Developing Stories: Neighbor Power

Why neighborhood plans work better in Seattle

Developing Stories: Neighbor Power

Austin's neighborhood plan process is grounded in the best of intentions – to help neighborhoods control their own destinies, build community and neighborly consensus, accommodate diversity, and intelligently plan for growth. But talking with citizens who've actively participated in the grueling one- to two-year process of crafting a neighborhood plan with city staff, one might think the city's goal was instead to foster widespread citizen frustration, mistrust, and disappointment. While it has yielded positive results in some specific areas, the process – which over the past 10 years has yielded plans for about half of Austin – has earned poor satisfaction ratings from many participants.

"There is great frustration about both the process and what kind of weight the plans have at the end," attests Austin Neighborhoods Council President Laura Morrison. Echoed community and neighborhood advocate Tim Mahoney, "There's frustration everywhere – among both city staff and citizens – with the quality of the product we're producing."

That widespread angst – coupled with a faith that the process and its outcomes can improve – was evident May 5 at the 2007 Neighborhood Planning Conference ( organized by an ad hoc convening committee that included Morrison and Mahoney. The second such annual conference, it offered more than 40 citizen-led workshops; the attendees, presenters, and conveners included Planning Commission members (Chris Riley, Cid Galindo, Dave Sullivan), planning staff from several city departments, council aides to Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken (with a cameo appearance by McCracken), UT folks, and a cross-section of citizens active in their neighborhood associations and neighborhood planning teams. The conference theme was Capacity Building, but all workshops related back to improving the city's official process.

Like other citizens close to the neighborhood plan process, Morrison and Mahoney identified core problems: the city's lack of an effective administrative structure for turning plan recommendations into action and positive results and a lack of political will to truly empower neighborhoods. Also troubling have been opaque city agendas that lead staff to counter or "edit" neighborhoods' true wishes and staff refusals to provide planning data requested by neighborhood teams. For example, the South Lamar Combined Neighborhood Planning Area team broke off its plan process (after almost a year of meetings) because of refusals or ineptness by city staff asked to provide them with data; the group still is seeking data on the four neighborhoods' capacity to add density under existing zoning and on infrastructure capacity – roads, sewer system, etc. The city has had to engage UT's Center for Dispute Resolution to assist the SLCNP process.

Many of the problems point to a need for process improvements – or a complete rethinking. Morrison said Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman had committed last year to some basic (but yet to be fully realized) improvements by city staff: more advance work to build inclusive and broad-based stakeholder groups, improved facilitation of stakeholder group meetings, and better implementation of each plan's recommendations. In neighborhoods with completed plans, in all quarters of town, participants tell of their disillusionment as the realization slowly dawns that only a neighborhood plan's land-use restrictions – written into zoning code – have any "teeth." All the other heady stuff the teams worked on for long months or years – hopes and dreams, visions, and recommendations – can't stop a developer (or the city), as it turns out, from acting in opposition to a neighborhood plan. Word-of-mouth among neighborhoods has gotten so bad, city planning staff encounter mistrust and suspicion from the very first meeting with a new group – which doesn't help.

Seattle Best Practices

Fortunately, Neighborhood Planning Conference lead speaker Jim Diers, the founding director of the Department of Neighborhoods for the city of Seattle and author of Neighbor Power, rallied the troops with inspirational stories of successful community empowerment in the Pacific Northwest. Warm and upbeat, Diers radiates the kind of glass-half-full optimism that inspires others to believe and get engaged. In his conference talks, and over a leisurely breakfast the next morning at Las Manitas, Diers convincingly made the case that neighborhood plans alone can never be enough. To turn plans into results, a city must adopt policies – and provide funding – that give neighborhoods real power and autonomy to take action. "People are responsible when you give them responsibility," Diers observed. "NIMBYs are created by top-down solutions." In his experience, a city is most successful when it focuses on this question: "How do you support a community in working on their own priorities, through their own organizations?"

