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.
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?