Process, participation, and progress: a neighborhood planning primer

Many Beacon Hill neighbors took part in a planning meeting last March. Photo by Jason.
While many people pay a great deal of attention to national politics, relatively few participate (or are even aware) of events happening in their own neighborhood—until issues percolate into the media. Recent events in Southeast Seattle might have caused some neighbors to wonder how the neighborhood planning process works, and what is actually in the North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan. Here’s a quick introduction to planning in our neighborhood.

What is a Neighborhood Council?  Why should I get involved?

North Beacon Hill is fortunate to have an engaged neighborhood council and to be part of a dynamic, functional district council. The North Beacon Hill Council describes their role as follows:

“NBHC is one of the the major community groups that represents North Beacon Hill to city, county and state agencies. It is the major political body of the neighborhood that works to improve the living conditions of our neighborhood… We work to empower our neighbors to implement the improvements to the neighborhood that they envision, we work to inform our neighbors of issues that will affect our standard of living, and we work to create a sense of community for our neighborhood.”

If you can make it to one meeting, you’re a voting member of the North Beacon Hill Council.  Attend a meeting to familiarize yourself with the issues and people involved.  If you can’t make it regularly, stay connected and attend when you’re able or when an issue motivates you.  It’s even possible to vote by proxy.  We have the Beacon Hill Blog, the BAN mailing list, and the North Beacon Hill Council website as resources.    Get involved!

Who represents neighborhoods?

There are important connections between neighborhood councils, district councils, and City Council.  Seattle elects City Council members “at large”—all council members represent all residents.  To ensure that residents of all neighborhoods have representation on the community level, Seattle has neighborhood councils—groups that meet in the community and are composed of residents, business owners, and other interested parties.  Residents and members of the councils elect board members.  Council Boards interact with the City and other levels of government, representing the community. The neighborhood councils also elect representatives to a district council. Seattle has 13 district councils.  North and South Beacon Hill are part of the Greater Duwamish District Council. District Council representatives participate in the City Neighborhood Council.

The North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Council and the Greater Duwamish District Council are a key way for our community to engage with City Council members, the Mayor’s office, and other elected officials.  They also advocate for our community to receive funds for sidewalks, crosswalks, greater police engagement, and more.

NBHC meets the first Thursday of every month at the Beacon Hill Library, 2821 Beacon Avenue South. The next meeting is March 4 at 7:00 pm.

What are neighborhood plans? Who develops them?

There has been active debate recently around the three identical appeals filed to oppose Neighborhood Plan Updates in North Beacon Hill, North Rainier (a.k.a. Mount Baker Station), and Othello.  The appeals themselves are intended to address concerns about the environmental impact of development in the area. The appellants and their supporters are also concerned about the process the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) used to create the updates.  This is a separate, but very important issue.

What was the process? How was it different than the process involved in creating earlier neighborhood plans?  How could it be improved to avoid confusion and frustration when Columbia City, Rainier Beach, and University District update their plans?  For some in the community, these appeals are the first time they’ve given much thought to development around the station. Hundreds of people participated in planning meetings, and for many, these appeals are a frustrating roadblock to the progress they hoped to see. To see some of the input collected during the process, read the report submitted by the community outreach liaisons or read this summary input from the Sept. 2009 meeting.

A brief history

In 1995, Seattle residents developed 38 neighborhood plans.  The City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods explains the basic process. Since their inception, neighborhood plans have played an important role in the City of Seattle Comprehensive Plan.  Neighborhood Plans have been updated several times since the original drafts, including a revisit of priorities set out in the plans in 1999, 2004, and 2005.  City funds were used to hire consultants and pay city staff to assist with plan development and implementation. The plans developed during this time frame were detailed, and included minutely-detailed matrices describing specific projects, their costs, and who would be responsible for them. The 1999 North Beacon Hill matrix is here.  Here is a comparison of the 1999 plan and the 2009 proposed update.

Latest updates

In 2008, the DPD and the Department of Neighborhoods were authorized to “work with Seattle’s citizenry to begin updating neighborhood plans where appropriate.” Per the DPD website, these efforts would be focused in three ways: updating plans, developing status reports on existing plans, and forming a new committee.

The Neighborhood Plan Advisory Committee was formed to provide “Community-based review and advisory role for Neighborhood Planning.” NPAC included representatives from the 13 district councils, the chair of the City Neighborhood Council, 2 members of the Seattle Planning Commission and 8 at-large members.

Three neighborhoods in Southeast Seattle were due for Neighborhood Plan Updates: North Beacon Hill, North Rainier, and Othello.  These were not complete neighborhood plans—they were updates to the existing plans (with their existing matrices) focused specifically on zoning inside the Urban Village areas.  The update process was conducted differently than in previous cycles, leading to frustration from some groups and individuals who had been active in previous plan development.  The new process, while flawed, also encouraged input from community members who had not traditionally been engaged in planning.  Community outreach liaisons hosted 41 workshops throughout Southeast Seattle and the Greater Duwamish.  See the report here.

The Department of Planning and Development released their Proposed Updates for North Beacon Hill, North Rainier, and Othello in January, 2010.  The next step was for the updates to be reviewed by City Council.  Councilmember Sally Clark explained at the February North Beacon Hill Council meeting that she and others on the Council expected to work with DPD to learn more about the matrix (the details) of the updates. When the proposed updates make it to the Council, the next step is to collect community input and for the council to review the plans.  If they are approved, changes may be made to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Any new development still has to undergo the community design review process, as well as environmental and other reviews.  Again, here is a summary of the differences in the 2009 proposed update and the existing 1999 update.

Looking forward

The neighborhood planning process is dynamic. Seattle was fortunate to have almost a decade when our City budget included funds for hiring consultants and paying city staff to work closely with residents for months and develop highly detailed plans.  The most recent round of community input included interpreters (paid by the City) to help encourage greater diversity in the groups participating in the update process.

The 2008, 2009, and 2010 budgets include large deficits.  The City is not able to fund the type of process used in previous rounds of neighborhood planning.  We also have several new Council members and a new Mayor with a personal background in neighborhood-level activism and a vocal interest in using technology to improve community access to government.  There are challenges, but also real potential for positive change in the neighborhood planning process.

2 thoughts on “Process, participation, and progress: a neighborhood planning primer”

  1. The most recent public utilities and neighborhoods committee of the City Council is available for viewing on the Seattle Channel. Here is the link:

    As part of this meeting, there is a good discussion of the SEPA appeals process and its affect on the Plan approval and implementation process. This discussion happens at around minute 18 if you don’t want to watch the public comments. DPD and DON discuss the update of the Othello Plan. It is interesting to watch the process. The March 9 meeting of this committee will have a similar discussion of the North Beacon Hill Plan update.

  2. Thanks for the link, Chris. The public comments are worth watching–everyone who showed up to the meeting was in support of the proposed update. Several people seemed in support of “incentive zoning”–increased height (beyond the 85ft upzone) traded for affordable housing, public space, etc.

    The discussion at minute 18 about the appeals is helpful. It sheds more light on the usual process (proposals go before committee before full council) and gives perspective on how the appeals are and are not impacting the process.

    I’ll be interested to see if the Hearing Examiner decides to consolidate the appeals/review them together. Since they are the same, it makes sense.

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