City Hall

Why I'm Disappointed in Mayor McGinn

By Josh Feit August 26, 2010

And no, it's not just because Crosscut's Knute Berger has become a McGinn fan.

Berger's newfound embrace of McGinn is worth noting because his political perspective couldn't be more different than McGinn's. Berger is a longtime champion of keeping Seattle suburban instead of urban, taking up the doctrinaire Lesser Seattle cause against development and inner-city rail transit. He characterized light rail derisively as "the Manhattanization of Seattle," and opposed the Commons (a proposed city park in South Lake Union), neighborhood density, and height increases downtown. Berger's newfound fondness for McGinn should make urbanists who voted for McGinn nervous.

Berger's cause was known as "the neighborhood movement." That movement simplistically villainized downtown developers as the enemy of the people. McGinn came along as a new sort of neighborhood activist—a pro-transit, pro-density environmentalist who saw a logical alliance between activists and developers. (His Great City nonprofit was in part funded by Vulcan and housed in the offices of Triad Development. Great City once threw cool street party in South Lake Union, where McGinn handed out buttons that said "What is your street for?"—promoting woonerf-style street-grid planning.)

As head of Great City, McGinn reclaimed the neighborhood movement from the reactionary utopians, giving voice to a new breed of neighborhood activists—activists who wanted mixed-use developments, streets that work for everyone (not just cars), inner-city transit, and taller buildings.

So why does Berger like McGinn? Because, as he wrote in Crosscut—quoting McGinn on KUOW—McGinn wants to be "thrifty" and he's suspicious of the old-school style of governing, which supports "big projects." (To be fair to Berger, he has updated his views, and gets the wisdom of light rail these days.)

McGinn's emphasis on thriftiness has drawn an important faction into his coalition of greens and liberals—the Lesser Seattle crew. It's an amazing political feat. The crowd that once pilloried the Commons and, later, belly-ached over the South Lake Union Streetcar and commercial development in downtown and South Lake Union as unfair government giveaways is now ardently—and amazingly—defending Seattle property owners against having to pay for a government project, the tunnel, that would benefit downtown property owners. Wow.

Should we be laughing at the Lesser Seattle crowd? No. Because they aren't the ones being compromised. McGinn is.

Thanks to political expediency—keeping the Bergers on board—McGinn has frozen his rap in the reactionary dogma of obstruction and thrift. And that political move has jeopardized the green vision of downtown Seattle.

Urbanists are not, as McGinn is, stuck on saying 'No' to overruns. There's an important 'Yes' move here—yes to an I-5/surface/transit option that puts downtown Seattle in line with the vision McGinn had back at Great City when he held the South Lake Union street fair.

But that vision—a big project—scares the Lesser Seattle faction. (They want to rebuild the viaduct and preserve the working man's views—i.e., preserve a dying infrastructure priority). That vision may also cost money—it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the level of public transit and street grid fixes that will be needed to make the waterfront a mixed use neighborhood.

McGinn needs to talk about what he wants on the waterfront, not just about what he doesn't want. But he's reluctant to go there because it will sabotage his political coalition. The problem is, McGinn's vision of a new neighborhood movement—and along with it, the possibility of new neighborhoods in places such as the downtown waterfront—is itself being sabotaged while he stays quiet.
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