Seattle is now in the midst of planning for development through 2035, under the Growth Management Act (GMA). The act requires numerous forums and hearings for citizen involvement to help determine where and how Seattle will absorb future growth over the next 20 years. 

But in one very important respect, citizens were invited to the party after the cake was served. Seattle’s leaders already had met with electeds from around the region and agreed to accept a growth target for Seattle of an additional 70,000 residential units and 115,000 jobs by 2035.

There’s a near-total lack of transparency and no meaningful opportunity to participate in the process or question the veracity of these targets. But once these targets are adopted, they’re wielded like a club by city planners and proponents of density to force further upzoning and cram more growth into the city, regardless of impacts on the physical and social character of our neighborhoods — including affordable housing. 

Citing the GMA mandate to concentrate growth in urban areas, Seattle has upzoned its neighborhoods frequently over the last decade, pushing zoned capacity from about 120,000 units in 2007 (according to the 2007 King County Buildable Lands Report) to more than 223,000 units today (based on figures from the Department of Planning and Development). So why are we seeing a strong push to upzone still more neighborhoods? 

Why upzone Roosevelt when, under existing zoning, it’s reached 300 percent of its 20-year (2024) target in 10 years? 

Why upzone Capitol Hill and Pike-Pine, which have reached 209 and 587 percent of their respective growth targets? 

The University District reached 122 percent of its 2024 target. 

Ballard reached 425 percent of its 2024 target. 

In fact, there are only a few neighborhoods in Seattle lagging behind their GMA-assigned targets, and nearly all our neighborhoods have anywhere from two to 10 times the zoned capacity they’ll need to accommodate their share of 70,000 new residential units through 2035. 

Nevertheless, the Seattle City Council just approved an 18-month work program calling for still more upzones, affecting literally every zoning designation and every neighborhood in Seattle. These zoning changes are the key component in the mayor’s recently announced “affordable housing” plan. 

 

‘The pro-growth machine’

It isn’t the GMA driving these decisions. There’s now a powerful pro-growth machine led by Seattle developers that dictates city land use and housing policy. For these interests, the city will never have enough growth, never reach saturation — more is always better. 

A few mainstream “environmental” groups have joined this effort, providing a “green” cover to legitimize even higher rates of growth in Seattle, especially in communities located around rail stops, where most of our remaining affordable housing is located. 

It’s within this “urban context” where we’ve seen GMA rules and provisions manipulated to legitimize, ironically, much of what the act was designed to mitigate: the impacts of growth on the natural, physical and built environment. 

The GMA was clearly intended to preserve rural areas, farmlands, forests and open space, but the law also was intended to ensure responsible levels of growth within urban settings, as well. Somehow, this latter goal has become obscured. 

In Seattle, among planners and those who justify more density on environmental grounds, there’s no recognition of environmental impacts of accelerated growth right here in our own city. What does the pouring of millions of tons of concrete for all those new steel and glass towers, condos and apartment buildings do to our city’s livability and environmental values, not to mention carbon emissions? What is all this growth doing to our urban streams, our carbon-sequestering mature tree canopy, and what’s left of our open space? How many more units of existing low-income housing must be sacrificed? How many more low-income and working residents must be displaced?

Moreover, the GMA specifically allows — even encourages — cities to impose developer fees. It also recognizes the need for some level of “concurrency,” giving cities authority to limit growth until there’s the capacity and financing to pay for the infrastructure necessitated by that growth.

 

A lock on City Hall

If you call for managed and responsible levels of growth, if you say no to more upzones, if you say developers should pay impact fees to help cover at least some of the infrastructure needed for their projects or pay for replacement low-income housing they demolish, you will be labeled anti-environment and a NIMBY.

Here in Seattle, the GMA is failing us. Perhaps it’s time for the GMA to more explicitly mandate that cities ensure concurrency and impact fees. And let’s daylight the process of setting growth targets and give citizens forums to understand and affect the setting of those targets. 

It would help if the GMA mandated more explicit measures to prevent loss of existing low-income housing in urban settings, to prevent or at least manage the loss of tree canopy in the urban environment and to prevent encroachment upon urban natural areas.

The push for more density and unrestrained growth demonstrates the power of the interests that now have a virtual lock on City Hall. The livability and affordability of our city is threatened. Right now, the GMA isn’t helping. It’s simply become a club to violate and trample green values within the urban setting of Seattle.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.