Archive for April, 2010

Brother Can You Spare a Bad Idea?

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Tomorrow afternoon Mayor Michael McGinn will veto legislation that would empower local law enforcement to fine panhandlers downtown. The legislation has been aggressively supported by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) and the Seattle Times.

DSA's Stimulus Package: fine the poor?
DSA's stimulus package: fine the poor?

I have argued elsewhere that Seattle doesn’t really have an “establishment” in the sense that some have suggested. Instead, the city has two dichotomous strains of thinking when it comes to our civic culture, Forward Thrust and Lesser Seattle. I have suggested the election of Michael McGinn was a synthesis of those two divergent strains of thought about how to make our city more sustainable. But the DSA (an organization trying to pass as the establishment of our city) may have finally overreached with their efforts to pass panhandler legislation. And the failure of that effort might mean a new alignment between advocates for the city’s poor and sustainability advocates.

Over the course of the last year the DSA has pushed successfully for votes by the Seattle City Council on the spendy waterfront tunnel, the repeal of the “head-tax,” and most recently, legislation that would punish panhandlers on downtown streets with a $50 fine. In every case their argument has been jobs and economic development for downtown which they suggest would lead to increased tax revenues for the city.

The Council’s support of the tunnel and repeal of the “head-tax” are unarguably antithetical to the future sustainability fiscal health of the city, never mind achieving carbon neutrality. But what about the panhandler legislation? Might this issue be an opportunity for homeless advocates and supporters of carbon neutrality to find common ground about the city’s future? Often the two groups are at odds over development and land use issues.

The answer is yes, and finding agreement is not as difficult as it might seem. It is a well established fact that sprawl contributes to increased carbon emissions, more consumption of gasoline, decreased energy efficiency, and even adverse impacts to lakes, rivers, and streams. Compact, densely populated communities are good for the environment and our economic future because they are healthier and more efficient. But cities, ironically, can be dirty, messy places. And there is no better place to see the problems faced by our society’s most vulnerable people than walking city streets, even here in Seattle.

That’s what makes the DSA’s position on panhandlers so nonsensical. Does the DSA really think that fining panhandlers will increase business and create a vibrant urban center? What kind of economic stimulus plan begins with building huge unnecessary highway projects that contribute to climate change, continues with a tax repeal that creates a budget deficit for the City’s transportation department, and culminates with trying to push homeless, poor, and mentally ill people out of the down town core? These things will have a negligible effect on the bottom lines of downtown businesses. And this view of economic recovery is neither sustainable nor compassionate.

That’s why last weekend an unlikely assortment of supporters of Mayor McGinn and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, homeless advocates, supporters of carbon neutrality for Seattle, and progressive voters raised their voices together to urge defeat of the panhandler legislation. Four councilmembers, including O’Brien, Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell voted no on the legislation. The vote to override the Mayor’s certain veto will hopefully be an opportunity for other Councilmembers to soundly reject this bad idea.

The outcry and subsequent ‘no’ votes last week aren’t about being anti-business either. More development is going to have to happen to accommodate growth and support the compact communities that we know are more sustainable than sprawl. That means making living downtown more appealing and attractive to families and other people moving into the city. But that makes addressing the deep problems we have in our city—of which panhandling is only a symptom—an even higher priority.

Shouldn’t the DSA and City Council be looking for sustainable, long term solutions to the underlying problems of homelessness, chronic mental illness, and addiction that plague many poor people downtown and throughout our city? Solutions do exist. The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Project is an example of how providing housing first and then treatment to chronic public inebriates can have real benefits by saving local government money in uncompensated health care and making the streets safer for everyone. But this project was originally opposed by some businesses because of their fears it would scare tourists away from downtown. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the project is improving the lives of the residents of 1811 and saving the public money.

The problem of panhandling—to the extent there is one—is not one of chronic misbehavior but chronic lack of resources and gross misrepresentation of the underlying problems by business groups downtown. Fining panhandlers won’t make Seattle “a great place to live, work, shop and play.” Panhandling legislation would simply push the problem around at great expense without building long term solutions that will make our most dense and intense neighborhoods appealing, safe, and welcoming to everyone. If we are going to have an “establishment” in this town, I would hope—like either Jim Ellis or Emmett Watson—it might be visionary not reactionary.

Puget Sound region historic sites vying for dollars

Friday, April 16th, 2010


Town Hall Seattle is one of 25 sites hoping for cash. Photo courtesy of Partners in Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has launched a contest in the Puget Sound region called the Partners in Preservation program that will provide $1 million in grants from American Express to local historic sites.

