Town Hall Meeting

Lately in Seattle there has been a lot of debate about how powerful neighborhoods really are when it comes to land use decisions in the city. No matter what position one takes on that issue state law and legal precedent are clear that local government–city and county councils–decides what happens with land use, not neighborhoods. But Kenneth Stahl advances an interesting legal argument in an article called, “Neighborhood Empowerment and the Future of the City,” suggesting that cities can and should delegate more authority to what he calls “neighborhood zoning districts.”

Stahl points out that cities have become less competitive with suburbs because land use patterns in cities are far more complex than in suburban cities. More people, more uses, more interest groups means more a more complicated and drawn out process. “Cities can level the playing field with suburbs,” Stahl argues, “by devolving municipal power to smaller, more homogenous subgroups within the city, such as neighborhoods.” Stahl makes a legal case that there is no reason why courts shouldn’t allow local governments to devolve zoning authority to neighborhoods.

According to Stahl the legal and economic principles behind the devolution of taxing authority to local and business improvement districts (LIDs and BIDs) are the same for devolving more power to neighborhoods over land use. The same legal theory used for allowing the West Seattle Junction Association to charge local business owners for signage and parking improvements should also allow the Junction to make land use decisions.

I don’t agree with Stahl on his premise about cities and suburbs. What has bedeviled growth in Seattle isn’t the homogeneity of land use patterns in the suburbs, but the lack of political will to overcome resistance to change by vested interests in the city. It’s probably surprising, however, that I am persuaded that giving more authority to neighborhoods might actually help this problem. Here’s some of my reasoning.

Local and businesses improvement districts, which are essentially special assessment districts are premised on the idea that local property owners can pool their buying power to make infrastructure improvements that will benefit property values and the quality of life in their geographic area. The property owners get access to public credit, accepting both the risks and benefits of borrowing to make improvements to their neighborhood.

Back in the heyday of neighborhood planning in Seattle, neighborhoods were designated urban villages, places where the majority of growth would go. In exchange they were given a lot of creative freedom to plan how and where that growth would happen and what infrastructure improvements would follow.

Too often our parcel-by-parcel based approach to land use ends up letting everyone down. Neighborhoods feel steamrolled by the underlying zoning that allows for things they didn’t realize could be done and developers feel frustrated by a process that increases costs and makes them seem like bullies.

What if we gave permissive zoning power to neighborhoods along with special assessment authority? That is, what if neighborhoods were given the ability to abrogate the code, or parts of the code, in favor of innovative proposals that would improve the local economy and neighborhood character and give them the additional authority to collect an assessment for related infrastructure improvements that would reduce developer costs. This would get us closer to Zero Based Zoning and a form of Tax Increment Financing.

For example, a neighborhood could vote to toss the code requirements limiting height bulk and scale, to allow more housing and retail on a site, in exchange for preserving other parts of it. The neighborhood could borrow to make drainage and street improvements and pay back the loans by assessing property owners based on increases in property values.

The problem today is that the only power neighborhoods truly have is to stop progress toward sustainable, and livable growth in Seattle with limited ability to shape it. Stahl’s link between devolving land use and the existing devolution of assessment authority to neighborhoods is an intriguing one. Growth is good, but we need better ways to give people control over how not whether we grow so that they focus on how we change not stopping change all together. Putting zoning and financing authority in the hands of neighborhoods and developers would encourage them to work together and result in better land use. Maybe that would return us to the idea that drove a decade of planning in Seattle, with more growth comes more local control to shape that growth.

17 Replies to “More Zoning Authority for Neighborhoods?”

  1. The problem with “neighborhoods” is that pretty much by default you cede control of your neighborhood to the smallest minds in the neighborhood with the greatest amount of free time.

    Anybody can set up a “Neighborhood Association” and start meeting and issuing proclamations and badgering the city, while most of the actual residents in the neighborhood in question have never even heard of the group that claims to represent them. There’s no voting; it’s just one local crank with a vested interest in having nothing happen ever anywhere near them.

    A couple of examples: the “Lower Woodland Neighborhood Association”, which got a ton of press and government attention for their opposition to the skate park in Woodland Park — that was ONE LADY, with an attitude. Over in Laurelhurst, you’ve got a Neighborhood Association that has declared war on Children’s Hospital, but operates in as opaque a fashion as possible. They won’t even release their membership; There is no evidence at all that a true majority of the neighborhood agrees with them at all. And yet, there they are, negotiating with the city as if they were official.

    I’m a busy guy; there’s a reason I vote for city officials to do city business in a (hopefully) professional manner. I’m not interested in being “represented” by some kook down the block who has no legal standing, whose name I’ve never heard before, who has never asked me for so much as the time of day, but is standing in front of the council while I’m at work telling them what “we” want.

    1. Yes of course FNARF is absolutely correct that it’s absurd to allow devolution of power to unelected neighborhood groups. Not even remotely legal.

      But maybe if we elected the City Council by districts that would move things in a positive direction?

      1. I am with you on the district City Council. I also believe it would help under-represented neighborhoods that don’t fare well against the Laurelhurst’s, Montlake’s, and Queen Anne’s.

      2. I thought we did have district council positions and abolished it. Wasn’t the problem that the councilmembers focused too much on what their own district wanted at the expense of other districts?

      3. I am 100% with r.b.c.

        We’re in a situation where huge swaths of the city have zero political clout, except through unreliable neighborhood associations.

      4. Do you really want the politicians to choose their voters before the voters get to cast a vote for their politicians? Do you really want a city council where only one member responds to you at all, and if she/he doesn’t like you, nobody responds to you?

