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.