Issue #108, November/December 1999


Seattle Neighborhood Planning

Citizen Empowerment or Collective Daydreaming?


At first glance, the Neighborhood Planning Program in Seattle, Washington, sounds like a remarkably progressive idea. Begun in 1995, the program is one of many across the country that have sought to open up the often arcane process of neighborhood planning to greater citizen participation. The program has involved thousands of Seattle residents (12,000, according to one city council member) and after four years has resulted in 38 individual neighborhood plans. Many of the plans take into account the need for more affordable housing and less automobile congestion in this rapidly growing city, which is governed nearly exclusively by Democrats and is a magnet to activists of various stripes.

Despite these factors and the city's publicity efforts around the Neighborhood Planning Program, the overall process, some observers say, did not include a concerted outreach effort to typically marginalized lower-income residents. And some say the city is still directing an undue amount of resources toward developing its downtown, which went through its own planning process while neighborhood planning was taking place.

Floricita Alcantara of Seattle's Delridge neighborhood said the Neighborhood Planning Program has already led to some tangible improvements in her community, but whether it significantly shifts the balance of city resource distribution remains to be seen. Alcantara heard of the program from a friend and felt she wanted to do her share to improve her neighborhood, learn how the city operates and how it can support communities, and encourage other residents to participate. Four years after the program began, Alcantara's ethnically-mixed neighborhood, which includes working-class and working-poor residents and has been officially classified as a distressed area, has submitted its plan to the city and reaped such benefits as better transit – in the form of new and more frequent bus routes – and a new police precinct. "It's not just something on paper," she said.

At the same time, Alcantara said she's less involved in community activities now that creation of the plan has ended, and she's not that satisfied with the city's responses to many elements of her neighborhood's plan. She said the city seemed to pass back many projects for the neighborhood to do on its own. Some residents of other neighborhoods have also expressed concern, that the city may simply bypass the neighborhood plans when they run counter to its own goals.

According to an editorial in the May 20, 1999, Seattle Times, the city has fueled residents' expectations that growth will occur as hoped and wish lists will get funded. Indeed, in 1998 Seattle City Councilwoman Tina Podlodowski, (who will leave the council at the end of this year), then chair of the Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Planning Committee, wrote a piece for the Times extolling the virtues of the Neighborhood Planning Program and declaring "Seattle's not poised for a new 'Era of the Neighborhood.' We're in it!"

Yet the Neighborhood Planning Program has its origins in NIMBYism. The city began the program after residents of wealthier, single-family neighborhoods reacted against an earlier proposal by then Mayor Norman Rice, the city's first black mayor, to create "Urban Villages" in various city neighborhoods by changing zoning codes to allow greater housing density and pedestrian-oriented development. The proposal called for developing more affordable multifamily housing throughout the city, including in wealthier single-family neighborhoods.

The Urban Villages proposal was spurred by Washington State's Growth Management Act, passed in 1990. A series of articles by syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, urban affairs expert Curtis Johnson, and University of Washington policy researcher Betty Jane Narver in Seattle Times in 1989 had raised public awareness of the need to try to manage the area's accellerated growth. Like its neighbor Oregon – and countless other "smart growth" initiatives since – Washington state's growth management effort aims to preserve open space by focusing development in urban centers. A year after the Seattle-region Pierce Report was published, most of its recommendations, including the creation of more affordable housing, had become law. The act prompted King County, where Seattle is located, to require Seattle and other urban hubs to do comprehensive planning, which led to Rice's Urban Villages plan. But the public sentiment that passed the Growth Management Act did not translate into automatic buy-in for the city's own resulting plans.

While NIMBYism may have been the key reason the Neighborhood Planning Program began, advocates for lower-income neighborhoods also became part of the effort. For example, Susan Dehlendorf, neighborhood development manager of the Neighborhood Preservation and Development Division of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods pointed out that the planning process helped pass the "Libraries For All" proposal, a $196.4 million bond that may be the biggest measure ever passed for libraries by an American city, according to the November 11, 1998, Seattle Times. As the name suggests, the library campaign proposed better service in many of Seattle's lower-income neighborhoods. Seattle voters in 1994 had rejected a library bond, and Libraries For All advocates felt that presenting ideas for neighborhood libraries to various neighborhood planning groups would help win the broad public support needed to pass the bond. It seems they were right, as even groups often critical of city spending signed onto the campaign.

