If you want to know what Seattle’s most radical anti-growth activists really think about multifamily housing, the mayor, transportation solutions, and “those people,” I highly recommend checking out any event put on by the City Neighborhood Council, a group founded in the 1990s to advise the brand-new Department of Neighborhoods on neighborhood planning.
You’ll have to get past some testy gatekeepers, though, if Saturday morning’s launch meeting for the “Phoenix Project” (as in, rising from the proverbial ashes) was any indication. In flurry of emails before the meeting, event planners, including CNC land use chair Cindi Barker, insisted that the event was “invitation only” because “the Bertha Knight Landes Room [at city hall] only has room for 200” and they didn’t want to overload the room’s capacity. Largely as a result of Barker’s efforts, only a few dozen people showed up, including about ten city staffers, leaving the room not just below capacity but mostly empty. (Not for nothing, but City Hall is a public space, and opening it up on Saturday requires public resources, including security, so even suggesting that an event like Saturday’s might be invite-only is questionable).
Luckily, I got a heads-up about the meeting, and decided there was no better way to spend a sunny Saturday morning than eavesdropping on the no-growth crowd. Within five minutes of my arrival, a man with a clipboard came up to me (he was gathering signatures for a carbon-tax initiative and wanted to spread the good word about electric cars) and casually dropped that “I oppose multi-family … I just don’t like it.” When I mentioned that I live in a multi-family building, he said, “That’s fine for people like you, maybe, but you can’t force people like me into multi-family.” (The old “don’t put me in a shoebox” argument.)
Given his intransigence on electric cars—which will not, no matter what anybody says, solve our environmental crisis on their own—I didn’t bother explaining that his worldview would place constraints on choices, while mine would provide more choices for people to live how they prefer.
Besides Owen Pickford from the Urbanist and myself, the other non-activists in the room included city council member Sally Bagshaw, Planning Commission staffer Jessica Brand, newly appointed Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland, and her long-ago predecessor in that job, Jim Diers.
Diers is sort of a messiah figure to a certain breed of neighborhood activist. The first head, in 1988, of the newly created neighborhoods department under then-mayor Charley Royer, Diers is known as the godfather of neighborhood planning in Seattle. (Diers fans still vilify former mayor Greg Nickels for firing him when he took office nearly 15 years ago).
In broad terms, Diers’ philosophy is that neighborhoods should be designed from the bottom up (the residents), not the top down (the government). In recent years, as more people have moved here and taken up more of Seattle’s limited space, this view has manifested as opposition to new “growth” (people living in Seattle) and attempts to preserve Seattle as it was when the activist crowd first moved to the city. The longer you’ve lived here, the better, and bonus points if your family has been here for multiple generations. Newcomers can petition to participate when they’ve owned a house for 20 years or so.
Predictably, the activists who showed up on Saturday uproariously applauded Diers’ energetic speech and “people-first” Power Point but seemed to miss his secondary message about “people” including not just old-timers but all Seattle residents, present and future.
For example, when Diers said that people in the room “proved to Mayor Royer that you aren’t anti-growth–you’re just against growth that’s about nothing but growth” and said they “gave a voice to people who had never had a voice,” the room went nuts. (“He should have been our next mayor” one man at the next table stage-whispered to another.) However, when he talked about the comp plan update as an opportunity to bring neighborhood planning, and the comprehensive plan overhaul that’s currently underway, back to the people–all the people, not just the handful in the room–he was met with silence. “Power comes from mobilizing people through broad and inclusive engagement,” Diers said, describing the opposite of the group to which he was speaking.
To launch the Q&A, CNC land use chair Irene Wall suggested a number of not-at-all-leading questions that neighborhood representatives might direct at the city, such, “Did development occur as predicted or desired in your neighborhood?,” “Has the investment in public amenities gone as planned?,” “Are there negative consequences that your plan did not envision?,” and my favorite, “Has the city responded as you wanted?”
The questions that emerged from this process were about what you’d expect: Discursive statements followed by accusatory non-questions, or discursive questions that ended in accusations. For example, one table asked why, given the “fact” that the city has ample capacity for growth without any zoning changes, why is the city doing a comp plan update, and how is it possible, even remotely possible, that the environmental impact of all that growth could be anything other than “significant,” “when we experience terminal congestion on our streets, waiting in line to have the bus pass us by, feeling that design review is not working?” (That questioner was referring, respectively, to the city’s Development Capacity Report, which is not a planning document, and the “determination of environmental non-significance” in the draft environmental impact statement).
Other questions were straight-up concern trolling–such as the lady who asked what will happen to poor people if there’s an earthquake and they’re all crowded together, or longtime CNC leader Chris Leman, who talked about how “sad” it would be if the city refused to measure growth now and ultimately got the comp plan wrong. “Just to say, ‘Well, we can’t control it, so we won’t measure it,’ does not seem like a good response to me,” Leman said. (Barker, to her credit, tried repeatedly to get Leman to ask a question.”
Leman also had things to say about Nyland’s response to one of the more direct questions of the morning, which came from a woman in the Central District: “What legal tools do neighborhoods have to balance the impact of population excesses” if an area’s growth outstrips amenities like parking and roadway space? Nyland said she couldn’t answer a legal question, prompting Leman to shout out, “That’s not an acceptable answer!”
“Chris, you have a tendency to pick questions that people don’t know the answer to, and they have the right to say that,” Nyland said. “You’re asking for legal action, and no, I’m not going to go into specifics about that.” Nyland went on to note that when planning for future development, “We need people who are 20,” not just homeowners who are retired and trying to protect their property values.
To me, that gets to the heart of what ails the neighborhood movement: Frequently, the old guard of folks who were around in the ’90s are downright hostile to new people who are just as interested as the oldtimers in the future of their neighborhoods.
The difference between those who “accept” growth (which is like “accepting” gravity) and those who don’t, is that the most anti-growth activists tend to see “growth” as numbers, while urbanists see “growth” as people. Or as DPD’s Susan McLain put it in response to Leman’s statement that the city needs to closely monitor growth: “What is happening on the ground in neighborhoods, next door [to you], is that somebody is living there”—a truth that often seems lost on people upset about “giant monstrosities” next door or growth as a “cancer” that requires “chemotherapy” when what they’re really talking about is their new neighbors.
Diers subtly acknowledged that reality in his closing remarks, when he noted that 30,000 people participated in neighborhood planning in the ’90s. “We’re lucky that we have community activists who care about this place, and we could all do so much more if we mobilize toward a common vision of the future,” he said. What he didn’t say, but implied, is that to get another 30,000 people involved in planning now, it’s going to take more than a handful of gray-haired homeowners with views about neighborhoods that remain stuck in the amber of the 1990s. It’s going to take people who think not only of themselves and their own, immediate property values, but the generation moving here now, and their kids’ kids, to make Seattle a city that doesn’t just “accommodate” growth but embraces it.