Upzone: Mayor Harrell’s Plan to Grow Seattle


On March 5, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his One Seattle Plan, a proposal for the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the framework that will guide Seattle’s future for the next 20 years and beyond.

Not surprisingly, the long-awaited proposal was guaranteed to spark political fireworks and it did. The draft is now being debated by critics and supporters alike. Details are under discussion at seven community open houses (one in each of the city’s council districts). It also is scheduled for review at an all-city virtual meeting May 2.

City residents are being solicited and urged to submit feedback, emailing comments to OneSeattleCompPlan@Seattle.gov any time before a May 6 deadline. The mayor’s plan (viewable at engage_oneseattleplan) is likely to undergo some reshaping before the Seattle City Council passes a final version by year’s end.

The aim of the mayor’s update of the plan, as highlighted by Rico Quirindongo, director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), is “to make the city more equitable, livable, sustainable and resilient.” He identified the plan’s four core values:  housing affordability, community and neighborhoods, equity and opportunity, climate and sustainability. Quirindongo added, “We are committed to redressing past harms through more equitable zoning and encouraging vibrant and complete communities that build on the diverse character of neighborhoods.”

The top category for Seattle’s densest neighborhoods is Regional Centers, zoned for apartments, condos, office high rises, hotels, and entertainment hubs.  Those most-dense centers are Downtown, Uptown/Lower Queen Anne, First Hill/Capitol Hill, University District, Northgate, and (a new addition) Ballard.

Next down on the density scale are newly designated Urban Centers — formerly known as urban villages. They include Wallingford, 23rd and Jackson, Greenwood, North Beacon Hill, Green Lake, Upper Queen Anne, Admiral Way, Morgan Junction, West Seattle Junction, Othello, and area around the Northeast 130th transit station.

The proposed plan then identifies 24 new Neighborhood Centers throughout the city with  greater density specified than exists today.  These areas will permit four and six-story apartments and condo buildings with ground floor shops, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Urban Neighborhoods are those areas of former single-family zoning that will allow four-plexes on each residential lot, with six-plexes permitted if two of the units are deemed affordable or if they’re located adjacent to major transit stops (light rail or rapid bus transit).

In certain neighborhoods, singled out as having “high displacement and gentrification risk,” the city will allow less density, such as tri-plex zoning instead of what otherwise would be required. Michael Hubner, OPCD long-range planner, says those high-risk areas (places like Rainier Valley, White Center, and parts of North Seattle) comprise less than the 25 percent allowed under the new state law.

Finally, the city identifies Manufacturing and Industrial Centers in SODO, areas along the Elliott Bay waterfront, and in sections adjacent to the Ship Canal.

The mayor’s plan is being sold as encouraging density sufficient to accommodate city population growth for the next 20 years, with Seattle projected to increase by 200,000, and to prepare for an estimated 1 million population by 2050. (Current Seattle population is 757,992.) The goal is to implement “middle housing” as specified in State House Bill 1110, bringing city lifestyle to neighborhoods adjacent to transit and retail.

The plan so far has drawn sharp criticism from two major sources: those who say it doesn’t begin to provide for needed density, and secondly from those who believe that the new plan would create a city that is far too dense, crushing neighborhoods and turning city residents into multifamily apartment dwellers.

An example of the latter criticism was a recent letter to the editor, published The Seattle Times. The letter writer describes Harrell’s proposal as “what happened in Ballard – add steroids – to make all neighborhoods (with wealthy exceptions) uniformly bland and cramped.” The letter foresees developers who will outbid homebuyers, crush available houses, and put up vertical dwelling units at the “affordable” price of $1.1 million each. It concludes sardonically that promotional material ought to say, “You asked for affordability. We couldn’t deliver on that, but we can destroy your neighborhood instead.”

An opposite view has been expressed by Councilmember Tammy Morales, who heads the city council’s land use committee. She didn’t hesitate to damn the mayor’s proposed plan as “far from sufficient to meet city needs.” The mayor’s proposal is drawing equal disapproval from housing advocates who say it won’t accommodate enough growth to keep housing prices from escalating.

