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The more the murkier: a Seattle disease

The SoDo Arena, adding still more entertainment competition to the region, is the latest example of our harmful penchant for merrily adding too many things.
This Seattle Center map shows planned new construction.

This Seattle Center map shows planned new construction. City of Seattle

Part of the crowd at a rally to support a return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

Part of the crowd at a rally to support a return of NBA basketball to Seattle. Quin Benzel

Inspecting my growing anxieties about the proposal for a basketball-and-hockey arena in Seattle, I think I have dug down to the fundamental layer of angst. It's a besetting Seattle sin of "more-ism," the belief that more is always merrier, better, more diverse, more inclusive, more random, somehow more "Seattle." Not so.

"I am not an 'or' guy," Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center, said when defending the sudden addition of the Chihuly museum to the Center, where open space had been planned. "I'm an 'and' person." Seattle Center, hodgepodge that it is, is usually cited as the sacred symbol of this spirit of adding, adding, adding — even though the effect on the city budget is subtracting, subtracting, subtracting. Typically, the Chihuly spat ended up throwing in a subsidized rock-and-roll radio station.

This same spirit, in this case adding two more professional sports teams to the area, is alive and well. Economists figure that if those two new professional teams are added, Seattle would be the third most saturated sports market in the nation, figuring the number of teams against the region's population. (As if the existing teams are winning championships!) We would be diluting what we already have, watering our soup.

Wait! This just in: How about a hockey arena in Bellevue and a basketball arena in SoDo?

Similarly, when the Seattle arts boom was getting under way in the 1960s, we quickly produced a groaning smorgasbord of big-budget delights: theater, opera, symphony, ballet, musical comedy, and art museums.  Most cities have one or two truly distinguished arts groups, normally a museum and an orchestra (as in Boston and Cleveland), with the others represented by much smaller budgets and more experimental programs.

The result is we are among the most saturated of cities. That means most of the arts groups really struggle with all the competition for ticket sales and big donors. And since new entertainment venues like the proposed arena basically just recycle the big-night-out dollars from existing options, we would put still more of a squeeze on our arts groups, nearly all of which are in serious financial distress. Yet none dare point this out, for fear of commiting a sin against More-ism.

This un-criticized malaise, once you notice it, is all over the region. Consider that we have, unusually, two competing NPR stations, two competing slick lifestyle magazines, two competing alt-weeklies, two Broadway musical houses.

Or take Pioneer Square which, like Seattle Center, suffers from too many uses (each good in itself) cancelling out each other and producing a blurred and off-putting image. The Square prides itself on being home to (count 'em) galleries, missions, sports, nightlife, social services, residents, tech startups, tourists, transit lines, and historical buildings. Is this density and pluralism and vibrancy? Or is "the full urban blend"  too many things to have a clear and synergistic identity, the way good urban neighborhoods do?

It's as if we never find a hodge without adding a podge, never meet a mish without mating with a mash. Basta!

Similarly, institutions have the more-ism virus, expanding into all kinds of unrelated activities. Libraries are now community centers. Art museums are about "life." The Seattle Symphony next season will present (without the orchestra) popular music stars. Amazon has no limits to the kind of retailing it will get into. These rulers of the universe might ponder how companies such as Boeing have done terribly at diversification and what a struggle it has been for Microsoft to get beyond its core market and do battle with Apple and Google.

"Mission creep," this would be called in more sober, less-boomy towns. In Seattle, mission-expansion seems hallowed as  democracy, populism, anti-elitism, please-everybodyness. You sense it in the focus-tested slogans: Libraries for All, Waterfront for All.

It often just turns into mush. Including everybody's pet project to get consensus also costs more. This kitchen-sink thinking began with the revered Forward Thrust campaign of 1968, where civic icon Jim Ellis found a way to get then-stingy voters to tax themselves by putting in one package something for each group: a stadium, parks, arterials, transit, community centers. That became the political formula, as when we passed money for the Art Museum by coupling it with low-income housing. Congress can only pass porky measures by spreading them all over the country to get the votes, ballooning the cost. The local variant is that we can only help downtown if we find a way to coat the city, thinly, with the same sugary treat.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 10:46 p.m. Inappropriate

The big money sports corporations do not pay me to be interested. So I am not interested. I could care less if we get another professional team of any kind.
What I cannot understand is why they cannot use the existing stadium ie Key Arena (or whatever big corporation it is not named for). It is already there, it worked in the past for basketball and hockey. I fail to see why we need another stadium.

In this era of cost cutting in government and who knows what else I do not understand why our elected officials are able to dig up nearly 200 million to build another stadium.

