City of Seattle/James Corner Field Operations
In announcing the proposal for a new "self-funding" SuperSonics arena in SoDo last week, Mayor Mike McGinn and King county Executive Dow Constantine were careful to couch it in recession terms: this project could bring thousands of good-paying jobs to Seattle, helping to lift us out of the worst economic times since the Great Depression.
Seattle is no stranger to boom and bust cycles; from timber to the Klondike to Boeing's ups and downs to the dot-com bubble, we've been riding rainy roller coasters for decades. We're also familiar with slow recoveries and malaise. In the late 1950s when the Logan and Norton buildings were erected they were the first major private downtown office buildings built since the Depression. The World's Fair was an attempt to boost the growth rocket after 20 years in the doldrums.
For growth and economic boosters, good signs were in abundance last week. Amazon is buying three blocks of Clise property in the Denny Triangle with the idea of putting up three high-rise office towers with 1 million square feet of space each, plus options to buy more lots in the area. This just as Bezos & Co. are settling into their new South Lake Union headquarters nearby. Boeing orders are strong, and the 737 production has been assured for the region due to an innovative labor agreement that commits to place. The possibilities of getting a National Basketball Association franchise back in the city and the potential of attracting a new National Hockey League franchise into a new venue are just frosting on the cake. Yes, there were grumbles —there always are —but you could almost feel a spring in the city's step.
That's not all, of course. During this bust we've also approved a massively expensive tunnel project under downtown. The state is also moving ahead with its plan for a bigger 520 corridor and bridge. The seawall project looms, as does an unprecedented re-visioning of the city's face to the world, the waterfront. A huge new development for the North Lot at the football stadium has been approved that will bring thousands of new residents to Pioneer Square, SoDo, and the stadium district, capitalizing, it is hoped, on the rewired transportation corridor. And progress on light rail to the north and east is being made.
In the meantime, Seattle Center is still headed for a makeover. The Chihuly Garden and Glass project is slated to open this spring. The "Next 50" marking of the world's fair hasn't jelled as initially hoped (there's been little success in raising public or private funds for it), but the prospective basketball arena project could advance ideas for what to do with the Sonics-less Key Arena, and the Seattle branch of the American Institute of Architects is running a Next 50 urban design competition that has invited architects from all over the world to come up with ideas for what to do with the nine acres at "heart" of the Center adjacent to and occupied by Memorial Stadium. What will the next generation of public space look like? Finalists will be presented and exhibited in May. And don't forget the renovations to the Pacific Science Center, which will be hosting a potential blockbuster King Tut exhibit this summer, harkening back to a previous Center revitalization in the summer of '78.
On top of that, plans are being laid to grease the skids for a real-estate revival. The city's tax base is heavily dependent on growth and development. In Olympia, legislators are looking at "streamlining" the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which looks at the environmental and heritage impacts of projects. Developers want fewer rules, a shorter checklist, and more speed to the process. Slow economic times give them some leverage to try and wriggle out of regulations.
Seattle has undertaken a re-evaluation of its development rules with the idea of making them more flexible and, from the developer's perspective, less onerous. Pushing height limits is also on the agenda, not just for neighborhoods like Roosevelt but also South Lake Union where Paul Allen's Vulcan wants to go higher. The city is considering allowing residential high-rises to go up to 400 feet, about two-thirds the height of the Space Needle.*
Economic recovery could also shift political attitudes. Mayor McGinn, for example, has been painted as an obstructionist, mainly for his opposition to the deep-bore tunnel. But from his Great City Initiative and Sierra Club activist days, McGinn is a pro-urban growth guy who has been governing in hard times. He likes development, density, and public-private partnerships. He's had to manage as a fiscal conservative, but his beefs haven't been about growth per se, but what kind of growth (cars vs. transit).
Administering during a boom might make him look a lot more like Greg Nickels than the McGinn we've seen in the recent past. So, too, a boom would suit some potential pro-growth competitors, like City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who has been aggressive pushing for greater building heights in Pioneer Square and Roosevelt.
A boom might also revive growth skepticism. There hasn't been as much to fight over in recent years with so many empty holes in the ground, though there have been some important skirmishes in Roosevelt, Pioneer Square and at Sand Point, for example. But if SEPA reforms go too far (like cutting back on public notices or allowing too-hurried reviews) or if the public-private proposals (like the basketball/hockey arena) re-stoke anger over taxpayer subsidies for millionaire hedge fund managers, you're likely to see populist outrage back in action. Occupy Sonics Arena!
Everyone wants an economic recovery for non-millionaires, and peering out from under the damp blanket of the bust there's a bit of daylight. But can we do better than simply jump bare-back onto the next boom cycle, if and when one should arrive? Potential mayoral candidates such as City Council President Sally Clark, or former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, might take a more balanced path on growth. One thing that has often been missing from or on the losing end of Seattle's great make-overs is enlightened and creative planning. It will be important to have city leadership that does more than cheerlead, but steers us to a future where the waterfront, Seattle Center, Pioneer Square, the Denny Triangle, transportation, and downtown development opportunities aren't squandered.
A boom will come someday. It's important to get it right.
*Disclosure: I have been hired to write the history of the Needle for its 50th anniversary and have been writer-in-residence there. The Needle owners are also behind Chihuly Garden and Glass.
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