Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Viaduct Victory?

On March 13, Seattle went down a road that was half surprising, half expected: they vetoed both the tunnel and the replacement projects for the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. This was, on its face, somewhat surprising in that the voters failed to go down the path the city and state clearly expected they would—seeing this as an either/or vote between two cemented options with no alternative. On the other hand, as I’ve said more than once, Seattle is a city paralyzed by development and change. In the current environment, the electorate has consistently prevented substantive action from being taken.

In the case of the Viaduct, this scenario has worked in our favor. I long predicted that the electorate’s intransigence would spoil the mayor’s big dig tunnel dreams, while the vocal minority (and potentially growing majority) that favors transit and high-density development would likely scuttle a rebuild.

The historical causes of our current situation are pretty simple: it’s the continued struggle between Seattle’s old guard, blue collar population and the younger, urbanite population that’s been transforming the city since the tech boom of the 1990s. The old guard was behind what used to be known as Seattle’s “neighborhood movement,” where neighborhood activists came to wield substantial power over city planning. A lot of people embraced the neighborhood movement as a sign of intelligent growth: neighborhoods were helping ensure a higher quality of life, reinvigorating civic participation, and serving as a bulwark against heartless redevelopment.

But that was a mistaken impression: the neighborhood groups also represented the status quo, consolidating power in older, richer, more established neighborhoods and fighting to keep a disproportionately big share of the pie. The neighborhood movements, in other words, were pretty happy with they way things were; they were political reactionaries fighting against progress. They helped scuttle Seattle Commons, Paul Allen’s ambitious civic project for SLU. They made nice with homeless advocacy groups to give their greed for city money the veneer of progressive politics. Organizations like the Seattle Displacement Coalition and the hobo newspaper Real Change took to advocating strange positions: Real Change used to give disproportionate article space to Magnolia residents opposing a tunnel, and the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox became a point man for criticizing the city’s redevelopment priorities, opposing things like streetcar service between downtown and SLU.

The result of these unusual coalitions and proxy battles has been our current state of paralysis. A couple years ago we were looking at a potentially bright future for transit: the monorail, light rail, the removal of the Viaduct, and a streetcar. Now business developers and neighborhood groups together killed the monorail. Homeless advocates and neighborhood groups griping about “corporate welfare” the Paul Allen have help up the streetcar. Light rail, always the worst, least sensitive option, is being bulldozed through by the political will of unaccountable politicians alone.

Which brings us back to the Viaduct vote. Backers of the “streets+transit” option claimed victory after the voters soundly voted down measures on a ballot they weren’t even on. The de facto alternative won by default. Or at least they half-won. The “streets” part won—there’s no will to build highways or tunnels, which leaves us streets. The transit option’s more up in the air. A good omen is reports that Seattle City councilman Peter Steinbrueck is forgoing reelection to advocate for transit options. But if history’s any guide, it’ll be an uphill fight. Right now, we’re winning by virtue of indecision. But indecision doesn’t get new infrastructure built. We’re reminded of a parable offered by Soren Kierkegaard in his pioneering work of philosophy, Either/Or: A ship is sailing straight towards land. The helmsman and the captain argue over whether to veer port or starboard, unable to make a decision. Right now, that’s the situation we have in Seattle: an argument over where we want to go and what we want to do. Just don’t forget—not making a decision is a choice, too, the choice to run aground.
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