City's Roosevelt plan could scare other neighborhoods

The neighbors took the lead in planning for a Sound Transit station. Then came developers, followed by the city leaders who are pushing aside the plans of the residents. It's an instructive tale of zoning politics, and the pressure to crowd too many people around transit stations.

Crosscut archive image.

Jim O'Halloran of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association moderates at a planning meeting.

The neighbors took the lead in planning for a Sound Transit station. Then came developers, followed by the city leaders who are pushing aside the plans of the residents. It's an instructive tale of zoning politics, and the pressure to crowd too many people around transit stations.

Our early ancestors were happy to find a good cave near water and good hunting.  When hunting and gathering faded, growing food became the lifestyle and people scattered to find good soil.  Cities evolved, and eventually industrialization created larger cities.  It wasn’t long before city residents learned that a slaughterhouse or a noisy smoky factory was a lousy neighbor and was better separated from where people lived.  Zoning or its equivalent was born centuries ago to assure that orderly living could occur, and various types of uses could coexist.

With zoning come neighborhood disputes, as in the case of Roosevelt (more about this below). That's because a city's power to create zoning is influenced by who of its more affluent residents buy land, and the zoning decisions predetermine how much profit those residents can make from their real-estate investments. Developers, investors, and bankers depend on the predictability of zoning to both protect their investment, but they also to hope to develop new profit streams when they can increase zoning. Likewise, ordinary people, whose major investment is their home, depend on the stability of zoning to protect that investment.

Meanwhile cities themselves have a horse in the race because up-zoning to expand or increase allowed usages can generate higher taxes.  The increased revenue can maintain the city payroll.

With over half of the world's population moving into cities seeking jobs the changing demographics require cities adapt to the increasing population. The resulting effort involves major transportation issues, a reliable food supply, water, sewage and garbage disposal, lots of power, preferably clean, good air quality, and public safety. If that weren’t enough of a challenge for any city, a recession caused by people wanting housing they can’t afford has threatened the entire real-estate market. We have created one hell of a mess that makes a lot of money for a few and creates decisions that seem to please only those who will become richer as a result.

A wonderful local example in Seattle has occurred in the Roosevelt neighborhood.  The tale reads more like the plot line for a new B movie script.

An abbreviated story goes like this. In the early 1990s, the state passed the Growth Management Act, intended to prevent suburban sprawl and concentrate more growth within urban boundaries. In Seattle elected officials were very aware that increasing density meant increasing zoning and meant formerly single family housing might be changed to higher density.  To ease the transition, two ideas were developed.  First, they would call the higher density neighborhoods "urban villages” to lure people into the belief that they would be the cozy little hamlets of yesteryear. To further ease the transition, elected officials cleverly chose to involve the public in urban planning so that officials could claim that it was the public that made the choices to up-zone their neighborhoods. They called it neighborhood planning.

The Roosevelt neighborhood along with many others spent thousands of hours of the public’s time to develop new neighborhood plans that would meet with city approval. That was over a decade ago.

Several other factors have created the pressure for some neighborhood plans to be revisited.  First, time has changed some demographics. Then Sound Transit’s plan to place a light rail station in Roosevelt activated a rezoning to accommodate the station and look at increased density.  The favored public policy among city leaders, after all, is that wherever there is a station, there must be an increase in density, which theoretically would support ridership. So, Roosevelt needed an updated plan.

The Roosevelt neighborhood is one of the most organized neighborhoods in the city. Using the internet and all new media they quickly and efficiently held dozens of public meetings to prepare new, updated plans. Their updated planning ideas called for even higher densities than the city required. They also dealt with all the issues of concurrency in their plan. It was a monumental effort and so impressed the city Department of Planning and Development (DPD) that it was well received.

It came as somewhat of a surprise when a coalition from outside Roosevelt called the Roosevelt Development Group (RDG) saw the opportunity for a highly profitable development. They saw the opportunity to combine or assemble a group of blighted properties and apply directly to the city for a contract rezone, one that would raise height limits in excess of 120 feet. Some involved in the neighborhood planning were astounded because their plan had already significantly exceeded the city’s density requirements.

Roosevelt's updated plan had already designated an increase in zoning capacity for this area with the hope that the owner of the troubled properties would find an investor who would create new development. He found an investor alright. And the neighbors were blindsided by RDG’s stealth approach bypassing the work the neighborhood had accomplished.

Presumably, the RDG group realized that getting approval for such a major up-zone would be easier if they could claim that this major jump in building height was more environmentally friendly than the already dense planning done by the neighborhood.  RDG would bypass the neighbors and move directly to the mayor and City Council members. DPD, which had been pleased with the community-generated update to the neighborhood plan, was faced with a problem. Should high rise buildings put Roosevelt High School, a centerpiece of their neighborhood, in permanent shadow by high rise buildings better suited for downtown Seattle?

Mayor McGinn and City Councilmember Tim Burgess have already entered the fray, with the mayor proposing 65- to 85-foot height limits in parts of the area. While some may differ, the mayor's move appeared totally political and designed to credit him with saving the day while still disrespecting the plan the city had already made with the neighborhood. And the greatest impact from the city allowing this massive up-zone would be the precedent set that any developer can demand up-zones because, “they did it in Roosevelt.”

The city’s efforts to encourage a large turnout of citizens to update neighborhood plans all over the city will be compromised by the public learning that thousands of hours of their work can be voided by developers going to friends at city hall for major up-zones. When you look at Roosevelt, who in their right mind would volunteer time?


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