RW102 - Cuesta Verde

This week, Dan and John talk about:

  • The weather in the Pacific North West (Geography)
  • Dan's dermatologist (Dan Benjamin)
  • Paul Allan's South Lake Union Trolley (Commons)
  • Billionaires with no sense of humor (Commons)
  • The people who run the city (Commons)
  • Seattle's big ambitions (Commons)
  • Redeveloping 1st Avenue into the West Edge (Commons)
  • The nimby people of Seattle (Commons)
  • The principles of land ownership and zoning politics (Commons)
  • The Commons, Seattle’s central park that did not happen (Commons)
  • Paul Allen building a boring commerce district instead of The Commons (Commons)
  • Tall buildings (Commons)
  • Tall buildings in Seattle and the donkey dick building (Commons)
  • The Rainier Club (Commons)
  • Skyscrapers are the future of Seattle, the First Methodist Church (Commons)

The show title refers to a fictional haunted neighborhood they referred to when they talked about good and bad names for neighborhoods.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

The weather in the Pacific North West (RW102)

It was beautiful weather in Seattle in March 2018. It was one of those spring weeks with 70 degrees outside (21°C) where everybody is rejoicing. They had a record high the other day, the sun had a very nice quality to it and the plants were all blooming. It was great! In years past you would think that the winter was over and it would now be like this, but then the real rain would start. Some places are protected by the rain shadow of the mountains, but there is a notch in the Olympic mountains right by the town of Aberdeen that brings all this crazy weather in and beats the shit out of Olympia. John catches the edge of it, but people south of him get it worse. He lives 6 miles from Downtown and his mom lives right in town and they will have different weather all the time. It is very strange, swirling, unusual weather here.

The San Juan islands are a beautiful set of islands north of Seattle very close to Canada. During the early days of the territory, Washington and Canada battled over who would own them, they are that far north. Those islands are behind the Olympic mountains in an area where the prevailing weather comes from the South West. The mountains just capture all the rain in what is the only bonafide rainforest in North America and although the mountains are very far away from the San Juan islands, the islands are in sun a surprising number of days in the year. The list of celebrities who have a home on the San Juan islands is astonishing. They are the secret place in America to get a vacation home for the super-rich. You can buy your own island and prepare your apocalypse bunker because it is sunny there all the time. You can even live there as a normal, but it is like going back in time 50 years. There are little towns with a drug store and a bunch of flags flying on 4th of July.

The Pacific Northwest has two rainy seasons. There is no real weather in the summer, it is just like sun, sometimes some clouds, but nothing ever happens. There are no thunderstorms and no evening rain, but in November at the start of winter you get windstorms for about a day that will uproot trees. After that it will rain for a month! It just destroys everybody and kills your soul, because all of a sudden it is really dark and cold and wet. You can’t not be wet, even inside your car it will be wet. Then in the middle of the winter it sort of brightens up. You get sunny days, the weather bounces around, there are overcast periods, but it doesn’t rain. Maybe it will snow three days. You will get maybe a week of sun in February that makes everybody really excited and you will get some bad rain, but then you get this day in March where the cherry trees bloom.

There are a lot of cherry trees on the University of Washington campus and the local TV-station always goes down there and does a bit. John always tries to get down there with his oxygen tank and his walker to see the trees on campus, because it reminds him of being a young person and remember how it was to be in college for 16 years. It is beautiful when the daffodils and the tulips start coming up, but then April will again be a solid month of rain whether you like it or not. It is not the same as this cold November rain, but in a way it is worse, because spring is here, God damn it! Stop it! May and June are like ”Come on, let’s get going into summer!” In the past it would just rain anyway. It is beautiful out, but it is just raining! During the last couple of years after Global Warming had turned the North West into a summer dessert, it rained May 15th and then there was not a drop of precipitation until September 15th.

Dan's dermatologist (RW102)

Dan went to a dermatologist not that long ago, a younger guy in his 30s who was all business. The assistant was cracking up the whole time, making little jokes, laughing, but the main guy was almost like an SNL skid where the one guy just has no sense of humor. He was just completely straight the whole time. He wouldn’t crack a smile although the assistant’s jokes were pretty good.

