Feb 11, 2012 – Whither the Neighborhoods

In 1997, Councilmember Tina Podowlowski stated in a Seattle Times op-ed: “Seattle’s not poised for a new “Era of the Neighborhood.” We’re in it!”  Emerging from the excitement of the precedent setting community based planning effort which engaged thousands of Seattle citizens (14,000 according to Podowlowski), expectations were high.  Communities across the nation and around the world took notice of Seattle’s accomplishment and began replicating Seattle’s neighborhood planning process.

However, in that op-ed Podowlowski cautioned  “Accomplishing the neighborhood plans will take more than just finding funding sources for projects. “It will take a renewed commitment by the mayor, council and city departments to change the business of city government to reflect neighborhood needs, and show responsibility for getting the work done”.

Implementation of the plans was turned over to the Department of Neighborhoods (DON).  And over the next many years, neighborhoods saw investments in community centers, parks and libraries that accompanied the increased density that they signed up for, albeit some reluctantly.  Though some continue to assert that the vast majority of the thousands of work items were completed, analysis of these plans shows significant numbers of items closed without any action and major plan items never achieved.  Within a couple of years, the mood had turned foul, as neighborhoods such as Northgate and Capitol Hill began to feel the City was not supporting their plans and instead was subverting their vision to meet the needs of property owners and developers.

In 2007, the Office of City Auditor reviewed the City’s implementation of neighborhood plans and produced a comprehensive report.  “With the loss of focused staff positions [in DON] responsible for implementing neighborhood plans, the energy in the neighborhoods is dwindling or being redirected to other efforts.”  The report is blistering in its critique of the City to implement the plans and describes continuing failures to pursue community-based planning and engagement.

In 2008, City Council passed legislation that authorized DON and the Department of Planning & Development (DPD) to work with citizens to begin updating neighborhood plans. The intent was to create a neighborhood-based planning process which engaged citizens similar to the 1990s around three south end communities with Light Rail stops, and to validate those plans.  The Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (NPAC) was to oversee these planning efforts and to make recommendations to Council.  But the NPAC process was contentious and ended bitterly leaving neighborhood activists questioning DPD’s top-down methods and managed outreach.  To date the validation of those plans is unclear, and recommendations in the NPAC report regarding neighborhood planning have not been implemented.

Just recently, planning in the Roosevelt neighborhood became an extended debacle as a neighborhood-driven plan accepted by DPD was overruled by the McGinn administration and additional density was added. The community quickly responded with a new plan to address that demand.  But political expediency and property/developer interests won out in the “Roosevelt Blocks”, and the policy to “respect the character and scale of already established neighborhoods” was rationalized away and neighborhood preference deemed a “dangerous precedent”.

The window is slowly closing on the legal requirement to update to the City’s Comprehensive Plan.  Staffing for neighborhood planning between DON and DPD is in the low single digits.  And a significant policy shift away from the “Urban Village” strategy to “Transit Communities” may be occurring.  With new neighborhood plans needed to address the next phase of growth in Seattle, the question of the role of neighborhoods to shape their destiny remains unclear.

Our speakers this month are Bernie Matsuno, Director, Department of Neighborhoods, and Nora Liu, Neighborhood Planning Manager, Department of Planning and Development.

by Bill Bradburd 2/11/2012

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