Op-Ed: Seattle’s Urban Planners Have a Language All Their Own

by Carolee Colter and John V Fox

(Note: This article originally appeared in  August 2015 editions of Pacific Publishing newspapers and has been reprinted with permission)

When zoning changes are proposed for the place where you live, things aren’t always what they seem. We’re here to help you decode city planner terminology.

First, you get a mailer announcing, “You’re invited to participate in a community conversation with other stakeholders.” When you arrive at the meeting, you see the event has been choreographed in advance and those “other stakeholders” are developers, architects, large property owners and people from organizations with names like “Future Choice,” “Urbanwise” or “Eco-Growth.”

These groups, heavily funded by development interests, have one mission: to sell you on the notion that, by cramming as much growth as possible into your community, it’ll save polar bears and make housing more affordable.

After you take your seat, a paid facilitator announces, ”We’re here to participate in a robust conversation and dialogue leading toward development of a new urban design framework for your neighborhood.”

Combining “robust,” “dialogue” and “conversation” in the same sentence wows you into believing this is no top-down exercise.

The facilitator waxes on: “We’re taking your input into development of streamlined approaches to the rules and processes that could allow housing development to occur more efficiently and foster new partnerships for development and innovation in housing types allowed in lower-density zones.”

Then the facilitator tells you that growth is inevitable. Some all-knowing power has already assigned your neighborhood a “growth target,” and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nevertheless, “we’re here to turn your ideas into a new plan, create a new partnership and, together, figure out how best to address that growth.”

After establishing these immutable ground rules, the facilitator intones that together in this very room, we’ll all work toward “innovative solutions” to “ensure that the rich cultural fabric and heritage of the city will be maintained and enhanced.” You’re told, “The ideas we generate will only be limited by our potential to imagine them.”

Next, you’re broken up into “visioning” groups, usually by topic such as housing, transportation, public safety or open space, each led by a planner who writes down your ideas on butcher paper. Then everyone reconvenes and is asked to put green, yellow or red sticky notes next to the good, so-so or bad ideas for your neighborhood. A photographer documents all this.

What you’re really getting

A couple months later, the city releases an “urban design framework” purporting to reflect these sessions. Filled with glossy photos of attendees, the report identifies plans and policies that presumably you had a hand in developing.

Funny, though, how these plans don’t look anything like what you and your fellow residents prioritized with sticky notes on those sheets of butcher paper. Now, the public plaza, the additional parking, the growth limits and anti-displacement strategies you all called for are listed as “aspirational” goals that somewhere, sometime in the distant future may be implemented.

Instead, the report alleges the key recommendation from the session calls for your neighborhood to be upzoned from one end to the other.

Your stable and diverse community, now filled with hundreds of older affordable lower-density apartments and houses, will be rezoned for high-rise offices and luxury apartments.

The report insists that the new development will “seamlessly integrate new building forms into your community and enhance the urban fabric.” Translated, that means “We’re going to allow 60 200-square-foot, $2,000-a-month ‘apods’ in a 75-foot-tall building slammed up next to your single-family home.”

And, apparently, it’s something you endorsed because there’s a picture of your happy face from the session right next to the recommendation.

It turns out your area is “underutilized.” You live in a “walkshed” identified for “Transit-Oriented Development,” meaning anything within a half-mile of a rail stop —two-thirds of your neighborhood, in fact — will be transformed into a “dense, walkable, mixed-use, transit-rich hub” and “a vibrant, sustainable and green pedestrian-friendly urban village.”

Translated, that means, your quiet streets and rows of carbon-sequestering trees, your older homes and apartments with years of useful life left in them, must give way to 300-foot towers, built with energy-consumptive, carbon-emitting concrete, steel and glass. Developers put grass on the roofs of these things and a “sharrow” or “woonerf” out front, and suddenly, they’re “low-impact” and “LEED-certified.”

Based on reality

You think we’re making this up? We’ve drawn precisely from language used in the exercises neighborhoods are now being dragged through in Ballard and the University District, so that predetermined land-use changes can be given an appearance of community support, then taken to the City Council and rammed down our throats.

But all is not lost! The report announces your neighborhood business district is first in line for some “innovative parklets.” The upzone will obliterate the character of your community, but you’re getting some planters, chairs and Astroturf set up in a fume-choked parking strip. This “demonstration project” puts you on the “cutting edge of sustainability.”

Welcome to urban planning in Seattle.

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