Vision 2050 Has Passed. On to Visions 2024.

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6-story buildings in Downtown Bothell
Vision 2050 could affect how places like Downtown Bothell grow versus rural areas. (Credit: PSRC)

Puget Sound’s long-term regional planning document has passed. Now the individual city planning begins.

On Friday, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) adopted Vision 2050, the blueprint for growth and transportation investments in the four county region. As King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties are projected to add a combined 1.8 million people over the next 30 years, the document will guide investments in infrastructure and focus growth.

With the four counties, Vision 2050 and PSRC cover the transportation and planning projections for 76 cities and towns, four tribes, six transit agencies, five ports, two universities, and an assortment state and regional transportation and transit agencies. It’s an exercise in regionalism that can result in broad objectives and narrow impacts.

More specifically, Vision 2050 sets the template for the next wave of local planning documents. Counties and cities throughout the region will be updating their comprehensive plans in 2024. PSRC will review each plan for conformance with the Vision 2050 targets. For that reason, Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County Executive and PSRC General Assembly President, called Vision 2050 the “Hallmark document that will guide our planing process for the next 10 years.”

Vision 2050

For its flaws, and we’ll get to them, Vision 2050 is a well written and thoughtful planning document. It provides strong framework for the Puget Sound region to responsibly and sustainably grow into the next 30 years. Since its last incarnation as Vision 2040, policies were added to address equity and climate change. New targets have been added to focus development around transportation hubs. Restrictions on development outside the growth area are provided with workable tools.

Vision 2050 is the broadest view of planning in the Puget Sound Region. The generalized dots of growth and industrial centers, the aspirational statements of purpose, and the lack of municipal boundaries all combine to show the widest picture of life and development in the four-county area. That vision is then colored with a variety of maps and very lovely illustrations.

Consolidated map of regional geographies for Vision 2050. Clusters of increased density are in darker brown, and agricultural/resource lands are green. They make some good looking maps. (PSRC Vision 2050)

The plan isn’t just pretty. It has teeth guaranteed in state law. The Growth Management Act (GMA) requires all local plans to conform with the regional growth targets. If the GMA is a machine that lets communities build local comprehensive plans, Vision 2050 is the pattern for those plans around Puget Sound.

Between statutory effectiveness and being really well constructed, Vision 2050 is likely one of the premier regional planning documents in the country. Regional planning in the United States is often a non-starter due to the country’s pathological fixation with home-rule. Most regional groups are single purpose entities that run the water district or the airports, or a regional cooperative that does a lot of marketing and nice lunches. Puget Sound Regional Council has a purpose, a direction, and authority to make it happen.

However, Vision 2050 is inherently an update to its predecessor, Vision 2040. While it finds many new topics to explore, it is still fundamentally based on a suburban model that has not kept pace with the last decade of growth. There is a lot of discussion of compact urban communities, but not the awkward adolescence of getting there.

For example, Vision 2050 includes policies that promote increased urban tree coverage. Opponents to bike lanes and building complete streets can argue that removing street trees violates that policy. We saw this in giant frontpage type with The Seattle Times’ April 15, 2019 headline “Thousands of trees will be removed to make way for Light Rail to Lynwood.” Yes, and it’s going to be okay.

The term “character” appears in the document 12 times, each of which can be used as an argument against reasonable projects that simply look different that what exists right now. Anti-density and anti-affordable housing lawsuits cite aspirational environmental and community policies to delay and defeat housing and infrastructure projects.

Of course, Vision 2050 is a regional planning document and these policies must be implemented by local comprehensive plans. That’s why completing Vision 2050 this year is important. Localities can have the pattern ready for 2024, when the next comp plans are due.

But it also means that the implementation of this premier regional planning document is in the hands of 104 different agencies and jurisdictions. We have to rely on our fractured, patchwork of municipalities to take a regional view. Communities like Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Yarrow Point, and Medina are allowed to get all the benefits of their local affiliation with neighboring Bellevue and easy access to regional infrastructure, but get to be treated like remote towns and cities. These areas are expected to take up 6% of the region’s population growth and 4% of its employment growth over the next 30 years.

Four of these little flecks are not like the others. While many of the Towns and Cities are outside of the primary metropolitan corridor, the overrepresented defacto HOAs of Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Yarrow Point, and Medina are allowed to defer reasonable development. (PSRC Vision 2050)

On the other hand, unincorporated and underrepresented areas like White Center and Skyway are shuffled into “High Capacity Transit Communities” akin to Shoreline or Mercer Island that are imminently served by light rail. These regions are expected to take 24% of the region’s population growth and 13% of its employment. The document mentions “displacement” 20 times, but do not talk about it specifically for unincorporated areas. Though predominantly Black, Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), both neighborhoods are rated the same displacement risk as Interbay and Ballard.