Paul Allan's South Lake Union Trolley (RW102)

Several years ago, Paul Allen opened his own trolley car in Downtown Seattle and they called it the South Lake Union Trolley because it is the trolley that goes around South Lake Union. Paul likes the big reveal and no-one had spent a second thinking of what the acronym of South Lake Union Trolley would be (S.L.U.T.) until they debuted it. It was not deliberate, because no-one at Microsoft, Paul Allen, or Amazon have any sense of humor at all. They rolled it out to the town, like "Tadaaaa!" Seattle is a snobby town full of out-of-work creatives who were like ”That’s amazing, thank you for that! We have a train called the slut!” People made T-shirts, it was really fun for 11 hours, but whether it was on purpose or not, it was chewy to have a local little trolley called the slut. It is just perfect! They rescinded the name immediately and said that they were never going to call it the South Lake Union Trolley. John has no idea what it is called now (it is called South Lake Union Line), because if you refer to it at all, you call it the slut and the reality is that you don’t refer to it at all, because it is a train that goes from one place to another place that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t connect to anything yet and it is not useful. John has taken it once with his daughter when they were down at the museum (Museum of History and Industry, MOHAI).

Billionaires with no sense of humor (RW102)

John has met Paul Allan enough times that when they would run into each other, Paul would recognize and acknowledge that they had an ongoing relationship. John has been to his house, they have done a lot of events together, they stood and talked awkwardly about things. Paul Allen likes to build toys and Seattle is his sandbox. He opens them with these ”tadaaas”, but then he is always surprised when the response from the community is anything less than total euphoria. "I built a 17 story tall crystal Stratocaster and I give it to you, Seattle!", and Seattle is slow-clapping and ”What are we supposed to do with that?” Then he calls them ungrateful, because he wants to do good by Seattle, he loves Seattle, it is just that he is a billionaire and he doesn’t consult anybody else and no-one around him has any authority to tell him ”Paul, let’s think about this!” Like a lot of billionaires have done, he has just eliminated that possibility, which is actually the best part of being a billionaire.

Like a lot of billionaires, Paul has really questionable taste and John would go almost as far and say ”poor taste”. It is not as bad as Donald Trump’s taste, but still! Seattle is a snobby place, people are judgy and Paul is a suburbanite who rolls out these big projects like ”We tore down all those old dingy warehouses full of bands and theater spaces and we have put in this amazing tech campus where you need 17 different ID cards to open the doors!” and people are slow-clapping and ”Yeah, the economy!” and Paul wonders why everybody is so ungrateful. Well, you didn’t think it through, man! You could have left one little alternative theater in there!

Richard Branson on the other side has too much sense of humor. He is the easy example of the billionaire who flaunts it and goes like ”Wohooo, fuck it!” His hubris looks so much better than the hyper-earnest tone-deaf billionaire model. You almost want accidental super-villains who were thinking they were doing the right thing and nobody appreciates it.

The people who run the city (RW102)

Since John has been King Neptune, but even before when he was running for office, and frankly: his whole life because of his dad, ha has spent a lot of time with the Rotary Club guys, the Country Club guys, the Chamber of Commerce guys and the Tourism committee guys. They are the people who get lunch at the Sheraton. With exception of the boutique hotels, all Downtown hotels like the Hilton, the Sheraton, the Clarions or the Four Seasons have a couple of floors of enormous banquet halls. They have the capacity to gear up a catering squad to serve prime rib to 1500 people. It is a major undertaking to take an empty room, fill it with tables and chairs and table cloths and forks and spoons and knives and bring out 1500 prime ribs with all the wait staff necessary to refill all those water glasses and bring drinks to people, let people give speeches on a stage and then clear it all out agin. The US Army couldn’t do it, but each of these major hotels does it every single fucking day of the week. These events are what power the political and business community of any city. They are happening all the time and you are not aware of them.

Your local senator will come to town and they will be giving a speech on behalf of a non-profit that is doing work to bring music education into the schools. The senator and the mayor will be there, the chamber of commerce, the city council, the tourism people, and the rotary club will all be there. Add the people who have a vested interest in the program, for example a bunch of teachers who look like they have never been to Downtown before. There will be a dais and a podium and one after another, these elected officials, local luminaries and people in the community will get up and give brief speeches which they hope are humorous. Then there will be a brief period where they will give earnest speeches about the work they are doing, they will probably trodd a kid up there who will say ”I learned to play the clarinet, thank you senator!”, there will be a slide show that is meant to be emotionally moving, they will bring the lights up, the prime rib is sort of there already and everybody eats. In the end there is some kind of pass-the-hat. There are envelopes on the table and you give what you can. One of these events is happening right now. There is one happening in Austin and there is one happening in Seattle. There might be 5 happening! There is a season for them, too, like the Seattle tourism bord gears up for summer and for Pike Place Market. In Austin, the Lady Bird Johnson Lake Society for sure gears up for things and will have a big celebratory dinner at the end.

