Too cozy with developers? The problems with Seattle's planning department

With developers paying the bureaucrats to review their plans, we build in incentives to accelerate approvals and keep the projects flowing. Also, Seattle's regulatory agency may have become too big and too unaccountable to protect the public interest.
Crosscut archive image.

A sea of cranes. (Crosscut Flickr contributor <a href=''>Christine Howard</a>)

With developers paying the bureaucrats to review their plans, we build in incentives to accelerate approvals and keep the projects flowing. Also, Seattle's regulatory agency may have become too big and too unaccountable to protect the public interest.

Imagine awakening from a deep sleep troubled by recurring visions from a TV science fiction thriller, looking out the window and discovering that all over Seattle were towering alien monsters standing stark against the sky.

You blink, look again. It's not an invasion from outer space spewing death rays — just hundreds of construction cranes dotting the landscape.

Mayor Greg Nickels, with many friends in the development community, must wiggle with delight. From his perspective all those cranes represent an increased tax base, jobs, more campaign contributions, and confirmation of his belief that Seattle is Washington's economic center. But while the mayor may be happy with explosive growth, many are not.

One reason for discontent: Seattle's housing is among the costliest in the nation. As we increase density, land becomes more valuable and prices go up. Given the limited amount of Seattle real estate, new, denser, gentrified development is creating unaffordable housing. Moreover, new development now comes too quickly, too big and too ugly even for some growth advocates. Only a short time ago Seattle "greens," concerned with sustainable development, were clamoring for higher density. Now many are wondering if they are being snookered by quick buck builders whose notion of "green" and "sustainable" developments turn out to be neither.

So what's gone wrong ? Let's start with the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD), which has planned and sanctioned all this development. Mayor Nickels has lumped all planning and regulatory functions into DPD, making the agency huge. DPD is asked to regulate developers and new construction, create affordable housing, support sustainable development, and, oh yes, save the planet while they're at it.

DPD's organizational structure has an amazing range of responsibilities and the power to implement them. DPD decides the window size of your house, where and if you can park your car, whether you can keep your view, even the amount of light you get in your residence. The decisions they make affect your lifestyle, privacy, personal comfort, and your pocketbook. DPD, because of its regulatory and planning authority, has more power over our cityscape and lifestyle than any other city department. It's our nanny on steroids.

Developers are DPD's primary clients. Many of course do quality work, just as others are quick-buck types building tomorrow's slums. Developers pressure elected officials for faster DPD permitting and fewer regulations, while the public and various activist interests pressure DPD from the opposite direction. Most residents hope that our new buildings will be in scale with their location, attractive, safe, environmentally responsible, affordable, and necessary.

Some critics believe DPD is broken, arguing that the agency has too many conflicting missions under one roof, along with a mayor who is constantly tinkering with agency decisions to advance an agenda driven more by increasing the tax base and advancing density than by quality development. A lot of the parties are unhappy: urban planners, architects, greens, electeds, builders, and developers, though not all for the same reasons. In reality neither the public nor developers trust DPD.

To address this mistrust, the city tends to load on still more responsibilities and missions for DPD. One current example: City Council is considering even more property tax reductions for developers who build low to moderate income rental units. It sounds good, but it's pure fantasy if you believe it will work without stringent oversight, verification of all residents' income levels, and preventing some developers from claiming tax breaks they don't deserve.

A second example involves a recent City Council decision that raises thresholds for when the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) requirements come into play, causing time-consuming environmental studies. Council and developers argue DPD can look into details and monitor projects under other laws, without the former SEPA thresholds. While Council's decision was thoughtful and well intended (the goal is to get more housing under construction, perhaps at lower costs), those who follow DPD's work retain serious doubts that DPD can match SEPA's proven oversight. Many DPD critics are concerned that the department doesn't have the trained people in sufficient numbers to do the job and are increasingly convinced that DPD has their own reasons for rushing project approval and giving less scrutiny to environmental impacts.

Why would employees of DPD give less than full scrutiny to new development? They are excellent, hard working people, but they're also smart enough to understand that their jobs are largely dependent on a steady stream of new construction. Simply put, when there is a lot of development, there is lots of work at DPD. When development slows — well, you get the idea. DPD receives 87 percent of its budget directly from developers. While accounting isn't completed, last year DPD took in $63.2 million in developer permits and other fees. New construction also helps flow property taxes into the city's general fund, and it's not capped by property-tax limitations, as existing homes are. While one can argue that DPD should generate enough income through permit fees to support new development, it is highly questionable whether developers should be paying the salary of those whose regulatory and planning roles are in the public's general interest and have nothing to do with their new project.

Former DPD Director Rich Krochalis was instrumental in inspiring better customer service from DPD personnel. While the result was a welcome change, the staff also became much more aware of just who the customers were. They were developers. Most are under pressure to get permits approved and inspections done as quickly as possible. During fast growth periods, new staff was added and not all new hires had the language or comprehension skills to interpret the complex codes and construction details. Many have no construction or engineering experience at all. Building code complexity can lead to serious conflicts and mistakes. With high work loads and verification and coordination by inexperienced field, inspections are harder to accomplish. The person in the office who approves a particular building or site may never have actually visited or seen the actual site. Also, some of those who approve plans may never have had any personal experience in the construction industry.

At the heart of DPD's problems is an administrative culture, a complex blend of administrative leadership, organization, politics, and incentives. These are good people, but the pressure of all those permits causes problems with lack of training and consistent competency on the part of the staff. It may not be too much to say DPD is broken and out of control, as many feel who deal with it closely.

Most agree that European countries plan their cities and manage their growth better than we do. One reason is that building permits in most of Europe can take years to obtain. They control growth by intense scrutiny of what effect and impact new development will cause.

Another complaint about DPD is the complexity of its building codes. There's continuous pressure on City Council to write codes that codify every situation, hoping to preclude individual judgments on what might be best for a particular building site. The unfortunate outcome is that we often get bad development because strict codes simply don't always fit individual sites. But it's hard to favor more flexibility, as developers always want, when the department so typically approves subdivisions of property, exemptions to codes and grants declarations of non significance (DNS) for environmentally sensitive areas and impacts.

Over time the codes we've created for every little detail have increased in number and complexity to the point that many in the industry can't understand what they mean. Seattle codes are measured by the pound, and even developers have to hire specialists to find loopholes to getting around inconvenient details. The number of exceptions built into our codes makes clear decisions sometimes impossible. It's not uncommon for a field inspector to reject a design, sending it back to another specialist who has yet another interpretation of what is code.


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