The Way Back Machine: How and Why Neighborhood Planning Worked

This is part of a series looking back at 20 years of land use, planning, and housing policy history leading up to the state we’re in today. Last week I looked back at my role as a Neighborhood Development Manager. Pictured above are the two Mayor’s that presided over the decade of planning and implementation from 1989 to 2001. Apologies for the many, many names and stories I can’t mention and for anything I got wrong or misremembered. Later, I might go back and do more deep research on all this including interviews and more. 

I have to emphasize that after I left my job as a Neighborhood Development Manager (NDM) in 2001, I was no longer involved much in neighborhood planning or activism. I did return in 2011 through 2014 when I worked at Sea Mar in South Park, but I wasn’t engaged in the neighborhood very much. My dad, who is car free, lives in my old apartment on Beacon Hill and he uses light rail all the time.

I might have some of these details wrong, and some might even disagree with my assessment of the neighborhood’s role in this. But still, I would assert that had it not been for the neighborhood planning process and all it’s meetings and validation sessions and subsequent codification of the plan, I don’t think the drawbridge would have been a priority. And similarly, I think funds for the station in Beacon Hill might have been snapped up by other neighborhoods for things they wanted around their station.

Here’s the key lessons we can learn from I think.

Engagement, not consensus was the goal – Consensus is a weak broth while engagement is a rich sauce. The local manufacturing businesses, in many ways, would have had an easier time doing their thing in South Park if there were no residents. The residents were annoyed by the noise, smells, and truck traffic created by industry. But everyone wanted to be and was needed at the table to hassle through the discussion.

The neighbors and small local businesses didn’t always agree with each other, and everyone in South Park felt there were improvements needed but differed on how and when and which ones. In Beacon Hill, not everyone wanted the downsides of light rail or was worried about too much density. Even on the bridge, the somewhat unilateral listing of the bridge as historic wasn’t welcome by everyone, but seen as just another complication. But everyone got into the mix.

Total agreement wasn’t the goal, but stubbornly keeping the discussion in front of decision makers was. In some ways, a fixed span mandated and imposed would have eliminated uncertainty, a factor that most people in the neighborhood dreaded. So there were competing and underlying differences that didn’t mean everyone agreed all the time.

Making Lists and Keeping Priorities—Those long lists of items and priorities both as general as “increase affordable housing” to “fix flooding on 14th and Concord,” were critical for success. It meant that if something was on the list, everyone had at least not fought to keep it off the list. People could live with that item even if they didn’t like it; after all they got other things on the list too. The sense that on balance, all the things put into the sauce would make the dish better, even if the ingredients all by themselves were distasteful.

And the list meant that when money was available for a project, even if it was an obscure down list item championed by two people on one block, City staff new where to direct the resources. Neighbors knew which things they could push forward in funding rounds for Cumulative Reserve Funds and neighborhood matching fund projects. Other money looking for a place to go had a magnet that was on the list, and City staff and neighbors could look out the window and see something being crossed off the list.

Finally, the list meant that larger issues like the bridge stayed on top of the priority list and kept the issue alive even as people in federal, state, and local government, and the neighborhood changed

It’s not whether, but how we grow—The thing that set this whole process in the 1990s into motion was to have the debate, hear from all sides, then make a decision. The contention around the adoption of the Growth Management Act in Olympia was real. The contention around the adoption of the Comprehensive Plan mandated by the GMA was real, bitter, and protracted. And, initially, neighborhood planning was not a certainty.

However, there was a baseline assumption then a mandate that growing in the city was better than sprawl. The facts support this. But how do we do that? The question that oriented the 1990s was not about whether growth was a good thing or something that could be avoided or about who it benefitted the most. Those questions were considered and answered affirmatively: growth is good.

Neighborhood involvement and engagement wasn’t a power struggle—In today’s Seattle, the battle over growth is characterized by being a naked power struggle between various interests. In the 1990s neighborhoods weren’t just invited to “outreach meetings” as they are today, they were given resources. But the expectations were clear.

The process in the 1990s simply didn’t have a way of processing or picking up on people who wanted to abolish the process of answering the question, “How do we grow?” If someone showed up to a meeting questioning whether this whole thing was a good idea, they’d be given a set of dots and invited to create a category called, “Do Nothing” in a dot exercise. “Sure, you can put all your dots on that category.”

Nobody would do that. Anyone would put their dots on that thing they wanted to happen, even if it was to avoid that other thing they didn’t want to happen from happening. The process dissolved pointless and divisive arguments about the status quo versus change. It assumed change, and that meant any rational actor would enter the fray to shape that change.

Small wins, bigger confidence—Neighborhood planning was a big risk taken by the City and neighborhoods. What if this whole thing was just a sham? What if, after all the weeks, months, and years of planning, nothing happened? It was a big worry for everyone. But once those small wins came, a curb bulb here, an improvement to sidewalks over there, follow through on a budget item someplace else, people began to see we could make these proposals real. Maybe we wouldn’t get the biggest ones done right away, but the City bureaucracy began to bend toward neighborhood planning. If it was in the plan it came first and department staff knew there was commitment both within their own department and among elected City officials.

Fighting for something, not against something

In the end, neighborhood planning worked so well because it turned people’s natural fear of change into hope for shaping that change. This was true of both neighbors, City staff, private developers, and other entities engaged in changing the built environment or influencing it. It was not perfect. But all the process was really valuable, shifting the energy away from fighting change. Maybe I’m nostalgic, but the number of red herrings – silly arguments about what a new building would do the mating habits of birds, for example – were few and far between. Neighbors would dig in, demanding a project get more attention; but what a difference that is from appealing and litigating and complaining about new housing.

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