Densinistas vs. NIMBYs: Where do city candidates lie?

Commentary: City council and mayoral candidates weigh in on sustainable development in the emerald city.
Crosscut archive image.
Commentary: City council and mayoral candidates weigh in on sustainable development in the emerald city.

The speed of our region’s growth brings a sense of urgency to the conversation surrounding Seattle’s growing pains. Are you a Densinista or a NIMBY?

For many, the answer is “it depends”. In the conversation over the social impacts of development, some would say that urban development is an absolute and intrinsic good, but many urge the maintenance of other ideals within the development framework: inclusion, community process, cultural preservation and sensitivity to neighborhood conditions.

With the help of known neighborhood-level developers such as Maria Barrientos, Grace Kim and many others, we created a Q&A to better understand Seattle electoral candidates’ stances on socially responsible development, or development intended to add social benefit to the neighborhood fabric.

Mayoral Candidates

Mayor Mike McGinn strongly emphasizes increased affordable housing. On the topic of cultural heritage, he focuses mainly on cultural centers and overlay districts, such as the proposed cultural overlay district in Capitol Hill that could provide development incentives in exchange for retaining cultural amenities. He emphasizes his work toward more efficient permitting through faster bureaucracy, as well as more flexible permitting through regulatory reform. He supports micro-apartments and accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, as ways to increase housing options.

His challenger, Ed Murray, also focuses his cultural discussion on unmet community needs. Murray emphasizes the role of the public in planning and development, and values transparent and reliable public processes backed by predictable policy incentives. He proposes exploring community benefit agreements — contracts for public concessions that are made between community groups and developers in exchange for community support — as well as streamlined affordable housing permitting that, by reducing requirements or permitting time, could help bring down the cost of developing affordable housing. Murray’s preferred zoning approach is to focus high-rise density in some neighborhoods in an effort to reduce development pressure in others. Both candidates are critical of the South Lake Union rezoning process for not meeting neighborhood affordability targets.

City Council Position 2

Councilmember Richard Conlin writes that fear of change is misattributed — in fact, what most people fear is loss. To address this, he hopes to reinvigorate public engagement by ensuring broad inclusion so that all views are taken into account, rather than only “the last ones standing.” He is supportive of the Race and Social Justice Initiative, which recently provided recommendations in South Lake Union to minimize displacement and equitably expand access to new job opportunities created by development. He focuses on higher zoning capacity in Urban Centers to accommodate the needed housing supply, and hopes for some added emphasis on workforce housing (affordable to those earning 60-80 percent of Area Median Income, slightly more than the income level typically served by non-profits). Conlin prefers affordable housing strategies that produce the greatest quantity of new units citywide, rather than requiring developers to provide affordable units on high-cost sites.

Conlin’s challenger, Kshama Sawant, focuses on gentrification. She proposes increased economic and infrastructure development in low-income neighborhoods and an increased presence of community organizers on the Seattle Planning Commission. To achieve affordability in the city, she proposes freezing rents, raising wages, remodeling and filling vacant homes before increasing supply, rent subsidies and greatly increased public housing through increased tax revenues.

City Council Position 4

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw is a proponent of requiring affordable units in market-rate developments. She supports protecting diversity of neighborhood character, including single-family zones, by focusing on density (a projected 100,000 new Seattleites in the next decade) within the city’s transit nodes. She writes that fear of loss is engendered by changes to neighborhood character, which can be balanced with respectful community involvement. Like Conlin, she endorses an expedited permitting option available in San Jose that is based on community stakeholder negotiations.

Her challenger, Sam Bellomio, believes that Seattle’s low unemployment rate is a false positive attributable to the displacement of unemployed people, and relates his own story of being priced out of Capitol Hill. He looks to Richmond, CA as a model of using eminent domain to protect homeowners from foreclosure by buying mortgages at market value and restructuring them at rates that would keep residents in their homes.

City Council Position 6

Councilmember Nick Licata writes about the importance of public lobbying to push the council to improve livability through new development. He cites, as an example, recent lobbying that led to legislation toward expanding diversity in construction employment. Like Sawant, he emphasizes displacement as a risk of growth; his affordable housing focus is on funding for more homeless shelters. He also pushes for rental housing inspections to maintain existing housing as part of the affordability mix. Noting that Seattle’s neighborhood planning process is recognized internationally, he advocates for a continued embrace of community engagement.

We did not receive a questionnaire response from Edwin Fruit, Licata’s challenger.

City Council Position 8

Councilmember Mike O’Brien focuses on gentrification, but notably is the only candidate to also tie in historic character. On affordable housing, he writes of spearheading the current review of the incentive zoning program — zoning code that allows extra height in some neighborhoods in exchange for contributions toward affordable housing — in order to come closer to meeting the city’s affordable housing targets. Like McGinn and Murray, O’Brien also cites efforts to build cultural centers as a way to anchor communities and prevent displacement.

O’Brien’s challenger, Albert Shen, has several unique proposals for improving the impact of development in underserved communities, including: impact mitigation for small businesses during infrastructure construction; emphasizing minority-owned businesses (and not just minority workers) in government contracts; maintaining industrial freight corridors; and keeping an open ear to the needs of elderly residents. He acknowledges a need for a broad case study of other cities to supplement his understanding of the effects and relative merits of past planning strategies, and pledges to work toward a comprehensive affordability strategy that includes strengthened incentive zoning.

Across the board candidates stressed the importance of improved transit options in achieving social and environmental sustainability goals. In the context of private development, two common prongs of policy emerged: (1) targeting projects to encourage specific developments that aim to achieve a social goal in their host communities, and (2) regulating development to fortify social goals within Seattle’s built ecosystem overall.

Hungry for more development talk? Read the candidates' full responses here.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors