How light rail drives Seattle neighborhood planning

Chapter 6: After a year of discussion on updating neighborhood plans, the City of Seattle saw the light. That would be the approaching beam of light rail in the first three neighborhoods.

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Chapter 6: After a year of discussion on updating neighborhood plans, the City of Seattle saw the light. That would be the approaching beam of light rail in the first three neighborhoods.

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

On Sept. 22, Seattle's neighborhood planning resolution and ordinance was finally in front of the full council for a vote, and Seattle Council Member Sally Clark prefaced it with historical background. She alluded to the hard work and compromises made during the fourteen-month process, almost as though the resulting unanimous vote in favor of lifting a budget proviso and creating a new neighborhood-planning advisory committee was the final product. In fact, the biggest questions about how the process will proceed remain unanswered, and the real work has yet to begin.

City Council's vote removed a 2007 proviso so that 2008 budget monies can be used to convene a new advisory group and resume neighborhood plan efforts. The Neighborhood Planning Action Committee (NPAC) will oversee status updates on neighborhood plans, resulting in a "State of the Neighborhoods" report in approximately one year's time. Meanwhile, three neighborhoods due for light rail by July 2009 will be fast-tracked for combination station area planning/neighborhood plan updates. Certain neighborhoods will be exempt from the status updates because of recent major planning activities. That is the big picture plan, but as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

In part because the update plan cannot answer specific questions, the council's resolution (pdf) establishes a special committee and coins a new acronym. NPAC will be comprised of staff from Seattle's Department of Planning & Development and Department of Neighborhoods, two members of the Seattle Planning Commission, and community members (pdf). The community members segment allows for the following: one representative apiece from each of 13 district councils, the chair of City Neighborhood Council's Neighborhood Planning Committee plus eight at-large members; four appointed by the executive and four by Planning Land Use & Neighborhoods Committee (PLUNC). The new advisory committee is supposed to be seated, and meet, by November 15, 2008. As best as I can determine, leadership has been left open.

NPAC's role, at least on paper, is to oversee neighborhood plan status reports and co-host public outreach open houses with the Planning Commission for the purpose of seeking answers to questions about plan updates before actually starting them. The end product will be a "State of the Neighborhoods" report that establishes guidelines for plan updates through 2011. Status reports won't be prepared for the following neighborhoods due to recent major planning efforts: Northgate, South Lake Union, Pioneer Square/Chinatown/International District, Roosevelt, South Park, Duwamish Manufacturing and Industrial Center, Ballard Interbay Manufacturing and Industrial Center, and Denny Triangle (Commercial Core).

NPAC is charged with fourteen action items in the course of reporting to the executive and City Council, from co-hosting the outreach events to recommendations on the scope of status reports and neighborhood plans. In short, the resolution charges a large city-wide committee to answer the questions raised but not answered during the last year of discussing updates. Once 13 district councils determine who will be their representative and at-large members are appointed, their agenda will be: How will plans be prioritized, who will take the lead, is the budget adequate for staffing, how can under- represented minorities be involved in the process? What about the community groups who already feel marginalized by the boundaries and/or membership of the district councils?

Even the language of the ordinance (pdf) that lifted the budget proviso seems evidence that movement in neighborhood plan updates was sparked by a need other than performing a mid-life check on the plans that PLUNC Chair Sally Clark cited as the initial catalyst. The neighborhood update plan has been rescued from limbo as the dragon of light rail has tunneled its way through the Rainier Valley. Or in official speak, "Given an immediate, extraordinary opportunity to capture additional public benefit and development opportunities at light rail stations in Southeast Seattle, the following concept is being proposed."

Implementation of the original plans is still lacking in neighborhoods such as Broadview and Southeast, but the urgency of station-area planning is far more obvious. Neighborhoods where the first three light rail stations will be located get "quick starts:" Othello, Beacon Hill and Mt. Baker/McClellan. The Department of Planning and Development will take the lead on preparing immediate neighborhood plan updates on these neighborhoods. Yes, Department of Planning & Development, not the Department of Neighborhoods (they're in charge of the outreach portion). City staff will jump right into updates while the as-yet unseated NPAC works on creating the guidelines for updates and their integration with station area planning.

Before the vote, Sally Clark declared, "This is a big day." Neighborhood plan updates had been a perpetual agenda item in her committee for many months and the subject of panels, forums, and public comment. In the only comment from another council member, President Richard Conlin thanked her committee, the executive, and citizens for months of serious listening, calling passage of the two items and their intent "a promise kept."

These two related efforts are the result of major revisions to the proposal (pdf) that first appeared in July 2007. As late as the February 2008 proposal, station-area planning wasn't even mentioned; it dominates the documents signed in September. Does anything remain from the original proposal besides the words neighborhood and plan? In just six months, the proposal has morphed from plan updates by six sectors (never a popular idea) into a new city-wide committee, status reports and fast-track plan updates on neighborhoods with the first light rail stations.

The seeming discovery of light rail's imminent arrival and its ability to take top billing on neighborhood updates doesn't comfort community members who regularly make public comment at meetings that planning is increasingly geared to accommodate growth in housing and jobs. Indeed, various groups favoring affordable workforce housing are pushing for higher density, particularly near light rail stations. As Clark admitted, "These light rail areas are getting tremendous interest from developers."

The City Neighborhood Council expressed its concerns by letter (pdf), also stating the update proposal was geared more toward growth and development than examining quality-of-life issues within neighborhoods such as character, culture, youth, schools, and diversity. They voiced doubts that such a large city-wide planning committee (24 members) could be effective. Also whether funding would be adequate for intended outreach to a diverse group of citizens, beyond those usually at the table. Right until minutes before the vote, the Neighborhood Council's expressed opinion was that the budget proviso shouldn't be lifted, "until there is better focus on the implementation and integration of neighborhood plans into capital budgeting and departmental activities."

After the unanimous vote, a special edition of Sally Clark's online newsletter, Seattle View, announced with the comment, "Now the fun begins." Some of the fun will doubtless include district councils determining who will serve as their representatives and the new committee coordinating 24 schedules to set up meeting days and times.

Council President Conlin reiterated that they are looking for a mix of original community members with "institutional memory" (preferably intact) and new voices at the table for the group. (Since Magnolia doesn't even have a neighborhood plan to update, they'd just like to have a seat). The point of greatest agreement between all parties — PLUNC, the full city council, Seattle staff, and community groups — is that the next stages will be very hard work without adequate funding. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be anyone other than former Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers who still manages to show real enthusiasm for the process that is neighborhood planning. The tedious process (pdf) involved in formulating the recent update proposal seems to have been such an effort that the vote seemed more like an end than a beginning. Who will be willing to contribute the "fresh blood" so desperately needed?

Next: A meeting with Mr. Neighbor Power, Jim Diers


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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.