and on the eve of the election, from where will the land use vision come?

Hoping for breadth in a looming tunnel-centric campaign, my September 09  Crosscut article asked how a new mayor might “think boldly about planning”.  I asked in the land use arena how the candidates might move beyond single issues and set an integrated agenda to reinvent land use administration in Seattle, through a focus on restructuring, regionalism and revenue, with national examples in mind.

Within a few days, Mike McGinn answered directly with a listening session with over 20 attendees, including several Joe Mallahan supporters (disclosure: held in my law office).  Shortly after, his campaign produced a Planning, Land Use and Zoning Policy as well as Neighborhoods and Transportation Policies.  Eventually, the Mallahan campaign included some land use and zoning components within Housing and Transportation Policies, a reference to tree canopy within an Environmental Policy and recently, some passing debate references about potential paring back of the “planning department”.

The McGinn Planning, Land Use and Zoning Policy took on the several questions posed in my September 9 article, which ranged from the future role of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), neighborhood planning, the Mayoral-City Council relationship, to regional cooperation and revenue generation tools.  The McGinn policy envisions sensitivity to neighborhood needs and achieving consensus results through expanded incentive zoning and work with the City Council.  The policy also proposes a zoning audit to assure sound land use practices and underscores collaboration with the region and necessary work to secure new approaches to infrastructure funding from Olympia.

In the end, the candidates have not jousted about zoning with deep bore vigor, and policy breadth has gone unnoticed in favor of alleged single issue “flip-flops”.   Important land use issues beside transportation infrastructure choices will likely await discussion in the early days of  a new administration.  Depending on who wins, the conversation may be led by some combination of the Mayor and City Council or, in a vacuum, by facilitating organizations outside of government such as the  Quality Growth Alliance, the  Cascade Agenda or Great City (ironically founded by McGinn).

In late October, the plot thickened, as Great City independently released a ”Land Use White Paper” to the campaigns, City Council, Planning Commission and city land use leadership.  The Great City White Paper is reflective of advocacy research by non-profits who champion policy areas in need of government action,  heretofore reserved for more boutique areas such as climate change and transit oriented development.

The Great City premise?  Not unlike mine on September  9–new elected officials and a recession provide a window of unparalleled opportunity to reevaluate how land use planning is done in Seattle.  Great City’s focus repeats many of the key focal points and provides an associated action plan, alluding to an enhanced role for neighborhood planning, the Planning Commission, and a greater role for the Department of Planning and Development:

  • Articulate a clear and long-term vision for growth
  • Elevate our planning process
  • Invigorate neighborhood planning
  • Build bridges between departments and disciplines
  • Create a flexible and responsive planning environment

The Great City action plan suggests empowering the Planning Commission to develop a vision for Seattle growth, and calls for an alteration in planning culture, including more neighborhood empowerment,  and enhanced relationship between DPD, the Planning Commission and the neighborhoods.  Implementation measures include consolidation of land use resources, a zoning audit, reevaluation of incentive zoning and greater attention to existing infrastructure finance tools.

Harry Truman once said that “[m]en make history, and not the other way around…[p]rogress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better .”  While we still don’t know the answer to how a new mayor might “think boldly about planning”, the late-campaign appearance of the White Paper–and its similarity to the McGinn Planning, Land Use and Zoning Policy–also shows that many ideas championed within are generational and may not disappear should the election tilt to Mallahan.

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