Uytae Lee explains why Vancouver is removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, both of which are highways.
This is a two-part series! The first part was a brief overview of the Growth Management Act, King County’s Urban Growth Boundary, and how we ended up with neighborhood plans. The second part will go into what the neighborhood planning documents actually say, what neighborhood planning did, and how Seattle’s homeowner-dominated neighborhood planning codified anti-renter bias, and where Seattle is headed.
Neighborhood plans are a weird thing. Many people have zero idea of their existence or history, and some of its most vocal defenders weren’t even living in Seattle during their creation. In many cases, the boosters of neighborhood plans are also the same people who opposed the affordable housing rezones, who opposed accessory dwelling unit liberalization, and who oppose safe streets and bike infrastructure (this last part is ironic, as most of the neighborhood plans are very vocal about increasing bike lanes).
Interestingly, Shelterforce magazine in 1999 claimed only 12,000 people participated in neighborhood planning (out of nearly 560,000 residents, a whopping 2%). More people moved to Seattle between 2018 and 2019 (16,900 per Office Financial Management) than participated in a planning process over 20 years ago that severely restricted where these new residents could live, as well as each of the five years preceding. There are 38 neighborhood plans, meaning the average Urban Village had 315 people working on it. Shelterforce also wrote the plans have their roots in keeping people out:
Yet the Neighborhood Planning Program has its origins in NIMBYism. The city began the program after residents of wealthier, single-family neighborhoods reacted against an earlier proposal by then Mayor Norman Rice, the city’s first black mayor, to create “Urban Villages” in various city neighborhoods by changing zoning codes to allow greater housing density and pedestrian-oriented development. The proposal called for developing more affordable multifamily housing throughout the city, including in wealthier single-family neighborhoods.
Sound familiar? Remember how the city looked at eliminating single-family zoning in the late 1970s, only to have wealthy neighborhoods rise up and kill a proposal to allow low-income duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones? Or recently, how homeowners tried to kill affordable housing through a modest rezone in more of the city?
The affordable housing component of then-Mayor Norm Rice’s original Urban Village plan called for 25% affordable housing in Urban Villages. In 1994, The Seattle Times reported that 250 West Seattle residents showed up to a meeting to criticize the Urban Village plans, stating they already had enough affordable housing, and that the Urban Village Strategy contained “neighborhood-killing viruses” that would lead to urban slums. West Seattle has over 80,000 residents today.
To an urbanist, there’s no sweeter sight than fresh red paint claiming a new bus lane.
We have seen that sight a bit more frequently lately. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has added about 32 blocks of bus lanes this fall, including stretches on Columbia Street, Olive Way, Pike Street, and Fifth Avenue. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget includes another 60 blocks of bus lanes for next year, mostly on Rainier Avenue as funded in the Move Seattle Levy.
It’s good to see the City delivering but so many more bus lanes are needed to keep transit riders out of gridlock, to stretch transit funding farther, to induce more ridership, and to decrease our region’s climbing climate emissions. We’ve been making this case for some time.
One month ahead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct closure, the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition–of which The Urbanist is a member–issued a list of 20 high-impact bus lanes. We urged the City to add bus lanes as quickly as possible to deal with the Seattle Squeeze, as the City is calling the congested era before the new surface-level Alaskan Way boulevard and big light rail expansions come online. East Link is not due until 2023, and Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link aren’t scheduled to open until 2024.
For the past decade or so, the Seattle metropolitan area has been leading the nation in transit ridership gains. However, how sustainable is that when so many riders find themselves in Seattle Squeeze gridlock and bus reliability suffers? That is why I’m urging Mayor Durkan to move faster.
The public supports moving faster; 59% backed the Move Seattle Levy which promised seven RapidRide corridors, with bus lanes being the signature transit improvement. Since then, the Move Seattle program has been reduced and delayed due a budget crunch. As it stands now with no additional funding identified, Move Seattle will not turn Routes 40, 44, and 48 into RapidRides. The other four RapidRide routes have been delayed, but the RapidRide H Line upgrading Delridge’s Route 120 is now slated for 2021. All seven routes deserve red bus lanes as soon as possible regardless of the status of the red “RapidRide” branded buses and bus stops.
