Seattle neighborhoods in limbo

A part of the Central District seen from Beacon Hill. Credit: 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.

Diane Douglas of City Club reported on the state of civility in Seattle citing a new report — the Civic Health Index —that found our civic health generally good, but like any doctor's check-up, there were a few things we could work on. We're good citizens, but we score low on personal connectedness. In other words, we vote and we volunteer, but don't talk to our neighbors much.

That's a bit ironic: a city of neighborhoods that doesn't talk to its neighbors, but it is also classic live-and-let-live Seattle. A good neighbor is someone you shouldn't have to talk to. That rests on a kind of understood ethic that people should generally behave themselves and leave well enough alone. We might keep our distance, but that's also part of our vaunted tolerance for differences.

Before pillorying quiet people for not being good urban citizens but frosty, smug ones, it might also be pointed out that the civility issue goes two ways. For the most part, neighborhoods do talk to themselves and organize around their issues and get things done, but the Seattle Freeze also has been coming from downtown, where neighborhoods have felt frozen out of decisions and marginalized by a city government that in recent decades has acted as if it exists to serve developers and downtown interests first and foremost.

That is an inherent hazard, because the city tackles big issues — transportation, garbage, crime, density, equity — while the neighborhood interests tend to be smaller-scale, by definition. It's micro vs. macro, David vs. Goliath. Sometimes a neighborhood issue rises to citywide significance; often the issues remain small, local, and sometimes fester.

Jim Street, the former city council member who helped push through the creation of the Department of Neighborhoods, sees the relationship between city government and the nabes as a difficult balancing act. At the mayor's summit, he offered a couple of ideas. One was that the department was not meant to be the sole avenue of connection with the neighborhoods. That connection has to be broad throughout city government. He also said the Department of Neighborhoods used to have more outreach folks who went out to teach neighborhood organizing, to help prepare neighborhoods to be their own best advocates. This is especially important with new, poor or immigrant neighborhoods. The city, in other words, must be proactive in cultivating citizens to make the system work.

Construction cranes in Seattle's Belltown area (January 2014) Graham Coreil-Allen/Flickr

This is a timely discussion because the issues of growth, transportation, the future of parks, crime, etc. are all becoming critically important, especially with a fired-up economy that is leaving so many citizens behind yet handing us bigger issues to deal with and boosting the intensity of issues, like micro-housing. Also the city is in the midst of updating its Comprehensive Plan — a 20-year document that will lay out a roadmap for reshaping the city between now and 2035. The plan is currently in the Environmental Impact Statement stage (comments due Monday). A draft plan is due by the end of the year, with the goal of being a new comp plan being adopted by the council in June 2015 — council election season.

Even with the renewed interest neighborhoods, they — and the city — are in facing a shift in the political balance. The new council district system, for example, will kick in with the elections of 2015, and seven of our nine council members will represent specific parts of the city. (Here’s a new city map of the districts).

This is going to change Seattle politics by having one elected council member representing from each district. Inevitably, the City Council will have to be more attentive to council districts' needs and be more accountable to specific geographic blocs of voters. It will likely impact the city budget as money will have to flow — and be seen to flow — to earmarked parts of the city. Neighborhood activists hope the system will open a path for grassroots candidates. This change, made by voters in November, was a quiet revolution in the way the city will do business and received strong, widespread support, passing by over 65 percent of the vote.

The new council districts have divided some neighborhoods up, which could prove awkward. South Lake Union is split up and Eastlake oddly appended to a district otherwise entirely north of the Ship Canal. Mount Baker is also divided. Some districts have vastly disparate neighborhoods with their boundaries — dense Capitol Hill is lumped in with single-family, conservative neighborhoods like Madison Park. No matter how you draw a city map, it's unlikely that some 93 separate neighborhoods will feel fully equally represented by a single council member or seven districts. Still, a majority of council members will be accountable to the neighborhoods in their districts for the first time in over a century.

The new district election system also raises an unknown for the future of the current system of neighborhood representation, which includes the City Neighborhood Council with members from 13 separate District Councils, operating under the auspices of the Department of Neighborhoods.  (Here’s a map of them.) These are advisory groups that facilitate neighborhood planning and help coordinate the city's matching fund program, among many other things. Created in 1987, they represent not only residents, but businesses and employers. They are independent, grassroots groups whose members are from community councils, neighborhood business associations and other neighborhood volunteers, not appointees of the mayor and city council. Chris Leman, president of Eastlake Community Council and a member of the Lake Union District Council, says that as such the districts are entities "most likely to speak truth to power."

Already some worry that these districts will be cut back to seven to conform to the new city council districts, reducing the diversity of district representation. Districts like Lake Union, Delridge or Greater Duwamish might not feel as well represented if redrawn to fit the council districts. (A detailed history of these councils and the work they have done can be found here.) The neightborhood district councils' boundaries are not drawn to represent general residential populations, but areas of common interest. The Lake Union council, for example, circles the lake and deals with shoreline, business, navigation, houseboat and other Lake Union issues. In the new council district system, that same constituency is divided between three separate new city council districts.

It's certainly not hard to imagine that, over time, elected city council members responsible and accountable to local groups might want to have more control over what happens in their districts. Will that draw power away from the volunteer district councils? Will they be reduced in number? Or will they continue to have value and power in their current form, mixing and matching the neighborhoods in different ways, allowing for more diversity of influence? It's not certain how that will play out over time.

City Council president Tim Burgess — chair of the Education and Governance Committee — has been tagged with implementing the new council district system — called "Charter 19" for planning purposes. The questions include such practicalities as whether the city budget should be allocated by council district and whether the seven council members elected by district should have a second office in their districts. The group will look at the neighborhood district council system, but Burgess says he sees no need change things, at least at first. A working group has been formed to figure out implementation and the City Auditor's office has done a report on how similar cities with comparable council systems, such as Austin, Boston and San Francisco, operate. A plan will be developed for Seattle by the end of the year, Burgess says.

The short of all this is that the city’s political ecosystem and the neighborhood part of that are in a bit of a limbo as they enter a period of realignment and significant reorganization.

One issue to clarify is whether achieving Neighborhood-City Hall understanding is done by working toward giving neighborhoods more say, or simply facilitating communications with the people by smoothing out the top-down information flow. Murray suggests that he wants neighborhoods to have more say and that "decisions on neighborhood character [be] made in the neighborhoods, not City Hall." He says, too, that he has been "mentored" by Steinbrueck, a long-time advocate of better planning and neighborhood empowerment.

One of the mayor's goals is also to reset the tone of the conversation between neighborhoods and the city. There is so much pent-up anger at years of city-neighborhood conflict that Murray wants everyone to put their pitchforks down. A nice idea — there can be more civil discussion — but niceness alone will not get the job done.

Some people have every right to be angry about displacement, being priced out of town, putting up with high-handed decisions, a lack of consultation and being shut down and ignored. The challenge is to steer the city's relationship with the neighborhoods by achieving consistent, real engagement across the board. Murray seems to get that he's in a position to do that — that it's the right thing to do. He is, after all, a West Seattle boy. But the effort will have to have more substance than one feel-good summit that was too long in coming.

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