Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales Breaks Down the Comprehensive Plan

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On this midweek show, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales stops by to discuss Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan with Crystal and how this roadmap, which determines the manner in which the City accommodates growth, plays a critical role in issues that affect our day-to-day lives. Councilmember Morales fills us in on how the Comp Plan and its impending update is an opportunity for us to create a vision for what our communities look like, whether it be addressing historic inequities, tackling climate change, or realizing sustainable, healthy, connected neighborhoods across the City. The show wraps up with details on how to get involved with the Comprehensive Plan update and guide what Seattle looks and feels like in the future.

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.

Follow us on Twitter at @HacksWonks. Find the host, Crystal Fincher, on Twitter at @finchfrii and find Councilmember Morales at @CMTammyMorales.

Councilmember Tammy Morales

Councilmember Tammy J. Morales was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2019.

As an experienced community organizer and advocate, Morales worked for the Rainier Beach Action Coalition and served as a Seattle Human Rights Commissioner.

Morales is trained as a community and regional planner, and has spent her career working with frontline communities on local issues including food security, displacement in low-income neighborhoods and community-centered development.

Morales previously served as a Legislative Director for a state representative in Texas, as a city budget analyst in New York, and ran a successful consulting firm on food access research and programming, with clients such as the City of Seattle and King County.

Morales has been a Seattle resident for nearly 20 years. She is a mom with three kids - two in the Seattle Public School system and one a proud Viking at Portland State.

Resources

Seattle Reveals Rezoning Concepts and Invites Scoping Comments for Big 2024 Update” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist

Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan | Office of Planning & Community Development

One Seattle Plan | Office of Planning & Community Development

Seattle Within Reach - Presented by Councilmember Tammy Morales - A town hall series about how we build a Seattle in which everyone has the ability to live, work and play - within reach

One Seattle Plan Community Meeting Series - In-person community meetings throughout Seattle

Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, I am so thrilled to be welcoming back to the program, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. Welcome back.

[00:00:47] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Hi, Crystal. I'm so happy to be here.

[00:00:49] Crystal Fincher: So happy to have you here again, thankful for all of the hard work you've been doing, and how you've been pushing throughout the budget process in Seattle - very helpful, and I think especially those connected to community and community organizations - have been appreciating how you've been listening and trying to move in concert with community. And hopefully things turn out well on the backend. But today we're actually going to talk about the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, which is a whole undertaking. So I guess starting out, what is the Comprehensive Plan? What is this thing and why do we do it?

[00:01:36] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Sure. So the plan is really a guide for us about how, as a city, we plan to accommodate growth - where that growth will go. It's really a vision and kind of a roadmap for where we plan to locate housing, where we think job centers should go, also how we invest in transportation, where we might put parks, utilities. It is technically a requirement from the State Legislature. In 1990, the Legislature adopted the Growth Management Act, and that does require the City to prepare a Comprehensive Plan really for how we will grow over the next 20 years.

So we update this - every plan has to include what they call elements, which is basically different chapters that need to be included. So ours includes land use, housing, transportation, parks and open space, utilities - there's a couple others in there - capital facilities, port because we are on a port. And it really does regulate development so that we can curb sprawl. It was really intended to be a way to help protect environmentally sensitive areas surrounding urban areas - in our case, to make sure that we are protecting our farmland, our waterways in King County. So we are required to do this, and it is also a way for us, importantly, to be very intentional about how we plan to grow as a city.

[00:03:27] Crystal Fincher: Very good points. And I want to just dive a little more into the issue of sprawl. It's a buzzword that I think a lot of people have heard, but maybe don't understand completely or why sprawl is such an issue. What is sprawl and why do we try to avoid it?

[00:03:48] Councilmember Tammy Morales: So sprawl is really where we start to grow - we start to build housing, business parks, warehouse space, all kinds of ways that cities tend to grow - outside of what might be their seeming boundaries. And it is problematic for lots of different reasons. As I said, in our case, because we could potentially start to grow into our farmland and Washington is a very important agricultural producer and we do rely heavily on our own agricultural production just for our own consumption. It's also important because we are trying to address the very urgent crisis of climate change. And so it's important that as a city, we really try to grow in a way that allows us to have more compact neighborhoods, that really relies on public transit so that people can get around. And it's really also an attempt to try to reduce our carbon emissions as a city so that we can curb what is increasingly really problematic greenhouse gas emissions.

[00:05:17] Crystal Fincher: Great point - all valid. And then, especially with sprawl - sprawl is expensive. I think we see a lot of this - it's a little more challenging in the City of Seattle, which is built out to a lot of its boundaries - and a lot of what we're talking about is how to redevelop stuff, but you can really see it in a number of our suburbs and rural areas. South King County used to actually be a very fertile agricultural area. Kent used to be known as the lettuce capital of the United States.

