Once per decade Seattle’s overarching strategy for growth and infrastructure gets an overhaul. That update is due next year, but the City of Seattle is woefully behind on advancing that process. After initially promising a draft of the plan in April, the release was quietly pushed to September, then October, and now, apparently, November at best.
Seattle residents deserve to get a look at that plan immediately.
The “One Seattle” Comprehensive Plan will serve as a guide for the city’s growth over the next 20 years. Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) requires the process, and it ultimately defines the city’s land use and zoning map. The City must complete the next update by the end of 2024, leaving the public precious little time to digest the plan, comment, and ensure that it allows Seattle to grow in an equitable, affordable, and sustainable way over the next two decades.
The answer to solving Seattle’s housing affordability crisis lies in that plan, as local historian Shaun Scott recently showed when he traced Seattle’s housing deficit to previous comprehensive plans that hemmed in the city’s apartment and townhome production to narrow areas.
With such high stakes and tight timelines, Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD)’s failure to release the draft plan ahead of the November elections would amount to a loss for local democracy. The seven council members elected this fall will have the final say over the plan, including decisions on whether to continue reserving the majority of the city’s land for single-family homes–the most expensive type of housing–amidst a housing crisis.
Last session, the State Legislature passed “missing middle” housing reform that will require large cities such as Seattle to replace single-family zoning with fourplex zoning and at least sixplex zoning near major transit stops. However, to secure enough votes, legislators also included a loophole, or an “alternative compliance path,” which allows cities to keep up to 25% of their single-family zoning if they submit paperwork justifying their decision.
The release of the draft plan should reveal if Mayor Harrell is keeping on the table (or even preferring) this alternative compliance path to shield specific neighborhoods from housing growth, while rezoning others. Several candidates have espoused a preference for a we’re-all-in-this-together approach to zoning reform, where all neighborhoods share in the solution. It fits the Mayor’s “One Seattle” brand, if not his own housing stances. But the lack of a draft plan means those candidates cannot draw a sharp contrast with others who hide behind the ambiguity of the process.
Voters should know where candidates stand on these issues, given the huge housing affordability implications. The Seattle City Council will make the final decision on our next comprehensive plan, but the planning department’s delays will compress and rush that decision.
A Lack of Transparency and Accountability
The City has not provided clarity about why these two reports have been delayed since April 2023, nor have they taken accountability for the timelines. Are the reports complete and sitting on a shelf, or are additional changes still being made? Why isn’t the rationale made public? And how will OPCD make sure to gather quality public feedback and input once they finally release these two draft plans, given the fact that the entire Comprehensive Plan operates on a strict schedule?
In one of its few cogent excuses, OPCD chalks up the delay to a need for planners to comply with those new state requirements around missing middle reform. But that argument doesn’t make a ton of sense since two different alternatives in the scoping report already complied with those requirements and would have studied replacing all single-family zoning with fourplex zoning.
OPCD will have, at minimum, a 45-day public comment period on its draft plan, but the department’s original timeline called for a year to turn the draft plan to the mayor’s final plan, and then another six months or so for the city council to amend the plan and finally adopt it in fall of 2024. Now that whole 18-month process is being condensed down into less than a year. The result will be less time for public input and city council analysis and amendments.
Let the People Decide
And to speak to the larger issue at play here, the ballot box represents a superior form of public input compared to the exclusionary processes that shaped past comprehensive plans. Without wide-ranging democratic input, we risk making the same old mistakes and continuing to privilege wealthier, whiter homeowners at the expense of the broader public interest.
A small subset of vocal neighborhood activists dominated the process that determined the 1994 comprehensive plan update that protected the “character” of single-family neighborhoods and established the “Urban Village Growth Strategy” to contain apartments in a tiny fraction of the city. In 2015, outcry from homeowners and neighborhood councils convinced then-Mayor Ed Murray to remove single-family upzoning from the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) committee’s recommendations.
When we listen to a narrow set of individuals with the time and resources to engage in wonky public input processes, democratic processes can have undemocratic outcomes. City council elections capture a far broader swath of public voices: over 250,000 Seattle residents cast ballots in the 2019 city council general election, compared to just 1,500 people who engaged in the One Seattle Plan environmental review.
We understand that the Harrell Administration might worry about its draft plan distracting voters from their focus on the November general election. Releasing a potentially controversial plan just weeks ahead of a major election for Seattle’s legislative body might rock the boat, but after so many months of delay this timing crisis is one of their own making. Plus, if we are to believe polls that housing affordability is increasingly a concern, releasing the plan would empower voters, not distract them. Regardless of any potential concern, voters deserve to know concretely where candidates stand on the implementation of state “missing middle” housing requirements and on fleshed-out comprehensive plan alternatives.
It’s never too late to do better. OPCD can release its draft One Seattle Plan ahead of the November 7 general election and prioritize public input from historically marginalized communities thereafter. You, as a voter, can ask your council candidates about which values they’ll bring to the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. And we all still have plenty of work to do to ensure that the One Seattle Plan creates an equitable, affordable, and sustainable Seattle for all.
Calvin Jones is an organizer with Tech 4 Housing and a steering committee member of the Complete Communities Coalition.
Tiffani McCoy is the advocacy director at Real Change and a steering committee member of the Complete Communities Coalition.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist, a local publication dedicated to examining and influencing urban policies. The Urbanist is a member of the Complete Communities Coalition.