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  • Marie McKinsey

West Seattle's Citizen Urban Planners

Updated: Apr 7

Did you know that Seattle's Comprehensive Plan is being updated? Do you even know what the Comprehensive Plan is? If you answered "no" to one or both questions, I am not surprised.

But I am disappointed. There should be more civic engagement than there is. But before I get into that, here's some background.

What Is the Comprehensive Plan?

The City of Seattle adopted its first Comprehensive Plan in 1994, as required by Washington State's Growth Management Act. The plan was described as "... a 20-year policy plan designed to articulate a vision of how Seattle will grow in ways that sustain its citizens’ values."

The Comprehensive Plan affects housing, transportation, economic opportunity, education, equity, arts & culture, climate, recreation - everything that makes up city life.

There have been updates to the Plan over the years. There was a major update in 2014, for example. Now we are in the midst of creating the next version, called the One Seattle Comprehensive Plan. The planning process is expected to be complete at the end of 2024 and, if approved by the City Council, will be adopted then.

Where We Are in the Process

It makes sense that citizens should be at the center of this planning, and in the beginning, we were. But now our participation has been reduced to taking surveys online, and making comments at a limited number of meetings. A public meeting was held last December at South Seattle College to give West Seattle residents a chance to provide feedback about proposed changes to the plan. I don't know how many people attended or what their feedback was. I didn't find out about it until it was over.

So far, the plan update has been flying under the radar. Few people are engaged. Only 2,348 people responded to the online questionnaire the city posted in summer of 2022 to kickoff the planning process. That's just .3% of Seattle's total population of 755,794.

I don't think that is because no one cares. It seems more likely that most had no idea the survey even existed. Plus, online surveys and zoom meetings, which are comfortable and convenient for city staff members, are foreign activities for many citizens. If those are the only ways to communicate, they aren't likely to participate.

The only reason I know anything about the update is that, when I started this blog post, I was curious about when/if one was planned, and I did a Google search.

This does not reflect well on the city. The Office of Planning and Community Development has offered the bare minimum when it comes to communication with the public, giving them cover later if people complain about the final plan. They'll say that citizens were given a chance to give feedback. That's true technically, but disingenuous. It is one reason many citizens mistrust public officials. "They'll just do what they want to do anyway."

According to the city's timeline, we will see a draft of the plan and have another chance to "comment" toward the end of this year. The plan will be drafted by bureaucrats downtown. Then early next year, the Mayor will add his vision for the city to the plan, and from there it goes to the City Council for approval.

To keep up with where things go from here, subscribe to their mailing list - sign up here. Learn more about the update at their Engagement Hub.

Seattle's First Comprehensive Plan

In spring of 1996, I was fortunate to be one of the citizens who participated in the Neighborhood Plan for West Seattle's Alaska Junction, organized by Friends of the Junction (FOJ). The Friends of the Junction was an organization founded by neighbors and merchants who were concerned about the future of the Junction, and who wanted to participate in the process of developing Seattle's first Comprehensive Plan.

Dakota Place West Seattle
Dakota Place, a former City Light power substation, has been transformed into a community gathering place.

The plan introduced the concept of Hub Urban Villages to the city of Seattle. The idea was an early attempt at what today might be called a 15-minute city, where people work, shop and find most of what they need just minutes from where they live. The Alaska Junction in West Seattle was designated as one of those villages.

FOJ members weren't content to let the urban planners downtown decide the future of the neighborhood. Many people in West Seattle eyed the concept of Urban Villages with suspicion, accusing the city of "social engineering," and making the neighborhood a "dumping ground" for development. In April of 1995, a group called The West Seattle Defense Fund threatened to secede from the city of Seattle over the issue.

(Readers of this blog may remember that this wasn't the only time West Seattle folks threatened secession. In March of 1978, they mounted a campaign to leave in the midst of a long running episode of bridge drama.)


My Personal Connection

The politics of the situation were lost on me, however. My husband and I were newcomers to Seattle. We moved here from St. Louis in summer of 1989. We rented a house in Magnolia, and started getting to know the area, with an eye toward buying a house when our lease was up. West Seattle appealed to us because it was an easy commute to our jobs downtown, and housing prices were more reasonable than those in other close in neighborhoods.

