Seattle is my home town. I grew up in the suburbs, went to college at Seattle University, lived and worked there for many years. I still spend a lot of time in the city. But increasingly, it seems unfamiliar, confusing and challenging.
I, like many others, used to complain about Seattle-area traffic as if it were something to be grumpily tolerated, part of the acceptable tradeoff for a vital, interesting place to live. Now the city often seems un-drivable for most of the day. I think hard about venturing out of our Portage Bay neighborhood for anything but short trips for groceries and, of course, coffee.
Alternative transportation initiatives make a dent in what might otherwise become calcified gridlock, but bike lanes, bus routes, trolleys and light rail at best mitigate the motorized competition for street space. Lift and Uber are less-stressful options than driving and parking somewhere, especially downtown.
I once thought I knew the city pretty well. Now, I find myself trying to remember what used to be on the lot where another apartment or condo complex is going up. My trusted alternative routes (learned during a couple of years of delivering flowers all over town) often don’t work any more.
Then there is the forest of construction cranes, somewhat thinned now but still a predominant feature of the skyline. They make driving even harder. I gave up trying to negotiate the South Lake Union/Mercer Mess corridor long ago — too many detours, dead-ends and rerouted streets. The lane changes are bewildering, and dangerous if you’re not paying attention.
I probably sound like a curmudgeonly old-timer muttering about “how it used to be.” Nostalgia aside, I still love the city, and its wonderful features — the public market, Pioneer Square, Seattle Center, the parks, the lakes, the distinct neighborhoods, the mountain views, the coffee shops, the atmosphere of possibility. On its best days, Seattle is still incomparable, and I feel “at home” again.
Newcomers have been known to swoon and vow never to leave. Then they help drive home prices into the stratosphere. It’s a matter of perspective: What is unbearably inconvenient for people like me is simply normal for more-recent arrivals.
Seattle has strong, important links to the Methow Valley. A lot of us moved here from there. Many of the Methow’s second-home owners are from the west side, as are thousands of our annual visitors. Quite a few people continue to shuttle back and forth between here and there on a regular basis. To a meaningful extent, we depend on the Seattle-area economy to sustain ours.
I got to thinking about all of this thanks to recent coverage of the pending demise of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which will change the city dramatically (mostly for the good, I believe). The two-deck structure, now deemed an earthquake-induced-death-trap-waiting-to-happen, has blighted the waterfront since the early 1950s. It does offer wonderful views of Elliot Bay and beyond for motorists, if you could gawk and drive without creating a hazard.
Talk of demolishing and replacing it has been going on for at least 20 years. Back when I was editor of the Puget Sound Business Journal, I used to write editorials about what I thought should happen post-viaduct (yup, I had opinions even then). Pointing (with some prescience, I now modestly claim) to Boston’s cataclysmic experience with the massively over-budget, years-behind-schedule “Big Dig” tunnel, I suggested a less-costly, at-grade boulevard along the waterfront. I thought it would be a pleasant way to enjoy that part of the city, especially with new views opening up where the concrete monstrosity barricaded the waterfront from the rest of downtown.
Boy, did commuters (mostly from West Seattle, where I happened to live at the time) hate that idea. The political warfare over a tunnel-versus-at-grade replacement was lengthy and nasty, and was finally settled at the state level.
Now the whole region is gearing up, or down, for the viaduct’s closure in January — three weeks before the new tunnel opens for traffic. Even by Seattle standards, the resulting traffic snarl is expected to be stupefying during that interim.
Meanwhile, another political battle is being waged between the city and waterfront property owners, who may become part of a “local improvement district” that could levy property taxes to help pay for a new waterfront park and promenade.
The viaduct is one part of “old” Seattle that I won’t miss. Maybe its absence, and the emergence of much better waterfront experience, will improve my mood about a city that seems to growing beyond my capacity to embrace it.