Needed: civic visionaries who think about costs

Seattle used to create civic visionaries who reshaped the urban landscape. Now our civic visionaries have poor math skills.
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Crumbling concrete on the pillar of the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Seattle used to create civic visionaries who reshaped the urban landscape. Now our civic visionaries have poor math skills.

One can'ꀙt help but think about all the big decisions currently being made by government. The daily news is gloomy. Major corporations and financial institutions are failing. Infrastructure is wearing out. Overpopulation challenges those who must make decisions. Fundamental changes are needed. What seems missing are leaders who are visionaries, people who plan the future with imagination.

But do we have any? Locally at least we haven'ꀙt had many. Way back, there was Henry Yesler and John Denny. Seattle'ꀙs early history included a period when a unified group of "seamstresses," a euphemism for ladies of the evening, directed a portion of their back breaking effort to repairing Seattle'ꀙs streets. (Whether visionary or not it worked much better than Mayor Nickels' pot-hole-filling 'ꀜroad rangers.'ꀝ)

R.H. Thompson, a city engineer, looked to the future and laid out plans for a gigantic water system along with an elaborate sewage system. It was so expansive the electeds of that time ridiculed him saying the capacity of the new system could never be realized. Both systems anticipated future growth and are still in use today.

There was more visionary thinking when Denny Hill was sluiced into Puget Sound creating Denny Regrade, now called Belltown. The assumption apparently that if Seattle was to grow it would need space. The Montlake Cut, the Ship Canal, and the Locks also changed the geography of Seattle and were clearly visionary in scope. And we can'ꀙt forget the Olmsted Brothers, who planned some of our parks and boulevards.

The modern era brought more visionary changes to the city. The first floating bridge, the Space Needle, the World's Fair, the I-5 freeway through the center of town were civic inspirations. Today, our visionaries seem mostly commercial: T. Wilson and Bill Allen of Boeing, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Amazon'ꀙs Jeff Bezos, cell phone pioneer Craig McCaw,and coffee king Howard Schultz — all created major economic empires, but not geography-changing 'ꀜvisions'ꀝ like removing entire city hills. None of these men shaped the civic future of the city.

The result is a civic shortfall, a municipal vision-drought. It doesn'ꀙt require a visionary to understand Seattle'ꀙs failure to maintain its bridges, roadways, and public buildings. Our decision-makers in the last 30 years have been so preoccupied with trying to outlive the image of being an adolescent city and trying to grow into 'ꀜWorld Class'ꀝ status that they spend too much time looking at the city's reflection in the mirror in search of zits. They seem focused on the cosmetic rather than the less glamorous maintenance of the city infrastructure. For instance, when Seattle decided to replace its downtown library it hired internationally known architect Rem Koolhaas — more to put Seattle on the world'ꀙs architectural map than to create a functional library.

Or consider the decisions now being made concerning the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 floating bridge. Both projects have engendered intense debate. On the Viaduct decision, note how much of the debate centers on appearance issues, while functionality and cost and safety are more critical. When cost is discussed, it's more about how to punish the public with a new tax than to determine a cost benefit. The needs of regional commerce and industrial freight and goods take a back seat to those who believe the views from downtown condos are a higher priority.

We could use some modern visionaries who can also "do the math." At the moment, it looks like the state government will shell out about $2.4 billion for solving the problem of replacing the viaduct with a deep-bored tunnel. Other costs for a new seawall and developing a waterfront park will add another $2 billion or so, maybe much more. All to improve the cosmetics of the waterfront.

So far Speaker Frank Chopp is being hammered for asking the hard questions. A cost-conscious visionary, however, might ask other questions. Where is the extra $2 billion coming from, will it produce $2 billion worth of benefit? What else could you do with that amount of money?

And do we remember that the state is running a $9 billion deficit that will mean major cuts in public education at all levels, possibly increasing class size to over 40 kids? What if we spent that $2 billion on education? You could likely send all the eligible high school graduates in the state to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, or any other prestige university for a full decade for that amount of money. (They do that in the Netherlands,by the way.) In K-12 education you could reduce the class size in every classroom in the state to a dozen students or less for an entire decade. How many great minds might that create?

Or that $2 billion could go a long way toward building renewable energy sources for the city that would forever reduce our dependence on burning hydrocarbon fuels to generate power. Any contribution from wind, tidal, geothermal, or solar energy would make a major dent in our use of fossil fuels to generate power. Or we could build a facility near Seattle that would convert our garbage into power and reduce or eliminate the need to ship our garbage by rail to Eastern Oregon.

Visionary? Maybe possible? Depends on who you elect.


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