Commentary: Is It neighborhood planning?

(The existing neighborhood plans for the Beacon Hill, Othello, and Mount Baker light rail station areas are in the process of being revised. Frederica Merrell attended the recent Othello neighborhood plan update and has some things to say about the process, and the upcoming North Beacon Hill meeting.)

By Frederica Merrell

The City held its first “neighborhood planning” update meeting for the Othello neighborhood on Saturday, March 14. I went to observe part of their process. I was interested in whether the meetings were representative of the community; how scope, planning areas, and discussions were organized; whether people were provided with information on the previous plan recommendations; and whether comments were accurately recorded. For people interested in how our update process on Beacon Hill might look initially, here is what I observed (I didn’t stay for the wrap-up).

I arrived at about 10:00 am; about one hour after the meeting had started. I spoke with a consultant at the door who told me that the first hour was dedicated to an introduction and a summary of the previous plan effort. I asked if the participants were provided with the neighborhood plan. There was one summary of the plan at each of six tables. None of the plan summaries were translated. There were no copies of the matrix of recommendations provided to participants.

The consultant said the participants had just started their table sessions. The participants were seated at six large tables with a facilitator and a recorder who was taking notes on large pads. There were three topic areas, with two tables for each: Sustainability, Transportation, and Housing. The first thing that I noticed was that the tables were full, with around ten or more people at each table. I counted about 70 participants. The second thing that I noticed is that a lot of people had nametags with either public agency names on them or organization names. Each table also had a large map of the area.

I listened at each table. At one table there was a complex discussion about schools. For a long time the recorder just sat and listened. He summarized the discussion with four words: “more good neighborhood schools”. At the next table, the facilitator was with SDOT. The recorder was also with SDOT. The facilitator spoke the majority of the time. People at the table also had some interesting things to say. The recorder was recording both the facilitator’s comments (her colleague at SDOT) and the comments of the people at the table. At one point a woman raised a concern about maintaining the Sound Transit stations. The recorder wrote it down as a concern about maintaining the neighborhoods around the stations. I raised my hand and asked the participant if her comment had been recorded accurately. After looking closely at what had been written, she asked the recorder to change the notes, and the recorder made the change.

At the last table that I visited Lyle Bicknell was leading the discussion. The recorder was eating something and stood away from the notepad. A woman talked about a triangle park. I asked if her comment had been recorded. Lyle said he had captured it on the map. The recorder never wrote down her comment. I never saw a recorder at any table ask a clarifying question or ask a participant if the comment was recorded accurately.

Looking around the room, I wondered “how many of these people are neighborhood folks?” I went back to the front table and counted all the signatures by category:

  • 26 people at the event identified themselves as being representatives of an organization. Of those, 10 were from NPAC, the citywide neighborhood planning organization. I noticed a handful of the organization numbers (maybe 4) were representatives from ONA (Othello Neighborhood Association, I think). 2 people were from Great Cities (a citywide green design group). There was a scattering of other organizations represented.
  • 20 students from the University of Washington planning department. I am not sure if or how these students signed in. The consultant told me the students were at the meeting. They could be some of the people who signed in without addresses or zip codes, or maybe they didn’t sign in.
  • 6 agency people. I assume this doesn’t include the facilitators and hired consultants because there were about 16 hired help. People signed in were from Seattle City Council, City departments, King County, Seattle Design Commission, and the UW (some of the students/professors?).
  • 18 people with zip codes that indicated they were from the Southeast Seattle neighborhood
  • 8 people with no zip codes or addresses
  • 1 reporter from the Vietnamese newspaper
  • 1 identified architect
  • 1 person from Kent
  • 5 people from the Oromo community

Is it neighborhood planning?

The meeting was open to everyone. Lots of people are obviously interested in the process. A full room of people, however, doesn’t mean that it is the neighborhood voice that is being represented. If we really want to know who is there, people need to be encouraged to fully sign in and identify themselves as members of the neighborhood or not (including residential or business zip code).

