Seattle's progressive posturing: It's all for diversity!

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Pike Place Market

Progressive Seattle takes comfort in winning arguments by staking out the most progressive ground on any debate. For a while, every issue was vetted according to how green it was, or how sustainable. Now, it’s all about race.

If you have any question about the centrality of race at the moment, you can look at what’s going on. The debate about the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda report, HALA, turned on racial equity and the history of zoning for single-family neighborhoods. Race is central to attempts to remake the Seattle Police Department and schools. Progressives have been arguing over Black Lives Matter and socialist Bernie Sanders’ treatment at a Westlake rally. Even Seahawks stars are being vocal on race.

It should be no surprise that the issue is being invoked everywhere, even in unexpected places like the City Council’s Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee discussions last week about mountain bikes and Pike Place Market preservation.

The first example is in debate over a controversial proposal to build a mountain bike trail in the Cheasty Boulevard greenbelt, billed as a pilot project supported by the neighborhood matching fund grant program. Proponents love the idea of having a dedicated, challenging mountain bike trail—the greenspace is on Beacon Hill and goes to the Rainier Valley along Martin Luther King Way. It features terrain that would help provide the necessary thrills at the heart of that sport. Opponents worry about the impact on the surrounding neighbors and parking and landslide risks. And they raise a larger issue of whether the city is opening up space meant to preserve nature from high-impact uses to, well, a high-impact use.

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The proposed mountain bike trail. Credit: Johnson Southerland

The pressures of urban development and the lack of park space in the city—and natural sites—mean that competition over existing greenspaces is likely to accelerate as the parks system looks to maximize use of areas previously set aside or difficult to access. There can be friction between use and preservation of the environment in less-accessible spaces that also provide habitat and an opportunity to recreate pockets of native landscape. Debates over park use—nature vs. people—go back to the origins of the park system. There are strong feelings on both sides. A constant refrain in the pro and con testimony last week was about race and class.

Proponents of the mountain bike trail said that it was important to connect the people of Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse parts of the city, to the greenspace, which has traditionally been largely neglected as an awkward and cut-off vestige of the Olmsted boulevard system. It was suggested that mountain biking offered a partial solution to the valley community’s obesity problem—in essence that low-income and minority youth needed more outdoor recreational activities close at hand.

Opponents countered that a mountain bike trail was exactly the opposite of an inclusive sport, but rather one that required expensive equipment (mountain bikes) and was dominated by well-off white males. Interestingly, those speaking on behalf of the trail project appeared to be all white. A spokesperson for the Evergreen Bike Alliance said that the group was prepared to provide bikes to those who couldn’t afford them. Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who will almost certainly soon represent the whitest district in Seattle (the 6th), indicated his support for the project and bolted the meeting with no questions.

Bruce Harrell, who lives in the South End and is running to represent the new 2nd District—the only majority minority district in the city and one that includes Cheasty—made a point of pushing for specificity about data collection on the 15-month pilot project. That data, presumably, would demonstrate whether in-city mountain biking will draw from diverse south Seattle or a more elite, affluent citywide constituency. “I want to know who is using it,” he insisted. The committee voted to recommend releasing the matching funds for the program, but Harrell signaled that he would be watching the results of the pilot closely.

The mountain bike trail debate was followed by testimony on the composition of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission.

Councilmember Nick Licata has proposed a number of changes to the ordinance governing the historic commission, ideas that have generated a good deal of pushback from Pike Place stakeholders. The commission is made up of nominees and members from groups like the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Friends of the Market, Allied Arts, Market property owners, etc. The group has final say over changes in the Market and their mission is to preserve its historic character, which they have been doing successfully since the commission was created in 1971. Licata’s revised ordinance would water down the influence of some of the groups, open up who could serve on the commission, and give the city council more influence on appointments.

Public testimony was taken and major flaws in Licata’s proposed ordinance were pointed out—such as one that seemed to indicate that business owners could appoint their lawyers or accountants to fill their positions when the intent is to have actual owners and merchants on the commission, not a bunch of attorneys. Licata said it was a work in progress, but a question came up from his fellow council members, including Harrell, Sally Bagshaw and Jean Godden: What is the motivation to change the law? What’s is it Licata was trying to fix?

Licata said he had been approached by a few people who he twice refused to name, and that his main concern was whether or not the historical commission’s demographics were representative of the broader city. Did it reflect institutional racism?

Licata said the commission has only had one black member in the last four years, yet provided no analysis of the last 40 years nor data with respect to other minority groups. He did say that there didn’t seem to be any gender representation issue on city boards and commissions. He proposed that the Market group be directed by ordinance to use a city-approved Racial Equity tool kit to identify candidates for positions. Still, he said, he wasn’t claiming there was a problem at the Market, simply that he wanted codify a commitment to diversity.

But his statements just seemed to baffle those present. By mandate, nominees for city boards and commissions are vetted for diversity already. Harrell said diversity is an issue that can also be looked at in the budget process. The criticisms of the unnamed, unspecified complainants were vague, and none of the complainants testified on the Licata’s behalf. Licata seemed to be proposing solutions without having fully engaged the folks who know most about the issues. His council mates, like Bagshaw, seemed to agree with those concerns.

Licata eventually conceded that his diversity proposal was symbolic. And while Pike Place Market groups might want to make sure they have the broadest possible participation of a diverse public, the commission’s make-up was designed specifically to insulate it from City Hall politics, provide strong institutional memory and enfranchise the Market’s stakeholders—including merchants and property owners.

Some of those same people who drafted the plan are still around and can speak to its intentions and its success. Long memories remind that it was the mayor and city council of the 1960s that approved of a plan to replace much of the Market with a mall and a parking lot. One of the main worries expressed was that the effect of some of Licata’s changes would make the Market more vulnerable to commission appointees who were less committed to historic preservation—at a time when development pressures are increasing dramatically downtown, and all over the city.

Committee chair Bagshaw decided Licata’s ordinance needed more work and more consultation. No one was yet convinced that this particular preservation process was broken and needed fixing.

Licata retreated to a defense that his proposal was an opportunity to “have a good discussion,” but mostly it riled up Market advocates who wondered whether he had a hidden agenda and why many of his initial proposals seemed to have little to do with racial diversity per se. Licata did admit, for example, that his new ordinance would provide what he called “branch balance” between the mayor and the city council by making each responsible for six of the commission’s nominees.

In the end, the diversity discussions seemed mostly a diversion from the most relevant issues at hand and a way to gain moral leverage in an argument.

In other words, the classic “Seattle Way.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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