Conservation-minded participants in the planning process also contributed ideas to link urban housing and economic development to open space preservation. Paul Fischburg, director of the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, said the Delridge neighborhood planning group has requested a zoning change that would allow "density bonuses" for developable space in order to preserve the neighborhood's open green space.

Neighborhoods vs. Downtown

An architect who worked with various CDCs in Seattle before starting Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, Fischburg added that it was "a great piece of serendipity" that the planning effort began about the same time as his own organization. The planning process has helped guide the fledgling organization's work.

The Delridge Neighborhood Development Association's first property, Brandon Court, is under construction. The building is to contain 4,500 sq. ft. of commercial space, including a retail bakery, the organization's offices, a "little city hall" – a city-wide effort to make services more accessible to neighborhood residents – and 17 townhouses for first-time homebuyers. Interjecting the environmental theme, a salmon sculpture by a local artist will sit outside the property nearby a creek and provide information on the endangered salmon. The organization is also developing another mixed-use property to include a branch library and 25 apartments for families earning 30 to 50 percent of area median income. (The neighborhood overall has about half renters and half homeowners.)

This work, and the Delridge neighborhood plan, reflect the themes of environmentally conscious, neighborhood-scale development sought by the Urban Villages plan, even though Delridge isn't officially classified as an Urban Village.

The Delridge planning group identified its key goals through a survey circulated to residents. Alcantara said that while Fischburg was very helpful in explaining various technicalities to neighborhood planning novices, the resulting plan truly represents the collective priorities identified by community residents. The plan identifies three overarching goals:

  • To preserve and celebrate the community's diversity and "figure out how to make that work for people."
  • To retain open green spaces, which have lasted because of the neighborhood's geography and historic development patterns, while using already developed land to better advantage.
  • To develop pedestrian-oriented mixed-use districts to create a sense of community.
Fischburg, who also lives in the neighborhood, said some elements of the neighborhood plan are clearly the neighborhood's responsibility and others are clearly the city's, but there's a large gray area where he feels the city has so far fallen short. Like Alcantara, Fischburg feels the city "dumped a bunch of stuff back in our lap."

Another recommendation that came out of the planning process, he noted, was to create an organization to watchdog neighborhood development, since the city sometimes neglects that role. For example, he said, Seattle has an environmental critical areas ordinance that's poorly enforced.

While Fischburg gives the city credit for currently working to find a way – or ways – to pay for the plans' more expensive goals, he said there's still "a huge downtown vs. neighborhoods issue" in the way the city spends its overall resources. For example, Fischburg and others say the city has made the central library in downtown Seattle a spending priority over neighborhood libraries. "It's really infuriating," he added.

Bringing People Out

Besides the library bond, Dehlendorf said that other tangible, city-supported projects to come out of the process so far include a number of "Grey to Green" projects, replacing asphalt with grass; property acquisition for neighborhood "pocket parks;" sidewalk projects and community gateways to reroute traffic; an agreement banning the sale of fortified wine in one neighborhood; and "a lot of tree plantings."

"Those activities bring people out," she said. "Neighborhood planning was designed to be a catalyst; it wasn't designed to be an end but part of a continuum of activities."

But enthusiasm and participation varied from neighborhood to neighborhood and was highest during the program's "visioning" stage. The Delridge planning group faced additional complications, such as language barriers – 35 different languages within the neighborhood – and a shortage of meeting space. The neighborhood survey was translated into Spanish, Cambodian, and Vietnamese, which Fischburg said covers about 90 percent of neighborhood residents who speak a foreign language. The group held several public meetings, but Fischburg said the same 50 or 60 people typically attended. So the group developed the survey to invite more input from residents. Later, when the planning group got to sorting out survey responses, about 35 residents were closely involved.

Dehlendorf said many neighborhood planning groups engaged in "creative outreach" – from a children's essay contest in one neighborhood to a miniature golf tournament in another. Fischburg said the Delridge planning group sent neighborhood surveys home with kids at his daughter's school, promising them ice cream if they brought them back. The group received about 100 back.

Still, some say the city didn't do enough to bring the under-represented into the planning process. Yolanda Sinde of the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice in Seattle said her group offered to help the city do outreach in low-income neighborhoods if the city would pay for it, but the city declined. "The city doesn't know how to do outreach," she said. "They don't understand it's something people go to get training for." She added that the city typically takes a very top-down approach to community issues. On top of that, she continued, the neighborhood planning process may turn out to be a big waste of people's time, since it doesn't appear the plans are really being implemented.

