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Seattle neighborhoods in limbo

Ed Murray wants to talk with neighborhoods but he spends some of the time at his summit shushing the crowd. Is that a sign of things to come?
A part of the Central District seen from Beacon Hill.

A part of the Central District seen from Beacon Hill. Matthew Rutledge/Flickr

Seattle's soul might be said to reside in its neighborhoods, but often immersion in neighborhood politics feels more a ride in the back of a Metro bus.

Neighborhood politics are often messy, involving angry activists, grumps, bumbling bureaucrats and screwballs. Our neighborhood system of districts, councils, community groups and public process is often a clattering contraption that gets stuck in traffic snarls and feels far from state-of-the-art. If the passengers are reflective of the city's diversity and democracy, the system of dealing with their concerns doesn't always seem like an efficient conveyance. A lot of time is spent getting nowhere.

It's not the fault of the passengers. The city itself is conflicted about neighborhoods. Back in the Charles Royer administration, a Department of Neighborhoods was created to tap into grassroots energy and provide a pipeline for strengthening relations with communities that wanted something from the city, like basic attention.

Jim Diers, who headed the department from 1988 until the Greg Nickels administration, was a kind of grassroots pied piper who led the department and encouraged a bottom-up style of planning and activism — a fairly subversive model of government that cut against the top-down style of City Hall. After his election in 2001, Nickels sacked Diers signaling a less neighborly approach to decision making. Diers's bottom-up-ism was declared kaput.

So kaput that Mayor Ed Murray recently declared Diers prematurely dead. Embarrassing as that flub was, getting Diers' life status wrong happened as the new mayor was in the middle of fulfilling a campaign promise to hold a citywide Neighborhood Summit that would "renew" relations between City Hall and the nabes. One would think Diers, of all people, would be a featured member of Murray's team of neighborhood revivalists. Murray ought not only to have known that Diers was alive but should have been plundering his brain for ideas in anticipation of his April neighborhood confab, not writing his obit.

Still, the recent Neighborhood Summit was important. Seattle's disaffected hinterlands — almost anyplace outside of downtown — carry a lot of anger and distrust about city government's intentions and responsiveness. The neighborhoods were asked to plan for growth; most did, then saw their plans shelved, overrun by events, or ignored. Some neighborhoods have had to absorb more than their fair share of growth, others have seen affordable housing shunted aside for high-priced high-rises, most have seen potholes proliferate.

Every neighborhood has bones to pick — too much crime in South Seattle, too few sidewalks in North Seattle. And in the last two administrations — Nickels' and Mike McGinn's — there was a general sense that the grassroots were being paved over by downtown planners, top-down edicts and Astroturf groups posing as neighborhood advocates but acting more as developer shills.

Promising a summit during the campaign was a way for Murray to wisely woo the Peter Steinbrueck voters after their man lost the primary election, but also a chance to mend some needlessly broken fences, to give the neighborhoods their due, a forum, something — anything — positive. The hunger for that was evident at the summit. In what we were told was the first major neighborhood gathering since the Norm Rice years, hundreds of people filled the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center April 5 to visit booths doling out information on city services, to listen to the mayor and others talk about the history of the neighborhood movement and to talk with each other about challenges, hopes and gripes.

The crowd was diverse, lively and mostly polite. The buzz was largely positive and the costumes less exotic than Comicon. As a first step in some kind of reconciliation process, it was a smart move. But it was light on substance and there was a palpable nervousness on the part of organizers that the crowd would turn angry. The mayor lectured about civility and shushed the crowd often so that speakers could be heard over the general din. He gave a good impression of a Nancy Pearl doll.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

As always Knute has written an insightful article. But there is a piece missing that can shed some light on what's happening. A big part of the problem is that the people most actively involved in neighborhood activism are not representative of those neighborhoods. They tend to be older and whiter than the people who live around them. They are more focused on aesthetic concerns while many of their neighbors are focused on affordability. That sets up some major conflicts, as the older NIMBYs fight the new development that the younger people are counting on to allow them to afford to live in those neighborhoods - or in Seattle at all.

The shift to district elections is a very positive shift, then, since it takes debates about neighborhoods out of the unrepresentative and low-participation neighborhood councils and puts it into the much more representative and much higher participation City Council elections. It's a natural evolution, especially since the neighborhood system that Jim Diers and Jim Street envisioned has become obsolete.

junipero

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 4:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Excellent point. I've lived in Magnolia since the fall of 2012, and have so far been to exactly one public meeting relating to a neighborhood issue (the W. McGraw street end), because I simply don't have the time to make them, working over 40 hours a week on the other side of town. (I expect to have even less time after my first child arrives this fall.) I'm in my 30s and of mixed race. I'm part of the reason the meetings skew older and whiter. (That was certainly the case at the McGraw meeting.) Online surveys are really no substitute.