The online program encourages people to vote for their favorite historic places from among 25 sites in the region.

For information about the sites or to vote, go here. Votes can be cast until May 12. People can also post personal stories about the sites and share photos. Open houses will be held May 1 and 2 at the sites.

A press release from the trust said the winner of the public vote is guaranteed grant funds. Funding for the runners-up will be determined by an advisory committee of civic and preservation leaders in collaboration with the American Express Foundation and the trust.

Grant recipients will be announced June 15.

Sustainablity advocates must fight big-road big shots

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

At Saturday’s Climate Neutral Unconference  Mayor Mike McGinn made some strong comments about values and politics, and the role they play in limiting our success in closing the Sustainability Gap. McGinn took attendees on a walk down memory lane, recounting past struggles with the regional power structure that is highly motivated to build big, spendy highway projects.  He gave what amounted to a half-time locker room speech, encouraging advocates of carbon neutrality for Seattle but also calling on them to get into the fight.

And it is a fight. As Publicola reported  leaders aren’t prepared to put their money where their mouths are in terms of reducing carbon emissions. Just the opposite is true, with regional bodies like the Puget Sound Regional Council and the State Legislature pushing huge highway projects. McGinn pointed out that carbon neutrality is not a technical problem but a political one and set out three basic principles about the political limits being set by elected leaders on progress.

The first point McGinn made was about access. He recounted his days as staff to a congressman and how certain groups—labor unions especially—when straight into the congressman’s office, while others met with low level staff. Political leaders ought to pick who they listen to. If they listen only to business interests then we’re likely to get more highways because their argument is always that economic development depends on roads.

The second point he made was about the decisions being made by local leaders. He recounted the repeal of the “head tax,” showing a now well known picture of him holding up a “no” sign indicating his opposition to the appeal. The “head tax” repeal was a clear example of the persistent and continuing efforts by some interests to reduce taxes at the expense of sustainability. As I pointed out earlier the repeal of the tax certainly won the praise of the business community, but blew a $4.5 million hole in the Seattle Department of Transportation budget.

McGinn wound up his comments with a third point, saying that ideas are powerful. But they are a lot more powerful when backed up with action. He cited the uphill climb on defeating 2007’s roads and transit package. The ‘no’ effort started out small, outspent, and overmatched with support of elected officials from the governor on down. Governor Christine Gregoire said at the time “it’s not a perfect package. It’s not necessarily one I would have done … but the fact is it’s the only game in town and there is too much at stake.” The grass roots effort ended up proving her wrong.

In the end unconference discussions were framed by technical and political realities. And the political reality is that most elected officials in the region don’t hold the same values as conference goers based on who they listen to (the roads lobby) and what they actually do (vote for roads over alternatives). With the vast majority of emissions coming from transportation it’s difficult to see how the regions leaders hope to tackle the challenge of climate change by building more roads. McGinn’s comments were sobering, but also reframed the issue around getting better organized. Based on his own election as Mayor, the lesson is that people can be powerful when they organize around their values regardless of the odds.






A SR 520 six lane bridge with train tracks in all lanes?

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

At least someone is having fun in Seattle city government. Just read City Councilmember Richard Conlin’s not so modest proposals for the SR 520 Bridge replacement project.

Here they are:


The replacement of the SR 520 Bridge continues to be a high priority project, as the need for safety improvements and transportation enhancements remains great. However, the options currently under consideration are limited in their creativity, focusing primarily on what planners call the “Goldilocks Set” – a 4-lane alternative that is ‘too small’, an 8-lane alternative that is ‘too big’, and a 6-lane alternative that is ‘just right’. Although other ideas have been suggested in the past, such as a group of drivers calling for a dedicated SUV bridge and a so-called “Chartreuse Green Alternative” that appears to be focused on the color of the bridge, it is only in the last few weeks that some truly visionary ideas have been proposed, such as the following:

•  The “Rabbit Hole” alternative. This would consist of interlocking bored and/or floating tunnels that serve multiple locations on the east and west sides of the lake. On the west side, there would be tunnel entrances at Sand Point, Laurelhurst, Madison Park, and Madrona Park, while on the east there would be entrances at Kirkland, the Point Cities, and Mercer Slough in Bellevue. All of the tunnels would meet in a submerged roundabout in the center of the lake, so that vehicles would be able to get to various destinations. This would decentralize traffic, therefore allowing it to be absorbed by existing roads (e.g., Madison Street, Sand Point Way, etc.), thus eliminating the Portage Bay viaduct and connections through Montlake.

