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.

12 Responses to “The Mayoral Candidates and Knowledge-Based Land Use Leadership”

  1. Ellery

    Wow, there sure are a lot of words here, but most of them are good. But what I am really interested in is why a land use attorney that would seemingly be part of the establishment would buck the peer pressure and go with outsider McGinn? And how can we encourage more closeted progressives from the ULI/DSA set to take that risk too?

  2. Ryan

    I appreciate Mr. Wolfe’s candid analysis of the leadership backgrounds of the two candidates. Much like in the race for King County executive, there appears obvious choices for the Green conscious constituent. Having worked for public sector planning departments, both staff and customers appreciate leadership who have a comprehensive perspectives and work hard to improve government.

  3. Bill B

    Here is something that McGinn supporting density advocates don’t get:

    “The best support systems, the best urbanism, will permit the greatest density of relationships (not density of people), implying the greatest spacial complexity and diversity achievable.”

    (From here: )

    This is why places like the International District/Little Saigon, the Central District and the Rainier Valley station areas are so fragile and so important. The complexity of the threading is what make these areas so vital to the character of our city. Slamming a bunch of high rises in – density for density’s sake – will destroy the underlying fabric of these communities.

    All the community meetings in the world aren’t going to help save them if massive upzoning comes. It will help save the ill-conceived linear light rail system that reinforces our urban sprawl. It will also help places like South Lake Union more profitable for Vulcan.

    For all the posturing about being a savvy land use guy, McGinn is only doing the bidding of his masters.

  4. Beal

    Bradburd – Where has McGinn, or any other density advocates tried “slamming a bunch of high rises” in SE Seattle? Specifics, please.

  5. Bill B

    @ 4 Beal -Let’s look at the two light rail stops:
    North Rainier:

    McGinn, in the ‘Planning, Land Use and Zoning’ Issues statement that Mr Wolfe is fawning over, claims that “We have recently embarked on a neighborhood plan update process that is beginning to bear fruit..”. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that these ‘people centered’ processes are not much more than a shame and are mere mechanisms to support upzoning that has been planned for these areas for several years. Regular posters to this blog are complicit in this process.

    In that same policy statement McGinn states “Creating great neighborhoods…” which wholly ignores that there are already neighborhoods here in Seattle (some are blighted – as Dan notes in a different post). But ease of upzoning isn’t the fix. The city has a comprehensive plan for growth and investment in our urban villages, however the Nickels Administration as well as Great City have set their sights on different areas than our existing neighbrohoods.

    McGinn goes on to say that “I will refocus City departments on the capital investments and programs..” which clearly differentiates himself from Mallahan: McGinn wanting to have the city pay for the concurrent delivery of amenities and infrastructure while Mallahan seeks the use of impact fees, LIDs and other developer funded mechanisms.

    Again, McGinn and the Great City Initiative are – as are the the base of his ‘blue box’ support – creatures of the development and light rail industries that have always sought a free ride to achieve their goals. They are not about making great cities as much as they are about turning a profit in the process.

    The mantra “Density plus Livability equals Sustainability” is green-washed snake oil being sold by the developer community. It is rehashed here and pawned to the gullible at The Stranger.

  6. Mallahanner

    Bill. I do not get your point. This article just says that McGinn knows more than Mallahan.

  7. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Bill B, I also don’t understand your point about South Lake Union but since I’m moving there this week I’d like to hear more. Obviously buildings with people in them are going to be more profitable than parking lots… but how is that not a better environment? Sure, some of the new residents are not engaged in the community. But were any of the parking spaces engaged? I don’t want to sound like these developments are perfect, but there was significant involvement from the Cascade Neighborhood Council.

    The Seattle Displacement Coalition also tried to make this argument about the parking lot at 15th Ave NE and NE 43rd which is now the mixed-use Russell Hall (not part of UW but obviously connected). How will replacing parking lots with buildings “destroy the underlying fabric of these communities”?