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 4:43 p.m. Inappropriate

While we certainly have no shortage of race and class tensions in Seattle, I don't think it's so easy to apply here. We mail ballots directly to people's homes now, and we still can't get increased participation -- especially from people under-40. so, if people can't be bothered to even take an hour to read a packet and vote, it's not surprising that they don't turn out to neighborhood and community meetings.

There's no question that we need to look at new ways -- and new technology -- to increase participation in these local groups, but my experience is that many of these groups WANT to be more diverse, but are continually challenged by the resources needed to do better outreach, particularly when it comes to translating materials. It would be great if they City was willing to support capacity building in this area.

Ultimately, though, MOST people could make the time to participate... but they have chosen not to. That's a perfectly reasonable choice to make, but then they don't get to complain that the folks who show up and speak the loudest get the attention. There are plenty of quality neighborhood blogs and listserves that cover issues and news, and a phone call or email to a City department or City Councilmember's office can be made while picking up a latte or waiting for the bus. Showing up isn't the only way to participate.

Mickymse

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

"They are more focused on aesthetic concerns while many of their neighbors are focused on affordability. "

I think that they are focused on property values and protecting their investment, which is the reason behind aesthetic concerns. It isn't just appearances, but a very real loss of value in their homes if the neighborhood doesn't feel as welcoming as it once did.

This is of course the source the conflict you're talking about - affordability vs. property value. Both sides have valid points, unfortunately.

talisker

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Let your fingers to the walking and judge for yourself:

http://murray.seattle.gov/full-video-of-the-seattle-neighborhood-summit-now-available/#sthash.0qO0t9xl.dpbs

Thanks, Knute for starting the conversation!

afreeman

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

"...chair of the Education and Governance Committee — has been tagged with implementing the new council district system — "

Well, isn't that the fox guarding the hen house. Current Council members get to implement the system?

Junipero, thanks so much for putting all neighborhood activists into one neat box. We are not all focused on "aesthetic" concerns - we are concerned about the health and well-being of ALL our neighbors and are keenly aware we don't represent everyone. We are not NIMBYs and to keep calling long-time activists that is wrong. But if it fits your narrative (and Roger Valdez'), sure.

I've lived in San Francisco (also a popular city). You can build a lot of new apartments - the rents generally never come down to truly affordable levels. That takes government intervention to happen.

I also look forward to district elections because my belief is that some who think the City Council is their home might be surprised at the outcomes of these elections.

westello

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I believe he said activists tend to be that way, not that they all are that way.

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 5:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I disagree.

The current process is not working. I also disagree that government intervention on private property rents should happen.

If the government wants to fund low income properties, that's a tax decision and not a decision that harms private property owners.

San Fran is a beautiful city, but I would never live there, what a horrifying thought.

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately, the largest group of people who attend public meetings are loud activists.

There is no history of anyone elected ever actually listening to their constituents at a public meeting, which is the main reason normal people stay away. Why waste your breath?

Voters can't seem to elect the best people, also because normal people won't run for political office.

City planners are educated to dream up new cities, not to work with what they've got. Smart streets, smart growth, smart anything is everything but smart.

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

"normal people won't run for political office"???

Plenty of "normal" people have run for office in the last few cycles. If you don't believe me, then you probably weren't paying attention. And if you weren't paying attention, donating money, or telling your friends about them, then why would you be surprised that they didn't make it through the Primary and/or get elected?

Mickymse

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 8:21 p.m. Inappropriate

You (Knute Berger) ask whether we should be "giving neighborhoods more say." As one of the primary movers of Charter 19, speaking for myself, I say that misses the point. "Neighborhoods" are not people. The point is to give people more say. In common1sense's terminology, empowering "normal people." Who happen to live in neighborhoods. The problem with governance in Seattle (and the U.S. and the world) is that it has become increasingly driven by inequities and polarized ideologies.

We live in a time of increasing resource limitations and environmental crises. There are direct linkages between growing inequity, loss of democracy, and environmental problems; too much economic class stratification is a contributing cause of civilization collapse. If we humans don't figure out how to be more democratic, we will end up in a very unpleasant situation.

Advocating for democracy is not a meaningless exercise. The push needs to happen at every level, but especially from the bottom up, because that is the essence of democracy. District city council elections is an opportunity to get a few more normal people elected into the policy making offices that make a big difference in our daily lives and the long term viability of our communities.

