The best-laid plans: How neighborhoods have fared

Chapter 5: Few citizens will read a 170-page auditor's report on how well decade-old neighborhood plans have been implemented. But it should be required reading for the mayor and City Council. Bottom line: The plans have had some good consequences, but City Hall has lost interest.
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Chapter 5: Few citizens will read a 170-page auditor's report on how well decade-old neighborhood plans have been implemented. But it should be required reading for the mayor and City Council. Bottom line: The plans have had some good consequences, but City Hall has lost interest.

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

A year ago, Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods sent a proposal to the City Council on the subject of updating neighborhood plans adopted in 1999. Several iterations and a year of community discussion later, the proposal to revise them is laboriously inching toward a vote by the council's Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee (PLUNC) in September.

To prepare for possible changes in the neighborhood plans, I decided it was time to study the successes (and failures) of implementation, per a City Auditor's report, Neighborhood Plan Implementation [1.7MB PDF], of Sept. 20, 2007.

The nascence of neighborhood plans in Seattle has been well-documented by sources that vary from subjective and personal (Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way by Jim Diers, former director Department of Neighborhoods) to academic (Investing in Democracy: Government as Civic Enabler by Carmen Sirianni). Although prepared by Seattle's Office of the City Auditor, this report attempted an objective review of the implementation stage of the plans.

As summarized in the introduction to the 2007 report, neighborhood plans were conceived as a subset [32K PDF] of Seattle's Comprehensive Plan through City Council Resolution 29015 in 1995:

The purposes of the neighborhood planning program are to enable the City and the community to work in partnership to improve the quality of life within the city by 1) helping people achieve their goals for their neighborhoods; 2) involving neighborhoods in determining the best way to achieve established citywide goals; and 3) creating an environment which will encourage building of community within neighborhoods.

The Comprehensive Plan adopted urban planning strategies for growth known as urban villages and urban centers — concentrating commercial and residential growth in areas where zoning was already compatible but not at capacity. The models called for elements to enhance community, such as pedestrian friendly zones, while preventing urban sprawl. The Comprehensive Plan was intended as a 20-year policy document; the life span of neighborhood plans wasn't specified.

The four-year process of creating neighborhood plans involved an estimated 20,000 citizens and was lauded for its community-driven "grassroots" approach. It resulted in a chapter in the Comprehensive Plan with policy recommendations and 38 specific neighborhood plans. According to the auditor's report, the city also adopted an "approval and adoption matrix" for each plan, identified a sector manager from the Department of Neighborhoods, and appointed neighborhood groups as stewards for each plan. Some 4,200 were entered into the Neighborhood Plan Implementation database.

As an historical aside, the concept of neighborhood planning (and the creation of a Department of Neighborhoods itself) was conceived and launched under Mayors Charles Royer and Norm Rice, including the appointment of Diers as the first director. Work on the plans continued under Mayor Paul Schell, through their formal approval in 1999. For implementation purposes, the city funded six full-time positions in the Department of Neighborhoods (originally called neighborhood development managers, later sector managers). The sector managers prioritized the 4,200 recommendations and worked directly with employees assigned full-time within the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Department of Parks and Recreation to implement the recommendations of the neighborhood plans.

So what did the neighborhoods want?

The neighborhoods at the table, representing an estimated 60 percent of the area of the city, overlapped in their big project desires and diverged on more specific ones. Data showed that all neighborhoods wanted a library, or renovations to an existing library, more green space and/or park restoration, and a community center, if not already available. South Lake Union wanted improvements at a waterfront park. Broadview/Bitter Lake wanted pedestrian walkways. Rainier Beach's priorities were safer boulevards, technology training for youth, and a walkway along Mapes Creek. The Admiral neighborhood wanted (and still wants) the water taxi across Elliott Bay to be year-round. Throughout 38 neighborhoods, certain words were repeated over and over — traffic calming, neighborhood-specific design guidelines, drainage improvements, coordination for better bus routes, safer pedestrian crossings.

The database lists tangibles, whereas the neighborhood plans expressed more abstract desires: namely the desire to retain cultural identities. Straight numbers can show what projects were completed but cannot show if the projects added or detracted to cultural identity, whether in Little Saigon or along Alki Beach.

Excepting the argument that the planning process itself produced stronger communities, none of the recommendations came without a price tag. Funding since 1999 has come from many sources within the city's budget, some specific to neighborhood plan implementation (Early Implementation Fund, Cumulative Reserve), others from the lead agency (Seattle Public Utilities, Parks). Funding in subsequent years came from the Community Center Levy, Libraries for All, and the Pro-Parks Levy, in addition to Neighborhood Matching Funds, Neighborhood Street Fund, and, since 2007, the Bridging the Gap Levy for transportation improvements.

Although implementation varied, the neighborhood plans have continued at minimum as a point of reference. A table in the report has a partial list of major planning efforts (39 listed) showing which included plan recommendations; only two projects did not have explicit references to them.

The auditor's report includes survey responses from 876 interview subjects which presents a slighter fuller picture than the project numbers, giving more hints about the drawbacks and unintended consequences of the planning — for example those "cookie cutter" townhouses we see everywhere. Implementation occurred most frequently in neighborhoods that experienced more development. What can be forgotten is that the planning process was launched for the purpose of determining how to accommodate growth. The report tracks the veritable wish list of neighborhoods that they understood to be part of a trade-off for accepting more, or less, growth in commercial and residential areas. But even during a period of development (with Ballard topping the list at 174 percent of its projected 20-year growth in just four years), Department of Neighborhoods implementation has increasingly lagged, as have other departments (namely Transportation).

In 2001, Mayor Greg Nickels became the second executive in office since neighborhood plans were completed; he declined to renew Jim Diers' employment as director of neighborhoods. In 2002-03, there were major budget cuts in the department's neighborhood plan implementation staff (from a peak of 10.7 positions down to 3.6 in recent years). Sector manager positions were eliminated, as was funding for neighborhood leadership training that had been available to plan stewards. Other departments also eliminated the positions specific to neighborhood plan implementation. Cuts also occurred in the Neighborhood Matching Fund. (The highest level was $3.85 million; by contrast $1.1 million was awarded last July 19.) According to the auditor's report, neighborhood plan implementation has been increasingly uneven since the cuts:

Much of the responsibility for implementing neighborhood plans has now been turned over to departments, especially SDOT, Parks and DPD ... [w]e also found in our interviews with City staff that newer employees who are charged with implementing plans get little training regarding the plans and are simply not familiar with them.

Recurrent critiques cited in the report include reduced infrastructure support, shift to departments "driving" the neighborhood plans instead of the neighborhoods, loss of institutional knowledge among city staff and community groups, lack of consistent framework between neighborhoods, lack of regular reporting, quality control problems with the database, citizen burnout, and planning issues that overshadow neighborhood plans, such as the Bicycle Master Plan. The report states the concerns matter-of-factly; community members have the same concerns but express them much more passionately.

The auditor's report concludes that the neighborhood plans have had lasting positive effects and proposes 15 suggestions for strengthening future efforts. The auditor's report on Neighborhood Plan Implementation is dry reading but a strong testament to their continued relevance. The plans and the auditor's report represent too much good work for them to be ignored, discarded, or reinvented from scratch.

Next: A look at the revised (and revised and revised) proposal for updating neighborhood plans


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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.