We can’t wait for the federal funding mess to sort itself out. We need bus lanes on these corridors now. The Mayor and City Council should deliver on these promised corridors and find funding to double bus lane mileage being delivered in the next year.
The following bus lanes would make a huge impact and could be implemented quickly. The Mayor has prided herself on budget discipline. Here’s a good case to use it:
- Extend planned Rainier Avenue bus lanes to S Jackson Street (Route 7);
- Extend Third Avenue bus lanes to Denny Way (benefits dozens of routes);
- NE 45th Street and 15th Avenue NE (Routes 44, 48, 49, ane 70);
- NW Market Street (Route 44);
- Fairview Avenue in South Lake Union (Route 70);
- Leary Way NW (Routes 40 and 28); and
- SW Alaska Street and 35th Avenue SW (RapidRide C Line and Routes 50 and 37).
Upgrading the flagship: Uwajimaya plans to make a major update ($) to its flagship store in Seattle.
Planning congestion: Massachusetts plans to convert a high occupancy vehicle lane to a general purpose lane, which has advocates fighting the move.
Blocked again, for now: A federal judge has blocked a racially-motivated change to immigration laws for use of public service.
Hospitals for housing: Why are hospitals getting into the housing business? ($)
No jail: Advocates are pressuring the Tacoma City Council to revoke the business license of a private detention center that is mistreating immigrants on behalf of the federal administration.
Housing market fluxes: Sales of pricey homes are slowing in Seattle, but some submarkets are hot ($).
Entice them back: Why did the bus become so bad in America and what can cities do to bring riders back?
Planning America: What cities in America are most popular for urban planners?
This is a two-part series. The first part is a very brief overview of the Growth Management Act, King County’s Urban Growth Boundary, and how we ended up with neighborhood plans. The second part will go into what the neighborhood planning documents actually say, what neighborhood planning did, and how Seattle’s homeowner-dominated neighborhood planning codified anti-renter bias, and where Seattle is headed.
A number of candidates in this year’s election have been waxing poetic about neighborhood planning Seattle undertook in the 1990s, some even claiming the process was “robust”–and this is never followed up on in forums. I come from a planning background, have seen what democratic planning (and democratic architecture–baugruppen) can look like. So when I first started looking at the neighborhood planning documents years ago, I imagined I would find plans that were inclusive, welcoming, and open. And in some ways, they are. The plans are very pro-transit, very pro-biking and safe streets, and very much geared toward fixing deficiencies that existed in Seattle neighborhoods after decades of neglect and economic downturns. These are all good.
But Seattle’s neighborhood plans also have a dark side. When it comes to housing and land use, they are extremely biased and exclusionary. And this is not an accident, this was largely by design.
But first, a little history.
Like today, in the beginning of the century, Seattle was a boomtown. As with most American cities, there really was no formal planning. New construction was haphazardly placed, there was largely no way to direct where new housing or buildings could or should go. There was only the building code. And at something like 150 pages, Seattle’s early building codes were a pithy thing of beauty. Today, Seattle’s building code is more than 700 pages long–then there are other codes to comply with like fire, mechanical, and plumbing.
Very much unlike today, the original building code had no limits on where housing could go. You could build three-story apartment buildings on every square inch of Seattle. The amount of the city zoned for detached houses was a whopping 0% (as it should be). So you could have apartments next to fine houses, and those proximities still exist in many of Seattle’s older and more walkable neighborhoods.
This changed with the passing of the 1923 zoning ordinance, which immediately downzoned much of Seattle. It was largely a zoning plan as snapshot, meaning multifamily housing and small neighborhood commercial were largely limited to where it already existed. Over time, the planning documents got longer and longer, the restrictions became stricter and stricter (larger setbacks, smaller height limits, less lot coverage, and density limits) leading to a fairly dire housing situation in the 1970s.
In 1980, the city attempted to pass rent control, but homeowners helped kill it. Further downzones in the 1980s, even as the region was growing, caused massive amounts of sprawl and environmental destruction. In 1990, the state passed the Growth Management Act (GMA), which among other things, required counties to plan for growth. But it is also kept to local control, and doesn’t say how or where growth should go. This can be problematic, and is one of the reasons I really like Vienna’s approach, which is both top down, and bottom up, planning.
