Call Seattle passive-aggressive, process-loving, "n(ice)," whatever your poison, but one thing can be said: This town knows how to handle a setback. Time and time again, when we're faced with the death of a beloved institution, a political punch, or a challenge that threatens our quality of life, we respond with a solution that reinvents the genre. It is this reinvention – in music, sports, and the built environment - that has defined how Seattle has changed in the past ten years.
Let’s start with music: Ten years ago, then-Mayor Paul Schell dealt a blow to the city’s youth (and young at heart) by vetoing the hard-fought repeal to the Teen Dance Ordinance, an antiquated, 80s-era law that made it hard for people under 21 to see live music and thus benefit from the community created by the city’s famous music scene. For those fighting for a thriving youth culture, as well as Seattle’s identity as a music mecca, the veto represented a giant step backward.
But while the TDO battle raged, a new solution was quietly forming: The Vera Project. Part concert venue, part community center, Vera promised what no other place could: A safe place for people of all ages, especially teenagers and young adults, to enjoy live music and was quickly embraced. The first Vera Project show in January of 2001 was visited equally by parents of small children, geeky teens, and the occasional news crew.
Ten years later, the Vera Project serves more than 30,000 people and is on track to continue its long-held dream of being a 100-year-old center for all, spawning copycats all over the country and pumping energy into our local arts and music economy. And the Teen Dance Ordinance? It was repealed two years later.
Another challenge that faced the city’s music scene during this time: The transformation of KCMU to KEXP in 2001. Through the support of Paul Allen and the Experience Music Project, what began as a tiny college station in 1972 got a shot at the big time with a doubling of its wattage and a shiny new downtown location complete with whiz-bang studio upgrades. A dream come true for a station on a shoestring, but considered the death of indie authenticity for nearly everyone else. Another radio station surrenders to The Man. Or so some claimed.
Despite dire predictions of a corporate takeover of playlists and spiral into banality, KEXP 90.3FM and its listeners rose to the challenge of its transformation. It didn’t just keep the beloved format, it redefined how we experience local radio, effectively utilizing new technologies and community-building tools. Through this monumental journey, KEXP’s expanded repertoire included a four-program broadcast out of New York City until just last month. And in 2013, the station will land at Seattle Center, ensuring that one of Seattle’s most distinctive features, its music scene, will have an even greater impact locally. Most importantly, the station remains majority listener-supported, with Seattle neighborhoods out-doing themselves in annual “’hood to ‘hood” fundraising challenges.
While the music scene has had its share of reinvention, one might say the ’79 champions Seattle SuperSonics leaving town in 2008 was even more dramatic. The announcement left Sonics fans apoplectic, the legislature scrambling, and put the mayor on defense. Some were convinced the loss would roll back Seattle’s identity as a real city. It seemed incredulous, especially to furious Sonics owner and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and a neighborhood full of Key Arena-adjacent small businesses, that Seattle would end legacy of the city's first professional sports franchise.
However, almost immediately, a new way was found when the WNBA came rolling in, showing us we already had a winner on the ready: The Seattle Storm, Seattle’s all-female professional basketball team, won the national championship in 2004 and again in 2010, shortly after the team was purchased by four local women (!) in 2008, the same year the Sonics left. Our loss of a men’s team didn’t pull us back into obscurity, but rather opened up a whole new market of fans. Even better, those fans helped spur the popularity of another all-female team, the Rat City Rollergirls, Seattle’s amateur, flat-track roller derby league, which, after packing warehouse venues with rabid fans, took over the Key Arena as their new home in 2009. The fitting result of all the drama is a city-owned venue now filled with locally-owned teams and a new way for Seattle sports to be on the map.
No story about Seattle’s sports renaissance would be complete without mentioning the complete tornado that is the Seattle Sounders Football Club. After the stadium-funding debacle, many bitterly laughed when they heard that Qwest (now CenturyLink) Field would be used for something as obscure as soccer. Soccer is something played at Memorial Stadium, not where the Seahawks play. (And please: with the exception of the Mariners, Seattle is too cool for sports.) Yet after debuting in 2009, the place is regularly packed with 36,000 fans that keep renewing their season tickets. Sounders headlines are less about greedy owners and more about the abject love of the franchise, which would seem very un-Seattle until now.
