New DPD Planning Director visits Beacon Hill

Marshall Foster
Marshall Foster is the new Planning Director of DPD Planning Department. Frederica Merrell chairs the ad-hoc planning subcommittee of the North Beacon Hill Council and worked on the 1999-2000 draft of the North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan. She invited Foster to a subcommittee meeting on April 19 to introduce himself to the community, hear our thoughts, and share his perspective on urban planning.  Foster was professional and approachable as he discussed issues ranging from his personal background to some of the challenges in the 2009 Neighborhood Plan Update process.

A New Orleans native, Foster fell in love with the Northwest and moved to Seattle from Portland with his wife in 2006. They live in West Seattle with their two children. While in Portland, Foster volunteered with Southeast Uplift, an organization working to increase citizen participation in neighborhood planning. He is passionate about urban planning, in particular comprehensive planning that includes the needs and desires of communities for public safety and vibrant small businesses.

Foster sees the Department of Planning and Development as responsible for merging the requirements of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan with grassroots citizen involvement. The Comprehensive Plan is how the City manages the requirements of the WA State Growth Management Act.

After the meeting, I emailed Foster for more details about his philosophy and upcoming DPD events.

The SPUNC subcommittee charged DPD to look into changing zoning in a larger area around the station.  Will this change the timeline of the current station overlay plan?

“That’s correct –– we were asked to look more broadly at zoning options. We plan to work with the community to develop what we’re calling an ‘Urban Design Framework’ for each of the three neighborhoods. This document will integrate the issue of zoning with what I call ‘placemaking’ elements —  how we ensure safe and attractive streetscapes, buildings that activate the street, how we move forward with the open space connections and other community improvements described in the update. We expect this work will begin over the summer and wrap up by the end of the year.”

If you and your family lived on Beacon Hill, how would you like to see the vacant lots around the station used while we’re waiting for final zoning? Some neighborhood ideas include food carts, outdoor music, etc.

“I’d like to see creative things happen with the spaces that front on the sidewalk. I’ve spent a good bit of time in and around Beacon Ave S, and those large open parking areas detract from the community feel the street otherwise has and serves to split the business district. It would be wonderful to see some temporary uses like food carts lining the sidewalk there, to help knit the street together and give people a reason to spend time there. Perhaps also some temporary public art or temporary community uses. There is legislation moving forward that would allow and encourage these kinds of temporary uses, as well as allow commuter parking on a temporary basis. It’s a great opportunity.”

Could you summarize your goals regarding merging the comp plan with grassroots planning objectives?

“In general, the City’s Comprehensive Plan guides all of our planning work as a city. It outlines our strategy as a city to manage growth and ensure change enhances the quality of life in our neighborhoods. An important part of the Comp Plan is the Urban Centers / Urban Villages concept, which aims to channel growth to parts of the city with established infrastructure, transit, and community services. Beacon Hill is one of the city’s urban villages. With neighborhood planning, we need to bring that perspective to the table and be clear about what it means –– which is essentially that we need to offer more housing opportunities close to the new Beacon Hill light rail station, and balance it with what priorities we’re hearing from communities. On the whole, I think the goals of the Comprehensive Plan are consistent with much of what’s described in the neighborhood plans, which focus on ensuring we have the community infrastructure in place to make Beacon Hill a livable place. That perspective couldn’t be more important.”

How do DPD and DON (Department of Neighborhoods) interact with regards to neighborhood planning? Are there certain aspects that DON leads and others where DPD leads? Who are the contact people?

“DPD is ultimately responsible for delivering the planning work –– the Neighborhood Plan Update itself and the goals, policies and strategies that are intended to help implement the neigborhood plan vision. DON’s role is to design and facilitate a top-quality public outreach and engagement process to develop the plan, with an emphasis on engaging historically underrepresented communities. We work closely together as one team, and have made strides in terms of getting new voices, traditionally not at the table, to engage with the process. Lyle Bicknell is the overall Neighborhood Planning Manager at DPD, and Veronica Sherman-King, Director of Planning and Community-Building, is lead for DON.”

What can the Beacon Hill community expect over the next year of strategic planning meetings? Why should people be excited about participating?

“We’re at a very exciting point with neighborhood planning. With the broad goals established in the proposed updates, we’d like to work with the community to prioritize what we can do together over the next few years to implement the plan. We’re hosting a public meeting in May to start that discussion – Beacon Hill neighbors should be receiving postcards soon about it, but here are the details:”

Neighborhood Plan Update
Action Teams Kick-Off

In 2009 over 1,500 people helped plan the future of their
neighborhoods in North Beacon, North Rainier and Othello

Now it’s time to get things done.