John goes to those lunches now and feels very conflicted about them. It was one of the things that made running for office so surreal, because he was finally at these events as a player, no longer shadowing his dad or being there because he was dating one of the caterers or because he snuck in or because he was the kid who had learned to play the clarinet. He was there because he went from table to table trying to get people's vote! It felt very weird. Now John is King Neptune and he can go to these events like ”Fuck you! I’m King Neptune”, which is the perfect balance.

Part of holding public office is to attend all these gatherings. Your calendar is constantly full and every day at lunch you are on your way to one of these. If you are important, like the mayor, you show up right when the event is starting. When the mayor and the senator come in, the lights go down immediately and it begins. That is a credit to their staff. Their time is so managed that they often don’t stay for the end, because they have got another thing to go to. This is the way that the people who own and run big operations in a city talk to each other and socialize with each other. It always has the imprimatur of civic virtue because these events are always premised on helping. They are trying to raise money or put together a coalition or somebody has a plan and they just need everybody behind it. They are sending students overseas, they are planting trees and flower gardens, and it is all kind of that scale. They very seldom get together because someone got a radical idea like ”Let’s build parks on top of the freeways!”

In a lot of cases, those are ideas you would think they would embrace, like Dan Savage of sex column fame was at one time really pushing the idea of a city-wide monorail. Seattle has a little monorail from the 1960s that is like a little toy, it might as well be called the slut. Dan Savage wanted to build a monorail around the whole city. It was the type of thing that you would think this crowd would get behind, but for whatever reason this crowd didn’t like it and they fought it. The people of Seattle voted 3 times to build the monorail, but never quite got the legislation right. They didn’t allocate enough money, they did a feasibility study, but they didn’t allocate money to start building it, but even after the feasibility study money ran out, they voted for it again in a big referendum. The citizens of Seattle have voted three separate times against building a Downtown stadium for the football team with public money, but this establishment group Downtown has the ability to rally together and effectively ignore what people are saying to them, because they think it would be good for the town and having a football team is a big deal. They came up with some deal or workaround and somehow they built a stadium anyway and the public paid for it. Eventually you get tired of voting for things and if they wear you down long enough, people will just stop caring. They voted for the monorail three times and three times it went through, but the Downtown crowd still didn’t like it and somehow it never got built. On the 4th vote people got bored, because if it takes this much effort, then never mind!

Seattle's big ambitions (RW102)

Seattle wants to be respected by the Pacific Rim community and seen a competitor to San Francisco and Vancouver. There are all these little things that chip away at it all the time, like Portland lets people sell food out of VW Busses and every tourist magazine in the country is like ”Portland is amazing! You can get like Falafel!” and Seattle goes ”Damnit, Portland!” because in Seattle it was illegal to have food trucks, because some combination of health inspectors, fire department-people and the Seattle Nany-stateism had decided 30 years ago that food trucks weren’t safe. All of a sudden Portland got 40 food-trucks on every single unoccupied corner, people pointed to that like ”Portland is cool!” and Seattle begrudgingly and reluctantly had to keep up with Portland, which is so insulting! They do want food trucks, because food trucks are great, but they were like ”Come on, Tokyo, let’s go!” and Portland was ”We have food trucks!” and Seattle ”Awww, alright, we have food trucks, too!” It was great, but the city itself felt diminished.

Seattle had built this big port that made them the third biggest port on the West Coast after Long Beach and Los Angeles, but Tacoma, their little brother to the South, also had a great big port and would charge you less to use it. All the shipping companies were like ”If we just keep the boat going for another 5 hours, we will be in Tacoma and we don’t need to pay all those trucks to drive this shit to Tacoma” and all of a sudden the port of Tacoma was seriously taking a lot of business away from Seattle. It even became bigger than Seattle! Seattle was like ”Fuck! Come on! We have the big port, we are the big deal! Why are you doing this to us, Tacoma?” Seattle is always getting this little economic mosquito bites and cultural thorns in their toe from these local cities that are not really strivers like Seattle is, but they just see an opportunity and take it. Seattle is striving and they want to build the tallest buildings and be the big wheel.

Redeveloping 1st Avenue into the West Edge (RW102)

1st Avenue in Seattle, like in most towns, is the skid row, a term that originated in Seattle. There had been a street called Jessler named after Henry Jessler who owned a saw mill right at the water in the very earliest days of the town. They were lumbering all the forests up on top of the hill and they would skid the logs down on a mud trench. As the town grew, the area around the sawmill was the raunchiest part of town and people called it skid row, because that is how things get named.

