Seattle is a city paved with good intentions. Take a look at our plans and our resolutions and you’ll find three values common to just about everybody here, political leaders and residents alike: economic opportunity, environmental leadership, and social justice.
That’s what we say, and I think we mean it.
It’s just that we don’t always do such a good job of living up to our aspirations.
For years—for decades, really—Seattle has rightly prided itself on best-in-class planning and remarkable forward thinking. The city’s Comprehensive Plan, called “Toward a Sustainable Seattle,” sets forth a vision with just these values in mind. Just so, the many neighborhood plans do much the same for local communities, marking out constructive steps to improve Seattle’s best places.
Or consider Seattle’s soon-to-be-updated Climate Action Plan and Carbon Neutral Seattle initiative, which the Council recently adopted into the city’s Comprehensive Plan. These are bold leadership pieces that most other cities can only dream about. Not only that, we have the Bicycle Master Plan, the Pedestrian Master Plan, the Transit Master Plan, and the Seattle Planning Commission’s Affordable Housing Action Agenda. More recently, the council adopted Resolution 31282, setting forth a detailed and progressive strategy for economic growth.
Economic opportunity, environmental leadership, and social justice. These are broadly shared bedrock values. In various forms and in various ways they’ve been blessed by council after council, and mayor after mayor.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to watch the city struggle with the “regulatory reform” initiative. (Here’s a summary, a slide show, and the full legislation.)
If we want to be the city that we say we do—one that provides economic opportunity, environmental leadership, and social justice—we need to make changes. Some of the changes will be big. But some can be small, and that’s what the regulatory reform package is all about.
I don’t want to diminish the sincere concerns felt by some folks about one element of the proposal that has since been deleted (allowing small-scale commercial uses in multifamily residential zones). But at the same time it’s important to understand that the regulatory reform initiative is really about mostly minor fixes to existing law. Such as:
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- In a time of lousy employment, let’s nudge open a door for economic opportunity by making very modest new allowances for home-based businesses.
- In a time when homeowners are struggling and rents are rising, let’s make it a little easier for property owners to generate rental income by providing affordable housing in small backyard rental units.
- In a time when storefronts are sitting empty, let’s ease up just a bit on our requirements for new buildings to supply more ground-floor commercial space.
- Let’s stop forcing community colleges to build parking instead of classrooms. And let’s stop adding tens of thousands of dollars to housing costs by forcing builders to supply parking that buyers and renters don’t want.
- Let’s also streamline our processes for temporary use permits; and for medium-sized developments in dense urban areas, let’s cut down on some of the redundant review and process that wraps up good projects in red tape.
None of this stuff is earth shattering. And all of it is entirely consistent with the plans and resolutions that Seattle has endorsed again and again.
I want to be clear that the regulatory reform legislation isn’t going to change the world or single-handedly achieve Seattle’s ambitious goals. It’s just a set of prudent and judicious changes to expand economic opportunities, take a step toward our environmental goals, and aid social justice by improving affordability. It’s the change we say that we want.
I wish I could conclude my remarks here, but it seems like a note on process is in order.
Given the modest nature of the proposal and all the process it’s gotten bogged down with, it’s especially frustrating to hear that the regulatory reform initiative was somehow “secretive” or on the “fast track,” as the Ballard Chamber put it, when the truth is exactly the opposite.
The truth is that Mayor McGinn and Council President Conlin put on a huge press conference about these proposals—way back in June 2011. I spoke at it, along with leaders from the labor community and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and it was covered by virtually every TV station in town (e.g. here), not to mention the Seattle Times, PubliCola, Seattle P-I, The Stranger, Puget Sound Business Journal, Crosscut, and Seattlest. (The city also posted notices about an element of it in the Daily Journal of Commerce and the Land Use Information Bulletin.) Subsequently, I and many others wrote about it, held public forums about it, and talked it up.