[00:05:53] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Indeed.

[00:05:54] Crystal Fincher: But - I'm here for your Kent history facts - but as the city grew and houses took over that, industrial lands took over that - warehouses, commercial space - and really paved over agricultural land, which I think some people might reconsider if they had to do it all over again today. Certainly not all of it, portions of it, would have been nicer to preserve - but wetlands, environmental areas, and just growth is expensive. This is city infrastructure that you have to build out, that has a cost, and then you have to maintain. And we talk about needing to handle our existing infrastructure and build more of - and complete the infrastructure, like sidewalks -

[00:06:44] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Absolutely.

[00:06:45] Crystal Fincher: - and bike paths to help everyone get along. And now we're building out further and basically expanding the map of what the City is responsible to do. And oftentimes that's not captured in the cost of development, and that's not captured in the existing tax scheme. So that just ends up adding additional costs, additional responsibilities to the City - which we want to avoid. So coming out of this Growth Management Act - basically mandate underneath it - it's a way to strategically manage growth - which happens. We can't stop it despite weird debate questions that I hear about like - Should we stop growth? That's not really an option. People move to the area. We can't stop them from moving to the area. Usually not a good sign when people don't want to move to the area. So good things are happening. Good things attract people. And that's what we've seen.

Now, the City adopted the current 2035 plan as of 2016. So is this going to be redoing this plan? Is this revisiting this plan? What is happening with this?

[00:07:51] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Yes. So we - as I said, the requirement is to do these for every 20 years. And so it is our time to update our plan. And this is a real opportunity for us, because one thing that we have seen as a city - that our Office of Planning and Community Development has made clear, that our City Planning Commission has made clear - is that the way we have used this Comprehensive Plan in the past has really contributed to some of the inequities that we see in the City. And this is an opportunity for us to update the growth strategy that we have had in the past. It's a chance for us to address the displacement that we have had in the City. And really create a vision for a sustainable city that supports healthy neighborhoods, that creates safe places for people - so it is an important opportunity for us. And we have begun those discussions, which I'm sure we'll talk a little bit later about how folks can get involved, but it's important for us to take a look at this periodically because as we've discovered now, the current Comprehensive Plan really created an equity gap in housing and jobs. And this is an opportunity for us to address that.

[00:09:21] Crystal Fincher: How did it create that equity gap? What in it made that happen?

[00:09:27] Councilmember Tammy Morales: As a city, I will say we have a history of planning without real consideration for communities of color and how they will be impacted. The Chinatown-International District was split when I-5 was put in. We have a history of redlining in the City that really kept Black families and Jewish families and others from purchasing homes in most of the City. Even the very founding of the City on unceded land - over time, all of these decisions compound the effect on communities and really have a negative impact on the ability of these families and their children to grow generational wealth. It affects the ability of these communities to stay intact and has contributed to displacement. So there's a lot of reasons why we need to take a look at this.

So part of the reason for these problems is that we have a 25-year-old strategy that is really centered on this idea of urban villages and urban centers. Effectively, what that means is that multifamily apartment buildings - the ability for them to get built - has really been squeezed into corridors - major transit corridors, arterials, and these urban villages. So that's where we put all of our apartments, while most of the City is reserved for single-family homes. And this has really created a tale of two cities, if you will, where wealthy homeowners can live in mostly single-family neighborhoods, and lower-income or even middle-income people get pushed into these corridors where apartments are allowed. There's all kinds of reasons why that is problematic, not the least of which is that it creates environments where lots of housing and the people and children and elders living in that housing are on, in many cases, dangerous roads exposed to higher auto emissions. It just creates this cascade of problems for the people who are living in those areas. So there's, as I said, an opportunity for us to rethink that particular strategy and rethink how we can create a more equitable array of options for where people live and what they're able to afford.

[00:12:21] Crystal Fincher: So what are the options, the alternatives being considered?

[00:12:25] Councilmember Tammy Morales: We've got several. There are five different options that the Office of Planning and Community Development are looking at. All of them are intended in some ways to address this. I will say - I think part of the priority for this phase that we're in right now - we're in this kind of research phase called the Environmental Impact Statement that they are drafting, and that will be looking at five different options. The first is basically No Action, so just continue to follow the existing plan that we have - putting most of our housing in urban centers and urban villages. There's one that they're calling Focused. Each of them basically offers slightly broader perimeters around these urban centers where different types of housing can be built. And so that is the conversation that we will be having over the course of the next year is - what do these different alternatives mean? What's the difference between an urban village and an urban center? What does it mean to build along a corridor versus building more broadly throughout a neighborhood? Does my neighborhood have an industrial center? - because that's another piece of the decision making that happens here. And so throughout the next year, we will be talking about the different ways that we could be building. How broadly do we want to move into what is now - well, it used to be called single-family zoning - now everything is called Neighborhood Residential zoning. So how much do we want to change the kind of housing that's allowed in these different areas? And that will be the discussion.

