Are neighborhoods too privileged in Seattle land-use debates?

Historically, Seattle has deferred to the residents most directly affected by decisions such as development around rail stations. This is starting to change, enlarging the table for democratic debate. 

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A light rail train in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

Historically, Seattle has deferred to the residents most directly affected by decisions such as development around rail stations. This is starting to change, enlarging the table for democratic debate. 

Land use decisions have become more contentious in Seattle, and are often less about land use than about how we make decisions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than a potent concoction of change, our process distills a gentle but bland broth of status quo. In Seattle, making the process more robust means taking a closer look at who makes decisions, whether the decisions are fair, and what outcomes we want as a city.

In reactions to a recent post, many commenters challenged whether advocates for moving more people into the city are "anti-democratic." Democracy has been defined variously as either maximum, broad participation in the process, or drawing lines around neighborhoods and limiting important decisions to people who live inside those lines.

But those boundary lines are starting to change. Until now, Seattle’s land use questions have been posed by planners at the city and the city council, and usually answered by neighborhoods and developers of a single project. Unusual for a large city, the denizens of single-family neighborhoods have held the trump cards in most of these contests.

Lately, though, the questions have become bigger, such as: “how can we limit environmental damage using land use?” and “how do we align local land use decisions to regional investment in light rail?” Such questions represent an expansion of the franchise for people affected by local land use decisions, especially users of light rail.

A related question, when you enlarge the area under discussion, is fairness. Who has to give up some things when population growth starts to force changes on the way we live? Seattle residents who have worked hard for their money and invested it in single-family homes can legitimately feel that growth advocates are trying to change their neighborhoods and the rules of the game. One single-family advocate, MVH, commented, “I believe that people who live and/or own property in a neighborhood should have a special status in planning for their neighborhood's future.” The commenter concluded, “A clear majority of Seattle voters agrees with me.”

Fairness is a complex calculation for elected officials and growth advocates. Which way do they tilt the political balance? Today, elected officials recite the environmental creed all politicians recite, but then, often, will make decisions that benefit the people who are already living here at the expense of people new to the region. This supports MVH’s position. Meanwhile, density advocates and developers seem averse to hardball politics, preferring to find good arguments and messages, rather than to defeat the “special status” party that has a lock on City Hall. That will soon change.

At the bottom of these debates is the question about desired outcomes from our land use debates. Consider We some inexorable and quickly advancing facts. More people are coming to our region every day seeking a better life or simply being born here. We have limited resources, including real estate, to accommodate them. We can either allow them to live in places where we won’t see them, like the rural outskirts of our cities, sacrificing habitat, farmland, and open space; or we can welcome them in our cities. One choice leads to environmentally destructive and expensive sprawl; the other can lead to a sustainable, efficient, and economical outcome of livable density.

This choice presents some unpleasant sensations to the parties in the land use debates in Seattle. After all this is Seattle and we are all fleece-wearing, Subaru-wagon-driving, Al-Gore-believing environmentalists. We like our way of life here in this region, and we want it to get slightly better over years, not change radically in a short period. And we don’t like crockery-throwing debates over the civic dinner table.

It comes down to hard choices. Do we choose today’s rhetorical comfort, or a sustainable future? Who gets to decide the big land use questions facing us, the protectionist neighborhoods or the broader metropolitan area? I believe we all should make these decisions, not just people who live near new projects such as transit stations.

And there isn’t anything wrong or even inconsistent with environmental values to advocate for slow or no growth. But advocates of that position ought to be explicit, and face up to the implications of such a policy across the region. Likewise, politicians and elected officials should tell us if that is what they believe too. It’s the honest thing to do.

The best course, in my view, would be to welcome the fact of growth and then argue with each other, as a city, long and loud about how and where in our city we accommodate lots of growth, and how we leverage that growth to make our city better over time, and more environmentally and economically self sufficient. Then we can decide how and where we grow as a city.

Seattle is often seen nationally as a paragon of environmental values. I hope we will decide to align those values with action. If we can't, I would hope some other city in our region will.


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