1st Avenue is the street that is closest to the water front and it is inundated with sailors, stevedores, rats, and whores from seaports around the world. 1st Avenue has always been the bad side and it used to house peep shows and raunchy bars. In Anchorage the equivalent was 4th Avenue, because 1st to 3rd Avenue slid down the hill during the 1964 earth quake. It was one solid bar for 4 miles, not big bars, but one after another, it was like the Wild West. Seattle was very similar. During the period of urban renewal when Seattle was becoming an economic powerhouse thanks to the software business, they were cleaning up Downtown. They ran all those bars out of there and turned them into an art museum, Northface stores and little boutiques. Eventually they closed the lesbian-owned strip club that was the last vestige of it just a few years ago.

They wanted to rebrand 1st Avenue, the area between Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market and all of a sudden, signs started going up on phone poles in that area saying ”West Edge”. They were officially mounted to the poles, they didn’t look like a gorilla art project, but like something official. They were done in this sort of almost Jetsons kidney-shaped graphic that was immediately dated and felt like something from 1987 even though it was 1997. It was not a thing that organically came from the people, but it was invented by a marketing group. If you are building a housing development out in the suburbs, you can call it Bryn Mawr or Shady Grove or Cuesta Verde, but in Downtown? They did this in New York as well where Hell’s Kitchen was considered a dangerous unsavory part of the town and the name Hell’s Kitchen was very organic to it, but as the city redeveloped, they decided that Hell’s Kitchen sounded unpalatable if you are try to market new apartments in there and now Hell’s Kitchen is the Clinton neighborhood. It is trying to compete with SoHo and the West Village and all these kind of groovy up-and-coming neighborhoods where real estate is expensive. Hell’s Kitchen was the nickname for it all the way back to the mid-19th-century when it was still an Irish slum. Clinton feels artificial. It sticks if enough people buy into it, but in Seattle, no-one bought into the West Edge. John has never heard it used other than completely ironically and after a while the city got bored trying to shove it down people’s throats. Those little signs are still up on phone poles and maybe if you check into a hotel down there, the concierge might pull out a map and tell you that we are in the West Edge now.

The nimby people of Seattle (RW102)

People in Seattle are politically timid and very nimby. "Whatever, just keep it out of my neighborhood!" is the general attitude. "I support programs for the homeless, just don’t build them around me." You can’t win any election in Seattle without the nimby people and in a lot of cases, the Downtown crowd really knows it. When they wanted to build the football stadium way down there where none of them lived, and it was going to make everything better, the nimbies were like ”Hmm, sounds good. Not around me, great!”, but when you want to build mass transit and you want to raise the height limits on buildings around the mass transit stops so you can have more apartments and little urban centers around all the transit stops, because those people will ride the transit and they won't need cars, it requires a zoning change and everybody within a mile radius will protest it because you are ruining the character of the neighborhood!

The principles of land ownership and zoning politics (RW102)

John’s uncle was mayor of Anchorage in the mid 1970s. When John was a teenager, his uncle took him aside and told him something he needed to know about government: Government is all about land-use policy and zoning. Nobody cares about anything else, because everything is about land. If you are building a city, there are people who own the land and they want to build on it. If you are talking about the American Dream, everybody wants to own their own home, everybody wants to own a little piece of land. Owning land is the sign you have arrived and once you own that piece of land, you want to do with it what you want to do. You definitely don’t want to be told what you can and cannot do once you have bought your piece of land. It is the foundation of capitalism and of an economy of any kind. Who owns the land? We don’t have a communal ownership of most of the land in a city. Anything you want to do, any big project requires that you have the zoning to allow it and have the right of way and have people behind it so that every little property owner is not fighting the plan.

The Commons, Seattle’s central park that did not happen (RW102)

For 150 years, Seattle had been very bad at following through on projects. People would come up with a plan like creating a constellation of parks that goes all around the city and then they just wouldn’t follow through on it. This is a great plan, but it surely cost a little bit of money, so why don’t we turn that land over to developers? Seward Park was a giant island in the past, but then they lowered the water in the lake 20 feet and the the island became an isthmus, but it still feels like an island. It is covered with old-growth trees. Somebody wanted to buy it and turn it into a neighborhood 100 years ago, but the city was able to preserve it as a giant in-city park.

15 years ago, Paul Allen had the big idea of buying up a warehouse neighborhood of decaying theaters through a public-private partnership, tear everything down and turn it into a giant central park right on the lake. That park should have been there the whole time and it was an incredibly grand scheme to remake the city. Paul was a young guy, he had all this money, so let’s get everybody on board, tear these one-story warehouses down and build a giant sweeping park! It would have been enormous. Paul put together this rogue’s gallery of all the same Downtown dickweeds who are in every city. His attitude was that he was going to do this for you, Seattle! The Downtown crowd was so in it! All the ladies with helmet hair, all the guys wearing class rings from the naval academy, all of the slick suits and the people who give money to things were all lined up behind it. The project, called the Seattle Commons, had all the things they love: It was going to make Seattle a world-class city and it was finally going to dispel the notion that Seattle is just a big, angry Portland. Instead, we are a small Tokyo! That whole crowd was behind tearing down the whole city and build this beautiful park.

