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Tunnel debate is redefining Seattle politics

The proposed waterfront tunnel Credit: WSDOT

Seattle’s tunnel debate is like that old vaudeville joke about two ladies complaining about the food at their hotel. “The food here is terrible,” says one. The other replies, “Yes, and such small portions.” Let’s face it, we hate the tunnel debate but we can’t get enough.

It seems likely that our city is working something out through this debate; it’s almost as if it’s cathartic. Even though the council has passed resolutions to move forward the discussion will certainly continue. What does that decision mean for the future of Seattle’s civic discourse?

Understanding a bit more about our past might help us envision where we go when we’re done with the tunnel debate, no matter what happens. We’re in a painful synthesis of two great historic civic trends, Forward Thrust and Lesser Seattle. Forward Thrust was the inspired and capital intensive effort to improve Seattle’s infrastructure and Lesser Seattle was the rugged individualist skepticism of expensive vanity projects. Jim Ellis, a downtown, establishment lawyer, stands on one side as the leader of Forward Thrust and Emmett Watson, a curmudgeonly journalistic skeptic and champion of common sense, was the founder of the Lesser Seattle movement.

The civic urge represented by Ellis and Forward Thrust cleaned up Lake Washington and brought Seattle a world’s fair. Watson’s Lesser Seattle sensibility battled successfully against freeway expansion and for preservation of the Pike Place Market. At their worst, the Thrusters could be relentless in their effort to pave over history and the Lessers could be stubborn opponents of positive progress. But both of these elements are alloyed in almost every discussion of land use and transportation.

The tunnel debate forces these trends, ironically, to the surface, but in new ways. And the question for Seattle is whether these impulses — one toward big splashy projects and one towards keeping Seattle from losing its character — will tear up the city and civic discourse. Or will Seattle somehow use this conflict to synthesize the tendencies into something new?

The debate took a brutal turn with City Councilmember Jean Godden’s article in Crosscut in which she compared those of us who oppose the tunnel to “birthers,” the people who believe that Obama isn’t a citizen. But I think we could use the tunnel debate to evolve our civic discourse away from a progress-versus-past dichotomy and toward a view of the future that is sustainable, progressive, and preservative of the character of our region. We’ve seen elements of the Lesser Seattle movement, like Knute Berger and Tim Harris, coming together — intellectually at least — with Urbanists and Forward Thrust types like Dan Bertolet and Mike O’Brien in raising tough questions about the tunnel.

Previously, these characters would be found locked in pitched feuds over land use, one side arguing for preservation and affordable housing and the other urging more density to accommodate growth. None of these things are incompatible, but culturally they represent two divergent views of Seattle, one based on existing land use patterns and urging that growth go elsewhere and the other seeing growth as our ticket to sustainable prosperity.

There’s a lot to debate about whether I have cast these protagonists appropriately. But it’s hard to dispute that tunnel opposition has created some strange bedfellows. The problem with tunnel opposition is that it doesn’t necessarily form a coherent basis for a positive political movement. Opposition doesn’t always make the most fertile ground for a for the seeds of positive change.

Imagine if environmentalists, preservationists, homeless advocates, and neighborhood density advocates turned their opposition of the tunnel into a positive movement. Could the anti-tunnel urge form a kind of opposition party against the seemingly dominant group that is pushing the tunnel? Are we ready for partisanship in Seattle or are we too nice? The question is, can tunnel opponents find common ground to move beyond the tunnel and, for example, elect a slate of new like-minded members of the city council next year, when there will be five seats up for grabs. Do they even want to?

The positive vision for Seattle that would have to emerge is one that recognizes the importance of accommodating growth in a way that is fair to people who already live here and to those on their way by investing in neighborhoods with affordable housing, transit, and the preservation of the character of those neighborhoods.

The tunnel debacle — and even if you support the tunnel you’d agree the debate has gone on too long — shows how far Seattle’s reliable old leadership cadre (downtown business and the city council) have lost touch with both the progressive vision of Ellis and the preservationist vision of Watson. The Downtown Seattle Association is willing to spend lots of scare city resources on a project that benefits a few by colluding with outside forces like the state and regional interests. Unlike the 1962 World’s Fair, the tunnel won’t put Seattle on the map. And, instead of standing up against outsiders pushing a freeway, the council has aligned itself with the state to build a highway most people don’t want.

So what’s left is a strange but promising coalition of bicyclists, urbanists, advocates for the poor, and neighborhood groups worried about growth. Whether these groups begin to fashion some common vision for the city beyond their opposition to the tunnel is a question that can’t be answered by looking backward into our past. We’ll only find out the answer to that question somewhere in the city’s future. A strong opposition, loyal to the city’s future but skeptical of the choices of its leaders, could be just what we need to keep healthy debate about preservation and progress alive in Seattle, whether we end up with a tunnel or not.

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