What The Corner Really Needs

[ How many rockstar reporters can you spot at McGinn’s 23rd and Union press conference? ]

For eleven years I have lived two blocks from the notorious intersection of 23rd and Union where Mike McGinn recently held a press conference on public safety. We all know that the crime that has plagued the area around that intersection has little to do with the choice of Seattle’s Chief of Police, but hey, that’s politics.

In contrast, over on the southwest corner of the intersection (left background in the photo above) is a missed opportunity that actually could have breathed some new life into the area.  In 2007 a six-story mixed-use project was proposed for the vacant site, but since it was only zoned for only 40 feet, a contract rezone was required.  This added a full year to the project schedule,  and unfortunately that additional year happened to be a very bad one for banks—all the rules for financing changed, and the project has been shelved.

Given that the proposed building was (a) exactly the kind of mixed-use infill project that Seattle needs more of to achieve its sustainability goals, and (b) a redevelopment trailblazer that could have brought catalytic, positive change to a chronically troubled corner, the question is:  Why couldn’t the City have done more to help make the project happen, as opposed to effectively killing it by causing delay?

The short answer is that it’s a bureaucracy, and has not been able to keep policy up to speed with the demands of a rapidly changing world.  The longer answer is that Seattle as a whole continues to struggle with establishing and uniting around a bold vision for the more urban city it needs to become.

The world is only going to change faster.  Rapid growth in Seattle will continue for decades, and given that climate change impacts are likely to be more benign in the Pacific Northwest compared to much of the United States, it would not be unreasonable to expect significantly more growth than is currently projected.  So how can we do better at encouraging the kind of development that will ensure  Seattle’s growth plays out as an asset, rather than a liability?

I’m envisioning an agency with the focused mission of (1) identifying the City’s highest priority areas for redevelopment, and (2) getting policy implemented that makes it happen.   Actions might range from modest moves such as fast track permitting and upzones, to more substantial efforts such as land acquisition and the establishment of public-private partnerships, to major infrastructure improvements.

To take one example, the Mt. Baker light rail station area is such an urban design disaster that redevelopment has stagnated for years even though the trains are now running.  The critical action that must be taken to create a neighborhood center in which people would want to live is a remake of Rainier Avenue.  Rainier rebuilt as a multi-lane boulevard would establish the heart of a new community, and redevelopment would follow.  But what entity in Seattle is an influential force for making such a thing happen?  I’m waiting.

The promotion of smart development would likely be best served by a quasi-governmental organization like the Portland Development Commission or the Boston Redevelopment Authority. It says a lot that doesn’t Seattle have one of these.

Or perhaps it could be a new City department, or it could grow out of the Planning Commission, or it could be part of some yet to be created fantasy such as the Office of Sustainable Urbanism.

Seattle is well positioned to realize the potential of “MetroNation,” to use Bruce Katz’s term, but success isn’t going to fall into our laps. 


[ The Corner, a temporary art installation at 23rd and Union on a site that has been unused since 2001 ]