Schell’s Game in Seattle

In November, Seattle voters elected Paul Schell mayor. Few were surprised. Schell was the anointed candidate, the establishment favorite. Populist challenger Charlie Chong, by contrast, was widely portrayed as a "negative" candidate "unable to cooperate" with his colleagues on City Council. (Seattle politicians put a premium on acting nice.) Schell, previously the city’s port commissioner, was widely touted as a "visionary." Translated into lay terms, this means he supports grand, tax-funded development projects, especially those designed to remake the lives and living environments of people who’d sooner be left alone.

Beating beneath the surface of the campaign was over a decade of battles between neighborhood activists and a tax-fattened business establishment. Like many cities, Seattle has seen a long series of multi-million-dollar subsidies to downtown development projects, from a convention center to a baseball stadium to a parking garage for the Nordstrom clothing store. But in the ’90s, something new happened. The beneficiaries of corporate welfare discovered that by mastering the proper green buzzwords — "sustainable," "open space," "urban villages" — they could rake in yet more public money, squeeze out business rivals, and forge a formidable alliance with the city’s would-be social engineers.

The story begins in 1990, when Washington State required each town to produce a comprehensive plan for managing growth. In 1994, Seattle released its minutely detailed twenty-year plan, a scheme as doomed to failure as the Soviets’ less ambitious five-year plans. No single committee, no matter how well-informed, will be able to foresee all the factors that will affect growth over one year, let alone twenty.

For example: Seattle’s plan assumed that 72,000 new bodies would come to town over the next two decades. It gave many reasons for this estimate, some of them sensible. But who really knows what will transpire before 2014? Boeing, the area’s biggest employer, might fail. Another Microsoft might take off. There might be an earthquake, a political shift, a sudden change in the national economy. Would a similar group in 1974 have foreseen the tremendous growth that has hit the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett area since the late ’80s? Could a committee in Detroit in 1965 have predicted the droves that would leave that town by 1985?

But no matter how irrelevant the plan is for Seattle’s future, it has had a tremendous impact on its present. The planners decided to channel new residents into a special kind of neighborhood: a densely packed "urban village." In those zones, more people would squeeze into existing structures. Buildings would stand on smaller lots. Homes and shops would share the same streets. The new districts would resemble the old urban neighborhoods of the 1920s, in which people lived, worked, and played in the same area and rarely needed to congest the streets with their cars.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live in such an environment, of course. Indeed, some of us would prefer it. But the planners weren’t simply allowing neighborhoods to opt out of the zoning rules that barred such high-density living; nor were they easing such regulations across the board. Their "key objective," wrote Gary Lawrence of the University of Washington, one of the men who developed the twenty-year plan, was "changing individual behavior to make a more sustainable society more likely." To that end, they deployed a costly, coercive array of carrots and sticks designed "to make behavioral change easier or more attractive." The city would heavily subsidize development within the villages, carefully guiding it in "sustainable" directions. Outside the growth boundary, conversely, development would become more expensive.

Real communities — real villages — are messy and unpredictable. They do not spring full-blown from a planning committee’s collective brow, but evolve, unplanned, from the thousands of little relationships they contain. "Urban villages," by contrast, are a yuppie parody of neighborhood life, a fey vision of quaint small shops, tidy transport systems, and serfs content to live in someone else’s storybook vision. The Comprehensive Plan met strong resistance from the city’s actually existing neighborhoods, particularly proudly low-density areas such as West Seattle, where a secession movement briefly flared.

It would not be the last clash between city planners and neighborhood activists. In 1990, the municipal government began devising the Seattle Commons, an costly plan to redevelop the South Lake Union district. South Lake Union contained the only remaining low-income neighborhood adjacent to downtown; it also included light-industrial manufacturers, low-budget art and music venues, and a number of other small businesses. Under the Commons plan, those companies and residents would be forced out, atavistic Cherokee blocking the march of sustainable progress. In their place would go a giant "open space" (planner-speak for "park") and yet another urban village. The price tag: about $450 million, to be paid with federal and state grants, private loans, and a hefty property-tax increase.

The urban renewal programs of the ’60s were nicknamed "Negro removal," since their primary effect was to destroy black neighborhoods. The Commons would have played a similar role, albeit without the racial overtones. This did not go unnoted. "The Commons is essentially a scheme to create an Upscale haven a la Vancouver’s West End," wrote one local columnist, Clark Humphrey. "They insist on making Seattle a World Class City, even if it’s ruined as a place for the rest of us to live."

Behind the rhetoric of sustainability and village life lay a less savory collection of economic interests. The big beneficiaries, of course, would be the developers paid public dollars to build the project. Also slated to benefit: those businesses lucky enough to be spared the wrecking ball, who would presumably see their property values jump once the new park was in place.

But it never came to pass. Residents of South Lake Union itself did not look forward to being relocated. A burgeoning neighborhood movement complained that the city government was spending millions on downtown-area projects while neglecting such basic services as road repair. And few liked the idea of paying yet more property taxes. The tax hike was put on the 1995 ballot. It did not pass. A stripped-down version went before the voters a year later. It too failed. At that point, the Commons project fell by the wayside.

But the twenty-year plan did not, and neither did the subsidies to downtown. And with Schell in office, both will proceed apace.

Schell served a spell as head of Friends of the Commons, and his donor base included some of the plan’s biggest supporters. Chong made sure to point this out during the campaign. "The pro-Commons people were the ones who were arrogant and had no feeling for people who lived or worked there," he told the Seattle Times. "They wanted to satisfy their own vision at the expense of other people."

Alas, the issue failed to stick. The mayoral election could have been a referendum on the mentality that had guided Seattle for the past couple of decades, a referendum on social engineering, corporate welfare, and the kind of blind boosterism that has now led the city fathers to call for bringing the Olympics to town. Instead, Schell adopted some pro-neighborhood rhetoric, the Chong campaign sputtered to a halt, and Schell coasted to victory.

None of this may seem important to those of you who don’t live in the Northwest. But it should. Seattle is not the only city where downtown interests have found they can mask their drive for public subsidy with environmental happy-talk. In Portland, Oregon, for example, a much-praised light-rail system has become a costly pork-barrel bonanza, while congestion has actually increased. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the rhetoric of sustainability has provided cover for projects such as the Riverpark, a redevelopment scheme designed by the businesses best poised to profit from it.

Nor are these ideas being discussed only on the local level. The Department of Transportation is now subsidizing urban-village-style development, on the theory that this will lead more people to use mass transit. And in a 1996 report, the Department of Housing and Urban Development endorsed urban growth boundaries and incentives for mixed-use districts. They presented the report to the United Nations City Summit, a conclave held to hatch a global plan for fixing the world’s cities.

But the solution to the real urban problems we face will not be found at a UN conference, a DC bureaucracy, or even a city hall. They will be found when leaders learn to trust individuals, families, and neighborhoods to chart our own future, with our own funds — or when we take that power back ourselves.