Op-Ed: Where is the Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan?

by David Sauvion

In September 2010, 15 community leaders, stakeholders, and residents made the commitment to work with the City of Seattle and meet monthly for the following year and a half to bring an update to a neighborhood plan crafted in the 1990’s that probably hadn’t foreseen the arrival of light rail.

This group was called the Neighborhood Advisory Committee and had the task of putting together a neighborhood plan that would represent its residents’ aspirations. At that time, the motto that caught on was put simply: “Where’s the Beach?” Where is the neighborhood’s heart and identity? Who is this community that so desperately needs to come together and get organized?

After 18 2-hour meetings, 4 community open-houses, and endless discussions with City departments, the work was done and courageous facilitators from the, then, Department of Planning and Development and Department of Neighborhoods compiled a document that was both comprehensive and approachable to non urban planner professional, and resonating of Rainier Beach’s diversity.

That was then. Fast forward 4 years, and the Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan Update is still sitting on a shelf. Not that it’s catching dust, because this group of adventurous and dedicated volunteers diligently turned the findings into an Action Plan, that they have been stewarding and taking to implementation ever since. This team of “initiators” is now known as the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, and the Plan is the Road Map they consistently refer to every time something comes to the Beach.

The City staff have also carried on with their efforts to drive policy change and explore land use strategies to set the necessary framework to fulfill the neighborhood’s vision.

But the Plan itself didn’t follow its natural course, and was never passed into effect by the City Council.

So why does this matter?

Well first because a lot of people have put a lot of time and efforts into sharing and developing this vision.

And secondly, because that’s part of the process. The plan gets articulated, reviewed, passed and eventually implemented. It’s not that our plan has been rejected, it hasn’t been reviewed.

Nobody at City Hall can give us a reason why, but despite discussions with Councilmembers O’Brien and Johnson, Chair of the Land Use sub-committee, nobody is really trying to remedy it either.

But that’s not all, it also means that City Departments like SDOT or the Office of Housing don’t get to look at it, because it’s not an official(ised) document yet.

And more importantly, in the larger context of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan, the recommendations of the plan have been amended to the Comprehensive Plan, the specifics of Equitable Development and anti-displacement strategies developed by Rainier Beach, as well as other low-income neighborhoods around the City, which are very specific community-based projects like the Food Innovation District are being kept out of the recommendations.

The Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan Update was hailed by many as a great example because it had successfully and meaningfully engaged the community. The neighborhood had come together to get organized and take ownership of the Plan. Members of the RB NAC were asked to attend other planning efforts in Central District and Delridge to share their experience.

And for those in doubt about the legitimacy of the work, take a look for yourself:


I was once given the analogy to “muscle memory”. Elected officials drive visions and policies to better the City, like Equity, and Environmental Justice. They establish standards and procedures to support their goals, with programs like the neighborhood plan update or Youth Voice/Youth Choice. But once it’s all said and done they have a tendency to revert back to their old ways and react to trends rather than follow through on their commitment. They address concerns of the loudest, putting aside the concerns of the reasonable and decent folks that they engaged.

It’s not difficult to see why that is. Look at the National political stage and how ideas get debated. Money, abuse and fear obviously speak louder than rationality, facts and common sense.

So here we are waiting on a gesture of goodwill, almost begging for charity on a plan that, if anything, would support the City’s targets for growth, job and housing…


But ultimately, the biggest concern is that it is holding back other opportunities. Without an established updated plan, City departments don’t have an accurate point of reference when they plan future capital development.

The Office of Planning and Community Development needs to understand the neighborhood’s aspirations before they can lay the framework to support that vision through new zoning and policies.

Seattle Metro needs to understand the challenges caused by a bus layover location and the opportunities to better connect patrons to mass transit like light rail.

Seattle Housing Authority and Sound Transit need to understand the role they can play in developing the land they own in specific locations, like near a train station.

In the context of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan Update, omitting a whole neighborhood’s plan and call for economic development simply doesn’t make sense.

Last spring, the Urban Land Institute, a professional organization comprising urban planners, architects and developers, came to the Beach to make an assessment and recommendations to the Mayor about the state of Rainier Beach. They came up with a surprisingly candid report, considering most of them had never set foot in the neighborhood before. Here are 3 take-aways among many from their visit:

  1. Rainier Beach is integral to the success of the Mayor’s Equity agenda
  2. A sustainable community plan needs to be established before implementation can take place
  3. The City should invest in a Neighborhood Office staffed by residents (slide #56)


The full report presentation report can be found here:


The video of the presentation here:


And a very good summary from Crosscut here:


Another relevant example of the urgency to get the City to commit is the application to the “Promise Zone”. Several years ago, the Obama administration launched a program that would support 20 communities in the country around issues Housing, Education and Economic Development. Every year for 5 years, 4 out of the 33 eligible neighborhoods would be receiving the “Promise Zone” designation.

Rainier Beach qualifies because it was, in 2013, the beneficiary of the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant, that has allowed programs such as Safe Passage and Corner Greeters to be implemented in 2015 and lead to a staggering 30% of overall crime reduction.

The City unsuccessfully applied a first time in 2013. It made another couple of attempts in 2014 and 2016 but ultimately decided not to go through with the application. 2017 is the final year for Rainier Beach to try out for a chance of potential tax breaks and technical assistance, and eventually a designation that would put the neighborhood on the map at a National and Regional level.

In the meantime, businesses are struggling and closing their doors because the residential character of the area doesn’t support retail like denser parts of the city do. Unemployment is twice the rate of the city as a whole. And highly achieving high school graduates have no clear path to jobs because they lack access to secondary education.

So the question lingers: “Where’s the plan?”

David Sauvion is a Rainier Beach resident and co-chair of Rainier Beach Action Coalition. As an architect, he also serves on the Southeast Design Review Board.

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