Growing Pains, Growing Gains

By Gene Duvernoy

The visionary Seattle waterfront project in a post-viaduct city
Design by the City of Seattle Office of the Waterfront

Some writers in this Ampersand clearly have not imbibed the urbanista cocktail. Growth’s tough on us here already. Its impact lopsided, hitting hardest those whose wallets are lightest.

But now replace growth — a sterile term, easy to vilify — with these: Our kids returning home; grandparents discovering a way to live without needing a car for every blessed chore, but instead walking out the door for groceries, a meal or movie; or, people coming here to make a new life just like most of us did last year, or last decade, or last generation. Just like Brandee Laird’s move to Seattle to bring her low-line parkour to the world. Only 44 percent of us were born here after all.

See. It’s not about them anymore. It’s about us, and our future neighbors, teachers and best friends. Maybe a young girl who’s just moved here, too, who will invent a new way to provide clean water to the Third World or reduce carbon or make health care affordable. A girl who will grow up and fix a problem that has stymied us for too long. Innovation, after all, happens in the lively, raucous places we call great cities. OK, we together on this?

So what do I know about cities? Let’s see, I was raised in and around outsized New York City, wondering when it ever would be completed. Later, driving a bakery truck from Bronx to Brooklyn, midnights to mornings, was like a graduate program in the urban condition. College was in Pittsburgh, when it was a gritty city of steel mills, cloistered and well-knit neighborhoods, with soot lining your windowsill every morning. Walking to early class past gin mills — we’d call them “third places” today — guys off the night shift lining up and knocking down boilermakers. Afterwards I spent a few years in Denver discovering that great cities have a duty to hold sacred surrounding landscapes and not heedlessly sprawl over and beyond. Six months in San Francisco — nice place that — and now 35 years and counting in Seattle.

So what do I know about cities? This: Build cities for people, and then all the rest follows. Commerce, culture, innovation, efficiency — all of it. Just start and end by building them for us — all of us. It’s that simple.

Cities are where we can live with the least earthly impact and the greatest social richness. That’s at their best. They also can be hellholes leaving you gobsmacked, bewildered and helpless. We are now relearning all this, surprised we ever forgot. But we were bedazzled by the idea they were only about big commerce, workers funneling in mornings and emptying out nights.

Sure, Keister’s Bertha is ridiculous. It deserves all he heaps on it. But when Bertha’s finally done, we’ll also finally have Seattle’s waterfront with a great, long, welcoming public space for all of us. That’s progress, with all its warts and wonders.

Losing Red Apple will leave a gaping community void. Can we grow without also bartering away our city’s soul? We must figure out how, but don’t think it’s easy. One person’s community improvement is another’s heartbreaking loss. While Kroman’s new Renton is attracting hip people, it’s also no longer the old neighborhood for some 30-year resident who just lost a third place. Not so obvious any longer is it?

But, we have progressive developers leading the way with new spaces built for people. Like Ron Sher’s adaptive reuse of the old Seward Park PCC into a bookstore and eatery — with parking space for 30 bikes on a busy day. Or Liz Dunn’s pivotal Melrose Market on Capitol Hill that changed a neighborhood. They are two city builders who put their money where their hearts are — creating communities with spirit.

All this too hard? Should we just batten down and let our countryside take the growth? Forterra put that question out there — polled 650 of our neighbors. Guess what? We all get it. We were told that directing growth to our cities is a good thing; a good thing if we also fix our affordability and transportation messes.

There’s green shoots here, too. Take a look at Schemata Workshop’s bold cohousing experiment on 12th Avenue. Or Forterra’s very own program partnering with organizations like El Centro de la Raza and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority to buy land for affordable homes, small businesses and third places. Partnerships to improve neighborhoods for those just arriving and for those with deep roots. As for transportation, three new stations opened on our LINK transit line this year and some venturesome spirits are challenging us to consider driverless cars to add capacity to our road system. Bring it on.

We love the outdoors of our Pacific Northwest. Deeply and enduringly so say those 650 we polled. So want to save our forests? Our wildlands and shorelines? Then we also need places where people want to and can afford to live. Live together, rather than sprawl. Great, livable cities and our majestic outdoors now depend on the other. Each can make the other better — or not. It’s our choice. And of everywhere I’ve lived, this place is poised to get it right.

  • Gene Duvernoy

    Gene Duvernoy is President of Forterra. He’s spent more than 30 years working on land conservation and building community, founding Forterra in 1989 in his attic. Since then he’s led the organization to national prominence by creating bold, innovative and successful programs that improve the quality of life for all residents.
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