Conservative fear-mongering about the omnipotence of big, scary American cities notwithstanding, even the largest metropolises in the United States control little more than their land and their budgets. Politics in urban America unfold like fistfights in phone booths, with claustrophobic contests over limited space and limited revenue. In the same way that tax proposals routinely expose Seattle’s most entrenched ideological divides, attempts to implement neighborhood plans for housing, parks, schools, and transit have reliably instigated the most contentious episodes in the city’s history.

In 2024, Seattleites will decide on an urban design update that will dictate the kind of city they will live in for the next generation.

A generation ago, this “Comprehensive Plan” was the site of one of the biggest missed opportunities in the city’s history.

The Urban Village Strategy: “Mayor Nice” to the Rescue

Mayor Norm Rice, probably trying to explain the existence of other people to a neighborhood council member. SEATTLE MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES

In 1990, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice was a shining light of urban progress, the Black face of a mostly white city in the post-Civil Rights era. Well-spoken with a winning smile, the city’s respectable new Mayor pushed all the right buttons in liberal Seattle, a city that was only 10% African American. Rice was affectionately dubbed “Mayor Nice.” Shortly after he was elected, the city’s Comprehensive Plan debate tested his ability to navigate the foundational fault lines of Seattle politics.

The declining esteem of American cities–sliding lower and lower since deindustrialization decimated urban cores in the 1970s–had reached a nadir in the 1980s. Anti-urban rhetoric in the Reagan years portrayed big cities as Sodom and Gomorrah; nightly news segments tracked a violent drug war waged by cops across the country. Seattle voters selected Rice to lead their city by a 58-42 margin on November 7, 1989. Observers of urban affairs took notice: “Seattle elected its first black mayor, a vote hailed as proof the city deserves its reputation for progressive politics,” wrote the Los Angeles Times on November 8.

When the Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act a few months later, requiring cities to adopt new neighborhood plans to accommodate the state’s recent growth spurt, Mayor Nice sprang into action.

Norm Rice relished the state’s new requirement for comprehensive city planning. “I believe Seattle is one of America’s last hopes for an extraordinary urban quality of life,” he said in March 1992. That soaring optimism would have to reckon with realpolitik: Rice’s administration would need to conjure a land use proposal that pit two of the city’s most entrenched political camps against one another.

On one side stood environmentalists, progressive technocrats, and transit activists. The Comprehensive Plan would be their chance to turn Seattle into the urban utopia it had never been. Pedestrian-friendly shopping centers would proliferate. Dangerous roads would be decommissioned and converted into bike paths. Seattle would grow up; new high-rises would take the place of suburban-style single-family home sprawl. Opposing this dream of urban density were neighborhood councils in several of Seattle’s homeowner-heavy areas. Bewildered by the new box towers and big city din of a rapidly growing Seattle, they believed enough was enough. They found an ally in the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which feared the city’s new pro-transit mandate would disrupt shoppers–many of them from the Eastside–who were accustomed to commuting by car.

In 1992, the Mayor considered three growth plans. The first plan involved constructing a legal force field around the city to maintain its size. MAYOR’S RECOMMENDATIONS

“[Pedestrian shopping areas] are popular with the urban planning people,” complained one neighborhood activist in 1993. “People are not yet comfortable with high-rise living,” said another.

Mayor Rice’s Comprehensive Plan became a boxing match between two political combatants, a bitter dispute fought with the hands of time: who could push the city forward, and who could hold it back? To split the difference, Norm Rice’s administration devised the “urban village” strategy. First coined by sociologist Herbert Gans to describe Italian American communities in 1960s Boston, the 1990s Seattle iteration of the term “urban village” entailed centralized housing, shopping centers, and transit hubs in concentrated pockets near major roads like Aurora, Rainier Avenue South, and University Way. 

“The Mayor’s preferred alternative,” a city dotted with “urban villages.” MAYOR’S RECOMMENDATIONS 

Rice’s solution to the political problem of spurring development without angering neighborhood activists was to maximize growth in carefully traced boundaries. The Rice Administration would then permit neighborhood councils to decide on many of the qualities of these “urban villages.” But during a lengthy outreach process conducted by the city, neighborhood groups made their distaste for the entire plan known. Mayor Nice grew defensive: “I’m not talking about bulldozing neighborhoods to build some out-of-scale monstrosity,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in April 1993. “Urban villages evolve out of our existing neighborhoods through the gradual addition of housing, jobs, and libraries.”

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say the 1994 Comprehensive Plan laid the foundation for the city that Seattleites love or loathe today. At present, nearly every neighborhood in Seattle is divided between a dense core, where shopping and city services are concentrated, and more distant neighborhoods that have more schools and parks. This design was reviled by residential activists who found the plan too unsettling, and scrutinized by urbanists who found the plan too timid. 

