A CONTROVERSY over building high-rises in the Green Lake neighborhood looks like it will end in a classic Seattle compromise—nobody's really going to be happy and nothing's really going to change. It also shows the limits of the neighborhood planning process, launched by Mayor Norm Rice to allow individual neighborhoods to plot their own urban destiny with a little help from the experts.
Citizen planners in the Green Lake neighborhood are pushing the City Council to approve a proposed rezone allowing the construction of 60-foot apartment buildings on several blocks near Interstate 5. But the community is split over the proposal, which opponents call too extreme a transformation for an area that mixes homes and smaller apartment buildings.
Architect Davidya Kasperzyk, a consultant to the neighborhood planners, says the original concept was to revitalize the struggling business district along Woodlawn Avenue near the northeast corner of the lake while adding more residents nearby. To accomplish this, they proposed that building height limits be lowered in the business district and on streets facing the lake, with 60-foot apartment buildings rising on several blocks closer to the freeway.
Given the dearth of tall apartments outside of downtown and Capitol Hill, this is one of the bolder proposals to emerge from the process of reshaping the city into a collection of "urban villages." Over the last five years, 38 groups of Seattleites have held countless meetings to plan the future of their communities: in theory, everything from parks to transit to business development and zoning was on the table. Most of the plans have now been passed. Council member Richard Conlin says only about a dozen of the 38 neighborhood plans included rezone proposals. City planners also purposely drew the boundaries of each neighborhood's proposed village so that most could meet Seattle's housing target of 60,000 new homes over the next 20 years without changing zoning.
As the neighborhood planning process is aimed at increasing development, downzoning is discouraged unless balanced with upzones. Only a few neighborhoods (the University District and Columbia City are notable examples) were able to craft these complex, balanced rezone plans. But, like most bold proposals, the Green Lake plan didn't wash with the locals. Property owners in the business district managed to derail the downzone proposal before the final plan was completed. Now it appears the council may back off on six-story apartments, leaving participants in the planning effort frustrated. "Our plan was eviscerated along the way," Michael Dorcy, chair of the planning group, told council members at a recent hearing. He expressed displeasure with Conlin's attempts to broker a last-minute compromise. "It's difficult for some of us who have been part of that process from the beginning to understand what we would call councilmanic micromanaging," said Dorcy.
Opponents, led by Green Lake Community Council president Doug Bambrick, say the proposed upzone will lead to the destruction of existing affordable housing and harm the pedestrian-friendly nature of the neighborhood. "If we wanted to live in or among skyscrapers, we would have purchased downtown," wrote one neighbor. Bruce Martin's letter states that he dreads living "in the shadow of a six-story building." Another longtime resident, Naida Whittaker, said in her comment letter that the proposal would "set in motion the final destruction of the Green Lake district."
The dispute has extended beyond neighborhood borders. Residents across the freeway in the Roosevelt district complain that tall buildings would block views and reflect freeway noise back at their homes.
Rich Thurston, policy director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Washington, testified in support of the rezone proposal. Anything other than the full rezone proposed by the planning committee "compromises the wishes of the entire community, based on the voices of a few naysayers," he stated.
This battle is yet another indication that increased density, while popular with planners and environmental groups, still isn't selling in the neighborhoods. Conlin's proposed compromise, which would allow 40-foot apartments in the affected area, hasn't gotten a warm welcome. That's fine, Bambrick told the council members, "if you feel you must change something beyond the will of the residents of the affected area."
Placing planning duties in the hands of neighborhood residents hasn't stemmed the traditional fear of change in many neighborhoods. Pat Strosahl, one of the architects of the neighborhood planning process, says he isn't surprised that many Green Lake residents remained unaware of or paid little attention to the rezone proposal. Given the thicket of public meetings and workshops (some 16 on the Green Lake plan in 1998 alone), "There was a request for engagement from the neighborhood at a level that regular people could not sustain," he notes.
Neighborhood planning groups also tend to back off when faced with virulent opposition, as the Green Lake group did on the business district downzone, Strosahl adds. "By nature, neighborhood planning groups were compromise groups. They attracted very moderate people who wanted to see change but were willing to see incremental change."
Their moderation seems to have dimmed somewhat. Planning participant Ref Lindmark summed up the frustration of being second-guessed by residents who didn't bother to participate. "You can go to people's houses day in and day out, you can have meetings and 10 people come," he told council members. "And then when you put something in the papers saying you're going to rezone people's property, everybody shows up."
While neighborhood planning has resulted in a fine collection of wish lists, packed with requests ranging from parks to social services, this new-look government-supervised citizen participation effort hasn't proven any more effective at involving large numbers of people than working issues through the established neighborhood community councils and chambers of commerce. Disparaging whispers about community councils being unrepresentative and inbred have long emanated from City Hall, but despite spending millions of dollars and triggering an infusion of professional architects and planners, the city's neighborhood planning has run up against the same challenges these groups have faced for years: How do you get people to attend meetings? How can you encourage renters as well as homeowners to be involved in their community? And, most of all, how can you avoid working for months on a proposal and find yourself second-guessed by people who haven't bothered to participate? Neighborhood planning hasn't answered these questions, but perhaps it has served to educate bureaucrats about the natural barriers to effective community organizing—as if any activist couldn't have told them this several million dollars ago.