At the time there was a lot of suspicion in the city about the motives of billionaires and the consensus was ”Sure, Paul Allan builds this giant park, that is nice, but he is going to own all the land around the park and he is going to make billions of more dollars building expensive condos all around the park. We shouldn’t let him do that”. There was a grass-roots movement spearheaded by Dan Savage who saw this as their chance for some get-back on these people. They were going to protect their gritty theater district full of clubs and speakeasies and places where people are coming out on an all-black stage, dressed all in black and talk about their childhood abuse. This was the character of real Seattle and they were going to fight this big plan!

The idea was that Paul was going to go in and individually buy all these little properties. They weren’t going to eminent domain it. While it was happening, they did publish maps where you could see that Paul Allen now owned 40 different little warehouses down in this area. He was going to give it to the city and he was so proud of himself. If he had suspenders, he would have his thumbs hooked in them, like ”How do you like me now?”, like the old Foghorn Leghorn style. The name "The Commons" sounded like a housing development from the 1990s which is what this basically was going to be. Nobody was going to call it that! People would call it The Park, probably.

The Commons came up for a vote when John was in his mid-20s. He was down in this neighborhood in these little theater spaces all the time. It was one of the reasons why Seattle was such a creative place back then, because there was cheap and chunky real estate available. If you wanted to start an alternative theater group, you could find a space, paint it black, build a little stage and some bleachers and put on shows that cost $5. You could write plays and act in them or you could do one-woman-shows. It was happening everywhere and at the time there wasn’t a creative distinction between people who were doing alternative theater, people who were doing alternative music and people who were doing alternative visual arts. They all felt like a single alternative artistic community and people collaborated with each other and had sex with each other. There was also a gay underground then because it wasn’t a time yet when the gay community had experienced this diaspora. if you are gay in Seattle now, it is like being a Seattleite, it is presumed that you are gay, but at the time there was a concentrated gay neighborhood and theater was happening intermingled with gay rights and it felt like a time of real struggle, but it was all happening with the feeling that it had to be underground, because it wasn’t palatable to the larger world.

At the time, the idea that Paul Allen was going to bulldoze this secret worn, build a big park and call it The Commons felt like precisely the kind of billionaire tone-deaf intervention in what makes a city great. We all talk about it now, but Seattle was one of the petri dishes for this billionaire model of helping. John was politically and socially on the anti-Commons team, because his relationship to the Sheraton lunchtime crowd at the time was antagonistic. Fuck those people! Seattle belongs to us! They fought the Commons through a couple of votes and Paul Allan and the Downtown crowd were incredulous that the city would not accept this largesse. This was a free park! Paul was doing this for us! It was an incredible gift that would make Seattle the new Tokyo, but all you grungy Grunchers want to do is sit down there in your mossy little shitholes and make your weird gay theater? They couldn’t even believe it! The anti-Commons crowd were snobs and very smug and managed to connect with the natural nimby mentality in Seattle. There are enough of those nimbies to sympathetically vote with the idea that the city was being ruined and they voted down The Commons. It felt like a real stick in the eye for the fat cats, the big time developers, the helmet hairs, the billionaires and Downtown peeps. They really stuck it to them! They were the scene, man! And they celebrated their victory.

The part of John that is city-oriented and civic-oriented mourned a little bit that he didn’t get to have his cake and eat it too. He didn’t get to protest the thing and then see the thing built anyway, which is a lot of the fun of being in the resistance. You get to say ”Fuck that big park!” and when the Downtown crowd wins, they build the big park and you get to use the big park. You get to get down there and have picknicks and stuff and you gradually think that it wasn’t that bad. John felt a little tinge because that big park would have been interesting to see. On the left and the right, where people vote against their own interest all the time because they want the Schadenfreude, but they expect to lose. That was what was so surprising about the election of Donald Trump. Nobody expected him to win, all the people who voted for him were like ”Haha, I’m going to show them! I’m going to show the liberals and I'm going to vote for Donald Trump and they are going to feel bad, but then Hillary Clinton is going to be the president, because she knows where the light switches are!” and then Trump won although he himself didn’t even want to win.

