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Sleepless in Michigan, not Seattle

West Coast highway’s fate has lessons for Auto State

December 15, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Former Detroiter John Rahaim left his hometown because, he says, “Michigan doesn’t care about cities.” The Seattle planner wants to bury six lanes of downtown traffic under a waterfront park.

SEATTLEIt may not seem like a big deal in Michigan that the fate of an old elevated highway running along this city’s waterfront pits two of the Wolverine State’s former residents against each other. Or that settling their dispute will decide what Seattle looks like for the next century. But, in fact, their disagreement offers lessons for those of us still living in their home state.

Cary Moon, an engineer, planner, landscape architect, and prominent community activist here, wants to tear down the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, replace it with a bayside boulevard and park, and turn Seattle’s noisiest district into a waterside landscape fit for strolling, picnics, and people-watching.

John Rahaim, an architect and planner in Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, wants to do that, too. But he also supports an extraordinarily expensive additional step: burying the viaduct’s six lanes of traffic in a huge tunnel below the boulevard and park.

The dispute abounds in ironies, particularly given Michigan’s recent gubernatorial race.

It was easy to envision Ms. Moon’s and Mr. Rahaim’s previous lives in Michigan every time Republican candidate Dick DeVos aired some of his TV commercials. For nine months, Mr. DeVos ran ads showing sad, unemployed couples throwing their downcast kids’ bikes onto a U-haul and heading for the state line.

But it was hard to see anything in Mr. DeVos’s spots, or, for that matter, Governor Jennifer Granholm’s, that could solve Michigan’s overbearing economic problems and bring people like Ms. Moon or Mr. Rahaim back home.

In fact, all of those ads completely missed the solutions that Seattle used to get the two expatriate Michiganders to move here in the first place. Neither candidate mentioned transit, parks, housing close to jobs, investments in genuine neighborhood vitality—and much more regional cooperation. All are keys to Seattle’s success, and helped power the magnets that drew Ms. Moon and Mr. Rahaim to the Pacific Northwest.

Our Way Is Still the Highway
Ms. Moon and Mr. Rahaim use different words to explain why they left home. Ms. Moon, a Buchannan native with an engineering degree from the University of Michigan and a graduate degree in planning, urban design, and landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, says “the energy and opportunity here is just so different than in Michigan.”

Mr. Rahaim, a Southfield native with a U of M architecture degree and a University of Wisconsin graduate degree in planning and urban design, said he gave up on building his career in Detroit’s Cass Corridor because, “Michigan doesn’t care about cities.”

Indeed, Seattle’s intense viaduct controversy is the kind of conversation that Michigan has never seriously engaged. In an era of urban highway teardowns—San Francisco, Milwaukee, Portland, Boston, and New York have all done it with great economic rewards—Michigan’s Legislature and Detroit, its largest metropolitan region, remain anxious to build bigger roads.

Not so in Seattle: Ms. Moon and Mr. Rahaim’s principal argument is not over building more highways, but over whether they can get rid of one. And here’s another irony: Seattle and Washington State may forego the underground highway even though, unlike Michigan, they can actually afford to build such a thing. And that, irony upon irony, is thanks at least partly to the regional planning and transit investments that have built such a robust knowledge- and trade-driven economy here.

Many of this town’s residents are uninterested in more roads and prefer truly innovative responses to the vigorous growth that is reshaping the nation’s 13th-largest metropolitan region and 14th -largest state. Seattle may even eliminate thousands of on-street, downtown parking spaces to allow for more buses, bikes, and a new streetcar. If the city can coax commuters out of their cars, it can build more homes and businesses instead of pricey parking decks.

Southeast Michigan’s leaders, in contrast, believe that road construction is the secret to economic well-being, even though it no longer is, particularly in Southeast Michigan, where money for major new road projects is nowhere to be found. Regional cooperation is rare there, too: The city-suburb, rich-poor, black-white barriers are higher in metro Detroit than any place in the nation.