I think there should be greater differentiation and clarification of roles among agency representatives, facilitators, recorders, neighborhood members and observers. If there were 20 UW planning students there, some were actively engaged with everyone else at the meeting. I saw SDOT people jumping in quite a bit at two tables and in one case the SDOT facilitator dominated the discussion. Recorders shouldn’t be writing down facilitator comments along with neighborhood comments.

What will our third phase of planning look like on Beacon Hill?

If we are updating our neighborhood plan, we need to look at our past recommendations and what has been achieved. North Beacon Hill has gone through two phases of neighborhood planning (1990/91 and 1998-2000). Our recommendations are complex. The meeting I went to in the Othello neighborhood didn’t look like a Phase II meeting or Phase III meeting. It looked like starting all over again.

Planning areas and topics

I didn’t get to the Othello meeting in time to see if there was a discussion of the planning area. For Beacon Hill, if we are updating the whole plan, it includes Jefferson Park, and goes the length of Beacon Avenue from Massachusetts to Columbian Way. What do neighborhood people want to focus on?

Do the topics they are offering cover all the topics in our plan at the level of specificity appropriate to our phase of planning? Neighbors held a meeting last year at the library where we identified what we wanted to do next for the urban village. We have had urban village and park planning and advocacy for the past ten years by local volunteers. How will our new neighborhood planning process mesh with the work we have completed and are engaged in currently?

  1. The Lander street project (also called Plaza de la Raza) emerged from the urban village meeting last year and design has been completed through community initiative and grant writing. The city is scaling back the design as we speak and taking out the green drainage components. Construction occurs this year. Do we want to talk about that at our neighborhood planning event? It is pretty timely. Will those drawings and designs be available at our meeting?
  2. Beacon Avenue Green Corridor: At that same urban village meeting last year, we identified a green corridor connecting the urban village to Jefferson Park as a high priority. People want improvements to the street, sidewalks, bike access and plantings included. Do we want to talk in more specificity about that in our meeting? Will we all be able to draw on maps as a way of expressing our ideas as in past planning meetings? Or will just the facilitators have maps and pens like at the Othello meeting?
  3. Beacon Mountain Playground: This is another community-initiated planning process that took place over the last two years with a lot of volunteer labor including excellent local graphics design services. The volunteer and consultant team has completed design development but no construction documents have been funded. Do we get to talk about the next steps for this project at our neighborhood plan meeting? Construction at Jefferson Park starts in May.
  4. Jefferson Park 15th Avenue side: There is no plan completed for the design of the 15th avenue portion of the park. This is identified as the next planning step. There is interest in community gardens, orchard, p-patch. There is also the old water quality building to talk about. Will we get to include this next planning phase for the park in our neighborhood planning meetings?
  5. Will we go through our matrix item by item and discuss the status of projects? Will we all have a matrix to look at? Will the facilitators have up-to-date and accurate information on the status of all the projects?

I hope my summary stimulates your thinking about what you do and don’t want to see from our process. I suggest we get prepared because if it is like the Othello process, it may be too general to be an update. It won’t connect to what we have done before and what we have done in the last two years unless we insist on adequate time and resources appropriate to our phase of planning.

We won’t speak as a community if we don’t encourage observers to just observe, facilitators to only facilitate, and everyone to identify themselves clearly. I certainly hope we won’t let agency people like SDOT insert their voices in place of ours.

Read the neighborhood plan. If you want a copy, the recent one is at the library or I have some (both from 1990 and the 1998-2000 plan.) (Or find it online, here — ed.) The matrix is on-line.

For a look at park plans or the Lander street design, call me. For the Lander street plan specifics talk to Curtis La Pierre.

The next meeting is for the North Rainier plan next Saturday. Ours is on Saturday the 28th of this month starting at 9:00 am at El Centro de la Raza, 2524 16th Avenue South.

