How Seattle is getting growth right

On Monday I noticed this article in my feed and was sucked in by the very first line: “Among the credible candidates to be the economic capital of the 21st century, the oddest and most reluctant has got to be San Francisco.”

The crux of the author’s argument is that, by every other indicator, San Francisco should be the next great global city — a world-leading hub for technology innovation, a magnet for talent and capital, and a shaper of the global economy — but despite its many strengths the city has so far failed to fully seize this opportunity due to a failure of local civic leadership, particularly on the topics of smart growth and social justice.

This morning, I attended two different briefings on the City of Seattle’s “grand bargain”, struck last year between progressive leaders and the business community to address the exact same issues that are blocking San Francisco’s leap to global economic leadership. The Seattle agreement, embodied in the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (or HALA), stitches together the shared interests and goals of three communities that are often seen as adversaries: property developers, social justice advocates (especially those focused on issues of homelessness and housing affordability) and single-family homeowners. Last year, Mayor Murray challenged these groups to find common ground and present a joint policy solution that would allow Seattle to embrace the continued growth of our global innovation sector, while also addressing the need to keep housing affordable for all income levels, and limiting the impacts on traditional neighborhoods by constraining growth to a small number of “urban villages” located on major transit corridors.

As you’d expect, each of the parties in this “grand bargain” had to give up something in order to get the benefits they sought for their own community: developers had to agree to fund and build housing for residents of all income levels, not just those able to pay the most; housing advocates had to support slightly more generous zoning rules for market-rate development; and traditional neighborhood advocates had to sign up to support greater density and height limits within the “urban village” development zones. None of this came easily, but the resulting agreement forged a strong, broad and deep coalition with the combined weight needed to carry the issue forward through the always-fraught legislative process.

If this “grand bargain” survives the inevitable rear-guard efforts to sabotage or weaken it on the way to full implementation, Seattle will have successfully navigated the fundamental challenge that is currently stalling San Francisco’s global ascendance. If our luck holds and our innovation sector continues as the engine of our own regional prosperity, we may look back and see this bargain as the catalyst that allowed us to challenge San Francisco as “the economic capital of the 21st century”.

I’m incredibly proud of Seattle — from the Mayor and City leaders, to the many citizens who participated in the HALA process — for embracing this truth and creating a plan that will allow us to build a world-class city that has room for all of us, no matter our politics or economic status.

In the words of a San Francisco housing advocate:  “The past is not an option. Going forward we can become either a big city, or else a highly exclusive gated community for the rich.” Seattle’s civic leaders have charted a uniquely Seattle-y course between these shoals, embracing growth while defending our city’s values of social inclusion and cultural preservation. Now it’s time to put those words into action.