Mayor of Montlake

At a Town Hall in a bulldozer's path, Mike McGinn finds some new friends who like to see him standing up to the region, the state, and the City Council when it comes to another viaduct project.

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Highway 520 across Lake Washington

At a Town Hall in a bulldozer's path, Mike McGinn finds some new friends who like to see him standing up to the region, the state, and the City Council when it comes to another viaduct project.

Mike McGinn might take flak for being an obstructionist on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, but one place in town they appreciate him: Montlake.
McGinn gave one of his Town Hall meetings there on Tuesday night (May 3) and he was treated like a hero with strong applause for his sole vote objecting to the current 520 Bridge expansion at the Puget Sound Regional Council. 

Opponents of the current, six-lane version of the project appreciated the fact that McGinn is skeptical of the Washington Department of Transportation's plans to double the size of the bridge and build what amounts to a massive new 30-foot-high viaduct across the lake. 

And while McGinn is frequently criticized for not being a regional leader, his outlier status on this issue offers hope to a community that believes it will be permanently damaged by the project as planned. How is it, one citizen asked, that "this monster is being thrust through our community?"

It's a good question. The 520 expansion has been years in the discussion phase, and many options have been considered. (McGinn prefers a smaller, rail-capable version.) Changes are coming to Montlake one way or another, if for no other reason than Sound Transit light rail will be coming once it burrows through Capitol Hill. Beyond that, the neigborhood becomes a tangle of concrete, transit, wetlands, mitigation, choke points, tunnels, overpasses, traffic jams, and tolls — not to mention impacts on the environment, parks, and historic neighborhoods with consequences that ripple out from Montlake to Roanoke, the University District, the Central District, Madison Park, Laurelhurst, Broadmoor, Capitol Hill, Madrona, and on.

One choke point is that the project represents a collision of visions between a more transit-oriented Seattle in which the automobile is no longer worshipped, and the still car-dependent Eastside corridor that connects Microsoft to the larger economic and urban ecosystem. The Eastside portion of the project has been less controversial, and parts of that expansion are already underway. Montlake has been the site of other collisions, and not just fender benders.

The irony of the new 520, which seems to have the enthusiastic support of most of the City Council, if not the mayor, is that a bigger freeway is being planned for a site that was Ground Zero for Seattle's anti-freeway movement — indeed our Jane Jacobs-inspired battle during which the city's early green movement came of age in the late '60s and early '70s. A NIMBY fight in Montlake turned into a battle royale with the state and city road builders, and, with help, the greenies won.

Now, 40 years on, the city seems to have forgotten lessons learned, one of which was that we could do better than be a freeway-dominant megalopolis. Today's greens, like McGinn, will take a dense megalopolis without new freeways, please. Referring to highway projects like the infamous R.H.Thomson Expressway and the Bay Freeway, which would have put a collar of concrete around the city, projects that were eventually rejected by the citizens, McGinn said the city has already decided "That's not our future."

But really, it is. Why is the political establishment, like the City Council, allowing this to happen, asked one agonized Madison Park resident of 60 years.

"I don't get it either," said McGinn. But it's happening because the region's big-money folks want it to happen, and they have politically divided and conquered. McGinn said it was hard to get leverage with WSDOT, given the city's divided political leadership on the issue and the City Council's making common cause with the governor and suburban politicos. He urged the audience to make its views known by communicating with the council and their legislators. He didn't say it explicitly, but there are City Council elections coming up. Does anyone care about the Montlake vote?

A McGinn vs. everyone else strategy, he allowed, was probably not a winning hand. Which is true — both because the mayor can be an outlier on only so many issues (or highways) at a time, and also because the only hope of changing course it to apply citizen pressure. The anti-R.H. Thomson people made noise and shook up the City Council to get their way. They also filed lawsuits. "Easy does it" won't do it. One other thing on the opponents' side: The $4 billion project isn't paid for, which at least buys time.

The new 520 wasn't the only major topic on the Town Hall agenda: The biggest applause was for opponents of a city lease for privatizing Building 11 at Magnuson Park at Sand Point. What got the most enthusiastic support was the complaint that the city was selling our public assets, in a time of need, to monied interests. The long-term public good was being short-changed.

McGinn did not defend the lease (it predates his administration and he says he's trying to negotiate a better deal for the public). But he did defend the necessity of considering ways to generate revenues from parks. There was palpable frustration and anger in the air over how our parks and shorelines are being treated, and it wasn't lost on anyone that the park and shoreline adjacent to the Montlake Community Center, where the Town Hall was taking place, is in jeopardy because in the 21st Century, someone wants a bigger highway to connect with a major freeway as if we're all eager to continue going blithely over a cliff while paying $4 or more for a gallon of gas.

One person who got it: a fifth-grader who is on the Montlake Elementary School "Green Team" of kids trying to create a more sustainable school, and who gave an anti-520 speech without notes to kick off the forum. The crowd loved it. Give that kid a seat on the City Council!

Toward the end of the Town Hall, a woman wondered why the city didn't connect Montlake to Madison Park with a shoreline bike and pedestrian trail. That shortcut near Foster Island could connect with the Burke-Gilman, take a couple miles off the trek between neighborhoods, and get cars and bikes out of the Arboretum. One short answer: It would have to cut across property owned by the gated Broadmoor community, and they have better lawyers than the rest of us. Such a project was proposed some years ago, and defeated for various reasons, one being that it would cut through a sensitive wetland. 

The ridiculousness of that was not lost on McGinn or the audience. Why is it, he asked, that WSDOT can take shortcuts on its environmental assessments to expedite a massive six-lane freeway through the same protected wetland, but we can't build a footpath or bike trail there?

It's a minor absurdity, but a sad and telling one. When it comes to transportation in Seattle, Goliath beats David more often than not. And a "saved" neighborhood is never protected from the bad blueprints of the next generation of planners who seem determined to repeat the quickly forgotten mistakes of the past.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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