‘Seattle Weekly’ Editor Knute “Skip” Berger’s “Lesser Seattle” Rap May Be Good for His Hometown (Kirkland) but It’s Bad for Ours (Seattle)
For the past several months, Seattle Weekly editor Knute "Skip" Berger has been on an editorial jag against those he calls the "density freaks": those people "who promote urban design models that cater mostly to well-heeled gentriﬁers." Another name for the model Berger decries, of course, is smart growth- concentrating new residents in a dense, walkable inner city and limiting growth outside city limits. The smart-growth model aims at reducing housing prices by increasing supply, but it also requires people to live in close quarters with their neighbors-something density foes like Berger oppose.
"The city we loved is being choked by gigantism," Berger recently lamented. "The small, livable, sustainable city we once purported to love is dead."
"We"? That's the ﬁrst of Berger's misleading statements. Though his columns imply Berger is a Seattle resident, the editor of Seattle Weekly actually lives in Kirkland-an afﬂuent bedroom community 12 miles across Lake Washington from his downtown Seattle ofﬁce. It should come as no surprise that Berger, AKA Mossback, is against density and mass transit: He lives in an enclave of single-family, two-car homes where the median income is $15,000 higher than Seattle's.
It's bad enough that Berger laments the death of "our city" while living (and voting) in the suburbs. Worse, his vision for the future of Seattle is dead wrong. Seattle won't be "saved" by becoming more like Kirkland. On the contrary: Berger's prescription for Seattle-capping downtown building heights, building more roads, and locking renters out of single-family neighborhoods-looks more like a death sentence.
Over the past four months, Berger has lambasted the "density lovers," bemoaned our "kid-hostile" city, and lamented the "Manhattanization" of Seattle-a term that ranks second only to "Disneyﬁcation" among annoying Mossback neologisms. "The mad vision of a new Manhattan... has been embraced by Mayor Greg Nickels and his minions," Berger screeched in last week's column [Seattle Weekly, May 18, Mossback: The Manhattan Project]. What mad vision is Berger talking about? "Redevelopment in South Seattle, light rail, monorail... new bridges, an underground waterfront freeway..." and so on. What Berger's opposing isn't really the Manhattanization of Seattle. No reasonable person would argue that bridges and urban renewal will turn Seattle into a city of 10 million people-it won't, nor is that anyone's goal. What Berger opposes, it seems, are investments in infrastructure. Don't build it, he argues, and they won't come.
But Berger doesn't stop at taking a stand against repairing bridges. He also makes the outrageous claim that if those he calls the "Manhattanizers" had gotten their way, Seattle would "have no Pike Place Market, no Pioneer Square, and a massive freeway through the Arboretum." Berger is attempting to pin discredited urban-renewal projects and proposals from 40 years ago, proposals that indeed included tearing down the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, on modern urban advocates pushing for mass transit and density. Modern advocates of urban density want to build in and around Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square; both are models of and magnets for the kind of urban density that Berger despises.
Elsewhere in last week's Mossback, Berger criticizes Nickels' plan to get rid of '80s-era caps on building heights downtown. Nickels' proposal would allow buildings to climb from a current max of 540 feet to 700 downtown, and from 360 to 600 in parts of the Denny Triangle. Such high-rises, Berger argues, amount to "massive new development... that will clutter the skyline, block the sun, and beneﬁt mostly the well-to-do." Remember, this is downtown Seattle that Berger's talking about: not outlying single-family neighborhoods, not Kirkland, but downtown, where you'd think even troglodyte anti-urbanists like Berger would approve of dense development.
And what is Berger's alternative to density? "Excellent schools and free day care." Uh, good ideas, to be sure-but then so are universal health care and six weeks' mandatory vacation for everyone.
In another recent anti-smart-growth tirade [Feb 9, Mossback: More or Lesser?], Berger charged that progressive, pro-density policies like those supported by The Stranger will not protect farmlands and forests because "there is simply too much developable land in the region for Seattle to be an effective density sponge." In other words, as long as there is rural land that can be converted into suburbs, people will keep moving there. But in Portland, which has the strictest urban growth boundary in the nation, pro-density policies have actually succeeded at stopping sprawl in its tracks: According to Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch, between 1990 and 2000, Portland had one of the lowest rates of rural land loss in the country. Conversely, cities that lack smart-growth policies, like Atlanta and Houston, have had the highest rates of rural land loss in the nation, according to the U.S. Census. In one sense, Berger is right: Seattle will sprawl if we don't do anything about it. But when cities encourage density and discourage rural development, they can serve as "density sponges"-and do.
Density is not a panacea for every urban woe. But neither is it an open door to "more crime, poverty, [and] claustrophobia," as Berger argued in his February 9 column. Last year, Seattle was ranked the seventh safest large city in the nation; even as the population grew, violent crime, rape, and homicide rates dropped dramatically. Seattle's poverty rate, meanwhile, remains below the national average. Nor is density, as Berger claims, a recipe for cities that are "distinctly pedestrian-unfriendly" [March 30, Mossback: Village Idiots]-to the contrary, Seattle's pedestrian fatality rate is the lowest in the country. Among the worst cities for pedestrians are actually cities with half the density of Seattle: Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas.
If "density freaks" like The Stranger are the enemies of Berger's slow-growth, suburban-style utopia, neighborhood activists-the folks who brought us Charlie Chong, caps on downtown building heights, and acres upon acres of homogenous single-family zoning-are its heroes. In a column titled "Who Killed Lesser Seattle?" [Jan 19] Berger pined for the days "when Seattle politics were dominated by the neighborhood movement[.] Remember when growth skeptics... were a political possibility?"
We haven't lived in the Seattle area all our lives, but we (unlike Berger) live and vote here. And we do remember the legacy of the once-dominant neighborhood movement: It succeeded in thwarting light rail twice (in 1968 and 1995); killing the Commons, a massive public park proposed for South Lake Union; and nearly undoing eight years of efforts to build the monorail. And by clinging to the neighborhood movement's legacy of exclusive single-family neighborhoods (which compose an astonishing 75 percent of Seattle's residential landscape), neighborhood groups like the Seattle Community Council Federation are defying the law of supply and demand. Increase the supply of housing (by building more multi-family buildings) and you decrease its average cost. Let the supply of housing stagnate (by preserving the single-family status quo) and demand will outpace supply. Which could help explain why Seattle's median housing price, at $359,000, is so high.
Fortunately, Berger is right on another point: The old anti-growth, anti-mass transit neighborhood movement is dying. But that doesn't mean neighborhood voices are dying. It's just that the new neighborhood voices aren't saying what Berger wants to hear. Recently, Roosevelt residents provided crucial support for Sound Transit's proposal to run light rail through the heart of their neighborhood, rather than along its periphery-guaranteeing dense redevelopment in a mostly single-family area. And Central Area and Beacon Hill residents support the Southeast Seattle Action Agenda, a neighborhood plan that calls for more density in their single-family zones.
"Density freaks" have a vision for Seattle: a more balanced mix of multi-family and single-family zoning, rapid transit that connects the neighborhoods and gets people out of their cars, and a lively downtown where people can live, work, and party. This is the right direction for Seattle. Berger's vision-a Seattle of expensive single-family neighborhoods, no mass-transit options, and a dead urban core-is the wrong one.
Berger's vision might be right for Kirkland, though. Maybe he should try peddling it there. His fellow suburbanites might agree with him. ■