Paul Allen building a boring commerce district instead of The Commons (RW102)

The anti-Commons crowd saved their scene, but they didn’t realize two things: The scene was changing as scenes always do. They weren’t always going to be 25 and it wasn’t always going to be theater, theater, theater, but something else was going to come along. Seattle culture goes on an oscillating wave depending if heroin or cocaine is popular at the time. When heroin is popular, the popular culture is real downer music, dark theater and avantgarde, mostly sadness with a heavy dollop of anger. Then cocaine becomes popular and nobody wants that anymore, but everybody wants to dance. Dance! Sadsack guitar music goes out and it becomes a big dancing scene with flamboyant art and a big cocaine-y happy-face town for a while. When that becomes boring, the downer music come back in. John has seen this cycle about 4 times in the last 20 years. The downer theater scene wasn’t always going to stay around.

The other thing they didn’t factor in was that Paul Allen bought all that property. He was going to give it to the city, but when they told him ”No thanks!”, he didn’t stop owning it. It didn’t go back to being owned by a bunch of old families that didn’t live in Seattle anymore, but it was owned by Paul Allen who was angry and bitter. He felt like the resistance had taken his beautiful dream of building The Commons. He had presumed that one day there would be a giant statue of him carved out of marble, standing with one hand on a globe and the other hand holding a scepter. ”Paul Allen, civic leader, benefactor, man of the world, keeper of the peace” All that was gone now and all he was left with was a bunch of little buildings, so he commenced to tear down all those buildings anyway and evict all those little theater companies one by one. In their place he build 5-story tall tech-campus-style buildings with no architectural imagination, most of them with no public spaces, and with no access to the buildings themselves. You can’t even go into the lobby because you need a key card. All of them are with parking garages underneath it. Paul redeveloped that neighborhood in the style of a suburban tech campus and he might as well have built One Infinite Loop, but all crammed together in what had formerly been an industrial neighborhood. As a result, not only did they lose the neighborhood anyway over the course of 15 years, but what they got in its place was this soul-crushing non-place. It is a completely new neighborhood and very few of the old buildings are even standing. It is like Paul Allen got a giant piece of the center of the city and just built what he thought was cool.

After they had rooked themselves and stopped The Commons while Paul Allen was still owning all this land, they realized that Paul had friends Downtown and he was going to get the zoning made whatever he wanted. They had to stop him! The conflict turned into a zoning issue, but the City Council, ever mindful of the nimbies and of the politically active agitating civic middle class, would not let him build any 80-story buildings. They restricted the zoning in that neighborhood to keep him from just doing whatever he wants because they wanted to keep the neighborhood livable. Apparently big tall buildings are unlivable, but 5-story tall buildings are livable because of the way that the sunlight is supposed to get in. If you have tall buildings, the sunlight doesn’t touch the street, but if you have short buildings, then the sun should get in, but if you are down on a sidewalk behind a 5-story building, you get exactly as much sunlight as being behind a 50-story building. Tall buildings also block the view of some nimbies up on Capitol Hill and the nimbies are like ”Yeah, it blocks the view”, but also: Seattle loves social engineering.

Tall buildings (RW102)

You can get an exemption to the zoning and you can build a tall building, but then the city will put conditions on how you use the property and a certain amount of the square footage has to be given to housing for the poor or alternative theater spaces. The city assumed that Paul would say ”Okay, you’ve got me over a barrel, you’ve got my arm behind my back, I want to build a 70 story building and I will give 25% over to the housing for the homeless” and then the Seattle City Council and the Downtown agitator crowd could have said that they had achieved victory again, they had stuck it to him and they had accomplished all their social goals by extorting him, but he was like ”fine” and just built 5-story buildings. It is much more difficult to build 50-story buildings and he didn't need to. He is rich and he is going to make a shit-ton of money from those 5-story buildings. It just didn’t pencil out for the resistance.

Paul started a property development company called Vulcan, which gives you some idea what a nerd he is. The city put all these zoning restrictions on his area and tied them to the social programs and projects they wanted to accomplish. 5 stories is a sweet spot because you can make wood structures up to 5 stories tall, but above that, they need to be made of steel. It is an order of magnitude more complex to build a steel sky scraper than to build a 5-story building made of 2x4s and whatever that cut-off line is, Vulcan ran the numbers on it. A lot of us who don’t run the numbers on things that often and who aren’t looking at the best return on the dollar don’t realize that it costs a lot more to build a big thing and it is a lot more difficult to run it. In the end, do you actually make more money from it? It seems to us that you would, but maybe you don’t? Or maybe it is close enough that it is not worth the trouble. However, the developers in that area just decided to build this fucking nothing, this little campus of 5-story buildings.