To give an idea of the flavor of neighborhood opposition to Mayor Rice’s agenda, a member of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition suggested selecting a single pilot location to build precisely one (1) urban village in 1992. The Rice Administration eventually created two dozen–and if you have a favorite bar, book store, or brunch spot in Seattle, it’s probably in one of them.

A Concise History of Bad Planning in Seattle

Norm Rice was perhaps wise to play nice with neighborhood councils. The admission of city bustle into Seattle’s suburban-style neighborhoods had long been a nonstarter.

In 1912, neighborhood activists and downtown business interests teamed up to oppose the Municipal Plans Commission’s nefarious plot to build 100 miles of subway transit in Seattle. 

A map of proposed rapid transit routes (in red) from 1911. Could have been us. Seattle Municipal Archives

After abandoning the inclusive pretensions of the Progressive Era, the Commission contracted a segregationist named Harlon Bartholomew in 1922 to implement the zoning regime that currently predominates the city; Bartholomew’s scheme was designed, in his words, to prevent movement “by colored people” into “finer residential districts” by banning the construction of apartment buildings in most of the city. In 1957, Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan was updated to “protect” then-segregated Seattle neighborhoods with “safety and morals.”

For the next generation, few changes would be made to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan–but an important series of political developments took place: In 1964, white Seattle homeowners turned out in droves to overwhelmingly defeat an open housing ballot initiative that would have outlawed racial segregation in Seattle real estate. Then, when the City attempted to integrate its schools with forced busing in the late 1970s to avoid being sued by the federal government for violating civil rights law, Seattle neighborhood groups resisted. As it had in Los Angeles, opposition to apartments and transit started in Seattle as opposition to integration. 

In 1990, urban theorist Mike Davis wrote “the most powerful ‘social movement’ in Southern California is that of affluent homeowners engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.” Something similar could be said about Seattle. Appointed the first director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods in 1988, Jim Diers believed neighborhood councils played an important role in stopping the insidious spread of “badly designed apartment buildings.” In his book, Neighbor Power, Diers continued: “Old neighborhood groups were getting re-energized. They opposed the city’s plans for increased density and projects not in keeping with the character of single-family neighborhoods.”

After neighborhood activists successfully imposed height limits on downtown construction in 1989, Norm Rice became Mayor in 1990. He had run and won as a vocal defender of school integration, revealing reactionary Seattleites to be a loud and influential minority, but a minority nonetheless.

And yet Rice ceded much of his Comprehensive Plan to its political opponents. In so doing, it might be said that he took a “states’ rights” approach to urban planning. In a similar way as FDR’s egalitarian “New Deal” was undermined by the president’s pandering to the Jim Crow South, Norm Rice’s soaring vision for Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan was frittered away by neighborhood councils who detested Rice’s agenda, but who drove the discussion around it anyway.

“We have heard your concern that population growth must not destroy the qualities that people value about Seattle,” Mayor Nice wrote in a 1994 report about his proposed Comprehensive Plan. “This plan protects Seattle’s wonderful single-family neighborhoods.”

The War on Cities Must Continue

Though many homeowners hated it, the urban village strategy already was a compromise. 

Seattle politicians could have overhauled the city’s zoning code to end bans on apartment buildings. They could have increased the required residencies-per-acre in urban villages, thereby increasing the range of housing options in the city for generations to come. They could have–as the Rice Administration wanted to–built extensive bike paths on roads previously dominated by automobiles, and raised taxes to pay for more transit, libraries, and other services in transformed neighborhoods. Lawsuits would have followed, and their filers would have lost: it was Seattle’s land, and Seattle could do with it what it wanted. Mayor Nice was in charge.

Instead, opposition to the Comprehensive Plan became a tragicomic spectacle. In May 1993, Ballard residents rebuked a Seattle Planning Department forum to discuss urban villages on the specious grounds that it was scheduled on Norwegian Independence Day. In April 1992, a neighborhood activist denounced Mayor Rice’s rail transit proposal and then disingenuously suggested Seattle “return to streetcars,” which hadn’t run in the city for fifty years. Meanwhile, in the Soviet of Fremont, where a statue of Lenin lorded over the Seattle proletariat, neighborhood activists argued–alongside their Wallingford comrades–that their territories were already technically urban villages, and thus shouldn’t be made to suffer imperialist imposition from the pro-developer capitalist caste down in City Hall. In June 1993, the president of the Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce flatly declared: “Seattle is not a growth city.”

