Q: Process

How do you rate Seattle’s speed in response to demand for housing? How can Seattle improve upon existing planning policy and process (Comprehensive Plan; Design Review; Planning Commission; etc.)? What are the benefits and shortcomings of the “Seattle process”? If you would modify the planning or permitting process in any way, please cite positive and/or negative examples from other cities. Are there any specific precedents from Seattle or other cities that you view as a model of civic and private partnership in the built environment?

Mike McGinn:

McGinnPlanning in Seattle has a long and storied history.  I’m proud that as a city we engage with citizens in a meaningful way to shape the future of their neighborhoods and the city.  In recent years, we have built on this legacy by developing new approaches like the Planning Outreach and Engagement Liaisons to effectively engage under-represented communities in the planning process.  We’ve engaged deeply in neighborhoods from Othello to Capitol Hill to plan for equitable growth as significant investments are made in transportation infrastructure and huge opportunities for reshaping the urban fabric are emerging.

We have also laid the groundwork for important improvements to our permitting and development review process. In 2010, as development was beginning to pick back up in Seattle after the low point in 2009, I heard concerns from developers that long wait times for permits at the Department of Planning and Development were slowing the growth of badly needed commercial development, at a time when our city badly needed the jobs created by that development. Permit intake staffing at DPD is funded by permit fees. When the economy crashed in 2008, fewer permits were pulled and DPD had to lay off nearly 150 staff over two years, causing long wait times. I heard from some developers that it was taking up to 9 weeks to get an intake meeting. That was unacceptable.

I convened my staff and said we had to do better. And they responded. Within a few days, DPD reported back to me on their plan to add more appointment times by revising some intake processes, bringing back a former employee as a temporary hire, and shifting resources around to meet greatest demand. These revisions took a little time to implement, but a month later, we had gotten those appointments down to our target of two weeks. I believe this example shows that under the right leadership, we can be responsive to changing market forces while still operating within the bounds of the “Seattle Process.”

I have also made needed modifications to the permitting process itself. I brought together stakeholders to develop a regulatory reform package, and accomplished the following:

  • Streamlining environmental review with higher regulatory requirements in Urban Centers and certain Urban Villages
  • Providing greater ability to mix residential uses in the ground floor of commercial zones
  • Expanding opportunities for accessory dwelling units such as backyard cottages
  • More parking flexibility and support for home-based businesses
  • Easier permit renewals for temporary uses

Both the Affordable Housing Advisory Group (mentioned above) and the task force assembled for regulatory reform are good examples of private/public partnership. I believe it’s very important to utilize the skills, knowledge, and expertise of private developers while we consider how to improve our current systems. If there are other changes to the planning or permitting systems that are recommended by those in the private industries, I am very open to discussing what might be changed.

Ed Murray:

MurraySeattle is adding rental units at a record pace, and yet demand continues to rise.  Primarily, this is because of the rapid influx of new employees in the technology sector. This is good news for our economy, and should be encouraged, but it significantly increases pressure on those looking for affordable rentals in the city.  In areas like Capitol Hill, it is increasingly difficult for working people to remain in their homes.  For the poor, affordable housing in Seattle proper is increasingly difficult.

The city need to more proactive in using the tools at its disposal to encourage the creation of affordable housing stock, both housing for very low income residents and workforce housing. It is within our power to use community benefit agreements, land-use restrictions, incentive zoning, vacation requests etc. to encourage and incentivize developers to provide or subsidize the development of units of affordable, and/or agree to rental rate caps.  We also can streamline permitting processes and ease restrictions on developers of affordable housing so that it is easier and cheaper for them to do their work. But we should not use these incentives on an ad hoc basis or, worse, for the purpose of political grandstanding.  Rather, their use needs to be consistent, predictable, and codified into municipal policy.

Richard Conlin:

McGinnSeattle can improve on our ability to make housing happen by doing process right and by taking actions to ensure that our legislative and permitting procedures are efficient and goal oriented. The benefits of the Seattle process are its ability to include all voices – it is a very democratic concept. Doing process right means defining an end point, when the decision will be made, being clear about who makes the decision, and setting parameters that let participants know what options can be on the table. The process fails when it becomes an endless loop, with no clear end point, and in the worst case the only ones whose views are taken into account are the last ones standing while the rest have left out of exhaustion.

