In praise of the infamous 'Seattle Process'

Does the Seattle Way limit progress? Rather, our habits of stubborn public criticism have mostly saved us from follies and boondoggles.
Crosscut archive image.

The Seattle Monorail project: laid to rest by the Seattle process

Does the Seattle Way limit progress? Rather, our habits of stubborn public criticism have mostly saved us from follies and boondoggles.

While President Obama sells HOPE and the possibility for change from entrenched ideas and partisan bickering, here in Seattle it'ꀙs becoming difficult not to hear or read about the entrenched opinion that 'ꀝSeattle Process'ꀝ or 'ꀜThe Seattle Way'ꀝ limits progress. The politician who seeks good information from too many people, or for too long, is described as waffling, gutless, and indecisive. Is this reaction against Seattle process justified?

In a progressive, well educated city such as Seattle, we expect our leaders to make informed decisions. Likewise we expect the people we elect to listen to the public and consider that there is enormous brain power out there, which just might have a better idea if we take the time to ask and to listen.

Democracy is slow, inefficient, and often messy. So, why are we increasingly impatient with careful study and discussion? 'ꀜSeattle Process'ꀝ has saved Seattle from some major boondoggles and sophomoric decisions. If anything, Seattle process has failed to stop enough projects or decisions that hindsight has shown never should have been.

Another part of the argument against Seattle process is the contention that delayed decisions for civic projects can drive up the cost of big projects. Likely true — but there is equal evidence that careful planning and good design saves money, or avoids disaster. We now think the Tacoma Narrows Bridge fell because warnings about wind were dismissed as nonsense. Likewise seismologists weren'ꀙt certain about the Seattle Fault at the time, but they did warn the state Department of Transportation that the Alaskan Way Viaduct was vulnerable, if built on fill material. There were some quiet little voices that asked if the bus and train tunnel under Third Avenue would handle both buses and trains. It didn'ꀙt and the retrofit was costly. Some experts worried that the Howard Hanson dam had a faulty northern anchor, and now that is a serious problem putting a whole valley in danger.

Rather than tossing out the Seattle process, we need to remember the many examples of the way it has saved us from poor decisions or spending money needlessly. Remembering our recent history, I came up with over 50 examples of issues when the Seattle process worked very well or where, if our Seattle Way had been more successful, we could have avoided some mistakes. Following are just a few examples.

Some years ago citizens battled against a city plan to incinerate garbage and truck the fly ash to a dump. Citizens opposed incineration, opted for clean air, and demanded recycling. The city cried foul, nimbyism and costly delays. Finally the city capitulated. We would recycle. Seattle then became a model for recycling and the city now brags about its great wisdom. While it happened before Mayor Greg Nickels' reign in office, he loves to take credit for aggressive recycling. But it was the public and Seattle process that saved the day.

Who can forget the Monorail? It was an audacious and nearly brilliant dream of a cab driver, snatched by a promoter and ex-city council member who evolved it into a financial fiasco. Opponents who claimed it was based on voodoo economics were marginalized by being called obstructionists to progress and Nimbys if they lived anywhere near the route. In retrospect, Seattle process saved us from shame, and steered billions of dollars to doing more important things.

Once upon a time the city and state planned an expressway to go through the Arboretum and surrounding wetlands. Named after R.H. Thompson, a remarkable city engineer at the turn of the century, the expressway would destroy one of the few natural areas in the city. It took years to fight and it left a concrete off-ramp still standing as a reminder of government's failure to pay attention to the public. Score another victory for Seattle process.

The famous Pike Place Public Market was almost lost to profiteers — twice! Citizens prevailed using Seattle process, under the inspiration of Vic Steinbrueck, to prevent the takeover. Decisions over the Market property, now in public trust, will soon have its fate transferred to the city of Seattle, so it may take another dose of Seattle process to save the Market yet again from developers who drool over its prime views and location.

Then there was 'ꀜCAP,'ꀝ a well-organized citizen effort to establish a sustainable city center by limiting, for 10 years, the height of office buildings in the core of downtown. It was a public vote against formidable opposition. The irony is that it saved a number of major developers and CAP opponents from bankruptcy when a recession created huge vacancies in downtown buildings. Again, the public was right and the Seattle process worked.

Believe it or not, there was once a plan for Seattle'ꀙs Zoo to cap Aurora Avenue with a giant bird cage and turn elephants loose in lower Woodland Park. Common sense and citizens efforts finally prevailed. The zoo director who created this pipe dream quit and returned to California.

Perhaps the most visible recent battle involving the Seattle Way as over the Seattle Commons, a controversial real estate redevelopment that would have reshaped the entire South Lake Union area by building a large park and a tree-lined boulevard from downtown to Lake Union. Much of the development was to be built with public funds, funding the park and countless other improvements in the entire area that enhanced the value of the land. It would also drive out a host of service industries that keep Seattle repaired. It was defeated twice at the polls. Then Paul Allen, who had helped to buy some of the land for the proposed park, ended up with some large properties which his company has subsequently developed. We got the development, without the park like boulevard.

Some still argue whether Seattle process saved us from enormous public debt or lost the chance for an enticing park and boulevard. As it turns out the public will pay a lot for infrastructure to support Allentown's redevelopment, which includes a streetcar and $290 million for reworking the Mercer corridor.

I could go on, but just two more examples, if you will. There were the sports stadiums, mostly paid from public dollars extracted under the pressure of declared "emergencies." Time will tell if it was successful or a failed Seattle process. There's the time Mayor Charles Royer hired the Disney 'ꀜImagineers'ꀝ to redesign the Seattle Center and solve its financial problems. An eruption of public opposition drove out the Mouseketeers.

In a democracy we elect people to represent us, make decisions, hire and administer public employees to maintain and keep our city working. No one would suggest that citizens could or should be involved in every decision that a city would need to make. But public process keeps many smooth-talking promoters, profiteers, and politicians from making stupid decisions. Over time, I hope my short history makes clear, Seattle's often-maligned public process has been more right than wrong.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors