And…..Was Moses Really The Devil?
In Crosscut this morning, Knute Berger channels the spirit of famed urban planner, writer and neighborhood preservationist Jane Jacobs – and sits down with Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess to talk tunnel.
They’re mulling Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn’s call for ditching the planned deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct on State Route 99 in downtown Seattle. Berger’s hook is two-fold. First, Seattle is having its own Jane Jacobs moment in the candidacy of tunnel opponent McGinn, who favors a “surface street” option instead. Second, there’s a new book out by Anthony Flint titled, “Wresting With Moses,” on Jacobs’ battles against the epic, 20th Century infrastructure builder of New York, Robert Moses (pictured, right).
Cast as the genius-villain writ large in Robert Caro’s landmark, 1974 Pulitzer-winning biography “The Power Broker,” Moses is just the kind of guy who like Seattle leaders in 1950 would have supported a noisy, fume-spewing, shadow-casting elevated highway such as our viaduct, and who if transported to 2009, probably would have been all for building the world’s largest diameter single-deep-bored tunnel to replace it. Or a grand bridge across Elliott Bay, instead. The stage set thusly, Berger in his interview draws some astute observations from Council Member Burgess, himself a great fan of Jacobs’ neighborhoods-first activism and scholarship.
…Burgess…says that reading the (Flint) book made him more certain that the deep-bore tunnel was the better option for the waterfront. That seems counter-intuitive, because Jacobs fought against highways. Doesn’t a multi-billion-dollar road project seem more like a Moses boondoggle? Doesn’t the surface option, which would limit vehicle traffic, sound like more like a Jacobs kind of solution?
But Burgess worries that the surface option will be destructive at the street level, especially to the businesses that rely on Highway 99 and waterfront access.
Both blue-collar industry and tourism would be heavily disrupted during the construction and street rewiring process. The fear of the damage that disruption could do is shared by many tunnel backers. That’s partly how the deep-bore tunnel became the kind of have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too solution: We keep the cars and trucks rolling out of sight and underground, and still have a new, Viaductless waterfront to make pretty….
….Burgess says that the pressure to add surface lanes means that Western Avenue would turn into a heavily trafficked arterial (a word Moses popularized, by the way) and the waterfront could end up with as many six lanes, creating a new dividing barrier. Seattle’s odd hour-glass shape, bound by the isthmus we sit on, requires a north-south route in addition to I-5, he argues, making the bored tunnel an exception to the wisdom about restraining highway development. Invoking Jane Jacobs, Burgess says he’s concerned about the impacts at the street level, for pedestrians and workers and business owners, for the damage the no-tunnel option would do to the fabric of the city.
That analysis is accurate, and important. Two prominent reviews of Flint’s book are also quite instructive for those still wondering if Puget Sound should reconsider how it replaces this section of our key regional highway, State Route 99.
U. Mass.-Boston history prof Vincent J. Cannato writes in the Wall Street Journal:
“Urbanites rightly cherish their copies of Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” but there is a danger in demonizing urban development. Try to imagine New York and its surrounding areas without the bridges, roads, playgrounds and beaches that Robert Moses built. Modern cities need infrastructure as well as the public spaces and neighborhoods that nurture urban life. After World War II, the pendulum swung too far in favor of planners and builders; Jacobs’s simple lessons were sorely needed. But today in New York, when Ground Zero is still a hole in the ground nearly eight years after 9/11, and when a Second Avenue subway line continues to be mired in costly delays, the insights of a new Moses might help a great city learn how it can once again build great things.”
And in the San Francisco Chronicle, architecture columnist John King writes:
Make no mistake, Jacobs is the hero of this yarn. But in the epilogue, Flint addresses our ever-changing urban dynamics, where Jacobs’ quest for “thoughtful citizen involvement” has morphed into “all-powerful neighborhood residents, who seek conditions to stay exactly as they are and reward politicians who agree with them.” Which sounds a lot like San Francisco, Berkeley and every other city where process is more important than results. All the protections we’ve put into place, such as environmental reports, become weapons that can be used to derail anything that anyone dislikes.
As for Moses, stamped as a bureaucratic Borgia in..Caro’s…epic…, the full legacy is more complex. The expressways that sullied his reputation were preceded by parks and pools that remain civic treasures. The pain felt on the blocks bulldozed for Lincoln Center has faded; the revival spawned by that cultural center rolls on. Moses also knew how to turn bold ideas into reality. Imagine: If someone with his mastery of political dynamics had been placed in charge of the seismic upgrade to the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, the new structure might be open by now. Instead, we’re hoping it’s done by 2013 – and that the Big One doesn’t strike before then.
….In an ideal world we’d have leaders with Jacobs’ relish for life, her desire to encourage complexity and diversity in all their forms – and Moses’ path-clearing will to make things happen when needed at a citywide or regional scale.
Precisely why the inland deep-bore tunnel on SR 99 is the right move. Finally, as Washington Governor Christine Gregoire recently reiterated, the decision on this state project has already been made. We’re past the point of turning back.
So, hoist a frosty mug this weekend to Robert Moses. And Jane Jacobs. And the deep-bore tunnel.