        I’m not saying all at-large redundant positions are perfect, just that gerrymandering is worse. At least now we get some turnover without waiting for the politicians to retire or die in office.

        Are we really incapable of handling a system where we’d get to rank all the candidates? Cambridge has managed that for decades, but I guess they are smarter than us. Proportional representation is a beautiful thing. Diversity. Really open democracy. What’s not to like?

      5. Another problem with district councilmembers. Not only can they be myopic, but you have only one representative who will listen to you. And if that representative is bad, you’re screwed.

      6. Of the 25 Largest Cities in the U.S., we are one of only two who does not have at least some City Council members elected by district.

    2. I agree that there is a danger here, but I am also disturbed at how poorly informed some of these people seem to be. I remember reading an article on the recent “corner store” proposed zoning change, and how a bunch of people who read in article in the Seattle Times came in from Capitol Hill to shout it down. This seems to happen with many of the “town hall” meeetings that I hear about. We need to have these things better advertised that it isn’t only people with an axe to grind that show up. It would also be great if there was an informed presentation giving both the “for” and “against” viewpoints so people can make an informed decision – not just basing their view on what they read in the TImes.

  2. The mechanism by which it works is that when you ask for people to proactively shape their future growth you get a different set of people than if you just do stuff and wait for the reaction.

    I mean, even in Cap Hill when the corner store zoning proposal was brought up a group of hard-line NIMBYs provided the only significant public response and claimed legitimacy as neighborhood representation. Do you think those people would drop their concerns about height, bulk, scale, traffic, and parking impacts for the dubious reward of being able to borrow money in a special way for street and drainage improvements?

    I mean, I’m putting myself into the shoes of these people, and sounding like this: I like the shitty pavement on my street. It means there are fewer cut-throughs. I especially think we should have lots of giant cracks roughly parallel to the direction of travel to deter those asshole cyclists looking for a safe non-arterial route. They’re always in my way when I’m trying to pull my vintage Jag out of its street parking space while checking my vintage Blackberry (I have trouble fitting my car in my tiny vintage garage, especially when half-drunk on vintage Scotch, so I just fill that up with all my other vintage crap I never look at). The strength of my neighborhood is its people. People that come together to keep everyone else out. Bah, humbug!

    These people will always be here and will always be vocal. They’ll never accept a trade and will never be our allies. The point of courting public involvement is that normal people that don’t have sticks up their asses will also come out and deny these people their claim to speak for the whole community by virtue of everyone else’s silence.

  3. What you call a neighborhood in a metro city might well be a complete municipality with its own mayor. I have the same complaint about King County. The size and scope is such that a resident has effectively 3 levels of state size government taking his money and yet almost no voice or access to decisions that affect his transit, home and work.

    1. Kent is too big for you? The reason Shoreline, Burien, Mercer Island, and Bellevue are separate cities is that the “local control” movement became popular in the 1950s and stopped Seattle’s annexations. Kent is too far from Seattle to realistically be part of it, but it’s the same size as those other suburbs. So are you saying that what Shorelineites and Burienites like doesn’t work for Kent?

  4. Be careful of what you wish for you might get it. What of the neighborhood wants a down zone? The construct of changing the city council representation to a specific district instead of a all city wide representation might be a better way of accomplishing your basic end game concept.

    1. Have you looked at which cities have at-large representation, which have districts, which have proportional representation, or various other systems, and seen if there is a correlation to good neighborhood planning?

      I know my old home-town of Austin is the best-planned city, by far, in Texas. (This isn’t necessarily meant as praise for Austin, but a statement on the reality of Texas.) And yet, Austin has at-large representation. (Austin also has the only campaign contribution limits in the state that I know of.)

      I understand there is much desire to change the city council. But districting is change for the sake of change, with many unintended consequences. Want to combat the power of rich neighborhoods? Limit their contributions better. Re-apply the $400 limit on individual contributions to council candidates, and you might see better results.

  5. Thanks for these comments. They echo my own feelings. I promise I am not playing conceptual games here, although the tone of comments and commenters are different when I don’t blast the neighborhoods. Had I written a post similar to Fnarf’s comment, the comment section would be ablaze with calls for my head.

    I don’t want to hand zoning to neighborhoods. What I’d like to see is for us to go back to the “how” and away from the “whether.” City government has failed to do what it did in the 90s which was essentially to say, “where would you like me to put this growth I’ve got here for you?”

    Today, the Council is going back to square one with every single land use proposal. Each proposal has to cover the same ground the last one covered. The Council simply can’t act because it spends time listening to the ill informed, frightened folks who don’t want change.

    What I am saying is that if the City asked a different question and formed a different process the participation would be qualitatively and even quantitatively better. In the 90s there were a lot of anti-growth people on neighborhood planning committees; but once they were in the tent we weren’t fighting upzones as much as we were wondering where they would be.

  6. I think that Mr. Stahl’s thesis – cities have become less competitive with suburbs because land use patterns in cities are far more complex – is not true. Bellevue and Redmond and Kirkland have land use codes and design review processes that are similar to Seattle. However, if Mr. Stahl’s thesis were true then allowing each neighborhood to write its own zoning rules would make land use patterns even more complex, right?

    Neighborhood control of zoning and land use would likely lead to a confusing regulatory hodge podge. Pretty much every neighborhood group wants to stop change, limit growth, and downzone. A great idea if you want to keep new things out of Seattle, but otherwise pretty useless.

  7. This is really interesting – thanks for a good post! And, as someone who has sat in a LOT of meetings of elected officials and zoning boards, I totally agree with your point that “how” is a better question to ask than “should we?” Growth will happen one way or another, so it seems like it could be helpful to have a way to allow more people to be involved at a stage in the process where their contributions can be positive.

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