The bully of Puget Sound

Seattle has a great international brand, but locally, the Emerald City image is tarnished. New leadership could give us a fresh start.
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Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour.

Seattle has a great international brand, but locally, the Emerald City image is tarnished. New leadership could give us a fresh start.

The Puget Sound region looks to Seattle for leadership yet also resents it. In economic tough times and while planning for growth in the future, many are calling for more coherent, even cooperative, planning. But it's tough to overcome the competitiveness that's been in our genes since the pioneer days. Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, and scores of smaller cities are still competing for a share of the regional pie.

Seattle is the 900-pound gorilla of Pugetopolis, a job center, the biggest city in the state, the essence of the region's identity: Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon. Even Microsoft, headquartered in Redmond, is almost universally referred to as a "Seattle company." But the region isn't content basking in Seattle's glow.

Seattle became the regionally dominant force after the Klondike boom more than a century ago, but as Pugetopolis has sprawled and its cities have flourished, strong interests still exist outside the city limits. The Puget Sound Regional Council was brought into being to help the region cohere around planning, yet it is not, by design, a regional government. Its vision for the future sees growth and prosperity shared among various urbanized hubs (Lynnwood, Bel-Red). But underneath the vision, on the ground, there's still a sense that one place's success comes at the expense of others. No one really trusts Seattle to lead, except, perhaps, by asserting its primacy.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is about to leave the stage and the transition is resetting the discussion of Seattle's regional leadership role. Nickels is not the first Seattle leader to prove unpopular around Puget Sound (see the disillusionment with Sims, Ron), but during his time in office Nickels did manage to piss off the provinces, and vice versa. He whined publicly that the region was not lining up behind his agenda for Seattle and complained (or joked) to Seattle City Club that the city ought to secede from the region, a venting statewide editorialists called "arrogant" and "absurd." The tantrum was mostly staged to remind everyone just how big and important Seattle really is.

That kind of "it's my ball and we play by my rules or I'll go home" has not made the city popular around the Sound or state, or in Olympia (or as the primary demonstrated, in Seattle.) Seattle, in fact, is ringed by circles of resentment that in some ways recapitulate the way Seattle's own neighborhoods regard downtown and city government: a top-down bully that serves the powerful entrenched interests at the expense of the the people.

The most recent Seattle outrage was the Nickels-led effort to entice the Frank Russell investment company to re-locate in downtown Seattle — competing with a neighbor as you might compete, say, to keep Boeing from moving factory work to South Carolina. The Seattle-Tacoma rivalry is long and deep, and the railroad-run Tacoma was once the dominant "City of Destiny" but lost out. Mired in second-cityness, it's a city of endless potential where critical mass seems always to be just out of reach. After untold numbers of urban "Renaissances," Tacoma's destiny still eludes.

Seattle did bag the Russell company, thanks mostly to the Great Recession. Russell was able to pick up the emptying WaMu tower for pennies on the dollar. But Tacoma isn't likely to forget Seattle's stealing its largest downtown private employer. Seattle looked bad in victory by bigfooting a neighbor striving for similar urbanization goals. It damaged itself as a regional leader. Few cheer for Godzilla to stomp on Bambi.

Seattle should realize there are consequences to such behavior, especially if the city you enrage is a key part of regional transportation strategies — and even more so when you hurt a town with powerful patrons, including earmarking Congressman Norm Dicks and an Olympia delegation affectionately referred to as "the Pierce County Mafia." The Tacoma News Tribune issued a post-Russell warning to Seattle, and in the process reminded the city of an earlier slight:

There's a pattern in the way some Seattle leaders appear to view the rest of the Puget Sound region. The Russell courtship is reminiscent of the way King County Executive Ron Sims went all out to build light rail transit through Seattle — then suddenly decided Snohomish, South King, and Pierce County didn't need rail when it came time to approve a second round of construction. Regionalism cooperation is important, it seems, only if Seattle is the prime beneficiary.

The problem with stiffing the neighbors is that Seattle still needs the support of those neighbors for its big transportation projects — the Alaskan Way viaduct replacement, for example — and other expensive improvements.

Memo to Nickels, et al: If regional cooperation isn't a two-way street, it's not cooperation, and it doesn't exist.

No need to send the memo to Nickels. Now it's mayoral candidates Joe Mallahan or Mike McGinn who need to get it.

