I-123 Puts Seattle’s Waterfront Plan Up in the Air

Kate Martin explains why she’s convinced voters will ignore all the trash talk and approve her plan for an elevated walkway over Alaskan Way.

You have to give this to the I-123 campaign: It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

The measure, which appears on the August ballot sent out last week, would scotch the Seattle Department of Transportation’s post-Viaduct waterfront plan in favor of a one-mile elevated walkway that would more or less replicate the views now enjoyed while driving on SR-99. The plan has drawn sharp criticism from, among other people, Jim Corner, who designed the elevated park in New York City that the I-123 plan often draws comparisons to. The I-123 campaign is in debt while the “No” campaign is flush with cash from prominent Seattleites and tourism groups. Its biggest financial backer, Martin Selig, has switched sides and donated to the “No” campaign.

And yet here it remains—one simple majority vote in a low-turnout election away from becoming city law. We sat down with Kate Martin, leader of the I-123 plan, to talk about why so many people are opposed to her plan, and why she is in favor of it.

Let’s start with the money: How do you explain the fundraising discrepancy between the “No” and “Yes” campaigns? I don’t know if you followed what they did in New York to get the Highline happening, but the activists who worked on that were met with tremendous opposition. Fear, change, those things get people riled up, so I think that there’s a tremendous amount of energy that wants to just keep things the way they are, even when the plan is problematic or doesn’t quite measure up to what people would hope. They just want to stay the course, and I think there’s a lot of people willing to fund staying the course.

The man who designed the New York Highline disparaged your plan. How do you grapple with that? I think Jim has a $6 million contract to say that this is a silly, dumb idea, that’s one reason [Corner designed SDOT’s waterfront plan]. I think Jim’s wrong. Removing the Viaduct removes us from the grandeur and the majesty of seeing the Pacific Northwest from there. You don’t get any of that down there. You can hardly see the water or the mountains, and Alaskan Way is going to be one of the busiest streets in Seattle. It’s just an ill-conceived plan, and we have an opportunity to make it better and we should.

It’s argued that the SDOT plan was the product of a lot of meetings and public input; this plan is the product of just a few people. Why do you think this plan is better than one that had such a process behind it? You can have as many public meetings as you want, [but] the plan is either a good plan or a bad plan. Seattle has never had a chance to weigh in [on the ballot] how we want the waterfront to develop until now. So Initiative 123 gives people a choice about how they want the waterfront to develop. If they want a freight-route promenade, they can vote “No.” If they want a very inspiring, car-free park that’s a mile long with panoramic, territorial views, they can vote “Yes.” So it’s a choice.

You said everyone who learns about your plan agrees with it, but you did have the big defection of Martin Selig. Martin did not like the idea that we were not saving the Viaduct, except for the little glimpse, and I think it’s possibly because he was a teenager when the Viaduct went up and was sort of emotionally attached to the structure for no real practical reasons. He left me personally with about $75,000 worth of debt, which he had no conscience about walking away from after already making a commitment.

Is it true that I-123 names the experts who sit on the authority board? That seems unusual.The approach that we took was that this steering committee basically of trustworthy people would be the transition team, and we’re talking about two executive directors of nonprofits, both with excellent reputations; we’re talking about two Seattle watchdogs, a lawyer, myself as well. The six of us will then bring in three more people to help us, and then we will appoint four members from the Council that serve a term. Putting a layer of eight experts and four watchdogs that have teeth between the mayor’s office and the projects is a good thing.

You’ve said the authority is needed to protect the park development from politics. What politics do you see interfering with the current plan? Just Charlie Royer coming in and trying to sell us a freight-route promenade. That’s politics. There’s a lot of losers with the SDOT plan, like the public. We lose. We lose our billion-dollar view. [People with water views now], not one of them would ever trade that for a spot on a freight route. Not one of them. They would think that was the most ridiculous proposition ever. Yet here they are, suggesting it for us. And I balk at that—I say no, it’s not the same, the public shouldn’t get the shaft in these deals, and there’s no way to justify throwing away a billion-dollar public view.


Conversation edited for length and clarity.

Correction: The print version of this story misstated the length of the proposed elevated walkway.

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