The ongoing war over the proposed deep bore tunnel illustrates well the idea, attributed to Edmund Burke, that in politics there are neither permanent victories nor permanent defeats, only permanent values. Some of us are unalterably opposed, based on our values, to the tunnel. But members of the Seattle City Council aren’t particularly interested in finding out what voters think, voting down a referendum and forcing signature gathering by tunnel opponents. So the war goes on.
But I think there is a convergence of values between tunnel opponents and some tunnel backers on land use that could help reshape Seattle’s future, no matter what happens with the tunnel.
Here is a man bites dog proposition: I agree with the Downtown Seattle Association’s Jon Scholes on the city’s zoning plans for Pioneer Square. "The city's proposal isn't bold enough," says Scholes. The same can be said of the city’s plans for proposed zoning changes in South Downtown. In a recent conversation I had with him about zoning in Seattle, Scholes put it well: We spend too much time battling over transportation technologies and modes in Seattle and not enough on land use.
He’s right, but I’d go further, land use is transportation policy, and it’s the DNA of our city’s future.
Local neighborhoods do argue about height, bulk, and scale of proposed new developments, neighborhood by neighborhood. But we haven’t seen any big, fundamental, citywide changes to land use. City council members end up balking even at those smaller changes as they did years ago on Beacon Hill when plans were being made for a light-rail station there.
Today, Beacon Hill has a vacant lot, surrounding a multimillion-dollar transit station, that sits as a monument to council intransigence on land use. With the proper planning and upzoning, Beacon Hill could have been a glowing example for the rest of the country of Seattle’s leadership on sustainable, innovative transit-oriented development. Instead, it’s a fenced off, empty lot.
Sadly, nobody bothered to show urbanist thought leader Edward Glaeser the Beacon Hill site when he visited recently. Had he seen what Seattle’s local land use is really all about, how could he have written so glowingly in The New York Times of Seattle’s showing the world the "benefits of concentrating smart people in dense cities." He goes on in the article (picked up by everyone on Facebook and the Seattle Weekly) to write, “dense, smart cities like Seattle succeed by attracting smart people who educate and employ one another.” If it wasn’t so sad, I guess it would be funny.
Ask developers with proposals that never got built at the site of the Goodwill headquarters on Dearborn, or developers with proposals in Pioneer Square, South Lake Union, Interbay, and Northgate just how “smart” Seattle’s planning and execution on land use has been over the recent years, both in boom and bust. You’ll probably get an earful about excessive process and incrementalism by the Seattle City Council, especially from the land-use committee.
But Seattle has a chance to live up to Glaeser’s praise. There are three pieces of good news. First, Mayor Mike McGinn is leading a close look at how to overhaul the land use code. He’s convened a round table of city staff and local leaders from the private and non-profit sectors to take a look at how we might better align our clunky code with our green and sustainable aspirations.
Second, the real-estate market has markedly cooled, which means development pressure is less than it was a few years ago. That means we can, as a city, take a longer, better look at the future of how we plan and prepare for coming growth.
The third and best piece of news is that there is a values proposition that sells both among anti-tunnel sustainability advocates and pro-tunnel labor and business interests. These interests can work together on living into an agenda that will promote and welcome growth in our city — and it’s environmental and economic benefits — rather than see it as an adverse impact on our community. I very much doubt you’ll find a more forceful critic of the DSA’s stand on any number of issues (here you can find me blasting their “griping and moaning”) like the repeal of the “head tax,” panhandling legislation, and yes, the tunnel; but I think it’s time to start talking with business about land use.
So whether my side is winning or losing on the tunnel, you’ll find me shoulder to shoulder with anyone who’s willing to take up the fight for solid land use planning, density, welcoming growth with open arms, and seeing the city — and our city in particular — as one of the solutions to the problems of global warming, air and water pollution, and lack of social cohesion. Ultimately the greatest benefit to good use of our land is less dependence on roads, cars, and. yes, tunnels.
One last piece of good news I forgot to mention: five out of the nine council members are up for election. That’s a referendum that will be on the ballot for Seattle voters this fall for sure.