Our planning and permitting processes do have some relatively clear parameters, but it is still a long process. Much of the length is specified by state law, and cannot be changed very readily. While retaining the fairness and openness that the process is intended to provide, we can make some changes that will offer more flexibility and will reduce delay. We should not be afraid to eliminate regulations that do not serve a useful public purpose and hamper housing development.

In planning, our core strategy should be to focus on providing the opportunities for the things that we would like to see happen, instead of trying to prevent things that we don’t want to happen, as the current land use code too often is focused on. The problem with the preventive approach is that it discourages innovation and is often ineffective, since astute legal minds can often find a way around even the tightest restrictions. A more modern code would provide broad parameters and criteria for development, and encourage developers to be creative if they can demonstrate results. The ‘Seattle Green Factor’ is a great example of this kind of approach – developers are required to meet a standard for the amount of trees, shrubs, etc., but they can select from a menu the ways in which they can meet the standard.

We have now had enough experience with Design Review to know that it needs a comprehensive review. While there have been significant improvements to many projects, it seems likely that there are faster and more efficient ways to get there, and I think it is time to do the hard work to evaluate what is working and what can be improved.

Our permitting process has been improving, but is still too cumbersome. I would like to see us continue to do process improvements, and experiment with some innovative ideas. One model that I would like to see us try is the accelerated permitting process used in San Jose, where a developer can pay a premium to have all of the decision makers engage in a two day dynamic workshop, where permits can be created as a whole instead of passing from desk to desk.

Kshama Sawant:

sawantSeattle has stellar response time to demand for housing in more wealthy neighborhoods, and catered to more wealthy clients, but not in response to the need for quality low-income housing. This is the inevitable result of a Democratic Party-dominated city establishment that has unapologetically taken campaign donations from developers and construction groups like Palul Allen’s Vulcan, Martin Selig Real Estate, Vance Corp., Tarragon LLC, Builders United and American Civil Contractors, many through the PAC “Forward Seattle.”

The biggest flaw in existing planning policy is its lack of focus on economic and infrastructure development in low-income neighborhoods in Seattle, in other words where the greatest human needs exist. Connected to that is the lack of community voices in bodies like the Seattle Planning Commission, which is overwhelmingly dominated by urban planners who have no connection to the underserved communities that their policy recommendations will affect. These policy-crafting bodies should be composed of professional planners, but also community organizers and leaders from organizations that serve vulnerable populations or advocate for equity in housing, transit, health care, and social services.

The “Seattle Process” promotes transparency, open debate/discussion, accountability, and community participation in policy-making processes. This in some ways has democratized the process, although with the limit of monied influences that big business has over city officials. There are some models that Seattle should explore, such as participatory budgeting, which allows public money to be managed in a more democratic and accountable way because community members can directly decide how to spend public budgets. This model was first used in Brazil in 1989, and have spread to 1,500 cities, municipalities and institutions around the world.

Sally Bagshaw:

BagshawThis is a question that would take pages to answer thoroughly. Speed? We are slower than some cities but faster than many. We could definitely speed up the process on the front end by issuing permits administratively, but that would slow us down from lawsuits on the back end.

A thorough planning process with neighborhood involvement is critical to assure we increase density while protecting neighborhood character. Few people love change, yet most people value having their opinion heard and respected. That’s the balance that I strive to achieve.

Seattle is fortunate that thousands of energetic people and businesses want to move here. We are growing out of the Great Recession much more quickly than most cities because of the influx of young people, families and businesses coming and electing to stay in our city. It is important that we effectively streamline certain aspects of the planning and permitting process while maintaining the opportunity for input and review.

San Jose, California has a program I believe we should emulate. To improve and fast track permitting, they offer an alternative where a developer invites key neighbors and key city departments into a room. Everyone commits to stay with the process until resolution is reached. The developer pays a hefty premium for this process, but they save months of time and obtain both predictability and certainty. Neighborhoods get to be included from the front end. The challenge is to select representatives that can and do speak for the neighborhood and to include city officials with decision making authority.

Sam Bellomio:

BellomioSeattle’s demand for housing is being met for out of State young business professional that moves here for work and can afford $1400 a month rent in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. It is also being met for the young professionals that cannot afford this price but are willing to live in tiny Apodments. BUT, the demand is not being met for the families of Seattle that need more than 200 sqft to live. Our families are being forced out at an alarming rate and the city council ignores the problem to save face. Yes, our economy is growing but not equally.

