Seattle is facing a difficult decision: what to do with a crumbling highway that serves as a major north-south corridor through the city?
Below, we hear from Cary Moon. Cary is a landscape and urban designer and co-founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition. The PWC’s No-Highway option won second prize in a national design competition sponsored by Metropolis magazine, called “Next Generation: Big Idea.”
Faced with a maddening choice between two miserable highway options to blight our downtown shore for another century, Seattleites are wondering how in the heck we got here. How did our beautiful green city end up as the last bastion for old-school highway boys? Why, with our world famous Kyoto-pledging Mayor and our 30-year pedigree of environmental leadership, are we even contemplating building an emissions-spewing, sprawl-inducing, impossibly expensive1950s style urban freeway?
The politics seem to result from a weird mix of several factors. First, a reverence for highway engineers; they have data, they must be right, right? Second, some unproductive balkanization of transportation authority and funding divided across separate agencies; the highway department does highways, period. Third, a reluctance to admit we’re really a city, and future Seattleites might actually like to live densely, use parks, walk and take transit. Fourth, an unconscious wild wild west obsession that makes otherwise reasonable people equate highways with freedom.
So these factors, assisted by some particularly stubborn elected officials, brought this Hobson’s Choice upon us.
The one satisfying thing about this absurd battle coming to a head is how effectively a vote sharpens the focus. It has brought out the fact that both options perpetuate the status quo of car-dependence and drive us further toward the cliff of climate change. It revealed exactly how remarkable and precious this one opportunity is to create a civic heart on our downtown shore. It exposed "congestion relief" as a false promise; if you try to build your way out of congestion, you’ll ruin your city or go broke trying. It got people to confront our responsibility to invest in a different future now, not just wring our hands while we continue business as usual. It got regular citizens quoting stats from success stories of highway removal — Seoul, San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee — and realize our state highway department might be exactly wrong on this one.
The count could be close, but it sure is looking like the result might just come out No and Hell No. Pretty satisfying for our posse, the People’s Waterfront Coalition, which has been agitating for a highway-free shore for longer than I care to admit.
So as the political liquefaction settles around here, our group is ready to work with all agencies, all elected officials, all organizations, and all activists to find common ground: a more affordable, more sustainable, more beautiful solution. We think the component pieces are a pedestrian-friendly street and a great park along the waterfront; new high-speed transit service along the SR-99 corridor; better connectivity in the grid to accommodate some trips on underused pavement on other streets; freight priority routes; bike facilities and demand management programs; and a slow weaning off the viaduct as these are put in place. Other cities have faced this same challenge, and won; now it’s our turn.
That’s the kind of legacy we can proudly leave to future generations.