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McGinn And Conlin In A Parallel Universe

2011 April 6
by dan bertolet

By coincidence, on Monday my inbox received contributed Citytank posts from the two most powerful politicians in Seattle—Mayor Mike McGinn and City Council President Richard Conlin. Clearly the Universe meant for their posts to run back to back, adversarial history notwithstanding.

And that juxtaposition got me thinking about how tragic it is that these two capable, passionate, and forward-looking public servants have not been able to find a way to work together for the good of Seattle. Because a unified Council and Mayor’s office driven by a commonly held set of sustainability values might actually stand a chance of getting something meaningful accomplished. Divided we fall and all that.

The fact is, McGinn and Conlin probably agree on about 99 percent of everything. This shouldn’t be like trying to get Dumbledore and Voldemort to play nice. But sadly—and yes, stupidly—a single issue has negated all the commonality: the deep-bore tunnel. Sometimes it seems that all the toxic divisiveness created by the tunnel could end up doing more damage than would be done by the tunnel itself.

But if McGinn and Conlin could get beyond their differences and start tackling issues as a team, the potential would be huge. With their combined constituencies, who would stand in their way? Plus, a united Seattle leadership would present a much more formidable political force when it comes to dealing with the Seattle-bashers in Olympia.

Granted, that’s a big if, but stay with me. What McGinn and Conlin need is a fresh, untainted issue that they could both get behind together without getting bogged down in baggage. And I have two suggestions, each of which has the potential to  play a massively positive role in transforming Seattle for the better over the long term:

  1. Yesler Terrace: This will be a brand new 30-acre, mixed-income neighborhood built from the ground up, and an unprecedented opportunity to implement our best thinking on sustainable design. But the economics are such that creating a world class example of cutting-edge sustainable development at Yelser Terrace is not going to happen without the City stepping up in a big way. Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, BC, is a recent example of what we should be aspiring to match or surpass.
  2. Transit-oriented Communities: Our public investment in light rail will never pay off until we start doing a better job of facilitating transit-oriented development at the stations outside of downtown. These areas represent the City’s best opportunities for accommodating growth in a sustainable manner, but so far, little progress has been made. What’s needed is a focused, city-wide effort to physically plan the sites, establish incentives, and invest in infrastructure. Examples abound nationwide.

Okay, back to this Universe. It may well be that the McGinn-Conlin feud is a lost cause. But I’m putting out this bit of “what if” happy talk anyway because there’s so much at stake. We can’t afford to let wedge issues sabotage our power to make progress across the spectrum of sustainable urbanism. Call it the Citytank challenge: to unite, not to divide.