City council member Tom Rasmussen, fresh from being skewered by the Seattle Planning Commission for his proposal to create “neighborhood conservation districts” that would give homeowners who wished to do so the power to decide what can and can get built in their neighborhood, showed up on late notice at last Thursday’s 7:30am Planning Commission meeting to attempt to convince the possibly unconvincible.
The idea behind the neighborhood conservation district proposal is simple: Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods have been around for a long time, and have developed a certain neighborhood “character.” But now, suddenly, there’s influx of insiders demanding to live inside Seattle, which creates demand for housing, and some of that housing doesn’t look like the Craftsman-era neighborhoods that sprung up during an earlier Seattle development boom. Neighbors who don’t like the new buildings, Rasmussen argues, should have a right to decree developments they don’t like as not “consistent with the physical character of a neighborhood” and prevent them from being built or require substantial aesthetic changes.
In a letter, the Planning Commissioners noted numerous potential “unintended consequences” of such a policy, such as preventing redevelopment, driving up housing costs by restricting supply, making upkeep more expensive for homeowners and tenants, and allowing existing residents to dictate development and redevelopment patterns on a patchwork basis throughout the city, without regard for citywide housing goals or problems of race and social justice.
I would add another to the list: Landowners, who make up less than half of this increasingly unaffordable city, would be the only ones with a say in these conservation districts. Every district would be governed by a board, and only property owners, including everyone from absentee landlords to AirBnB capitalists to slumlords, would get a say in determining the proper “character” of a neighborhood.
On Thursday, Rasmussen pled his case against all these objections, which boiled down, simply, to this: If neighborhoods (landowners) are uncomfortable with development patterns, they should have the right to do something about it.
“Parts [of the city] are experiencing very rapid change and growth, and they’re saying, we have little say and little leverage in terms of how the growth occurs,” Rasmussen told the commission. “If a program like this were created and a neighborhood came to the council and was saying, we’re unhappy with what’s happening in our neighborhood, we could say, there is a program where, if you would like to keep your neighborhood looking a certain way or of a certain character, the neighborhood could become a conservation district.”
How this would play out in practice is unclear, but Rasmussen offered some ideas. “Some neighborhoods are very concerned about development; some neighborhoods are very concerned about growth and development in this neighborhood that they loved and moved into,” Rasmussen said. “In single-family [zones], if a neighborhood meets certain standards and a majority of folks in the neighborhood agree on certain design guidelines that are unique to the character of that neighborhood, then those guidelines could be incorporated into the district.” Specifically, he added, “I hear people saying, Ireally don’t like the plastic material that’s being put on some of these buildings. They look cheap, horrible. If the neighborhood agrees, there can be limitations on those type of characteristics.” Some neighborhoods, he added, might want to mandate larger front yards or greater setbacks from the street.
“It’s a very grassroots type of a program, very democratic, because a majority of the property owners would have to petition the council to become a neighborhood conservation district and decide what are the characteristics of that neighborhood,” Rasmussen said.
Predictably, commissioners barraged Rasmussen with questions. Won’t allowing residents to keep development out work against the city’s affordable housing goals? Why do we need this now, given the multi-multi-step process every new development has to go through before a single shovel of dirt is turned? And what about renters, who are also invested in their neighborhoods and make up a majority of the city? Why are they excluded from this supposedly “democratic” (to use Rasmussen’s word) process?
“Reserving the ability to make those changes to the homeowner seems a little bit unfair,” said commissioner Grace Kim, “given that if a neighborhood or a block is completely comprised of renters and they think that a neighborhood should be preserved, and yet their landlords are seeing the pressures of development coming from elsewhere and they would never go for it,” the landlord, not the renters, would have a say.
“The way it’s currently proposed is, it’s really biased in favor of homeowners,” Kim said.
Although Rasmussen didn’t respond directly to the question about renters, he did insist that allowing neighbors to have veto power over aspects of new developments (including, one imagines, height—Rasmussen referred ominously to backyard apartments designed to look like “grain silos” towering over neighborhoods), he did insist that new restrictions on development wouldn’t conflict with affordable-housing or neighborhood diversity goals, which “I of course support,” adding that his view was backed up “by the experiences in other cities” without specifying which cities he was talking about.
Commissioners repeatedly asked Rasmussen why current homeowners’ opinions should be weighed more heavily than newcomers’ just because the homeowners got here first, and questioned whether there was any need for a new process aimed at placating neighbors when there are already so many on the books.
Kim again: “This just feels so contrary to everything that we have spent the last year and a half working on to try to encourage flexibility in single-family zones so that there is more opportunity for a diversity of incomes in all neighborhoods. This feels like a very strong effort to restrict some of that [diversity]. … The city isn’t flush with cash, and with so many other priorities, I don’t understand why you’d focus on this. If people are complaining because they’re unhappy with the [comprehensive] plan that was created in ’86, they should be working on that plan rather than creating a different program.”
Commissioner Michael Austin piled on, citing Mayor Ed Murray’s ongoing Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda meetings, which are aimed at crafting an affordable-housing strategy for the city. “If there is a crisis at hand, there are processes going on at the city right now where there could be a great collaboration with the city.”
Rasmussen retorted that his outreach had, in fact, done outreach in multiple areas of the city (although, he allowed, not as many as he would have liked), and said that telling neighbors they need to take up their concerns in the comprehensive plan revision process would “be confusing to people in terms of how to go about that.”
Finally, commissioners wondered why the neighborhood conservation district concept, just introduced as a concept last month, is being fast-tracked now, when so much else is at stake in the city. “I still have some concerns, just overall, that this is moving a lot faster than what is intended,” Austin said. Rasmussen flatly denied that his proposal was being “fast-tracked,” right before saying that he could have legislation as soon as next month, which is a pretty fast track indeed.
A theory on all of this: Like Peter Steinbrueck before him, Rasmussen is not running for reelection, freeing him to pursue legislation that’s potentially controversial but close to his heart. In Steinbrueck’s case, it was legislation “preserving” industrial lands by making it virtually impossible to use them for non-industrial purposes, such as retail and residential. In Rasmussen’s, it’s protecting the “character” of neighborhoods like his own Alki neighborhood in West Seattle, by giving homeowners like himself a say in the rapid changes that are happening, thanks to a strong economy and an increasingly urban workforce, in Seattle neighborhoods. Better to give neighbors the option of preserving their neighborhood in amber, this argument for “conservation” goes, than allow newcomers to bust in and remake the city in their own image.