The “Transit Communities” Comp Plan amendment is not a good proposal

[Editors Note:  “Transit Communities” is a proposed change to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan being made by the Planning Commission.  The City Neighborhood Council has objected to this change for a variety of reasons.  This Comp Plan amendment was recently revised to version #10, and is still flawed.  Our guest post by Irene Wall is a letter that she sent to the council members, council central staff and DPD staff.

Dear Council member and staff,

The C-6 Transit Communities Amendment version #10 is still not ready to be voted into the Comprehensive Plan.  However, the Potential Seattle Transit Community Nodes map is useful in guiding us to a simple solution to the core problem: how to express a policy level desire for transit-oriented development and a desire that the city fund specific transit supportive capital improvements.

One of the exhibits map identifies 45 “Intersections of Frequent Transit Service.” Of these, 38 – or 84% – are already within an urban village!   Only 7 are outside any urban village, and of those only 4 appear to be further than a 10 minute walk to the nearest urban village.

The map also shows that 100% of the “Multi-modal Hubs/Light Rail Stations and Transportation Centers” are again located in urban villages and centers.  No mystery there.

Proposed LU275 states: “Consider the integration of transit communities into urban center and urban village boundaries, in order to promote predictable growth patterns and set investment priorities within the urban village strategy.”

Voila! It’s already INTEGRATED! The only real, new policy language needed is to state that the city shall not increase residential densities in Manufacturing and Industrial Centers.

We already have the concept of rational growth targets (based in part on transit accessibility) for every urban village and we already have made a commitment to update every neighborhood plan (4 per year).   During that neighborhood plan update process, land use and zoning changes associated with the provision or expectation of better transit service can be addressed.   There is no need to imagine “transit communities” by creating complex plannerly typologies — our transit communities already exist within our urban villages.   The map proves this.   We don’t need more layers of planning.   We need – in some cases – to update and implement the plans we already have.

The 4 or at most 7 outlier nodes can be treated as new planning areas if that is really justified.   This is even stated on page 2:   “In a similar way a transit community located outside of a current urban center or village could be designated as a new urban village with an assigned growth target.”

If a growth target is assigned, then these new areas should meet all the requirements of preparing a neighborhood plan.

Other reasons C-6 should not be adopted as are:

  1. The document is terribly redundant and still alarmingly vague where it should be specific.   After months of work by the Planning Commission,  DPD, and Council staff, the reader still does not know what metrics will be used to define a “complete, compact community.”   What makes any community “complete”?   What is meant by “a large number of people”?   What is the jobs/residential ratio for a transit community and how does this affect growth targets in existing urban villages?
  2. The discussion section is littered with platitudes about the virtues of walking and transit use but is entirely mute on the subject of the quality of the transit experience or transit adequacy to support this vision or provide any evidence that using transit equates to not owning or using any cars.   It also makes claims about a lower cost of living in a transit community which is simply not true based on rising land values near transit hubs.   Look at the Othello Station model with over 500% increase in land values. A recent scary opinion piece in the Daily Journal of Commerce by a property manager says that landlords can squeeze a lot more rent out of transit users. So the money saved from not owning a car goes into the landlord’s pocket. Is this the goal?

    April 11, 2013 Lay of the Land: Why landlords want uber-techie renters • A renter who doesn’t require a car, by using Uber or other snazzy car-sharing apps, likely can and will pay more rent.
    By DYLAN SIMON Special to the Journal (Seattle Daily Journal Commerce)

    For the impatient reader, I’ll get straight to the point.  A renter who doesn’t require a car, by using Uber or other snazzy car-centric applications, likely can and will pay more rent.  As a general measure of relative urbanist tendencies, denizens of San Francisco allocate roughly 50 percent of personal income to housing;  in New York City this number crests at 70 percent.  Seattle?  We clock-in at a very suburban rate of 34 percent.  These figures illustrate that despite upward pressure on rent, using more efficient and cheaper means to transport ourselves creates an opportunity to shift resources (e.g., dollars) from transportation to housing.

  3. Stakeholders are left out of the most important step, that of defining the “transit community” in the first place.   LU274 limits community involvement to “refining boundaries” but not giving them the choice to accept or reject the TC designation.
  4. LUG 62 speaks of “increasing the efficiency of frequent and reliable transit service by concentrating jobs and residents to some unexplained degree.   What is inefficient about our current transit system — that is does not serve more riders?  A huge problem with our current and realistically projected transit service is that overcrowding is a major CAUSE of inefficiency,  not the effect.
  5. LU270 through LU274 are not policy statements.   Again, they are work items.   Why would you enshrine this temporary “To Do” list into the policy language of our already over burdened Comprehensive Plan?
  6. There is no timescale for this proposal. Will all transit communities be designated at the same time and will that usurp all the planning resources available, potentially jeopardizing promised neighborhood plan updates?

A lot of effort has been spent trying to rationalize the need for this amendment but it does not seem to serve any new purpose or authorize any planning activity that can’t take place without this amendment.  There is a real downside to this approach as well.   If this policy directs spending into 10-minute walksheds, that creates tension in urban villages with long standing requests for crosswalks, street repairs, etc that are outside the walkshed.

I urge you not to act on this amendment this year.   It needs more vetting and we should put the horse before the cart.   Transit Service First, and then “Transit Communities” will naturally follow.

Thank you,
Irene Wall


3 responses to “The “Transit Communities” Comp Plan amendment is not a good proposal

  1. Irene –

    ..but aren’t more layers of “plannerly typologies” bolstered by redundancy, vagueness, sprinkled with a dollop or platitudes and fueled by the absence of stakeholders irrefutable evidence that the planners on the public payrolls are hard at work (not asleep at their desks) protecting the interests of our communities and neighborhoods?

    “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

  2. Bill Bradburd

    Councilmember Clark offered an amendment at full council which was adopted that limits these to points within urban villages.

  3. I have been told directly by a 30+ year veteran of SPU that upper management of that city department has become over time the almost exclusive province of graduate degree planners usurping a prior bastion of engineering degree executive staff. Two distinctly different mindsets; engineers see a sequence of problems to solve in linear fashion applying data and outside inputs as needed, planners seek control above all else to fashion a world in their elite image, public input is at best optional and usually a farcical exercise in ticket punching. Planners live to control the lives of others with an evangelical fervor.

    SDOT seems to have undergone a similar transformation in senior staff orientation. DPD probably always had a significant cohort of planners in middle management, but architects and technocrats provided a balance to that department’s decision chain. Now planners rule the roost at DPD and in virtually every Seattle City department; “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them !” Life imitating art.

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