Political trouble was ‘baked into the cake’ of Seattle’s sweeping upzoning plan

The idea of allowing developers to build one or several stories higher in exchange for including, or paying for, some low-income apartments is a good one. But our plan was hatched behind closed doors, in meetings not open to the public. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
The idea of allowing developers to build one or several stories higher in exchange for including, or paying for, some low-income apartments is a good one. But our plan was hatched behind closed doors, in meetings not open to the public. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The feeling that City Hall made up its mind how it wanted to make major land-use changes in Seattle without asking the public isn’t just NIMBY paranoia. Several insiders confirmed it during testimony in recent appeal hearings.

The sweeping plan to upzone 27 Seattle neighborhoods to create taller, denser housing has been given the green light, and is almost certain now to sail through City Hall in March after more than a four-year fight.

But some tidbits of insider testimony from a recent challenge to the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan give some clues as to why it has been such a struggle. And also why the fight won’t likely end this spring, as the city hopes.

The first came when a city consultant was asked why there was little consideration of alternatives that didn’t involve broad “upzones,” the term of art for increasing the allowable heights or density limits for buildings that are being newly developed.

“Upzoning is baked into the cake,” he said of the city’s plan.

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Another consultant for the city, former city Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, put it another way. At the time he was hired to get input from various neighborhoods on planning for their growth, and he says he was told by a senior planner at some point that it was moot.

“He said it wasn’t needed as I recall, this section, because the HALA (upzoning) agenda had leaped forward,” Steinbrueck testified. “It had shifted from the comprehensive…

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