I am confused to say the least - one week we in government are broke the next we have 200 million. If the sportsfans want this so much let them pay for it. If there is not enough money let the players contribute - they do play for the love of the game do they not?
I do not care who pays for it with one exception
NOT ONE RED CENT OUT OF THE TAXPAYER POCKET

leitmotif

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 10:56 p.m. Inappropriate

One key to supporting multiple entities that are similar to each other is having some geographic distribution of the teams. With the SODO basketball stadium, every single major league team (NBA, NHL, WNBA, NFL, MLB, Soccer) would be within a mile of each other (assuming the Storm also goes to the new arena), and the major college sports would be quite close as well. Other regions seem to have a much broader distribution of their teams with 20-30 miles in some cases between stadiums, and therefore less competition for fans who are close to one arena.

There's a lot still left to learn about the Basketball/NHL proposal, especially the impacts on other arenas that may be undercut financially and then need taxpayer bailouts. There's also a lot more to learn about just how the traffic and parking is going to actually work, especially if the arena tries to pull in mid-day events such as company meetings or big conventions.

sjenner

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with this article. Well said.

Lincoln

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 8:43 a.m. Inappropriate

It takes a guy from New Jersey to see it, say it. Right on, right on.

rorric1

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Usually I agree with Mr. Brewster's urban observations though a couple of examples in "more isn't better" rang with a tin ear. For what it's worth, I'm no fan of the arena (although I am a huge hockey-head).

But more to the point, I detected not so much as a backhanded compliment as a forearm shiver referring to KEXP as a "subsidized rock and roll radio station." Firstly, that shows a general ignorance to the station's music programming which features daily specialty shows ranging from blues to reggae to jazz to country; and the rock shows, while based in a playlist as most music-oriented stations are, gives the DJs a lot of leeway to be free-form programmers. Secondly, be wary at underestimating the cultural value and part of the community fabric that said "rock and roll radio station" provides. Many larger stations -- commercial and non -- would be envious of the enthusiasm and loyalty KEXP has cultivated. And finally here, yes the station is subsidized -- in no small part from listener contributions, the same manner that Crosscut is.

Then, I was shocked to read a few sentences later that having two competing alt-weeklies was somehow a negative. Since when does a journalist think fewer media outlets is better. Is Seattle better off being a one mainstream newspaper town?

Tsk, tsk.

tfrommer

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 8:52 a.m. Inappropriate

I also agree. For as long as I can remember, Seattle has exhibited this longing to be a "world class city." I see it as a kind of civic insecurity; a kind that no amount of adding will, apparently, assuage.

If instead we started with the mind set that we are a wonderful place with so much to offer, rather than seemingly feeling that we are somehow lacking and therefore must spend, spend, spend, and then spend some more to reach some elusive state of being "world class," I think we would have and could in the future make much better choices.

What if we are enough just as we are? Then we could choose projects that really benefit us, like repairing infrastructure, for example, instead of continuing our pathetic race to keep up with some mythical Jones's somewhere else. We are those sad people who keep buying more and more things in a desperate obsession with to feel good enough, while being blind to all the wonders of who we already are, and celebrating that.

Just as no amount of shopping makes a shopaholic feel whole, our civic desperation will never allow us to feel "world class." World class is recognizing that we ARE enough. The truly pernicious part of this is that those who recognize the opportunity to manipulate us by playing on our insecurities, have already rushed in and are more than willing to lay more and more tempting "wares" at our feet, wares that promise if we just buy enough we will finally be "world class." Those who would profit at our expense are having a field day playing us. We need to say "Enough."

mspat

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 6:09 p.m. Inappropriate

To me, the term "world class" means "watch your wallet."

NotFan

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Another issue with the $200 million for arena is, why can't this money be used to help pay for the transportation improvements that everyone knows are so desperately need? Not as "sexy" as an arena, but that too will generate construction jobs and meet a real need. What about the juvenile justice center on the ballot? That too would be a construction project and create jobs, meet a need, and not require an increase in property taxes.

The list goes on. We are having to vote again for an updated fingerprint ID system -- I'm sure that's flown below the radar of most voters so far, but there it will be on the ballot in November. Same with the seawall, clearly a need, and another construction project.

This push for a public-subsidized arena in Sodo is all the more galling because of the negative impacts it will have, eating up industrial land, making traffic to the port in the most-trade dependent state in the country even worse. Equally galling is the clear fact that Hansen, Ballmer, the Nordstroms and the "mystery" investors we're not allowed to know about until after the deal is struck, can clearly afford to fund the entire project out of their own huge fortunes. Ballmer's net worth went up $225 million in ONE WEEK last month to what, $15 billion? More?

The idea that these guys need one dime of public support is ridiculous.

Finally, "The Sonics" won't be back -- but maybe these guys can succeed in stealing another team from another city just as the Sonics were stolen from Seattle. Boy wouldn't that make us proud. We can play that game too, and suck up to the likes of David Stern. Yuck.

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 6:11 p.m. Inappropriate

The arena would cost $350 million. The Good Witch of the North doesn't pay the interest. We do. And we haven't even mentioned the ancillary expenses that will probably be even more than the cost of the arena over time.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

While I don't necessary disagree with most Mr. Brewster's analysis, to little importance is given to the often intagible notion of perception. If the Puget Sound region is "world-class," and I believe it is, we should have a menu of professional sports teams, at least the big three.