What we get out of it is up to us! Comments? Ideas? Blog on!

Frederica Merrell was the North Beacon Hill neighborhood planning co-chair from 1998-2000, and is the co-author of Seattle’s Beacon Hill, featured in the sidebar of this very blog. You can reach her at, or 323-1792.

3 thoughts on “Commentary: Is It neighborhood planning?”

  1. Excellent recap Frederica. I agree with the original premise in that it’s very questionable if this was a ‘neighborhood’ turnout. At the same time, if the true neighborhood doesn’t show up in meaningful numbers, then it looks as though the planning (as it is) is open to outside interests.

  2. Fredrica’s thoughtful blog speaks to two issues. One (1)- the Othello workshop held last Saturday, and two (2) the upcoming March 28th North Beacon Hill workshop where input will be gathered for an update of the Beacon Hill Urban Village Neighborhood Plan. I’d like to speak to each.

    Othello Workshop
    Along with several other members of the Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (NPAC) Outreach Sub-committee, I attended last Saturday’s Othello workshop to observe the process. Each observer then submitted their observations and comments for summation and delivery to the larger NPAC committee, City Council Member Sally Clark, Lyle Bicknell, David Goldberg, Sabhat Tenna and other members of the joint Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and Department of Neighborhoods (DON)implementation group. These comments, meeting agendas, minutes of previous meetings, and other information of interest can be found at the following website:
    You may also receive additional information by contacting Kerry Wade at DON, 206.733.9088, or

    The Outreach Sub-committee’s comments validate Fredrica’s observations and in some instances augment them. The one difference has to do with the numbers of people representing various aspects of the community, city, UW and businesses. Counts vary, but there is agreement that the number of city personnel, NPAC members, and UW students (three) be subtracted from the total of 90 (City count)attendees. It is hoped that these comments, and the comments of others in attendance at the Othello workshop, will result in needed changes to the workshop format. It should also be noted that comments from those attending the workshop from the Othello neighborhood were for the most part positive.

    A subcommittee of NPAC members will meet very soon to discuss a proposed extension of the existing schedule defined by the City, thus allowing for more thoughtful preparation of community outreach and community workshops. This proposed extension will not affect the North Rainier workshop scheduled for March 21 or the Beacon Hill workshop, March 28th. The sub-committee’s recommendation will not come to the larger NPAC for a vote until the April 17 meeting. (NPAC meetings are open to the public, with time set aside for public comment at the end of each meeting. You are invited to attend and speak, or simply observe. Meetings are held at 6:30 PM in the Bertha Landes room at City Hall.)

    March 28th Beacon Hill Workshop
    9:00 AM to 2:00 PM
    El Centro de la Raza
    2524 16th Ave. S.

    Please plan to attend the Neighborhood Planning Workshop on March 28th. It is important that your voice be heard. In a telephone conversation today, project manager Lyle Bickell assured me that the community plans which emerge from this workshop will be an addendum to the existing Neighborhood Plan’s Matrix and that the plans that exist in the matrix will be put in place. The Neighborhood Plan was designed by dedicated volunteers who put in many, many hours as volunteers both in l990 and 1999.

    There are many plans for Beacon Hill which are not in the current Neighborhood Plan but need to be brought forward at the March 28th workshop. Many of these plans came forward at the Pancake Breakfast held at El Centro last November. For example: traffic calming on Beacon Ave. and a greenway connecting the Beacon Hill business district with Jefferson Park; a proposed revision of street flow and parking which would result in a business district similar to Lincoln Square in Chicago; a Farmer’s Market; and continuation of the improvements to Jefferson Park and the playground there.

    It is very important that these ideas come forward.

    You are also urged to attend the North Beacon Hill Council meeting on April 2nd, 7:00 PM, Beacon Hill Library. That meeting will be devoted to a discussion of the City’s plan for neighborhood plan updates and the future of this planning process for the Beacon Hill urban village. Please be there to voice your opinion.

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