Dramatic Changes Demand New Priorities, Says Seattle Planning Commission

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A photograph showing the skyline Downtown Seattle's tall buildings at sunset as viewed from Kerry Park in Queen Anne.
(Credit: Maëlick, Creative Commons)

According to the advisory board, stakes are high for what may be the “most consequential” update to Seattle’s comprehensive plan to date.

Back in 2015, the City of Seattle released Seattle 2035, a Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) mandated comprehensive plan articulating the City’s vision for the future alongside a road map of goals, policies, and actions aimed at achieving it. The plan is a robust document, offering up nearly 600 pages that touch on critical planning topics such as land use, economic development, and environmental sustainability. Now the City is embarking on a major update to the plan, one that could alter the city’s trajectory for decades to come. As stewards of the comprehensive plan, the Seattle Planning Commission (SPC), a 16-member volunteer body appointed by the Mayor and City Council, has put forth its recommendations for the comprehensive plan update, which were shared with city leadership earlier in August.

“In our discussions around the comprehensive plan, we have been referring to what stands before us as most the consequential major plan update in the city’s history — given the stakes and the consequences,” said Rick Mohler, co-chair of the SPC who spoke with The Urbanist along with fellow co-chair Jamie Stroble.

Stroble concurred. “Everything is on the table. We have a responsibility and obligation to do everything we can to plan for a future in which we are not leaving people behind,” she said.

Some of the ideas that the planning commission is emphasizing include expanding and adding more urban villages, embedding climate change and racial equity goals into planning, and incorporating a 15-minute-city framework that encourages walking, rolling, biking, transit, and local amenities. While such ideas aren’t new, the SPC seeks to make them a priority and thus finally make them happen.

This major update to Seattle’s comprehensive plan is slated to go into effect in 2024. Before that point, the plan update will need to go though the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, receive public comments on a draft document, and then finally be voted on by City Council. In total, the work generally enfolds over a two-year period from start to finish, a long timetable that underscores what a rare opportunity the update offers to impact Seattle’s future.

Why does the current comprehensive plan so urgently need an update?

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC), “Comprehensive plans are the centerpiece of local planning efforts.” These plans not only allow for the City and its residents to put their priorities into writing, they also create a framework that guides the “the day-to-day decisions of elected officials and local government staff.” To help residents better understand the comprehensive plan’s significance, the City of Seattle has published a “Comp Plan 101” video on the Seattle Channel which contains an overview of how the plan works along with some key facts about Seattle 2035.

Updates are mandatory for city comprehensive plans under the GMA; in addition, on an annual basis, SPC reviews amendments proposed to the comprehensive plan, assessing whether or not they meet acceptability requirements based on the current plan’s guidelines. The situation is different, however, in the case of major plan updates, for which SPC is tasked with providing advice on suggested changes.

The consequences of Seattle’s rampant growth represent one of the major reasons why SPC feels this particular update will be so significant. Baseline projections included in Seattle 2035 are no longer realistic. In a mere six years, Seattle has seen its population soar from roughly 653,000 to over 775,000 residents, a number that exceeds planners’ estimates for the entire duration of the Seattle 2035 plan, which forecasted the need to accommodate 120,000 more residents and 115,000 additional jobs over 20 years.

While job growth has not yet overshot projections, it has also increased faster than predicted with approximately 80,000 new jobs coming to the city between 2016 and 2019 alone, according to data from the Puget Sound Regional Council.

On the flip side, new housing development has not kept pace, precipitating a well-known crisis in housing affordability. According to Seattle 2035, the city was projected to need 70,000 new units of housing during the 20-year plan period, but so far the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) estimates 45,687 units of housing were added between 2016 and the second quarter of 2021.

Most of new housing units have been concentrated in urban centers and villages, leading to what the SPC has called a “tale of two cities” effect. One city, dominated by single-family dwellings, has access to parks and other amenities, while another, made up of mostly multifamily developments concentrated near arterial roads, lacks tree canopy and suffers from higher rates of environmental and noise pollution. The SPC believes this pattern will persist unless changes are made to Seattle’s growth strategy.

