After Labor Day, we're beyond asking how Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, two unknowns, advanced in the Seattle mayoral primary. The question now is whether the candidates can present multi-issue detail to single-issue voters and show the panache of leadership along the way. Recalling the moniker of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the campaign deserves a "Century 21" agenda.
The first McGinn-Mallahan debate is this Thursday, September 10, before the business community at the Cinerama. The debate agenda looks focused on specific issues, including such things as attention to "a regulatory environment that fosters capital investment and job creation." One facet of that “regulatory environment” is land-use policy and practice. Seattle deserves an integrated approach to city planning, rather than a piecemeal focus on the viaduct, streetcars, Mercer corridor, light rail celebrations, and posturing about reduced carbon footprint.
It would be exciting to move toward a truly comprehensive platform on growth, density, community form, and values. It's happening in some other cities, where land use leadership is emerging in force (discussed below). So let's start with the current agenda of issues. Here would be my list of topics for meaningful debate on this issue by the mayoral candidates.
First, what should be the real role of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD)? This has long been a thorny Seattle issue: Where does the real planning take place? Is DPD a code-centric administrative agency at mayoral behest, with the big policy issues reserved for the land use advisers to the Mayor in the Office of Policy and Management (OPM)? That's been Mayor Nickels' style. Or, instead, might DPD be allowed to provide a laboratory of innovative techniques for growth management matched to present times, even with a daunting budgetary reality?
In A Better Way to Zone (Island Press 2008), Denver consultant and author Don Elliott argues for "Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities" and offers a range of specific "fixes" for patterned lessons of the past. How might the new Mayor ask a more broadly empowered DPD to do the same? Similarly, what role should the Seattle Planning Commission play in the city of the future? Should the commission move from merely advising and producing white papers to a more elevated role in governance?
Second, the issue of "sustainability." What is the future of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE) after the Nickels era, and what role should climate action planning and green building initiatives play in the formulation of integrated land use policy? Should OSE be merged with OPM and absorb DPD's "Green Team"? (Pardon the alphabetocracy!) This idea has been proposed by blogger Dan Bertolet of hugeasscity.com, suggesting a new "Office of Sustainable Urbanism."
Third: Underlying these questions is a vexing political issue, never fully resolved — Who really controls Seattle's land use future, anyway, Mayor or City Council? Even in Seattle's strong-executive form of government, where the Mayor proposes and the council refines, the legislative branch wields considerable power as the rezoning authority and the destination of many controversial appeals; and the City Council is a policy implementer in its own right.
For example, the council will act in an appellate capacity in the appeal of the hearing examiner's recommendation on Children's Hospital, and then decide a Major Use Master Plan and related applications for hospital expansion which will inform the balance between city major institutions and neighborhoods.
There are many recent examples of Mayor-Council interplay (with varying degrees of acrimony). One is the 2007 industrial lands "rezone" debate (disclosure: I served on the steering committee of a broad coalition which opposed the Mayor's legislation). Another is the revisions to the multifamily code (a hodgepodge of townhouse design improvements, green practices, and attempts at affordability and protecting single family neighborhoods). Still more: incentive zoning (more height to developers in return for broader housing opportunities), and "backyard cottages." What are the candidate's views on these examples? And how will the Mayor's office lead, advise, or defer under a new (and inexperienced) administration?
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