Seattle and Renton land use plans win state ‘smart communities’ awards

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by Ben Adlin


Seattle and Renton were among a handful of Washington cities to win awards this month for city planning projects aimed at improving the quality of life in the state.

Seattle has been recognized for its new land use policies to facilitate the development of affordable housing on religious land, which city planners describe as another way to help curb the displacement of Seattle’s historic BIPOC communities. Renton, meanwhile, was awarded for its transit-centric sub-area plan around the Rainier/Grady junction, which the judges said will “create a true transit hub for the County area of South King”.

The Washington State Department of Commerce, which administers the Governor’s Smart Communities Awards program, says the awards are intended to honor “local governments” with “outstanding planning efforts.” It highlights projects that can serve as models for other local governments in Washington, especially in areas such as job growth, housing, transportation, recreation and economic growth.

“It really is a great program,” said Valerie Smith, the department’s assistant general manager of growth management services and the person who oversees the awards. “It helps demonstrate what is actually doable in a city and what the tangible benefits of doing that work are.”

This year’s winners also included the towns of Hoquiam, Kenmore, Bellevue, Langley and Lakewood.

Many of the winning projects this year have focused on housing, Smith says, particularly infill projects aimed at increasing density and creating more housing for low- and middle-income residents.

“We are seeing an increase in innovative and exceptional work around housing,” she said. “It’s such a big topic right now, and has been for a few years, but we’re really seeing some really innovative housing techniques and strategies coming forward.”

Seattle: More affordable housing on religious land

In Seattle, planners have designed land use policies to give religious organizations more flexibility to develop affordable housing. Passed by city council in 2021, the changes are meant to be an additional tool to build more units for low-income residents, planners told the emerald could help slow or even reverse the motion.

“What we’ve done here is provide a development premium for affordable housing on properties owned by religious organizations,” said Nick Welch, senior planner with Seattle’s Office of Community Planning and Development.

The result ? “When churches and other faith-based institutions have a need or opportunity to develop some or all of their property, and they plan to do so with affordable housing, they can now create more housing than they need. might otherwise,” Welch said.

Under the program, affordable housing must be reserved for people earning less than 80% of the area’s median income.

To develop the policies, planners worked with organizations in South Seattle and the Central District, such as the Nehemiah Initiative Seattle, which works to preserve Seattle’s historically black institutions — including churches in the Central District — through Development.

The local changes helped Seattle implement a 2019 law, HB 1377, that required cities to allow additional density for affordable housing on land owned by religious organizations. This law was the result of concerted organizing by religious leaders and low-income housing advocates.

“Throughout the whole arc of this thing, that’s the genesis,” Welch said, “is with these religious institutions, many of whom have seen this as a tool to produce more affordable housing to deal with displacement.”

Daniel Murillo, manager of policy and equitable development at the Seattle Housing Office, said the plan “creates an opportunity for them to maybe help bring back some of those members of their congregation who left, for some reason. whatever, to come back”.

“It’s an alignment between the mission and the vision of this congregation,” he said. “It allows them, as a landowner, to leverage some of that asset for a larger public good.”

The work won the state’s Smart Housing Strategies award. Smith of the Commerce Department said the judges “wanted to recognize the complexity of the work being done and the fact that Seattle was willing to tackle tough issues and go deeper into equity and vulnerable neighborhood planning.”

Of the few development projects already underway under the new rules, the most advanced is the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, on 22nd Avenue and East Union Street. Seattle planners say that before the new policies, the church was trying to change the way its property was zoned — usually a messy and expensive process with no guarantee of success.

The amended land use rules provide more flexibility and therefore more certainty that a potential project can go ahead.

Welch and Murillo say they know the program alone cannot solve Seattle’s housing crisis, but they describe it as an important additional tool in the toolbox. “I think the instructive lesson of this policy,” Welch said, “is that it’s in the control of cities to try to remove barriers and provide whatever tools they can to help affordable housing projects get off the ground. shape.”

“As we look to the future, we would like to build on that,” he added. “Beyond religious organizations, land use is something we want to continue to explore, especially for us in the context of the major update to our global plan, the One Seattle Global Plan, which is now In progress.”

Last year, Seattle renamed single-family housing areas to be called “Neighborhood Residential Zones,” which proponents said reflected a growing need to promote density and mixed-use development.

Renton: transforming a transit hub into a community

Renton won a Smart Communities Award for its development of a sub-area plan around Rainier/Grady Junction, a neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and Southwest Grady Way.

Adopted late last year, the sub-area plan says its goal is “to guide future growth and create a holistic, people-centered neighborhood around the bus rapid transit line ( BRT) and the transit center of Sound Transit”. Priorities included maximizing multi-modal transit options and pedestrian connectivity, encouraging mixed-use development, and creating a neighborhood with a distinct downtown character that still feels well-integrated with downtown. town.

Smith of the Commerce Department said the judges wanted to recognize Renton’s reach to local communities and its ambitious long-term planning. “They’ve done a lot of local engagement on this particular one,” she said, “and the product itself is a planning document to help determine how the area is going to be developed for the five, next 10, 20 years.”

Map from Rainier/Grady Junction Sub-Area Plan

Ultimately, according to Renton’s project website, the goal is high-frequency public transit service alongside a livable community, where residents can run errands without getting into their cars. Benefits also include less congestion and cleaner air.

It was important to craft land use and development regulations with intent, the website says, because studies show that “public transit systems work best when well-integrated and supported by the people who live there.” -to adjacent residences and businesses.

Features of the sub-area plan include more diverse transportation options, such as connecting the new transit hub to expanded cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Zoning changes under the plan also allow for much more mixed-use developments.

Smith of the Commerce Department said the judges were impressed with how much of the planning is applicable to other communities. “Even though it’s very focused on that specific junction,” she said, “the design elements they created are so well done that they can be used by any other community.”

Renton planners highlighted the emerald to the subzone plan itself and a related website, but declined to comment further. Paul Hintz, senior city planner for Renton, said in an email, “We will let the plan speak for itself.

The Renton Mayor’s Office told the Renton Reporter this is the ninth time the city has received a Smart Communities award, making it the most awarded city since the state program began in 2006.

Smith acknowledges that city planning projects can sometimes be murky and difficult to follow, but she encourages Washington residents to reach out to local planners and get more involved in the process. The Governor’s Awards for Smart Communities are based in part on how responsive planners are to community needs.

“I know it’s really technical and complex, but comprehensive planning is supposed to be the vision for the future, and the people who live here have a voice in the future,” she said. “Call your planning department!” Say, “Hey, what are you working on?” They are always ready to help and they are always looking for feedback on how things are going.


Ben Adlin is a journalist and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He has covered Seattle and Los Angeles politics and legal affairs for the past decade and has been an Emerald Contributor since May 2020, writing about community and city news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Rainier/Grady Junction Sub-Area Plan Map.

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