Photos provided in the blog post are courtesy of the author.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on local governments, including many of the issues dealt with by community development and planning offices throughout our state. It has been a difficult time, but after the initial shock and realization of the pandemic’s impact, most communities reacted quickly to meet the challenge.
During the early days of the pandemic, most people were hoping that a “new normal” would occur by the beginning of 2021. At the one-year mark, however, it appears like the impacts caused by the pandemic will be in place for several months to come. As a result, it may be a good time to take stock of what has already been accomplished and to consider what might be next on your list of planning-related projects and initiatives.
Some Suggested Actions
Many professional planners may have already taken significant action on several coronavirus-related initiatives. If you have accomplished all of the activities listed below, congratulations are due to you and your community. If that is not the case, however, the following suggested actions are intended to help identify some projects you might choose to tackle next, assuming you have the staff capacity and community support to do so.
1. Encourage outdoor dining, convenient food pick-up, and outdoor retail sales areas
Several communities have established programs to temporarily allow restaurants and retail establishments to use part of the public right-of-way (ROW) and private parking lots for outdoor dining and retail display/sales activities (see my blog post, Creative Use of Street ROW During the COVID-19 Pandemic, for more details). If you have such a program and haven’t already done so, consider expanding its scope to allow food trucks and food carts to provide additional dining options. Also, temporary short-term parking is now commonly being designated for on-street parking spaces close to restaurants to facilitate the quick pick up of pre-ordered food.
Seattle has allowed for some innovative “outdoor dining in the ROW” options, such as converting a neighborhood commercial district’s “main street” (a portion of Ballard Avenue NW) from a two-way to a one-way street, which allows restaurants on both sides to provide outdoor dining within the street ROW. In addition, the City of Bothell has closed portions of its Main Street and opened them to restaurant and retail use in response to the pandemic. While Seattle and Bothell are both located in the Puget Sound region, their pioneering approaches are ones that could be used in numerous commercial districts in other parts of Washington State, provided these are not located on a highly trafficked vehicular route (and there is business and community support, of course).
2. Expand access to recreational opportunities and open space
Some local governments have established limited-term “safe street” programs to allow closure of a few streets with low traffic volume, with the goal being to increase pedestrian and bicycle use. Some communities are starting to discuss whether the temporary street closures should be made permanent. Seattle’s “Stay Healthy” Streets Program is one example of this type of local government initiative.
A few cities and neighborhoods have created small, “pop-up parks” on publicly-owned land to provide additional availability and access by residents to open space/recreational areas. Here is an example of a neighborhood-initiated pop-up park in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
To proactively address equity and inclusion concerns, local governments should reach out to a broad and representative group of community members to ask them what options they would like to see provided, from both a short-term and long-term perspective, before enacting such programs.
3. Embrace online permitting and plan review
Online permitting is one step that many planning departments and permitting agencies have already taken to make their development review processes more accessible and customer-oriented. Many local governments have had their online permitting systems up and running for several years (like the City of Olympia) while others had to quickly pivot their traditional, paper-based permitting/plan review processes to an online system due to the COVID-19 pandemic (like San Juan County).
Online permitting/plan review systems allow local governments to remotely take in applications, review development proposals, and issue permits. These online systems have led to significant cost and time savings for both applicants and public agencies. Given the efficiencies they provide, online permitting/plan review systems are likely to be part of the “new normal” for local governments in a post-pandemic world.
4. Make your permitting process more user-friendly
In addition to implementing online permitting, a development/planning department should also take steps to ensure that the development review process itself doesn’t unnecessarily slow down the review and approval of desired development projects. The often-said proverb — “Time is money” — is very true for most businesses, including developers and builders. Both applicants and plan review staff, however, will appreciate a streamlined and user-friendly process that clarifies processes/procedures and removes unnecessary steps. Of course, this type of permit streamlining should keep in place all necessary procedures, be mindful of existing staffing levels, and require applicants to meet all of your community’s adopted land use rules and regulations. The Washington State Auditor’s Office Center for Government Innovation issued a report in 2013 that highlighted how several counties were working to improve their permitting processes.
5. Work on zoning/development code updates
While many planning departments are as busy as ever with reviewing development proposals and issuing permits during the pandemic, there may be some that have time to review and update their zoning/development codes. During these difficult economic times when many people are struggling to make a living, a department might consider making local regulations more accommodating of local, small-scale entrepreneurs. For example, a community could study the pros and cons of reducing barriers for small-scale, in-home businesses (i.e., home occupations). Another step might be to study the option of providing a greater mix of uses within certain zone categories, such as allowing small-scale manufacturing in more zoning categories (see my blog post:Encouraging Small-Scale Manufacturing During the COVID-19 Pandemic for examples).
6. Promote partnerships with local, regional, and state economic development organizations
It is important to establish relationships with the many organizations that could help you meet your local business assistance and economic development goals, which is more critical than ever during this pandemic time. Once those relationships are in place, be sure to communicate and collaborate with those partners on a regular basis. The City of Burien’s Economic Development program and the Thurston County Economic Development Council are good examples of partnerships that effectively involve a large number of economic development entities.
Conclusion and Additional Resources
Being a professional planner can be very fulfilling, but it also involves a lot of hard work, even in the best of times. The pandemic has increased the burden placed on planners, along with those working in other allied professions. While it is important to continue to accomplish great planning work, it is also critical to take time during the pandemic to maintain a sense of balance and practice self-care. The list above with the six suggested actions is meant to serve as a checklist of potential projects you might wish to consider if you have the time and extra capacity, and it is not intended to create additional pressure to do more when you may already be working at a 100% level.
Here are some additional resources:
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