The Dream of the ’90s is Alive at the City Neighborhood Council

The city's first-ever Department of Neighborhoods director, Jim Diers.
The city’s first-ever Department of Neighborhoods director, Jim Diers.

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.

The dreams of the '90s.
The dreams of the ’90s.

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.

DPD deputy director Tom Hauger, a wry man with a dry delivery and an expression that said, “I’m going to my happy place” when the audience subjected him to a fusillade of leading questions—was less well-received. Although Hauger’s official role “as a bureaucrat,” he said, was to run through the four growth scenarios identified in the Seattle 2035 update, his actual role also included punching bag, as attendees peppered him with question-speeches about why there hadn’t been enough outreach on the 2035 plan (“we can’t go to every neighborhood meeting”), why the city couldn’t, per Seattle 2035 Draft Environmental Statement page 3.5, subsection whatever, predict the number of people who would move to this block in that neighborhood (that isn’t possible), and whether the city was really just pretending to advance four options when they had already chosen the one (Option 4) that heavily promotes transit-oriented development (they aren’t.)
After a quick round of Comp Plan Jeopardy (sample question: How many acres of green space per person would the city like to see?),  each table got to ask one question of the four assembled city officials, who represented SDOT, DPD, the Planning Commission, and the Department of Neighborhoods and lined up in the front of the room in what one observer called “the dunk tank.”
Uncrowded house.

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.

7 thoughts on “The Dream of the ’90s is Alive at the City Neighborhood Council”

  1. Since when is a document (the “Land Capacity Report”) that is required by the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A.215) “not a planning document.” It would seem that that would be a definition of what a planning document is. While the use of the word “fact” might be a little strong, (since the Land Capacity Report ‘s conclusion is an analysis and forecast), the report does show more than ample capacity to absorb the forecasted need for housing.
    You conflate any concern about how development occurs as “anti-growth.” A true “urbanist” should be as concerned about how grow occurs and the quality of that growth as the amount. Being concerned about growth is what “growth management” means. I think the HALA “urbanists” would encounter less resistance if they showed some concern for how development occurs than quickly dismissing any concern as a “canard.”

  2. Wow. I was required to let the general public in to my kid’s birthday party in a library basement. You have to sign a statement promising you won’t exclude anyone before they’ll let you rent any city-owned space. I’m curious who signed that statement.

  3. Nyland has built her entire career around not answering questions. Just ask around.

  4. Wow. As the military might put it: a target-rich enviroment. Firstly, it is wonderful to think that tens of thousands of Seattle voters will be interested enough, dedicated enough, and have the time to attend dozens of meetings. The reality is, many of us have ‘lives’: jobs, children, interests outside of city planning. So if you are not willing to give dozens of hours to this process, you have no voice. And THAT is exactly why we have democracy. You elect people who agree with your general ideas of governance, including city-planning. You do not do the planning; the people you elect do the planning (and if they screw it up, you can launch an initative–see the Pike Place Market as an example).

    Second, you are being punked if you think that ‘activists’ meeting on Saturday morining have any influence whatsoever on what happens in this city. If Paul Allen, Jeff Bexos and a few construction executives get together, South Lake Union gets rebuilt and nothing you say will stop it. Or move it forward. Or channel the developement an inch east or west. City planning is largely used to sop up your energy while the real plans are made. Frankly, I am surprised at your naiviety. And Jim Diers is the Plied Piper of this process. He flies literally around the globe, telling people they can make a difference and the only thing that makes the difference is the Benjamins flowing into the political coffers (and post-political jobs for office holders).

    Finally, there is the false either/or of our politics (not just local but all most levels). The choice is between almost the entire city being zoned for Single Family 5000 with a parking spot for every dwelling or twenty/thirty/forty story towers everywhere, with no parking and a transit line down every arterial (two city council candidates suggested 75-100 miles of light rail all within the city of Seattle and no real idea of how to pay for this or even where it would go–and these two clowns are still considered viable candidates). We can have density without tearing down any singlefamily home; just insisting that we build above parking lots would provide more than enough units to satisfy even the most sanguine population growth predictions. I will close by saying that I believe in intelligent leadership from above with input from below. But conduct a civil and informed discussion of the issues and above all else, be sure that you are asking the right question. When Sound Transit went out and asked what people wanted, they heard that they DID NOT want elevated transit; what they meant was, they did not want steel wheels on steel rails like Chicago. They failed to ask the right question and they came up with the wrong answer.

    Dick Falkenbury

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