In the September 14 City Council meeting, item 10 was listed as "Verbal Update and Possible Direction to Staff on COVID-19 Related to Business Recovery Efforts" (minutes, pp 4-5):
The initial motion was to direct Staff to explore options and return to Council with:
- Rapid Covid-19 testing and what the City can do to ramp up testing;
- Childcare and how the City can support childcare services; and
- A holiday strategy to support holiday shopping in our major shopping areas.
But then Mayor Fine and Councilmember Tanaka proposed three additions to be explored. These would seriously undermine the existing Retail Preservation Ordinance. That ordinance was a hard-won victory in response to several rounds of community-serving retail being successively displaced for offices, for uses such as software development. Getting City Staff to enforce the ordinance has been very difficult. Within eyesight of City Hall, there are flagrant violations: retail space that has been converted to offices with a "retail" false front that is only a few feet deep.
The first addition was "Temporarily suspending the Retail Preservation Ordinance outside of the commercial cores". As we know temporary changes are likely to be permanent. The rents that property owners can receive from retail spaces are substantially lower than from the likely replacements, such as offices. They can be expected to strongly resist converting back. A second problem is the costs to the retailers for converting the configuration of the space to what is needed. Restaurants have it worse: It is said that the first restaurant in a new space will fail because of those costs.
The second addition was "Temporarily altering or suspending required parking changes for a change of use". Neighbors can lose walkable retail, but gain a parking lot – on their streets.
Both of those additions were added to the motion on 4-3 votes with Vice Mayor DuBois, Councilmember Filseth, and I voting "no".
The third addition was to explore "Allowing diverse retail uses in all retail sites". It passed unanimously.
The overall motion then passed 5-2, with Filseth and I voting "no".
Knee-jerk reactions to complex problems have consequences. As the saying goes… "For every complex problem, there's a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." H.L. Mencken