In addition, while many of the neighborhood plans address transit issues, residents of the city's South side and environmental justice advocates feel these residents haven't had an adequate voice in decisions concerning a new light-rail train to serve the city and region. This year, a group called Save Our Valley formed to wage a last-minute battle to have the tracks placed underground – as they will be in the more affluent, largely white neighborhoods north of downtown. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also registered concerns that the project's downsides are concentrated in lower income areas. Key planning for the train took place separate from neighborhood planning, though public meetings were also held on the subject. 

Big Ideas = Big Money

For those who participated, "The neighborhood planning process has been a largely positive experience for both government and citizens, in part because everyone enjoys cost-free dreaming," an editorial in the May 20, 1999, Seattle Times observed. While the Seattle City Council has adopted the plans, it remains uncertain of how to fund many of the big-ticket items, including housing.

Dehlendorf said some of the recommended activities took place quickly, others were clearly illegal, but she too said most of the plans have many items for which city funding is uncertain. She said the city is trying to incorporate some neighborhood project funding into the existing programs and budgetary process. For example, the city's Opportunity Matching Fund, which Dehlendorf said will be $ 4.5 million in the coming year, provides money for neighborhood projects in exchange for volunteer labor. And both she and Fischburg noted that the Parks Department has taken all relevant recommendations from the plans and is looking at all of those and considering different funding options. But suggestions such as street improvements that require zoning changes are less certain, though she said the city is also considering such proposals. The city is also considering floating another bond to implement the neighborhood plans but has not settled on this idea. In the end, however, the final decisions on whether to fund neighborhood projects are still the city's.

The city has apparently already allowed some development plans that run counter to goals identified by neighborhood planners. For example, according to an article in the May 20, 1999, Seattle Times, residents of the Northgate neighborhood, who spent years attending meetings to develop their neighborhood plan, feel they've been betrayed by the city's approval of a massive shopping mall expansion. Their planning group has explicitly called for modifying the behemoth to better integrate it with the surrounding neighborhood and make the area more pedestrian friendly. Some residents now say that the city- appoved expansion doesn't do that. But in seeking the expansion, the developer agreed to a key goal of the city, to build affordable housing in the neighborhood. "Neighborhood activists feel misled by a city that has promoted neighborhood planning as the ultimate empowerment for citizens," wrote Seattle Times staff reporter Linda Keene.

While more affordable housing for Seattle was identified as important in growth management, Carla Okigwe, director of the Seattle-King County Housing Development Consortium, said her group was initially disappointed that the city didn't include much of much of a housing element in the early stages of neighborhood planning. This is perhaps to the city's credit in not predetermining what issues neighborhood planners would address – or perhaps in response to the backlash against greater housing density in single-family neighborhoods. In any case, Okigwe said it was the neighborhood planning groups who identified affordable housing as a central issue, though she acknowledged that housing developers "did manage to get the word to the planners themselves and consultants."

Okigwe downplayed the role of NIMBYism in the neighborhood planning process. Once residents in many neighborhoods grasped the idea that the affordable housing could be of neighborhood scale, she said, most communities accepted the idea of greater density. "We passed two low-income housing levies in the city since 1992," she said. "People are very sophisticated. We lucked out."

The Seattle Comprehensive Plan has targeted downtown Seattle to house 14,700 new households by 2014, wrote Catherine Stanford, chair of the Downtown Urban Center Planning Group, and Cindy Chirot, Housing Committee chair, in the February 19, 1999, Seattle Times. Stanford and Chirot said many housing advocates have made ways to provide affordable housing for moderate-income people their primary focus. At the same time, Seattle's Public Housing Authority, like many others, is working to bring in more low- to moderate-income people. This, coupled with Seattle's get-tough policy toward the homeless, also points to the national trend of "abandoning the poor." Yet Okigwe said there are many in Seattle working to serve the needs of the poor. Judy Nicastro, a housing advocate recently elected to the Seattle City Council [See Shelter Shorts], said she will work to address problems facing both moderate- and low-income renters, which are increasingly common in "fashionable" cities like Seattle and San Francisco with a largely unchecked, free-market housing system.

