing I suspected (and then learned after my campaign) is how much room there is for improvement in educating our residents. We don’t have a newspaper and that means we don’t have anyone doing research on the public’s behalf. It’s great that we have ‘social media’, but without actual facts, it’s just people sharing rumours and opinions. Tools like the Public Records Request make it possible for people like you to do real research and then share facts. So the easier we make it for you to lay yer hands on that data, the easier it is for you to spread the word and improve the voting in this here town.

This was always my fiendishly clever political strategy–well-educated voters. 🙂

Tearing down the Van Gasken House makes Des Moines poorer

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy, TransparencyTags , ,

Said it before, say it again:  The vote at the July 9 2020 City Council Meeting to demolish the Van Gasken House breaks my heart. The City’s presentation was indeed a presentation; a sales presentation, designed to distract the public from the fact that they had intended to demolish the place all along. And they did it by making a bunch of really misleading and exaggerated arguments about the cost of keeping the place and how little intrinsic value it has for this community. The public deserves objectivity and transparency. And once again, they did not get it. And yeah, I’m mad about it.

This is a long post, mainly because the meeting presentation was basically six against one and there was almost no time to rebut all the blather. Just skip down to the Talking Points section for a quick rundown, then read the rest for more depth.

The original deal

Now when Forterra loaned us the money to purchase the property back in 2017, everyone (including me) thought it was a fantastic idea. I think everyone was also under the assumption that the house would be preserved along with the property. However, we were told that there was some urgency to the financing because it was a three year loan.

So it was quite surprising when the City came up with a way to pay the note back early. This was seen as another example of the excellent financial management we were now experiencing. From financial catastrophe to early pay-offs in less than two years!

Bad faith

However, I object to the way the City paid off the loan. $300,000 of that re-payment money was a State grant that required the City to tear down the home. And then, after already destroying the landscaping and making the place look like absolute hell, the City applied for another $500,000 grant from the same State Agency in order to redevelop the property!

The moment the City applied for that first State grant it knew the house had to come down. Rather than be patient and use the full three years it had to search for ways to repay the initial loan and keep the house, it rushed to get repayment money as quickly as possible–and thus doomed the house.

Think I’m being too harsh? Ask yourself this: Did the City ever call out to any of our very generous local foundations or to the community at large for partnerships in saving the house? I received contact from three County organizations who said that they had never been approached by the City for funding when the property was originally purchased. Typically when there is something beloved in a community that becomes at risk, the public is engaged to find solutions. That never happened. We now have several successful renovation projects under our belts that have been funded in just this way. So the public should have had a chance to weigh in on the issue, understand the urgency and be able to help save the home.

We saved it from the condos!

One argument I heard made over and over at the meeting was, “Maybe we’re losing an iconic house, but at least we prevented another condo!” This is a joke. Yes, the property was zoned as multi-family. But stop and think for a minute: who exactly controls zoning in this town? The State? No. The County? No. The Russians? 😀 No. Your City Council, that’s who. At any time, the City Council could have had the foresight to re-zone various parts of the downtown for better purposes.

Unfortunately, the reason the entire downtown ‘went condo’ starting in the 70’s was because your City Council over and over has decided to let that happen. The idea of giving up the best parts of the city for multi-family units could only have seemed like a good idea in a place that has no concern for long-term planning. It was quick, one-time money.

We could have, at any time, had the foresight to rezone the Van Gasken property to make sure it would be preserved. We didn’t. We lacked vision. That’s on us. As with the grant, even more we painted ourselves into a corner.

So to say, “We saved the place from going condo!” is a bit rich.

It’s not really historic

OK, fine. How do you define historic? George Washington slept there? Harriet Tubman was born there? The Battle Of Des Moines was fought there? (I may have made that up. 😀 ) If any of those were a requirement, none of Capitol Hill would be preserved; none of Tacoma’s older neighborhoods would be preserved. Most of the time, people preserve and refurbish old homes simply because they treasure the look (the aesthetic argument).

Having been built in 1889 (the same year Washington became a State), the simple fact is that the Van Gasken House is one of the oldest standing structures in the entire State Of Washington and certainly one of the first built in Des Moines. The history of the house gives people today a great idea of what life was like here for the original settlers.

Aesthetics?

Frankly most of the arguments come down to aesthetics. (And I’ll bet a lot of people just made up their mind seeing the word ‘aesthetics’ 😀 )

You either think the place is cool and special. Or you don’t. Some of that is generational. Some of it is where you were brought up. Frankly, here on the West Coast, we have less interest in history. Unless you’re Native American, there isn’t much stuff to ‘preseve’. We tend to like ‘new’ out here, at least partly because the entire area is only 130 years old.

Yes, but it’s been updated too many times!

We were told that the home was not historic because it had been ‘updated’. That is a pre-condition that does not exist in many parts of America for a very good reason: it doesn’t make sense. Why? Because–news flash–people actually live in houses! Most the remaining really old homes throughout America have been updated with extravagances like furnaces and linoleum and copper plumbing and… wait for it… electricity. Woooooh. 😀

You can’t expect people to live in a 100 year old home and keep it ‘vintage’ like it was a Model-T or old comic book. It’s not a ‘collectible’, it’s a house. Planning committees in cities all across America understand this basic reality. And home restorers expect to have to remove the ‘updates’ in order to bring the home back to its original condition. To make ‘all original’ a pre-condition for calling a home ‘historic’ makes about as much sense as saying that a classic car is no longer ‘historic’ because the ninth owner added air-conditioning! If you want to restore it to original condition, you simply remove the air-conditioning. Ta Da!

