SEATTLE needs to reset the context and conditions for how we do city planning and rezoning. Mayor Mike McGinn’s South Lake Union rezone proposal under review by City Council puts wealthy private interests of a few over neighborhood and citywide public interest. These new zoning concepts, once passed, can be applied to other neighborhoods well beyond South Lake Union. Our zoning regulations should not be put up for sale to the highest bidder.
For nearly a decade, Seattle’s mayors and City Council have regularly remade our land-use codes, determining the buildings we will live and work in for generations to come, the economic or residential uses of those buildings, and the social classes who will be able to live and work in those buildings.
Often these decisions are based on narrow near-term interests. By the time you are unhappy with what is going to be built on your street, it is usually far too late for any action. These laws matter because we pay for the infrastructure and the social and environmental consequences. They either represent your interests, or not, and you should know the difference.
The building industry is an important component of our economy, but it is not representative of the majority of the people who live and work in Seattle, nor the small developers, nor most small-business interests. Seattle is zoned for decades of growth, and more than 8,000 rental units are under construction throughout the city.
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Why would the needs of a few large land speculators cause the council to make a major investment to beautify Mercer? Why completely change the zoning in South Lake Union, an area that already has been planned and replanned in the past decade? Why bend over backward to help turn a private land speculator’s bad investment into profitable shoreline condos on Lake Union?
The fact that Mayor McGinn and the City Council prioritize these interests above Neighborhood Plans, the Comprehensive Plan and shoreline protections means that the citizens of Seattle get to pay for, but no longer own, our future. Whether these interests wield a velvet glove with great ideas or a hammer, they have left citizens with few options other than hiring lawyers to force the city to comply with existing plans and the state Growth Management Act.
Our elected officials have a choice. They can ensure that the Comprehensive Plan and Neighborhood Plans are not just feel-good exercises in wasting precious time. They can integrate the planning process as a traceable living driver for land-use code to prove that zoning reflects citizen-driven planning.
They can prove that mitigation is included in code that pays for road and transit infrastructure, preserves the shorelines and tree canopy, and prevents urban removal. This mitigation cannot be an optional matter of charitable contribution. The mayor and council can put the various bright ideas for South Lake Union through the neighborhood and comprehensive planning process instead of ruling by fiat.
They can look to mechanisms employed by other cities like Austin, with district-based zoning overlays and reviews; Portland, with continuously active neighborhood planning and updated plans; and Washington, D.C., with elected commissioners as a part of government accountable to the neighbors for all proposed zoning or use changes.
The council can create enforceable processes and functions to overcome the anarchy we have now where the loudest voices, people paid or with a lot of free time to testify, or the largest amount of dollars rules the day.
The people also have a choice every four years to hold those we elect accountable to the whole of the city, and all of its citizens.
Kathryn Keller is a Seattle resident who lives in multifamily housing in the Madison Valley community and works in South Lake Union.