Not surprising given dwindling housing supply, the Case-Shiller Index indicates that Seattle housing prices increased about 68% between 2016 and 2021. For some residents, rising incomes have kept pace with higher housing costs, but while median annual household income has surged to nearly $100,000, the U.S. Census found that poverty rates continue to hover between 10% and 11%. Additionally, the city’s racial wealth gap remains high, and the newfound prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement has put a spotlight on this longstanding and deeply rooted problem.

[T]oday the median White household income in Seattle ($96,333) is 1.2-1.5 times higher than that of Asian ($77,470) and Latinx ($64,240) residents, and 2-3 times higher than that of Black ($39,936) and Native American ($31,519) residents. 

The Racial Wealth Gap in Seattle, Prosperity Now, March 2021

Environmental sustainability is one of the key focus areas of Seattle 2035, but since 2015 circumstances have changed on that front as well. Reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have brought attention to the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis, and while Seattle has been among the few cities able to produce a per capita decrease in carbon emissions in recent years, a climbing population has meant that net carbon emissions continue to rise despite pledges for emission reductions made by local government officials. Additionally, in recent years, summers have brought recurrent wildfire smoke and record breaking heat waves that have vividly illustrated for many Seattle residents what the future may hold if the climate crisis remains unchecked.

All together, these factors are urging the SPC toward action in the hope of changing’s the city’s course for the better. “Recent events make clear the need for substantial and visionary change, and political climate should make it possible,” Mohler said. “Now is the moment to do so.”

What are SPC’s recommendations?

In crafting their recommendations, the SPC relied heavily on reports published by the group in recent years. These reports include:

The knowledge acquired from creating these reports provided the inspiration for the SPC’s recommended central themes: racial equity, resilience, and a sustainable quality of life for all.

“The update provided our opportunity to pull on pieces of the work we’d already completed and add in the context of a post-pandemic world, which showed the importance of incorporating resilience,” Stroble said. “We’re really excited about how this update allows us to bring together all the lessons learned.”

Summary of SPC’s Recommendations:

  • Provide for reparations for inequities caused by racist policies (in land use, housing transportation, etc) and identify racial equity outcomes;
  • Reevaluate the entirety of the existing Growth Strategy, while developing and evaluating bold alternatives such as the 15-minute city framework that meet the challenges of the housing affordability and climate crises. At a minimum consider the following:
    • Creating new and expanding existing Urban Villages;
    • Updating Urban Village designations to include more uses and housing types;
    • Encouraging a greater quantity and variety of housing types in what are now single-family zoned areas citywide;
    • Include anti-displacement strategies with changes to the existing Growth Strategy;
  • Further increase accessibility in the built environment through consultation with the disability community;
  • Explore goals for land use code changes that equitably promote public health, and reduce racial inequities in health outcomes, such as open and green spaces in and around buildings that can provide shelter from heat and improve air quality;
  • Seek guidance from and consult Tribes in the region on indigenous land management, engagement, and deliberation practices;
  • Expand transit, and establish a hierarchy for modal plans that prioritizes more efficient and equitable transportation choices to reduces reliance on automobiles driving to improve safety and reduce carbon emissions;
  • Explore and leverage opportunities to repurpose the public right-of-way as an urban open space;
  • Embed climate actions, drawn from the Environmental Justice Steering Committee and Seattle for a Green New Deal resolution;
  • Invest in graphic design that increases the accessibility and utility of the Plan.

The SPC also anticipates sharing a separate set of recommendations in response to the City’s draft community engagement plan, expected later this year. In their letter, the SPC cited the City’s Equity and Environment Initiative outreach process as “an example of a successful model of engagement, where a steering committee of diverse community members was provided with grants to conduct outreach in their communities across the city” and expressed the desire for the City follow a similar model for comprehensive plan public outreach.

Mohler and Stroble said displacement of vulnerable residents is another topic of top concern for the SPC, and the group is currently researching policies and actions to combat displacement as part of the process of writing plan element papers that will contain more detailed recommendations later this year.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

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rdpence

All zoning is exclusionary; someone, some people are always going to be excluded. Since exclusion is inherently bad, why not just abolish zoning entirely? Let people build whatever they can afford wherever they can buy a parcel of land? Don’t exclude anyone! Let’s see if zoning is really the magic pill that urbanists claim.

Justin

Many urban planners would actually be thrilled to loosen up zoning restrictions, but city councils and existing homeowners are usually opposed.

