Seattle Process demystified: an introduction to neighborhood planning

Chapter 1: It's been almost a decade since 38 neighborhood plans were adopted by the City Council. The process is about to begin anew. Today Crosscut begins a series of articles looking at the bureaucracy and the process. Consider it a primer for you and your neighbors — and a call to action.
Crosscut archive image.
Chapter 1: It's been almost a decade since 38 neighborhood plans were adopted by the City Council. The process is about to begin anew. Today Crosscut begins a series of articles looking at the bureaucracy and the process. Consider it a primer for you and your neighbors — and a call to action.

Editor's note: This is the inaugural installment of There Go the Neighborhoods, an occasional series on Seattle's neighborhood-planning process.

Across the country, Seattle is credited with creating a model for civic engagement — the Department of Neighborhoods. During its origin in the 1990s, more than 20,000 people participated in formulating master plans for 38 Seattle neighborhoods. It was an unprecedented community process that allowed neighborhoods to plan their own growth and development. The plans were approved by the Seattle City Council in 1999.

It has been nine years, and it's time to revise them. As this process begins anew, do you know what's in your neighborhood plan?

The cityscape has changed dramatically since 1999. Light rail is working its way through South Seattle; downtown has an architecturally renowned Central Library and 25 neighborhood libraries have been built, replaced, or renovated. Certain neighborhoods designated in the plans as "urban villages" have exceeded their 2010 population growth targets; cranes define the skylines in many parts of town. Longtime residents and newcomers increasingly find their neighborhoods unrecognizable, with single-family homes replaced by townhouses, older apartments replaced with mixed-use retail/apartments, apartments converted into condominiums. Many citizens feel powerless in the face of such rapid change. The groundwork was laid long ago, through zoning in the 1970s, a citywide comprehensive plan in the early 1990s, and the later neighborhood plans.

Anyone who wants a voice in the present or future of their neighborhood, or the city as a whole, faces a huge learning curve. Seen from a jetliner while descending to Sea-Tac Airport, the city is clearly delineated by water east and west. At ground level, the view is of a city mired in paperwork, myriad meetings, and an uneasy intersection of government and community groups — legendary Seattle Process. A proposal to update the neighborhood plans is wending its way to the City Council. There is still time to take stock of the lessons learned from the original process and to prepare for a long haul through revisions — as an informed citizen.

In 1994 the City of Seattle completed the current comprehensive plan, titled Toward a Sustainable Seattle, to comply with the State of Washington's Growth Management Act — to anticipate 20 years of population growth. The neighborhood plans were then conceived to complement the comprehensive plan, tailoring it to individual neighborhoods. The City Council launched the planning effort as "a partnership between the city and its neighborhoods to improve the quality of life while accepting increased density." Survivors of the original five-year planning process refer to the winners as the last ones standing.

There are always winners and losers in a political process, and in this case it was the neighborhoods that were already organized, with a communications system in place and a large number of longtime homeowners. What about neighborhoods where citizens had less of a voice because of language, economic status, or transience?

What was I doing in 1991? I was a resident, but I was unaware of the bottom-up neighbor plan process. Like others, today I find myself in a neighborhood that may have changed more in the past 10 years than the 80 preceding. Citizens often become active in their community when there is a threat to something they value, and then each citizen must learn the complicated ropes of Seattle's Neighborhood Involvement Structure, not to mention divisions between planning departments at City Hall. By its own admission in launching a new customer service initiative, the city has trouble communicating between departments; does city government have the means to reach average citizens and underrepresented groups?

The Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington recently held a Neighborhood Planning Forum [468K PDF] to discuss challenges in the update process, beginning with whether planning should be city-directed or neighborhood-directed. Major topics of discussion centered on what happens when the goals of the city s a whole differ from those of a neighborhood and whether any planning process can ever truly represent all stakeholders.

The city auditor's office has been evaluating to what degree the plans have been implemented and whether that implementation has been equitable across the city. That could reveal successes and flaws related to the previous process. The Department of Neighborhoods lost staff due to a budget cut, which affected implementation and calls into question its ability to direct a future update process. Even the neighborhood boundaries are an issue. Only 60 percent of Seattle's land mass is included in the plans, despite boundary overlaps. Due to a decreased budget and a desire to align with the city's Department of Transportation, one proposal calls for updating neighborhoods within the six transportation sectors, at a rate of one sector per year, rather than the individual neighborhoods consecutively. The neighborhoods are most commonly divided within 13 districts.

The process of updating the plans will be political and complicated. Meetings will vary between passion and tedium. The planning process will touch on all aspects of city life — budget, transportation, public safety, affordability, green space, community centers, growth and development, sustainability — issues that affect anyone who lives or works in Seattle.

Knowing the time commitment, the learning curve, the potential frustrations and compromises, why would citizens and community groups want to enter into the process? This ongoing series of articles will examine the intersection of neighborhoods and government in Seattle, because anyone who cares about the future of Seattle can't afford not to be involved.

There will be a community meeting [19K PDF] on neighborhood plans tomorrow, April 19, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at City Hall. Sponsored by the City Neighborhood Council and billed as a neighborhood planning workshop, every citizen and business owner is encouraged to attend.

Next: An introduction to the city's Neighborhood Involvement Structure and district councils.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Peggy Sturdivant

Peggy Sturdivant

Peggy Sturdivant writes a weekly column for the Westside Weekly, and is curator of the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, founder of Ballard Writers Collective, and has worked in environmental consulting and science education.