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Seattle growth: How to stand up to developers, City Hall

Construction near 6th and Lenora in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. Credit: SounderBruce/Flickr

Last week, the U.S. weather service issued a warning that the dry summer was replicating the conditions seen when the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 tore through Seattle’s business district. That event precipitated a massive makeover of the city — its infrastructure, building materials and landscape. The great leveling formed the foundation of the modern city.

Last week we also learned of a manmade plan that could also remake the city even more fundamentally than the fire — a draft report from the mayor’s task force crafting a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. The goal of the agenda is to find ways of accommodating and encouraging more growth — massive growth—while improving the city’s livability and overall fairness. Among the sweeping changes considered: transforming the city’s bedrock single-family neighborhoods to accommodate multi-family and other styles of housing. The final report reflects more limited changes to single-family zones – upzoning mainly in existing urban villages, for example. (You can find the full plan here.)

The challenge is pretty clear to everyone: The skyline is filled with cranes, the streets are torn up, it is difficult to walk a half-mile in the city without bumping into a “Sidewalk Closed” sign. We are in a boom after the recession’s bust, and it’s a boom that’s been slowly building across the decade like a tsunami that’s only now hitting the beach.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, planners like the University of Washington’s Myer Wolfe and others warned us of becoming Los Angeles. In the ’80s and ’90s, the fight was over building heights as Seattle resisted Manhattanization with the Citizens’ Alternative Plan initiative, passed by voters to overturn City Hall’s rules on density and building heights. Now the worry is that we’ll become like San Francisco and the greater Silicon Valley — a metroplex that will marginalize everyone but the rich. Early growth skeptics would have found it hard to imagine the era of the $1 million bungalow.

Jeff Reifman, a former Microsoft manager-turned activist and blogger, recently got attention with a commentary concluding that “success” was “ruining” Seattle. He is particularly critical of Amazon, which, he says, is “using Seattle as a vessel for profit — unconcerned about the health and diversity of our city.”

Lest you think the worries are only those of the NIMBYs and old-timers that some urbanists like to tag as the source of resistance to change, the concerns are also great among some who represent the biggest constituencies for growth.

At the annual Innovation dinner at the Museum of History and Industry last week, a panel of experts pondered the near future of how Seattle will evolve as an innovation hub over the next five years. The panelists included Vikram Jandhyala, vice provost for innovation at the University of Washington, which is currently transforming the U-District into an urban tech hub; the UW’s Dr. Michael Jensen, director of the Ben Towne Childhood Cancer Research Center at Children’s Hospital, who also is part of a bio-tech start-up in South Lake Union, Juno Therapeutics; Dawn Trudeau, a former Microsofter who is a local philanthropist and co-owner of the Seattle Storm; and Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. None were unhappy to see an army of cranes on the skyline; all have benefitted from what is driving the current boom, the clustering of tech jobs in Seattle. When moderator John Cook of GeekWire raised the issue, the common line was taken: better too many cranes than none.

But there were some interesting caveats and concerns raised. First, hosting a MOHAI event at South Lake Union from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. made sure the audience was strained through the ugly colander of Mercer, Denny and Westlake traffic gridlock, which seems worse since the “Mercer Mess” fix than before. Schutlzer, who now lives in West Seattle but had worked in many other cities, allowed that the traffic might seem like a problem, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could get in a world-class city (New York, D.C., Philly). You want three hours commutes, that’s where you can find ’em. It’s hardly reassuring, however, that cities with greater density and better mass transit are still mired in gridlock. Still, Seattle traffic is bad, and mobility in SLU is worthy of an eyeball roll.

The greater worry seems to be that Seattle’s innovation edge itself is under threat. The consensus of the panel seemed to be that Seattle was a special place to live and that it was attracting business innovators and high-tech employees because it’s a cool place to be — a great city without the problems of many other cities, and where creatives don’t have to be confined to office parks in the suburbs. Some warned that the Silicon Valley model was not one to follow, especially as it has played out in San Francisco where class and equity issues have become extreme and have spawned angry backlash. The worry is that Amazon is becoming a flashpoint for that here — protesters have already been showing up outside their offices.

If Seattle becomes too elite, too expensive, if regular folks who work at minimum wage jobs are all pushed out so that true economic and racial diversity in the city are at risk, the innovation hub model itself suffers. Jandhyala said that there is evidence that great diversity — exposure to more ways of doing things — stimulates greater innovation. It’s not simply a matter of fairness, but essential to the model of being a successful innovation hub over the long term.