Not all neighborhood groups opposed change, but many were skeptical of the City’s ability to deliver it. Nor was it a guarantee that all change was good: Were the bureaucrats trying to build urban villages not the same public-sector eggheads who permitted Interstate 5 to dissect Seattle in the mid-twentieth century, displacing thousands? To prevent the construction of two additional expressways that would have cut through South Lake Union and Seattle’s Lake Washington neighborhoods, anti-freeway activists sued the city in 1970. Suspicion of Seattle plans ran deep in communities of color that were frequently victimized by them. 

In June 1993, a Central District business leader and critic of the urban village strategy accurately relayed that Black Seattle’s greatest need was for “jobs and stores where people can obtain basics without driving.” They inaccurately complained that Rice’s Comp Plan–which came with requirements for mass transit and increased jobs-per-acre in urban villages–had nothing for the Central District. 

From the vantage point of many legacy Seattleites and neighborhood activists, Norm Rice’s agenda was just another civic boondoggle. 1990s Seattle was the new jewel of American cities, the west coast upstart with all the excitement of east coast urban areas but none of their baggage. Sports stars Ken Griffey, Jr. and Shawn Kemp put the city on the map in athletics; Frasier and Sir-Mix-A-Lot did the same in pop culture. For Seattle, keeping up with the Joneses came with hefty price tags for public dollars: a $164 million Port of Seattle renovation in 1993; a proposed $30 million renovation to Seattle Symphony that same year. Upcoming improvements to sports stadia and libraries loomed, to say nothing of the costs related to actualizing Norm Rice’s plan for mass transit.

As they had when fatigue from regrades and taxes led turn-of-the-century Seattleites to reject the ambitious subway proposal of 1912, Seattleites who were tired of change couldn’t be bothered to support Norm Rice’s urban villages. 

Titled “Toward a Sustainable Seattle,” Rice’s Comp Plan became law in 1994–but it wouldn’t be finalized until the year 2000, after dozens of discrete neighborhood plans were debated at contentious town halls and adopted piecemeal by the Seattle City Council. By then, the dot-com recession had put an end to Seattle’s 1990s growth spurt, plunging the city into a recession that emptied it of thousands of new residents. Construction screeched to a halt.  

Though not in the way they expected, Seattle’s neighborhood activists had gotten their way.

Epilogue: “You Can’t Go Back”

Integral as it is to the city Seattle has become, how one feels about Mayor Rice’s Comprehensive Plan hinges on how one feels about Seattle.

After the tech boom of the 2010s, Seattle regained its boomtown status. All over the Emerald City are construction cranes and new commercial spaces, apartment towers and urban amenities. Practically all of this bustle is concentrated in the urban villages outlined by the Rice Administration a generation ago, funneling growth into areas some argue are too few and far between, while encroaching–neighborhood activists still argue–on the “character” of Seattle’s homeowner lots.

Look at us now. The map shows urban villages in yellow, urban centers in orange, and industrial areas in red. Seattle Municipal Archives

Every election cycle, Seattle is reminded of the political fault lines intensified by the urban village strategy. If a “blue” Seattle/“red” Seattle analogue to national political polarization exists, it’s to be found in comparing the political attitudes of those in and near urban villages to those who live further away. Urban village adjacent voters are more likely to support left-leaning candidates and progressive causes, while those outside of them usually support moderates, and frequently conservatives.

The stakes are thus set for the city’s 2023 round of local elections, where voters will choose which seven City Council Members will guide Seattle through its Comprehensive Plan revision in 2024. Wherever candidates fall on the pro-growth, pro-density versus anti-transit, anti-change continuum, they’ll be making decisions as elected officials in the policy context created by Seattle’s first Black Mayor.

Mayor Rice’s Comprehensive Plan locked into place the law underwriting urban space in Seattle. Rice’s vision for metropolitan density bordered by residential quietude is largely responsible for some of the great segues in Seattle’s cityscape: the Mt. Baker shopping corridor slinking gradually to a public beach in Coleman Park; the way Roosevelt shopping areas bleed into Green Lake; the densest residential area in the city–Capitol Hill–hosting two of its most spacious greenways.

Still, a sense of missed opportunity lingers over Mayor Rice’s legacy. To the extent that the urban village strategy was meant to assuage an unreasonable minority who wanted the city to remain in the past, implementing it was a loss for future Seattleites. In the mid-1990s, this may have been a fair compromise; in the light of retrospect, it seems more like capitulation.

“I think change is the hardest thing for everybody,” Mayor Rice said in an interview with KUOW. “Our first instinct is to try to go back. But the world has changed. You can’t go back. But we can say ‘what will we do now?’”

Shaun Scott is a writer and organizer. His book, Heartbreak City: Seattle Sports and the Unmet Promise of Urban Progress, is out this October from UW Press.