Today, Mayor Ed Murray announced he is nominating Sam Assefa – the senior urban designer for the City of Boulder, Colorado – as the next director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD).
Prior to Boulder, Assefa served as Director of Land Use and Planning Policy for the City of Chicago, and as a deputy chief of staff to former Mayor Richard Daley.
“Sam Assefa brings leadership and a holistic approach to urban planning that integrates land use, transportation, design and sustainability,” Mayor Murray said. “Throughout his career, Sam has shown a passion for placemaking 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.”
OPCD was created to better integrate strategic planning across departments, while coordinating public investments in transportation, parks, housing and other areas.
“I have always admired the City of Seattle for its natural beauty, innovative spirit and strong commitment to social justice,” Assefa said. “I am thrilled at this opportunity to help implement Mayor Murray’s vision for building thriving and vibrant communities through an integrated and equitable approach to city planning and community development.”
Since 2010, Assefa has worked for Boulder’s Department of Community Planning and Sustainability, where he was responsible for urban and building design policies and directed the City’s Sustainable Streets and Centers Program.
Prior to Chicago, he served the City of San Francisco as director of Special Projects for the Department of Planning and Development. He was responsible for the implementation of various urban design policies and redevelopment plans, including the Hunters Point Shipyard, the Trans Bay Center, Rincon Hill, and the Better Neighborhoods Program.
Assefa has a master’s degree in city planning from MIT, and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He brings perspective as an immigrant to the United States, having fled Ethiopia as a teenager when his father was killed in a coup. In San Francisco, Assefa served on the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission.
Assefa, if confirmed by Seattle City Council, will replace Diane Sugimura, who has served as interim OPCD director since the new integrated planning agency launched January 1. Assefa is expected to start June 1, with an annual salary of $167,000.
“This is a very exciting time for Seattle — to have someone of Sam’s caliber, experience and talent coming to Seattle to lead the Mayor’s new Office of Planning and Community Development,” Sugimura said. “I look forward to seeing great things happening as we grow toward becoming a more equitable city for all.”
“I am thrilled to join the Mayor in endorsing the nomination of Sam Assefa as the new Director of the Office and Planning and Community Development,” said Councilmember Rob Johnson, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee. “Mr. Assefa’s list of accomplishments achieved during his tenures in Chicago, San Francisco, and Boulder reflects his passion for urban design and transit oriented development, and but I am mostly impressed by the manner in which he so thoughtfully engages the citizens of the communities he serves. I look forward to the prospect of working side by side with such a creative, big-picture thinker with the knowledge and experience to tackle Seattle’s complex housing, gentrification, and affordability challenges.”
As Seattle grows, OPCD will play a role in implementing Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). HALA provides a comprehensive strategy to creating 50,000 housing units over the next 10 years, ensuring that Seattle can remain an affordable, walkable, and equitable community for people of all incomes and backgrounds.
Seattle is currently one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, adding 70,000 residents and 63,000 jobs in the past five years. The city is expected to be home to another 120,000 residents and 115,000 jobs by 2035.
“I loved to draw,” says Sam Assefa. Architecture influenced him a lot, especially as a child, growing up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He used to draw a lot of the old Ethiopian monasteries. “Very monolithic, platonic forms, cubes and models formed out of living rock. I was always fascinated by that,” he explains.
By seventh or eighth grade, he knew he wanted to study architecture. He once got punished for a drawing he did very meticulously, with correct three-dimensional proportions for a very tall building. His art teacher didn’t believe he drew it.
Fortunately, for many under-engaged communities in San Francisco, Chicago and Boulder, Colorado, Assefa did not take the punishment to heart. He still loves architecture, and still makes a life of exceeding expectations. In a few months, he’ll take all of his experience with him to Seattle, where he was recently named the next director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development.
“I have always admired the city of Seattle for its natural beauty, innovative spirit and strong commitment to social justice,” Assefa said in a statement on the announcement.
Ethiopia has famously never been colonized, despite repeated invasions and partial occupations by foreign powers throughout its history. But amid political strife in the 1970s, Assefa’s father was executed. Assefa fled the country by foot and became a refugee in Kenya. He spent the rest of his high-school years in Nairobi, where he picked up two key influences: an international group of best friends with whom he remains in touch (one each from Austria, Sweden, the U.S. and Chile, and two others from Ethiopia), and a love for Chicago, probably due to its architecture.
“I used to read about Chicago specifically for some reason, while I was in high school,” Assefa says. He would eventually move there (after a short stint in Rome), and study architecture at the University of Illinois. While there, he met his wife, Jill Kongabel, a native Chicagoan.
In his first job in architecture, he noticed a pattern that didn’t fit with his personal ethos. “The first few years of design work I was doing was for very wealthy people. It was a wonderful place, a small design firm,” Assefa says. “But I started thinking about is that what I wanted to do.”
The answer was no. He and his wife left Chicago for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Assefa went to graduate school for city planning at MIT. He took classes at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government too. He focused his studies on issues of equity, particularly around public housing. Meanwhile, outside the classroom, he was involved in the divestment movement seeking to end apartheid in South Africa by urging university endowments, foundation endowments and other supposedly socially minded pools of capital to dump South African companies.
After graduate school — after another false start with a private San Francisco architecture firm — Assefa landed at one of the early leaders in socially and environmentally conscious design firms, SMWM (since merged with Perkins+Will), where he joined forces with Karen Alschuler to start the planning practice at the firm. Their first big project: planning around the long-shuttered Hunters Point Shipyard in the largely black neighborhood, which was still reeling from the site’s closure around two decades earlier. The shipyard became one of the first Superfund cleanup sites.
“San Francisco was where I cut my teeth in equity and planning policy,” Assefa says. He would later work in the city of San Francisco’s planning department. He moved to become director of policy for Chicago’s department of planning and development in 2000. In Mayor Richard Daley, Assefa says, he found a willing ally for bringing more equity and diverse voices into the planning process (Assefa served as the city’s liaison for the neighborhood-centric New Communities Program), while simultaneously integrating departments and disciplines whose silos were clearly holding the city back from its potential.
Assefa’s department led Chicago’s first rewriting of its zoning code in 40 years, addressing issues where growth was happening where some communities didn’t want it and not happening where other communities did. He recalls loosening parking requirements for buildings within close proximity to public transportation, and putting in incentives for LEED-certified construction of affordable housing so that residents’ bills could be reduced. While attempting to incentivize and make room for more affordable housing where it was desired, Assefa also recalls protecting manufacturing zones from redevelopment as residential or other use (while others were creating the training infrastructure to make sure new high-skilled manufacturing jobs in Chicago would be accessible to all).
After a stint in Boulder, Colorado, Assefa will now take his silo-busting, social justice-informed approach to the Pacific Northwest.
“In Seattle, as in a lot of cities, a lot of the underrepresented communities or immigrant communities may not be at the table when major planning decisions are being made. Or they are economically affected as a result of the economic shift that is taking place in some of the major cities as well as global shifts,” he notes.
Seattle will be the eighth city where he has lived, spanning four countries on three continents.
“There are differences in context, but fundamentally from a planning perspective, all people are looking for the same general things,” he says. “They want to be safe, they want to love the place where they live, and they want to reap the benefits of what it has to offer.”
Assefa is expected to take his new office on June 1.