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The Confidence Thing

2012 April 12
by dan bertolet

What would happen if someone wanted to build a Space Needle in Seattle today?

One word: fahgettaboudit.

Today, a proposal with the audacity of the Space Needle would incite an citywide naysayer orgy. It will compete with views of the mountains! It’s a waste of money! It’s out of character with the neighborhood! Where’s the affordable housing? Not unless they also pay for a 3000 stall parking garage! It’s just plain silly and we need to get serious!

Our collective character has changed over the past half century. And my take on it is that the critical element is confidence. In the early 1960s, we had gobs of it. But since then, a series of setbacks from Vietnam to the recent banking implosions have steadily drained it. And that unconfident state of mind, perhaps more than any other factor, is the biggest threat to the success of our efforts to tackle the challenges of the future and create a world in which humanity’s journey continues to expand and thrive.

< In the late 19th Century many Parisians vehemently opposed the Eiffel Tower; image from the movie "Hugo" via >

Curing a lack of confidence is a quandary, because the kind of dramatic successes that inspire confidence require bold action and risk taking, precisely the type of behavior that a lack of confidence inhibits. But the first step is to at least recognize this dynamic.

As an example, consider the recently proposed idea to run a gondola from Capitol Hill to Seattle Center. While there were some who loved the idea (e.g. me), most of the responses I heard or read were not too far off from some of the objections I facetiously suggested above. It seems the serious people—the grown ups—were all too eager to dismiss the idea of a gondola as naive and out of the question.

The reality is that gondolas can be efficient and cost-effective urban transportation, and a gondola is a smart, outside-the-box solution for the unique set of obstacles associated with east-west travel in central Seattle. Gondolas have been successfully implemented in cities worldwide, one of the most impressive examples being in Medellin, Columbia, where a network of nine cable cars that primarily serves the poor was completed in 2010. But when minds are stonewalled by a lack of confidence, such positives tend to be overlooked, and instead people focus on all the reasons why it could never work.

But more importantly from the standpoint of confidence, besides being a practical transportation solution, a gondola from Capitol Hill to Seattle Center would be an outrageously cool thing. People would ride it just for the awesome views. It would become a Seattle icon that no other major U.S. city could match. It would be, dare I say, fun. And all that positive mojo would breed confidence.

The proposed gondola would require a high-rise tower at the Capitol Hill light rail station, an idea that likewise faces resistance at least in part, I believe, due to a lack of confidence and a corresponding aversion to bold thinking. On the practical side, the added value of a high-rise project could help fund the long list of public amenities that the neighborhood wants. On the inspirational side, an iconic tower on Capitol Hill could become a placemaking symbol for the next “Next 50,” those who see a bright future in urban density and transit, and who also wish to celebrate the most socially progressive city neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle is among the most wealthy, highly educated, and politically liberal cities in the United States. How is it that in Columbia—a country with a per capita income about one fifth of ours—they manage to build a system of nine gondolas, while we balk at the idea of even seriously considering one?

And why isn’t Seattle jumping at the chance to expand LINK light right into a city-wide subway system, as proposed by the activists of the new Seattle Subway initiative? Starting in 1991, the City of Athens, Greece, began constructing a subway that opened in 2000 and now serves 33 stations on  29 miles of track. Per capita income in Greece is roughly half that in the U.S.  Not to mention the torrent of rail transit being built in China (more than 3000 miles worth in 2010 alone).

For sure, Seattle’s got a lot of great things going on, as I gushingly described recently. But that’s exactly what offers Seattle the opportunity to take it up a notch and really start pushing the envelope, not only to take on the toughest challenges like public transportation, but also to create an inspirational example of city building done with intention, passion, and soul.

The brains are here. The money is here.

Hey Seattle, got confidence?



11 Responses leave one →
  1. April 12, 2012

    Great stuff, as always. Seattle has always been the city of the Pacific Northwest to truly tackle “big” ideas: while you built the Space Needle and named a basketball team after the inspiring, technological wonder that was the airplanes you were building, down here in Portland we build a much smaller statue of Paul Bunyon and named our basketball team after the pioneers

    One comment: I think you should just come out and say what (at least, I think) you really want to say about baby-boomers and the generational divide. It’s no secret that support for big visions (a space needle, for instance) and expensive government initiatives (gondolas, or transit in general) in twentieth century america crested right around the time that Boomers started having kids and voting for Reaganomics. As a Millenial myself, I can vouch that there’s certainly no surfeit of astounding, radical initiatives to adopt new infrastructures, cultural practices, and other ideas to take pacific northwest urbanism to the next level for equity, sustainability, and quality of life overall. And yet, we’re still being told we can’t pay for it, that there’s too many potholes, that when-i-was-your-age things were so much different (even if, in those days, the generation before that was eager to invest in big ideas like, I don’t know, SENDING A MAN TO THE MOON and SMOTHERING THE COUNTRY WITH INTERSTATES).

    So again, well done. but let’s put it bluntly. The visions for a truly radical twenty-first century, as big as a gondola and as small as variable-congestion tolling (another idea Seattle beat Portland too, you bastards!) are being held back by particular vested interests that are older, crankier, and more conservative than the rest of us, and have a particular misplaced nostalgia that ignores the tremendous initiatives for things like social services and investment that made their lives as Boomers so great in the first place.

