Planning Commission Says “Neighborhood Conservation Districts” Could Stifle Diversity, Affordability

Sacred. Sacred, do you hear me?!?
Classic. Beige. Sacred.

Tomorrow morning around 8:00, the Seattle Planning Commission will take public testimony on outgoing city council member Tom Rasmussen’s not-in-my-backyard proposal to create “neighborhood conservation districts” throughout the city, with elected boards whose explicit goal is to make sure that all new development be “consistent with the physical character of a neighborhood.”

The idea is essentially a codification of the dictum, “All change is bad,” and could make the approval of new, “out of character” developments (remember, the Smith Tower was way out of character with downtown Seattle when it towered over the business district in 1914) subject to the majority opinion of the current residents of a neighborhood.  Like rent control, NCDs as proposed value incumbency (the people who got here first get to decide for the people who got here later) over what’s best for the city as a whole.

In the letter they will consider Thursday morning, the commissioners write:


We heard from [Rasmussen aide Evan] Clifthorne that Neighborhood Conservation Districts are meant to enable the community to hold onto unique aspects of their neighborhood character and make it possible for people to continue enjoying the creativity in design expressed in past generations, yet we are not clear how the program as outlined would achieve this without unintended consequences such as:

• adding to the complexity and cost involved in home upkeep, remodel and related activities in these areas particularly for low and moderate income homeowners and tenants.

• increased barriers to currently allowed redevelopment and infill in residential and commercial neighborhoods within the Neighborhood Conservation Districts,

• reductions in current and future homeowners’ ability to make changes to their home or site to accommodate their households’ changing needs,

• increased housing costs in areas using the program, which would make it even more difficult for low-, moderate, and middle-income households to access these areas, and

• allowing a high number of small Neighborhood Conservation District geographic boundaries (minimum of one block) to occur throughout the city with varying design guidelines without conflicting with affordability goals and equity (RSJI).

Additionally, the commissioners question the fast-track nature of the public outreach on the proposal (three meetings in two and a half weeks, to be followed by legislation later this month), as well as the fact that the proposal appears to contradict goals set out in the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability agenda, as well as the city’s Comprehensive Plan, in ways that could lead to a loss of low-income housing and income diversity in neighborhoods.

Read the whole letter here. The Planning Commission meeting is in the Boards and Commissions meeting at City Hall starting at 7:30 tomorrow (Thursday) morning.

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