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Path to Iconic Public Works Projects

This New York Times article  about New York’s grand, new transit station is a good opportunity to point out the problem with the mediocre type of urban planning and transportation planning pretensions that go on in Seattle.  In New York, and actually, in many other places in the U.S. and in cities all around the world – they actually get “it” – about being bold, world class, and inspirational!   Hello? Inspirational – i.e., everything doesn’t have to be boring, fraidy-cat, and cheesy! http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/nyregion/a-transit-hub-in-the-making-may-prove-to-be-the-grandest.html?smid=fb-share

Those suspects and those things in and around Seattle exhibiting boring, fraidy-cat and cheesy attributes include: Metro (easily), Sounder, “Link” (really?), “Walk, Bike, Ride”, those certain denizens of SDOT that spend tens of millions playing some game called “transportation planner” that utilizes Seattle’s streets as their transportation sandbox (as opposed to letting the streets be what they were created for – transportation pathways), the ever so precious and precocious, but never particularly prescient – Seattle Transit Blog nerdies, “street diets”, “Complete Streets”, the SDOT/COS strategy for using bicyclists as traffic calming devices, and the City’s practice of slathering loads of cheap white and green paint with confusing messages all over Seattle’s streets; and last but not least, a shout out to those spindly little “way-finding” signs for the bicyclists who are apparently stupider than the drivers of the motor vehicles that traverse Seattle’s streets, such that they need little baby signs telling them every few feet where they are going.

According to this article, “If the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is ever to emerge from under the shadow of its $3.94 billion price…it will have to do more than move PATH commuters efficiently. It will have to lift hearts.”  That’s it!  The message and plan that is missing in Seattle’s public works projects  – “lifting hearts”!

The article is replete with references to greatness in design, in public works, and links them with the fact that inspiration of people’s souls and lives is a desirable quality for public structures to have. It speaks of things that become and are enduring landmarks, that have the “power to inspire awe”.

The author points out the grandiosity of the station hub, how it will be inspirational, and by extension underscores that yes, inspiration and iconic-ism are legitimate and even desirable qualities that public works should have.

This is a helluva a lot more that can be said about how the “built environment” and transportation has and is unfolding in Seattle. There is very little if anything built in the last few decades in Seattle that qualifies thereunder. The last iconic or inspirational things built in Seattle were during the World’s Fair, think Space Needle, International Fountain, and the Monorail, all some 50 years ago!

Since then, it’s either been hob-goblin edifices to billionaires, think Allen’s EMP, or been everything safe, projects mediated by provincial, outpost of civilization civic planning decorum.  Public works projects that scream out that they are the product of clay footed conception, design, and implementation – and typically wrought by unimaginative, touchy-feely consensus building exercises moderated by hired gun facilitators that force people to come to safe not seminal conclusions – “let’s all talk nice and be friends; use your inside voice” attitudes mediate design and planning.  Results:  Plain Jane, mixed functionality outcomes.

This is the problem that besets transportation plans in Seattle.  They are so pedestrian, and that is not about walking.  The people proposing them are not visionary, they are pedestrian.  The plans themselves, be they bike, ride, transit, or walk, are not visionary or inspirational.  They will never be iconic, and they definitely have no potential to create and establish any stature for Seattle that even hints at greatness.   The kind of stature they create is periodic, something more akin to Seattle being featured in the municipal versions of House & Garden, Sunset, or Ladies Home Journal lifestyle magazines.  Nice to get the press coverage, but belies the reality – Seattle’s boring when it comes to this sort of thing.

Seattle’s elected elite and the self-appointed elites, along with their oh-so-obeisant followers, have failed miserably in their handling of Seattle’s public works projects.

They like to chatter all the time at how sophisticated and world-class they, their plans, and Seattle are.  However, the reality is it’s all pedestrian and provincial, safe, and let’s face it, most of it is copy-cat plans.  Some city in some state in the U.S. has always done something like what it is that is taken up in Seattle.  These people never met another city’s plans they didn’t like to steal from, and typically, it is not one from a world class city.

What kind of public works project do we spend billions of dollars producing here in Seattle?  A 57’ diameter wormhole 300’ below ground for example!  And what kind of public works project do we spend time planning here in Seattle (and now are commencing to build)?  An unclimbable geometric nightmare of a concrete bulwark along our waterfront, that features an outsized water sprinkler as its aesthetic component, that fits right in with the gimmicky Ferris Wheel.

What is the solution?  The powers that be, the mayor, the council people, the people they constantly select, appoint, reappoint to the planning panels in Seattle, most of whom if not all consider themselves to be grand arbiters of what passes for acceptable design, first need to exercise some introspection.  They need to really question themselves about whether they contribute materially to creating public value with the work they are doing, including creating output that inspires both confidence, functionality, and hope for the present and tomorrow.  Do they lifts up hearts with their work?

They need to either remove themselves from participation with design and planning or make a concerted effort to quit with their now almost obsessive inward looking framing they bring to every project – the trite repetitions that Seattle is a world class city, everything thought up and brought up in Seattle is exceptional, everything they do is exceptional.

Second, there needs to be a much greater diversity of disciplines and interests on these boards and panels that have strangle holds over public projects.  Consistently the qualifications for board membership are political patronage obligation first, then discipline-centric selection – i.e., the philosophy that only people in design and planning disciplines or employment should have authority over design and planning for public works; only people that like bicycles should get to plan bicycle projects, only people that love transit should control transit planning, only people that are consummate insiders or who can bestow or have bestowed political favors get a seat at the table.  These are the criteria and systemic practices that should be thrown out the window – reform board and panel composition.

Thirdly, the chair warmers on these boards and panels also need to understand that their preoccupation with status and maintaining their seat on the municipal divan of civic rulers does not translate into or confer taste, aesthetic competence, or artistic or design understanding and appreciation on them.  If they are going to take up the space and not allow others that are not like them in the club, then they need to apply themselves harder, spend considerable time learning what makes great design, what makes public works projects iconic.  They to find out what lifts up people’s hearts.  They need to look around the world past and present, and study what public, or even private, structures and infrastructure has been created that has survived the test of time and even the test of public functionality needs.  They need to learn who the iconoclastic designers and engineers of our time are, and spend the time and effort, which includes money, to attract them and establish them as partners that can help transmit Seattle’s built environment into a more appropriate, grownup, greater future.

Hope springs eternal, but it may be an eternal wait for an inspirational and iconic transportation project, or for any other sort of iconic public works project in Seattle.

 

Filed in: City of Seattle, Dept Planning & Development, Government, Transportation, Urban Planning Tags: 

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