The Way Back Machine: It Started With Neighborhood Planning

As I have been working to expand support for our work, I’ve been telling my story and the story of Smart Growth Seattle. I decided it couldn’t hurt to put that story together in one place especially since we’re beginning our fifth year in 2018. I will also try to give a bit of background on why our views about growth and housing are what they are, not in some abstract economic sense but based on the experience.

This whole thing starts out with what I am calling a pre-history, mostly about my own work in this area.

I’m doing this history for three reasons. First, just to get it on record so I can link to it as necessary. Second, I hope that some people will read it and realize that I have a lot of knowledge and history on this subject; I didn’t arrive on the scene in 2014 when Smart Growth Seattle became a full time job for me. And lastly, I hope that people who really care about this city will realize that we’re on a path, a journey.

We got here for a reason. Where do we go next? The answer to that question does depend, significantly, on a deeper understanding of where we have been.

This is a long story, so I am going to post it a little bit at a time. This is the first installment. 

For if history relates good things of good people, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it recounts evil things of wicked persons, none the less the conscientious and devout hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and wrong, is the more earnestly fired to perform those things which are known to be good.

From the Eccleisatitical History of England
Venerable Bede, 672-735


Neighborhood Planning

I started my work in urban planning and urban issues as a neighborhood participant in the development of three neighborhood plans in Beacon Hill, South Park, and the Greater Duwamish Industrial area. I lived in Beacon Hill and was on a non-profit board for an organization based in South Park, and all three were part of the Greater Duwamish District Council. During that period I was also active in Democratic district politics in the 11th legislative district that also included those areas.

I spent a lot of time in meetings, neighborhood tours, discussions about the Comprehensive Plan, and everything from activating business districts to slowing down traffic, and from renovations of Concord Elementary School in South Park to whether it was feasible to build a station for light rail at Beacon Hill. Throughout those years, there was certainly friction between the City, neighbors, and other players like the school district and developers. Throughout, however, there was a sense that we were processing (in various senses of that word) toward some positive goal with a common purpose.

Why Neighborhood Planning Worked

Neighborhood planning was the result of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan promulgated in the 1990s after the passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA) in the late 1980s and was, essentially, a bargain between single-family neighbors and City planners. The bargain was that the City would push and incentivize growth into areas already zoned for more density and mixed-use development. These areas, called Urban Villages, would aim to accommodate population expected and quantified by growth targets, in exchange neighbors would get resources for planning, a big say in how the growth was welcomed, and more City investment in the villages. The GMA mandated growth in the cities, Seattle was incentivizing its growth into the villages.

Each neighborhood, there were 37 of them, would get issued a City staff planner who functioned as a guide, guru, advocate, expert, and hand-holder for the neighborhood planning group. The planning groups were composed of anyone who showed up. Often the room would be filled with the harshest critics of the Comp Plan process, bitter about its successful passage, and in the room mainly to “keep an eye on things.” I’ve described these people as the ones tightly wound, at the back of the room, with their arms crossed and face set in grimace.

The neighborhood planning groups were also given a budget and the ability to hire a professional planner or architect to help with the planning process both technically but also to visualize the plan. While the City hired this consultant, they really worked for the neighborhood, and over time the City staff from the Neighborhood Planning Office (NPO) became a force to contend with politically.

I need to stop here for a moment to emphasize something.

I cannot think of a more hazardous thing to do than to convene a group of neighbors with an open mandate to plan for their own neighborhood and allocating them City staff and a budget for a consultant that would actually give a visual life to their idea. Imagine the expectations that would be aroused, and foment, and controversy. This was a recipe for stoking neighbor on neighbor conflict, coalescing opposition to the City itself, and even possibly creating a movement for fundamental and profound changes to City government from Charter amendments to neighborhood candidates overthrowing incumbents on the City Council.

None of those things happened. Instead, new people who had never been involved stepped into the process. These new arrivals took responsibility for refreshments at meetings, organizing venues, setting up sub-committees, attended Council meetings, attended conferences and trainings, and generally became experts on their own neighborhoods and City process. From the back of the room, the bitterest and most skeptical critics (“We’ve seen this before. What happened to that plan from 1983? Nothing!”), unfurled themselves, and started sharing their own ideas.

Everyone in those rooms and meetings could push forward an idea, build support in the group for it, advocate for it with City officials and department heads, and generally rally their neighbors around the concept. Instead of an angry stew of bitterness against the Comp Plan and City process, what emerged was a group of newly empowered people who invested their free time with the hope of making their neighborhood a better place. Through neighborhood planning people were forced to argue, discuss, agree, and prioritize. Not everyone was happy, but everyone understood the framework and the goal: produce a neighborhood plan the could be presented to the City, a plan that the City had promised as part of the bargain to implement.

I think all the wonky kids in town would be stunned at these “plans.” They were mostly Word documents of various formats broken into different areas (i.e. housing, parks etc.) and ordered and prioritized based on neighborhood preference. They were many pages long and each one was different and unique. There was no electronic database at first, no website or online presence (it was the 90s!), just stacks of planning documents and rolls of drawing and schematics.

Let me cite two examples of planning items before I generalize why this effort was successful, the South Park Bridge and the Beacon Hill light rail station.

Next: South Park case study 

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