Saving the soul of SoDo?

The Port of Seattle is worried the new arena will kill off working class Seattle, but the Port's leaders have also been a huge force for the gentrification they're decrying.
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The SoDo district

The Port of Seattle is worried the new arena will kill off working class Seattle, but the Port's leaders have also been a huge force for the gentrification they're decrying.

The Port of Seattle is complaining about the proposed new basketball arena in SoDo, claiming that it will gum up freight mobility and that it's a "job-killer." Port Commissioner Bill Bryant told The Seattle Times that the future of working class Seattle hung in the balance. "Placing the arena in the proposed site is more than symbolic. It is part of a bigger decision about what sort of city we want to have and whether we are going to embrace family-wage and industrial jobs in South Seattle." The Port has a plan to expand such jobs and says the arena is a potential threat.

Jordan Royer, vice president of external affairs for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (and my Crosscut colleague), weighed in, explaining the over-arching concerns: "It's sort of a death by 1,000 cuts. You keep encroaching, and then they'll want to build hotels, they'll want to build condos.... Then people will start to complain about the Port because there's lights on, it's noisy, there's trucks, there's trains, and they'll want the Port to go away."

Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton was quoted saying, "What's SoDo all about? It's really the soul of a working-class city." Ah yes, the arena proposal represents the classic Seattle war between soul and greed.

Such concerns are valid to a point, and Bryant is right that we ought to be having the larger conversation about what Seattle is going to become. Do we want to continue to have an industrial base? Do we want to be affordable for working class families? Do we want to be a "smart" growth city, with all the sustainable amenities? Do we want a city with no dirt under its fingernails? How do you accomplish shaping the city you want when you are buffeted by the free market and international economic trends (in sports, in trade, in banking, in everything else) that often dictate your local strategies? Fine, let's talk, no one is stopping the Port or anyone else from having that conversation.

Still, it's a little weird to hear the Port of Seattle complaining about gentrification. And if the Port and the maritime industry are worried about "death by 1,000 cuts," let's talk about who is doing the cutting.

One of the biggest "cutters" has been the Port itself. The Port has been involved in massive redevelopment of the central waterfront, for example, where it sold land for condominiums, where it converted old shipping piers into the Bell Harbor international conference center, where it has built the huge World Trade Center for major meetings and special events like, well, weddings. Presumably working class weddings.

The Port has been key to the waterfront's transformation from an old-fashioned provincial seaport to modern tourism amenity and businessman's mecca. They've built a recreational boat marina, brought in the Marriott Hotel, opened restaurants. How many cuts has that been to the blue collar lifestyle?

Then there are the cruise ship terminals, at which vast floating hotels take on and drop off tens of thousands of passengers each year, folks who seek out the type of gentrified amenities and attractions the Port decries in SoDo. It's good for downtown business, it creates jobs for waiters and waitresses, cab drivers, and souvenir shop clerks. But is it the manly man work of longshoremen? The cruise biz has helped to launch, say, Chihuly Garden and Glass, but I don't think it's exactly boosting factory work outside Chihuly's studio.

The Port also has a long history of hostilities with the fishing community at Fisherman's Terminal. Fishermen there have long complained that the Port is pushing out fishing boats for yachts. We've been told for years, by the Port and others, that we have to look beyond the old resource industries, like fishing, and set our eyes on tourism, recreation, other other opportunities. As the fish boats have dwindled, the shops and restaurants have moved in, but many have felt shoved into oblivion by the Port.

The Port is steward of many things. Beyond its cruise-ship-restaurant-conference-center empire, it runs pleasure boat marinas and oversees numerous parks. It has played a major role in making the waterways more accessible for the general public, on land and afloat. It has expanded the airport so that more tourists and travelers can fly in and enjoy Seattle's culture, which includes taking in sporting events in places like SoDo, which they can reach by light rail. Tourists come to see the soccer ball-kicking Sounders who are helping to Europeanize local sports, or to watch Ichiro's stretching rituals in right field. How many of the 1,000 cuts does this represent?

Beyond the Port's concerns, development is happening in and around SoDo that will have an effect on whether the new arena is built or not. The impacts of the tunnel are still to come and unknown. The post-Alaskan Way Viaduct redevelopment of the central waterfront will have impacts on the Port and SoDo as well, in fact already is having them during the construction phase. There seems to be a consensus that the only way to "save" Pioneer Square is to build a massive new development in the North Parking lot of the Seahawks stadium, and there will be more pressures on the perimeters of the historic district. The stadium district nearby is transforming as we speak, even without the new arena. How is it that the proposed basketball/hockey venue becomes the final straw? That's seems like a lot to load onto the shoulders of Chris Hansen, Mayor Mike McGinn, and King County Executive Dow Constantine.

The Port and the maritime interests might have legitimate concerns about whether enough is being done to make sure sports and industry can co-exist. Certainly the future of industry and the working class in Seattle is of critical importance and more discussion should take place. But if there's a slippery slope here, we've been skidding down it for 50 years, and the Port has been a major greaser of the skids. Let's not foist the blame on one prospective project, and let's consider the record of those pointing the finger of blame.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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