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Seattle's Newest City Planner Relies on Experience

As director of Seattle’s new Office of Planning and Community Development, Sam Assefa will draw on experiences from San Francisco, Chicago and Boulder, Colo.

(TNS) -- San Francisco’s progressive culture. Chicago’s blue-collar history. Boulder, Colo.’s green values.

Mayor Ed Murray’s nominee for head planner says he’ll be a quick study of Seattle because it has much in common with the cities where he’s spent his career so far.

Sam Assefa will become director of Seattle’s new Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) if he’s confirmed by the City Council this spring. Boulder’s senior urban designer since 2010, he’s worked as a planner for more than 20 years.

“I’ve always thought of Seattle as a mix — a little like San Francisco, a little like Chicago, with some warehouse architecture, and a little like Boulder, with the values citizens have about the environment,” he said in a phone interview.

Assefa, nominated earlier this month, speaks in measured tones and answers questions calmly, which could serve him well if he’s confirmed; OPCD is the lead agency for implementing Murray’s important and controversial Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA).

The agenda, based on 65 strategies recommended last year by the mayor’s blue-ribbon panel on housing, includes what Murray calls his “grand bargain.”

That plan, scheduled to make its way through the council over the next few years, would reduce zoning restrictions across much of the city with the aim of increasing the housing supply while requiring developers to build, or pay to build, low-income units.

The agenda also included a plan to allow slightly denser residential structures in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. Proponents said adding duplexes and the like would bring down home prices, making the neighborhoods more diverse.

But Murray scrapped the strategy soon after proposing it, citing backlash from homeowners worried the change would ruin the bucolic character of their blocks.

The month before unveiling his housing agenda, the mayor said he’d terminate the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and split its responsibilities between a pair of new agencies — OPCD and, for nuts-and-bolts permitting and code enforcement, the Department of Construction and Inspections.

The new agencies launched Jan. 1, with retiring DPD director Diane Sugimura serving as interim director of OPCD. Besides implementing the HALA strategies, Murray will expect Sugimura’s replacement to manage Seattle’s population and construction booms and improve coordination among departments. Seattle ranks among the country’s fastest-growing cities, with 70,000 residents added in five years.

“Sam Assefa brings leadership and a holistic approach to urban planning that integrates land-use, transportation, design and sustainability,” Murray said in a statement about his nominee. “Throughout his career, Sam has shown a passion for place-making and a commitment to working with all communities to solve the challenges of growth. His experience will be invaluable to implementing our shared vision for building neighborhoods that are affordable, livable and equitable.”

Boulder is home to fewer people (about 100,000) than Seattle is expected to add by 2035. But Assefa says the small city has been a laboratory of sorts for planning ideas.

Boulder’s goal has been to get people who work in the city to live there, as well — and the solution has been to encourage denser development by upzoning certain areas, he says, mentioning Boulder Junction, a 160-acre former industrial site being remade into a pedestrian- and transit-oriented neighborhood with housing, shopping and more.

“The plan has been to allow change, to build density and address housing issues on the back of transit,” Assefa said. “To transform this part of the city from an auto-dominated sea of asphalt into an area where more young people are beginning to live.”

The nominee said he would need to learn more before weighing in on Seattle’s single-family zones. But Assefa said Boulder officials are convinced of one thing: “We know we can’t solve our problems building single-family homes.”

Assefa says planners everywhere are trying to get ahead of the same trend.

“Cities are growing toward the center, whereas before they were spreading out,” he said. “From a planning perspective, that’s good. But it also comes with challenges.”

Those include preserving neighborhood character and protecting people with lower incomes, including people of color, from being pushed aside by development.

“Planners are struggling with how best to address that,” Assefa said. “There’s no silver bullet. But in my experience, you need to get those communities to be empowered, to be at the table when critical planning decisions are being made.”

He pointed to his work with the New Communities Program in Chicago, which involved residents of 16 South Side neighborhoods taking part in planning activities, and with the redevelopment of San Francisco’s once-toxic Hunters Point Shipyard.

In a 2006 news article, Assefa praised Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s pragmatic urbanism, comparing it to San Francisco’s more idealistic approach.

He lobbied in Chicago for tall, thin towers like those sprouting in Vancouver, B.C., according to another article the same year.

In Seattle, Assefa’s personal background may help him make inroads with some communities being harmed by gentrification. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate was born in Ethiopia and escaped to Kenya after his father, a general under Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed during a coup.

Seattle is home to more than 10,000 East African immigrants, including people from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Eritrea, according to 2014 U.S. Census data.

“I do believe (his background) will give me an advantage, having lived there and being from there,” Assefa said. “But beyond that, just having experience living in different countries, I can relate to immigrant communities. That global perspective is the way I think about conversations with decision makers.”

©2016 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.