When I was reading Seattle’s Land Use code I pointed out how helpful it would be to have a “superagency” to make Transit Oriented Development happen. I even suggested a charter amendment that could make the Planning Commission that agency. I think putting a charter amendment on the ballot soon to create what I called the Seattle Planning and Development Commission would facilitate a healthy debate on TOD and development in Seattle and, if it was successful, create an agency well equipped to start work now and benefit from changes at the state level that, hopefully, are forthcoming. Portland, for example, has the Portland Development Commission (PDC). I’ve heard a lot of PDC envy in Seattle over the last few years.
But why do we need a super agency? First, the City Council has a tough time doing the right thing when it comes to land use. Fear of change has a vocal constituency, and strong majorities in neighborhoods. It’s tough to listen to hundreds of people saying, as they have in Roosevelt, “we’ve taken enough density” and then impose more anyway. These are taxpaying voters after all, and one could argue that even if the Seattle City Council wanted to max out development in Roosevelt they shouldn’t: it’s not what most people there want.
Second, many of the financing tools are lacking right now for a hefty TOD program. While most of these problems—especially the lack of Tax Increment Financing and prohibitions against the lending of public credit—are state level problems, a Seattle Planning and Development Commission could function as a Public Development Authority (PDA). In Washington PDAs have some unique and appropriate tools, the most important being the ability to issue bonds. While PDAs are expressly prohibited from using eminent domain, that power could be added with a suite of constitutional amendments and legislation in the future.
Lastly, I love my friends at the Seattle Planning Commission, but they don’t have enough power. And even though I don’t always agree with them, the Planning Commission is the right place to work out the future of Seattle’s land use. An amendment could transform todays Commission into something approaching a “superagency,” immune from the influence of both fearful neighbors and smart growth land use fads. Giving the new agency the power to legislate zoning could save us from the incremental and piecemeal approach the City Council always seems to take. More after the jump.
How would the Seattle Planning and Development commission work? The new Commission could issue a Request for Proposals from developers and the community for new development 6000 feet around the Beacon Hill Station, for example. Following a review of those proposals the Commission could approve substantial zoning changes. The City Council could have the last word, but only with an up or down vote with no amendments. I’ve called this zero based zoning.
Front loading the process of big land use changes would encourage developer and neighborhood collaboration, but not stalemate. The City Council would have to have very good reasons to veto the commission. And the commission could support the construction of some public infrastructure to support the plan, with some debt service coming from value captured from the project. That would mean some shared debt service by developers and perhaps even neighborhood businesses. But if enough profit is generated it would make sense.
Later, with changes at the state level, the Commission could get powers to do TIF, lend credit, and exercise eminent domain to assemble parcels for TOD. But much of what the Commission would lack at first without these tools, would be offset with enhanced powers to push aggressive, sustainable land use soon.
Wouldn’t such a powerful and unelected body be undemocratic? I don’t know. But today’s governance model is breaking down. Nobody has ever been to the future, so making decisions about it is hard, especially when we’re afraid to take risks. Land use democracy now favors people who show up today, not people coming in the future. Big land use changes are about as popular as someone coming to your house and totally rearranging your furniture for a houseguest that’s coming for a visit in 10 years.
Discomfort and shared sacrifice don’t usually win votes but they are necessary. We need a different way of making decisions that favors compromise and planning, not who can mobilize the most aggrieved people to show up at a meeting.
But the time is now to make changes in the way we decide land use. The system suggested here wouldn’t impose solutions, but it would more adequately balance the strongly motivated interests of today with the poorly represented interests of the future. The public debate created by the campaign would allow many of the questions now being fought out neighborhood by neighborhood to be settled for the whole city.