Seattle-based journalist David Brewster holds out hope that the neighborhood planning process possibly educated voters to "better approaches" to providing affordable housing. In a Seattle Times article endorsing Mayor Paul Schell's slow, measured approach to developing a housing agenda, Brewster (a personal friend of the mayor) points the finger for escalating housing prices in many directions: "Through layers of well-intended regulations, through enshrined NIMBYism as the official city religion, through entrenched lobbies for low-income housing that drive up prices, and through years of aversion to apartments, Seattle has become a city that conspires in every imaginable way to drive up housing prices." 

In this context – whether or not one agrees with these assertions – if the city doesn't provide the kind of support various residents who participated in neighborhood planning expected, the program's themes of inclusion and citizen-city partnerships could backfire. Local collaborative processes are certainly essential in this age of devolution. But city-sponsored neighborhood planning programs – along with foundation and nonprofit led initiatives – that promise to give all income groups the opportunity to steer development should explore funding options during the process to move the collective daydreaming a few steps closer to reality.

Contacts:

  • Susan Dehlendorf, neighborhood development manager (Northwest Sector), Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, 206-684-8189; www.cityofseattle.net/Neighborhoods
  • Paul Fischburg, director, Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, 206-933-3328. 
Seattle's Neighborhood Planning Office Seattle's Neighborhood Planning Office (NPO) was created in 1995 as a four-year program to help Seattle neighborhoods shape their future. Neighborhood planning is the cornerstone of the City's Comprehensive Plan, which outlines a strategy for accommodating growth over 20 years by attracting development that supports living, working, playing, shopping, and learning in the community. 

Neighborhood plans were required for Seattle's five urban centers and two manufacturing/industrial centers. Neighborhoods with urban village designation, or "distressed" areas – as identified in the Comprehensive Plan – were also eligible for funding.

City Resources

Depending on a neighborhood's designation, it was eligible for $60,000 to $100,000 for planning. Additional funds were available for special needs and distressed areas. The city also provided each neighborhood planning group with a detailed profile of the community, including maps and demographic data, and access to a "toolbox" of resources to help it address issues ranging from planting trees to changing traffic patterns.

NPO had 10 project managers on staff to assist neighborhood groups in their planning process, but neighborhoods could use their funds to hire their own planning experts. 

Three Phases Of Neighborhood Planning

The city stressed that identifying, reaching out to, and involving all stakeholders during every phase was essential.

Pre-Application

To apply for neighborhood planning funds, community members were required to create a coalition representing a variety of community interests and complete the following: 

  • create an Organizing Committee;
  • set tentative planning area boundaries;
  • identify a fiscal agent to handle finances, and;
  • prepare a work plan, budget, and schedule. 
Phase I

During Phase I, the Organizing Committee worked to include the whole community in developing a vision of the neighborhood's future, finalizing planning area boundaries, and identifying the issues that will be the focus for Phase II planning. In a typical neighborhood with one urban village, the City provided $10,000 for Phase I to cover such costs as mailings, events, printing, professional consultants, and administration. Funds not used in Phase I were allowed to carry over to Phase II planning. 

At the end of Phase I, the Organizing Committee was to recruit a representative Planning Committee to prepare a detailed workplan, schedule, and budget, and apply for Phase II funding. 

Phase II

During Phase II, the Planning Committee in each neighborhood was to carry out activities detailed in the work plan, continue outreach, work with City staff and consultants to analyze problems and devise solutions, maintain contact with nearby neighborhoods, and ensure community validation of the neighborhood plan. 

Approval and Implementation

The City reviewed neighborhood plans to ensure consistency with the Comprehensive Plan and applicable laws. The Seattle City Council adopted the 38 neighborhood plans, though individual recommendations within the plans were either approved, amended, or denied.

The Neighborhood Planning Office completed its mission this year with 38 neighborhood plans and is now closed. Implementation of the plans turned over to the Neighborhood Preservation and Development Division of the Department of Neighborhoods.

Copyright 1999

For more information, contact Susan Dehlendorf at the the Department of  Neighborhoods, 206-684-8189.

Resources Urbanizing GIS: Philadelphia's Strategy to Bring GIS to Neighborhood Planning, by Liza Casey and Tom Pederson. Available online.

Neighborhood Planning for Community Revitalization - (Minneapolis - St. Paul). Various reports and background information: www.NPCR.org/index.html.

Neighborhood Action Planning Kit, from the Growth Management Division of the Vancouver, Washington, Community Development Department. Some material specific to that city, but also contains information generally useful in citizen-based neighborhood planning. Information: Angela Fisher, 360-696-8013. Downloadable.