Criticism also has been voiced by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-Olympia), prime sponsor of SB 1110, who complained the proposal “doesn’t meet with the spirit of the law.” Her view was echoed by 36th District Rep. Julia Reed and Seattle architect Matt Hutchins who called the mayor’s plan “a big nothing-burger.” Hutchins instead called for 6-8-10 homes per residential lot. Others who have raised questions include the Seattle Planning Commission and the 43nd District Democrats.

The mayor’s Deputy Director of Policy, Christa Valles, was present for the March 11 council briefing where she defended the mayor’s proposal. She highlighted the city’s rapid growth in the past 15 years. She pointed out that, since adaption of the 2015 Comp Plan, the city has added 70,000 housing units, meeting a 20-year growth target in only eight years. Further, she emphasized that growth targets don’t match the city’s zoning capacity. Current capacity for new housing – prior to adoption of the One Seattle Plan — stands at 165,000.

Meanwhile, plan opponent Morales has been working on a pilot development project. Her Connected Communities Initiative — if passed by the council and then approved by voters — would loosen zoning rules for qualifying projects, allow taller and wider buildings, speed construction, eliminate parking requirements, and waive fees if developers worked alongside community organizations. Morales is hoping to gain council approval for her proposed initiative by the end of April.

One controversial provision of Morales’ plan would allow homeowners adjacent to a Connected Communities project to sell to developers in exchange for a “guaranteed unit in perpetuity” in the proposed project. This feature was greeted with skepticism from Morales’ other land use committee members who could foresee legal complications ahead.

Thus far, district meetings have mostly drawn groups of well-organized urbanists calling for vastly increased density — turning low density into high density zoning and mandating more up-zoning along transit routes. There hasn’t been as much presence — at least not yet — on the part of those who customarily come to the defense of Seattle neighborhoods. Among groups not being heard from are those who have supported tree preservation and may find that allowing taller, wider buildings and greater lot coverage will adversely impact the city’s tree canopy.

At those same meetings, advocates pushing for greater density are on shaky ground. They insist that vastly increased housing supply will automatically provide more affordable housing. That’s unlikely to occur. New construction — growing ever more expensive — is estimated to cost $350 per square foot. The townhomes that growth backers want sited throughout will likely cost $850,000 — hardly affordable housing.

The mayor’s plan does permit street corner stores, something state legislators tried but failed to include in HB 1110. However, the idea of a modest amount of retail in low-rise neighborhoods hasn’t been enough for some growth advocates. At one of the district meetings, there were calls for allowing “businesses everywhere,” an idea at odds with livability and community, but part of the desired, 15-minute, walkable city.

The proposed plan has been derided by some residents, none more outspoken than policy wonk Ron Davis, a failed council candidate. He alternated between gratuitous trashing of council president Sara Nelson and ridiculing the mayor’s proposal. In an interview with The Urbanist’s Ray Dubicki, Davis said, “We’ve got a four-alarm fire and the city is suggesting we think hard about how many squirt guns to bring to the fire.”

Whether or not the new, mostly inexperienced city council will do much reshaping and watering down of Harrell’s One Seattle Plan is unclear. Comprehensive planning is a topic that lends itself to techno-speak and wonky interpretation. Few lay people opt to get into the planning weeds unless someone rings alarm bells. Nevertheless, getting the Comp Plan right matters, as it is vitally important to those who care about Seattle’s future.

Bottom line: Will we have rapid growth, possibly imperiling the city’s distinct neighborhoods? Or will the city accept moderate density for new homes and siting businesses, meanwhile trying to improve transportation and quality of life? For now, the urbanists are mobilized better than the gradualists, but the latter usually prevail in the end-game. And remember, 2025 is a mayoral and council election year.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. Yes, Seattle’s population grew strongly between 2000 and 2018. No, that trend does not indicate what the future holds.

    With the high housing prices here, job losses in tech, and the problems downtown is it realistic for the city to be planning for a huge influx of new residents?

    The population of Seattle has been flat for four years, and King County has lost population over that span. New residential construction permitting was at low levels last year – probably because of interest rates and the fact that developers do not see strong demand materializing 4-5 years out.

