The Manhattan Project

Greg Nickels' plan to beef up Seattle's skyline is a bomb.

When the Dennys landed and threw Seattle’s first beach blanket bingo party in 1851, they dubbed their new town “New York Alki,” which translates as, “New York By and By.” That sounds lackadaisical—as if they’d get around to city building eventually. But it was actually a term of destiny, not procrastination. New York is where we’re headed, they declared. They immediately set about the job of constructing cedar hovels out of the damp, dense forest that crowded the shoreline, fueled by the mad vision of creating a new Manhattan.

That madness has been embraced by Mayor Greg Nickels and his minions. The people who brought big-shouldered Chicago politics to City Hall are now ushering in the Big Apple development policies of New York’s Robert Moses. Mayor Charley Royer wanted Seattle to be a “kids’ place,” Norm Rice touted urban villages in the neighborhoods, and Paul Schell concentrated on big-idea civic structures. But Nickels is more gourmand than gourmet. He wants to fill his plate with everything on the civic smorgasbord.

This includes billions upon billions of dollars for major redevelopment in South Seattle, light rail, monorail, a South Lake Union remade as Paul Allentown, a solution for the Mercer Mess, new bridges, an underground waterfront freeway, high rises in the University District, a remaking of Seattle Center and South Queen Anne, more amenities for biotech, more development in green belts, a brand-new trolley system—the table groans under the weight of a spread fit for Diamond Jim Brady, who a New York restaurateur once described as “the best 25 customers I ever had.”

If Seattle was the Royal Fork, we’d go broke with customers like Greg Nickels. And well we might.

As if that meal were not enough, the mayor is now touting a major change to our skyline. During the 1980s, we sprouted skyscrapers like mushrooms after the first rain. The Columbia Tower rose as a much-detested symbol of Reagan-era excess, a building that looks as if Darth Vader is flipping Puget Sound country the bird.

Now called the Bank of America Tower, it still provides the best view of the imperial domain to be had from a 76th- story bathroom.

The citizens rebelled at this un-Seattle excess and voted to cap downtown development. Nickels now wants to lift that cap and allow more high-rises to further his goal of wedging 60,000 new Seattleites into the core. Not as workers, as residents (or resident workers). That’s about 60 percent of the city’s anticipated growth over the next two decades.

Beefing up the skyline is all part of the densification strategy. That terminology is itself used by some to greenwash development rhetoric. The promise to build “green” or “skinny” buildings in the name of stopping sprawl sounds appealing, and if you’re going to build more skyscrapers, sure, make them ecologically more sound. But do we need them? Is that the direction we really want Seattle to go? Aren’t there other ways of creating smaller-scale urban density, as they have in Europe? In his book City Comforts, David Sucher talks about the importance of not focusing on density as a solution but on creating urban villages that are interesting and compelling places to live. Density, he argues, is a by-product of creating great quality of life, not the other way around.

Copenhagen in Denmark is a dense Seattle-size city—with only one modest high-rise (19 stories). How does it keep people—especially families—from moving to the burbs? By offering flexible, guaranteed day care to city residents. If Seattle offered excellent schools and free day care, it would be costly—but would it be more costly than putting the viaduct underground? If you put $4 billion into improving Seattle schools and creating family-friendly programs, you could increase density by growing the number of people per household without massive new development. There are alternatives to dealing with urban growth and density by promoting high-rise development that will clutter the skyline, block the sun, and benefit mostly the well-to-do.

Seattle has resisted the Disneyfication of Seattle Center, the Los Angelization of sprawl, and the Manhattanization of the skyline, but we’re losing all of these battles. Nickels is moving ahead to effectively privatize Seattle Center by selling off parcels and cutting deals with tenants like the Sonics. L.A. sprawl is here and virtually unstoppable without much stricter growth regulations. Lynnwood, for example, is planning its own high-rises to match the Bellevue model. Without stricter growth limits, mass transit and highway improvements will mostly drive sprawl, not reduce it. On top of all this, Nickels wants to complete his Manhattan project by scaling up a skyline that has already given Seattle the profile of a generic American city.

I would argue that Seattle is at its best when it is trying to be itself, not somewhere else. Long ago, the “New York Alki” dream was abandoned by others who founded a city where livability and scale made sense—a democratic, middle-class city that was green, functional, and tended to export original ideas rather than import discredited ones. Had we let the Manhattanizers have their way over the past couple of decades, we’d have no Pike Place Market, no Pioneer Square, and a massive freeway through the Arboretum.

It would be a tragic legacy if the uniqueness of Seattle became a dimly remembered phase en route to a more conventional, big-city future. In 1851, the Dennys understandably thought New York was worthy of emulation. In the 21st century, we should know that we can do better.