Please check out seattledistrictsnetwork.net and help make the Seattle City Council work for you.

louploup

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

First off, there was a cross section of people at the meeting including professionals as you know. My impression of the mayor changed and I now feel we're in for years of more bureaucratic wrangling -- managing the City (any city) is much different that legislating at the state level. The vitality of the neighborhoods and neighborhood leaders in the common interest is gone; people are more self-centered and self appointed (and fragmented). The top-down development projects presented by the City were horrible -- not even close to representing the people's needs or the Northwest history -- more generic stuff by ego-centered developers, "monuments." People are depressed, over worked, frustrated, insecure. Everything is getting too expensive. And were did all these new people come from; very young and old but nothing in-between. Just some impressions. I think your view is very accurate - I know you've been watching the changes. Thanks. Keep up the good reporting.

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

This is especially for Mr Lukoff - I have lived in Magnolia for 20 years and now I am retired so I have more time to loaf than he does. However, I do have a news source location here for him.

Earlier this week I was in Starbucks in the village. I learned that DPD has been hard at work and has found 56 areas in the city that should be more pedestrian friendly. Three of these locations are in Magnolia with the worst option being 21st and Dravus (too much vehicular traffic on one of the three entries/exits to the neighborhood).

It appears that DPD does not reach out directly to neighborhood residents but does do so at the 'council' level.

For those who want to see what might be going on under the radar in their neighborhood, the link is http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cityplanning/completeprojectslist/mainstreetmapping/whatwhy/default.htm

In any case, try the village Starbucks for news - perhaps on a walk this weekend. After all, that was where the news broke about the BIG hole NW of BofA - 4000 sqft house w/4 car garage!

m-t-e

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks! I should spend more time there. I'm actually closer to the 17th and Dravus Starbucks than to the one in the Village, but with the construction and turning of 17th into a one-way street, I think my days there are numbered.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Information flow is a big challenge. It's a two way street, though. Trolling the DPD Planning Projects website and subscribing to the Land Use notices is about the only way to find out what is going on. I did have the DPD staff come to our community council meeting. It was well advertised, but even though city staff (unlike Nichols days) are willing to come and meet with any interested parties, only the few usual suspects showed up.

Folks also post articles about planning activities on the neighborhood website, and send out to the various list serves, and tell their neighbors. Just as with voting, seems like people don't want to find the time until they are upset about something and pull out the pitchforks.

Another issue is the impact of the decimation of the Neighborhoods 'system' and Neighborhood Planning in Seattle. This has left everyone at a communication deficit. The 'rats in a cage fighting' over grants aspect to achieve required infrastructure is to me the most disturbing aspect of our Neighborhoods 'system'.

This 'civility' stuff seems like a proposal to hold hands and sing kumbaya and life will be wonderful, just go on and continue the Seattle passive-aggressive ways, which we know, like the definition of insanity..... At the same time, a few volunteers burn out, are constantly angry and frustrated, and people pretty much understand they will be ignored by council -- probably even under this new district system.

Effective citizen action is happening after groups crop up and work to be heard, sometimes for a few years, and network with each other. Folks are finding each other -- and while it might include folks in the city 'system', it is much broader. I'm not sure that citizen lead action should ever be part of Seattle's 'system'.

However, for real neighborhood representation I think that there should be elected (on a real ballot) individuals, with a clear scope, responsibility, and the accountability of being elected out, written into the city charter. This would protect the neighborhood voice at a micro level from the vagaries of the current electeds, even within a council district.

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 2:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The idea that aesthetic concerns are in opposition to affordability is false. This is the usual line of developers and their shills. Developers don't built affordable housing, they build the most expensive structures they think they can sell. The idea that increasing housing density in Seattle will result in more affordable housing is largely false as well. New construction is expensive and is almost always more expensive than what it replaces. Highly skewed income distribution has a large number of well-to-do individuals chasing limited housing in desirable neighborhoods like Ballard, Magnolia and Wallingford. Empty lots on Beacon Hill stay empty.

Current zoning laws require neighborhoods to be vigilant. If you accept multi-family or commercial incursions then the character of the neighborhood is deemed to have changed to make subsequent changes easier.

Neighborhood stability is anchored by homeowners, be they old or young, white or not. If I'm renting and the area goes to shit I can give notice and move. Not so easy if I own my home and hold it as my major financial asset. It's absurd to hear developers piss and moan about NIMBY attitudes. They are not advocates for the poor and downtrodden.

