The Mayoral Candidates and Knowledge-Based Land Use Leadership

(Editor’s note:  Chuck Wolfe is a land-use attorney and an affiliate faculty member in the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning.  Chuck is a frequent contributor to Crosscut, but wanted to take walk on the wild side with the following post, adapted from this longer version.)


On Sunday, the Seattle Times asked how our two Mayoral candidates would lead, with scant reference to the issues of the day, such as land use.  The Times did what newspapers often do—leaving subject matter junkies to further reflect about leadership within the land use silo.

The Times’ bottom line: Mike McGinn, the downtown attorney turned energetic Great City activist/successful electoral strategist on transit and parks, against Joe Mallahan, the corporate team leader who has succeeded at a large company with laudable customer service achievements—something for readers from both camps, and a style choice for the electorate.

The policies proposed by McGinn and Mallahan reflect the Times’ bottom line. The McGinn policies, largely issued in September, are generally broad and tone-setting, while the Mallahan policies, more recently produced, are more surgical, and reflective of advisory expertise.  McGinn provides a comprehensive Planning, Zoning and Land Use Policy, as well as Neighborhoods and Transportation Policies, while Mallahan provides some land use components within his Housing and Transportation Policies.

The land use silo is built upon protection of “health, safety and welfare,” and intersects individual cities and city neighborhoods with regional transit and housing needs.  Electeds need broad personal expertise in these areas so they can readily know and understand best practices, and ask intelligent questions about budget allocations for urban infrastructure projects and the redesign of regulatory mechanisms to serve the 21st century city.

Simultaneously, private sector clients hope for clear, predictable regulations and efficient public process. Many of our days are spent addressing alleged regulatory inconsistency, inefficiency and marketplace sensitivity, advocating for results to advance client needs. Our elected leaders should also have the ability to assess government innovation in service delivery to such private “customers,” and assure governmental success in managing the associated public process.

My bottom line is based on the so-called “diffusion of innovation” at the core of land use leadership, and values both the vision of the savvy urban strategist, as well as the success of the service delivery innovator and manager—but in one Mayoral candidate:  Mike McGinn. His community and non-profit experience is described by the Times, and his Planning, Land Use and Zoning Policy was developed after a broad based listening session (disclosure: held in my law office), and reflects both urban vision and service delivery.  And not only does this Policy envision sensitivity to neighborhood needs and achieving consensus results through expanded incentive zoning and work with the City Council, it also proposes a zoning audit to assure sound land use practices, and underscores collaboration with the region, as well as necessary steps to secure new approaches to infrastructure funding from Olympia.

Last week I wrote in Crosscut about the new visionaries of Detroit, a city afflicted in ways we have yet to fully acknowledge.  Filmmaker Michael Moore, who has documented that affliction throughout his career, has also captured the spirit of this year and last in “Capitalism: A Love Story”. Drawing from the sea change of Obama, he emphasizes how votes prevail over symbolic endorsements and numerous advisors, and that the bases for political power can change dramatically in far less than a lifetime.

At a recent Seattle Transit Blog/Northwest Hub “meet up,” an audience member asked how to assess the mayoral candidates.  My answer:  “Mallahan has excellent advisors, and McGinn knows his stuff.”  In the land use silo, knowledge is key to leadership, and key to my support.