Seattle's neighborhood plans: So how's that working for you?
Special to The Times
A decade ago, Seattle embarked on an ambitious neighborhood-planning effort. A fundamental goal of this process was to empower neighborhood residents, businesses and government to identify and protect what is great about our neighborhoods while preparing for growth and change.
Over the course of the past 10 years, we have indeed seen remarkable changes across Seattle. The 38 plans have steered much of the growth and change; but some changes, the plans could not have anticipated. Have investments in housing, transportation, parks and other amenities been consistent with neighborhood plans? Why or why not? How can we improve the plans for the future?
Simply put: It's time to check in on the neighborhood plans.
For example, dramatic growth in Belltown has created an exciting urban neighborhood. The opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park is a wonderful "front door" to that neighborhood and provides much-needed open space. This density was planned, but we struggle to keep up with service demands, like more police officers.
Stable residential neighborhoods like Wallingford and Ravenna are growing roughly the way their respective plans anticipated; but with development concentrated along arterials come additional traffic pressures, frustration over lack of parking and realization that our existing parks and open spaces may not be adequate.
Where I live in Southeast Seattle, change has been no less dramatic. Construction of Sound Transit light rail cuts down a Rainier Valley that will be hit in a few years by a construction boom that will reshape the community. Neighborhood plans in Rainier Valley emphasize economic development and education, but the affordability of housing for working families may be the valley's — and Seattle's — biggest long-term challenge.
Many neighborhoods are already taking the initiative to update their plans. For example, South Lake Union is on its way to becoming Seattle's next large-scale urban community. Neighbors there are remaking their neighborhood plan to take into account the changes in property ownership and development unknown 10 years ago. Roosevelt is also ahead of the curve — reviewing its neighborhood plan in anticipation of the changes Sound Transit's Phase 2 light-rail station will bring to the Roosevelt business district.
Some neighborhoods, like Wallingford, reached their residential growth targets early on, while others still lag. The economy has gone through both boom and recession in 10 years. We've voted for and dedicated new parks, libraries, community centers and housing. We've changed zoning in ways that should accommodate new neighbors and businesses, but may also threaten the historic character of our neighborhoods in the name of progress. Above us, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is poised to announce revised growth targets that will bring more residential growth than originally anticipated in the plans.
With the new PSRC "crystal ball" numbers on the way and the changes from the past 10 years, we need a coherent approach to checking in on how the 20-year neighborhood plans are matching up with reality at mid-life. We need to know if the visions of "good growth" articulated in the plans and the steps laid out to make it happen with grace still make sense.
There are three principles against which to measure the freshness of the plans:
• Affordability. Median home prices in Seattle are stabilizing, but the majority of sale prices and the cost of new residential construction are beyond the incomes of too many residents. We are losing young and lower-income families to places like Renton and Issaquah. As they leave, our schools lose students, our neighborhoods lose diversity and the fabric of our city changes. Seattle has always been at the forefront of addressing the housing needs of our residents. Our neighborhoods must have the right mix of housing.
• Safety. Neighborhood crime and the feeling of safety are real indicators of quality of life. As Seattle grows, other safety concerns arise — such as pedestrian safety. Seattle voters agreed that new sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes are a priority when we approved the "Bridging the Gap" levy last fall. Those resources must be invested wisely in our neighborhoods.
• Sustainability. Seattle is at the cutting edge when it comes to concern for our air, water and land. However, with climate change and its impacts now daily news, we must plan for these challenges at the neighborhood level. This means smarter water management, improved design standards for buildings and encouraging fewer car trips for basic needs. There are examples throughout Seattle of best practices in action (like Ballard's "carbon neutral" campaign), but a comprehensive plan to improve neighborhood-level sustainability is critical to our future.
Seattle's approach to neighborhood planning a decade ago was a national model in deputizing citizens as planners — and in ensuring their ideas would be carried out by committed partners in government.
But time flies, and it's time we made sure that our plans reflect the challenges and opportunities of the future. All of us have a stake in the future of Seattle. Working together, we can get things done.
Sally J. Clark, a member of the Seattle City Council, chairs the council's Economic Development & Neighborhoods Committee.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company