Path to approval

Friday’s PSRC General Assembly vote was the final step in a series of meetings to approve Vision 2050, all of which were delayed due to Covid. Originally scheduled for May, the process stalled as PSRC committees worked to comply with the Governor’s Stay Home Stay Healthy orders and elected officials who comprise those committee members were faced with urgent matters and budgets in their home jurisdictions. 

Vision 2050 was reviewed and vetted by dozens of boards and committees over the last three years as the PSRC staff and regional leaders reached out for community comment. There were rounds of public input and response to the draft plan. These were heard through PSRC’s Growth Management Policy Board who sent the draft up to PSRC’s Executive Board who in turn recommended approval to the PSRC General Assembly. It is the very definition of austere planning, one that represents a layered resistance to change.

In introducing the motion to adopt Vision 2050, chair of the Growth Management Policy Board and Everett Councilmember Scott Bader said: “We had some debates along the way and some challenging issues.”

The most challenging recent issue involved the growth target for rural Snohomish County. The county would like a higher allowance for growth permitted outside its growth boundary. While their motion was narrowly defeated in earlier committees, County Executive Dave Somers proposed a final amendment to raise the allowable number of homes by about 5,500 units over 10 years. 

His argument is straightforward. Snohomish County’s rural growth was 20%, lowered to 10% in Vision 2040. They achieved this target. But it was again lowered to 3% in Vision 2050 which they believe is unattainable. So Snohomish proposed to allow a growth target of 4.5% in its rural areas. “We need to be able to keep our commitments and be realistic about it. From a planning perspective it’s very important to us,” County Executive Somers said.

Representatives of other counties and jurisdictions spoke for and against the amendment. King County Executive Dow Constantine reviewed his earlier opposition to the proposal, but signaled support due to the addition of other language. Mayor Becky Erickson of Poulsbo also spoke in support, focusing on being realistic about infrastructure and not underbuilding in places that need new roads.

Mayor Becky Erickson of Poulsbo addresses the General Assembly in support of Snohomish County’s amendment. (via Zoom)

Roger Millar, Secretary of Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), had some direct answers about rural roads. He listed the holes in the budget. “$3.1 billion fish passage obligation. We have a $1.5 billion unmet seismic retrofit requirement. Over the next 10 years, statewide we have a $7 billion shortfall in our State of Good Repair investment.” He then focused on what that means for roads going to these new houses. “We do not have the resources as a state to address the commitments in place or complete actions in a timely manner. Your friendly neighborhood DOT cannot accommodate rural growth at 3%, 6% the money is not there.”

This was echoed by Duvall Mayor Amy Ockerlander, opposing the amendment. “We don’t have a way to connect our transportation systems from where people are living to where they are working.” The Mayor described traffic moving through downtown Duvall to unfunded county roads. 

In the end, the amendment passed, as did the Vision 2050 plan as a whole. PSRC’s system of weighted voting is based on population. With the four counties and Seattle voting for the amendment and final plan, there was little doubt. Most of the remaining cities and towns voted for them too. 

That tension is striking. PSRC is set up well, primed for forward-looking change. They develop quality plans and research like Vision 2050.

At the same time, the barriers to change are high and to participation are higher. To play in this field, you have to be an elected official. Yes, there are a lot of towns and cities in the Puget Sound region, but many are set up to exclude people that are not White homeowners. After years of developing the plan, Snohomish County got its way for growth in unincorporated rural areas in a last round amendment. But unincorporated urban King County barely had a seat at the table.

Fortunately, a new table is getting set up. Lots of them. Futurewise is preparing amendments to the Growth Management Act for the 2021 Washington Legislative session. They’re looking to strengthen GMA implementation for racial equity and housing and climate change. Communities are educating neighbors ahead of their town’s comp plan updates. Community groups are pushing back on short-term plans that jump the start on the upcoming comp plan process. 

As Pierce County Executive Dammeier put it “It’s important to note that the successful planning of this region does not stop with the General Assembly. In fact [today’s vote] is the conclusion of a big effort, but the start of an even more significant effort as all of us work to implement the regional planning policies as we go forward. So there’s still a lot of work ahead of us.”

We’re done visioning 2050. Now it’s time to prepare for 2024.

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Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.

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Ott Toomet

Electric cars and working from home seems not mature enough technology (and habit) to me. It would be hard to make any real plans based on this, we just don’t know how far will electric transportation take us, and how much of working-from-home stays here after the virus is gone.