In 1999, the Seattle City Council finished the approval process for 38 long-range neighborhood plans done over the previous year, following on its 1994 comprehensive plan, Toward a Sustainable Seattle, as required by Washington state's Growth Management Act of 1990. Diers noted that because more than 20,000 watchful citizens from every part of the city were invested and engaged in neighborhood planning simultaneously, council had a tremendous mandate – which translated into political will – to follow through with effective action. (What council member hoping for re-election would risk antagonizing every single neighborhood in town?) In all, more than 30,000 people had made more than 5,000 recommendations, said Diers; it was clear that the city needed an effective administrative process simply to process them.

While enlightenment isn't perfect on Puget Sound, of course, over the past decade Seattle has demonstrated an impressive commitment to real neighborhood empowerment. Our sister progressive city has developed many successful policies and practices that deserve close study – as models that could accelerate improvements to neighborhood planning here in Austin.

Three bright ideas follow; more will follow next week.

Best Practice: A City Fund for Neighborhood Projects

In Seattle, neighborhoods don't have to wait in frustration for the city to execute and fund the projects they care about. Instead, neighborhood groups (formal or informal) can initiate their own projects – and get 50% matching funding from the city. Community members fundraise and make in-kind contributions of time and materials, all of which are credited toward the matching funds. Diers said this one initiative has been tremendously effective in helping people feel – and truly become – empowered and engaged in improving their immediate neighborhoods.

The matching-fund idea started small, with just $150,000. Diers said it was so successful that the city immediately increased the fund to $1.5 million; the mayor has since tripled it to $4.5 million. About 400 neighborhood-initiated projects get completed each year, said Diers; more than 3,000 creative ideas for neighborhood improvement have come to fruition in all. "Neighbors come together to design and build new parks, plant community organic gardens, and do public art projects," he noted. Applications are competitively reviewed and rated. Subcategories include a large projects fund, a small projects fund, a tree fund, and an outreach and development fund. It's been a win-win for the city budget, too; Diers said that to date, $35 million in matching city funds have leveraged another $50 million in community resources (including volunteer hours).

"It's been a great way to build capacity, and it's led to all kinds of innovations," said Diers, citing ideas that have sprung out of a single neighborhood and spread across the city. Notably, the program helped to change the tenor of the dialogue between neighborhoods and city government; previously in Seattle (as in Austin) interactions tended to become confrontational. (Back in the day, Diers first came to the mayor's attention when he released a live chicken in the mayor's office, as part of a protest.) "It's built community by involving tens of thousands of people – and given people a way to get positively involved besides going to meetings."

Best Practice: A Bond Issue for Neighborhood Plan Implementation

According to Diers, Seattle voters approved a $470 million bond issue specifically for neighborhood plan implementation, to fund projects recommended in their plans. City government identified common themes across the plans in crafting the bond package. "Put on the ballot what people have asked for, and they're going to vote for it," Diers observed with a smile. While the projects funded were not dissimilar to those in Austin's 2006 bond election, the community satisfaction was different because voters saw the city acting to fund exactly what they'd asked for in their neighborhood plans – which fostered more trust and partnership, said Diers.

Best Practice: Track and Execute "Top 5" Projects

After a few years, Seattle recognized that it needed to better prioritize the neighborhood projects that get attention and funding from both the city and community groups.

In 2003 Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods asked its Neighborhood Plan Stewardship Groups and District Councils to help prioritize the most important action items within their neighborhood plan recommendations. Each neighborhood identified its Top 5 projects; these were collated into a master database used to actively track neighborhood plan implementation. More than a dozen city departments came together to evaluate each of the identified priorities; the city demonstrated commitment to getting the most vital jobs done by assigning project managers. Staff shared comments across departments to promote information-sharing, foster better coordination, and ensure that projects were correctly assigned to city departments. After more planning, departments incorporated the prioritized projects into their individual capital improvement plans – a critical step for transforming "good intentions" into execution and community-satisfying results.

Austin lacks a system that ties departmental capital improvement plans directly to projects in neighborhood plans, noted ANC's Morrison. Our city says only that neighborhood plans "may provide guidance ... in influencing" capital improvement program expenditures.

That's not exactly empowering. end story

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