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The next Seattle mayor needs to be a puzzlemaster

Billions of dollars in new public projects will be coming online in the next four years. The mayor will have to orchestrate it all.
Viaduct demolition

Viaduct demolition WSDOT

A city is a puzzle being assembled in four dimensions. But unlike most puzzles, the pieces of the urban game change as you go. Some are added, some demolished, some simply morph with time and zoning. It's tough to keep a fixed image of there we'd headed — the jigsaw doesn't always turn out like the picture on the box.

The mayor is the person we elect to help guide us through the puzzle process, an administrator, a representative, a visionary, a pragmatist, a problem-solver. The mayor's purview is both the big picture and the micro-issue, the City on the Hills we're building, and the potholes that need filling.

Every mayoral cycle we look around to see if this election really means anything. As current mayor Mike McGinn prepares to deliver his State of the City address on Tuesday, it's worth noting that there's a lot at stake in this year's mayor's race. The next mayor (2013-17) will preside over perhaps the most ambitious and expensive convergence of huge new puzzle pieces we’ve seen in the last half century — literally billions of dollars in new investment that will be starting to earn its keep. The next mayor will have to be someone who can help fit it all together, and make it all worthwhile.

What are those pieces? Huge freeway projects, a high-risk remake of the waterfront, the opening of one of the biggest deep-bored tunnels in the world, a brand new multi-purpose sports arena, the re-development of First Hill, and extensions of light rail to key parts of the city and region. Our mayor isn't responsible for all of this. But mayors tend to be held accountable for watchdogging the process, for negotiating with the planners, engineers and contractors who make it all happen. Fairly or unfairly, mayors are held accountable for making it work.

Jump two years ahead and take a look at what will be coming online in 2015-16, the heart of the next mayor's term. You'll find a huge convergence of mega-projects and large public and public/private infrastructure investments (see accompanying sidebar for highlights).

In that 2015-16 window, the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project should be opening the massive new downtown tolled tunnel, and the city will commence a once-in-a-century remake of the waterfront. The latter includes tearing down the old Viaduct, remaking surface streets and connections, adding public space to the waterfront, and shoring up Seattle's new face to the world with the new seawall.

On the other side of town the newly expanded six-lane 520 Bridge, which will link Seattle and Redmond across Lake Washington, will be opened and (assuming it gets full funding) a complete rewiring of the city between the lake shore and I-5 will be underway. That's not all.

In 2015-16, we should see major advancements in Sound Transit's Link Light Rail program. The University Link from downtown to Montlake is slated to begin service in 2016, and rail from Husky Stadium north should be well advanced.

If all goes according to plan and we get an NBA basketball team, Chris Hansen's new basketball/hockey arena in SoDo should be under construction in our 2015-16 window, along with whatever traffic and freight mobility mitigation projects are undertaken to make it work for the Port of Seattle and other stadium and industrial neighbors.

Not far away, the 30-acre Yesler Terrace Redevelopment will be underway. The ambitious  project is a joint partnership between the Seattle Housing Authority and Paul Allen's Vulcan. First Hill, the city’s densest neighborhood already, will be undergoing a massive makeover every bit as transformative as South Lake Union's. What will emerge over the next 10-20 years is a new mixed-use urban center of 25 or more mid- and high-rise buildings with as many as 5,000 new housing units, including low income housing. The first two phases of the redevelopment will be coming online in the next mayor's term.

This litany of projects is by no means the sum total of what's coming up. There's the city's high-speed fiber-optic broadband experiment, the implementation of a new 20-year Bike Master Plan, improvements and possible development at Seattle Center, work on bolstering an aging I-5 through downtown, new school construction, and an expanded city streetcar system (the under-construction First Hill segment opens next year). Seattle is not standing still, and this infrastructure boom should put to rest the tired notion that we're a city seized by gridlock. We're a city that is testing whether it has bitten off more than it can chew.

A back-of-the-envelope estimate reveals a price-tag in excess of $16 billion for what's in the works. The short of it is, the next mayor will have to be like a symphony conductor, orchestrating a coherent, livable picture out of a tsunami of investment and ambition. The next mayor will have to possess skills that will help Seattle absorb massive change, capitalize on opportunity, and protect pieces of the urban puzzle that are necessary, but threatened, like affordability.

Not all the projects are under the mayor's control. Many are driven by outside agencies or were conceived before the current incumbent took office. Some will stretch well into other mayors' terms. So what can our next mayor do?


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems that putting it all together like this leaves your readers speechless.

s_calvert

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a great overview, Skip, one that makes me think it's a time of real excitement and opportunity for Seattle. Do we have the mayor or mayoral candidates that are up to these challenges and opportunities? Tony Robinson

Posted Mon, Feb 18, 11:49 p.m. Inappropriate

No, Tony, we don't.

None of the candidates expressing desire are what Seattle needs. Seattle needs an old fashioned, save a dime, get it done, tell the naysayers to shut the hell up kind of person.

Unfortunately, all those sane people have moved away.

I sure do miss my hometown Seattle.

Posted Tue, Feb 19, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

If you are going to call it "Chris Hansen's new basketball/hockey arena", then Chris Hansen needs to pay for it. He is not. Chris Hansen demands public funds from Seattle and tax exemption. Seattle would be paying for this arena. Chris Hansen is nothing but a Ballmer hired frontman panhandler.

Seattle needs a Mayor who does not sell out to any wealthy interest that comes around.

jhande

Posted Wed, Feb 20, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

I guess this puzzlemaster angle is a new take on the simple failure of leadership by hobbyists and public officials who, while in service to special interests, have created a miasma of problems and hardships for tax payers and the community at large. The entire region will have to pay for these misguided, enormously expensive, incompatible transportation projects that in most cases actually REDUCE capacities and access for commerce and commuters while providing expensive amenities and beautification for a few affluent neighborhoods. Things like replacing the viaduct (110,000 cars a day) with a tunnel (40K to 60K cars a day plus TOLLs) means that we’re spending billions to INCREASE congestion downtown. Straightening Mercer ($200 – $400 million) to please developers has reduced its capacity and increased commute time. And we are preparing to spend an extra 2 billion dollars and endure expanded tolling to pay for burying the 520 bridge termination under a park to please Montlake.

I’d rather see a follow-up to this article along the lines of the following from Crosscut posted in 2009 about how these “puzzles” really happened.

http://crosscut.com/2009/03/26/crosscut-blog/18899/When-Chopp-speaks-parse-closely/

jmrolls

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