As for participation in meetings, people with full time jobs and/or families don't have a lot of time to hang out in public meetings. A long-time local activist once remarked, "developers never sleep." (Most of the meetings I've attended are window-dressing in any case. Process may require public input but it doesn't require decisions to take that input into account.)

Mr_Jones

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Very well said. Thank you.

louploup

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, very well said.

westello

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm not a developer. I don't care much for them, but they are a necessary evil. The fact is that without new supply, you get San Francisco, where everyone is bidding up the price of the small amount of housing stock that exists. SF adds a tiny amount of new housing each year, too little to help. New construction isn't going to be affordable, but that's not its purpose. New construction exists to house the Amazon and Microsoft workers who can afford it. By living there, they are not displacing someone currently living in a unit whose rent is still somewhat affordable.

You talk about things like "neighborhood stability" but I'm sorry, when people can't afford to live here, then things like that have to go down the list of priorities. Help make Seattle more affordable by building more housing and then you'll get the rest of us interested in aesthetics and neighborhood character.

junipero

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 11:15 p.m. Inappropriate

You're far too logical for this website, junipro.

Posted Sun, Apr 27, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

"More" rarely results in "cheaper." It is simply not true that building more housing for high tech workers doesn't displace lower income residents. It most certainly does; the shift in demographics that happens when a locale upscales is the essence of gentrification.

louploup

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Many of the issues that drove neighborhoods to vote for single-member districts likely were land use issues. The emergence of groups like "One House per Lot" and "Coalition for an Affordable and Livable Seattle" suggests that neighborhoods which have felt under siege in recent years are getting organized to fight what they perceive as an unresponsive city government (especially DPD). In the state legislature Murray never had to address land use issues, and he did not talk much about land use in his campaign, but I suggest that land use issues will be an increasing focus, particularly for a Council with a majority of representatives who do not have to run city-wide campaigns.

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

This was a really great article, and spot on. I did a post on my experience at this event, which is similar, and makes some recommendations on where I thought two primary failures were: uninterested and absent police, and the unfortunate design of the conversation. http://peopleofpioneersquare.wordpress.com/2014/04/19/98104-responsiveness-and-why-we-dont-have-it/

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 8:05 p.m. Inappropriate

There is nothing 'organic' about total rezones and forced new construtction into a neighborhood or area. Take Ballard for example.

Please. Take Ballard.

My grandparents would roll over in their graves. Even the new Safeway is filthy.

Where is the PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP? When the middle class got beat to death in this recession, that was the demise of an old, stable part of our society. Now, we see new, dense housing where basically anyone can buy a spiffy new home, attached on the sides, and live there a few years, then become a landlord. Well, guess what?

Those 6-pack Ballard townhomes look like crap when they are taken over by renters instead of homeowners.

Organic? Only if you prefer so much turnover you couldn't hope to forge decades long relationships with your neighbors. If that is the new, improved Seattle that the politicians think is healthy, they'd better wise up, and fast.

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 8:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Some words about my gramps ...

Obituary printed in the London Times.....Absolutely Dead Brilliant !!

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:

- Knowing when to come in out of the rain;
- Why the early bird gets the worm;
- Life isn't always fair;
- And maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge). His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children. He declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death, by his parents, Truth and Trust, by his wife, Discretion, by his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son, Reason.

He is survived by his 5 stepbrothers;
- I Know My Rights
- I Want It Now
- Someone else Is To Blame
- I'm A Victim
- Pay me for Doing Nothing

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone.


Posted Sat, Apr 19, 9:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Too cute by half, off topic, and way simplistic. When I got to your erroneous reporting of the McDonald's hot coffee case... You should read about the case before you spout reactionary talking points: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald's_Restaurants

louploup

Posted Sun, Apr 20, 8:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Louploup, I just re-quoted the piece, I not write it.

It was savvy, and pertains to everything. Common sense has vanished.

Posted Sun, Apr 27, 9:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Our civilization is under increasing stress and more and more people will have a hard time coping. And go wiggy, like shooting up (or stabbing) their classmates in school. etc.

Still, that's not a good reason to post erroneous garbage, no matter who wrote it.

louploup

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 7:54 a.m. Inappropriate

IMO, it's lame. If you just read the comments here at CC you would think the world is coming to an end and that sometime in the recent past it was all rainbows and ponies.

Treker

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 11:46 p.m. Inappropriate

After what Seattle's city pooh-bahs did to Roosevelt, any interest I had in participating in any of these committees vanished. Plainly put: Seattle is run by a corrupt elite, and "citizen involvement" is strictly for appearances' sake. I see no reason whatsoever to waste my time in any of these sham meetings.

NotFan

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