Background on Seattle's Comprehensive Plan

[Note: As background on the Eastlake Community Council’s efforts to preserve valuable aspects of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, the following information is kept the same as it was prior to and just after the changes that the Mayor and City Council adopted in October 2016.]

Mayor Murray and the City Council remove protections for livability and public involvement with their October 2016 Comprehensive Plan “Update”

In October 2016, Mayor Murray and the City Council passed a Comprehensive Plan “Update” repealing a wide range of protections for livability and public involvement throughout Seattle, especially in the 37 urban villages like Eastlake. Below is the sad and outrageous story.

The 1994 Comprehensive Plan designated 37 neighborhoods as urban villages, with varying degrees of density (highest: urban center; medium: hug urban village; low: residential urban village. Eastlake is a residential urban village). The promise was that while there would be more growth than in single-family zoned neighborhoods, it would be at no more than a level consistent with livability, and accompanied by investments, policies, and neighborhood involvement to protect that livability. Officially terming these neighborhoods as “urban villages,” as the Comprehensive Plan has done since 1994, was a promise that while growth would come, it would be no more than is consistent with the intimacy and scale of a village.

Hiding the consequences and claiming it was just an “update”, and after being elected on a promise to protect neighborhood character, the Mayor pushed through an entirely new Comprehensive Plan, shorn of the protections for livability and involvement previously in the Comp Plan. The effect was to turn the urban village strategy on its head, denying neighborhoods like Eastlake the protections they had enjoyed since the Comp Plan was first adopted in 1994. Now they are bull’s eyes and sacrifice areas for unbridled growth.

As adopted by the City Council, Mayor Murray’s deletions, changes, and additions in the Comprehensive Plan have now (1) eliminated previous protections for affordable housing and neighborhood character; (2) eliminated previous obstacles to unlimited increases in building heights; (3) allowed wholesale upzones without regard for local conditions and preferences; (4) eliminated the Comp Plan’s neighborhood focus and its support for neighborhood planning; (5) removed previous expectations for yards, landscaping, and trees; and (6) eliminated any balance in parking policies, leaving neighborhood businesses unprotected and making it impossible to restore on-site parking requirements for new buildings. Click here for an alert that listed specific policies and goals worth saving, but which the City Councilmembers went along in repealing.

Why the Comprehensive Plan matters

Since its adoption by City Council action in 1994, Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan has designated 37 neighborhoods as urban villages, distinguishing among them three categories based roughly on level of density, with the least dense being the residential urban villages (examples are Eastlake and Wallingford). Other categories of urban villages are the hub urban villages (examples are Fremont, Ballard, and Lake City) and the urban centers (examples are the University District, South Lake Union, and Capitol Hill),

The October 2016 “update” for the Comprehensive Plan added major new growth expectations for all of these urban villages while removing protections that previously ensured them village-like livability. And to make matters worse, the “update” has Seattle take more growth than it was previously expected to by regional targets, which already had Seattle accepting as its share of growth more new construction per acre and per capita than any other city in the state. By further increasing these already unsustainable growth targets, the Mayor and City Council ensured huge negative consequences for Seattle’s livability. It is a decision that was adopted without the City government leveling with the public about what it was doing.

Policies and goals no longer in the Comp Plan lose their protections in state law

Washington state law (the Growth Management Act) requires cities and counties each to have a Comprehensive Plan, to obey it, to amend it only once a year, and to do so in accordance with City laws and resolutions. Enforcement action can be imposed by the Washington state Growth Management Hearings Board and the state courts.

Unfortunately, the information provided to the public about the draft “update” did not disclose that it would remove many policies and goals from the Comprehensive Plan and that in doing so, it would deny the public the protections that having these policies and goals in the Comp Plan provides under state law. Removing these policies and goals from the Comp Plan (whether dropped completely or put in other City plans that lack the same protections under state law) immeasurably increased the Mayor and agencies’ discretion to ignore or change these policies and goals at will, freed of the state requirements that apply to the Comprehensive Plan.

A failure of transparency in how City government portrayed the 2016 “update”

Mayor Murray and City Council widely publicized the full text of their proposed “update.” But you were largely on your own in trying to discern from the City web site the vast differences between the two documents. In fact, with all the City web site’s hype about the Mayor’s proposals, you were lucky if you could even find on it the actual Comprehensive Plan that then governed.

After months of criticism for its failures of transparency, the City responded weakly with a “crosswalk” document (made available on the Seattle 2035 documents page) that began to identify the many parts of the current plan that would be lost. Unfortunately the crosswalk document didn’t classify or analyze the changes. Also, anything stated in the crosswalk or other City documents didn’t have legal standing, and the actual proposed changes in the Comprehensive Plan were never released in ordinance form, showing by cross-throughs the parts of the current Comp Plan that would be deleted and by underlines the additions that would be made.