When asked by moderator Cook if South Lake Union is working, there seemed to be a surprising lack of enthusiasm for how the district is playing out. This is a part of Seattle that was specifically designed as an innovation hub — high-tech and bio-tech companies, the presence of the University of Washington, the Hutch and nearby the Gates Foundation. It should be a shining example of what the new innovation economy can bring. It’s often said to be the model for other Seattle neighborhood makeovers, from Yesler Terrace to Ballard. Yet…

Transportation is a major issue — and the area itself has become a bottleneck for leapfrogging innovation to Interbay (such as Expedia’s move to the Amgen campus). Another is the general sterility of the neighborhood, which feels like a suburban boomtown. No doubt geniuses work away inside the buildings creating breakthrough research and products. But such is the innovation business that their success here might be fleeting. Start-ups get bought out quickly and moved to places where costs are less, like Houston. This is partly due, Schutzler said, to the low level of local angel financing of start-ups — thousands of people in the area have the means, but only a handful invest.

In other words, Seattle might be a good place to incubate an idea, but is not necessarily the best place to watch a company mature and yield long-term benefits to the city.

One problem with the speed and scale of growth, and the fact that the city isn’t prepared to keep ahead of it (see Bertha, see Sound Transit, see Metro), is that the planning for places like South Lake Union isn’t well enough coordinated, though by Seattle standards it was. The UW’s Jandhyala doesn’t mind the cranes, but he has been around and knows they don’t guarantee a good result: “I’ve been to Shanghai,” a massive, choking metropolis that most Seattleites would find on the wrong end of the livability scale.

Is our quality of life being destroyed by the thing that is supposed to enhance it? Is growth simply a serpent devouring its own tail?

There are already citizens working on the nuts and bolts of an alternative vision for how to manage our success. The citizen’s group Allied Arts, for example, is celebrating its 60th anniversary later this year while convening a series of discussions looking at crafting a plan for the city’s long-term livability. This was the group that rallied to save the Pike Place Market, that weighed in to ensure a “Waterfront for All” public park, that helped steer Seattle Center after the world’s fair toward being a civic center for the arts, not a Greater Seattle trade fair. They have often been a factor in democratizing our planning and development.

They are currently discussing what they call a “Growing Gracefully Manifesto” on how to accommodate urban growth without losing soul. Good design, better planning, a focus on cultural outcomes instead of commercial ones, grassroots involvement — all of these were discussed at a recent panel discussion they hosted at the Panama Hotel in the International District. I was on the panel with three others as architect Mark Hinshaw, Michael Luis of the Center for Wooden Boats and the Medina city council, and Lyle Bicknell, senior urban planner at the city.

One of the big issues is how do you craft a beautiful, livable and even lovable city when the market is driving the city to an uglier place? These are issues Allied Arts and the city have faced before, and the only answer is citizen action and engagement beyond the folks who usually show up to public meetings and put Post-its on whiteboards. The action has to occur outside the avenues of conventional public engagement, which is often designed to minimize input and insulate city officials. One way is to do what Allied Arts wants to do: talk to urban innovators who get that there has to be a viable, loveable, affordable city after the cranes are gone, and make a plan for that. Don’t rely on industry groups to hear you or understand your needs unless you can offer a vision and an alternative that produces a better outcome.

Then the trick is getting people to listen. Seattle has made good decisions in the past, but is also paying for lousy decisions (failing to pass mass transit, building I-5 un-lidded through downtown, putting up the Viaduct, bungling the Westlake makeover). In each of these cases, better alternatives were outlined at the time, protests were held, alternative roadmaps were laid out. Mass transit approved in the ’60s would have been paid for mostly by the federal government. An I-5 tunnel would not have severed downtown and it would have preserved the existing neighborhood fabric connecting First Hill and Capitol Hill with the urban core. Paul Thiry in the 1940s warned that the Alaskan Way Viaduct would wall off the waterfront and that a tunnel would be a better option. Architects Folke Nyberg and Victor Steinbrueck offered visions for a livelier, more pedestrian-friendly Westlake. Such ideas were brushed off as expensive or unnecessary. Only slowly are some of these bedrock projects being undone. But, the price for not listening is high and paid over generations.

The challenge now is less about a specific project, and it’s more difficult because it’s about a response to a growth dynamic with speed, scale and inequity built in. It is all the more important, then, to seize the opportunity of growing discontent.

If the neighborhoods are upset with proposed zoning changes, if the tech innovators are nervous about the quality of outcomes that business and the city government have engineered for their benefit, there is a chance for greater community collaboration. It won’t be solved by a mayor’s task force. The best shot is a plan outside the chain of command, one that proves persuasive in its broad support.

The cranes are here, but we mustn’t let them rule the roost.

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