Sounder Bruce

The entire framework of the comprehensive plan is flawed. It focuses on “locating jobs” in growth areas, but most of Seattle’s residents work remotely. Now daily commutes to and from growth clusters are a small fraction of what they were and they will not meet the high levels forecast going forward. Another problem with it is it assumes that a “job” means an employer-provided workspace that a resident must fill — remote working rendered that planners’ definition of “job” useless. The comprehensive plans required by the GMA are clumsy, outdated tools and they are producing bad land use and transportation policy results.

Ryan DiRaimo

When moving the Overton Window for a much needed and highly contested change, never ever ever ever ever give the weak excuse to maintain the status quo. I cannot believe the urban village strategy being expanded on and/or maintained was even remotely suggested by the SPC.

RossB

Agreed. We need to change the zoning of the areas that are zoned single family. Basically we need to make low rise apartments and row houses legal everywhere.

Douglas Trumm

It’s also a terrible strategy to put all your eggs in one basket. Why not end single family zoning and add more urban villages too? I don’t get why it’s either/or. If we’re upzoning wealthy places like Magnolia, Montlake, Madison Valley, and Laurelhurst, I don’t just want fourplexes alone. I want some midrise too.

Bryan K

That’s how I read it – I’ve read the SPC as 100% for ending exclusionary zoning.

Once you do that, some flavor of an “urban village” strategy wouldn’t be inherently invidious, and could be done in a constructive way.

AJ M

I agree with Doug. The urban core (greater downtown + U district) has been a successful framework for highrise housing and should be expanded. I think the Urban Village strategy is a good framework for directing midrise housing and should be built upon by a significant expansion in both the size and number of urban villages. These two frameworks shouldn’t take away from the effort to improve production of lowrise housing, both within urban villages and across the entire city.

Recent anemic housing production in urban villages is a sign the villages aren’t big enough to accommodate growth, not a sign that they shouldn’t exist.

Ott Toomet

Why do you say that “anemic housing production” is a sign of that UV-s are not large enough? At least based on this article I cannot see this… If this is the case we should hear complaints that land in UV-s is getting too expensive. I’d love to hear something about the developers’ view.

AJ M

Rapidly rising rents and land prices but limited development activity suggest a undesirably low number of parcels where new development is financially feasible. There are multiple sides to a development equation – lower hard costs (labor, materials) or soft costs (permit delays, etc.) should also result in more development activity – but simply opening up more parcels to midrise should mean more opportunities where the increase in property value from the existing use to a new midrise structure is large enough to cover the cost of development.

If land prices in UVs are high, that means owning an existing midrise structure is a great business, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that building midrise structures is a good business. High land prices, all else equal, will decrease development activity. An argument in favor of a land tax is that is makes owning property less desirable but building property more desirable, thereby both reducing rent seeking and increasing housing production.

Nate

Half the city’s residents now work remotely. The emphasis on TOD over the past twenty years now is doing more harm than good. All the major employers that had been requiring daily commutes to downtown offices now use remote working policies for their employees. Once evictions can begin the population of this city should drop, and people act in their best interests and migrate away to locations where job opportunities are better and housing costs lower. All the areas upzoned over the past decade, and all the new TOD residential construction that has been built and now is in “the pipeline” is not needed for its intended purpose: a carless commute daily to and from downtown. This new plan ignores the new realities of distributed workforces while emphasizing TOD that no longer is appropriate.

Ryan DiRaimo

You are wrong. There are countless cities around the world that are more TOD than anything the US comes up with, and they don’t have a cluster of jobs in the downtown core the way US cities are stupidly planned.

Travel a bit and open your eyes. They are some of the happiest places in the world, with some of the best economic opportunities within their neighborhoods, and they are so beloved people spend thousands of dollars to fly over to them and walk around experiencing what it’s like to have such a well designed sense of community.

RossB

Demand hasn’t changed. If it did, we would have a huge drop in rental prices, along with a condo collapse and a big reduction in the number of homeless people in the city. We need more places in the city to live, obviously.

Eric

You start from the flawed assumption that the only reason someone should want to live in a dense neighborhood near to transit is to enable a quick commute to an office, couple it with a similarly flawed assumption that office commutes are dead for good, and make predictions of urban flight that I would be very surprised to see happen. Garbage in, garbage out.