At that point, John broke faith with his fellows on the agitating zoning-left, because he is a natural urbanist and he thinks tall buildings are cool and if you take the same square block on the ground, you have to build 10 5-story buildings to make the same square footage as one 50-story building. You can tear down 10 blocks of buildings and build 10 5-story building that are all just blah, or you can build one 50-story building and have 9 of those other blocks to do other things. They redeveloped this entire neighborhood, put very little housing in it and filled it with tech workers who all needed places to live. The tech workers started looking for real estate in Seattle, bought those old houses with 3 families living in them, kicked them out, bought all the old apartments that went from a $250.000 to a $1.2 million apartment. The tech-workers with all their money changed the whole character of the center of the city. They didn’t care because they didn’t know. They graduated from Stanford and came to Seattle to buy a place, so they would buy a 4 bedroom apartment and would just hang posters of Lamborghinis on the wall, because when they came home at night, all they wanted to do is play their Playstation.

Seattle missed a lot of opportunities. John regrets being against The Commons because his reason for being against them were all very provincial and small. He was not thinking 20 years into the future, he did not see the reality and he just voted with his peers. He was onboard with the program, but he hadn’t independently thought it through. When he ran for city council, one of his opponents was a housing activist and he was constantly talking about punishing the developers with all these restrictions of what they can do, because the big time developers were the ones that were tearing down housing to build big expensive condos. Sticking it to their developers must feel really good to people, because they picture these developers getting rich on the backs of the poor, but it is such a small-scale thinking to rally against high rises because the developers are going to get rich.

There is still a lot of fear against high rise housing projects left over from Cabrini-Green and the failed experiments of housing the poor in giant buildings that are unmaintained. Seattle’s ideas were mixed-used buildings. They were going to build 50-story buildings with expensive condos in it , middle-condos in it and housing for the poor, all in the same building, but you have to enforce that on a developer and their profit-margins aren't like 1000% to begin with When you tell them how much they can rent these apartments for, you are taking their profit away they will put it into their spreadsheet. They are not building these buildings as a public service and if the profit isn’t enough, they will just not build it or build something else, like a 4-story building and rent it to a bio-tech company. How do you like me now? How much affordable housing is in that? Seattle had been much better off if they had allowed the Downtown area to be skyscrapers.

Tall buildings in Seattle and the donkey dick building (RW102)

The tallest building in Seattle right now is the Columbia Tower. It is the best of the 1980s, all in black glass, and it looks kind of like 3 pieces of roofing tar have been chipped off and arranged artfully together. It is slick, black, very tall, and it takes up a whole city block on the steepest part of the hill in the Downtown business core. People would climb up in the middle of the night and jump off with their parachutes, but then one person got caught in a wind gust and got gravely hurt, maybe killed, by getting slammed against the building six times on their way down and people stopped doing that. The building next to it is shaped like a giant green penis. Its roof is like a Dutch colonial, but on top of a giant skyscraper the roof of a Dutch colonial looks like the head of a penis. As you move down the shaft of the giant skyscraper, it is flat on the sides, but on the perpendicular sides it has architectural details that are very reminiscent of a penis. It is amazing that people do not laugh and cringe and point at this penis as they were building it and call it the penis-building. It is called the Seattle Municipal Tower. In the pictures it may not be obvious that the glass is green, but it was the fashion of the time.

The Seattle Municipal Tower was developed as an office building at first, but after an economic crash the developer went bankrupt. The city of Seattle bought the building on the cheap for a great real estate deal and it now contains all the city departments. It is not city hall, but if you are working for the Land Use Department or the sewers, your offices will be in the Seattle Municipal Tower. It is 60 stories down and it has the dumbest lobby you have every seen. Because it was built in a very steep neighborhood, you have to walk up a two stories tall hill from one block to the next. You can’t just have a big, open lobby because it has to reflect the fact that you are climbing the hill. It is also built over the entrance to the express-lanes of the freeway and one of the two corners on the bottom side of the building is a tunnel. They built a lobby on 4 levels only accessible via escalator, but those levels are not related with one another or interact with one another. If you come in on the Jefferson Street side, you walk up some stairs, enter the door, go down a couple of stairs, down an escalator to a landing and down a second escalator to another landing. You walk around across a lobby area and take another escalator down to the lobby below which is the lobby with the StarBucks in it. There is one more level down below that, which is a lobby of another sort that allows you to move to different parts of the building.

