A political pundit can read tea leaves and still miss the big picture. I've been looking at local politics for a long time, and only recently did this plot finally come into focus: Seattle is engaged in a secret building project that's been going on right under our noses. It is perhaps the biggest capital project in city history, dwarfing the monorail, light rail, the downtown tunnel and the replacement of the 520 bridge combined. Yet no one talks about it openly.
Before I tell you what I've concluded, let's follow the chain of clues.
1. Seattle's urbanists have been touting density. The theory is that sprawl is evil and unsustainable, so the more people living in the city, the better. Packing Seattle like a sardine can is now accepted policy.
2. Anyone who wants to enter the city must pay a tax, a toll, or a fee. For example, in recent years we levied taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars, we charged cruise ships to dock, we increased the sales tax for shoppers, we boosted parking fees for those who dare to drive, and now we're planning to add tolls to roadways and bridges (such as I-90 and 520) to punish auto commuters from the 'burbs.
3. Seattle has a landscape that is easy to defend. Not only do we have high hills and tall towers for lookouts, we are situated on an isthmus bordered by sea, lakes, canals and a river. Essentially, we are surrounded by a moat. In addition, the city's terrain is complicated and our street grid "broken" in several places. Only locals know how to get around.
4. City planners often look to the Old World for inspiration. Civic visionary and Crosscut.com founder David Brewster converted an old church into a "town hall" and once suggested the Pike Street I-5 overpass be turned into a "Ponte Vecchio" lined with shops, like the original in Florence, Italy. Chuck Wolfe, a prominent Seattle land-use attorney with close ties to Mayor Mike McGinn, frequently updates his Myurbanist.com blog with examples of how Seattle could borrow from Renaissance or medieval Europe. What would Dubrovnik do? Or Venice?
5. The current argument on the revamping of the waterfront is whether to have a downtown tunnel handle heavy vehicle traffic once the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, or simply tear down the elevated roadway, hope the Highway 99 traffic disperses onto surface streets, and encourage people to take transit or just stay home. This so-called surface option favored by the mayor is proposed in place of a new, elevated highway or an underground tunnel. It likely will discourage pass-through traffic and cause gridlock on downtown streets, but this is seen as a civic good. Removing vehicular access routes is the kind of tactic encouraged by modern urban planners — as it was by the Belgian, French, and Dutch undergrounds while attempting to stop German tanks.
6. Mayor McGinn has proposed that the city consider rebuilding and funding the Elliott Bay seawall replacement separately from the downtown tunnel or whatever post-Viaduct option is pursued. He wants to put this to a vote of the people. The seawall, he says, is an urgent priority. Yes, building a wall, he says, is more crucial than new or improved roads.
So what does all of this add up to?
We're turning Seattle into a medieval city: dense, moated, isolated, barricaded. Not a pass-through place, but the end of the line. A choke point for traffic, an enclave easily controlled by drawbridges and tollgates. We're entering a phase in which we hunker into a defensive crouch against everything that's "not Seattle."
Could all this green, urban-city improvement really just be a cover for promoting the old "Lesser Seattle" agenda that longtime Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson once touted? The motto of his movement was "Keep the Bastards Out."
We're acting like a city under siege, and, brick by brick, we're constructing the Great Wall of Seattle. I'm surprised no one has yet proposed placing at the city limits some "murder holes" for pouring boiling oil onto incoming car commuters. I wonder if we could get federal stimulus funds for that.
This article originally appeared in Seattle Magazine's May edition, where Knute Berger writes a monthly column.