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In Seattle's Sidewalk-less District 5, Voters Want A City Council Rep Who Walks The Talk

Seattle Departemnt of Transportation
Seattle's far-north District 5 has the city's densest collection of streets without sidewalks.

Seattle voters are getting ready to choose who will represent their district. Seven district seats will be decided, as well at two at large positions. KPLU’s election series, Back On The Block, revisits issues affecting each district and introduces us to the candidates.

If you walk around the Lake City library in northeast Seattle, you are liable to see, with little warning, the sidewalk disappear beneath your feet.

“We get sidewalks on a really ad hoc basis,” said Janine Blaeloch, my tour guide through the Lake City neighborhood over the summer. “Sometimes you’re walking around mud puddles into the street. It just doesn’t present a very safe situation for people.”

The switch to district elections for Seattle City Council gives neighborhoods a chance to bring up neglected needs. In far-north District 5, many voters point to the city’s densest collection of streets without sidewalks, and hope that walkability will get more attention when one of theirs is on the council.

“It’s about dignity,” said Blaeloch, co-leader of the group, Lake City Greenways. “It’s like, why should people who are using their feet to get from place to place have to go through such harrowing experiences, feeling they’re in danger and also feeling like they’re being disrespected?”

Credit Chas Redmond / CC (Attribute)
One of the many streets in Seattle’s District 5 that lacks sidewalks

The Money Question

A lot of people in the North End have stories like this, including the two candidates for city council District 5: Pastor Sandy Brown and attorney Debora Juarez.

Credit : Photo courtesy of the Brown campaign
Sandy Brown

Brown says over the course of knocking on thousands of doors during the campaign, he has run up against dangerous obstacles more than once.

“Here’s a hedge that goes clear out into the street. It’s actually over the white line of the street. And so I have to wait, walk around the hedge, and hope there’s not a car coming on the other side," says Brown. "It’s pretty surprising. You don’t see it in other neighborhoods in Seattle like this.” 

For Juarez, the walkability issue also strikes a chord. She says her own daughter, now 24, was hit by a car at age 10 on a sidewalk-less stretch of First Avenue near Northacres Park.

“She was really seriously hit—taken to Harborview [Medical Center]—and there are still no sidewalks up by that park,” Juarez said. “That’s one real personal experience.”

Now that the field of candidates is down to two, we asked Lake City’s Janine Blaeloch what she wants to know from the candidates on the walkability issue.

Because sidewalks are so expensive to build—as much as $350,000 per block for just one side of the street, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation—Blaeloch got right to the money question: “In the event that the Move Seattle transportation levy doesn’t pass, how would you propose to fund transportation maintenance and improvements?”

Paying For Walkability

Credit : Photo courtesy of the Juarez campaign
Debora Juarez

Debora Juarez says the first places to look are the normal city and department of transportation budgets. Since District 5 has been overlooked so long, she says, there’s a case to be made for those general funds.

“Your budgets reflect your values. And if you don’t have someone in there advocating for you and reflecting your values and your needs, they’re not going to get met,” she said. “So for the North End, I’d advocate, obviously, [for] more money from our general budget.”

Juarez says she would also support imposing impact fees on developers in order to fund walkable infrastructure in the North End.

“We also need to look to the private sector. People who come to do business in your community have to pay for that prosperity,” she said.

Sandy Brown says that there is really no substitute for this kind of levy, even if at first it does not succeed.

“We’ll have to go back to the voters again. It’s very clear that general fund dollars are not enough,” he said.

Brown says property taxes are not the ideal way to fund transportation projects. But for now, he says the needs are so great that the city simply must convince voters to pay for them.

“Move Seattle is almost a billion dollars, but that only gets us about half the way through the infrastructure repairs and maintenance that we need. And so, we need ‘Move Seattle Plus’,” says Brown.

’Tell Me When You’ve Stood Up To Powerful People?’

Ultimately, District 5 will be competing with other districts and citywide interests for limited resources. The test of governing on the new district-based council may be what kind of leadership council members show in directing some of those resources to their priorities.

That’s what was on the mind of another North End resident we spoke with—though technically he lives across the street from District 5—former Seattle Mayor, Mike McGinn.

“One of the reasons I supported districts is I saw how neighborhoods north of 85th–and I live north of 85th—just don’t get the resources. All the power brokers in town can figure out how to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into magnificent schemes downtown,” he says.

When we asked McGinn what he would ask the District 5 candidates, he said he would want to know about their backbone.

“Tell me when you’ve stood up to powerful people,” he said. “because if you haven’t done it before you were a politician, you’re not going to do it after. So tell me when you did it.”

Gun Control And Tribal Rights

Sandy Brown says he stood up to powerful interests as an advocate for Initiative 594, which imposed background checks on gun sales in Washington state.

“I was one of the key spokespeople, so I participated in the public debates against the gun lobby,” Brown said. “And when you’re standing up for something like that, as I stood up at Seattle Center, with a group of about a half-dozen open-carry gun people standing right in front of me, oftentimes somebody who has an assault rifle or pistols on their belt, and it didn’t stop just because there was some opposition.”

Debora Juarez said standing up to power is a thread that weaves through her entire life story. An enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, she grew up among Native Americans in the Puget Sound region, and fought for sovereignty rights throughout her youth.

“I have spent my whole life speaking truth to power; since the days I was a child on the Puyallup and Nisqually River, fighting for our treaty rights; When … I was a senior in high school and we took over the Cascadia building for the Puyallup Nation; When I was 12 years old, and I thought we were going roller skating, and we took over Daybreak Star. You know, you kind of live your politics,” Juarez said.

Both Brown and Juarez say they have the strength and clarity of vision to stand up for their priorities, even if he or she is the only one speaking for District 5 on the council. Whoever wins, far-north Seattle will have a vote–something it lacks in city government now. 

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