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Why does Seattle fear urban planning?

Apartment towers finally rise in the stadiums' north lot Credit: Photo: Daniels Development

Why is urban planning so feeble in Seattle? Why no major open space downtown? Why do opportunities, such as Seattle Commons or retooling Seattle Center, become battlegrounds? Why so little beloved and bold architecture?

I got thinking about this a few weeks back when I was asked to be on a panel called "Activism: Better City" at the U.W. College of the Built Environment, convened by Marga Rose Hancock. The panel was looking back at some ambitious planning initiatives 30-40 years ago. The hope was to stir similar efforts today, but when I went back to examine how well these earlier ideas had worked out, I got discouraged, not mobilized.

The first effort the panel looked at was the Action: Better City (called A:BC) project of 1968, in which 50 local architects formed design groups and proposed such things as a 52-acre park in the heart of Belltown; dramatic palisades of buildings out over the Viaduct; and a handsome central plaza called Westlake Square. One of the A:BC instigators, Fred Bassetti, recalls the seminal project in this essay.

None worked out, but the group did lay the foundations for Seattle urban values, once the bad ideas of ringing downtown with freeways and parking garages had been defeated. The values: walkable, dense, diverse downtown street life; exploitation of alleys and smaller spaces; a major downtown park; transit to supplant cars and lots of downtown living. All those ideals hold true today, despite our poor efforts in realizing them. That major downtown park may eventuate on the central waterfront, 50 years later!

A subsequent effort was the Gang of Five, a group of five smallish architecture firms that looked again at major downtown issues and published their proposals in Seattle Weekly in 1981-82. The firms were Olson/Walker, Hewitt/Daly, Calvin/Gorasht, Schorr/Miller and Hobbs/Fukui. Peter Miller, owner of Peter Miller Books, a design bookstore, and I served as ghost writers.

The articles (Nov. 18, 1981, Jan. 6, Feb. 24, and April 28 1982) are most interesting to re-read today. Modesty and pragmatism were the key features, in contrast with the dream-big manner of A:BC and today. Downtown living was the major goal. In a way, the Gang prefigured low-regulation density advocates such as Edward Glaeser, who push for all kinds of ways to build taller buildings and increase density, with less deference to competing goals such as historic preservation, design review and affordability.

Here are some of the major Gang of Five ideas:

•Erect a big parking structure north and south of the Kingdome, topped with mixed-use buildings and incorporating a major transit center. Finally, this year, one-quarter of that opportunity is being built, along with a transit center at nearby Union Station.

•Keep and repair the Viaduct, but slow its traffic to 35 mph to cut down noise, enclose the lower level in glass and eventually convert the top deck to a park. Move Alaskan Way, the surface road, to under or east of the Viaduct, creating an 11-block park and promenade along the waterfront.

•Locate some major facilities in Pioneer Square: the Art Museum facing Occidental Park, a library to replace the “sinking ship” garage, a convention center at Union Station. (No way the powerful downtown real estate and tourism interests would have stood for this.)

•In Belltown, slow the traffic and narrow the streets. Put a monorail station at Bell Street. Keep older buildings by allowing developers to straddle them with taller buildings overhead and over the sidewalks, creating arcades. Focus parking garages at the monorail stop and a big project around Second and Battery, with tall buildings on stilts so that pedestrians can see through them to the waterfront views. Build a low-rise residential village where the Gates Foundation is today. Lid over depressed Broad Street, to make Seattle Center more a part of the city. And top it off with a gondola on Broad, linking the waterfront, Seattle Center and Lake Union.

•As for transportation, the Gang proposed an interception model with parking structures and bus terminals on the perimeter and a series of trolleys or vans providing (free?) circulation through downtown. By getting all those cars and big buses off the streets, you could do such things as: turn First Ave. into a residential street and transit corridor; allow building to lotlines for more density and fewer sterile plazas; make Westlake Avenue a tree-lined, residential boulevard; narrow avenues in Belltown to slow the traffic and make all east-west streets into two-way roads; and develop alleys into “mews” for new residents.

