Washington's Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) Facilitates a Lively Belltown Charrette Conference

By Bob Bengford, AICP

As part of the Community Assistance Program, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) sponsors a one-day workshop at each annual APA National Planning Conference.  While most CPAT events conducted by the Washington State program since its 2005 inception have centered on underserved rural towns and small communities, the workshops associated with the conference typically focus on urban communities within close proximity to the conference site. This years’ workshop focused on the Belltown neighborhood, just a ten minute walk from the convention center.    

Why Belltown? Seattle’s most densely populated neighborhood is a fascinating lab of all things city planning and urban design. The neighborhood now features a colorful quilt of buildings (both good and not so good) that were built in nearly every decade from the late 1800’s to the present. Belltown today is shaped by distinct city planning decisions over time, ranging from the brutal regrading of Denny Hill to the game changing 1985 rezoning plan to the various “green street” designations and improvements over the past few decades. While the neighborhood appeared quite attractive and successful to the participating out of town planners on a sunny April day, there are a host of challenges that need to be addressed. This includes an increasing lack of affordable housing, public safety concerns, and numerous transportation challenges.

Who Participated?  More than forty participants attended the workshop held at the Belltown Community Center, which fronts onto the vibrant new Bell Street Park. Participants included local CPAT planners, several Seattle planning staff, seven community activists, a local developer, housing provider, Sound Transit planner, and twenty city planners from all corner of the country (including one from Guatemala). The mix of local planners (including five members of the national AICP commission), community stakeholders and experienced out of town planners made this a truly unique collaboration.    

What Happened?  Lyle Bicknell (Senior Urban Designer for Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development) and community members gave a spirited presentation on the history of Belltown and helped to frame the major planning issues to be discussed. Then participants broke up into one of three groups to tackle the following issues:

  • Parks, public realm, and public safety
  • Affordable/workforce housing (and related livability issues)
  • Transportation & mobility (addressing all modes!)

Lyle Bicknell educates and entertains the out of town planners on the great history of Belltown

The groups conducted walking tours to point out key sites and their challenges and opportunities, followed by a brainstorming session that began to identify preliminary strategies.  At lunch, Pam Hinckley, CEO of Tom Douglas Restaurants, provided a fun presentation about Tom’s restaurants in the neighborhood and some very interesting stories about the establishment of their newer restaurants in area. After lunch, participants regrouped and came up with a list of strategies that were presented to the larger group.


Images from the walking tours on a beautiful April day

Planners and community members brainstorming actions and strategies for Belltown

Community Stakeholder Tom Graff and CPAT planner Kirk Rappe present their respective group’s results

Over the next few weeks, the CPAT team in concert with Seattle planning staff, will be developing a report of the group’s recommendations and ultimately forward those recommendations to city leaders. 

A sampling of the strategies included specific recommendations for completing the “green street” improvements, reforming incentive zoning (particularly those encouraging family sized housing units), suggestions for Sound Transit’s light rail extension alignment (among several alternatives now under study), and studying a new cycle path and parking realignment on 5th Avenue below the monorail (!). 

Useful links:

APA Washington Chapter - CPAT Program

National APA – Community Planning Workshop website (including link to the Briefing Book for the Belltown workshop)

National APA – CPAT website 


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