The Mayor’s Office hosted a “Neighborhood Summit” at the Seattle Center on Saturday for the purpose of connecting city government with citizens. In addition to over 20 city departments and offices, 600 people of all ages and walks of life attended. I had the opportunity to speak with employees from several departments and hear from civic leaders on the current issues plaguing the relationship between neighborhoods and local governance. Video coverage can be viewed here.
The event fulfilled Mayor Ed Murray’s promise to host a summit with 100 days of entering office, a response to many neighborhood groups’ concerns with density, growth, and development. As I’ve discussed before, these groups do not represent everyone, such as immigrants and renters, but their efforts to increase neighborhood involvement in citywide planning is commendable. Since the city’s district councils system was formed in 1987 there has been some loss of trust between neighborhoods and the city, particularly on the issue of incorporating neighborhood-specific plans into the city zoning code. Adoption of the Transit Communities amendment to the Comprehensive Plan, for instance, was delayed by a year because the Planning Commission had not adequately engaged with residents. The intent of the summit was to restart these fragile relationships, but the event was less about dialogue than anticipated.
In Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall there were rows of tables with city staff from virtually every department within the city government. Many types of flyers, brochures, and posters offered information on the departments’ activities and ongoing efforts. Staff were cheerful and happily answered questions. This open house format was fantastic, and I believe this type of event could become a recurring civic gathering every 6 or 12 months.
The Seattle Times posted a timely piece that morning with quotes from complaining residents before the event even started, but these were exaggerated. Still, I was somewhat disappointed that there was little opportunity for group debate on particular subjects or representatives from certain neighborhoods available, as I presumed such a “summit” might entail. A few presentations and discussion sessions were held at one end of the hall, but didn’t seem to be the main focus and were slightly difficult to hear even with a sound system. If I were to suggest improvements the Mayor’s Office, it would be to host a forum every year separately from the departmental open house.
Murray started with a brief explanation, saying the public discourse needs to be refined and made more collaborative so that progress can be made. Parties should acknowledge that they will disagree on common points and need to work towards common ground in the interests of communities and the whole city. It was hinted that the Department of Neighborhoods will be given a boost. A followup presentation noted that the Seattle area has the most active citizens in the U.S., ranking first in government and school involvement, and high in protests and boycotts, volunteering, and voter turnout. The Seattle Freeze is alive and well, though, as we rank low in talking to neighbors and doing favors. This is a problem considering a large influx new residents. Related, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs recently expanded as promised during Murray’s State of the City address.
Former Councilman Jim Street led a question-and-answer session regarding the district councils, which he thinks should recall their founding intentions of direct communication, representation of smaller community groups, and directing neighborhood project funding. The councils should not act as a barrier between the people and government processes, though, and are not a replacement for effective communication between city departments. Street admitted he doesn’t know the impact of the new election system for City Council, which will convert seven positions from at-large to elect-by-district in the 2016 election. This is common in many U.S. cities, so it will be interesting to see how this changes local politics and whether some geographic areas will inadvertently get more sway than others. Other questions revolved around the increasingly common development concerns, such as the couple who will soon have rowhouses only a couple feet from their home (closer scrutiny reveals they themselves built too close to the property line), crime and violence in southern Seattle, and mitigating the impacts from state transportation projects.
Another session took comments regarding the search for a new Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director. The audience remarked that the person should have a record of working with other departments, particularly planning, and choose to commute by bike, transit, or walking. The new Director should be concerned with equal access for all, particularly the disabled and the elderly. And a major new focus should be the Ballard-to-Downtown light rail line, along with improving all sidewalks everywhere.
The timing of the event coincided well with Seattle 2035, the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan update. One of my first stops was with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), who are in charge of this large endeavor. At this early stage they are seeking feedback on three growth alternatives for near future; you can attend one of five upcoming events to comment on these. I also spoke with a planner who is working on the University District’s urban design, an initiative that is preparing for increasing housing and commercial activity with the arrival of Sound Transit’s light rail in 2021. Within that framework is also the ongoing design and construction of bike and pedestrian improvements as neighborhood “greenways”, with the latest project being 12th Avenue NE. Proposals for Brooklyn Avenue and cross streets will be discussed at a public meeting on April 16. I am currently proposing a similar redesign for 15th Avenue.
Scaling back up to the larger picture, I also chatted with a official working on the waterfront redevelopment. I voiced my concern with the new Alaskan Way being up to seven lanes wide around the ferry terminal for vehicle queuing, and he agreed it isn’t ideal. However, there will be a pedestrian refuge in the street’s median and two of the lanes were be reserved for transit along the entire corridor. If that transit takes the shape of the historic streetcar, it will be separate from the new “center city connector” line on 1st Avenue. The latter is only in the study stage, but he confirmed that if it’s a streetcar (as opposed to a bus) it will likely connect to the South Lake Union and and First Hill lines to form a continuous line around the city’s core. (A future project proposal of mine will be to connect the northern end of such a loop.) The same official said the city is not too excited about the proposal to build a private gondola up Union Street, since the city has the rights to that air space.
I also met Diana Sugimura, director of DPD, who had seen my article on capping Interstate 5 with parks and development. We concurred that it would indeed be expensive, and the engineering would be a massive feat, but it could be worth investigating after the significant waterfront investment allows resources to be directed elsewhere. On a much smaller issue, I talked to a staffer from SDOT about the recent implementation of an all-way crosswalk in the U-District; the change was done poorly, because there is no notice about the new system, pedestrians have to wait twice as long to move, and there is not enough time to cross diagonally.
A representative from Seattle City Light talked to me about the city’s impressive energy portfolio, with over 95 percent of power coming from renewable sources. I mentioned my recent touring of the Bullitt Center, the world’s greenest office building, and found out the city is working on a variety of small scale solar projects to promote decentralization of the grid. With large population and employment growth two new electrical substations are in the works, including one in the Cascade neighborhood with unique community design features.
Though the event didn’t quite meet its expectations or address the growing variety of neighborhood concerns, it successfully brought together a wide range of people from across the city. This open house style is highly effective for connecting people with their local government services and should be regularly repeated. But in the face of significant growth in the years ahead, a serious forum on development and neighborhood character is needed to responsibly manage Seattle’s rapid growth.