Under King Knute, the rich and the jackasses would be taxed

Crosscut archive image.

I have no intention of ever entering the political arena as more than an observer. Still, I sometimes fantasize, “If I were dictator of Seattle, what would I do?”

In reality, it’s a terrible idea. I believe human nature is flawed, good intentions often go awry, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I can imagine my well-meaning dictatorial Mossback regime at City Hall devolving over time—perhaps rapidly—into a circus worthy of Pyongyang or Game of Thrones. Mimes and clowns would come to fear me, the Dear Leader, or flee the city for safe haven.

Still, there are some things I think we could accomplish if I reigned supreme. City Council resolutions would provide paper for many new public toilets—my pronouncements alone would be law!

I would decree that public low-income housing be built and accepted in every neighborhood. We would return to our more egalitarian past, one in which neighborhoods were of mixed class and race. Seattle has a long way to go to overcome its history of segregation. We also need a more generous spirit in accommodating growth. And more bottom-up design, so that new housing and increased densities integrate with neighborhoods.

I would create more public development authorities (PDAs), like the one governing Pike Place Market, to manage neighborhoods. The Pike Place PDA was not simply for historic preservation purposes, but designed to protect and nurture downtown housing and services for low-income urban residents. Thus, beyond the Market stalls and tossed-fish backdrops for endless selfies, there are services and housing for the poor and elderly, including a food bank, school, day care and medical clinic. This kind of coordinated planning and management could benefit a broader range of neighborhoods, including urban villages with social ecosystems that need protection and support.

I would institute laws that favor local developers. Too much of our growth is driven by foreign bankers and outside investment, and must adhere to corporate financing formulas that require high returns—which usually means apartments and condominiums for the rich, and street-level retail that’s affordable for big chains, but out of reach for local and small businesses.

I would heavily tax outside investors and provide incentives for developers who live, work and do business in Seattle. We need more California Avenues and fewer South Lake Unions.

Another idea: We need to repopulate single-family neighborhoods. Seattle is a city with lots of empty nesters. I’m shocked as I walk neighborhoods like the one where I was raised, Mount Baker, and see how few people are on the streets, compared to the days of my youth. Single-family neighborhoods have a fraction of the residents they did during the 1950s and ’60s baby boom. I would create a plan that would allow people to “homestead” in existing single-family homes that have too few people living in them. A childless couple with 4,000 square feet to rattle around in? An empty condo purchased for part-time use? Under my regime, you’d get roommates. There would be severe penalties for having too few residents per square foot, and tax breaks for homes accommodating larger numbers. We could absorb the next 25 years of growth simply by adding an average of one person per existing household.

There is concern that Seattle doesn’t have enough park space for the growing city. This is troublesome. A denser city needs more access to recreational and green space. And we have to improve the tree canopy coverage for ecological and health reasons (clean air). I would begin taking private open space through eminent domain and converting it to parks. Around the city, there’s more as yet undeveloped private property that would make great pocket parks, P-Patches, etc. Take it, buy it, convert it.

I would impose an income tax on Seattle’s highest income earners.

In transportation planning, we need a way to control the potential for future boondoggles like Bertha. While not entirely under city control—the tunnel is a state project—we could do more to rein in overspending and demand accountability. The main problem is largely political: Politicians who approve megaprojects are usually out of office when the cost overruns occur. My decree: Seattle politicians who approve a megaproject would have their future incomes garnished to contribute some small amount to covering cost overruns.

To improve mobility and sanity, I would appoint a new grassroots commission to recommend a commonsense agreement on street culture in Seattle. Do we jaywalk? Do we treat bikes as pedestrians or vehicles? Do we use our turn signals? Once we come to some basic agreement, I would require every Seattle resident to attend a class to learn the new rules of the road. I would also create penalties for overly righteous drivers/walkers/cyclists who act as if they have exclusive rights to public space.

Call it a jackass tax.

In terms of policing, I would reverse course on the Seattle Police Department’s new uniforms: The dark shirts and pants make officers seem more intimidating, not less, at a time when we need cultural change at SPD. Also, too many have switched to black SUVs instead of the old light blue patrol cars—another signal at odds with community engagement. Bright pink shirts and a fleet of Subarus sound about right to me.

On the cultural front, I would decree (from my office atop the Space Needle) that any movie set in Seattle must be filmed in Seattle. I would threaten war against Vancouver, British Columbia, for continuing to pass itself off as Seattle in countless films and TV series. I mean, we nearly went to war with Canada over a pig; this is at least as important.

OK, that’s enough for my first week as dictator. To celebrate my fast start, I would serve Ivar’s Mossback Nectar cocktails* to all.

Week two: Take care of the mimes.

*The Mossback Nectar features Absolut Citron, Absolut Peppar, clam nectar and Clamato, and is served with a sautéed clam and tomato garnish.

This column originally appeared in Seattle magazine.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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