Guide to the Comprehensive Plan in Seattle

 

Early Planning Efforts

Municipal Plans Commission and The Bogue Plan

Seattle's first efforts at comprehensive planning started with Virgil Bogue, a civil engineer charged with creating a plan for the city. In the municipal election of 1910, Seattle voters passed an amendment to the City Charter that created a Municipal Plans Commission. The Commission was charged with devising "plans for the arrangement of the city with a view to such expansion as may meet future demands."

Civil Engineer Virgil Bogue was hired to draw up the plans. Bogue had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted in designing Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and he also had lived and worked in Seattle. A core element of Bogue's plan was a grand Civic Center which focused on the newly available land made available with the regrading of Denny Hill. The location, however, was one of the most controversial parts of Bogue's plan for the citizens of Seattle, which many citizens felt was too far from the City center.

The Civic Center was only a small part of Bogue's plan. His two-volume report included an elaborate and well thought out transportation system, including rapid transit; a plan for the Seattle coastline; and a proposal for an expansion of the parks and boulevards, including a recommendation to set aside Mercer Island as an "island park - a people's playground, worthy of the city of millions which will someday surround Lake Washington."

Bogue's plan was heavily influenced by the City Beautiful Movement and the scientific rationalism of the Progressive Era. The concept behind his plan was that disciplined, rational planning could ameliorate city problems and foster cooperation between the public and private sectors as well as between the various levels of government.

The plan was the subject of much political debate within the City; when the plan went up for a vote in March 1912 it was defeated almost two to one. On the same ballot was a measure to fund construction of a County Courthouse between Third and Fourth Avenues between James and Jefferson Streets. The Courthouse issue passed two to one.

Zoning Commission 1920-1925

The Municipal Plans Commission disbanded when its report was completed in September 1911. In 1920, the City Zoning Commission was established by ordinance. Consisting of six citizens, the City Engineer, Superintendent of Buildings and the Park Commissioner, the first meeting was held on March 20, 1920. In 1921, $5,000 was appropriated for the Commission's work and a survey of the city was begun. City Plan Engineer Harlan Bartholomew of St. Louis spent three days with the Commission. By June 1922, proposed zoning ordinances were presented in public meetings. After more than 80 meetings, the zoning ordinance was presented to City Council in early 1923, becoming law in June 1923. The Zoning Commission continued to advise the Council in proposed zoning amendments to the maps and adjustments to the text.

Planning Commission 1924-1947

In 1924, the Zoning Commission was dismissed, and a Planning Commission formed. In the Commission annual report for 1928, they stated "one primary need continually obtrudes itself into the vision of accomplishment, viz.: the lack of any comprehensive plan having consideration for the needs of the future to serve as a framework into which the various projects should fit." In 1929 the initial membership was increased from 21 to 25 and consisted of community members, the City engineer, a Councilmember and other officials and business leaders. The Commission acted as a consulting body advising the Council on street proposals and other projects as well as recommending civic improvements. The street improvements they recommended included Campus Parkway, Empire Way (Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Delmar Drive, and the Ballard-University Highway (Market Street). Business zoning was recommended, as well as widened thoroughfares, as a way to justify special assessments. By 1930, however, the Planning Commission was abolished. Critics felt at 29 members, the Commission was too large, and that it encouraged special interests.

A second nine-member Planning Commission was created in June of 1930 consisting of five community members, the City Engineer, Superintendent of Buildings, President of the Park Board and a member of City Council. The new Commission focused on the zoning ordinance, and planned for a major street plan, and evaluating population trends. In 1945, Harlan Bartholomew was brought in as consultant again, this time to look at a Public Buildings area. Through 1945, the Planning Commission focused primarily on zoning issues. The commission also completed studies on a Civic Arts Center and the Green River Valley Industrial area. In 1946, the Commission was approved as part of the charter; by 1948 its budget had increased to $28,000. As the limitations of the 1923 zoning ordinance became clear, more emphasis was placed on comprehensive planning. John Spaeth was hired as the city's first Director of Planning in 1947 and Ladislas Segoe of Cincinnati was brought in to lead the work in developing an overall comprehensive plan.

Comprehensive Plans 1957-1990

In 1957, Seattle adopted it first Comprehensive Plan "in principle" with Resolution 17488, which was modified in 1959 by Resolution 18100, based on the work of the Planning Commission. It focused primarily on transportation, specifically the automobile, and protecting single-family homes. The 1957 Plan addressed "the most appropriate use of land, lessening traffic congestion and accidents, making provision for adequate light and air, avoiding undue concentration of population, promoting a coordinated development of vacant areas, encouraging the formation of neighborhood and community units, and the conservation and restoration of natural resources." The Plan was presented in the form of an illustrated map.

Various amendments were made to the Comprehensive Plan until 1978 when the City started relying instead on land use policies. The last major revision was made in 1965.