  8. Dennis Saxman

    This is a reply to Beal.

    Beal, haven’t you looked at the plans for South Lake Union. Go to this website and look at the amterials on Urban Form. I was present at the “Design Charade” – I call it that because it was only 2 days long – there was plenty of talk about 400 foot pin towers on podiums – the main q

  9. Dennis Saxman

    Sorry Beal, my fat fingers sent the last post before I was done. To continue – the main question was chiefly how many would be allowed under any specific plan. Some plans would result in Capitol Hill’s loss of views of the Space Needle and Queen Anne. Another plan, provides for a canyon of 400 foot towers on both the north and south sides of Denny. As I remember, McGinn and his supporters at the Charade were in favor of this. McGinn was also involved in developing the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan.

    McGinn was also a member of the Uptown and South Lake Union Visioning Charrette Stakeholder’s Group and endorsed its recommendations for a joint vision for Uptown and South Lake Union Urban Centers. Those recommendations included developing density around public investments, i.e., residential towers around City parks. If you don’t believe me, look at the drawing on page 12 of that document. He is also quoted on page 19 of that document as being against caps or taxes on density in urban centers. The deocument is on th elink I provided. When I told him that I was disappointed to see that quote, McGinn told me had been misquoted and had asked that that comment not be placed in the document. I have my doubts about that, as I do about many of the representations he makes in his land use and neighborhoods issue paper. I have seen McGinn at numerous Council, committee and neighborhood meetings and I find it hard to reconcile his statements in his issue paper with positions he has taken at other venues, and when he wasn’t campaigning for office. I will have more to say about that at a later date. If McGinn does indeed know more than Mallahan about land use, it is because he is an insider and a friend to developers and those in power who cater to developers. I failed ot vote for Nickels because I wanted a change in City policy. I have no faith that McGinn will bring that change. There is a lot of public information about McGinn that the electorate is failing to examine, and I worry that that failure will cause the electorate to misjudge the positions that McGinn is actually committed to

  10. Dennis Saxman

    Beal, as to slamming highrises in SE Seattle, I could also provide you with copies of documents I received as
    part of a public records request I made. Despite the City and the DPD having assured me that no designs or plans had been drawn up before the beginning of the neighborhood planning process, I received documents that contained both discussions and designs that predated the neighborhood plan update process by 2 years. The DPD delayed providing proposed rezone maps for the station areas in SE Seattle, but I eventually got them. They show plans for significant rezones of the station areas and were made before the current neighborhood update process began. I am a member of the Neighborhood Plan Advisory Committee representing the East District. The Neighborhood Plan Update process has been hijacked by the DPD, the Seattle Planning Commission, and some of the Mayoral and Council appointees. Neighborhood members’ complaints about this have fallen on deaf ears. The Committee is little more than a rubber stamp and a handful of individuals are running the entire show

  11. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Dennis Saxman,

    Let me just quote McGinn: “Height is just one variable . . . Design, open space, affordability, and our environmental aspirations need to be taken into account as well.” The latest discussions on the SLU Urban Design Framework (LUOA summary) are focused not on heights but on getting a mix of housing and improving street presence of buildings. I think you know that no one wants a soul-crushing wall of Stalinist architecture, but well-designed buildings that engage the street can enhance a view as well as add to a neighborhood.

  12. Bill B

    @6 re McGinn knows more…

    Maybe re land use he does.

    But where in his highly lauded issue paper is anything of SUBSTANCE re land use, zoning, etc.? Other than he held a meeting in a land use attorney’s office that would be hard to know.

    McGinn supports more neighborhood involvement in the planning process. So does Mallahan.

    McGinn supports looking at zoning and how its used (the “audit”). Mallahan wants to look at loosening constraints imposed by our “use based” zoning paradigm and investigate context- and form-based rules.

    I Believe the key differences are, as I stated above, an attitude towards existing populations and communities and how much of a free ride the developers get…

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