In December 2011, the City Budget Office evaluated the legislation as it was being prepared. The Department of Planning and Development issued a “director’s report” that explained and justified the legislation in February 2012. Then the Seattle Planning Commission evaluated elements of it in March 2012 and April 2012 (and other times too, if I’m not mistaken). The city council central staff evaluated it on March 28, April 10, and May 8. All of this was public.
City staff explained the proposal in public at a February 29 committee meeting of the council. The council formally took up the legislation in March, and referred it to the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee, which then met no fewer than five times to discuss the package and hear public testimony on it: on March 28, March 29, April 11, May 9, and May 23. They will meet again on Wednesday June 13, probably not for the last time. Since council hearings started, the Seattle Times has covered the legislation prominently multiple times, as have numerous other local media outlets. I wrote about it at Sightline. Chuck Wolfe wrote about it in the national press. (Chuck also talked about it on the radio.)
At this point, it’s pretty hard to see how anyone could think that the regulatory reform proposal is somehow hush-hush. In fact, at this point it’s probably received a good deal more public attention than the vast majority of city council proceedings, even more controversial ones.
So the central question about regulatory reform is not “who helped to craft the proposal?”—that’s been common knowledge for almost a year—but after all the plans, and resolutions, and good intentions, do we have the courage to become the city we say we want to be?
As a member of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce I take offense to your comments about our objections to the Reg Reform package.
As you probably have not notice we have been building a very livable urban village with a great deal of density. All this without any expensive transportation improvements, parks etc.
We do not talk the talk, or write the talk, we are actually doing it. As a self appointed expert in the field you should be asking us in depth what are objections are since we are the experts in developing dense neighborhoods.
While several of the elements this package are aimed at regulation reform, several are substantive land use changes, many of which are in reality against developing more dense urban centers and urban villages.
Eric de Place
I live in Ballard and spend a good deal of time in the neighborhood, so I’m pretty familiar with the positive steps it’s taken. It is my contention that the regulatory reform package will help Ballard and many other neighborhoods develop in smart and sustainable ways.
I’m not sure how you could be offended by my comments about the Ballard Chamber’s objections. I simply noted that the Chamber said the reforms were on the “fast track” — that’s a direct quote from your letter — and pointed out that they’ve been out in the open for nearly a year.
Quite in line with the ongoing dissembling and obfuscation associated with the so-called Regulatory Reform, Mr De Place does not disclose that he was part of the panel that did develop these suggestions (without engagement of any of the communities on which they would have an impact – which is why people call this a “hush hush”). Nor does he disclose that DPD’s scope of reform was largely expanded at the prodding of Sightline, so arguably here he is advocating for his own ideas.
“Minor fixing” is not not what is in effect “optional zoning” proposed in the Neighborhood Commercial zones whereby a developer could replace what is current a neighborhood shopping area with all residential. The NC zones were created to protect such little areas. If a handful of non-profit developers can not “make it pencil” in these zones, they should find other places to develop and stay out of the commercial marketplace (but there are some that do seem to make it work). The legislation of course prevents these when there is a P-Zone overlay. Problem is DPD has never completed that work in identifying those. Finish the P Zones, then introduce the optional zoning measure. In the interim, I believe conditional interim live/work uses are allowed.
Reg Reform WAS on a fast track until a few diligent advocates were able to, through our open government public disclosure laws, find out the details. It is that process which brought the media attention. But your spin on the history of this is understandable – gotta wash off those dirty hands…
And, throwing around buzzwords “economic opportunity, environmental leadership, and social justice” without showing correlation of how this package would achieve this is a great sleight of hand and a remarkable framing for your vindication.
Oh, I find your juxtaposition of development growth and sustainability most intriguing if not an oxymoron.
Forgive me for expecting more from Sightline.
Eric de Place
The “secrecy” meme is frankly bizarre to me. If the reforms were somehow supposed to be secret it’s hard to know why I have, since June 2011, been talking the ideas up at public forums, speaking at press conferences, writing about them on this blog, and repeatedly testifying in front of council.
