A Voice Of Reason That Needs To Be Louder

The Seattle Planning Commission recently sent two letters to the City Council that  demonstrate its potential to provide a voice of reason in debates over planning policy.   The first letter recommends passing the cottage housing ordinance, with the important caveat that the 50 unit per year limit be removed, as was discussed in this HAC post.  The second letter recommends several constructive tweaks to the proposed multifamily code update, such as reductions in parking requirements and the banning of low-density townhouse development in mid-rise zones.

The Planning Commission is typically ahead of the curve on progressive  city planning policy, and often fills policy analysis gaps that would otherwise be neglected.   It’s a great resource, but I want to see them turn up the volume and become a stronger influence on urban issues in Seattle.

Cause we need it, bad.  The Commission is pretty much the only Seattle organization besides DPD that regularly does serious, relevant planning policy analysis.  In many other cities, organizations like San Francisco’s SPUR play a major role in all the big planning decisions of the day.  Seattle has nothing even close to SPUR.

And Universities often engage in the policy debates of their host cities, but UW, not so much.   Hey there UW Department of Urban Design and Planning, how about unleashing  your massive analytical capacity a little more often on what’s going on in your own backyard, like say, the tunnel/viaduct debate?

A conundrum, Seattle is.   Brimming with big brains, yet milquetoast when it comes to execution.

13 Responses to “A Voice Of Reason That Needs To Be Louder”

  1. Ellery

    I’ll second that.

    I’ll also provide this definition of milquetoast to save others the effort of looking it up:
    * Pronunciation: \ˈmilk-ˌtōst\
    * Function: noun
    * Etymology: Caspar Milquetoast, comic strip character created by H. T. Webster †1952 American cartoonist
    * Date: 1935
    : a timid, meek, or unassertive person

  2. Chuck

    The UW study prepared for the Quality Growth Alliance, “From Barriers to Solutions and Best Practices: Urban Centers and TOD in Washington” was just released, along with a companion bibliography.

    They will be on the web shortly at: http://www.qualitygrowthalliance.org/

    For the moment you can get them at:


  3. JoshMahar

    According to the Seattle Times the UW does look at these issues. But they are apparently unaware of anything that has ever happened outside Seattle:

    “‘I have no conception of any other place that would take out a road with 100,000 cars a day, with no alternative to that,’ said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.


    Way to be progressive UW

  4. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I’ve specifically asked the UW administration to take a more active role in various issues in the past, and the answer is usually “we don’t have the resources.” I still find this answer disappointing, but they’ve got a point, especially if it made the university as popular a lawsuit target as SoundTransit.

    Also, in most cases UW as an institution cannot take a position on specific candidates or issues (not even if Tim Eyman had a “Burn down that liberal UW” on the ballot).

    @3: TRAC is funded by WSDOT, what do you expect? Hmm, wonder if that’s an ethics violation for Hallenbeck. I guess probably not.

  5. chrispy

    I disagree that Seattle is milquetoast, if the definition in #1 is correct. Everyone in this city has an opinion, and everyone wants everything perfect, meaning their way. Seattle and its lack of progress on these big issues can best be described by this:

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Seattlites, in their quest for progressive perfection, do just that. And we all know what the result is.

  6. Seattle Resident

    Where can we get a copy of the letters?

  7. jake l

    I am tending to agree more and more with chrispy@5. I believe that there is a void of expert conclusions that are assertive, progressive, and pronounced in a positive manner, and I think that void is being filled the ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid’ political quagmire.

  8. spencer

    Although I too agree with chripsy it seems dan is referring to the execution of policy and ideas and not to people in general. But, that seems to be an incorrect description too. We do seem to get things going it’s just always in the wrong direction (and often because the original idea takes so dang long to get moving). The monorail comes to mind. The retrofitting of the viaduct comes to mind as does all the decisions made about it’s future.

    There are also several organizations (seattle ULI and Cascadia GBC come to mind) involved in urban issues in our city albeit none maybe not as big as SPUR. As far as the history of urban planning involvement goes Seattle is still very young compared to cities that are twice or more it’s size. Please give us a little latitude when pointing to our weaknesses. The resources are just not a bountiful as places like San Fran. They have a prestigious university on their door step and are historically a haven for radical thinkers and honest debate (with people smart enough to concede to a better argument).

  9. Tony the Economist

    I will jump in at 180 degrees from chripsy @5. The people of seattle have been presented repeatedly with the choice between bad and worse by professional planners and engineers. There are high quality urban design solutions out there that would win broad appeal in the city of seattle, but the professionals are either unwilling or unable to devise and present them.

    The city of seattle puts hardly a penny into actual planning. 95% of DPD is simply route permit approval. No one is paid to think conceptually or comprehensively. Good planning and good urban design are not cheap, and the city has thus far refused to invest the substantial resources that it takes to actually hire a large number of talented planners and designers to do broad outreach, listen to the public and synthesize solutions that are actually appealing.

    The city has instead tried to do planning on the cheap. The result is an appalling lack of creativity and integration, yet development continues unguided, unplanned, undesigned. Our zoning code is so disconnected from our values as a city that it is embarrassing. Capitol Hill, for example, has dozens, if not hundreds of gorgeous old brick apartment buildings that achieve phenomenal density and are nearly universally loved, yet our zoning code makes every single one of these buildings illegal to build new. Developers couldn’t build great development in Seattle if they wanted to, our own laws prevent it.

    We have created a set of zoning laws that force developers to build nothing but the most hideous of buildings, and yet density advocates wonder why neighborhoods are anti-development.

    Dan and chrispy are blaming the wrong people. It’s not the citizens that are the problem, it’s our leaders, who imagine we can do planning on the cheap and force new development into existing neighborhoods without even taking the time to do outreach, listen to the community, plan, design and find truly win-win solutions. Seattle is fortunate to have a citizenry that cares so much about this city. In 90% of the city’s in the world, the problem is that the people care too little. Give us a plan worthy of the incredible citizenry that is Seattle and we will be more than happy to embrace it.

  10. jake l

    spencer@8 really said it with ‘people that are smart enough to concede to a better arguement’! Tony@9’s point is good yet at what point is the disconnect reached when “we have created a set of zoning laws” is transformed into not the people but the leaders. Are we not one and the same?

  11. Bill B

    Tony is right, sans this statement:
    “We have created a set of zoning laws that force developers to build nothing but the most hideous of buildings, and yet density advocates wonder why neighborhoods are anti-development”

    Our zoning laws are heavily influenced by the developers – look who is mostly providing the input. And developers are almost always driven by profit.

    The architects are on a leash. And the city is the fireplug.

    When we get a Council that will redefine rules that stop making such dramatic profitability the primary driver (i.e. stop falling for the “it won’t pencil out” line), we will get rules that will result in a better city.

  12. Michelle Z

    Seattle Resident@6,

    You can download the letters referenced in this blog post on the Seattle Planning Commission’s website: http://www.seattle.gov/planningcommission/

    Scroll down to the “News and Information” section and you will find links to the letters under the headings for Backyard Housing Legislation and the Multifamily Housing Code. There is also a great guide to Backyard Cottages available on the site.


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