So too with King County exec candidates Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison. As the TNT editorial reminds, Sims turned out to be a disappointment as a regional player, especially in his own county. The primary election demonstrates that the farther away from Seattle you get, the more people voted for the outsider-at-any-cost change that the rookie politician Hutchison represents. Seattle comprises only about a third of county residents, but the county is perceived as being driven by Seattle interests. The seat of government is downtown Seattle. When Sims was first elected, he was seen by many as a pro-business New Democrat with whom the 'burbs could do business. By the end, he was just another Seattle liberal chasing butterflies.

Back in the '90s, it was east King County that rattled the secession saber, but even as the property-rights movement had died down, the people most closely governed by King County (in unincorporated areas) are still the people who hate it most. It's the devil they know all too well. Whether it's the perceived top-down meddling with the Critical Areas Ordinance or recent fights over roads-rail-transit priorities, Seattle-dominated King County seems captive of urbanist visions, out of step with regional needs, and always dealing itself the better hand.

Hutchison, a Seattleite herself (Laurelhurst), recognizes the mood and pledges to reach out to the greater county by meeting with its 40-some mayors and city managers on a regular basis, something her predecessors have not done. She says many of them are competent, creative, and can teach us something. That will be music to suburbia's ears, which felt largely dealt out after the King County-Metro merger in the '90s stripped away representation of suburban cities.

Hutchison's attitude could resonate in the rest of the region. Already some urbanists are pointing to Bellevue as a model for density and Transit Oriented Development planning, and giving Tacoma high marks for some some of its zoning innovations and its downtown amenities (museums, UW campus). Former mayor Cary Bozeman — who has been mayor of both Bellevue and Bremerton &mdash was enthusiastically received by some regional leaders earlier this year when he openly questioned Seattle's status as a role model, criticizing its waterfront development (or lack thereof) and its neglect of Pioneer Square. He called Seattle out: Who are you to tell the rest of us how to make a great city? You could learn something from the rest of us.

That message is still not received well inside the city limits among parochial planners and politicians who have embraced policies that treat the suburbs like a disease that needs to be eradicated (call the Gates Foundation!). The anti-sprawl message is well-meant, but tainted by the suspicion of self-interest: Why is it that growth should be funneled into a denser Seattle? Why should all the prosperity go downtown? Is Seattle our regional Rome?

Seattle's ardent partisans sometimes adopt regional rhetoric (like Nickels' secession tantrum) that sends the signal that Seattle doesn't need anyone else. It's as if some Seattleites believe the city can revive the fortified medieval hill town, defended against the Red-politics of the outlying area, the car-centrism of Kemper Freeman, Jr., the sprawl of Issaquah and Federal Way. The waterfront tunnel? Why not simply stop a state highway from passing through town, the hell with those north and south on old 99?

Think of the famous New Yorker image of the world as seen from 9th Avenue in Manhattan, with nothing but terra incognita between New Jersey and LA. For many Seattle pols, the Eastside is anathema, South King County (heck, even the Rainier Valley) unknown territory filled by people who haven't got the new religion on what a city ought to be. They aren't even riding their bikes!

If Seattle has a regional leadership role, it needs to get more real. It's not good enough for Mike McGinn, Joe Mallahan, Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison or any other Seattle pols to look at Pugetopolis from the top of the County Courthouse, City Hall, or the Space Needle. To be fair, none have said they would do this and one (Constantine) has significant experience representing interests outside Seattle proper. Nor does this mean they have to adopt a view of the region shared by everyone. But Seattle needs leaders who can work well with others, learn from their neighbors, and can ensure that Seattle on its narrow isthmus doesn't become too isolated or alienating.

Snohomish County has been debating the concept of "Fully Contained Communities," the idea that you can drop a dense urban town of 15,000 into a rural area and keep it from sprawling outward. But no city, not even the modern version of a walled Tuscan hill town, was ever truly fully contained, just as no man is an island. The "fully contained" cities of old were always reliant on larger grids and connections, they required trade, farm and grazing lands, hunting grounds and water from outside sources. They were also vulnerable to sieges, and siege mentalities. The concept is a dangerous fantasy.

As William Cronon's great book, Nature's Metropolis, shows about 19th century Chicago, great cities are shaped by the countryside, and they dramatically re-shape their environs, even hundreds or thousands of miles distant. It is the essence of ecological thinking. The point is that the concept of a Fully Contained Community is a state of mind. Seattle needs leaders who can break out of the isolationist mindset, who lead by example, and who make more friends than enemies in the neighborhood.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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