The Seattle Process is a failure. The process takes in the economic benefits the developers receive and not the societal damage that is done. The city continually talks about how our unemployment rate is falling. But our elected officials don’t acknowledge that the growing rent prices that push out the unemployed and low wage workers. This is a false positive. We should not be rejoicing in destruction of the working class family here in Seattle.

The city needs to do what Richmond, CA is doing and use its eminent domain powers on behalf of the citizens. Richmond is taking foreclosed homes away from the banks and allowing the citizen to pay the city back. Profit over people must stop! Seattle City Council should also support S.A.F.E. (Seattle Against Foreclosure and Eviction-safeinseattle.org). It is community organizations such as this that work to protect the rights of citizens and our elected officials should be more involved in supporting them.

Nick Licata:

LicataSeattle has long put value in continuing to provide affordable housing. This has been evident in the voters’ consistently expressed desire to help provide opportunities with passage of housing levies to support affordable housing. Seattle has a hard-working, productive, and creative non-profit housing community. We are consistently and consciously working to provide housing for the homeless residents of our city. There is still more to be done. I want to change homelessness housing policy in Seattle and in the region that discourages new funding investments in new shelter. We’ve let too many people sleep outside for too long.

Unfortunately, regardless of the will of voters and the productivity of our non-profit housing development, these efforts have proven insufficient. The fault doesn’t lie with the speed of low income housing development, it’s that the need has always and – without a change in course – will always outstrip the resources necessary to meet that need. More people are moving outside the city and travelling long distances to work the same jobs in the city. This is especially true of families with children. Seattle’s housing market is simply impractically high for a family attempting to live with a low-income.

In many ways our development problems are little different than many other places. We are reactive when we need to be proactive. Our public investment and our public policies incentivize growth in our city, but we seem to be consistently one boom behind when it comes to planning to address the impact of the booms.

The famous “Seattle Process” is much maligned. For each example of a delayed building permit stalling a project, there are several more examples of how the Seattle Process has served the objectives of socially responsible development. Seattle’s model of neighborhood planning was internationally recognized and replicated. We need to recapture the spirit and courage that lead to embracing the then bold experiment of delivering genuine community engagement.

Mike O’Brien:

o'brienAt the core of the infamous “Seattle process” is a desire to ensure that everyone has their voice heard in the important decisions that will impact their lives. I fully adhere to this aspiration, while acknowledging we often fall short. I also recognize that we have more demand for affordable, workforce and market rate housing stock than currently exists, as demonstrated by our high costs of housing. An important feature of the Seattle process is that it often allows us time to more fully examine a proposed development’s potential opportunities and impacts. But this can also create delays in developments that can increase costs for both builders and ultimately the renters/owners. As a policymaker, I believe we can strike a balance and that meaningful stakeholder engagement is not mutually exclusive of swifter implementation of socially responsible development. I am always open to new approaches to improving our current processes and look forward to working with the socially responsible development community to explore new possibilities.

Albert Shen:

ShenSeattle is at a very interesting point in its evolution of its growth. Seattle has always been a neighborhood-based city and as the city continues to grow in density the city’s response to affordable housing has been painstakingly slow because of the Seattle process. Compounded by the fact we have no mass transit system that moves people from lower cost areas we are now faced with a situation where people need access to their jobs in the core part of Seattle by living within Seattle city limits. We have to ask ourselves if our long-term plan is to be like a Manhattan or San Francisco where people live in zero lot line density properties or more neighborhood single-family residences. There are many complex and societal issues that surround Seattle’s future growth but we must find a way to use process where it is appropriate but also learn to make decisions when needed.

I do not have any specific examples of other cities practices because I am currently not in elected office so I do not have staff to research other examples on this highly complex issue. If elected: I will look to physically visit other cities and learn their best practices from their elected officials; bring in industry experts; local community members; and past Seattle elected officials/staff who have institutional knowledge of past Seattle practices that might have been forgotten. When talking to other cities I will look toward a diversity of cities with multiple population growths, demographics and industry bases. I will want to understand from these variety of sources a basic set of questions:

– How have you handled your growth the last 10 years and what strategies did you use to achieve where you are now? Did those strategies yield the results you were expecting?
– How do you plan to meet your current growth projections and what recommendations would you give to Seattle?
– Have you adopted LEAN management into your processes to steam line multiple interdepartmental planning and permitting processes? If so, what were the outcomes?