    Lots of economic storm clouds are on the horizon. The office leasing trends here are abysmal, so employers are not going to be hiring workers from out of state and bringing them here. I read somewhere that Seattle has the highest percentage of individuals working from home of any big city. Visitors to downtown on most days are less than half of the pre-pandemic level according to cellphone tracking data. Public transit use rebounded in other cities more strongly than here.

  2. Americans travel across the world and pay a significant portion of their income to visit dense, walkable cities in other countries. Many of the most beautiful neighborhoods on Earth are very dense. In the US, the Upper East/West Side(s) of Manhattan are examples of beautiful, tree lined dense neighborhoods where people willingly pay exhorbitant amounts for the privilege of living there. This reminds of another point this essay makes, that walkable “15 minute cities” are at odds with livability. I believe the opposite to be true. What makes mixed use zoning so valuable and livable is the ability to walk to a neighborhood restaurant, coffee shop, corner store, instead of having to sit in traffic to get there. These businesses improve the quality of life in a neighborhood.

    To the point of affordability, this is where scale matters. When a neighborhood is very expensive, adding a few new units will only lower the price a little bit, as was mentioned in the essay. Allowing enough new units such that scarcity no longer a significant determinant of the price is the only way truly reach affordability.

    By only planning for 20k more units then a status quo alternative, and not keeping pace with projected growth, the city is planning to become less affordable, it is planning for increased homelessness. The growth projection was woefully wrong the last time around, and Seattle’s affordability and homelessness crisis worsened as a result. It is far better to accidentally prepare for too much growth than too little.

    The draft comprehensive plan in its current form promises a city that is less affordable, with fewer families, and far more homeless people. This outcome might be acceptable to people who prefer to preserve the current built form of the city at all costs, but I doubt most people would agree.

  3. Respectfully, some of the most beautiful and livable neighborhoods are also very dense. People travel across the world at great cost to vacation in European cities, and if density “crushed” neighborhoods then this wouldn’t make sense. The essay posits that livability is at odds with a walkable “15 minute city” but I believe the purpose of such walkability is to make a neighborhood more livable. Being able to walk from one’s home to coffee shops and restaurants and grocery stores instead of having to sit in traffic greatly improves quality of life, and these benefits are only possible in dense, mixed use zoning.

    • Respectfully many travel across the world to visit them but prefer to not live in them particularly when the ones density (mainly Harrel’s way of extracting more tax revenue) advocates create here aren’t special or filled with anywhere near the culture or ambience of those European cities. This especially when big city progressives have turned urban progress into regressive fails. False equivalences are being drawn here.

      • The “big city progressives” and their struggles are just symptomatic. They’re elected to city hall because people want someone to address the inevitable problems that come with unsustainable growth. If conservatives had any answers, they’d now be getting the finger pointed at them for their failures, but they don’t get elected because no one needs what they’re selling.

        No one succeeds at rapid growth. That’s why Seattle isn’t like Paris, it’s why it isn’t the 15 minute city of urbanist fantasies, it’s why the disorder on the streets, it’s why the neighborhoods get uglier and more dysfunctional, etc. Blame progressives for it all, if you want, but ask yourself who really benefits from the growth, and who pays.

    • I have a raft of questions about current urbanist ideas, but never find the opportunity to ask. Maybe you could answer this one for me?
      What are the urbanist ideas for minimizing urban heat islands and the harm they cause?
      Thanks in advance!

  4. Seems like the Comp Plan will give me the final excuse needed to leave Seattle, especially because there is so little protection for trees, outside of Seattle Parks. Was the Comp Plan, like the Tree Cutting Ordinance, written by the Master Builders’ Association? It would appear so.

  5. Hasn’t been as much presence from the people who usually come to the defense of neighborhoods, trees, etc.? Wonder why. Yeah, no … what did you think about that Tree Ordinance? Notice that Master Builders are literally running the Mayor’s office?

    It could seem kind of pointless, and as this goes on, people move out or learn to live with the slow looting. But I think the struggle hasn’t been altogether in vain – for those who have done that work, the many hours wading through the comprehensive plans and ordinances and trying to hold the city to some semblance of honest responsibility to its residents – it has made a difference. It could have been worse.

