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May 7, 2014

City tries new ways to find out what people want in neighborhoods

Journal Staff Reporter

Ballard has been one of Seattle's fastest-growing neighborhoods for years and it shows: streets today are lined with big new apartments and retail buildings that have transformed the small town look and feel of the place.

Still more development is on the way, and the city wants to hear from business and residents about how to cope with all the changes.

One step the city is taking is to create an “urban design framework,” which would serve as a sort of neighborhood plan. The idea is to agree on a vision for Ballard and provide recommendations on urban design, land use, transportation and other strategies to guide future development.

The city is holding an open house from 5:30-7:30 p.m. today at the Ballard Library to discuss the design framework and share ideas with the public.

Not everyone likes to attend planning meetings, so the city is piloting a new program to increase public involvement.

The city has unveiled a new website, Imagine Seattle, where staff from the Department of Planning and Development can ask and respond to questions. Comment threads include topics such as diversity, transit and neighborhood identity.

The website is at imagineseattle.mindmixer.com.

Imagine Seattle is based on a platform developed by an Omaha, Nebraska, company called MindMixer. The company says the platform has been used by 400 communities around the country.

David Goldberg, project manager for the Ballard design framework, said the platform “isn't cheap” and the city has made no commitments to use it elsewhere.

Ballard residents have responded well in the past to opportunities to share thoughts about their neighborhood online, he said.

An online questionnaire in 2009 about neighborhood planning in Ballard yielded 900 completed surveys. Sound Transit noticed that 70 percent of respondents to an online survey on regional plans were Ballard residents.

For Ballard's younger residents, going online “engaged them in a way that made sense for them,” Goldberg said.

Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the DPD, said the city is using other ways to get feedback from residents who are traditionally underrepresented.

One is to use community liaisons for immigrants, seniors, youth, people with disabilities, and people of different ethnic groups. The liaisons are people who are trusted by their communities and are able to spread the word through their networks.

Some planners have held “office hours” in central locations in neighborhoods to explain their efforts, including places such as assisted-living facilities. The idea is to create a casual, convenient place where people can ask questions and get more information.

The city also sets up booths at schools, grocery stores and community festivals to reach people face-to-face.

All that works alongside broader social media efforts, such as using blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

Goldberg said all the avenues for outreach add complexity, but they expand ways to communicate with the public.

Responses from Ballard residents will help the city address issues such how to prioritize the mix of future development, select station sites for a possible light-rail or streetcar line, encourage more commercial employment, and supply affordable housing.

A final report on Ballard's urban design framework will be issued in the first quarter of 2015.

“We get a lot about what people don't want,” Goldberg said, “but we want to find out what people do want.”


Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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