The annual two-day Washington state planning conference wrapped on Friday in Spokane, and I came away with a refreshed sense of the many issues planners face both now and in the coming years. The sessions covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from farmland preservation and family housing to economic development and comprehensive plan updates. The two keynote speakers reiterated the need for smart growth strategies and keys to success of retail districts. I only attended a few of the many sessions, and what is offered here is a brief review of them and ongoing planning in Spokane, the state’s second largest city.
The opening keynote was presented by Ilana Presus, chief of staff for Smart Growth America, an organization that advocates for improved integration between land use and transportation in communities of all sizes. She noted that denser communities save money; nationwide, $525 billion of municipal budgeting is geographically sensitive. Her key message was that manufacturing is returning to the U.S. at the scale of small businesses and individuals, and that cities should embrace this trend with planning actions. These “makers” are driving an the sort of interest in craft, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing that is best facilitated in cities. Cities can exploit this by furthering place-making efforts that are held up by three principles: people are an amenity; economic resiliency; and local power. The growing interest in hometown goods can be capitalized upon to diversify local economies and bring people together. SFMade and the Pier 70 redevelopment in San Francisco were offered as examples.
However, the local food movement in Washington hasn’t translated to farmland protections. Staff from the state government, Futurewise, and a UW doctoral student presented some sobering facts on the effect of the Growth Management Act (GMA) on curbing sprawl and protecting resource lands. The GMA has slowed down the loss of farms and forests, but it’s still happening. Though agricultural land has differing definitions, by one measure the state lost 500,000 acres during 2000-2010. Better zoning and standards for measuring farmland are being pushed by Futurewise and the American Farmland Trust, who acknowledge that urban and rural counties probably need different approaches. Counties have great leeway in defining urban growth areas, critical areas, and resource lands, and standards related to soil and climate could ensure consistency. The presenters suggested several strategies, including looking at the successes of other states (especially Oregon), partnering with schools and hospitals to foster the local food movement, and enabling farmers to earn alternate revenue from activities like tourism, concerts, and fairs to resist development pressure.
Economic development was also the topic of another session that presented case studies of sub-area planning. Recently the City of Bremerton recognized the environmental sensitivity of unincorporated Gorst, affectionately known as the armpit of Kitsap County. The intersection of two highways and home to about 100 people, Gorst’s low elevation will subject infrastructure and several businesses to sea level rise in the coming decades. Bremerton’s plan, in collaboration with the County, is focused on the area’s watershed and development regulations that will limit stormwater runoff in the future. In King County’s Covington, a proposed mixed-use development at an old mine site threatened the city’s vision for its existing downtown. Instead of opposing the project, the city began a productive relationship with the developer, who agreed to pay new impact fees and host a number of community meetings on how the area should be designed and limit competition with the downtown. A transparent process and staff who went above and beyond contributed to a successful result.
Small areas with commercial land uses can also benefit from the use of a Business Improvement Area (BIA), which are small scale entities that can collect property tax from business owners in a small area. The main motivation for a BIA is to implement a neighborhood plan through funding for marketing, street cleaning and improvements, policing, and event hosing. Authorized under state law, eight cities in Washington use this tool, and Seattle alone has six neighborhood-based BIAs. The leader behind the Alliance for Pioneer Square described how that BIA spurred new life in the dilapidated, historic neighborhood that once had a retail vacancy rate of 50 percent. In the last few years the area has seen a large amount of new development, including the surprise relocation of Weyerhaeuser from suburban Federal Way that heralds a larger trend in employment. In the University District, the U District Partnership is planning to expand the boundaries of the BIA it administers, increasing funding partially for the purpose of funding open space projects. And in Ballard, the Ballard Partnership for Smart Growth is nearly ready to go forward with its own BIA to fund services that the city has not been able to keep up with due to tremendous residential growth.
