I’ve long said that the last thing Seattle needs is more whimsy, like those stupid pig sculptures that infested our streets a few years ago. But Seattle is still determined to be a place where civic culture is defined by an Archie McPhee aesthetic.
We’ve got the Fremont Troll, the Broadway steps, the Mitt at Safeco Field, giant inflatables hanging off the Space Needle, and a psychedelic blob. Some benches in Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park have been replaced by bocce courts. If Seattle does something, it has to be with a “smile.” We even had a guy who ran for mayor, David Stern, who was famous as the “Man Who Invented the Happy Face,” only it turned out that he didn’t. He lost, not because he didn’t invent the 20th century’s most cloying icon, but because he seemed like a sourpuss next to Norm Rice.
Please also remember: This is the city that, during his job interview, asked prospective police chief Norm Stamper what color he identified with. We all know how well that hire turned out.
If it doesn’t make us smile, it better be cool. Paul Schell once proposed laser sculptures for Elliott Bay. David Brewster, Seattle Weekly‘s founder, once proposed a bridge lined with shops over Interstate 5 connecting downtown and Capitol Hill, saying it could be our Ponte Vecchio.
Such fantasies are harmless, though, compared to some of today’s obsessions. Mayor Greg Nickels is just nuts for trolley cars in Allentown, formerly known as the South Lake Union neighborhood, even while we’re already building light rail, expanding heavy rail, and about to build monorail. His biotech village just needs its own cutesy transportation system, thank you.
The Monorail Cult has pushed the People’s Boondoggle largely based on the idea that it is cool. Many of their opponents have argued forcefully about design issues: Will it be clunky or sleek? Will it cast big shadows? Will it clash with historic buildings? What colors will the cars be, and will they go with my new North Face parka? Fair questions, but hardly the stuff of substantive opposition. How about: Will the monorail be an endless elevated money pit? Will it really move people where they need to go? Will it funnel development where we want it? What will be the cost of building the entire citywide system, without which the initial Green Line makes no damn sense? Will it be cheaper than the occupation of Iraq?
A classic Seattle moment has been the monorail conversion experience of City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who, by profession and heredity, is something of a keeper of Seattle’s character. I certainly would never describe Peter nor his late father, Victor, both architects, as whimsical. In fact, I went to high school with Peter, and he was the quintessential angry young man. Until recently, he was a monorail skeptic, primarily due to design concerns. He argued that the project should be slowed down—let’s not rush into anything we’ll regret.
But on a May trip to Las Vegas to see the new monorail there with Joel Horn, the Seattle Monorail Project’s executive director, Steinbrueck, like a fifth-century penitent, had a vision in the desert. The Vegas system suited his taste. According to The Seattle Times, he called the Vegas monorail’s columns “elegant,” like “wet noodles that curve in the sky.” Maybe instead of Vegas he took the exit to Burning Man.
His aesthetic concerns thus allayed, Steinbrueck is now gung ho, and without his resistance the project glided through City Council approvals like offal through a Pike Place piglet. Even his new allies are surprised with how hard—and how easily—he collapsed. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as they say. I don’t know what happened in Vegas, but what stayed there was Steinbrueck’s critical thinking.
The debate over the Alaskan Way Viaduct is also about to be hijacked by the Whimsical Wild Bunch. The viaduct is the most blue-collar roadway in Seattle since Skid Road. The fact that it’s about to topple over isn’t creating panic—except among those who want to either bury it for billions or not replace it at all. They talk of boulevards and waterfront parks. Hey, I’m not for building new highways, but how about keeping the ones we have and instead working harder to preserve rural areas that are threatened by sprawl and new road projects? (See “Turnpike to Perdition,” p. 18.)
Another viaduct-replacement idea, recently touted by Times columnist Danny Westneat, is a massive suspension bridge over Elliott Bay to handle the viaduct’s Highway 99 traffic. It would be a Golden Gate Bridge–like structure that would link—what, Harbor Island and Magnolia? The readers of Westneat’s column, he says, are thrilled with the idea. Bubbles one enthusiast, “We would get two views, one of the mountains and one of the city!” Excuse me, but you can already get those views without spending another dime. Go to West Seattle, or Highland Drive, or a thousand other places where they didn’t wash away the hills. The purpose of a new viaduct isn’t the views! It’s moving freight and moving fannies.
One of the reasons things don’t get done around here is because we can’t seem to keep it simple. Instead, we have to make everything appeal to our inner child. It’s time Seattle stopped being a civic sandbox.