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Will a new mayor think boldly about planning?

There are plenty of land-use controversies to heat up the election. But some cities are jumping beyond these block-by-block skirmishes and proposing sweeping new forms of zoning and urban design. Our turn?
Seattle's Terry Thomas Building, at Dusk

Seattle's Terry Thomas Building, at Dusk Gabe Hanson

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 9, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

All very good questions, many of them are poorly answered to this point by broadsides from the candidates. The relationship between the council, mayor, and the neighborhoods (other than downtown) appears to be driving the political change.
The candidates will follow the votes to the neighborhoods, giving different answers to different neighborhoods. The locals may hear what they want, but a broader concept of parts of the city will still be stuck in the "hodgepodge".
I would guess that you would get "context-based" answers to your question.

"jobs-housing proximity", I guess, is not packing as many businesses and jobs into SLU and then building uber-expensive mass transit solutions to and from a zoned in problem.

Mr Baker

Posted Wed, Sep 9, 9:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Wolfe suggests that planning can be accomplished in some kind of removed strategic framework, one that gets past the nitty gritty of grass roots neighborhood issues. When he talks about a "growing consensus among developers, environmentalists, and transportation planners", he has unwittingly touched upon a central reason that the Nickels administration imploded this August.

Greg Nickels built just the framework that Mr. Wolfe suggests, in the shape of the Office of Policy and Management, a department he created and built from the top down. The OPM Ivory Tower was able to conduct precisely the kind of strategic planning developers, environmentalists and transportation planners could all converge on, but it had two fatal flaws. The first was a was a lack of recognition that major changes in the city intended to create order also create chaos, especially in the neighborhoods. The second flaw, and the most significant one in the primary election, was a failure to understand just how significant participatory democracy is to our Seattle culture. We want to be part of the process.

Seattle is not a city where a Baron Haussmann would be welcome, as much as Mr. Wolfe or Nickels would like for it to be so. The solution to our city's problems will require embracing the muck and mire of process, and allowing for evolutionary, rather than revolutionary progress within the organic context of Seattle. This may seem an anathema to planning elitists, but will ultimately yield the greatest results for our growing city. It may also yield a truly original Seattle solution to our problems, instead of inferiority complex driven attempts to copy the efforts of other cities.

unter

Posted Wed, Sep 9, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

After reading Mr. Wolfe, I suspect he only skimmed the wonderful book he recommends (Elliott's A Better Way to Zone), or worse read only the blog he linked us to. I urge all those who do care about their communities to acquire the book from Amazon and actually read it from from cover to cover. The sooner the better too.

If candidates did, we might even have impasse breaking dialogues and a shared sense of purpose instead of those silly games wasting time and money that Mr. Baker so accurately described above.

Ever wonder why no one mentions the "urban village strategy" any more? Mr. Wolfe is right about the mess that has replaced listening to citizens and about where the vanguard went— http://www.newcodedenver.org/

afreeman

Posted Wed, Sep 9, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Jobs-housing proximity is also not taking a company from Tacoma, in and around which most of its employees live, and plopping it into downtown Seattle. Not to place the blame solely on Seattle's shoulders, but if Seattle was truly interested in jobs-housing proximity it wouldn't have offered incentives and open arms to Russell Investments. We really do need to think regionally instead of every city for itself.

Posted Wed, Sep 9, 6:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Heaven help us if we get "comprehensive, integrated, whole-cloth change."

Does anyone take such rhetoric seriously? I hope not. Besides dramatic change generally being a bad idea, we in Seattle are simply not capable of such broad thinking, There is no way that Seattle (or any place to be fair) is capable of creating a meaningful "truly comprehensive platform on growth, density, community form, and values." This is all happy talk to justify huge planning budgets.

Get a grip.

Posted Thu, Sep 10, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

For me, the poster child of city "planning" in Seattle is the intersection of 15th Ave NW and Market Street. For many years there were advanced plans to build a monorail station there that would have provided that rapidly growing neighborhood with easy access to downtown and other neighborhoods. But some factions in the city dragged their feet or even actively opposed that effort, and delays combined with poor planning eventually led to the death of that plan. So now what will go in place of the monorail station? A giant residential building with parking for 427 cars. More density. Same roads. Same parks. Same schools. More cars. What kind of leadership gave us this mess?

Lex

Posted Sat, Sep 12, 11:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm afraid that if we did get we get "comprehensive, integrated, whole-cloth change," the entire city would look like downtown Seattle--Manhattan writ small. What has become of Ballard is bad enough.

Lex, you are flat out wrong to state that that factional footdragging combined with "poor planning" killed the Monorail. Extreme right-of-way, construction and operational costs killed the Monorail. The "Green Line", which was to be the first of five monorail lines running throughout the city, was in the end unaffordable. Full buildout of all five lines would have bankrupted Seattle taxpayers.