We know that we have grown so fast as a city, faster than I think anybody anticipated. And we didn't plan for that. We grew by almost 130,000 people between 2010 and 2020, but we only built 70,000 new homes in that same time period. So as an example - I know a lot of people think there's housing going up everywhere, we're building too much - but the reality is that we are short over 20,000 units of apartments that would be affordable for middle-income folks - and I think that's the key. The way we have grown, the housing that we've produced has not been housing that is affordable for working class families. And so that needs to be a really key part of the discussion, because one thing we know for sure is that Seattle can't keep looking the way it does right now if we're serious about addressing equity.

[00:15:42] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:15:44] Councilmember Tammy Morales: And so part of the discussion - we'll just have to ask ourselves what kind of changes need to be made so that everyone can find housing that they can afford in the City.

[00:15:56] Crystal Fincher: So now we're in a place where we're reexamining this, there are some other options - does it pretty much look like no matter what happens that we're going to be expanding the areas that new housing can be built in? Does that look like a uniform feature of the options moving forward?

[00:16:15] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Yes, absolutely. The real question and the conversation will have to be about how far we push. I think there is an interest in allowing more - not just more types of housing, allowing it in more places, more parts of the City - but also allowing a mix of uses. So one of the things that we've been talking about, I've been talking about a lot in my office, is the need to make sure that we have better access to essential services so that we have not just - I'm not interested in just building more units of housing. I think it's important for us to contemplate how we build healthy neighborhoods. And that means that we have small businesses allowed - we allow for more neighborhood commercial space so that everyone can have easy access to a corner store or a small grocery, to childcare, to healthcare, to your bank - credit union, to a neighborhood hardware store. These are the things that help people navigate through their neighborhoods, have access to the essential goods and services that they need - without having to get in a car. And that's how we have the kind of healthy, more vibrant neighborhoods that can also lead us to the climate goals that we have - by reducing our reliance on getting into a car to do everything.

[00:17:58] Crystal Fincher: Which makes a lot of sense. And as we go through this plan, obviously considerations about how we do need to proceed while reaching our climate goals is very, very important. I'm also curious about - talking about building those communities, which those - evidence shows that those are healthier communities, safer communities when they are built like that all the way around. I'm also thinking about just the environmental injustices that have been created by the current way the community is designed and situated, where we have places in Seattle that have average lifespans six and seven years shorter than other areas in the same city - but because of proximity to pollution, because of all of the other factors just from an environmental external perspective that are weighing on these communities, whether it's proximity to pollutants or carcinogens or things that exacerbate asthma, whether it's being in close proximity to roadways and freeways, underneath flight paths - those things all take tolls on health. How, as you move forward in this Comprehensive Plan, are you also looking to make sure that we mitigate environmental harms that have been done and move to prevent future harm?

[00:19:20] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Sure. You make a really good point, Crystal. And I have many of the neighborhoods in my district that do suffer from those health disparities. Georgetown and SoDo and Beacon Hill, the Chinatown-International District - all of these neighborhoods are literally under the highways or along the Duwamish, where air and water quality are affected. And look, the truth is we just can't keep building housing in unhealthy neighborhoods, and the idea that we should build apartments along busy arterials and make low-income people live there does not promote equity and it does not promote public health. So we really do need to be looking at how we reduce emissions, how we support climate resiliency. One of the things that we're working on right now in the budget process is creating Resilience Hubs, so creating the ability in some of our community centers for people to go and be safe during an extreme heat event or a smoke event. So we are planning for these kinds of climate disasters, and we can't at the same time acknowledge that we have to take those steps and still allow for our growth management strategies to include restricting people's ability to find housing only to arterials. So I think there will need to be some analysis of our internal consistency in some of our different city policies, but absolutely climate change is one of the elements for our Comprehensive Plan update and needs to be a part of what we think about.

Another important piece of that is transportation. Something like 30% of our City households are not within a 10-minute access to transit. And I will say - in this particular case, it is not necessarily a racial equity issue because the truth is that it is often fairly exclusive neighborhoods that have less bus service. But for the purpose of meeting our carbon emission reduction goals, we absolutely need more bus service in those neighborhoods too. And we really just have to move from this idea of isolated urban villages to a city of neighborhoods that are well-connected, that are within a walkshed of high-capacity transit, frequent reliable buses. We need safer sidewalks. We need protected bike lanes. We really have to encourage people to get out of their cars. But the truth is that as long as they don't have a safe, easy alternative, people will keep driving. And so we need to make alternatives the easy choice. And I think that has to be part of our conversation over the next year - is how do we create a city that is more sustainable and that protects both the climate and our public health?

