How a quiet culture war is dividing Seattle

City Hall loves nightlife, bicyclists, and the "creative class." But we are also a working port, a manufacturing center, and a place where green jobs might grow. Why not make it all work?
Crosscut archive image.

The Port of Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

City Hall loves nightlife, bicyclists, and the "creative class." But we are also a working port, a manufacturing center, and a place where green jobs might grow. Why not make it all work?

Is there a culture war being waged for the soul of Seattle?

Lately, it indeed seems there is a cultural struggle about what Seattle is and what it should be in the future. It's hard not to miss the signs that the old Seattle inferiority complex, which led to the desire to be "world class," has been replaced with the need to be Copenhagen, or a "super city," or author Richard Florida's poster child for nurturing the creative class.

How much energy and effort should we put into attracting the so-called creative class — biotech scientists, computer programmers, artists, and knowledge-based workers? And how much should we be thinking about what investments are needed to maintain our strong, yet vulnerable maritime industrial base?

First, let's be clear about one thing: The creative class is here and will continue to be attracted to this region. The challenge for Seattle is where in the region they will choose to reside and raise their families. Education, safety, and quality of life will influence heavily those decisions. So, how does Seattle measure up?

Many families look across Lake Washington and see communities that have outstanding schools, lower taxes, a strong business climate, and a political atmosphere not charged with the rancor and division we see in Seattle. So, why do we seem to be in the midst of a great debate about our culture and future in Seattle? Is this really a productive debate?

There are a number of civic discussions locally that are exposing a cultural rift.

The debate over what's next for Seattle Center, with the potential for a new Chihuly Museum, is an interesting example. From the city's perspective, anything that comes with revenue generation for Seattle Center is an automatic frontrunner. Some citizens want an open space and don't like the idea of private investors accessing public land.

But not much is said about the rides and the affordable enjoyment they provide for families. I recently accompanied my daughter and six 10-year-old girls to the kiddie rides at the Center. There were families there from every income and ethnicity you could think of. Everyone was having a blast and it was packed. For 85 bucks, seven kids played laser tag and went on tons of rides. In casual conversations with the people who worked the rides and other parents, there was a consistent lament that the people making the big plans didn't really care much about these simple enjoyments.

They wonder if there will be a place for them in the new vision for the Seattle Center.

The great debate raging about the Alaskan Way Viaduct is another place where the cultural battle is playing out. Some are eager to test the theory that reducing car capacity forces people to get around by other means. The problem with conducting this experiment on our waterfront, however, is that you squeeze the port and all those well paying jobs. The Port of Seattle is contributing up to $300 million for the tunnel project, and it's not because they want to be nice or because it's part of their responsibility. They are contributing because they know they are in a competitive fight for survival as a major container port and understand what's at stake if the project doesn't move forward.

In addition to the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014, ports and localities from Canada to Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard are investing in infrastructure to capture this lucrative trade and the jobs that follow. And the business impact of replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct is not just about the port. Seattle's two major manufacturing industrial centers are linked by Highway 99.

As examining data from a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows, the Seattle area ranks as having the 10th highest number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. We may not have much of a reputation as a blue-collar town, but at 166,900 jobs, we beat out places like Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, St Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, San Diego, and Portland.

Shrinking the size of Mercer Street and other freight corridors will be a problem for companies that employ thousands of people. And, while we are well positioned relative to the rest of the country, our manufacturing sector continues to struggle. The Puget Sound Business Journal recently reported that Seattle lost 45,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. It'ꀙs hard to see how road diets, squeezing capacity, and failing to invest in our infrastructure can turn that around.

Why should we care about our industrial base? Mostly because thousands of real people depend on those jobs to educate their children and build their lives here. Also, strengthening our industrial position allows us the opportunity to take advantage of the next wave of innovation — green technologies, and the electrification of the transportation grid.

This is why some of the discussions about the tunnel replacement for the viaduct seem so strange. It appears to be more of an ideological test than a common-sense approach to the realities of the future. Being anti-car misses the point. We need to change what propels the car while at the same time investing in public transportation and pedestrian and bike amenities, and sending the signal that we are serious about maintaining and enhancing mobility.

Seattle Times reporter Bob Young had a great recent report on the Burke-Gilman Trail's missing link controversy and how the Cascade Bicycle Club is pitted against the Ballard Chamber of Commerce and some of Ballard's oldest businesses. Bicycle safety is one of the main reasons more people don't ride and Cascade does a good job of advocating for bike safety. It's unfortunate that this current impasse has created such negative feelings in Ballard.

Fishing and manufacturing are important aspects of Ballard's culture. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Pacific Fishermen Shipyard. Unfortunately, the people who have worked so hard to build this business don't feel they are being heard at City Hall. It would be unfair, however, to say this is solely the fault of the current mayor. Prior administrations have been received similarly.

However, the controversies over the Nickerson road diet, the Burke Gilman Trail addition, and the viaduct all have exacerbated the feeling in the jobs-creating community that they do not have a seat at the policy-making table.

But are these issues resonating at all at City Hall? I don't think so. My concern is that there is such a focus on the "creative class" and new urbanist thinking that we are forgetting about the people and businesses that give Seattle its unique economic mix and its connections to the past.

There are signals everywhere that common sense has been suspended. Consider City Councilmember Jean Godden's comment in the Seattle Times that it's okay to raise a permit fee on Macy's skybridge: 'ꀜWhat a skybridge does is it takes people off of the right of way and puts them up in the air, and leaves usually the people who aren't good enough to go in the buildings down below. It's really not very friendly." The proposed permit fee increase went from $300 a year to a whopping $31,185.

That sure doesn't seem very friendly.

Mayor Mike McGinn's nightlife proposal ends with this line, "By responsibly encouraging and facilitating such interaction, the city can help attract a creative class of innovators and progressive thinkers who drive the local economy and quality of life." While I like many aspects of the mayor's proposal, the language makes it clear who matters most.

But the problem with the ideological fantasies at the municipal government level is that taxpayers expect potholes to be filled and streets to be cleared when it snows. And if services don't improve, and costs rise, they will take their families elsewhere. The members of the so-called creative class want jobs, good schools and services, too.

The mayor has recently proposed a $20 car tab tax as well as doubling the parking tax to fix roads. We still have two years left on the Bridging the Gap levy, which was supposed to do that. Can we at least have an analysis of where that money is going and what the Seattle Department of Transportation is doing with their general fund money? At the same time, the mayor announced he was going to get rid of a pothole crew and respond in 72 hours rather than 48 but do a better job of fixing potholes. Huh?

I am a proponent of focusing growth in urban areas in order to protect our rural and wild landscapes. But we have to realize that families make decisions on where to live based on affordability, schools, jobs, and quality of life. Tying ourselves in knots in the hopes that people will ditch their cars will not work. They will simply leave town along with their jobs.

It would be truly sad and ironic if the new urbanist way of thinking actually helped force jobs and working families out of Seattle and accelerated sprawl. That would be bad for the environment, bad for families, and bad for our culture. We don't need an ideological war. We need some common sense and to protect what we have and who we are.


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

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.