I’d like to tell you a story about the life and death of our Neighborhood Plan. The story starts back in the 1990’s. It was a time when Seattle was still a small big city before Amazon took over a whole neighborhood, when we were the center of a musical grunge scene and flannel was everywhere (well, maybe that last part hasn’t changed).
If you are old enough, you may remember this version of Seattle. But while the cool kids were listening to grunge there were some other groups, of likely the more bookish variety, that were involved in some very inspiring, bottom-up neighborhood planning, which in hindsight sounds like absolute nirvana compared to the top-down planning we are dealing with now.
One of the people we have to thank for this golden age of neighborhood planning is Jim Diers. He was appointed the first director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods in 1988 and he continued in that role for the next 14 years.
Jim played a key role in instituting an organized approach to neighborhood planning that allowed residents of a neighborhood to truly impact a vision for how their neighborhood grew. According to Jim’s website: “The Neighborhood Planning Program enabled communities to hire their own consultants and involved 30,000 people in developing 37 neighborhood plans between 1996 and 1999.”
When I spoke to Jim to find out more, he had this to say: “What was wonderful about the Seattle model is that the City was able to meet its growth goals while neighborhoods were empowered to identify ways in which that growth could make their neighborhoods more livable, not less. As a result, there was good buy-in to the City’s policies (no neighborhood contested its growth targets and two neighborhoods actually recommended higher targets) and the City reciprocated by providing more open space, community gardens, libraries, community centers and other amenities to support the growth.” Jim now travels around the globe teaching this Seattle model of civic engagement.
Wallingford’s Neighborhood Plan was born out of four years of hard work done by volunteers of the neighborhood; our group was named “Team Wallingford.” They had a dedicated liaison at the City for guidance and questions. They were given funding to carry out their work, including a consultant and funds for outreach. The plans were not just decided on by a small group but were required to be vetted with the neighborhood at large. The Wallingford Neighborhood Plan is an inspiring document that you could read here, and is still very relevant today.
All of this worked well until Mayor Greg Nickels was elected. Nickels was mayor of Seattle from 2002 to 2010 and during his tenure he unfortunately cut funding for neighborhood planning. So there were no resources to stay focused on implementing and updating the plans. A lot of good will and hard work was lost.
Under Mayor Nickels and subsequent mayors, our Neighborhood Plans suffered many years of neglect. And when we got to 2016, Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council really did their best to take any life remaining out of our Neighborhood Plans with the adoption of the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan acts as a roadmap for urban planning over a 20 year period. In the old plan, an adopted version of the Neighborhood Plans are part of the Comprehensive Plan and changes in zoning were supposed to first go through the neighborhood planning process.
In 2016, in a very political and deliberately misleading move, the City repeatedly told concerned citizens that the Neighborhood Plans would remain, unchanged, as part of the new Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan. While this was on its surface true (there is a very clearly marked section titled Neighborhood Plans), the misleading part is that the City knew the new Comprehensive Plan neutered the Neighborhood Plans of all their authority.
In the updated 2035 Comprehensive Plan, the City simply removed the language from the old plan that required upzones and other such significant changes to go through the neighborhood planning process first. So, while the City responded to concerned citizens by telling us that the Neighborhood Plans were still in the Comprehensive Plan (why all the fuss?) they were not telling the public that they were removing language that gave the plans their power.
Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan is a massive 575-page document and so it is not surprising that there are still inconsistencies between the adopted Neighborhood Plans and the Comprehensive Plan that need to be sorted out. And the City has its radar on any Neighborhood Plan that says it values or wants to protect single family zoning because that language is in conflict with the City’s plan to upzone these neighborhoods to allow for larger buildings.
The Neighborhood Plans of bygone days were developed in a bottom-up process with the residents of the neighborhoods having a real impact on how their neighborhood grew. What is happening now is that the City has determined it is going to implement citywide upzones without a neighborhood-directed planning process such as the successful program we had in the 1990s.
And subsequently the City is pushing through these upzones that allow for larger buildings without concurrent planning for infrastructure and amenities, and without street level concern for its impacts. And frankly, without justifying that these upzones are really needed at all (upzones are not the only option to provide affordable housing and our development capacity with current zoning is more than sufficient). This is NOT neighborhood planning and is an insult to all of us.
The City is having a meeting on October 26th (details at the end of this piece). They will be asking you to rewrite the part of our Neighborhood Plans that say we value single family homes. Specifically, these are the two sections relevant to the Wallingford Urban Village that the City wants rewritten. The first is in the adopted Wallingford Neighborhood Plan:
W-P1 Protect the character and integrity of Wallingford’s single-family areas.
And the second policy is in the “Wallymont” area. This section, which refers to an area inside the Wallingford Urban Village, is included in the Fremont Neighborhood Plan:
F-P13 In the area where the Wallingford Urban Village and the Fremont Planning Area overlap (the area bounded by Stone Way on the east, N. 45th Street on the north, Aurora Avenue North on the west, and N. 40th Street on the south) maintain the character and integrity of the existing single-family zoned areas by maintaining current single-family zoning on properties meeting the locational criteria for single-family zones.
The above policies in our Neighborhood Plans do not conform to the City’s desire to rid urban villages of all single family zoning, and the City is telling us that these sections need to be rewritten. And if the City dictating what parts of our Neighborhood Plans we should rewrite is not brazen enough for you, the City also gives us instructions on what we should not say when rewriting these sections:
New policies should avoid references to all specific zoning designations in a neighborhood plan policy… calling for maintaining qualities such as “integrity” of single-family areas should be avoided…
So, I guess integrity now is a bad thing. At this meeting on the 26th, the City will invite you to write new language for our Neighborhood Plan, as long as it conforms to what they want you to say. Did anyone else realize that Seattle was the new Moscow? Make no mistake that this means our Neighborhood Plan is alive and well, it’s all a facade, the City has killed it.
You should come to this City-hosted meeting on October 26th, but come in your best dark suit, your somber black dress. I’m serious, I will be wearing my best funeral garb and you should too. Tell the city you mourn the death of the Neighborhood Plans. You mourn the loss of trees and our history and cultural values. You mourn for a time when the City asked for our opinion about our neighborhood and actually listened. We once had a Neighborhood Plan we could celebrate. Now we should throw it a funeral.
- Comprehensive Plan Amendment Meeting: Meeting announcement
Thursday, October 26, 2017, 6 – 7:30PM
Hales Brewery (in the Palladium)
4301 Leary Way NW, Seattle, WA 98107
Two topics covered: (1) City asking you to write single family zoning out of our Neighborhood Plans, (2) What impacts should be studied for proposed backyard cottage/in-law apartment legislation
- Have comments and can’t make this meeting? Contact email for this event is: [email protected]. You may also email the City Council at [email protected].
- The City wants to remove single family zoning language from the following Neighborhood Plans: Aurora-Licton Springs, Fremont, Morgan Junction, Mt. Baker/North Rainier, Northgate, Roosevelt, Wallingford, West Seattle Junction, and Westwood Highland Park. For more information, click here and download the “Meeting in a Box” document.
- Email the City Council at [email protected] and ask that they provide funding for neighborhood planning in their budget.
- Unfamiliar with HALA and the City’s plan to upzone to allow larger buildings? Read this blog post for more background.
- Upzones are not the only option for providing affordable housing! For alternative options, visit the Seattle Fair Growth website.