Mud Baby

Posted Mon, Sep 14, 8:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle needs to prepare for a less dense future. It can only survive if it normalizes itself with the surrounding ring of Puget Sound exurbs...Kent, Lynnwood, Bellevue.

Seattle has to step down off its pedestal and pick up a rope and start carrying some of the burden. Instead of being a star, hogging all the glory, Seattle needs to be part of an ensemble.

In fact, Seattle is just too populous and big in area to be workable. Seattle should break up into four exurbs -- North, Central, South and West -- each with their own Mayor and Council. These "Seattles" should reduce the services that are redundant with what King County has (libraries, for example).

jabailo

Posted Tue, Sep 15, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate


"Seattle has to step down off its pedestal and pick up a rope and start carrying some of the burden. Instead of being a star, hogging all the glory, Seattle needs to be part of an ensemble."

Or perhaps the opposite. Seattle is rather weak politically. As one of our local politicians (ironically a legislator from Seattle) said recently (I'm paraphrasing) "Ritzville has more political clout that Seattle." Considering the tax base and job generator for the State that Seattle represents, this is a serious problem.

Seattle is often second fiddle to regional interests, whether it's the 40/40/20 bus split, loss of stimulus money, losing University of Washington funding, having even modest transit funding thwarted, or wearing the latest Tim Eyman-backed "Kick Me" sign, we are not the political behemoth the rest of the state would like to believe. Why? There are a multitude of reasons. A divided Seattle contingent in Olympia could be one, but that's not all. In our interest in accommodating regional interests, we don't always effectively advocate for our own. For the entire State to thrive, Seattle must be a strong advocate for its own success.

Seattle doesn't need to be part of the ensemble; it needs to lead it.

Posted Tue, Sep 15, 11:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm not as grumpy or cynical as a couple other posters about Chuck's "comprehensive, integrated, whole-cloth change"--I love it, and take it very seriously. In fact, I believe it's not comprehensive enough. Chuck's talking about solutions toward getting people to work together more effectively, get decisions made, etc., which is all fine; is anyone really happy with the status quo?

Seattle has plenty of professionals who are well-qualified to make decisions and get projects done in a timely manner, under budget, with the appropriate input of stakeholders. What's wrong is that rather than hold them accountable, elected officials and special interests have taken decisions away from the people who are supposed to make things happen, and so nobody's accountable for the results. I want a candidate to step up a level or two and say why she or he believes in a certain project or program--who should benefit, what they should gain, and what the public should pay. Or better yet, these are questions the Council should answer, and then leave it up to the mayor to make them happen. Then ratchet up the accountability by making the mayor report the results on the Council's terms; even better, dump the mayor position for council-manager government. Best system we have.

MStanger

Posted Sat, Oct 3, 2:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Given that you are a lawyer, you must already know that while Seattle might not do form based coding, your planning regime is pretty impressive in many respects. The urban village concept, the broad planning in transportation (such as the Urban Mobility Plan, pedestrian plan, bicycle plan, parking minimums vs. maximums, no parking requirements in transit zones/urban villages, etc.) is at national best practice level.

Seattle may not get enough credit in the popular press about this, and of course people within Seattle are always going to focus on the warts, because comparisons to other places in some respects aren't relevant when it comes to dealing with local issues.

At a B&B; in Ballard that we stayed in, in the desk in the tv room was a copy of Seattle's "Salmon Conservation Plan" (not the exact title and sadly out of print--at least I couldn't find it online, and I wasn't going to steal it). Again, Seattle's focus on green planning and green infrastructure is national best practice.

As an outsider, I am still blown away by the thinking in your "Neighborhood Business District Strategy" (where zones of high pedestrian activity are mapped, uses are mapped for pedestrian activity, and uses can only be located in the right zone) not to mention your design review requirements for large tract developments.

I am writing this from Washington, DC, the "national best practice example" of planning, because the city's core was designed by Pierre L'Enfant.

If we had half your tools, we'd be kicking a**.

Fortunately we are blessed with L'Enfant's urban design + the fortuitous development of a fixed rail transit network (the subway system) which while not designed to improve DC as much as it was designed to make it easier for suburbanites to get to their jobs in the city, benefits DC greatly because there are 40 transit stations in the city, with 29 in a 15 square mile area in the core--even though it has taken 20-30 years to begin seeing the benefits in terms of neighborhood revitalization (depending on the neighborhood).

form based coding might be additional benefit for your planning regime, and sure maybe you need some reorganization and review--who doesn't--but literally, I would kill to have access to what Seattleites have in terms of the city's planning tools for land use and transportation, not to mention your focus on developing and strengthening neighborhood assets (like your library improvement program and/or colocating facilities including libraries), combined with DC's urban form and transit system.

Oh, another thing. Composting yard and food wastes. DC doesn't do it. Sure I've been writing about it for years.... Seattle does it and has been doing it for a long time, and you take it for granted... Etc.

Richard Layman
planning consultant and neighborhood activist
Washington, DC

rllayman

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