by Ben Adlin
Seattle and Renton were among a handful of Washington cities to win awards this month for municipal planning projects intended to improve quality of life in the state.
Seattle was recognized for new land-use policies to ease affordable housing development on religious land, which City planners describe as another way to help curb displacement of Seattle’s historical BIPOC communities. Renton, meanwhile, was awarded for its transit-centric subarea plan around the Rainier/Grady Junction, which judges said “will create a true transit hub for the South King County region.”
The Washington State Department of Commerce, which administers the Governor’s Smart Communities Awards program, says the awards are meant to honor “local governments” with “exceptional planning efforts.” It highlights projects that can serve as models to other Washington local governments, especially in areas such as job growth, housing, transportation, recreation, and economic growth.
“It’s a really great program,” said Valerie Smith, the department’s deputy managing director of growth management services and the person who oversees the awards. “It helps demonstrate what’s actually doable in a city and what the tangible benefits are of doing this work.”
This year’s winners also included the cities of Hoquiam, Kenmore, Bellevue, Langley, and Lakewood.
Many of the winning projects this year focused on housing, Smith says, especially infill projects aimed at increasing density and creating more homes for low- and middle-income residents.
“We are seeing an uptick in innovative and outstanding work around housing,” she said. “It’s such an important topic right now, and it has been for a few years, but we’re really seeing some really innovative housing techniques and strategies coming forward.”
Seattle: More Affordable Housing on Religious Land
In Seattle, planners designed land-use policies to provide religious organizations with more flexibility to develop affordable housing. Adopted by the City Council in 2021, the changes are intended as an additional tool to build more units for low-income residents, which planners told the Emerald could help slow or even reverse displacement.
“What we did here was provide a development bonus for affordable housing on property owned by religious organizations,” said Nick Welch, a senior planner in Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development.
The upshot? “When churches and other faith institutions have a need or an opportunity to develop some or all of their property, and they are exploring doing so with affordable housing, they can now create more housing then they would otherwise be able to,” Welch said.
Under the program, affordable housing units must be reserved for people making less than 80% of the area median income.
To craft the policies, planners worked with organizations in South Seattle and the Central District, such as the Nehemiah Initiative Seattle, which works to preserve Seattle’s historically Black institutions — including churches in the Central District — through development.
The local changes helped Seattle implement a 2019 law, HB 1377, which required cities to permit additional density for affordable housing on land owned by religious organizations. That law was the result of concerted organizing by faith leaders and low-income housing advocates.
“In the whole arc of this thing, that’s the genesis,” Welch said, “is with those faith institutions, many of whom saw this as a tool to produce more affordable housing to address displacement.”
Daniel Murillo, policy and equitable development manager at the Seattle Office of Housing, said the plan “creates an opportunity for them to maybe help bring some of those members of their congregation who have left, for whatever reason, to come back again.”
“It’s an alignment between mission and vision for that congregation,” he said. “It allows them as a landowner to leverage some of that asset for a larger public good.”
The work won the State’s Smart Housing Strategies award. Smith at the Commerce Department said judges “wanted to recognize the complexity of the work that was done, and the fact that Seattle was willing to tackle some tough issues and dig in on equity and planning for vulnerable neighborhoods.”
Of the handful of development projects already unfolding under the new rules, the furthest along is one by the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, at 22nd Avenue and East Union Street. Seattle planners say that prior to the new policies, the church was attempting to change the way its property was zoned — typically a complicated, expensive process with no guarantee of success.
The amended land-use rules provide more flexibility and thus more certainty that a would-be project can move forward.
Welch and Murillo say they know the program can’t solve Seattle’s housing crisis on its own, but they describe it as an important additional tool in the toolbox. “I think the instructive lesson from this policy,” said Welch, “is that it is within the control of cities to try to remove barriers and provide every tool possible to help affordable housing projects come to fruition.”
“As we look ahead, we would like to build on this,” he added. “Beyond religious organizations, land use is something we want to continue exploring, especially for us in the context of the major update to our comprehensive plan, the One Seattle comprehensive plan, that’s now underway.”
Last year, Seattle renamed single-family housing zones to call them “neighborhood residential zones,” which advocates say reflected a growing need to promote density and mixed-use development.
Renton: Turning a Transit Hub Into a Community
Renton earned a Smart Communities Award for its development of a subarea plan around the Rainier/Grady Junction, a neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and Southwest Grady Way.
Adopted late last year, the subarea plan says its goal is “to guide future growth and achieve a holistic, people-oriented neighborhood around Sound Transit’s planned bus rapid transit (BRT) line and transit center.” Priorities included maximizing multimodal transit options and pedestrian connectivity, encouraging mixed-use development, and creating a neighborhood with a distinct character from downtown that still feels well integrated into the city center.
Smith at the Commerce Department says judges wanted to recognize Renton’s outreach to local communities and its ambitious long-term planning. “They did a lot of local engagement on this specific one,” she said, “and the product itself is a planning document to help drive how the area is going to be developed for the next five, 10, 20 years.”
Ultimately, Renton’s project website says, the goal is high-frequency public transit service alongside a livable community, where residents can run errands without getting in their cars. Benefits also include less congestion and cleaner air.
It was important to craft land-use and development regulations with intent, the website says, because studies show that “transit systems function best when they are well-integrated with and supported by people vis-à-vis adjacent residences and businesses.”
Features of the subarea plan include more diverse transportation options, such as tying the new public transit hub into expanded bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Zoning changes under the plan also allow far more mixed-use developments.
Smith at the Commerce Department says judges were impressed by how much of the planning was applicable to other communities. “Even though it’s very focused to that specific junction,” she said, “the design elements they created, they’re so well done that they can be used by any other community.”
Renton planners pointed the Emerald to the subarea plan itself and an accompanying website but declined to comment further. Paul Hintz, principal planner for the City of Renton, said in an email, “We’ll let the plan speak for itself.”
Smith acknowledges that municipal planning projects can sometimes be obscure and hard to follow, but she encourages Washington residents to reach out to local planners and become more engaged in the process. The Governor’s Smart Communities Awards are based in part on how responsive planners are to community needs.
“I know it’s really technical and complex, but comprehensive planning is supposed to be the vision for the future, and people who live here have a voice in the future,” she said. “Call your planning department! Say, ‘Hey, what are you guys working on?’ They’re always willing to help, and they’re always looking for feedback on how things are going.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Map from the Rainier/Grady Junction Subarea Plan.
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