•  The “Train to Anywhere” proposal. This would involve creating a six lane bridge with tracks in all six lanes. At the Seattle side, one set of tracks would run north over the Montlake Bridge, and then split and run on the surface down Sand Point Way and NE Pacific, another would run south along 23rd Avenue with a spur through the Arboretum, while the third line would continue to I-5 and run in tracks embedded in those lanes as well. This alternative assumes that there will be virtually no cars in the future, so there is no need for lanes for them. Any remaining vehicles other than trains (such as horse and carriages) can share the rail lanes (as is done in the Third Avenue tunnel currently). Trains running the in the same lane will notify the horse and carriage operator via GPS, and the operator can move his vehicle to one of the unoccupied lanes. This will require the nimble use of technology as well as genetically modified (GMO) horses that can shift from side to side very quickly.
•  The “Greener Than Thou” proposal. This would rebuild the bridge with only a pedestrian/bike path. There is a variation on this proposal, called the “Lemming Alternative”, that would include vehicle lanes, but terminate them at the current ‘Ramps to Nowhere’ in the Arboretum.

•  The “Zero Lake Option”. This was inspired by the bold and visionary actions of our ancestors, who reshaped the landscape in major ways such as the Denny Regrade, the rerouting of the Cedar River into Lake Washington, and the lowering of Lake Washington by 9 feet. Proponents of this option ask the logical question: ‘If we can do 9 feet, why not the whole Lake?” The savings in concrete are enormous, as is the potential for development on the slopes and valley floor that would now be available. There are moderately significant impacts on fish resources.
•  The “Dunkirk Strategy”. This alternative was inspired by the heroic World War II experience when yachts and fishing boats were mobilized to evacuate the British Army from France when Hitler overran the continent in 1940. Since there are many yachts and pleasure boats in the Seattle area, most of which are only used a few hours a month, why not mobilize a ‘Dunkirk Fleet’ of hundreds of these small boats to carry people across the water instead of rebuilding the bridge?
•  The “Sustainable Surface” alternative. This proposal is designed to counteract the impact of global warming on Lake Washington by submerging a system of pipes under the SR 520 corridor, and then continually pumping liquid nitrogen through them to create a frozen surface. The cooling effect would spread through the Lake and protect fish against excessively warm temperatures. Travel across the Lake could be by dogsled caravans, and there could be year-round winter sports adjacent to the travel corridor. Since the ice bridge could not be raised to allow boats to go through, there would be an icebreaker stationed in the corridor, which would simply break through the bridge at regular intervals, and allow it to refreeze to restore travel across the Lake.

• Perhaps the most radical proposal is the “Cloud Suspension Bridge”. This would synthesize the use of cloud computing with visualization techniques and nanotechnology to construct a bridge suspended by trillions of nanowires connected to individual droplets of rain and microparticles above the bridge. As particles fall or dissolve, new nanowires will be deployed using spider-like spinnerets to seek out newly formed droplets and dust. The bridge will look like it is suspended from thin air. On extremely windy or clear days when this technology may be unstable, drivers will rely on visualization techniques to imagine that the bridge is still working, as they already do in its current condition.Perhaps the most radical proposal is the “Cloud Suspension Bridge”. This would synthesize the use of cloud computing with visualization techniques and nanotechnology to construct a bridge suspended by trillions of nanowires connected to individual droplets of rain and microparticles above the bridge. As particles fall or dissolve, new nanowires will be deployed using spider-like spinnerets to seek out newly formed droplets and dust. The bridge will look like it is suspended from thin air. On extremely windy or clear days when this technology may be unstable, drivers will rely on visualization techniques to imagine that the bridge is still working, as they already do in its current condition.
It is important that all reasonable choices are considered as we move through the key stages of decision making on this critical transportation facility. These and other ideas will now move into the state’s process for selecting a ‘Draft Preliminary Preferred Alternative’ in April. Following public hearings on the draft in May, a ‘Revised Draft Preliminary Preferred Alternative’ will be recommended in June, followed by a public hearing in July. Based on the response from this hearing, in September the State will select a ‘Consensus Draft Preliminary Preferred Alternative’, which will have a public hearing in October. After that there will be a “Revised Consensus Draft Preliminary Preferred Alternative”, which the State will consider in a Decision Agenda at a meeting to be determined at some point in the future. Once this meeting has taken place, there will be an opportunity for further public comment prior to the State selecting a ‘Final Preliminary Preferred Alternative’, which will then move into the next stage of the decision-making procedure.