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Friday, May 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neighborhood activists take Nickels to task

Seattle Times staff reporters

With a developer's bulldozers rumbling in the background, a group of Seattle grass-roots activists blasted Mayor Greg Nickels yesterday, saying he betrayed his commitment to city neighborhoods and their planning process.

Activists said Nickels reneged on campaign promises and statements about the importance of neighborhood plans and the need to revise them if growth was occurring in unanticipated ways.

They also announced a May 31 "neighborhood summit" to devise a strategy to "reclaim the neighborhood-planning process."

The mayor's staffers depict the critics as a small band of no-growth activists.

"It really boils down to a very few verbal people wanting to stop growth and change and using the city process and neighborhoods to do that," said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis.

But critics at yesterday's news conference in the Cascade neighborhood P-Patch — across the street from a new apartment building being constructed by Paul Allen's development company — represented 10 neighborhoods and three umbrella groups, including the City Neighborhood Council, which is sanctioned by the city.

"We are not opposed to jobs and growth," said Lisa Merki, co-chair of the City Neighborhood Council. "What we are opposed to is the mayor abrogating his duty to treat neighborhood plans as a blueprint for growth."

At issue is how closely the city should follow neighborhood plans — which are not legally binding documents — when growth, or the lack of it, differs from what was envisioned.

Questions and conflicts recently have arisen in South Lake Union, Northgate and the University District because Nickels has proposed actions in each neighborhood that appear to deviate from plans, particularly their growth "targets."

City Councilmen Richard Conlin, Nick Licata and Peter Steinbrueck have asked the city's land-use department to review, and possibly revise, neighborhood plans because of changes occurring in South Lake Union and Northgate.

But, in a decision supported by Nickels, department Director Diane Sugimura rejected that request.

In an April 30 letter to the councilmen, Sugimura argued that 15 neighborhood plans meet the criteria for special review. The city will not begin those reviews, however, because the growth targets are only rough estimates and don't warrant a lengthy process that might hinder job creation.

Behind the technical jargon is a simpler issue, according to Nickels and Ceis: Can the city depart from growth targets, neighborhood plans and campaign promises to create jobs in a recession?

"This mayor is taking a different approach," said Ceis. "He wants things to happen. He's making decisions and creating jobs."

And the mayor's hard-charging style is the problem, according to neighborhood activists.

"Decisions to modify the targets should not be made unilaterally or with only lopsided consultation," Irene Wall, chairwoman of the City Neighborhood Council, wrote in a letter delivered yesterday to Nickels.

Jan Brucker, chair of Citizens for a Livable Northgate, said, "Mayor Nickels' private negotiations with developers have undermined neighborhood planning efforts and are a slap in the face to the very concept of community."

And Christine Lea, co-chair of the Cascade Neighborhood Council, said the South Lake Union development was "like the neighborhood plan on steroids. This is worlds apart from the original document."

The mayor appears to be worried about the potential political damage of his actions. He sent an e-mail Wednesday to neighborhood groups listing the projects the city was implementing. But activists were quick to point out that those projects were started by previous mayors or approved by voters.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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