We are the 12th-15th largest market in the nation (depending on how you calculate). Our inability to keep and support these teams cast a negative perception on the region. If the region can't support sports teams, can they support my company (Boeing is now refered to as a Chicago-based company)? That damages our brand and is a trend we must reverse. Do we want to hang with the likes of San Franciso or Sacramento?

That said, our region does need to be mature enough to "share the love." Why can't we locate a "Seattle" team in Bellevue? That's regionalism at its best. Hell, I'd argue that somewhere like Lynnwood would be suitable (light rail by 2023, <30 min from Downtown Seattle and Bellevue, ample bus connections).

My point being that we cannot continue to locate all of density in one location. Density is good, but GMA calls for regional growth, not just Seattle growth. We can't afford the infrastructure to sustain that model.

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with David Brewster. SODO/ Georgetown is already packed with uses. Clogging it with traffic for sports won't help what's already there.

Take the Port, for example. For being such a major seaport, and a green city, we have a remarkably inefficient way of loading rail cars with containers. First they come in on ships, then the containers go by truck about 400 to 800 yards as the crow flies. Then they get offloaded and picked up by tractor and loaded onto flat bed rail cars. If we were really using this area, we would re-locate the railroad tracks to right next to the docks and transfer the containers directly. That would probably be cheaper than building all these new overpasses for trucks.

Or take the Kingdome and SeaHawks Stadium. Until 40 years ago that area was filled with rail-served warehouses, the kind that gave rise to the Pearl District in Portland. We tore them down to make way for the King Dome and the parking around it, and then tore the King Dome down for the Sea Hawks stadium. For the last ten years various entities have been trying to figure out how to keep the parking and build housing on the North Lot. If we had never built a football stadium there in the first place, we would have a nice, historical extension of Pioneer Square, filled with housing and high-tech offices, already up and built. Has football really meant that much to Seattle over the last 40 years? Has it really provided that much recreation and civic pride that we did not have already? Is there a gaping hole in the civic life here that bringing back basketball will fill? Maybe we would do better if we spent more time improving the things we already have, like the Port, Seattle Center, the central waterfront, and Belltown. There are a whole lot of needs in these, and only so much board time, journalistic ink and money to go around.

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Very good, excellent article. Thank you David. All that needed saying but the kernel of this specific problem is a civic neurosis whereby ordinary people (including me, sometimes) identify with a professional sports team. As noted in the comments professional sports teams have no rational benefit and probably replace more wholesome entities (churches, fraternal organizations, political interest groups, professional associations, etc.) as a civic focus. The recent sale of the LA Dodgers for $2 billion (while the franchise was in chapter 11 bankruptcy) is the other side of this corrupt enterprise. Part of the reason for this staggering payoff (McCourt paid $430 million just a few years before he sold) is the assumed public investment and media support professional teams command. Don't look for our political leaders to resist this collective hysteria.

kieth

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 10:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen, amen, a-a-a-men David, and to you commenters too. Hey, David, did you really come from New Jersey? Madison,here.

Engineers at Boeing were convinced that they were low-balled pay-wise relative to the California manufacturers, a situation that they swallowed due to something they called the "Mt. Rainier Factor". It wasn't the "Sit on your butt swilling egregiously priced beer watching teams that generally are laughing stocks of their professional sports leagues".

OK, the Sonics had a good year and so did the Hawks and the Mariners -- one excellent year each in a sea of absurdity. As the sports' fans disposable income is stretched over more sports, the organizations are unable to pay for competitive personnel. Are we such masochists that we relish more of the same, he asks rhetorically.

kmeyer

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

"Rock and roll radio station"?. KEXP 90.3FM is one of the few shining diamonds in Seattle's airwave dustbin. Back in the '70s it was KOUW and despised and almost shut down by various layers of government for it's outspoken coverage of the "radical" views of UW students who opposed the Vietnam war. See "Rites of Passage" by seattle historian Walt Crowley.

Posted Tue, Aug 21, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle has become a junkyard of urban infrastructure.

Each new salvation has promised to "revitalize the downtown". Right now it should be so "vital" it should be gently nudging its partner into the bedroom like the horny 60 something couples in a Cialis ad.

You would think someone would learn from failure after failure. That downtown has become significantly worse, not better in the past two decades.

jabailo

Posted Fri, Sep 14, 3:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I moved to Seattle in '83 and then away (sadly) in '09. Seattle was the greatest thing to happen to me even though I saw the city grow beyond the thing that I fell in love with so long ago. If I was to come back and see the "more is better" mindset in full development mode, it would break my heart.. The vitality of a confined geographical area can very easy turn to a well dressed and sterile cloister is left in the hands of those who believe "if they build it, they will come."

rbbrfish

Posted Fri, Sep 14, 3:15 p.m. Inappropriate

ps....Where's Emmett Watson when you need him?

rbbrfish

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