Come help prioritize next steps and
sign up for project action teams.

Friday, May 14, 2010
6:00-7:45 pm
Asa Mercer Middle School
1600 S. Columbian Way

Tuesday, May 18, 2010
6:00-7:45 pm
Filipino Community Center
5740 Martin Luther King Jr Way S.


We’ll bring resources from a range of city departments to talk about what we’re doing as a city and what the community believes is most important for us to focus on in Beacon Hill, Mt Baker and Othello. This is really where the rubber meets the road so to speak: how we can work together to prioritize what’s most important and take action.

Getting more involved

Some examples of how grassroots activists can become more involved in urban planning: participate in the independent Seattle Planning Commission (also on Facebook) or take advantage of the Comp Plan Update Public Involvement Opportunity, the “Seattle 2030 & Beyond” Challenge: In 150 words or less, describe your Seattle 2030 or Seattle 2050. Send your comments to For more information, see the public involvement page.

11 thoughts on “New DPD Planning Director visits Beacon Hill”

  1. I am Really trying to understand this neighborhood planning process. But, once again, this is just over my dumb head. Can someone explain to me: What are the problems? The buildings are too high? The kinds of businesses that might buy the lots? What, in laywomen terms, are we fighting for? I get that it has something to do with building heights. I get that it has something to do with not building next to the sidewalk (offsets). It’s about zoning? Could someone explain in kindergarten language what the concerns are with development and how it relates to what goes in to the Neighborhood Plan and if it really matters? And, finally, how could these issues change my life (for better or worse) on North Beacon Hill? It’s just all too complicated. I appreciate all the hours and hours neighbors have spent on the neighborhood plan. I am in awe of their city expertise, but, I really wish I knew what it means to me. Maybe the process has gone too far for me to ask these questions, but, hey, here they are. The stuff this guy said was “gobbleygook” to me. It’s over my head. The tone is that something is better? Signed , dumb neighbor.

  2. I don’t think the question is so much, “what are we fighting for?”, but “what are we planning for?” The best way to figure out what neighborhood planning is? Read the current neighborhood plan. It tells the whole story. If anyone feels “dumb”, educate yourself. The plan in on-line. Go to City Department of Neighborhoods (DON) to find it. After you do that, you shouldn’t feel dumb at all.

    Here is the main difference between the current plan and the new process that I notice. The current plan focuses primarily on how the City should prioritize investment in public space: parks, streets, sidewalks, library, open space, etc. It is a communication from the community about how to spend money and time over the course of 10-15 years on the property we all own: public property. There is some stuff on zoning and land use, but it is a small portion of the whole.

    The new process is almost entirely about zoning and development. In other words, the City wants to talk about investment in private property, not the property owned by the City. The problem with this is that no one, even the City, can make a private property owner build anything. They can encourage, limit, delineate, all they want, but in the end, private property owners may or may not have the money, energy, or knowledge to do anything with their property in the near term. Insurance, financial risk, and all kinds of things come into play. Talk to local people who own property about how hard it can be to take a big financial or liability risk right now.

    The private property focus was created by Nickels in early 2008 during the building boom, and then the economy hit the skids. But the City never changed its course. Now it makes more financial sense for property owners to just hold their property, not sell it, while prices go up again. Who would want to develop retail when vacancy rates are at a 30-year high? Even if people did want to do development, there are still few loans readily available. I predict development on Beacon Hill will proceed at the same reasonably slow pace it has for the last 20 years for this planning period (10-15 years). No property owner has to consult a neighborhood plan about what to build on their property. Private property is private! People can build whatever the land is zoned for, or not.

    So, do we use all this time and energy to keep trying to tell private property owners what to do with their property? It is interesting and worthwhile to spend some time on private property planning and we want to support those owners dreams too. But don’t forget the more powerful piece that the City is sidestepping. Our public tax dollars and public lands (11% of all land is owned by the City and this is our “Commons”)

    If we get so lost in zoning and land use that don’t talk about what we want the City to be doing with our public property over the next ten years, we are wasting a proven opportunity.

    Just like the last 10 years, over the next 10-15 there will numerous funding opportunities to build open space, boulevards, sidewalks, park facilities, public services, improve public safety, etc. The Parks levy exists already. The transportation levy (Bridging the Gap) goes for another 5 years. We can make recommendations on how to spend that money in our neighborhood! The public property belongs to all us and we need to plan how we want it taken care of and improved. The new Urban Food Policy program is just heating up. Innovative Public Safety and Youth programming is coming. This is all public land, public money, public program opportunity.