We didn't know the backstory of any of the neighborhoods we looked at. We were just focused on price, commute distance, and access to the beautiful views Seattle is known for. In the latter category, West Seattle was the big winner: Alki Beach, Lincoln Park, countless viewpoints, and the commute across the Highway 99 viaduct, ugly as the structure was, offered spectacular views, going to and from work.

At the time, I worked for an advertising and public relations agency with offices in Lower Queen Anne. When I told my co-workers we were planning to buy a house in West Seattle, they tried to talk me out of it. Some said, "You don't want to live over there. That's where RBEs (retired Boeing engineers) go to die." Others told me that we shouldn't consider anything that wasn't north of the Ship Canal. That comment mystified me. It would be years before I learned about Seattle's history of redlining.

I had to admit that my co-workers were right about one thing. The Junction did look like it had seen better days. A lot of empty, boarded-up storefronts, broken sidewalks, dirt and litter everywhere, especially in the breezeway between the parking lot behind Husky Deli and California Ave. and in the alleyways behind businesses. The clothing stores carried merchandise suited to my mother's generation, not mine. It was pretty bleak.

When Friends of the Junction (FOJ) put out a call for local residents to join their Comprehensive Planning teams, I volunteered. I wanted to do something to improve my new neighborhood.

How the Process Worked

We were offered a choice of committees to serve on: Economic Development, Transportation, Housing and Land Use, Parks & Open Space, Cultural Arts, and Human Development and Public Safety.

I chose Parks and Open Space. Shortly after moving to West Seattle, I had decided to change careers. By the mid-90s, I had a degree in landscape design and environmental horticulture from South Seattle College. This volunteer opportunity seemed like a perfect fit.

The committees were organized with a team leader who was either a City of Seattle employee or someone who had worked with the city on projects in the past.

The committees combined the best of both worlds. Citizens know what needs to be done in their community, but are frustrated with the city beaucracy. City officials know how to work with city departments, find money, make connections, and get things done. But they don't have first-hand experience of life in a particular community or what people really need.

Put the two together, and problems get solved.

The team leader for the Parks & Open Space Committee was landscape architect, Peggy Gaynor. Noted for her work restoring urban habitats, she had a passion for integrating green space with the built environment.

Our job was to take an inventory of what parks and open space we had; determine if those spaces could be improved or expanded; and survey the Junction neighborhood to look for opportunities for pocket parks, P-Patches, green streets, and outdoor recreation.

We never met indoors. Once a week for about 6 weeks, we met on a sidewalk in the Junction and decided what to look at. Often, we piled into Peggy's van to visit nearby sites that she, or one of us, thought had promise.

On the days between meetings, we saw our neighborhood with fresh eyes - looking not at what was rundown, but at what was good and what had potential. I loved it when we met and went out to look at what we found, and talk about the possibilities. Those were the best "meetings" I've ever attended.

We discovered unexpected things that would never have come up if we met at an office or at a hearing downtown. For example, one of our committee members walked with a noticeable limp. She had had polio as a child and, then in her 30s, couldn't walk very far without needing to stop and rest. She told us that she would like to explore the neighborhood more, but there weren't benches where she could sit for a few minutes.

We looked around and realized she was right. It never occurred to the rest of us, who had no trouble walking long distances, that this could be a problem. Not just for her, but parents with young children, friends who want to stop and chat, and anyone with mobility issues. We added benches to our list of recommendations. (All these years and two hip replacements later, I can now say that we still need more benches.)

Another example is Dakota Place Park. This property belonged to Seattle City Light. The building was originally a substation for the utility. It was scheduled to be decommissioned in a few years, and the city hadn't yet decided what to do with the property.

Peggy knew about this because of her work with the city. The rest of us had no idea what the building even was. (We didn't yet have the West Seattle Blog to keep us on top of things like this.) She told us that if the community couldn't come up with an idea for what to do with the building, the city was probably going to sell it to a developer. That information would never have come up in a public meeting downtown or in an online survey.

Committee members quickly agreed that it should be used as a community center. We knew that spaces large enough for public meetings, wedding receptions, classes, and events were in short supply. We added that recommendation to our list.