I’d say one should re-visit the plans in 5 years, at least the latter question should be much more clear then. And yes, if we see major changes in habits, the plans should be adjusted accordingly. I think electric transportation needs more time, at least for now I notice many more new trucks and SUV instead of electric cars (but just my casual observations, no stats). So let’s continue this discussion in a few years 🙂

Ott Toomet

Sorry, meant as a reply to DT.

Daniel Thompson

https://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/even-as-seattle-home-market-dips-heated-competition-by-homebuyers-spreads-to-neighboring-counties/?utm_source=marketingcloud&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=TSA_110620032814+Sizzling+home+sales+spread+beyond+Seattle_11_5_2020&utm_term=Registered%20User

Here is a good article in today’s Seattle Times noting how quickly the housing market is changing based on working from home, and how those moves are to single family homes in areas outside Seattle and even outside King Co. We can revisit the 2050 Vision Statement in five years, but changes are happening too quickly right now, when the 2050 Vision Statement is based on 2018 assumptions and data and was out of date the day it was adopted.

When it comes to part one of the 2050 Vision Statement — transit — that will be determined by general fund revenue and commuters — especially for Metro — and by disparities in ST subarea equity for rail (and to some extent from federal subsidies). There is little the PSRC can do to create revenue for transit or force commuters to commute (or rebuild the West Seattle Bridge), and other than the eastside subarea my guess is the four other subareas are going to have funding issues compared to the promises made in ST 3. I agree with you driverless technology is in its beginning phases, but the 2050 Vision Statement is trying to predict 2050, not tomorrow. Driverless Uber/Lyft is going to change transit forever.

When it comes to zoning, the big conflict there is between the PSRC and Sound Cities Assoc. SCA lists as one of its five primary legislative goals local control of zoning. In 2019 the legislature drafted HB 1923 that would have forced Seattle style residential upzoning on the rest of the state, but after blowback amended 1923 to make it voluntary. Ironically all the expensive suburban cities balked at rezoning while rural counties that had been trying forever under the GMA to upzone their rural areas got their Christmas present early: all those five and ten acre lots could now have three separate legal dwellings per zoned lot and those counties allow very large houses per lot. Hence Snohomish County’ sudden desire to develop more of its rural zoned property, which is now statewide.

Another interesting link is https://www.bisnow.com/webinar/seattle/unlocking-the-secrets-to-the-pnw-suburbs-5241?utm_source=marketo&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=event_5241&register=true&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWldaall6QmtPREpoWldNNSIsInQiOiJIanlUZEluMFNST0xhcTd3R2Z2eDBRb2pidWpVNWhlM2NIN0hXaHBBWUFWanBmZ3pQQ3l4aWR5VXZId3MzdGdQcWgwWTExeURyWEhHZUI0aDlIRVR6T0dNOXNaa1RkZ0RSQnMyS2Y1WmwwcDdCOW54aDUrcStWcklBTUJvTUMxMCJ9

What this link tells you is upzoning has nothing to do with affordable housing, or global warming (or electric cars would be discussed in the 2050 Vision Statement because they already exist), or “equity”, or future population growth. It has to do with smaller developers who can’t afford to get into the multi-family game in large urban centers like downtown Bellevue, don’t want to build in MLK or build affordable housing at all, are pretty much limited to 7 stories with a wood framed building (when steel requires 22 stories to pencil out for a builder) and so want to upzone eastside residential neighborhoods to multi-family rather than update a single house.

Never, ever, ever forget the building and development game is only about money and profit. Find the most expensive property you can afford and get it upzoned. Otherwise MLK would be filled with gleaming new multi-family housing.

As long as local cities retain control of their own zoning, and transit will be determined by Uber/Lyft, revenue, subarea equity, driverless technology, and most importantly of all working from home, I am willing to see if the 2050 Vision Statement has any validity in 5 years. But my guess is the push to rezone will be immediate because the 2050 Vision Statement was all about rezoning and profit, and nothing about global warming or equity or anything else.

asdf2

Ultimately, everybody has to live somewhere, and the alternative to upzoning already urban areas is to turn all of the state’s forest and farmland into houses, yards, and wider and wider roads.

Contrary to what some may believe, not everybody wants to live like a hermit in a big house with a big yard and have to drive long distances for every trip out of the house (even if work-from-home means such trips aren’t every day), and demand still exists – particularly among young people – for urban living in walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods. A large reason why living in such neighborhoods is so expensive is that zoning artificially limits the supply of them, so people have to bid each other up on what supply exists.

