Cities press against environmental and transportation constraints

ARLENE SHEA says that after 13 years in Seattle "we'd never go back" to the more stressful environment of the East Coast. Her husband Tom explains that they left New York because "we wanted to work to live instead of live to work."

This scenic city consistently ranks as one of the top American cities in which both to live and work. Fortune magazine recently named Seattle the "best city for business."

Rather than gloat about such honors, many residents are concerned with how to preserve the high quality of life in the face of steady growth - a projected 60 percent rise in population in the next two decades for the Puget Sound area, which includes the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett as well as other smaller communities.

Top priorities include overcoming traffic congestion, avoiding urban sprawl, improving race relations, and preserving the natural environment.

Residents say another critical issue is preserving the individuality of Seattle's diverse neighborhoods.

"They each have their own character," Mrs. Shea says, adding that in just 15 minutes the city's bus system will take them from their downtown shopping trip back home to the Phinney Ridge neighborhood.

The couple hopes that, by moving forward with plans to improve the region's public-transit network, the region will keep roads from becoming choked with single-occupant cars.

Their concerns have a sympathetic ear in City Hall. Mayor Norm Rice, elected to a four-year term in 1989, is a staunch advocate of what he calls "urban villages."

"The elements that make a village have to be designed together," in order to create areas in which people can live, work, shop, play and go to school all within walking distance, Mayor Rice says.

By keeping the city's neighborhoods attractive for family life, Rice hopes not only to ease suburban sprawl and congestion but also to prevent the "hollowing out" that has hurt the tax and job base in other big cities.

"The last thing you want is urban removal," he says. Seated at a 12-floor conference table overlooking Seattle, Rice consistently points to the connectedness of problems - and their solutions.

It is not necessarily enough to build a multibillion-dollar rail system, for example, if the result is that more and more people drive to get to the commuter rail.

Elected officials have to muster "the political will to speak ... about why density is important," Rice says.

By concentrating future growth in existing cities and towns, the region can grow without seeing its beauty spoiled, he argues. "Sprawl has an extraordinary cost" in infrastructure, to the environment, and to communities left behind economically.

Despite Puget Sound's rapid growth - the area now has more than 2 million people - residents have maintained their warmth and civility. Even in downtown Seattle, pedestrians wait for "walk" signals and motorists heed yellow lights.

Some residents, concerned about the influx of newcomers from California and elsewhere in recent years, "would like to see the drawbridge pulled up" around Washington State's borders, notes Mark Murray, spokesman for Mayor Rice.

But even if the no-growth sentiment gains momentum, it could face tough opposition from developers.

"There's been a lot of land subdivision activity in the last decade," opening the way for a potential surge in new construction when real estate markets pick up, says Gary Lawrence, Seattle's director of planning. "It's sort of a time bomb out there."

To forestall growth of low-density communities extending all the way to the nearby Cascade Mountains, Mr. Lawrence says urban life must be enhanced to provide advantages to lure new residents.

One idea recently proposed by a citizens group is to create an 85-acre park extending north from Seattle's downtown to Lake Union. The goal is give the city a distinguishing green space similar to the Boston Common or New York's Central Park.

Seattle already boasts many of the region's cultural amenities, from the Kingdome sports stadium and a newly constructed art museum to the space needle and the Pike Place Market on the waterfront. And it is home to the enormous University of Washington, which gets more federal research money than any other campus in the United States.

Although Rice is keen to keep enhancing his home city, he has also tried to work in a more structured way with the other cities in the region. His regional view of the economy stresses that what is good for Everett's Boeing assembly plant or Tacoma's port will also help Seattle, situated between those two cities.

A healthy rivalry remains, however. "Tacoma and Seattle have been competing against each other since before the turn of the century," Lawrence says.

To date, investors have preferred Seattle and the east side of King County, but he says Tacoma "has tremendous potential" economically.

Tacoma's port, well-positioned to handle trade with Asia, has seen volume rise by about 50 percent in the last five years. That port and Seattle's handle shipments worth more than $50 billion annually.

Recent slowdowns in Boeing's commercial-aircraft production, combined with limited potential for growth in the timber industry - the region's other mainstay - makes diversification an imperative. The rise of biotechnology firms and computer software companies such as Microsoft Corporation in Redmond provides a promising start.

Commerce in the region could also get a boost if a high-speed rail is built linking Puget Sound with Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland, Ore. This could broaden the US-Canadian economic ties in the region, which is increasingly referred to as "Cascadia." Before that bigger rail project is tackled, Seattle probably will have to focus on resolving its local transportation challenge.

There are other common big-city problems to deal with as well: crime, homelessness, drugs, and race relations.

"There's racism everywhere, but it's not as ... notable here," says Stealth, a black musician who recently moved here from Baltimore.

Still, the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles last April sparked modest rioting in Seattle. Rice launched a "reconciliation project" to increase tolerance of diversity and expand summer-job opportunities for youths.

A controversy also flared up last year over the federal government's offer of $1 million for Seattle to participate in its "Weed and Seed" program, which aims to weed out crime and sow the seeds of inner-city revival.

Although the City Council approved the idea in December, participation in the program drew heavy criticism from people concerned about the potential for harassment by a stronger police force. The Council cut the "weed" (policing) portion from about half the grant to one-third, in order to place more emphasis on "seed," the human services such as job-training and recreation.

Rice requires cultural-diversity training for all police officers and city managers, and emphasizes cooperation between police and local residents.

Some people, notes planning director Lawrence, think "that the Pacific Northwest is somehow insulated and immune to the trends that have played themselves out in other urban areas."

In Lawrence's view, if the region's growth is not managed carefully, then down the road "people will be writing articles about `What happened to Seattle?' "

On this front, Rice is optimistic. Seattle has an "abundance of people who still believe we can achieve our dreams," he says, making it the "best place to make something happen. And I think we can."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.