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Seattle’s Real Aftershocks

Boeing’s departure is forcing Seattle to step back and examine its long-term strategies for urban planning and development. Now political tremors are beginning to rock the already shaken-up Emerald City.

So far, 2001 has been a shaky year — literally — for the Emerald City. An earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale struck the city on February 28, damaging many historic buildings in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.

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Then, in March, Boeing announced that it was moving corporate headquarters — and between 500 and 1,000 jobs — out of the city. The rapidly declining fortunes of local tech companies have resulted in layoffs and a reduction of the charitable giving that has fueled the city’s culture boom.

Those events have prompted Seattle-ites to think about the city’s long-term strategy. The billion-dollar decade — wherein 1 billion dollars was funneled into the city’s cultural scene — is drawing to a close. Now, some residents argue, it’s time to address lingering problems like the lack of affordable housing and traffic-clogged streets and highways. While cultural projects like Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project and the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park race to completion thanks to wealthy benefactors, improvements to Seattle’s public-transportation system, for example, have taken a much slower, more circuitous course.

City councilman Peter Steinbrueck, a Seattle-born architect whose father helped design the trademark Space Needle for the 1962 World’s Fair, argues that talent meccas like Seattle need to devote more energy to transportation and affordable housing than they do to “glamour projects.”

“There’s plenty here to attract people,” Steinbrueck says. “We’ve got good academic institutions, a mild climate, a beautiful setting, and lots of activities. If anything is deterring businesses and employees from moving here, it’s the traffic and lack of affordable housing. It’s causing some people consternation — and I tend to fall into this camp — that we’re getting too involved with glamour projects. I’m also concerned that we’re not doing enough to preserve open spaces and curb sprawl.”

Steinbrueck worries that a project to build a new aquarium is proceeding without enough consideration of the building’s location on the waterfront, where it will block views of Elliott Bay. He’s also been critical of the new $72 million Seattle City Hall and its design.

“The mayor likes to move fast and furious,” Steinbrueck says, “but I don’t think we should rush projects. They ought to be well thought-out and well planned. My hope is that 20 years from now, we’re not looking at all these new buildings and saying, ‘Oh, God, why did we do that?’ I hope we’ll look back and say that we did the right thing, that we invested in the long term, and that we put quality ahead of speed.”

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David Brewster, the executive director of Town Hall Seattle, a performance and cultural center, and a regular columnist on urban-planning issues for the Seattle Times, has sounded the alarm that development can often uproot the groups that give a neighborhood character. He cites the artists now being priced out of the Pioneer Square area as it goes upscale.

“The new economy and the visitor economy are collaborating, and they’re creating a much more generic, Starbucks kind of place,” Brewster says. “The high-character, mom-and-pop places and the artists are being priced out. In urbanism, the danger is velocity. You change things too quickly, and you drive certain populations out. There’s organic, absorptive, gradual change — and then there’s overnight change.”

“Whenever change happens, a certain percentage of people feel like it’s a stress,” says Bob Watt, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. “There’s no doubt that we’re going through a lot of change right now. But I think that there’s a genuine climate here that will endure — a pioneering attitude. People are saying, ‘Let’s see if we can make something special happen.’ “

Mayor Schell, for his part, observes that “change has no constituency.” While he’s careful to explain that he spends the majority of his time working on issues like education, housing, the homeless, and drug addiction, he sees part of his mission as helping major cultural and civic projects move forward. “The older you get as a society, the more cautious you get,” Schell says. “Look at Europe. I hope that in the end, what comes out of this period is a feeling that Seattle is unafraid to think ahead.”

Read the Magazine Story: Seattle Reboots Its Future