  6. Pro Density comments are valid for those who want to live without a car, without a yard, without a BBQ, without tomato plants, flowers, a front porch, without green grass and a back door, without a work bench, a garage to work on stuff. Emphasis is communal reliance, eat out, consume, and find all your interests walking or riding public transit. In Seattle we had this covered, with the massive residential component added to Downtown Seattle… some like it… but many do not like it and the massive high rises downtown are all adorned with perpetual FOR RENT signs and a high vacancy rate. Seattle has public school capacity for an additional 10K students, but enrollment keeps shrinking…. families are not buying into the Urbanist Dream.. they are moving to Highway 18 suburbs with 3 car garages. The Urbanists imply unique character to Seattle, as if cultural attributes exist no other place and can’t be replicated or replaced.. yet the plan is to bulldoze and homogenize the neighborhoods in concrete and Hardi-Board… what’s left that’s ‘uniquely Seattle’ Ivars, Dicks, Pike Place Market, and Pro-Sports? Urbanists point to San Francisco, Paris, London… I prefer Seattle 1980 to all of them. What about a bit of high rise density in a rural setting.. a 20 story residential building with set-backs and parking in Granite Falls with incredible views of Mt. Pilchuck. If Density is so great for a community… bring some of it to Yelm, Tenino, Longview. Leave the surviving houses and treed yards in Seattle. Actions speak loud… like city council rep Herbold’s “2nd home” in North Bend.

  7. This is a little bit of a non sequitur but I have been thinking about Seattle’s trees and open spaces lately. With increasing density, there is tremendous pressure to encroach on our remaining open spaces for non-park uses. The most egregious and consumptive recent pressure is to create off-leash dog areas. These sites require many acres and take open space directly out of public use. In fact, many parks have become de facto off leash areas where, believe me, you would not want to take your grandchildren. The landscaping and grass are destroyed and erosion follows.
    But there are many other pressures. The School District wanted to put a “downtown” school at Denny Park and Sound Transit wanted to put a transit station there. Why? Because it is easier to gobble up open space instead of finding more appropriate urban solutions like incorporating these uses into the built environment.
    Many years ago I got a tour of Chicago’s magnificent park system by Erma Trantor, the head of the Friends of Chicago’s Parks. I asked her what was the biggest challenge to the system? She proceeded to show me park by park the monuments (buildings) that had been constructed by this or that alderman in their honor in neighborhood parks.
    There are some great examples of politicians with the courage to avert such uses. When the Rainier Community Center was rebuilt years ago, there was tremendous pressure to retain the old center for community use. But, god bless Council Member Cheryl Chow who prevented the retention of the building. The site was converted to open space and remains open space today.
    What are the solutions? One is to remove responsibility for dog off leash areas to Animal Control. There are many green spaces and hard scape solutions for dog use that are not explored because it is too easy to plop them in parks. Existing off leash areas should be reclaimed and animal control of existing parks should be beefed up.
    This is all a small piece of the urbanization discussion, but we must preserve open spaces if we increase density. The Olmsteds understood this in New York and Seattle and many other cities. Let’s keep it going.

    • Holly.. your observations are spot on. In Seattle the Lime and Coconut song plays out relentlessly: What ever the societal problem is.. the answer is always the same… build baby build. For example the recent levy to build PERMANENT mental health crisis facilities all over King County. What’s wrong with renting office space… if the plan is to solve the crisis… nope… it’s always build build build. Crisis means perpetual in King County. Like the public health centers that turn away people with insurance… plenty of money to build them… now out of money for operation.

    • Thank you for bringing up some good ideas. Off-leash proponents are constantly looking for new park land to use. In one current case SPR is planning to build a dog run right next to a natural are that a credentialed volunteer has spent 30 years restoring, with SPR invitation and support.
      Owners of newer apartment buildings have said the off-leash space they provide for tenants’ pets is not enough, and dogs often destroy the landscaping (green factor). Has the code changed on that?
      With our denser neighborhoods we definitely need better solutions to managing the city’s dogs.


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