One of the aspects to come out of the GMA was designation of rural and agricultural lands for protection. This is how we came to get the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) for King County.
It’s that time of year. Amazon is cutting a million-dollar check to Seattle’s chamber of commerce political action committee. Their candidates are talking about accountability and responsibility, and we still don’t know what that means–but it seems to pay well. Milquetoast Moderates insist it’s their time. To do what? It’s unclear. Keep a low profile? Shy away from taxes? Hold business roundtables? Valet park their wealthiest constituents?
Luckily, candidates with stronger aspirations than being Jeff Bezos’s lapdogs are out there. We have before us an inspired pack of urbanist progressives that generally care about making it safer for people walking, rolling, and biking to get around. They’re willing to raise progressive revenue to fund affordable housing and transit upgrades. We sought candidates that had an equity lens and used it to construct policies rather than only to destruct them.
The Urbanist Election Board crafted a questionnaire zeroed in on these issues, and we published highlighted candidate responses on issues like congestion pricing, affordable housing strategies, the streetcar, Vision Zero, and evictions/displacement. Additionally, we hosted candidates for in-person interviews and finally arrived at our endorsements.
Seattle City Council
D1: Lisa Herbold
Councilmember Lisa Herbold is a hardworking legislator. She takes bold progressive stands, but she also often defends the status quo when it comes to parking, single-family zoning, and sabotaging the streetcar. She can talk about equity while trying to sink an extra billion dollars building a light rail tunnel to West Seattle whose primary function appears aesthetic–and which will almost surely delay light rail reaching High Point, Westwood Village, and White Center. Despite some suburban proclivities, Herbold is a net positive on the city council, willing to stand up to big corporations.
Her opponent Phil Tavel is a chamber darling who ironically has a dozen failed business ventures to his name and thousands of dollars in unpaid traffic tickets. Accountability and fiscal responsibility starts at home, dude. While Herbold got most of her irresponsible driving behavior out of her system in the 1990’s, Tavel apparently is still driving like a jerk to this day. He goes further than Herbold in opposing upzones and pandering to and embodying car culture.
We hope to see more of the Herbold that voted for the head tax and championed affordable housing funding–and less of the Herbold that launched into soliloquies railing against the streetcar and new parking reforms at every opportunity. Vote Herbold.
D2: Tammy Morales
Tammy Morales earned our endorsement in the primary and cruised to a first place win with more than 50% of the vote. She’s a strong supporter of transit and affordable housing, and she’s backed by a wide progressive coalition. Morales has a vision for incorporating race and social justice into the City’s work, and she has experience implementing that vision as an organizer for the Rainier Beach Action Coalition and a legislative director in the Texas Legislature.
Councilmember Lorena González traveled to Copenhagen with a delegation of local leaders in August to study the policies and infrastructure that have given rise to the city’s world renowned public life. Sponsored by the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and the ScanDesign Foundation, the delegates spent a week immersed in fieldwork and lectures, strolling and cycling across a city where the streets are so safe that most Copenhageners choose to cycle though the winter.
But the trip was about more than just enjoying one of the most livable urban environments in the world. The delegation was commissioned with returning home with actionable strategies to implement in Seattle. People cite Copenhagen as model because in the last three decades Copenhagen is leading the world in reducing carbon emissions. (Seattle, where emissions continue to tick up, could stand to Copenhagenize.) Specifically, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict aims to transform Capitol Hill, the densest urban village in the Pacific Northwest, into a global example of sustainability, social equity, and cultural vibrance.
On Tuesday evening from 5-7pm, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict is holding a Public Life Community Celebration at 12th Avenue Arts in which the delegation will be sharing ideas for how transform public spaces in Capitol Hill inspired by what they learned during their time in Copenhagen. At the event, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict will also be collecting feedback from the public, and sharing ideas for its next step: completing a public life planning study of Capitol Hill.
In the run up to the celebration, I had the opportunity to chat with Councilmember González about her experience in Copenhagen, which could be best summarized in her own words as “a pretty transformational way to look at a city.” Our conversation ran the gamut from human centered design to resilience planning for climate change. Here are some of the highlights from what Copenhagen taught Councilmember González about sustainable urbanism.