The more the murkier: a Seattle disease

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

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.

Two factors in our local history have produced this epidemic, in my view. One is that in our boom times, a whole lot of reinforcing growth factors produce a heady optimism: defense spending, surges of new population, the westward migration, arrival of the railroad, the Cold War. That creates a wide margin of error, and in turn this is one of the reasons we have such an entrepreneurial culture, where one need not fear a high rate of failures. There is no birth control. And then, of course, when the boom ends, all these children need to go to college and have cars, and the money isn't there. You overbuild and then you underfund. It's a formula for "high mediocrity." Not pretty, and not the way great cities build civilization and specialized excellence.

The other factor is the weakness of any "establishment" in a region that has so many newcomers and such light traditions. The establishment, in whatever form it might take (social elite, business tycoons, first families) may be deplorable in all kinds of ways, but it has the function of regulating births or forcing a focus on just a few outstanding things. Take that restraining mechanism away and you have Seattle, making a virtue of anything goes, mistaking quantity as a surrogate for quality. "In quantitas, qualitas" might be the region's motto.

There is one restraint, however, and that's taxpayer resistance during a bad economy. This happened in the voters' rejection of the little-for-everything, nothing-really-fixed bikes and streets measure put forth by the mayor and readily endorsed by the full city council last November. Still, Seattle voters' famous readiness to vote for taxes to help good causes further enables this More-ism.

Maybe someday Seattle will act its (mid)size, rather than pretending we can have an array of expensive big-league toys that only the largest cities can afford, without suffering serious trade-offs in the bargain.

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