[00:22:48] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense. And to your point, this is the opportunity, I think, to really think about and imagine what your neighborhood could be, to really think about the potential that lays ahead and how to capture it. So many times we're forced to think about settling for so many things. Yes, we don't have current transit service that is sufficient - so if I am going to get to work, and pick the kids up from daycare, and make it to a sports practice, or something like that - I have to have my car right now. That's what the current conditions force. But if we are looking ahead to - okay, how can we design our city and how can we design a blueprint that we can build upon that enables these better things? - Why don't we implement that? Why don't we do that? And I think it's a really exciting thing. I'm also a former land use and planning board member, so this is exciting to me. I know a lot of people initially look at it and go - okay, this sounds so boring.

[00:24:08] Councilmember Tammy Morales: No, I can totally geek out on this.

[00:24:11] Crystal Fincher: Yes! But it does impact the way your community, the way your neighborhood looks today - from where and how you park or don't have to park, to what traffic looks like, to what school drop off and pick up, which if you have done that, it's usually a trial and a tribulation, to where your daycare is, to what your commute is - all of those things. If you have to fit in a doctor's appointment, do you have to drive 20 miles away or is it right in the neighborhood? Just all of those things are so key to quality of life, so key to being able to have time for yourself, for your family, for your own pursuits outside of just working and coming home, but even just how you work and then go home, or maybe you're working from home - is all impacted by this design. And so this is an exciting thing for people within the City to get engaged in. And there are a lot of mechanisms built in for engagement with people in the community. What are those?

[00:25:24] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Sure. I'm going to give a shameless plug for a series of conversations that I've been having to try to help folks understand this. It's called Seattle Within Reach. We've had, I think, five conversations with folks about some of these different topics. It's not just me, it's people from around the country - actually around the world, a couple international folks too. So you can find links to those conversations on my Seattle City Council website. But we are also - the City is doing a series of community meetings that I do think it's really important for people to participate in. This will be a chance to learn more about the plan itself, to talk with City staff, and other folks from the community. There are several community meetings. The next one is going to be Thursday, December 1st at Langston Hughes at 6 o'clock. There's one at South Seattle College, December 8th. There's one December 12th - so there are several. They're all in the evening from 6-8 PM in different parts of the city. And we can provide a link on my website, or you can go to the City's Office of Planning and Community Development website and get more information there. But this is just the next set of community conversations.

There is going to be a lot of community engagement for this process. Our Department of Neighborhoods is working closely with the Planning Department as well. We're working with interpreters, with community-based organizations, particularly those who work with immigrant populations to make sure that they get materials that are interpreted, that there are folks who speak different languages who can provide information. So I would say - please reach out to my office. If you don't live in the South End, reach out to your own councilmember to learn more about ways to get involved. But this is going to be a really important opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on what they want the city to look like, the kind of changes you want to see, and the things that you really think should be prioritized in how the City plans for the next 20 years.

[00:27:53] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. So as you're looking through this process, is there anything in particular that you're looking to make sure happens, or any specific changes that you're really trying to implement in this process?

[00:28:09] Councilmember Tammy Morales: As I said earlier, I am really interested in this idea of mixed communities. This is a chance to set a vision for healthy, resilient neighborhoods, to rethink how we grow so that our kids and our elders, and really just our neighbors, can enjoy their own neighborhood without having to drive. I think we have a chance to really increase the kind of housing that we have - this crazy real estate market has been driving a lot of the displacement, so we need to take land out of the speculative market and keep it in community land trusts, for example. We can also take City land off the market and lease it for social housing development, and this would really help keep housing permanently affordable. Because the idea there is that the construction of the housing would be on City-owned land, so it helps ensure permanent affordability. So there are a lot of really interesting ideas that we can start to talk about. We're already talking about some of them in this budget process. I'm not saying it's going to be easy to make some of these adjustments to how we think about growth and about the systems that we have in place now, but that's the point of the Comprehensive Plan - is to rethink the systems that we've been using - to see how we can use them better. And I think in our case, it really is about setting a 20-year plan for a more equitable, more sustainable city so that our kids can grow up in a healthy Seattle.

[00:30:00] Crystal Fincher: Thank you so much for all the work that you have been doing, all the work that you will do on this. We will share in our show notes and on the website all of the opportunities to engage in this process. And please feel free to keep us updated as things proceed.

[00:30:15] Councilmember Tammy Morales: Great. Thank you so much, Crystal. It was really nice to talk to you again.

[00:30:18] Crystal Fincher: Thank you.

Thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. Our assistant producer is Shannon Cheng, and our Post-Production Assistant is Bryce Cannatelli. You can find Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks, and you can follow me @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered right to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.

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