June 11, 2016 – Who speaks for the neighborhoods

As the City pushes upzones throughout Seattle as part of HALA, community engagement is now an orchestrated affair rather than the neighborhood planning of years past (or as found in other cities).

HALA affects the 35% of land zoned single family with remaining pockets in Urban Villages upzoned to multifamily, and all eligible for backyard cottages with calls for duplexing/triplexing and subdividing of parcels (the HALA report and many others continually misrepresent the size of single family to be as much as 65% of Seattle land area as a way to further malign “white“, “racist“, “wealthy” and “exclusionary” homeowners). All multi-famiy zones and mixed-use zones will also be upzoned (another 10% of the city).

Because of this broad scope, neighborhood organizations have set their sights on HALA.  For example, Queen Anne has filed an appeal against the backyard cottage legislation, and the CNC and SNC have for months been seeking an explanation of how  the HALA upzones will actually produce the promised affordable units.  New community organizations are forming to respond to the changes (Seattle Fair Growth and the Crown Hill Urban Village Committee for Smart Growth being two).

This response seems justified since HALA has largely been a one-sided conversation from the City, with the script written by developers and those with a vested interest in the mechanisms in HALA. So what better way to counter the efforts of these neighborhood activists raising questions about HALA than to discredit them.

Former Mayor Mike McGinn ponders “who speaks for Seattle’s neighborhoods” in a recent Crosscut op-ed.  McGinn gives a mixed assessment of neighborhood organizations. Faint praise however is counterpointed with some of the old and recent tropes about neighborhood councils and citizen engagement.

McGinn suggests that community councils are “often sleepy” unless there is a controversial land use action which then the meetings “fill up”, reinforcing the “NIMBY” characterization.  The SNC has said before that community member’s concerns about the urban design and support for growth are “urbanist” issues, not NIMBYism.  McGinn repeats the erroneous account of the failure of an “urbanist” renter to be elected to the Wallingford Community Council in order to suggest that neighbors dislike renters (the story is corrected in the Crosscut comments). He then calls out University Park (originally attacked by another blogger).  But UPCC is the outlier in regards to renters, and that as the result of a long history of troublesome student rentals in the neighborhood.(McGinn has been invited to participate on the panel, but has not committed at this point, coyly saying that he may show up).

McGinn rightly calls out the HALA backroom deal: “telling neighborhoods that there was a “Grand Bargain” on zoning before they had any input was bound to inflame opposition.”  Particularly since Murray promised during the campaign to re-engage neighborhoods in the planning process.

When it comes to zoning that will change the face of the neighborhood, don’t the property owners most affected (those in the target areas) deserve to be at the table when defining the future of their community?  The remaining pockets of single family homes in the Central Area Urban Villages are targeted under HALA to be upzoned to multifamily, putting at risk for displacement the last vestiges of the black community.   Anecdotally these homeowners are unaware of what’s in store for them.  There is no active community council in that area.  Who speaks for them?

Developer funded organizations, as well as the City, are working overtime to promote HALA.  Vulcan, who orchestrated a sweet deal in the “Grand Bargain”, is funding Seattle for Everyone which is unsurprisingly has a steering committee made up of HALA creators and financial beneficiaries. And while neighborhoods can receive high level presentations on HALA from DON, OPCD and the Mayor’s office, their participation has been stymied and replaced with “Focus Groups” with 5 City-selected people per Urban Village, who then are grouped by Urban Village type.  Most Focus Group participants are not necessarily versed in Land Use issues, but have expressed interest in it.  And only a handful have been historically engaged in land use issues for their community.  One Focus Group member was told their job was to “sell HALA” to their community.

This month we will explore what is an “authentic voice” of the neighborhoods, whether traditional volunteer (and unfunded) neighborhood organizations have a role to play (particularly in regards to HALA), and what that role may be in the future in a city that moves further away from neighborhood power.

We will hear from a panel of neighborhood activists who represent organizations that feel they speak with a “neighborhood” voice:

  • Catherine Weatbrook – Co-chair of the City Neighborhood Council and past chair of the Ballard District Council
  • Ruedi Risler – President of the University Park Community Club, a neighborhood council that does not allow renters to be members
  • Zachary Pullin – President of the Capitol Hill Community Council, a neighborhood  council that tries to engage renters in the organization
  • Deborah Jaquith – Chair of the newly formed Crown Hill Urban Village Committee for Smart Growth

Please join us on Saturday, June 11 at 9am for what should prove to be a informative and lively discussion.

[by Bill Bradburd, June 7, 2016]