It seems there was no rivalry more intense than Seattle’s classic, decades-long match-up: The Times vs. The P-I. When Seattle became a one-(print) newspaper town in 2009, the sadness was thick. (And still is.) Multiple memorials for the Seattle P-I were held, hands were wrung, and it was determined that our media landscape was entirely doomed. However, at this exact same time, writers and journalists found new ways to gather news and information emerged and flourished, through the politically-obsessed PubliCola, the relentless SLOG, (the Stranger’s blog), and the angry/mild-mannered Crosscut, pioneered by OG Seattleite David Brewster. Even the P-I’s stalwarts and its army of reader blogs continue online. Today, the conversation about Seattle’s future is even more robust than ever, especially if you also count the rise of the increasingly-sophisticated neighborhood blogs.
This all brings us to our favorite setback of all: Transportation. And in the early 2000s, the controversy surrounding the Seattle Monorail Project made the debate over the Alaskan Way VIaduct seem tame in comparison. Due to its decidedly activist M.O., the monorail seemed like a Seattle-style solution to an intractable problem of how to get around, leaving its beleaguered bureaucratic cousin, Sound Transit, in its wake.
But despite its homey roots, no-nonsense premise, and at least four (or was it five?) elections, the project closed shop in 2005. Yet Seattle hadn’t seen the last of dedicated mass transit. Through all hyperventilating over the Monorail and Sound Transit rallied. Its management turned over and the agency finally received its full-funding grant agreement in 2003.
The result? We now have a train in Seattle, with a regional light rail system that is moving steadily forward like a marathoner, project by project. A train. In Seattle. Sure, we’re a city that still has the occasional one-story building downtown, but it’s a start. And what’s more? With little fanfare, Sound Transit 2 passed in 2008, adding regional express bus and commuter rail service, plus 36 additional miles of light rail. We didn’t get the monorail (much to the relief of some), but we invested in a transit system that will help connect Seattle with the entire region.
So what does this all add up to? Reinvention. Not replacement---reinvention. For those who are convinced that Seattle hasn’t moved a muscle in years and can’t get out of its own way, we have proven that we are indeed a rapidly changing city. However, it is now that we face our biggest challenge in search of a creative solution. Land use.
The city has remained largely residential, the kind of white picket fence residential (or brownish, aging, water-logged picket fence as it were). Nearly every attempt to create even a bit of density has been successfully thwarted by a small group of dedicated neighbors, who see any upzone as a threat to their neighborhood’s character and thus the character of Seattle itself. Neighbors, who might otherwise consider themselves environmentalists, defend their parking spaces as vociferously as they would family.
Neighborhood activists have waged numerous battles against density, so let’s choose one: In 2004, pro-density then-Mayor Greg Nickels reintroduced the idea of “Detached Accessory Dwelling Units” also known as mother-in-law units to be legal in Seattle. The reaction was swift. Battle-tested neighbors who have fought off the good, bad, and ugly for decades made their case once again, through public forums, letters, the press, and meticulous memos sent to the Department of Planning and Development. Per the usual, the arguments largely came down to parking. Despite evidence that density could help make Seattle more livable in the long run, the proposal was scrapped.
Yet just one year later, a new effort slowly emerged, headed by land use committee chair Sally Clark. In 2010, after five years of meetings, white papers, decision-agendas, and more meetings, something extraordinary happened that nearly no one noticed. The so-called “NIMBYs”…lost. In December 2010, the Seattle City Council passed the Multifamily Housing Code Update, which resulted in an actual update, complete with the ability to build rowhouses, increased density, and shockingly, the elimination of parking requirements for low-rise development in urban centers and urban villages. Through this one action, one can see that Seattle’s continuing urban transformation isn’t just relegated to what we eat, watch, or read, but how we design our communities that will last beyond ourselves.
The move toward urban density is ongoing, but there are signs that it has momentum. In fact, during the process of updating the code, the Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit proposal came back in pilot form (smartly renamed “Backyard Cottages”), and the concept was discovered not to be the character-destroyer it was painted to be, but rather they provided “a relatively affordable housing option in single-family neighborhoods, help someone pay their mortgage, make a room for a son or daughter moving back home, or allow for people to age in place.”*
The knock on Seattle’s changes, especially by those who grew up here pre-Boeing bust, is that they don’t actually benefit typical Seattleites and are imposed upon us by self-interested bigwigs who don’t care about the “real” Seattle. But the transformations we’ve experienced are often uniquely Seattle. No dark-suited stranger came into to install a new sports team into our arena, it was the locals who stepped up. It’s not outsiders that keep KEXP from turning into ClearChannel, its us. As for density, in the case of backyard cottages, it is being created by our own local residents. And who benefits? We do.
So kicking and screaming (and eating and dancing), Seattle is getting it done, redefining solutions on the heels of low points and often with lightening speed. As a result, we’re transforming from a big small town to a real city, with great food, robust culture, urban living, and transportation alternatives. We may not do it like any other city, but it is progress that is authentic to Seattle and should be celebrated.