At a briefing this morning in City Hall, we’ll witness the first live showdown between our new mayor and city council. The contention: rebuilding downtown’s seawall.
Since Mayor Mike McGinn proposed putting the seawall replacement on a May ballot—asking property owners to pick up the $241 million tab—he and the council have been in a tangle. Already, the council scored a point by sending a hard-hitting response to the Mayor’s opening salvo by demanding that he justify pushing the project ahead of schedule (and justify decoupling the seawall reconstruction from the tunnel project, which the council overwhelmingly supports). And McGinn racked up a point by sorting out some scrambled issues with his proposal in an op-ed in the Seattle Times last weekend. The Mayor’s reasons for accelerating the seawall's replacement timeline seem genuine: The seawall is decayed, rickety, and likely to fail in an earthquake.
For the record, the seawall replacement is Seattle’s responsibility, and separate from the State’s proposed tunnel project. This isn’t new, or political; it’s been true since January 2009, when Gregoire, Sims, and Nickels announced their viaduct replacement decision. The state is responsible for the tunnel; the city will do the seawall, waterfront, and street improvements; the county will provide more local transit service. The projects are distinct—each will sink or float on its own merits.
If McGinn can gain the council's trust today by establishing that he isn't trying to kill the tunnel, and the council can budge a little bit from their previously established timeline, they can make this work without anyone getting shot in the crossfire. But there are three steps both sides must take to find a solution:
Settle on a Plan for the Design, Cost, and Funding: Next month, the City will hire a team of consultants to engineer a "shoreline system." The new design will emerge from creative mixing of expertise by oceanographers, habitat experts, and seismic/structural engineers. It has to perform the required structural task, and also create places to touch the water, foster intertidal habitat, and provide a viable route for migrating juvenile salmon. But until the engineers and scientists do their work, the City won’t know what exactly we’re building, how much it will cost, and whether there are viable partners and other funding sources. It’s not clear yet if and how much additional money is needed from citizens. This work will hardly be ready for a vote by May, but the council and the mayor can move forward on an accelerated schedule.
Let the Experts Have Their Say: In December, the just-minted Waterfront Partnership Committee held its first meeting to start planning for the 25 acres of City land that will be freed by demolishing the viaduct. This committee's work will take a year—involving four city departments and 41 local leaders, including me—to figure out how to achieve the best possible outcome for the waterfront. How do the various components of the project (including streets, parks, shoreline and ecological systems, zoning on adjacent buildings, neighborhood connections, etc.) contribute toward the best waterfront we can afford? What organization is needed to see this through for 30 years? Where will the money come from?
Whenever Seattle achieves a great civic triumph (Pike Place Market or the downtown library, for instance) it is because experts figured out, in advance, how to do the project correctly. Overhauling 25 acres of public downtown land is a big challenge to get right. This committee represents a trove of talent, means, and expertise. Effectively using the gifts of this committee is crucial to success. Their work needs to guide the final seawall decisions, as it is fully part of the waterfront vision and overall funding strategy.
Share the Responsibility: The Mayor can’t do this single-handedly. The council has to approve any bond measure sent to the ballot for a public vote. They, and voters, deserve the full picture: What the City is going to build, why and when additional money is needed, and how this request for funding will be sequenced with all the other levies under consideration. Working with other government partners would be nice. And it would be mighty beneficial to include other non-profit advocacy groups, such as People for Puget Sound, and the many local design/urbanism groups that are already working in this arena.
Seattle can build a seawall ahead of schedule, but a May vote is premature—by a long shot.
Cary Moon is the director of the People's Waterfront Coalition