Neighborhood Commotion

Is it time for another residential revolt in Seattle?

Vision Seattle. The Civic Foundation. Charlie Chong. Even the monorail.

Every few years, Seattle's civic landscape throws up a citizen movement that challenges the downtown power brokers in City Hall. Sometimes, City Council members are ousted in favor of new, grassroots voices. Sometimes not. Usually, reforms are proposed; sometimes, they are enacted. And then everyone settles back down and the business of using taxpayer time and money to make money for developers proceeds again.

Are we about to see a new neighborhoods movement?

We're overdue. And so far, there's been a lot more motion than movement. But last week's cancellation of this year's Summer Nights concerts in Gas Works Park, as a result of neighborhood organizing and a lawsuit activists filed, gave a massive shot in the arm to a number of other disgruntled activists around the city, mostly on issues having to do with top-down decision making and a downtown-driven development agenda.

And, slowly but surely, they're hooking up with each other.

"You want neighborhood districts that provide for a full array of goods and services within a walkable distance. Whether that's possible or not right now in a given location is another question."

—Peter Steinbrueck, Seattle City Council

As I reported last week (see "No Peace in the Parks," March 1), the Gas Works imbroglio is only one of several recent neighborhood controversies involving top-down Parks and Recreation Department decisions, many with commercial aspects. In only the past few weeks, many of those groups have discovered each other and started to make common cause. Meanwhile, on Queen Anne Hill, a development proposal involving the current site of Metropolitan Market and the Elfreida Apartments (see "Saving the Local Grocery," Jan. 11) has turned out hundreds of residents to protest at public meetings and spawned a new opposition group, Queen Anne Neighbors for Responsible Growth. And similar developments, filling in the city's goals for increased density, have provoked residential grumbling in the University District, Northgate, and elsewhere.

Historically, this is how a cycle of Seattle-neighborhood political uprising begins. As the city's long-planned visions for so-called urban villages in certain neighborhoods, with increased density, come on line, more and more people are going to be upset not only at the change being wrought but that it seems to have been finalized before any of the locals knew what was about to happen.

City planners like to compare Seattle with nearby Vancouver, B.C. Both cities have nearly identical populations of just over half a million. And both cities leave massive amounts of their residentially zoned land for single-family residences: 76 percent in Seattle, 78 percent in Vancouver. That means, in both cases, most new residential and mixed-use development has to be squeezed into the remaining space. But Vancouver has a similar population with only a little over half of Seattle's land area—44 square miles compared to 84. Beyond Seattle's more extensive industrial acreage, this means two things: Vancouver's downtown is much more residential (70,000 residents vs. Seattle's 18,000), and Seattle has a lot of room for increased density in the residential neighborhoods.

That density is the future of Seattle, whether neighborhoods like it or not. As City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, an architect sympathetic to many of the activists' concerns, notes, "You want neighborhood districts that provide for a full array of goods and services within a walkable distance. Whether that's possible or not right now in a given location is another question."

It's a question for business interests, for example. The ground-floor retail spaces in many new mixed-use buildings often can be found floundering. Some neighborhoods have too little parking to attract automobile business and too little pedestrian traffic to offset that. (Steinbrueck and other council members are working to amend the requirement for street-level retail space in residential low-rises.)

But as often, the feasibility of increased residential density in city neighborhoods can be a political question. Opposition can awaken to developments that are the consequence of planning decisions quietly made years ago. And that opposition can have an effect on decisions being made now, such as light-rail extensions and the lifting of limits on downtown development—decisions that will affect the city in decades to come.

Kent Kammerer of the Seattle Neighborhoods Coalition says that in the wake of the Gas Works victory, discussions are under way to create some sort of new, citywide neighborhoods group. "I don't know where it's going to go," he says. "Many of the groups that were somewhat independent are starting to talk with one another."

Sally Clark's temporary City Council seat is up for grabs this fall; next year, the seats of Clark, David Della, Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen, and Steinbrueck are all on the ballot. If awakened, and if they come together, neighborhood activists can be a powerful political force in this city. Last November, Al Runte, running with virtually no money or name recognition, turned in a surprisingly strong showing against incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels, probably mostly due to resentment over Nickels' developer-driven agenda. If that unease and the current parks momentum can be tapped in city politics, watch out.

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