Will a new mayor think boldly about planning?

There are plenty of land-use controversies to heat up the election. But some cities are jumping beyond these block-by-block skirmishes and proposing sweeping new forms of zoning and urban design. Our turn?
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Seattle's Terry Thomas Building, at Dusk

There are plenty of land-use controversies to heat up the election. But some cities are jumping beyond these block-by-block skirmishes and proposing sweeping new forms of zoning and urban design. Our turn?

After Labor Day, we're beyond asking how Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, two unknowns, advanced in the Seattle mayoral primary. The question now is whether the candidates can present multi-issue detail to single-issue voters and show the panache of leadership along the way. Recalling the moniker of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the campaign deserves a "Century 21" agenda.

The first McGinn-Mallahan debate is this Thursday, September 10, before the business community at the Cinerama. The debate agenda looks focused on specific issues, including such things as attention to "a regulatory environment that fosters capital investment and job creation." One facet of that 'ꀜregulatory environment'ꀝ is land-use policy and practice. Seattle deserves an integrated approach to city planning, rather than a piecemeal focus on the viaduct, streetcars, Mercer corridor, light rail celebrations, and posturing about reduced carbon footprint.

It would be exciting to move toward a truly comprehensive platform on growth, density, community form, and values. It's happening in some other cities, where land use leadership is emerging in force (discussed below). So let's start with the current agenda of issues. Here would be my list of topics for meaningful debate on this issue by the mayoral candidates.

First, what should be the real role of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD)? This has long been a thorny Seattle issue: Where does the real planning take place? Is DPD a code-centric administrative agency at mayoral behest, with the big policy issues reserved for the land use advisers to the Mayor in the Office of Policy and Management (OPM)? That's been Mayor Nickels' style. Or, instead, might DPD be allowed to provide a laboratory of innovative techniques for growth management matched to present times, even with a daunting budgetary reality?

In A Better Way to Zone (Island Press 2008), Denver consultant and author Don Elliott argues for "Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities" and offers a range of specific "fixes" for patterned lessons of the past. How might the new Mayor ask a more broadly empowered DPD to do the same? Similarly, what role should the Seattle Planning Commission play in the city of the future? Should the commission move from merely advising and producing white papers to a more elevated role in governance?

Second, the issue of "sustainability." What is the future of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE) after the Nickels era, and what role should climate action planning and green building initiatives play in the formulation of integrated land use policy? Should OSE be merged with OPM and absorb DPD's "Green Team"? (Pardon the alphabetocracy!) This idea has been proposed by blogger Dan Bertolet of hugeasscity.com, suggesting a new "Office of Sustainable Urbanism."

Third: Underlying these questions is a vexing political issue, never fully resolved — Who really controls Seattle's land use future, anyway, Mayor or City Council? Even in Seattle's strong-executive form of government, where the Mayor proposes and the council refines, the legislative branch wields considerable power as the rezoning authority and the destination of many controversial appeals; and the City Council is a policy implementer in its own right.

For example, the council will act in an appellate capacity in the appeal of the hearing examiner's recommendation on Children's Hospital, and then decide a Major Use Master Plan and related applications for hospital expansion which will inform the balance between city major institutions and neighborhoods.

There are many recent examples of Mayor-Council interplay (with varying degrees of acrimony). One is the 2007 industrial lands "rezone" debate (disclosure: I served on the steering committee of a broad coalition which opposed the Mayor's legislation). Another is the revisions to the multifamily code (a hodgepodge of townhouse design improvements, green practices, and attempts at affordability and protecting single family neighborhoods). Still more: incentive zoning (more height to developers in return for broader housing opportunities), and "backyard cottages." What are the candidate's views on these examples? And how will the Mayor's office lead, advise, or defer under a new (and inexperienced) administration?

Fourth: money. What revenue-generating mechanisms should characterize future land use policy and regulation? In recessionary times, will either candidate dare to revisit assessment of impact fees in Seattle to offset the incremental effects of new development, as enabled by the Growth Management Act? How can Seattle work with Olympia to further advance some form of tax-increment financing to support necessary infrastructure investments? ("Tax-increment financing," widely used in other cities, sets aside the increment of new property taxes a project would generate and applies them for a period of years to enhance that local project. TIF is barred by our state constitution.)

Fifth, and equally contentious, are the neighborhood planning process and related issues of density and transit-oriented development around rail stations and bus terminals. As neighborhood plans are updated, how has the city changed from the time of the Comprehensive Plan's 1994 "urban village" focus? A growing consensus among developers, environmentalists, and transportation planners recognizes that concentration of growth in urban centers and transit nodes can limit negative effects associated with sprawl, and improve walkability and other quality of life aspects. Many issues are involved: quality design to make density more attractive; turf-protecting state and regional leadership; limited public financing mechanisms, and many more. What are the candidates' visions for Seattle's neighborhoods and how they should be planned amid urban growth of the city and region?

Sixth, what is the role of Seattle in the land use policies of the region? How can Seattle collaborate with jurisdictions around Puget Sound to accomplish the goals set forth in the Puget Sound Regional Council Vision 2040? Beyond the Alaskan Way tunnel and Mercer corridor debates, is transportation infrastructure sufficient to absorb planned growth and maintain the city as a vibrant regional employment center? Does Seattle need to behave more like a regional statesman, or continue the practice of stubbornly defending itself from the suburbs and the Legislature?

These issues are sufficiently urgent that it might be time to consider comprehensive, integrated, whole-cloth change, as is happening in a few other regions. Denver and Miami have moved toward integrated planning practices explicitly focused on fostering jobs-housing proximity where possible, green development practices, and predictable building forms in neighborhoods. These cities have transcended incremental, hodgepodge fixes and attempted city-wide visions of urban redevelopment.

Two examples of this new thinking on planning: One is "form-based" codes (a method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form rather than rely on prescriptive regulatory standards). Another is "context-based" planning (emphasizing relationships between the street and multiple buildings, pedestrians, and vehicles, public and private spaces, a block, a neighborhood, and associated scale transitions).

Denver earlier this year commenced a public debate on a proposed new zoning code that will simultaneously implement a "blueprint" (integrated land use and transportation plan) and a "greenprint" action plan (to support environmental health, economic opportunity and smart growth strategies over time). The "greenprint" focuses on water conservation and alternative energy systems, encouraging local food production and reinvestment in older buildings, enhancing neighborhood walkability, improving accessibility to buildings from the street or sidewalk, and encouraging a wide variety of housing and lifestyle choices. It's a good illustration of the sustainable urbanism concept, put down into plans and not just grandly evoked.

Similarly, the ambitious Miami 21 plan presents another city-wide, holistic approach, comprised of "integral factors" for discrete areas of the city. Six integrated elements drive a new blueprint of Miami: zoning (the "form-based" Miami 21 Zoning Code), economic development, historic preservation, parks and open spaces, arts and culture, and transportation. Controversial? Without question — and now under reevaluation after initial defeat.

Might a new Seattle Mayor forge such an ambitious platform? Could Seattle's contentious political culture possibly digest such a dramatic updating?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and former Seattle land use and environmental attorney.