Partly due to a shift away from the urban design approaches of the City Beautiful movement and toward a focus on policy planning, the City stopped issuing their own comprehensive plan in 1978, relying instead on land use policies. Those policies drove a significant review of the City's land use regulations, resulting in the adoption of new zoning policies, including regulations that supported mixed-use development through the 1980s.  

The Comprehensive Plan 1994-Present

The State of Washington passed the Growth Management Act in 1990, requiring the City to prepare a Comprehensive Plan. Regionally, the goal was to protect forested areas and create density policies in urban areas based on neighborhood plans. A required piece of the comprehensive Plan was a future land use map designating land use. This included a 20-year growth management plan as part of regional and county plan. Other State legislation passed in the early 1990s affecting land use policies were the State Environmental Protection Act (1970) and the Shoreline Management Act (1971).

From 1990 to 1992, extensive community outreach was conducted by the Department of Planning to determine Seattle's core values. A draft Plan Comprehensive Plan Framework Policies was published in 1991 for public comment and the Mayor's Recommended Framework Policies published in 1992. In 1993, the Mayor's Recommended Draft Comprehensive Plan published with public meetings and workshops following. The Final Comprehensive Plan was submitted for City Council Review in 1993. Toward a Sustainable Seattle was Seattle's first comprehensive plan complying with the State legislation and was adopted in 1994. Copies of the plan are available as an attachment to Ordinance 117221 and in Legislative Department Central Staff files, as are the Appendices.

Urban Village Strategy and Neighborhood Planning

Seattle's Comprehensive Plan was developed around an "urban village strategy" which focuses growth in mixed-use neighborhoods with good access to jobs, transit, and services. The City's urban villages are intended to accommodate a mix of multifamily and commercial development in walkable communities.

In response to concerns regarding the impact of the urban village strategy on neighborhoods, a Neighborhood Planning Office was created alongside adoption of the Comprehensive Plan in 1994. The Neighborhood Planning Office managed neighborhood planning in the 1990s, which provided funds to neighborhood to develop their own neighborhood plan, usually with the assistance of an outside consultant. The Council reviewed and approved 37 neighborhood plans, including "Approval and Adoption Matrixes" which identified specific actions to be taken to implement the neighborhood plans and amendments to the Comprehensive Plan. The Neighborhood Planning Office was disbanded upon the completion of the plans.

The Comprehensive Plan is required to be updated every seven years if funding is available; in practice, it has been updated about every ten years. Annual updates are voluntary and occur often. Updates are documented as amendments to the Comprehensive Plan as Clerk Files and Resolutions.  The last major update was in 2016.

An early focus of the Comprehensive Plan was environmental and sustainability issues. As a result of the most recent update, race and social justice is a primary focus of the current plan, Seattle 2035, adopted by Ordinance 125173.

Related to the Comprehensive Plan is the Capital Improvement Plan, which operationalizes the Comprehensive Plan. There are also separate transit, bike and parks and open space plans, which implement the policies of the Comprehensive Plan.

Additional Related Resources at the Seattle Municipal Archives

Early Planning Records

City Planning Commission, 1927-1953

1994 Comprehensive Plan and Related Documents

  • Sustainable Seattle, "The Sustainable Seattle 1993 / Indicators of sustainable community / A report to citizens on long-term trends in our community," January 1, 1993 (Document 5491)
  • Planning Department, "Report back to the community on Seattle's comprehensive plan 1994-2014 / Toward a sustainable Seattle," September 1, 1993 (Document 1404)
  • Planning Department, "Toward a sustainable Seattle / a plan for managing growth / the Mayor's recommended comprehensive plan," March 1, 1994 (Document 1400)
  • Planning Department, "Final environmental impact statement / The mayor's recommended comprehensive plan / Toward a sustainable Seattle," March 1994 (Document 12017)
  • City Council, "Preliminary City Council comprehensive plan / Toward a sustainable Seattle / a plan for managing growth 1994-2014 / draft for public review and comment," June 7, 1994 (Document 1296)
  • Planning Department, "An issues guide to the Mayor's recommended comprehensive plan / toward a sustainable Seattle," March 1, 1994 (Document 1397)
  • City Council, "A vision for the future / Toward a sustainable Seattle / A plan for managing growth / Draft," May 31, 1994 (Document 4753)
  • "Toward a sustainable Seattle: A Plan for Managing Growth 1994-2014" (Box 34, Folder 7, Record Series 4603-01)
  • Appendices to 1994 Comprehensive Plan (Box 37, Folder 8, Record Series 4603-01)

1995-1999

  • Neighborhood Plans, 1994-1999 (Record Series 5762-01)
  • Strategic Planning Office, "Seattle's comprehensive plan / Toward a sustainable Seattle / A plan for managing growth 1994-2014," November 25, 1997 (Document 10285)

Comprehensive Plan 2000-2020

  • Department of Planning and Development, "Comprehensive Plan 10-year update: City staff recommended amendments," April 1, 2004 (Document 7764)
  • Department of Planning and Development, "Seattle's comprehensive plan / toward a sustainable Seattle / a plan for managing growth 1994-2014 / January 2005," 2006 (Document 7387)