What will Seattle look like in twenty years? Will it continue to be a suburban hamlet of million-dollar bungalows and garages filled with Subarus? Or will it be a climate-forward city with a dependable transit system, dense affordable housing, and a mix of people and incomes – not just fans of doggie spas and caviar?
That’s a question Seattle asks itself every eight years as it crafts its comprehensive plan, an exercise in Seattle Process required by the state’s Growth Management Act.
If Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales has her way, the plan the council eventually adopts in 2024 will envision a city that’s more welcoming to renters, people of color, and those who make less than six figures.
“The net effect of the last comprehensive plan was to preserve wealth, to preserve assets for people who already had access to it – and to limit opportunity for other people,” Morales said in an interview. “The comp plan is our next opportunity to do something about it.”
Morales kicked off the two-year process with a series of online community forums optimistically branded “Seattle Within Reach.” The first installment on Thursday made it clear that she is attempting to reclaim the discussion of city’s future from NIMBY homeowners and the Seattle-Is-Dying crowd.
Though Morales remains coy about specifics this early, she’s clearly a fan of changes to zoning that would allow for more widespread housing density, as well as beefing up transit and pedestrian infrastructure. Actual, measurable progress on climate action, displacement, and racial equity are also on her agenda.
“What does building a more equitable city look like?” asked Ab Juaner, equity development coordinator at Puget Sound Sage, during Morales’s forum on Thursday. “It means centering the ones who’ve been most impacted by power imbalances, policy, planning, and market forces – all in the name of city growth.”
In addition, the idea of a 15-minute city – where every resident lives within a short stroll from transit, groceries, pot shops, and other necessities – will most likely be a centerpiece of the plan. A letter last year from the 16-member volunteer commission leading the process indicated that a walkable city will be a primary goal.
But for a city that replaced a waterfront freeway with a nine-lane car sewer and has taken two decades to complete a bike trail through Ballard, the odds are probably against bold action.
The previous 600-page comp plan, adopted in 2015, cemented the city’s urban village strategy, which focused Seattle’s growth into a few select, dense neighborhoods and neglected to address the fact that multifamily housing is banned on 75% of city land.
Local architect and planning commission member Matt Hutchins says that while the concept of urban villages helped the city focus on building dense housing near transit, it also had serious side effects. “It exacerbated displacement and gentrification, and we've been under-producing housing for a long time. One of my big concerns is that this time we set the targets so they are actually up to the challenge,” Hutchins said.
The previous plan guessed badly on population pressures: It estimated the city would add 120,000 residents by 2035. It’s already come close to that figure during the Amazon boom, growing from 687,000 in 2015 to 788,000 today. The plan estimated that 70,000 new units of housing would be required to meet demand, but Hutchins says that figure was far too low.
During the forum, Hutchins noted that the latest housing surveys from the city’s Office of Planning and Community development suggest 152,000 new units will be needed in twenty years. To put that in context, the entire city has a total of 369,000 apartments, condos, and single-family homes.
“And really, 152,000 is treading water with regards to affordability,” Hutchins said. “We should be trying to double the target if we're serious about reversing price inflation.”
Morales, who represents South Seattle’s District 2, notes that displacement of renters – particularly people of color – in a city where the average price of a one-bedroom apartment is now $2,190 per month, is a huge concern.
“The only way you help them stay in the city is by taking land out of the speculative market and shifting ownership in a different way,” Morales says, pointing to community land trusts, co-ops, and the recently announced social housing ballot initiative as the kinds of strategies the comp plan should embrace to keep the city from becoming less diverse.
Climate will likely be a focus of the comp plan, but city government has a bad habit of saying all the right things while taking little concrete action. The city’s 2018 climate plan calls for an 80% reduction in transportation emissions from 2008 levels by 2030. But figures from the city’s Office of Sustainability & Environment indicate that transportation emissions grew by 10% between 2008 and 2018.
“In the past I’ve been very disappointed at the disconnect between words and deeds,” Hutchins said. “We haven't taken a bite out of vehicle miles traveled. We haven't taken a bite out of car ownership. We haven’t eliminated parking minimums.”
Will a new comp plan change that dynamic? Certainly not on its own, but the past plan did set the framework for the city to pass legislation making upzoning changes in 2019 and easing regulation on backyard cottages and other accessory dwelling units (ADUs). “It’s a vision and a roadmap, Morales says. “It's not regulatory, but about setting goals and expectations.”
While Hutchins is skeptical the current council and mayor will make transformative changes, he believes the comp plan can at least offer guideposts.
“The comp plan process is an opportunity to lay out a vision, the big picture, which then trickles down to implementation of policy.”
One reform Hutchins hopes to see emerge from the plan is the expansion of multifamily zoning across the city.
“The biggest change would be to allow for more dwelling units on every parcel in the city. We already allow three with ADUs,” he said. “But we could be allowing four, or even six – and thinking about where people have access to frequent transit.”
And he suggests that expanding multifamly zoning across the city would take some of the burden off more diverse, south-end neighborhoods that have been asked to shoulder much of the city’s growth in the past. “I think what you're going to see is almost an inversion of the redlining map,” he says, referring to 20th century zoning regulations that prevented people of color from living in many areas of the city.
Morales is working to communicate better with renters, communities of color, and immigrants, and engaging with more than 30 community groups to ensure it’s not just aging boomers worried about tree murders who have a voice.
“One of the key challenges is providing this information in a way that’s digestible and translated,” Morales said. “Those two things are really important for people in the South End, in South Park, in north Seattle – where there's also a lot of neighbors who don't speak English as a first language. And the Chinatown International District. All these communities need to be part of the conversation. It can't just be Ballard and Laurelhurst participating – no offense to my neighbors there.”