Public-spirited skyscrapers

SAGE Coalition seeks to link social justice and land use.

DOWNTOWN SKYSCRAPERS have seldom been considered good citizens. But some local activists are hoping that in addition to generating traffic, sucking up electricity, and blocking views, these big buildings can someday help low-wage hotel workers move up the economic ladder. Leading the push for kinder, gentler skyscrapers is SAGE (short for Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone), a coalition of unions, housing advocacy groups, environmentalists, and religious organizations. Dana Wise, SAGE spokesperson and employee of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 8, points out that the rapid growth in the number of downtown hotel rooms has created large numbers of low-wage jobs. More than one-third of the city's 14,000 hotel employees are room cleaners, who make $7 to $8 per hour, he notes. "Are we going to replace Boeing with a massive low-wage industry? It sure looks that way."

SAGE wants to muscle into the ongoing debate over proposed changes to size limits on Seattle's downtown skyscrapers. The coalition wants the developers of new downtown hotels to be required to obtain a conditional-use permit from the City Council rather than the Department of Design, Construction, and Land Use. Through this process, SAGE organizers argue, the council could impose conditions requiring livable wages for workers.

The livable wage issue has been the catalyst for bringing together activist groups in several California cities. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy successfully lobbied to impose wage requirements for all city contractors in the late 1990s; a similar ordinance was approved in San Francisco last year. Although these ordinances technically affect only employees of city vendors, groups have successfully used this government standard in negotiations with developers. Three years ago, for instance, the developers of a major Hollywood hotel signed an agreement with the Los Angles Alliance pledging to pay its 800 employees this livable wage and allow them union representation.

SAGE's Wise points out that Seattle's developers are "put through the wringer" over the design of their buildings, "but we do nothing with respect to the people who work inside those hotels." The combination of high downtown housing prices and the growth of low-wage jobs in the city center means that workers are forced to live far away from their workplaces, leading to increased sprawl and traffic congestion. "If development creates huge pools of people who can't afford market-rate housing," he says, "either we have to double or triple our budget for low-income housing, or people end up sleeping under overpasses."

Despite a good turnout at a recent public hearing, SAGE organizers aren't buying champagne for their victory party just yet. While SAGE's livable wage proposal has drawn kind words from council progressives such as Peter Steinbrueck, Nick Licata, and Judy Nicastro, five votes are needed for passage. The Seattle Hotel Association and many downtown hotels are opposing the measure. And, given the state constitution's many protections for property owners, the city would likely end up defending the ordinance in court.

Steinbrueck, who has proposed his own more technical package of downtown code changes, says he's interested in the livable wage issue but thinks the process for permitting skyscrapers is not the forum in which to address it. "I am tremendously impressed with the rise of that coalition," he says. "I would hate to see the whole thing fall apart over this single issue not gaining support."

Even if SAGE can't line up the votes in this particular battle, Wise says the debate will move the issue forward. "We have the opportunity here to put these questions to the City Council members," he says, "and the mayor's up for election this year."

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