Debriefing on Block 21: Where land use and labor intersect – and where they don’t.

January 11th, 2016

Today, the Seattle City Council faced a difficult vote. We voted to grant the Block 21 Alley Vacation to Amazon, Inc., with an amendment regarding free speech protections on the property, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Burgess, Herbold and myself. Normally, an alley vacation is not a particularly controversial decision; it’s a part of the lifecycle of an urban center like Seattle. Further, there is an arduous process in place for developers seeking a vacation, with public hearings, approval from several departments as well as a vote by the Seattle City Council. This process is in place to ensure that we do not take the ceding of public land lightly or without significant public benefit. And we do not.

In this case, however, we faced a tough choice. On the one hand, the developer, Amazon, has followed all the steps of the application process correctly and appropriately. The public benefit, public revenue, design approval and voluntary support of the free speech amendment we proposed were all at or above the standards the city has set. However, there is one glaring issue. The security contractor used by Amazon, Security Industry Specialists, Inc. (SIS) has a long and difficult history, in this city and in others, of violating worker’s rights. Naturally, as a former civil rights attorney, this was extremely concerning to me, as well as many of my colleagues.

Why then, you might ask, would we vote to approve this alley vacation? The short answer is this: because a land use vote is not the place to have this discussion. Not legally, not correctly and not in a way that ensures a victory. I am extremely concerned about the claims being made by the employees of this Amazon subcontractor. However, I respect that there is a process here that we, as city councilmembers, are responsible for following.

Below, please see the letter that I have sent to Amazon’s Director of Global Real Estate and Facilities, John Schoettler. I urge him to be a good neighbor to this city and to act on the moral imperative that comes with corporate leadership on this scale. As the child of migrant farmworkers and a former former migrant farmworker myself, there is nothing I take more seriously than claims of worker mistreatment.

Read the Letter
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