Culturally, we have had very little regard for preservation. The percentage of homes that have been preserved on the West Coast is almost nil compared to the East Coast for the simple reason that: we haven’t valued it. We have typically voted to tear down and rebuild.

So all the zoning and building codes heavily favour ‘new’ over ‘old’. It is very onerous out here to renovate. But  on the East Coast (as well as where I’m from), houses and indeed entire neighborhoods are preserved for no other reason than that they like the look of old places. (And why not? Many areas go back over 300 years!) They tend to value history more than we do. The closest we have to that here are neighborhoods like Capitol Hill or Tacoma. And personally, I think they are among the most attractive neighborhoods anywhere. Here? If a home is more than thirty years? It’s old.

Building Departments here want people to build new and not restore. It’s a cultural choice that people made decades ago when everyone preferred new and shiny out. (They also preferred plastic and TV dinners and Kool-Aid.)

But all that said, a large part of the reason the costs to renovate seemed so high was because we chose a grant that made them high. Again: When we originally bought the property, we could have found other sources of funding that were friendly to preservation. They are out there!

Are we a destination?

Since I’ve lived here, I’ve been hearing about how “We want Des Moines to be a destination!” Destination this, destination that. Destination, destination, destination. I am sick of it. The fact is, we’re not a destination. Which is odd considering we’re a deep water port, with a full-service marina, State Park and not one but two beaches! So why aren’t we a destination?

The fact is that Puget Sound and indeed, the entire length of our coastline has an embarrassment of riches. People in most parts of America would kill for that feature list. But around here? A lot of places have similar offerings. And yet they are destinations and we are not.

For a place to be a ‘destination’, it has to not only have have big ticket draws, it also has to have character. You have to have a story. Think about the places, the hotels, the restaurants you go to that are special. Most of the time it’s not the ocean or the room or the food that’s the entire draw. A nice place has a certain ‘vibe’: a theme, a decor, details that make it memorable. All nice places have great views. But they also have dozens and dozens of ‘extras’ that make people want to come back. Without unique landmarks, without a story there is literally no difference between one waterfront town along Puget Sound and another.

The Van Gasken House is unique. It’s beloved by generations and it has a story. It’s not a huge story, but that’s not the point. Landmarks like the Van Gasken House are exactly the kind of detail that gives a place real character and makes it valuable, not only to the locals, but to visitors. You have to have many such spots in order to make the entire place matter.

Yes, we can put in a nice, modern park. We may even put in some Native American sculpture or commemorative plaque to make ourselves feel good about ourselves. But let’s be honest: such a place will not draw visitors. And the reason is, it will be a contrivance. It can never have the story that the Van Gasken House has that is intrinsic to that place. It will have no character. It will not make visitors care about that spot and want to return over and over. It will add no real value to the place.

Value

And value is what it’s all about. Everyone complained about ‘the cost’ of keeping the property. Let’s put aside the the quoted costs for a moment–because they were based on the dubious notion that we would never be able to find alternate funding. Some people in Des Moines have short memories. I also remember exactly the same complaints every time any we talk about renovating any local landmark. The cries ‘tear it down, it’s too expensive!’ come out.

If we’d listened to these people we would now not have the Fieldhouse (log cabin).

If we’d listened to these people we would now not have the Beach Park.

Those are just two examples of projects that were considered ‘too expensive’. In both cases, your City Council seriously considered tearing them down. And in both cases, wiser heads prevailed and successfully obtained outside funding to renovate them. Can any of us now imagine Des Moines without those buildings? With the benefit of hindsight, it seems ridiculous that we ever thought to destroy them. But that is exactly what we are now doing to the Van Gasken House.

Talking Points

  • The current City management preferred to get rid of the Van Gasken House. From the moment it was purchased they chose to pursue funding, repeatedly that did not allow for preservation.
  • There is no evidence that the City tried to develop a plan for redevelopment that included keeping the house. It could have engaged both the community and local foundations in order to do so as it had done with many other projects.
  • The Van Gasken House has been altered significantly over time. But no more so than thousands of homes that have been renovated as public landmarks. Such ‘updates’ are not unusual. The issue only came up in this case because of the unique requirements of the grant the City chose to re-pay its loan.
  • Des Moines government has a history of not valuing its most precious land. Over the decades, zoning has favored developers and handcuffed the City’s options in preserving important landmarks.
  • It has always been a struggle to preserve local landmarks. Advocates for preservation have had to fight to retain and renovate buildings such as the Fieldhouse and the Beach Park complex.
  • The costs of renovating the Van Gasken House were likely exaggerated in several ways. The City had torn up the property, which created further pressure to accept the grant requiring demolition.
  • We had three years to search for monies that would support restoration but chose instead a rapid repayment scheme which required demolition.
  • There was no evidence presented that the City ever tried to approach other agencies, local foundations or the community with a restoration plan–even though a large majority of the community would have undoubtedly supported such efforts.
  • There is a value to a City in preserving landmarks like the Van Gasken House which cannot be quantified in terms of building costs. Such elements are essential in making towns like Des Moines into real ‘destinations’–far more so than generic parks which have no intrinsic history. Places like the Van Gasken House contribute to making a town a place that residents take more pride in and visitors find more appealing.

Finally

If the City intended all along to tear down the house it should have said so from the beginning. I think the majority of residents would have strongly disagreed with that decision, but at least it would have been out in the open for an honest debate.

Again, if you don’t think history matters or you didn’t like the looks of the Van Gasken House, fine. Some of the public may have thought that the City was saving money (based on the City’s disingenuous presentation), but quite the opposite. Regardless of what is put in its place, the value of Des Moines (both in terms of goodwill and in raw dollars) will be diminished when the house is removed. We just voted to make ourselves poorer.