On Thursday night a crowd of hundreds gathered to share ideas for Seattle’s future. Co-hosted by the Seattle Art Museum and the city’s Department of Planning and Development, the evening kicked off the city’s comprehensive plan update process that will culminate next year with new guidelines and a refined vision branded as Seattle 2035. Local government officials, professionals, and artists presented their thoughts in rapid-fire Pecha Kucha style with only 20 slides and 20 seconds each. What emerged was a sobering look at the challenges Seattle faces mixed with an optimistic spirit of hope and extraordinary triumph.
Dubbed “Big Ideas – Imagining Seattle’s Future, 2035 & Beyond”, the event at Olympic Sculpture Park exhibited an inspiring series of speakers. Diane Sugimura, director of DPD, started off with a look at Seattle’s past and what is in store for the next 20 years. She noted Seattle is already known for big ideas, good and bad. Massive regrading and highway construction have reshaped the city for cars, but successes like the preservation of Seattle Center and Pike Place Market, and the ongoing waterfront revitalization, are to be celebrated.
Amidst exciting change, Suigmura asked, how do we ensure the city works for everyone? Her answer: “plans, plans, plans”.
Seattle, with a population of some 634,000, is expecting to grow over 120,000 (almost 20 percent) by 2035. Looking over the last ten years, 75 percent of new housing, which was mostly multi-family, went into the city’s designated growth centers known as urban centers and villages. Yet, 65 percent of the city is zoned for single-family residential. Clearly, something is going to have to yield in order to accommodate future residents without causing overcrowded housing. Homeowners are already up in arms about densifying development, so the city needs to plan for preserving character while welcoming newcomers. But this is still likely to involve increasing the size of growth centers and rezoning some areas for more intensive land uses.
With increased density comes the need for increased infrastructure capacity. Jon Scholes, also with DPD, listed his five priorities for Seattle as it enters the world stage. First, the city must align capital spending with its growth goals. He pointed out that Seattle Public Schools has invested no money in growth centers, and that of the over $120 million generated by a 2008 parks levy, only $12 million has been spent in growth centers. Second, to respond to this, he suggested that Downtown needs a school. He suggested the city acquire the Federal Reserve Bank building on 2nd Avenue, which is near a variety of child and family-friendly amenities, and convert it to an elementary school with a rooftop playground. This would do wonders for Downtown, which currently lacks the liveliness of the city’s other important neighborhoods. Scholes’ other points included remaking the Pike-Pine corridor into an attractive destination, integrating art and music on transit vehicles, and creating a comprehensive housing strategy to avoid skyrocketing rents like in San Francisco.
Building on some of these points, Jim Kelly from 4Culture illustrated the cultural benefits of historic preservation and landscape architect Brice Maryman reported that the city should be proud of its superb parks. However, Maryman outlined a few pieces of advice for the city’s future: strengthen streams and riparian zones, mitigate sea level rise and flood risks on the city’s shorelines, create more neighborhood greenways, combine the many parks-related plans into one document, invite more people to live near parks, and build quality infrastructure for economic competitiveness.
Roland Strong, from Fred Hutchinson, noted that Seattle’s big three industries going forward will be computer science, aerospace, and biomedicine. Surya Vanka of Microsoft warned the city’s high-tech workforce will contribute to an information overload in people’s daily lives. In the face of wicked problems like climate change, poverty, and an aging population, the city needs a technological renaissance to harness the power of new tools being created here. Cities are “petri dishes of innovation”, and Seattle is a particularly authentic strain with a vibrant community that can establish itself as a world capital of design. Jeremy Derfner from the Gates Foundation sees Seattle as an emerging center for global health research, noting that contributions from the region’s medical institutions are wiping out horrifying diseases in Africa and improving vaccinations for children worldwide. Derfner and Nora Liu from DPD noted how these industries will play into equality and social mobility issues; Seattle is still segregated, with many people of color living in the southeast and Central District. The city’s work toward increasing opportunity for the poor and minorities will be part of the global movement for increasing quality of life.
Alan Hart of VIA Architecture touched on issues of equality with call for breaking down the barriers between land uses. The city should act as a placemaker by forming neighborhoods as places to live, work, produce, play, and shop in once spot. But this can only happen with continued progress in transportation and zoning reform; Thomas Goldstein from Cascade Bicycle Club noted Millennials are preferring gadgets to cars and driver licensing is on the decline. Single-family zones should be allowed to diversify with mixed housing types and accessory dwelling units. Perhaps more importantly, people must overcome their fear of heights.
And then there was writer James Todd, who predicted that by 2035 Costco will be selling marijuana by the pallet and seeing massive profits from cookie and chip sales. Amazon will offer test-tube-baby delivery by drone, and once the kids hit puberty Amazon will offer work in its fulfillment centers. Seattle will create the world’s first cat park, the Lusty Lady will reopen with eco-friendly lap dances, and the city will sponsor Casual Cosplay Fridays. The city’s top tourist attraction will shift to the notorious local color of Metro Route 358, (soon to be the E line) and enthusiasm for yoga paddleboarding will drop after a series of bloody attacks by diabetic Orcas.
The night’s message was clear: Seattle can be a fantastic place to live while contributing to global progress. The question is how exactly we, the citizens of this great city, want that to happen. Over the next 18 months there will be many opportunities for us to voice our ideas, give feedback to proposals, and work with the city and community on making a plan we can all agree to.
Learn more and connect by checking out the Seattle 2035 website, and keep on eye on this space for periodic updates.