    We compete with other neighborhoods for those tax dollars. The way we get the funds is to have an idea documented in our neighborhood plan. That sets us up for grants, annual budget cycles, department money, levy money, all of it.

    So get your best ideas on public investment in the plan! Go to the Beacon Hill Festival June 5th to add your comments to what is already being collected and work with a local committee or Friends group on your favorite project.

    We don’t want to finish this process without specifics on public investment. Do we really want to just leave it up to the City to decide the where, when and what of how to invest in the public spaces we all own?

    Every single amazing creative idea that has been built in this community in public space over the last 20 years has come from the minds on our neighbors, with the exceptions of the library which the City initiated (with community and
    citywide support through the Library levy) and the train station (again through public vote for tax dollars). This is a very partial list of the biggies:
    Beacon Avenue median and street changes through Jefferson Park (for 100 years it was just a dirt median)
    Jefferson Park reconstruction
    Lander Street Festival Street
    Reconstruction of Beacon Avenue with turn lane
    Pedestrian lighting on Beacon Ave.
    Street improvements at the library
    New fencing and walking paths around the golf courses
    View protection in Jefferson Park

    It is a huge list of accomplishments thanks to neighbors just like you! Keep it up Beacon Hill! Keep your eyes on the prize! The public lands and programs are the targets we can be sure to influence through our neighborhood plan.

    Frederica Merrell
    Co-Chair North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Planning 1998-2000 (Current Plan)

  3. Freddie, I greatly appreciate that you’ve posted this response, as well as your immense contributions to the neigborhood over the years.

    Also thank you for supporting the view that people can understand what’s going on by reading the plan itself. As a Beacon Hill residents who, for various reasons, has not attended the planning meetings this is how I keep informed. It’s been explicitly claimed by some that this means I’m not informed at all, and that only those who attend meetings are qualified to have opinions about the Neighborhood Plan and attendant process. I think the city, aided by neighborhood resources such as this blog and the Beaconhill mailing list, has done a very good job of keep the planning process transparent to those of us who haven’t attended meetings.

    Where I think a lot of confusion is happening is around whether changing the zoning as it is defined within the existing Neighborhood Plan somehow negates or takes away from other aspects of the plan. You said:

    “The current plan focuses primarily on how the City should prioritize investment in public space: parks, streets, sidewalks, library, open space, etc. It is a communication from the community about how to spend money and time over the course of 10-15 years on the property we all own: public property. There is some stuff on zoning and land use, but it is a small portion of the whole.”

    Are you saying a deeper focus on zoning now mean that there can’t be more planing around use of public property in the future? Couldn’t the plan be seen as a living document that has matured to a point where it makes sense to revisit, clarify, and beef up the small part of it that is about zoning?

    You say: “So, do we use all this time and energy to keep trying to tell private property owners what to do with their property?” Zoning doesn’t tell people what to do with their property. It tells people what uses are allowable, which generally means telling them what they can’t do with their property. There are certain zoning rules that came out of the current plan, such as the pedestrian overlay, which prevent some types of commercial uses in the business core. If it was worth time and energy to do this when the work was being done on the existing plan, why is it no longer worth time and energy now?

    Your argument seems to be that, given the current economic situation, no one is likely to further develop their properties any time soon and therefore we shouldn’t spend any time talking about zoning. But then you say “If we get so lost in zoning and land use that don’t talk about what we want the City to be doing with our public property over the next ten years, we are wasting a proven opportunity.” I absolutely agree with you, which is why I don’t understand why at the very moment that I thought we were done talking about zoning for a while you filed an appeal that will keep zoning the central point of discussion for at least another year. Isn’t a time when there’s little planned development in the pipeline a perfect time to set zoning for the future with very little pushback from developers, and then refocus the conversation on to the public amenities?

    Yes, time spent imagining what we’d like to see private property owners do with their property is to a large extent speculation. But it doesn’t mean that wanting to see zoning changed to encourage certain uses is a waste of time. And maybe, just as some neighbors have become motivated and engaged in the process of planning for public property, others might get engaged in developing private property as they consider the possibilities.

    I’ve seen the inklings of some grassroots entrepreneurial concepts happen in discussions on this blog. As far as I know, no one’s come up with a business plan or investment capital as a result but the more discussion there is, the more widely understood the challenges and opportunities are. If a seed someday sprouts as a result, that’s great. If not, what harm has it done to any aspect of the neighborhod planning process?

