This guest post is by Roger Valdez, who served as a volunteer on the Regulatory Reform Roundtable facilitated by the mayor's office.
In a front-page feature last week, the Seattle Times blared that real-estate developers run Seattle’s City Hall, particularly the mayor's office, foisting big density on hapless, unsuspecting neighborhoods. But actually, a small, vocal, and well-organized group of Capitol Hill neighbors last week were the ones who killed developer-supported land use reforms with help from City Hall employees.
So it wasn’t developers who had the upper hand, but neighbors supported by the Seattle City Council's own staff.
In fact, the proposal that the Seattle Times wrote about wasn't conjured up by developers at the Regulatory Reform Roundtable, which considered many proposals. Like many land-use policy changes, the early drafts came from the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD). The reforms in the legislation have been year's in the making, and they would have likely been proposed under Greg Nickels, Joe Mallahan, or any other mayor. Even Council Member Richard Conlin said that the proposals were "modest changes." All of this was omitted in the Seattle Times story because, perhaps, it didn't support the narrative of big developers versus ordinary neighborhood people.
Dying in a council committee last week, one of these regulatory reforms would have allowed more commercial and retail uses in multifamily neighborhoods, such as corner stores. Such a practice would move Seattle away from a creaky, century-old form of American planning that separates residents from services and toward an innovative approach that pushes uses and people together.
It turns out two of the leaders who worked against the proposal work for city council central staff and live on Capitol Hill, Michael Jenkins and Rebecca Herzfeld. Herzfeld, former staff at the Department of Planning and Development (and briefly my boss at the Department of Neighborhoods), even wrote a sample letter for people on Capitol Hill to send to council members.
Herzfeld’s letter expressed concern about “noise, odors, commercial deliveries, and increased traffic... amplified music, employees and patrons smoking outside the building, and outdoor food service,” all things that happen already on Capitol Hill. If someone doesn’t like living in a noisy, active neighborhood, couldn't he or she move to Laurelhurst, a neighborhood that is the outcome old-fashioned zoning, full of quiet cul-de-sacs?
That's the sort of neighborhood the Supreme Court favored when it issued a decision in the 1920s based on the “pig in the parlour” principle (nobody wants a pig in the living room or restaurant near your house, right?). That set the cast for modern zoning, which put different uses—rendering plants, barbershops, and apartments—into different parts of the city. But zoning was meant to protect city dwellers from heavy industry, not commercial uses like bars and restaurants.
While great cities have outgrown zoning’s segregation of uses, instead supporting the practice of pushing uses together, Seattle’s city council is apparently caught in an echo chamber of anachronistic planning advice from their central staff. To boost business, walkability, and sustainable land use, cities are modeling their futures on busy and crowded neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, with a bar or a store on every corner.
So the Seattle Times has it wrong: There is no developer lock on City Hall. On the contrary, neighbors stopped innovative zoning and new businesses growth on Capitol Hill. And no, the proposal wouldn't have mandated a topless barbershop in the lobby of Jenkins’ condo or pigs in Herzfeld’s parlor. But if someone found a way to make that business idea work, why not let it happen? If developers did have more influence on City Hall, we might actually be able to build a great city, instead of getting bogged down with an endless, fussy neighborhood agenda, which strives to maintain the hegemony of single-family use over all others.