The next Seattle mayor needs to be a puzzlemaster

Billions of dollars in new public projects will be coming online in the next four years. The mayor will have to orchestrate it all.
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Viaduct demolition

Billions of dollars in new public projects will be coming online in the next four years. The mayor will have to orchestrate it all.

A city is a puzzle being assembled in four dimensions. But unlike most puzzles, the pieces of the urban game change as you go. Some are added, some demolished, some simply morph with time and zoning. It's tough to keep a fixed image of there we'd headed — the jigsaw doesn't always turn out like the picture on the box.

The mayor is the person we elect to help guide us through the puzzle process, an administrator, a representative, a visionary, a pragmatist, a problem-solver. The mayor's purview is both the big picture and the micro-issue, the City on the Hills we're building, and the potholes that need filling.

Every mayoral cycle we look around to see if this election really means anything. As current mayor Mike McGinn prepares to deliver his State of the City address on Tuesday, it's worth noting that there's a lot at stake in this year's mayor's race. The next mayor (2013-17) will preside over perhaps the most ambitious and expensive convergence of huge new puzzle pieces we’ve seen in the last half century — literally billions of dollars in new investment that will be starting to earn its keep. The next mayor will have to be someone who can help fit it all together, and make it all worthwhile.

What are those pieces? Huge freeway projects, a high-risk remake of the waterfront, the opening of one of the biggest deep-bored tunnels in the world, a brand new multi-purpose sports arena, the re-development of First Hill, and extensions of light rail to key parts of the city and region. Our mayor isn't responsible for all of this. But mayors tend to be held accountable for watchdogging the process, for negotiating with the planners, engineers and contractors who make it all happen. Fairly or unfairly, mayors are held accountable for making it work.

Jump two years ahead and take a look at what will be coming online in 2015-16, the heart of the next mayor's term. You'll find a huge convergence of mega-projects and large public and public/private infrastructure investments (see accompanying sidebar for highlights).

In that 2015-16 window, the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project should be opening the massive new downtown tolled tunnel, and the city will commence a once-in-a-century remake of the waterfront. The latter includes tearing down the old Viaduct, remaking surface streets and connections, adding public space to the waterfront, and shoring up Seattle's new face to the world with the new seawall.

On the other side of town the newly expanded six-lane 520 Bridge, which will link Seattle and Redmond across Lake Washington, will be opened and (assuming it gets full funding) a complete rewiring of the city between the lake shore and I-5 will be underway. That's not all.

In 2015-16, we should see major advancements in Sound Transit's Link Light Rail program. The University Link from downtown to Montlake is slated to begin service in 2016, and rail from Husky Stadium north should be well advanced.

If all goes according to plan and we get an NBA basketball team, Chris Hansen's new basketball/hockey arena in SoDo should be under construction in our 2015-16 window, along with whatever traffic and freight mobility mitigation projects are undertaken to make it work for the Port of Seattle and other stadium and industrial neighbors.

Not far away, the 30-acre Yesler Terrace Redevelopment will be underway. The ambitious  project is a joint partnership between the Seattle Housing Authority and Paul Allen's Vulcan. First Hill, the city’s densest neighborhood already, will be undergoing a massive makeover every bit as transformative as South Lake Union's. What will emerge over the next 10-20 years is a new mixed-use urban center of 25 or more mid- and high-rise buildings with as many as 5,000 new housing units, including low income housing. The first two phases of the redevelopment will be coming online in the next mayor's term.

This litany of projects is by no means the sum total of what's coming up. There's the city's high-speed fiber-optic broadband experiment, the implementation of a new 20-year Bike Master Plan, improvements and possible development at Seattle Center, work on bolstering an aging I-5 through downtown, new school construction, and an expanded city streetcar system (the under-construction First Hill segment opens next year). Seattle is not standing still, and this infrastructure boom should put to rest the tired notion that we're a city seized by gridlock. We're a city that is testing whether it has bitten off more than it can chew.

A back-of-the-envelope estimate reveals a price-tag in excess of $16 billion for what's in the works. The short of it is, the next mayor will have to be like a symphony conductor, orchestrating a coherent, livable picture out of a tsunami of investment and ambition. The next mayor will have to possess skills that will help Seattle absorb massive change, capitalize on opportunity, and protect pieces of the urban puzzle that are necessary, but threatened, like affordability.

Not all the projects are under the mayor's control. Many are driven by outside agencies or were conceived before the current incumbent took office. Some will stretch well into other mayors' terms. So what can our next mayor do?

First, he or she should be vigilant about overseeing the city's construction of the seawall and design of the new waterfront. If nothing else were happening during the next term, the waterfront project could determine whether Seattle is able to redevelop what is arguably its key downtown asset in terms of trade, tourism, transportation and development potential. If Norm Rice got credit for revitalizing downtown retail, Charles Royer for remaking Westlake, and Greg Nickels for hatching a new South Lake Union, surely the next mayor will be credited (or pilloried) for the waterfront outcome.

The next mayor could also earn praise or blame for whether new transit hubs work, how WSDOT makes life more livable, or intolerable, for the people of Montlake, Portage Bay and North Capitol Hill. The mayor will play a key role in helping to sidestep or undo any boondoggles that might occur. If the big deep-bore tunnel machine gets stuck, for example, the next mayor will have to make sure WSDOT gets the problem solved without leaving Seattle on the hook. The mayor will also be expected to ensure that even a successfully completed tunnel doesn't create more problems than it solves. Will there be reasonable tolls? Will promised surface improvements and benefits be delivered?

The next mayor will be held responsible for how well development around the expanding Sound Transit system integrates with neighborhoods like the U-District and Roosevelt. The Mayor will be on the hook for whether problems are mitigated, solved or avoided, as well as whether the new infrastructure delivers less congestion, better commutes, greener outcomes, and better livability — as promised.

The mayor is not alone, of course. The city council will be knee-deep in it all, but the mayor is the one who will stand out in terms of vision and leadership, or lack thereof.

The next mayor will be have to be a puzzle master and steer us to a Seattle that looks like the city we all want to live in. And one that, for all the cost and headaches, works even better than the one we have now.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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