And as the the fastest growing big city in the U.S., the Seattle Planning Commission is proposing policy changes to encourage development of family-sized dwelling units. David Cutler and other commissioners explained that 59 percent of the city’s apartment market is one bedrooms or studios, and single family homes are highly expensive, so low and middle income families seeking the benefits of urban life have few options. The commission’s action agenda, which was rolled out earlier this year, lists about a dozen recommendations to the council and mayor. The items include: setting a two bedroom minimum definition for family housing; adding flexibility in single family zones (which cover two-thirds of the city) by allowing duplexes, courtyard clusters, and backyard cottages; rezoning some single family areas to low-rise near transit hubs and schools; ensuring density bonuses require family-sized units and adjusting the multi-family tax incentive; prioritizing subsidized units for families; and devoting more time, money, and research to the topic. The other issues that factor into accommodating families are numerous, including good schools, childcare facilities, grocery stores, and active transportation modes. About 19 percent of Seattle households have children, which is relatively low among large U.S. cities, but using children as an “indicator species” for good neighborhoods can guide planning for families as the city grows.
As cities expand and use up their scare land, developers often look to industrial areas for new housing and commercial opportunities. A presentation by state and maritime officials made the case that protecting Washington’s maritime industry is critical for the state and national economies. Maritime includes commercial fishing, recreational boating, cargo handling, ship building, passenger service, and military operations, and all of these sectors require large on-shore facilities that take significant capital to develop. Washington captures more fish than any other state and sees nearly one million cruise passengers each year, while 75 port districts manage a variety of waterways. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma recently announced a partnership, and combined they make up the third largest port in North America. The presenters emphasized that planners can help protect maritime activities through more flexible industrial zoning, goals and policies for maritime in comprehensive plans, and encouraging development of workforce housing and training. Regionally, the freight industry has been pushing for completion of State Routes 167 and 509.
Tying into many of these planning themes is the state chapter’s “Big Ideas for Washington” initiative. Planners from around the state are working on defining ten key issues and developing policy guides for other planners and decision-makers to use. The top issue is climate change and creating a framework for both mitigation of causes and adaptation to effects that are already happening. The other issues are:
- Restoring and protecting ecosystems
- Infusing health into planning
- Economic development
- Fostering social equity
- Sustainable agriculture and healthy good systems
- Rebuilding infrastructure
- Building social capital
- Regional decision-making
- Building local government capacity
With possibly several more years ahead for the project, the end result will ideally create a consistent approach to these challenges across the state. Another issue is ongoing comprehensive plan updates, which are due for all of the state’s cities and counties over the next few years. Presenters from various city planning departments shared their experience with adjusting to new requirements. Since the GMA was enacted in 1990, cities have had to update their plans every eight years, so this is now the third or fourth cycle for most communities. The first cycle of was focused mostly on compliance as planners scrambled to adjust, and then adaptation, and now planners have the momentum to make their comprehensive plans transformative. Common tactics are to make the plan vision based, rather than policy based, focusing on resiliency in the local budget and tying in with a short term capital improvements plan, measuring performance toward goals, and enabling community engagement.
During my short stay I also had the chance to do a little exploring of Spokane. Its legacy as the hub of farming, mining, and timber in the region are still evident with its many examples of historic architecture, including the conference venue at the Davenport Hotel. Though the city has a love affair with one-way streets and parking craters, bike lanes were prominent the and the mix of building heights almost lend it a small town feel. But the many skybridges that pluck pedestrians from the street and the state of the less affluent neighborhoods still give the city a cold, gritty feel. A highlight is in the central business district, through which runs the mighty waterfalls of the Spokane River and Riverfront Park, the site of a World’s Fair in 1974. Some of the city’s more ambitious projects relate to reconstruction of its streets as century-old pipes give way and multi-modalism takes hold. A large mixed-use development is planned on a stretch of barren riverbank to the west of downtown. And lately there has been some public debate about the impact of people who use the city’s downtown bus plaza.
The state conferences offer a chance to keep up with colleagues and local issues, and this year’s iteration did well in the variety of topics it covered. I encourage anyone interested in planning to attend a conference at least once to dive into the intricacies of the profession. But even more exciting will be the national planning conference in Seattle next April, where 5,000 planners will converge for five days and have even more discussions and debates on the future of cities, big and small. I hope to see you there.