How many of these ideas bore fruit? Very few, it would appear. Thirty-three years later we are finally building apartment towers in the former Kingdome lot. There is a kind of “height tax,” as proposed, but it is earmarked for low-income housing, not for neighborhood amenities. Post Alley west of First Ave. has some pedestrian-only aspects. That’s about it.

The low yield says something about how good these ideas were — perhaps that they were too modest? — but also about how stony a path such ideas must walk in planning-averse Seattle. Several factors apply. One is that Seattle no longer has a real planning department, empowered to overcome the wishes of developers or the howls of the citizens. That department faded away in the Charles Royer administration (1978-90), where emphasis shifted to social problems, and lost its little remaining power in the Greg Nickels years (2002-2010), where political dealmaking replaced urban planning.

A second factor is Seattle lacks the planning tools and incentives that cities such as Portland and Vancouver enjoy. A key example is tax-increment financing, where the new taxes generated by a large project are dedicated to amenities at that project — a big deal in Portland, but illegal in Seattle (unless your name is Chris Hansen). Mitigation money for taller buildings, thanks to strong lobbying by the low-income housing coalition, does not go to a wide array of public benefits (day care, arts, parks, community centers) as in Vancouver, but almost entirely to the single benefit of low-income housing, often far from the project.

An additional factor is that, for many years, Seattle aspired only modestly in architecture. Partly this was an effort by local firms to keep the national architects out (no longer in effect); partly it was a preference for democratic plainness and unshowy contextualism; partly it is the regulatory weakness of our design-review boards (advisory only), who can only tweak at the edges of mediocre design. Mostly it is the outsized power of local corporations and their law firms, able to overwhelm mayors and city councils with generic, corporate-safe designs.

The result is that the “theatrical aspect” of Seattle architecture — those impressive public spaces that draw a wide range of people to congregate and gawk — is sorely under-represented here. Our private spaces get grander, while public spaces get shabbier. A book by the sociologist Elijah Anderson, “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” explores how these public spaces allow no-conflict, mixed-race moments that rarely take place outside the canopy. Seattle’s Pike Place Market would be such a canopy.

The main reason for our fear of planning, I submit, is the way the city embraced in an extreme way the lessons of Jane Jacobs, who launched a major assault against public planning agencies, not just bad plans.

Planning had been a grand public effort, especially in the Olmsted era 100 years ago, and Seattle eagerly embraced Olmsted’s plans for parks and boulevards (typically, we completed only part of it). But then, as cities feared a massive suburban exodus and the urban core was depopulating, planners favored urban renewal projects and punching through expressways, touching off a deserved backlash.

Enter Jane Jacobs of Greenwich Village and her withering attack on superblock urbanism, authoritarian planning agencies and freeways. The result, as Thomas J. Campanella observes, was that “the planning baby was thrown out with the urban-renewal bathwater.” The planning profession, badly marginalized and demoralized, has yet to recover. Jacobs has been “weaponized,” he writes, so that major projects proposed by the city, or in league with major developers, undergo such crossfire as to eventually give up or turn into sadly compromised projects like Westlake Square. It is curious that Jacobs' "conservative, even reactionary stance would galvanize an entire generation.” And so, in Seattle, we still count as our major planning victory the effort to stop plans for the Pike Place Market.

Planners now are “facilitators,” reduced to convening all the special interests and unhappy citizens and hoping that consensus can magically build. “In the face of an angry public, plannerly wisdom and expertise have no more clout than the ranting of the loudest activist,” notes Campanella, a professor of urban planning at University of North Carolina. But “who, if not the planner, will advocate on behalf of society at large?… If we put parochial interests ahead of broader needs, it will be impossible to build the infrastructure essential to the long-range economic viability of the United States — the commuter and high-speed rail lines; the dense, walkable, public-transit-focused communities; the solar and wind farms and geothermal plants…”

Put another way, would a Gang of Five today (much less a mayoral candidate) dare to put forth a current version of its vision “for a livable downtown”?

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