APA Conference Overview

By M. Baker, A. Bell, and T. Martin

One of the authors (Max Baker)

Attending this conference was like drinking from a firehose—there was so much to learn and so many people to meet that it was impossible to take it all in. The three of us attended many sessions and met so many professionals that it is hard to distill a certain experience out of it.  We all learned much, both about our own “backyard”—Seattle and the surrounding area—and the region, state and country. Planners in suburban Seattle spoke about strategies for densifying, implementing transit oriented development, and freeing up space by reducing the amount of parking in urban areas. Planners from Kirkland, Tukwila, and Kent discussed the need to promote dense growth and newer development by simplifying the multifamily development review process, linking parking requirements to frontage improvements in struggling areas, and making sure that reduced parking areas will have adequate transit service. It was an interesting look as how suburban cities are adapting to the need to grow up, not out. 

Seattle’s biggest connection to the outside world is through trade, and the Port of Seattle is the city’s main trade artery. In the most trade-dependent state in the country, the business related to the port is no small determinant of economic success, and the planning staff of the port was eager to show off to planners from across North America. The tour covered the Port of Seattle’s land assets, the port’s status as the main trade link to Alaska and Asia, and the need to continue to compete with other ports across the United States by handling even larger ships and more containers. Later, at a visit to McKinstry, we learned how a former HVAC company grew into a company that performs green retrofits, provides district energy, and hosts an incubation space for green entrepreneurs. The unique Seattle milieu—in which the changing built environment informs the priorities of all stakeholders in the built environment—make positive change possible. 

The use of growth management legislation at the state level in the country is limited to a handful of unique regions. Yet as master’s students at the University of Washington, it is nearly impossible to discuss regional planning without referring to the guidelines put forth by the Growth Management Act. Having rarely encountered curriculum referencing growth management legislation before arriving in Seattle, such exposure has been at times intimidating and disorienting. It can often make one feel as though Washington is on an island, separated from the conventional modes of planning. However, the APA conference helped to connect the GMA with the experiences of other growth management states, especially the neighboring state of Oregon.

Oregon and Washington have had some form of a Growth Management Act on the books since 1973 and 1990, respectively, and have each experienced varying degrees of success and difficulty. Oregon’s GMA was the first to pioneer such large-scale management, and the state’s forty-plus years of experience provide it with unique insight. Many of the planning challenges facing Oregon are reflected in Washington: a delicate landscape, burgeoning populations, coveted natural resources and an involved populace. The APA provided a unique opportunity to bring together professionals from these states, as well as a number of other growth management regions, to discuss continuing challenges and opportunities.

These connections worked to provide realization that the Washington experience is not entirely unique. More and more cities and states are enacting some form of growth management legislation, and it is vital that they encourage one another as they grapple with inevitable challenges. As aspiring planners, such support has proven vital. 

The story of our city’s rejection of the Seattle Commons plan, only to have Amazon’s urban campus rise from its ashes is a familiar (if painful) one. But surely this is a rare case; an underdeveloped city center neighborhood with lakefront real estate providing fertile ground for an ascendant tech firm’s entry into urbanism. Well, the ‘Urbanization of the Tech Industry’ session opened my eyes to the considerable force that the tech industry is exerting on the development patterns of the day. And Seattle’s South Lake Union story is not as unique as I thought.

In a bid to win Millennial employees and get out in front of the national back-to-the-city trend, tech companies are developing a new campus typology in the center of cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Brooklyn. This disrupts the well-established pattern of sprawling suburban tech campus found in industry hubs like Silicon Valley and Redmond. While the suburban lifestyle is far from dead, the limelight has been eclipsed by a vision of urban revitalization that puts people within walking distance of their friends, workplace, and modern amenities. Tech companies have gone from shaking up the work space to shaking up the neighborhood as they commission campuses with activated street fronts, ample public recreation space, and integrated transit infrastructure. 

From the tenor of the presenters at the APA session on this topic, this is a challenging but highly desirable situation for a city to find itself in. And planners stand to plan a key role in determining how this adaptation plays out in the near term and what legacies it leaves behind once a hot new development pattern comes along to oust it. The APA conference was an exciting and meaningful event for us. We came away with a better understanding of our own city and region, as well as an appreciation for the wonderful and meaningful work that planners are doing across the nation.

Return to June issue of The Washington Planner