I don't know how other committees organized themselves. What I do know is that they never left the neighborhood when they met. Once a week there was a general meeting that brought the team leaders together to let each other know what progress was being made in their committees.

And that matters. Getting together and talking about what needs to be done, where it needs to be done, is how problems get solved. This isn't a job you can do remotely.

Recommendations from the committees were compiled into the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Plan. Recommendations from the committees start on page 12. You can find the specifics of what our Parks & Open Space Committee recommended starting on page 42.

What Was Accomplished

The changes in the Junction from 1995, when we created the neighborhood plan, and the end of 1999, were astonishing. Here are some highlights.

  • The West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Area had an office on the east side of California Ave., near where Curious Kidstuff is today. There people could drop in, pick up bus schedules, pay their City Light bills, get information about city departments and services, report problems, and of course, complain. The woman who managed the office at that time had a genius for finding bits of money that could be put toward fixing sidewalks, making repairs, cleaning up litter, and a host of other improvements.

  • Street trees were planted along California Ave between Oregon and Edmunds. More trees were planted along residential streets adjacent to the business core.

  • The long-anticipated ArtsWest Playhouse opened.

  • The proposed Triangle Park at the intersection of Alaska, 39th, and Fauntleroy was designed and installed.

  • Sidewalks were repaired.

  • New businesses began to move in, and older ones began to refurbish their storefronts.

From left, the owners of Curious Kidstuff removed old sheets of corrugated iron that covered the facade and windows of the building; the Menashe family gave their storefront a facelift and restored the historic clock in front of their business; Tom Henry, former owner of JF Henry, restored the facade of his building, which is now home to John L Scott Real Estate. (Photos from respective business' websites or promotional material.)

Other improvements suggested in the plan took longer. Here is a partial list.

  • Dakota Place Park

  • Solstice P-Patch - Lincoln Park Annex

  • Traffic calming "humps" mid-block on California Ave. One south of SW Oregon St., one south of Alaska SW.

  • New mixed-use developments added more housing and retail space in the heart of the Junction.

  • Junction Plaza Park

Junction Plaza Park under construction. Photo credit: West Seattle Blog

No one believed this lot would become a public space because it was too valuable as commercial property. But finally, in 2010, construction of the park began. Today it is a gathering place that brings Junction residents together for Holiday Tree Lightings, memorials, and other events.

(It makes me laugh to remember that our committee suggested that this lot be used for a P-Patch. We were SO desperate to find empty space that would work for a community garden, and that was one of the few properties that seemed to work. We also suggested the Lincoln Park Annex site, well outside the Junction boundaries, which did eventually become a P-Patch.)

The Benefits of Citizen Involved Planning

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if every four years or so, we replicated the planning process from 1995. It wouldn't have to be as elaborate as the first one, but it would have been an opportunity for city urban planners, and citizens to come together, assess challenges and opportunities, and plan for the future.

If it was done city-wide, perhaps we would have avoided, or at least minimized, some of the problems we are facing today.

There are many ways citizen planning benefits both city officials and citizens.

  • Creating teams that combine both city employees and residents gets people out of the pattern of "us vs. them." It puts everyone on the same path with the same goals.

  • When citizens are involved in the plan, they feel a sense of ownership and pride when things get done. I feel good when I see people gathered in Junction Place Park, or drive past Dakota Place, or see the street trees along California Ave. strung with lights in winter.

  • When citizens are involved, items are addressed that, in a top down process, would never come up. These items, like installing benches and planting trees, are often simple things to do, and they improve quality of life for everyone.

  • When children grow up in a community where the adults they know are actively involved in planning and implementing improvements, it shows them what it is to be a good citizen. It also gives them hope for the future, seeing what they will be able to do when they are older.

  • Citizens who take part in planning become part of a pool of good potential candidates for elected office. They know their neighborhoods, what is needed, what works, and how to get things done.

I hope you will take some time and read through the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Plan. I am, of course, biased, but I believe it is a good example of how citizens and city planners can work together and accomplish great things.

At this point, I don't know how meaningful (not token) citizen involvement can be incorporated into the current Comprehensive Plan update process, but I wish someone would try. Seattle would be better off for it.

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