Seattle: Coming back to earth

Some good news about right-sizing the city, and saving money, too.
Crosscut archive image.

Columbia Center, where Ron Sims works now. (Flickr contributor <a href''>marmot06</a&gt;)

Some good news about right-sizing the city, and saving money, too.

Who says the newspapers only carry bad news? There have been a few recent stories concerning moves by the Seattle City Council and King County Executive Ron Sims that offer encouragement. At the risk of seeming like a moss-free Pollyanna, I thought I'd point some of them out.

The city council took steps to stop the scourge of the mega-houses that have been gobbling up some neighborhoods in recent years. One positive of the credit crisis might be a slow-down in over-sized development and, I hope, a trend toward saner consumption (I'm not holding my breath). But bank failures aside, Richard Conlin and others have been looking for a way to keep homes from getting completely out of scale and erasing yards and open space.

Whether you want to see Seattle's neighborhoods as livable collections of bungalows or have them get denser and more urban, monster houses are a blight, fitting fewer people into more square footage at the expense of trees and gardens. The new code, which passed unanimously, attempts to keep houses proportional with lot sizes in single family neighborhoods. It also tries to limit street-facing garages that can have a real deadening effect on street life. I've seen a stretch in Wallingford where neighbors who once chatted in their front yards on the weekends have been displaced by a wall of garage doors.

Such measures can be problematic. In suburban Vancouver, B.C., a couple years ago, people protested that rules against mega-houses were racist because it was claimed to be a way older, white families were attempting to keep out East Indian immigrants who had much larger, multi-generational households and needed bigger houses. There doesn't seem to be any sign of that here, but there are cultural components to issues like scale. Nevertheless, the council's move is a good step in trying to right-size housing footprints and preserve neighborhood character and the environment.

The city council also passed new rules that would make it easier to open sidewalk cafés in Seattle, a city that has been reluctant to allow them to flourish. The new measure would lower the cost of permits and speed up the process by which restaurants can get approval. Mayor Greg Nickels has been pushing for this, too. In the past, it's not been just the city that's been hesitant or obstructionist: Some condo owners' associations have also opposed them. Condo owners don't want the noise or commotion outside their windows or near entrances. One irony is that many downtown condo owners don't really take advantage of the streets much anyway as they are only part-time residents or they sneak in and out of their glass towers by car via underground parking. They really do want a kind of safer, quieter city even while they profess to enjoy the urban edge from their penthouses.

Seattle struggles between its urban and suburban urges, and I sympathize. But one of the benefits of urbanization is more street life, and I've long been struck by how other cities foster this with more creativity and liberality. In San Francisco, you can find downtown alleys that have been turned into wall-to-wall outdoor eateries where people can stroll and pick where to eat as if they were strolling a sit-down version of Bite of Seattle. Most of these also have overhead canopies and heaters that are useful in inclement weather.

As someone who made his living for many years from distributing newspapers in boxes, I have long been irritated by the over-zealous efforts to "clean the streets" by trying to Kirklandize downtown Seattle by limiting — or eliminating entirely — freestanding newboxes (this kind of over-protection is bad for places like Kirkland too, though not as bad as the overabundance of cutesy animal sculptures that plague their downtown). Seattle streets could use more boxes, more kiosks, more news vendors, more benches, more pay phones, yes, even more clutter. A Disneyfied city gives us the worst of two worlds: a bland, mall-like downtown with all the density and none of the mitigating excitement.

Then there is King County Executive Ron Sims' proposal to move his office out of the Columbia Center. According to Sims, the savings would be nearly $3 million over five years, a good thing for taxpayers. Where the exec's office would wind up in the long-run is another question. Some believe it should be back in the King County Courthouse, along with the County Council.

Beyond the cost savings, what we need in a time of big budget gaps is this: Government leadership that isn't housed in big, shiny office towers. The desire to consolidate government offices and put departments in proximity to one another has its good points, but it can also create government ghettos where the only people public employees meet are other public employees. Or fellow tenants who tend to work for large corporations and big commercial enterprises. Life in these skyscrapers is far removed from the life of average Seattleites. This strikes me every time I visit Seattle Municipal Tower, which seems like another world, and one in which views of things like urban development are self-reinforcing because of the work environment.

The commanding views of the city from Sims' office and others like it, I suspect, tend to disconnect public employees from the city that shrinks to the size of one of Paul Allen's scale models, a landscape of pawns to be moved at will. They subtly encourage a kind of imperial view that I think can seduce even the most dedicated public employee.

Sims is a man who likes to think big, and I admire the way he has tried to create policies (like environmental rules) that fit within a larger context. But it's too easy to get lost in the clouds up in places like the Columbia Center. Sims is doing the right thing for himself and the county by coming down to earth.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.