Bruce Harrell:

HarrellI rely on constituents within the development community to provide feedback on the permitting and design review process to know whether they believe it is working or not. The use of technology and streamlining the process is critical toward their success. Many have said that the process is much improved from where it was years ago. Benchmarking the dates of approvals during the process is critical toward improving the process. With bank lending increasing, I believe market rate housing is being completed at an appropriate rate. We still have a great shortage for affordable housing and family shelters, but our market rate inventory is healthy. I believe the “Seattle process” exists in an effort to get our future right, and to engage in the diversity of opinion that is reflected throughout this city. I encourage an engaged citizenry, but believe there is an appropriate time to move the discussion forward to action; time does cost money. We cannot let political cowardice keep us from advancing what we know is in the best interests of the city overall. One change I would make to the planning and permitting process is to add neighborhood specialists to the project review board for a neighborhood stakeholder perspective to the projects being considered.

Peter Steinbrueck:

SteinbrueckSeattle’s commitment to providing affordable housing is long and strong, as demonstrated through the seven year housing levy (renewed by Seattle voters four times), the incentive/bonus zoning program, Seattle’s many non-profit housing developers, and Seattle Housing Authority’s large scale redevelopment projects. Our limited developable land and our growing population’s diverse housing needs unfortunately far exceed the availability of low to moderate-priced (and so-called “workforce” housing), that’s produced in Seattle. As a result, people must live farther and farther from work to find affordable housing, especially housing suitable for families with children.

The paradox is that Seattle’s single-family, family-sized housing stock is currently occupied by two or fewer people on average, and priced well out of reach for most moderate- to low-income earners. Market rate housing production tends to lag behind job growth, and supply never catches up with demand. Builders are challenged to build unsubsidized market rate housing that’s affordable to moderate- (workforce) and low-income earners.

Seattle’s changing demographics, economic forces, and lifestyle choices are creating new demand for luxury high-rise units on the high end of affordability scale, and micro-units (so-called “apodment” dwellings) on the low end, with very little supply of the much needed middle-income households.

Our famous “Seattle process” should be viewed as a good thing about our citizenry in terms of civic involvement – and it is exceptional when compared to most other cities. Yet the process must not be endless, or with uncertain outcomes. Goals and objectives should be set at the onset through outreach and meaningful community involvement. Strong and effective political leadership is needed to bring process to a successful closure. That’s where the process often breaks down.

A specific precedent, in the City of Bellevue, uses technology to reach citizens for commenting on the city’s Comprehensive Plan Update. Comments received are compiled and submitted to the Bellevue Planning Commission for review. The city reports, “The process was outstanding and they were genuinely pleased with the level of honest dialogue, the quality of the posts and the engagement of the public on each other’s ideas.”

Seattle lags behind in terms of its ability to keep up with demand for housing. A zoning variance can take 1.5 years, which discourages innovation and affordability. Planning policy goes through endless rounds of debate while growth happens unchecked. Seattle can improve through restructuring for proactive planning. Having a fee-driven permitting favors high-end development over affordability. One area for improvement–deserving of closer examination–is Design Review.

Our population is expected to grow by 150,000 over the next 15 years. Seattle will be challenged to meet the need for a diversity of housing types and a range of affordability. Zoning is the best tool we have to promote a range of housing types for lifestyle choices and incomes.

I initiated the city’s first design review program in 1989 under the Citizens’ Alternative Plan for downtown. Design review works to integrate projects with existing built form and should be objectively applied under established neighborhood design guidelines reflecting character and scale. This is not always the case, and there is always room for improvement of process.

In my first term on the city council, from 1997 to 2001, I chaired the Housing and Human Services Committee, Later I chaired the Urban Development and Planning Committee, from 2003-2007.

According to figures from the Seattle Office of Housing and the Department of Planning and Development, during those two consecutive terms in office and under my leadership on the city council, my Downtown Livability Plan and the South Lake Union rezone have so far resulted in:

  • $25 million dollars in contributions from the city’s bonus/incentive program that has leveraged new affordable housing projects.
  • Nearly 1,200 low-income housing units in downtown and South Lake Union.
  • A total of 9,700 housing units have been built, permitted, or are under construction.

My plan has been working successfully: These figures represent a significant contribution to housing stock over just a few years, toward meeting our city’s growing housing needs in the center city.

The best way to predict the future is to plan it. Comprehensive planning, transportation planning integrated with smart growth practices, and innovative zoning tools are the best means to achieve our goals.