Seattle’s work on new growth strategy is way behind schedule

Seattle is way behind its own original schedule for drafting a new growth strategy, raising concerns the city could advance a plan lacking in ambition, cut corners on public review or miss its state-mandated deadline.

When Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration began working to update the city’s comprehensive plan, in 2022, officials said they hoped to release a draft plan in spring 2023 and then conduct a 60-day comment period. That timeline would have allowed more than a year for revisions and City Council discussions ahead of the council’s Dec. 31, 2024 deadline to adopt a new plan.

But 2023 has come and gone and the Harrell administration has yet to release a draft plan (and accompanying environmental analysis), leaving residents, developers and others in the dark about the city’s intentions. In the meantime, seven of nine council seats have just changed hands.

“This work is taking longer than expected to complete,” Seferiana Day, a spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Community Planning and Development, said in an email this month. “We anticipate providing (the draft plan) to the public for review and comment in early 2024.”

The work matters because the comprehensive plan update, which Seattle must carry out once a decade under the state’s Growth Management Act, will guide how the city develops over the next 20 years — including how and where housing density should be added and public investments should be made.

The way Seattle operates today, with apartments, stores and services clustered in “urban villages” that are separate from wide swaths of single-family houses, is based on choices the city’s planners made long ago.

“We know we don’t have enough housing in the city or the region or the state, and we’re seeing the consequences of that: homelessness, financial insecurity, displacement,” said City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who will chair the council’s land use committee this year. “All the things that people are frustrated by and complaining about now are the results of poor planning in previous decades, and so this is an opportunity to fix that.”

Since the 1990s, Seattle has grown using iterations of the urban village strategy, which directs most density and commerce to about two dozen neighborhood hubs, with restrictions elsewehere. That hasn’t kept housing costs from soaring, stopped displacement or achieved Seattle’s climate goals, according to a 2021 racial equity analysis that recommended changes.

Back in 2022, the Harrell administration introduced and collected public input about a number of potential options for Seattle’s new plan:

  • Alternative 1, “No Action,” would maintain the city’s current strategy.
  • Alternative 2, “Focused,” would add new or expanded urban villages.
  • Alternative 3, “Broad,” would allow triplexes and fourplexes all over.
  • Alternative 4, “Corridors,” would allow more density along transit routes.
  • Alternative 5, “Combined,” would meld multiple options to allow different types of housing along transit corridors and outside urban villages.

Some urbanist-minded advocates called for an Alternative 6 that would allow apartments in most places, with anti-displacement rules and incentives for affordable housing, but officials declined to explicitly study that option.

Matt Hutchins, a Seattle architect who specializes in backyard cottages and advocates for more housing density, said he worries the recent delay at City Hall means the Harrell administration won’t advance a bold enough plan. Hutchins liked aspects of the potential Alternative 5 and Alternative 6.

“Ten months ago, I expected a plan that was ambitious … that was going to shake things up,” said the architect, a Seattle Planning Commission member who spoke in his personal capacity, not for the commission. “But at this point I don’t know that there’s time to vet something … that really embraces the challenges we have. I’m concerned we’re going to have a diminished plan.”

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, is more wary of development than Hutchins in general but is also perturbed by the schedule slippage at City Hall.

“I’m worried about reducing the time for public review and for proper debate at the City Council,” said Pollet, who represents Northeast Seattle. “You want the public to have more than the legal minimum … on something this big.”

The Harrell administration is citing a new law at the state level as partly responsible for the city’s planning delay. Passed by the Legislature last spring, House Bill 1110 will soon require cities like Seattle to allow fourplexes in most residential areas and sixplexes close to major transit stops.

“We needed to revisit several aspects of the plan to make sure we can successfully implement” HB 1110’s provisions, said Day, the Seattle planning office spokesperson. “This has taken more time than anticipated.”

Besides HB 1110, the city’s environmental analysis “has also taken longer to complete, given the number of alternatives that must be studied,” Day added, saying officials are taking additional time in order to “get this right,” because the changes under consideration “will have far-reaching impacts.”

There still will be time for “a robust dialogue” with the public, Day said.

While HB 1110 has undeniably complicated the work to some extent, lawmakers gave Seattle a break in 2022 by extending the city’s comprehensive plan deadline from June 30, 2024 to Dec. 31, 2024, Pollet said. Seattle already allows up to three housing units on most residential lots, he noted.

“I have no knowledge of why this has taken so long,” said Pollet, wondering whether it could be partly related to last November’s council elections.

Harrell endorsed five of the seven winners in Seattle’s district races, and the results should strengthen his hand in negotiating the comprehensive plan.

“People talked about this in the council races. In the mayoral race, this was an issue,” Pollet said. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

Harrell spokesperson Jamie Housen said the council elections played no role in the decision to release the draft plan this year, rather than last year.

“Absolutely not,” he said about political motivations. “We’re working as hard as we can to get it out and make sure it meets the need of the community.”

In their 2023 campaigns, most of the winning council candidates endorsed the concept of Alternative 5, while Morales and several losing candidates were more supportive of Alternative 6. When he ran for mayor in 2019, Harrell leaned against wholesale upzones of low-density neighborhoods, calling instead for development in certain areas, like along transit corridors.

“Everybody ran on housing affordability. Everybody acknowledges we need more housing,” said Morales, who represents Southeast Seattle. “It would have been great to have had more conversations last year and kept things on track, but we are where we are. My hope is that we get things moving again.”

If Seattle were to miss its Dec. 31, 2024 deadline for adopting an updated comprehensive plan, the city would lose access to certain state infrastructure funding programs, said Dave Andersen, senior managing director for growth management at the Washington State Department of Commerce. The city would regain access after adopting its new plan, Andersen said.

“There is not a process for a deadline extension that the city would apply for,” though the Legislature could grant another extension directly, he said.

Missing the deadline could also stir uncertainty among developers and residents about what guidelines to expect, Hutchins and Pollet added.

“What I don’t want is for the delay to stoke cynicism about local government, because it’s really important that we have these conversations,” Morales said. “This is about setting the vision for how we create healthy neighborhoods.”

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

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