Mayor Ed Murray shuffles approach to planning

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Seattle is seeing a lot of construction, but could it be better planned and coordinated?

One hundred twenty thousand new residents by 2035: That number looms in the background as Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council and just about every other department in City Hall grapple with how to steer growth in Seattle. The latest effort from Murray, announced Tuesday morning, is to shake up city bureaucracy and create a sort of inter-departmental Office of Planning and Community Development.

With the birth of this new office will come the death of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). The DPD has been responsible for both the visionary and the dry, spearheading the Seattle 2035 plan for growth while also administering permits and fines for things like backyard garden sheds. By name, the DPD will no longer exist and its duties will be split in two. The planning side will shift over to the new OPCD. The paperwork — code enforcement, inspections, permits — will go to a second new office, which will be announced (and named) in the relatively near future.

The new office is created out of an executive order signed by Murray and will need approval and funding in this fall's budget talks. The theory, according to Murray, is that the city needs an office that can view growth from a wider perspective, taking into account the expertise and services of every department that may have skin in the planning game. “The city tends to plan stuff in silos,” said the mayor. “Parks here, housing there.” Murray pointed to what he calls the mistakes of past development: two simultaneous developments on Fifth Avenue avenue downtown clogging traffic, poor transit options surrounding new apartment developments, lack of bike lanes and so on.

The OPCD is an attempt to open up the planning process. It will house representatives from the DPD, the Department of Transportation, Parks and Recreation, Public Utilities, City Light, the Office of Housing and the Office of Economic Development. By having these voices in one place, said Murray’s communication director Viet Shelton, SDOT, for example, would know to time road repairs around development projects.

The office would also serve as a clear point of contact for Seattleites frustrated with development. Rather than run to SDOT for parking issues and City Light for electricity problems, residents could make one call and, theoretically, have their issues addressed.

The mayor’s announcement is timely for a few reasons. First, a draft of the city’s 2035 plan for Seattle's development was introduced a few weeks ago. The new Office of Planning and Community Development would be in charge of overseeing that plan. Second, the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda will (likely) come forward in two weeks with its delayed recommendations for adding more affordable housing. The planning and implementation of those recommendations would also fall, at least in part, under the OPCD’s purview.

Not included in Tuesday’s announcement was a proposal for improving communication between the city and the business community in areas of heavy construction. Many Capitol Hill businesses expected this proposal last month. While Murray made mention of the proposal in his Tuesday press conference, Shelton said he wasn’t sure when it would be ready.

For Seattle old timers, the new office may sound similar to the Department of Community Development (DCD). That office, according to the City Clerk, was created in 1969. Its purpose was to coordinate planning efforts between the public and private sectors and between departments, much as the mayor’s new office will aim to do. The DCD received federal funding, which proved to be a bane as it was subject to sharp variation in its budget. It was eventually broken into the Department of Neighborhoods, Department of Housing and Human Services, and the DPD in 1992.

It's unclear what the shuffle will mean for the Seattle City Council, said Councilmember Mike O'Brien, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee. "I think if done well, it could get be a good thing," he said in an interview. "Most of the folks I interact with are in DPD. If they're in a different department but doing the same things, I don't think it will change things too much." He did say that if representatives from Parks, SDOT and the like are more involved, it could change the outcome of some proposals, but that's "to be determined."

The mayor's announcement lacks details like size, budget and specific game plan. DPD Director Diane Sugimura, who would have been a likely candidate for heading the new office, will retire and Murray hasn't decided on a director yet. The public, said the mayor, can expect more specifics next September.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.