    You’ve proven your passion and your vision for public lands and I sincerely hope you continue to do good work for us all. I also hope that as a eternally evolving neighborhood in a time of evolving models of communication coupled with economic uncertainty, Beacon Hill can proceed forward on several fronts simultaneously, allowing broad participation and shared focus and workload. I also hope that neighbors will respect each others’ diversity of opinions as much as we respect other forms of diversity.


  4. “Are you saying a deeper focus on zoning now mean that there can’t be more planing around use of public property in the future? Couldn’t the plan be seen as a living document that has matured to a point where it makes sense to revisit, clarify, and beef up the small part of it that is about zoning?”

    B, She means work on something you CAN fix, not something you CAN’T.

    Melissa, Thanks for the write-up and Q&A. Wow, those meetings are coming right up too!

    What made me go – wow!

    “Foster sees the Department of Planning and Development as responsible for merging the requirements of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan with grassroots citizen involvement…”

    “Come help prioritize next steps and sign up for project action teams.” (although with less than three weeks to go until the meeting an none in our neighborhood, could be challenging to accurately represent our ‘mind-share’…)

    What made me go – uh-oh…

    “There is legislation moving forward that would allow and encourage these kinds of temporary uses, as well as allow commuter parking on a temporary basis.”

  5. Asa Mercer Middle School is in our neighborhood–right by McPherson’s. There will also be opportunity for online comment.

  6. Thank you everyone for the comments and discussion. Quite a few information gaps I had were filled-in through these comments. I’m just learning about the city planning structure, various terminology, trying to integrate what I see or read with what I may or may not already know…….. I can’t believe how many acronyms have been added to my vocabulary over the last year. I still just have a beginning concept of what they all do, let alone how they all fit together as far as our neighborhood concerns.

    I have read the Neighborhood Plan and the Update documents several times over the last few months and will need to read them some more. It’s a lot of stuff to take in and learn. One of the main reasons I decided to stay here on North Beacon Hill was for the opportunity to learn about community and “neighborhood stuff”. Yep! I’m learning and I’m still trying. All of this is new to me. Thank you for having patience with my sometimes frustrating learning curve. This blog is wonderful! I appreciate the thoughtful, civil discussions. Thanks to all of you I’ve recently met and to those I have yet to meet. I’ll keep hanging in there to take in as much as I can and give back as much I’m able! I can’t think of a better neighborhood in which to embark on my community education.

  7. M, I stand corrected. Hooray Asa Mercer!!!

    It it just me or is MF a dead ringer for Matthew Broderick in Election?

    Either way he sounds like a breath of fresh air.

  8. Personally, I think this round of planning needs to focus a bit more on the “private” element because of the success implementing the components of the decade-old Plan and their affect on future growth within the neighborhood. I’m not a developer or an urban planner, so I’m not really sure what that entails, but I would think that this is the perfect time to revisit zoning and design issues, particularly specific to the blocks surrounding the light rail station. I would also think that elements that guide or even promote development would be important components of any neighborhood plan. Part of the problem, in my mind, seems to be a prevalent attitude that we should have all of the amenities that have been pushed for by the neighborhood, yet we don’t want the “character” of the neighborhood to change; we want significant investment, but don’t want to be “gentrified”. That is not realistic. Like it or not, the accessibility and amenities of Beacon Hill, combined with extras such as proportion of view property, improvements of schools, etc, will start to attract even greater residential investment which (hopefully) will finally initiate commercial investment. The character of north beacon hill is somewhat different today than it was 10 years ago and I would bet that the change over the next 10 years will be even greater. I think it will be important to incorporate elements into the new Plan that allow the community to guide private development to the extent practical, and possibly reduce the affect of development on the character of the neighborhood. What worries me a bit is that Freddie, as the leader of this process for the neighborhood, is a self described non-consumer and seems to place a low priority on the development of commercial property and the growth of retail, etc. on Beacon Hill:

    I’m not necessarily criticizing Freddie, but I just don’t think that attitude is representative of the many Beacon Hillers who would like to see more commercial investment in the Neighborhood and would much rather walk a few blocks for a bowl of Pho in their own neighborhood than hop on the 36 or even light rail to the ID. Apply the same logic to pizza and a beer in Columbia City, etc.