That the Mayor’s proposed “update” (really an entirely new Comp Plan) was never provided in ordinance form was a serious breach of open government. In fairness, an ordinance version with underlines and cross-throughs should, as was requested, have been made available to the public before the City Council considered the Mayor’s slash and burn job on the existing Comprehensive Plan. In failing to proved this version of the legislation, the denied to itself and to the public the transparency to show the draft update’s actual changes and the many good parts of the Comp Plan that the “update” furtively repealed.

Links to three public interest analyses for those who wish to explore these issues further–and for those short of time, a briefer set of suggestions

Because City agencies have failed to level with the public about the actual changes in the Comprehensive Plan that the draft update would involve, public interest advocates from around the City have prepared lists of the actual changes, and are pressing the City to be more honest about what it is proposing: (1) click here for the 12-page comment letter that the Eastlake Community Council filed in November 2015; (2) For the 24-page Sept. 2016 comment letter by a committee of the City Neighborhood Council, click here for the PDF, and click here for the Word version of the same letter. (3) click here for the CNC committee’s even more detailed 50-page analysis which it issued in November 2015. And for those short of time, click here for the Eastlake Community Council’s summary of priority concerns.

A sampling of the changes hidden in the draft “update” of the Comprehensive Plan

[Note: As an illustration of ECC’sefforts to prevent the baleful changes adopted in Oct. 2016, the following information is kept the same as it was just prior to Mayor and City Council deleting all of the policies and goals noted below.] Following are some of the most significant features of the current Comp Plan’s balanced policies and goals which the draft update would delete or denature. A goal (those with a G) or a policy (those without a G) is deemed deleted if no similar language survives.
• Deletes policy LU11: “In order to maintain the character of Seattle’s neighborhoods and retain existing affordable housing, discourage the demolition of residences and displacement of residents, while supporting redevelopment that enhances its community and furthers the goals of the Plan.” Effect of deletion: Eliminates current protections for affordable housing and neighborhood character.
• Deletes goal LUG2: “Foster neighborhoods in which current and future residents and business owners will want to live, shop, work, and locate their businesses. Provide for a range of housing types and commercial and industrial spaces in order to accommodate a broad range of families and individuals, income groups, and businesses.” Effect of deletion: Eliminates the Comp Plan’s neighborhood focus.
• Deletes policy LU3: “Establish rezone criteria and procedures to guide decisions about which zone will provide the best match for the characteristics of an area and will most clearly further City goals.” Effect of deletion: Allows wholesale upzones without regard for local conditions and preferences.
• Deletes policy LU34: “Limit the maximum amount of lot area covered by a structure to maintain compatibility with the scale and character of an area, to provide an adequate proportion of open area on a site relative to the area occupied by structures, and to provide occupants with sufficient access to light and air, as appropriate to the intended character and use of an area.” Effect of deletion: Removes current expectations for yards, landscaping, and trees.
• Deletes policy LU39 to “preserve and enhance the City’s physical and aesthetic character and environment by preventing untimely and indiscriminate removal or destruction of trees” and to provide incentives to property owners for tree retention; deletes policy LU41 for street trees; and deletes policy UV39 to enhance the tree canopy and understory in urban villages. Effect of deletion: Trees are no longer specifically identified as important.
• Deletes policy LU81: “Limit building heights to establish maximum heights, maintain scale relationships with adjacent buildings, and limit view blockage.” Effect of deletion: Eliminates current obstacles to unlimited increases in building heights.
• Deletes policies LU1, LU5, LU76, LU164 that currently direct that zoning, rezoning, and conditional use changes reflect community preferences, and be consistent with neighborhood plans. Effect of deletion: Ignores community preferences and eliminates the neighborhood planning process.
• Deletes policies LU59 and LU60, which define and protect single family zoning. Effect of deletion: Removes the Comp Plan’s current obstacles to eliminating single family zoning.
• Replaces policy LU67 with policy LU8.9. Effect of change: Allows ultra small lot development in single family and multifamily zones.
• Deletes goals LUG6, LUG6.1, and TG17 and policies LU20, LU49, LU, LU50, T-39, T-40, and T-46 that currently direct that parking policies “account for local objectives,” recognize parking as a part of “moving people and goods,” consider “access to local businesses,” “parking spillover into residential areas,” and “truck access and loading,” and not “introduce serious safety problems or blighting influences” but rather “achieve vitality of urban centers and urban villages” and “preserve Seattle’s competitive position in the region.” While deleting those goals and policies, the Comp Plan “update” would introduce two new policies: LU63 to “rely on market forces” for onsite parking and T40 to give higher priority in the allocation of street space to “greening” (e.g. on-street parks) over “storage” (the City’s new negative term for parking). Effect of deletions and additions: Eliminates any balance or sanity in parking policies.

If readers find any errors or divergences between what is stated here and what the City Council is considering, or can suggest improvements in this alert or in the more detailed analysis that underlies it, please send them to