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Seattle Fights Urban Sprawl With `Villages'

LIKE any politician worth his salt, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice can distill his phone book-thick ``Comprehensive Plan'' into a catchy, two-word phrase: ``urban villages.''

The idea is that, rather than allowing the nearby foothills of the Cascade Mountains to be colonized by new suburban developments, the city will try to lure growth inward by creating attractive urban living environments replete with parks, shops, and restaurants, and a convenient mass-transit system.

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Mr. Rice has been talking up the concept for a couple of years now as the city's best way to comply with Washington State's Growth Management Act (GMA) of 1990, which is intended to combat urban sprawl. Now it's crunch time. Under the act, the City Council must approve some version of Rice's comprehensive plan by July 1. While the plan's outline has been on the table for a year, the three-ring binders of fine print just became available in March.

``It's an overwhelming document,'' says Clint Pherson, an urban-design advocate with Allied Arts of Seattle. He says various constituencies are ``flailing'' to offer their input before the City Council vote. The Council has already veered away from an up or down vote on the entire plan, and is instead considering which elements the city must pass into law this year to meet either the GMA deadline or other critical needs.

``I am not a rocket scientist, and I feel like I need to be one'' to understand the plan, Council member Jane Noland confesses to a sparsely attended meeting on the issue.

The plan defines three categories of urban villages: Five areas would be dense, commercially oriented ``urban centers'' where 45 percent of the city's 60,000 anticipated new housing units would be built over the next 20 years. Seven less-dense ``hub urban villages'' and 17 ``residential urban villages'' would account for another one-third of expected growth.

By concentrating growth in these areas, Rice and his planners argue, the suburban swathes of single-family homes that cover much of the city will remain largely free of development.

``It's a political bargain,'' says David Brewster, founder and publisher of the Seattle Weekly newspaper. Ms. Noland wonders whether the bargain will work. She says the plan appears to be based on the assumption that people want to live in denser concentrations, but ``I don't hear that from the community.''

Boosters respond that stand-alone homes are increasingly out of reach financially for many people, and that lower-cost options in the urban villages will find a ready market.

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Bruce Chapman, president of Seattle's Discovery Institute think tank, says the plan's complexity should not be considered a problem: ``I'm very impatient with the idea that a major rethinking of urban growth issues can be made so simple that people can approve it without thinking.''

Besides, he says, the core issue is actually simple: As the 2.5-million-person Puget Sound region grows, will it continue to be by suburban sprawl and a hollowing out of Seattle?

In the two decades since 1970, Seattle's population has actually declined both in numerical terms, shedding 15,000 of its 530,000 residents, and as a percentage of King County, falling from 46 percent of the county population in 1970 to 34 percent today. Even if the urban-village scheme succeeds in drawing the expected 72,000 new residents to Seattle, the surrounding region will still be growing faster than its biggest city.

Chapman argues that, just as Seattle leaders developed a ``forward thrust'' program in the late 1960s to build park, water, and sewer systems, visionary thinking is needed today if Seattle is to retain its reputation as one of America's most livable cities. Though Rice's vision may be headed in the right direction, other observers worry that the costs may be exorbitant. Of the plan's many numbers, few are preceded by a dollar sign. ``That cost component is critical,'' says Mr. Pherson of Allied Arts. ``It's [normally] the first thing you look at, and yet it's the last thing that we're getting.''

Among the costs will be those for new parks, utilities, low-income housing subsidies, new bike and pedestrian paths, expanded bus service, and an experimental van transit program. Meanwhile, the school board is seeking more than $1 billion in construction bonds, and the three-county regional transit authority is considering spending twice that on new rail systems. ``The government class in this town has not faced up to the shortage of money and the shortage of voter confidence,'' says Brewster of the Seattle Weekly. He notes that the school bond has already failed twice at the ballot.

Brewster suggests the city focus on developing the many urban-village areas that are already nearly complete, but avoid costlier urban-renewal projects in areas such Northgate, a relatively undeveloped area that is slated to be one of five ``urban centers.''

Similarly, he would scale back plans for a $400 million Seattle Commons to spruce up the downtown. Not only would the park be expensive, the resulting gentrification might banish precious manufacturing jobs. The most important item on Seattle's agenda should be improvement of the school system, argues economist James Hebert of Hebert Research Associates. Families have been leaving the city, with the average household size now 2.0, versus 2.5 in 1970.

The effort to rope growth back into the urban core is counter to economic trends, Hebert adds. Falling costs of electronic communication and transportation mean that fewer and fewer jobs are tied to big cities.

``There is no reason that people have to live in an urban environment at urban prices. The market doesn't have to grow into those boundaries at all.''

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