The reforms are consistent with policies Sightline has promoted for almost two decades now. It’s not exactly a huge secret that we support reducing parking minimums, for example.
Did I contribute to the policy formation? Am I advocating for some of my own ideas? You bet! Proudly! In public!
I think it’s terrific to have a robust debate about the merits of the proposals. Good people can disagree about land use policy, but I’m truly at a loss to understand all the invective and accusations that have surrounded this rather modest package of reforms.
My perspective, for what it’s worth, is that smart policies like these can enable Seattle to build a sustainable city — one that’s low-carbon, affordable, and provides a range of economic opportunities.
Again – meetings, newspaper articles, etc. do not equal community involvement. If DPD can send a notice to neighborhoods when a permit is applied for they can similarly notify everyone when changes to their zoning are being proposed. Oh – those backyard “affordable” rentals? You’ve got to be kidding me – there’s nothing affordable about them and why should there be?
It speaks volumes that you used Sightline to flack for the law without ever disclosing that you were one of the panel’s insiders.
It’s just as interesting that you never mentioned that the leader of the panel, a former Sightline employee by the name of Roger Valdez, worked with the city to conceal your panel’s internal communications and deliberations.
Given these examples of dishonesty, it’s not surprising that you, the city, and the real estate developers who pushed the new law would also call it “modest,” when sny fair reading of the law would show it to be quite far-reaching.
In essence, a group of insiders with city hall connections managed to blast holes in Seattle zoning code. Rules pertaining to parking and environmental review were gutted. While developers routinely buy exemptions from the code, individual objections to so-called “temporary uses” that can last for years at a time were rendered virtually impossible.
Height restrictions on so-called “accessory structures” were raised, further eroding the legal protections for the single-family neighborhoods that Sightline and other “density” zealots hate so much.
Mr. de Place, you and the rest of the urbanists are waking the sleeping giant known as the Seattle electorate. Project by project, neighborhood by neighborhood, you and your friends seek to rip Seattle apart, mainly for the benefit of rich developers. You’ve been surprised by the push-back, but it’s going to intensify.
Eric de Place
It’s hard to know how I could have been clearer about my role. I wrote about it repeatedly, did pubic speaking about it, etc. (Also, Roger was not employed by Sightline during the duration of the policy formation, so it’s not relevant.)
Frankly, it sounds to me like you and others would prefer ad hominems and unfounded conspiracy theories in order to avoid talking about the substance of the reforms. They are, in fact, rather modest and entirely consistent with Seattle’s stated values and policy direction.
Eric, your former employee, Roger Valdez, conspired with the mayor’s staff to conceal the internal communications and deliberations of the insider committee that you and your developer friends “served” on.
Sightline Institute is a front for the rich developers who help pay your bills. People work for who pays them, Eric.
Sick of greenies.....................
Comment deleted for offensive content. Keep it civil, folks. –editor
For the sake of the argument, Mr de Place, I’m happy to accept at face value your contention that the proceedings of the Mayor’s Regulatory Reform Roundtable (of which you were a member) were conducted in an open manner. Nothing “hush-hush” about it, to be sure.
A number of us on Capitol Hill are in possession of a document from that Roundtable entitled “Regulatory Reform – Agenda and Mission”. This document, obtained through a Public Records Act request, contains the following statement attributed to a member of the Roundtable identified only as “David”:
“The current process where we invest in a multi-billion dollar transit system & then ask a few hundred single family homeowners who live near the stations how we should develop around them is madness.”
I’m sure, given your stated commitment to an open process, that you would have found the statement above to be highly objectionable, given that those of us who’ve put down roots near the light rail station would in fact have liked to be included in any discussion about how anyone develops around our homes. I’m sure that you would have made your objections quite clear at the time as well. Yet none of us is in possession of any document indicating that you found this gentleman’s opinion troublesome. I am hopeful, of course, that you would be more than happy to supply us with any such document, should it in fact exist. We look forward to seeing it.