    I don’t have a problem with the process that DPD went through to implement the initial Plan update. Honestly, I didn’t agree with it at first, but now that I have had a chance to look into the specific steps of the process, particularly the extra steps for the zoning implementation, it makes perfect sense to me for DPD to have worked through the zoning issue early and separately and follow up with development of the Plan matrix after the zoning issues have been resolved. Actual incorporation of the zoning changes into the land use map takes additional approval steps. What I find frustrating at this point is that despite the process that DPD went through with the neighborhood over the last year or so, it seems that the potential exists for the results to get thrown out in favor of what the City Council wants. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. Mike O’brien, the Chair of the neighborhoods committee, has suggested that the City’s agenda regarding density around light rail stations will trump any desire the neighborhoods have to limit growth through holding back on upzoning. I thought we had reached a reasonable compromise with the limited 65-foot upzone area surrounding the Station.

  9. Well put Chris. I do think that there’s a major aspect of commercial property that people overlook though. It’s not just about our neighbors having more opportunities to be consumers, it’s also about out neighbors having more opportunities to start businesses and create more jobs in the neighborhood.

    Not every commercial property needs to hold a restaurant. In fact, given the population density, that’s not likely to work anytime soon. But Beacon Hill could be a viable location for any number of services, especially considering the ease of getting downtown on light rail for meetings.

    Freddie’s right that with the vacancy rate downtown there’s not a lot of reason to build new space up here. But I still think that makes this a better time to set zoning for the future than trying to do it in the middle of a bubblicious gold rush was. Just because we can’t make private property owners do anything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the type of zoning we want. If that was true, then there’d be no point in having zoning at all.

  10. Great discussion Chris and Adam and Dee and Brook!

    If you are into the zoning issue, go for it! In our last process, we had a zoning and land use committee that dug deep into that issue and had the freedom to focus on the topic without distraction for two years (low stress time line). They walked around, talked to neighbors block by block, studied and came up with some alternatives that people were happy with.

    I wish we had broken up into committees again this time because it is a great way to work as a neighborhood. When all we get to do is sit in on one or two meetings a coule months apart that cover everything, we can’t go deep and we get stressed out by the breadth of issues. I suggest if you are into it, you start a zoning and land use forum on the blog and really think block by block. This decision has not been entirely finished. The City Council needs some coherent ideas from the neighbors. I think the City is going for 65′ and maybe some changes to single-family somewhere. 17th Avenue? There is also the question of expansion of the pedestrian overlay to include upzoned areas and make it all ped friendly as well as other incentive strategies.

    The other new twist is that right now the City is creating legislation that allows commuter parking lots on empty properties around the train stations. I can’t see how that would help us any (except give El Çentro and Joe Diamond another revenue stream for the next 10-20 years), but maybe someone can look at that idea. It sounds ugly! I think the City has finally given up on the idea that anyone will build anything in the next ten years. They are desperate, desperate, desperate, to activate the train stations on a rapid time line and prostitution of SE communities for commuter parking now looks good. Personally, I don’t think very many people would pay for it with all the free parking on surrounding streets. I think the North Beacon Central Park idea would spur surrounding development better than a parking lot. But again, private property! Oh well. Do what you can with your best thinking my friends!

    Meantime, our Family Bike and Pedestrian committee and Jefferson Park committee are working hard on great public property strategies for transportation and the big park. Having specific committees is how we really kick butt on neighborhood planning. The beautiful thing is that it is all completely complimentary. Good public investment supports good private investment. We need both!

    As for updating things later, not likely. This is it. Between now and beginning of 2011. We won’t get a chance to come back around and revisit for many years because it is expensive (10-12 years). That’s why we have to work hard now whether we want to or not. Nobody in our community created this time crunch. The City told us we were getting updated. Also, if we want to take advantage of the Parks Levy and the Transportation Levy (good for 5 years), we need to jump on those now, not later.

    Luckily, one hardy, hearty, soul who doesn’t mind getting seriously bad-mouthed poked a stick in the rapidly spinning wheel of bureaucracy to give our community one more year to get the update done with all our great ideas included. You can thank me later (circa 2013) when you are happily pedaling your inner child through a bike boulevard to a concert near the Food Forest in Jefferson Park.

    Plan on smart residents of our beautiful community! I have deep respect for our good thinking and practical nature; both highly observable over the 25 years I have lived here.

    (As for my spending habits, I would bet a year of my Red Apple receipts against yours any day. You on? When do we start? I save mine! Warning: I like good food and good beer! And I have lashed back my share of chile rellenos and pomegranite margaritas at Baja Bistro too!)


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