The building has an elevator cluster with different banks of elevators only going to certain floors and if you want to go to the top, you have to go to an elevator that takes you to the 40th floor, go around the corner to another bank of elevators that will take you to floors up above. Everything about it just says 1990s to John. The challenge of being a good architect rather than a hack architect is to look forward how design trends will be. There are so many hack architect! Did they not go to any creativity classes? Do they not realize that building things is an art just much as LEGOs? You want to make it look good! Surely, in college they showed you slides of good and bad buildings. Look around you! Of course then you get into cost and you are often building it for somebody who wants to keep cost down. You would love to put gargoyles all around it that are hand-carved in Italy, but the person who is paying you tells you that they can’t afford gargoyles. You then come up with down-spouts that look like dragons, and you need down-spouts, because that is part of the code, but you have to make them cheap. You are always fighting against the person you are designing it for, but you have to be clever! The fucking donkey dick building is such an insult to cleverness. It is very clever if what you were trying to do is to build an actual penis 60 stories tall. In that sense it is fucking genius, because you succeeded and the city accepted it. The people of Seattle don’t argue with it at all, which bothers John even more!

The Rainier Club (RW102)

The Rainier Club is the private club of the old guard, the true social elite, and there is a waiting list to even be considered for membership. You also have to be recommended by 5 people and it is a real old school place. John heard from a friend that one of the members hired Beyoncé to play for his daughter’s 14th birthday at the Rainier club. They build a little stage, brought some lights in, she flew in with all of her dancers and her whole stadium show and did an hour long show for this girl’s birthday party. Then they flew out again. Nobody in the city even knew she was there. He payed $1 million. That is who is at the Rainier club.

Skyscrapers are the future of Seattle, the First Methodist Church (RW102)

John is excited that Seattle was about to warm it up and start building a spade of really tall buildings in 2018, one of them taller than the Columbia tower, and one of them is just now being completed.

There is an old beautiful church building Downtown called the First Methodist Church. It takes up half a city block and is backed up against the Rainier Club. The First Methodist Congregation has a long history as a group of people and they are famous in Seattle for being activist. Their building wasn’t earthquake proofed, nobody goes to church anymore and the number of members had been dramatically reduced. They were still very committed to their social program helping the homeless and being part of the community and they wanted to sell their property to a developer, because they could no longer make use of it. This building was their asset and they wanted to sell it and tear it down because they needed the money. The building had been landmarked, but landmarking in Seattle has no binding authority. Maybe you have to fill out one extra form, but it doesn’t inhibit developers that much. People love the First Methodist building and it was the last remaining thing down there in a sea of skyscrapers. It is this beautiful church right across the street from the donkey dick building.

The Christian Science Church had been converted into town hall before and is a very public radio style place where Garrison Keillor gives his speeches. John Hodgman gives shows there, writers like Michael Chabon will do an interview on stage with Maria Semple if they are in town and there will be a erudite audience clapping politely and laughing at all the smart jokes. Town hall has become a great civic institution.

There was a ground swell movement to save the First Methodist Church building, to turn it into a meeting hall or some kind of performance space. It needed all the expensive earthquake-proofing and the question who owns this property came up again. If we are talking about a performance space in the heart of the business district: Who is going to go to that? Who is going to program it? and Does the city need it? A judge said that the congregation had the right to sell the building and there was a group who wanted to raise the money to buy it and save it. The drama lasted for 10 years! Eventually they came up with a solution that happens more often these days: A skyscraper builder tore down the old parking lot and a 1960s addition that had been built onto the church and they built a skyscraper that is narrower at the bottom and goes up like a shard of glass, so that it overlaps the church by the time it is over the top it. A clever architect made this building look like the kind of crystal you would buy at a dark magic shop in a Downtown area with crystal balls and pictures of wizards on the walls. It is not clear whether or not it is going to date well, but the best thing about it is the way the face of the building is angled, because it looks like it is reflecting the ocean or the sky. John’s jury is still out on it, but he is probably pro this building. They kept the first methodist church and they are integrating it into the skyscraper as the lobby. The performance space in the church building is going to be their Sheraton meeting hall and the mayor is going to come in and talk about the money they raise to buy violins for people in Uzbekistan.

We are about to see really tall buildings go up in Seattle and John’s final argument for them is that it is what Seattle’s founders wanted. They have designed the city from the beginning to have Tokyo look across the pacific and say ”Oh, Seattle, she is really a comer! Look, she has got some tall buildings now!” That is what Seattle always wanted from the very dawn, back when Tokyo was made of rice paper. Now Shanghai and all these cities in China have all these Skyscrapers, they are economic powerhouses and Seattle feels neglected and neutered, because internally they are conflicted about what they are supposed to be. Seattle can be all these things. It can have a vibrant alternative theater space, it can house all of its citizens affordably, and it can be a buzzing energetic broad-shouldered pacific rim centerpiece. Tall skyscrapers are the key ingredient in accomplishing all that and with that opinion, John is somewhat at odds with people who share his political philosophies. The 2020s is going to be the era of Seattle skyscrapers and John is going to be down in the lobbies of these things, wearing his King Neptune pin and passing that envelope around, just passing the hat.

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