    • sluggo permalink
      April 19, 2012

      It’s not “the boomers”. Clinton and Obama are boomers. It’s mainly an urban-rural divide, with the suburbs as swing areas. Conservatives are also older on average, so many of them are older than boomers. The Millenials are more progessive on average than their ancestors, so it remains to be seen how things change when they reach middle-age positions of influence.

  2. Dr. Density permalink
    April 13, 2012

    Way to go Dan, I’m getting goosebumps! Yes, some folks in Seattle have an adversion to being bold. I’d call it a fear of heights, especially in the case of the Capitol Hill godola tower where the the public would benefit from a much better outcome than the current zoning will allow. This conversation should be further pursued!

  3. wave permalink
    April 13, 2012

    hear hear

  4. Matt the Engineer permalink
    April 13, 2012

    Another inspirational post. Maybe all we need is for someone with a strong voice to stand up and present a solid vision to the city. I can imagine Cap Hill not wanting a tall tower because they’ve never had one and they don’t want to be Belltown. But I can’t imagine them seeing a vision like Matt’s tower, understanding the benefits of a gondola, and still saying they want a four or six story limit – no exceptions.

  5. Chris permalink
    April 17, 2012

    Generally agreed, but…sometimes there is value in being “conservative” in the built environment. All of the modern thinking from the 60’s involving urban renewal – bold concepts – probably should have been opposed. Robert Moses’ plan to criss-cross Manhattan with elevated freeways was bold as well. As we learned in planning school (yes, I remember something from it), public process-oriented planning arose as a response to the technocratic planning that was prevalent in the 50s and 60s, so as to empower the average person to have a say in planning decisions. On balance, this was probably a good development, but it can have drawbacks if you are the one proposing the bold (technocratic) plans.

    Also a note on perspectives. While I agree somewhat with the young v. older generation divide mentioned be AM Brown, I think the divide is creative class v. blue collar split. For the former, the globalized economy has opened up ample economic opportunity, while the former has been eroded by global competition over 30 years. Based upon professionals with whom I work, you would have no idea that we have been/are in(?) a major economic correction. But that perception does not take into account those left behind in the advance of the global knowledge based economy. When the first group offer a radical plan to advance “x”, the latter group is more concerned about putting food on the table.

  6. JoshMahar permalink
    April 18, 2012

    I’m certainly with you on all this but let’s be honest, the devil is in the details. It might be easy to pin it on some amorphous municipal confidence factor but the reality is these types of major projects always take a lot of time, energy, resources, politicking, etc. to get done.

    I guarantee that Century 21 had lots of opposition from many different sides. “Its a fiscally poor idea!” “It doesn’t fit the character of our small fishing port on the Sound!” “The damn Space needle is ugly as sin!” I’m sure all these and more were coming from citizens. Yet, the organizers were able to bring together enough stakeholders and mitigate enough concerns that they got it done. It’s likely many of the same people that were able to get the Seattle Freeway built as well, for better or worse.

    If it was hard then, its even harder now because of requirements for more environmental mitigation, transparency, and public engagement. But not impossible. Take the Capitol Hill tower idea. As I’ve mentioned before, there are plenty of neighborhood folks that either do, or would be open to, supporting that proposal. I think it could happen but if you want it to become a reality it means bringing people together, gaining support, finding ways to change the zoning and building codes, likely developing early drawings and plans, working with ST, and on and on. It will take many dedicated volunteers working many tireless hours. But that is how change works: lots of work for small wins The Subway idea is great as well, but it will be exponentially more work.

    I think the real question is: with all the urbanism energy and excitement, what is the most ambitious project to do that is realistic and doable in a reasonable time frame? Then its about rallying around that, staying on issue, and getting it done.

  7. Gary permalink
    April 20, 2012

    Gondolas are still a bad idea. Who wants a string of boxes on cables running by their building? It doesn’t solve a problem that exists. It’s used in Columbia because the hills are too steep for other means of mass transit. Here the hills are much more moderate, the housing less dense.

    “Lack of Confidence….” more like a confidence game. It’s easy to spend other people’s money. If it were economically reasonably to build a gondola we do it. It’s not.

  8. Wells permalink
    April 22, 2012

    I have little confidence in architects who propose converting Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum into a mechanized parking garage car museum and who subsequently became the butt of many jokes about the number of idiots in high places that Seattle heralds as leaders of innovation and sustainability. Seattle ranks dead last on lists of national transportation planning. Try predicting how many people will die as a direct result of the idiotic bored tunnel and its related surface street reconfigurations. I expect the number to be no less than in the hundreds to many thousands. Seattle is inhabited by idiots who are fed sugar-coated bullshit by business conservatives who sell, finance, insure, fuel, park, advertize and conduct war to profit from automobile-infested urban-suburban shitholes.
    “Let’s build a fun parking garage museum!”

  9. dan cortland permalink
    June 12, 2012

    The Space Needle is kitsch, and kitsch will go out of style in Seattle when ’50s style business boosterism does, which is to say, probably never. A gondola is not a radical idea or a visionary one (except apparently in new urbanist circles), it’s a trinket, an urban tchotchke. References to the Eiffel Tower notwithstanding, you’re really proposing a Tour Montparnassse, and opposition to it is not indicative of an anxiety disorder or limited education.

    People’s bullshit detectors usually improve with age. Developers’ appeals to abandon our left brains are a response to this fact, but at least they implicitly acknowledge the existence of intelligent contrary views.

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