While there is definitely interest in suburban properties, the desire for urban living among millennials in a post-COVID world is not dead. As a simple example, I dabble in real estate investing on the side and, just this May, rented out a condo by the UW for more than what I was getting in 2019 – even with COVID causing the UW to be closed. While the property is not for sale, I have noticed that Redfin’s estimated sale price, based on similar homes has gone up, not down, since COVID began.

Yes, most families want a house with a yard, but there’s a ton of young, single people out there for whom a large house with a large yard in a boring neighborhood with nothing around but houses is just – boring. City living has survived every past economic recession and will survive this one.

Daniel Thompson

IMO the PSRC 2050 Vision Statement and its calls for transit oriented development were based on questionable population growth and transit ridership estimates BEFORE Covid-19. After Covid-19 nearly all the assumptions in the 2050 Vision Statement are questionable.

But since the 2050 Vision Statement was first and foremost a political document to support Sound Transit and its exaggerated future ridership projections (ridership increased 1% in 2019), and the Master Builder Assoc.’s long desire to upzone expensive suburban residential neighborhoods I am not surprised it was passed during the middle of a pandemic when working from home will undermine revenue projections and growth patterns.

Even before Covid-19 I thought it was a serious omission for the 2050 Vision Statement to omit a discussion about electric cars since so many of the provisions in the 2050 Vision Statement are based on reducing carbon emissions. Based on recent requirements in CA it is likely electric cars will beat electric buses in this region. Really any kind of projections 30 years out is at best a guess, and at worst a political ploy. Remove carbon emissions from cars and nearly every assumption in the 2050 Vision Statement is untrue, or just a personal opinion on how to live.

When it comes to working from home how can you beat that for carbon emissions. Zero emissions from commuting, although it has led to current demands for larger housing, and pretty much undercuts Urbanism, or at least moves Urbanism’s ideals of working and living within walking distance of each other from large urban cores to suburbia where the workers live, and will now work.

The “vision” that rail will make lives more livable is not true on the eastside. For example, after spending $5.5 billion on East Link all those areas not served by East Link from Sammamish (just voted the most livable city in the country) to Snoqualmie, Issaquah, Renton, Eastgate, Factoria and so on will have their two seat commute (drive to park and ride and express bus to Seattle) go to a three seat commute (drive to park and ride, bus to rail station, rail to Seattle) so ST can try and create its estimated 50,000 riders/day on East Link by 2030, a fantastical goal to sell East Link.

For $5.5 billion these commuters got an extra hour in their commute (except they won’t have to commute anymore).

Meanwhile Metro is cutting service 25% through 2026, is embarking on an expensive program to electrify its fleet when driverless car pilots are beginning in San Francisco this year, and plans on no service increases through 2040, although the 2050 Vision Statement requires citizens to build their lives around declining transit service, and don’t expect that general fund revenue subsidy to return. Meanwhile employers are subsidizing employee parking and Uber/Lyft because other employees object to co-workers taking transit to work. Will this fear really fade after Covid-19 when regular flu seasons occur now that we are sensitized to the health risks of large gatherings and transit?

The passage of Prop. 22 in CA also suggests the competition to transit from Uber/Lyft, and cities’ attempts to disadvantage Uber/Lyft, won’t slow the huge increases in miles from Uber/Lyft because they provide door to door transportation, are safer, and are the same cost for short trips if there are two passengers, and will be cheaper with one individual when Uber/Lyft are driverless.

Despite questionable estimates for very significant population growth in the region, population growth has slowed to a trickle the last few years. And in fact, the PSRC estimates most future population growth will be in counties other than King, in part because of the desire for a single family home (which was accelerated by working from home). I thought the amendment to allow Snohomish Co. greater housing density in its rural areas showed how political the Vision Statement really is, and its focused desire to upzone east King Co.

A “Vision Statement” will never succeed if it ignores basic citizen desires for housing and transportation, and instead seeks to impose a ideological lifestyle on those who don’t want it. Nearly every assumption and goal in the 2050 Vision Statement is contradicted by working from home, which is great for the worker who no longer has to spend a good portion of their lives on crowded buses and trains going to a city they don’t like, and even better for reducing carbon emissions, but contrary to the ideology in the 2050 Vision Statement. To ignore electric cars and driverless technology in a document that purports to estimate 2050 shows how little vision the authors have. To ignore a pandemic that will fundamentally shift work patterns and living density shows how ideological and biased the 2050 Vision Statement is.

If I can guarantee you one thing it is that the “vision” in the 2050 Vision Statement won’t remotely resemble life in 2050 because the authors have zero imagination or neutrality.