A More Transparent, Efficient, and Equitable Street Vacation Policy

Home » A More Transparent, Efficient, and Equitable Street Vacation Policy

This week, I am proud to share that we passed updated street and alley vacation polices, as well as a resolution defining and recognizing the value of Equitable Development Agreements (EDAs).

Street vacations allow property owners to petition City Council for private use of the public right of way. These decisions permanently change the right-of-way to private use, based on public benefit. Throughout my time on Council, I have wrestled with street and alley vacations, both at a policy level, and a project-by-project level.  I heard the call from many stakeholders that there is a need for a more streamlined, transparent and efficient process, as well as concerns that the process does not adequately address public benefits for a larger public. Over the past few years, I have worked to revise and improve our city’s street and alley vacation policies to help address concerns and better reflect the race and social equity values of our City.

In 2017, I convened a Street Vacation Workgroup that included design commission members, applicant representatives, neighborhood representatives, and social justice advocates. The topics of discussion include process efficiencies, community engagement best practices, and the definition of “public benefit,” to name a few. Out of this process, the work group shared a final report, which highlights key principles including expanding the definition of public benefit to include support for actions that would enhance our race and social equity objectives, require community engagement and considering the broader community beyond those in the immediate vicinity of a vacation, improving predictability, and clarifying the roles of design commission and Council.

Updated Street Vacation Policy  

Based on the recommendations as well as input from city staff across departments, we made some key changes to our policies.  These include:

  • Recognizing the City’s core goals of race and social equity;
  • Recognizing that street vacation impacts may be felt in an area broader than just the immediate neighborhood, and, highlighting the needs of those most at risk of displacement;
  • Requiring an early community outreach process and creating an early City Council forum;
  • Incorporating two new sections on the public trust doctrine and the City’s process for reviewing street vacations;
  • Acknowledging three new public trust functions of the right-of-way: free speech, right to assembly, and land use and urban form;
  • Providing additional guidance regarding analysis of impacts to the public trust functions of street vacations;
  • Establishing different processes depending on whether a project is a complex or a simple street vacation;
  • Clarifying the relationship between required steps in the land use review process and the street vacation review process;
  • Considering on- and off-site public benefits as equivalent;
  • Recognizing the option for additional factors in proposed public benefit package reviews, such an Equitable Development Agreement between the petitioner and community groups; and
  • Allowing for the long-term or permanent commitment to carry out a program as a public benefit.

In addition, we amended and clarified the role of the Seattle Design Commission in the review of vacation requests and established a subcommittee of the Commission tasked with helping evaluate pubic benefits proposals that incorporate non-design elements, such as affordable housing, funding for Equitable Development Initiative programs, or other programmatic efforts.  This subcommittee will include individuals with expertise in affordable housing, worker rights, and equitable community development.

I am hopeful that these new policies will help the Council as well as the Seattle Design Commission and SDOT, as we consider the impacts of vacating public right-of-way, which we are entrusted with, and if we move forward with a possible vacation, what the commensurate benefits should be, and who was at the table to help determine the outcomes.

Equitable Development Agreement Resolution:

Alongside the new street vacation policies, and with the support of community organizations and partners, we also passed a resolution recognizing the value of Equitable Development Agreements.  The resolution outlines how the agreements may be considered when Council evaluates community engagement processes and public benefit packages associated with street vacations and large development projects that are subject to review by the City Council.  An EDA is a third-party agreement between developers and community stakeholders, often referred to as community benefits agreements (CBAs), that are rooted in the self determination of communities who have been historically marginalized in our society or economy.  The resolution encourages the council the evaluate such agreements based on two key questions: Who are the equity stakeholders and what are the equity outcomes proposed?

Who are the equity stakeholders?

The resolution states: Racial and social equity requires centering the people who have been marginalized in decision-making and have been historically harmed by economic inequality, racial discrimination, or social exclusion. EDA stakeholders include organizations or institutions representing: low-income households; people of color, immigrants, refugees, and indigenous people; people experiencing homelessness; seniors and people with disabilities; people who need economic opportunity and face institutional barriers to good jobs, such as racism or sexism; low-wage workers impacted by a project in some way, either as current workers at another location or the future workforce at the project location, especially women and people of color; and LGBTQ people, especially those at risk of displacement from historically queer-friendly neighborhoods. EDAs are entered into by EDA stakeholders.

What are possible equity outcomes on an EDA?

  • Addresses historic and current racial and social injustice;
  • Advances self-determination and control of resources for marginalized groups;
  • Preserves community dignity and culture;
  • Creates economic equity, especially through increased community wealth, local
  • prosperity, and family-supporting jobs;
  • Fosters workplace dignity and democracy;
  • Prevents residential, commercial, and cultural displacement of communities;
  • Preserves and supports small, community-serving, and culturally-relevant businesses;
  • Creates equity outcomes that are proportionate to the scale of private wealth generation for the developer and investors;
  • Considers the role future property owners, tenants, subtenants, operators, contractors, or other entities who occupy the development will have in working towards equitable outcomes identified in the EDA; and
  • Results in a binding agreement between a developer or project owner and EDA stakeholders with lasting benefits.

What is next:

From this point forward, vacation petitions that come through the City will incorporate this new process, and we are hopeful there will be more opportunity for strong community input and equitable development agreements.  I believe we will see a more transparent process, early opportunities for input, a broader range of benefits that can be better tailored to address the most pressing needs – and benefits to developers – more predictable process, clearer timeline for decisions, clearer understanding of what is expected.  I hope these new policies and process can result in more clarity and transparency for all involved, and more equitable outcomes for Seattle.