The state sorely needs an authentic path to prosperity. It can borrow ideas from Seattle. But it doesn’t need to go that far. Right here in Michigan, three regions—Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Traverse City—are now embracing regional development strategies.

The Great Exodus
It may seem strange to Michiganders, but most big American cities are turning into great places to live and work. Three fifths of the jobs in most metropolitan regions are tied to their central cities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Seattle, for instance, anticipates 69,000 new jobs downtown by 2020. 

And, cities are rebounding largely without the help of Washington D.C. and state capitals because, fortunately, our system is still flexible enough to enable good public interest ideas to take root in places where they can best flourish—metropolitan regions.

Metro regions are big enough for civic leaders to see how swift changes in energy and land prices, population growth, technology, and globalization are changing America’s 21st-century development. But they are small enough for leaders to be inventive, practical, cooperative, responsive, and effective. But whether Michigan will use the opportunity that regionalism offers, or continue to let other parts of the country use it to lure Michiganders away, remains an open question.

Michigan lost some 200,000 young people to new economies like Seattle’s in the 1990s. It’s getting worse, too: From 2000 to 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 165,000 more people left Michigan.

At last, this inexorable exodus is seen as a problem that must be solved. But whether our elected leaders see the real solutions is debatable.

Mr. DeVos lost the election while tirelessly insisting that the answer is in reducing Michigan’s business taxes and regulations. Governor Granholm, who was once very interested in Smart Growth—it helped her win her first gubernatorial race—prevailed last month by instead promoting her domestic and overseas corporate recruiting, touting renewable fuels and other new technologies, and reminding people that she can be tough when necessary.

Busting out of the Box
Meanwhile, forward-thinking experts keep reminding the state that there are other, much more current approaches. For example, a study published in June by Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based think tank, recommended three by-now very familiar steps to sustainable development:

  • Invest more in the state’s university system to train knowledge workers.
  • Make cities more attractive to those workers by investing in public transportation, cyber-communications, housing that is affordable, and environmental protection.
  • Encourage civic, government, and business leaders to form regional alliances that decide and act cooperatively on local success strategies.

“Michigan needs to switch to a discussion about how we do well in the economy of the future, rather than what we can do to save the past, or even worse, who is to blame for the old economy,” said Lou Glazer, the group’s president and the study’s author.

Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and Ann Arbor, are doing that.

Grand Rapids, the state’s Smart Growth leader, used its water mains in the 1990s to set growth boundaries and contain sprawl, invested $2 billion in tax and private dollars in downtown redevelopment, and, twice since 2000, won approval from metropolitan voters to finance transit improvements. It’s working: Unlike most Michigan cities, Grand Rapids’ population grew in the 1990.

Traverse City turned its Lake Michigan shoreline into inviting beaches and parks and converted old industrial sites into distinguished offices and homes, stabilizing neighborhoods and the central business district and attracting new jobs. Recently, Traverse City opened a new transit center downtown and joined a federally-financed land use and transportation that could curb sprawl and congestion in its five-county region.

Ann Arbor is embracing regionalism, too. Two years ago, voters approved a property tax to finance a permanent greenbelt around the city. It is increasing its downtown population, improving public transit, and advocating for a new, rapid, regional line to Detroit.

Two of these cities are fostering new community forums. In Grand Rapids, the Grand Valley Metro Council showed officials how to plan as a region, while the United Growth coalition drew neighborhood and rural townships interest groups together and helped surrounding Kent County start a highly successful farmland preservation program.

In Traverse City, the regional chamber of commerce helped convene its transportation land use study; 34 groups, governments, and organizations are guiding the big effort.

In short, all three cities are achieving economic breakthroughs through their regional pursuit of more public transit, more parks and open space, better housing and neighborhoods, and energy efficiency.

Seattle Has a Clue
Whether Michigan can make the U-turn that will coax more U-hauls back its way remains to be seen. But the fact that so many other states have done so offers encouragement, while Seattle’s contentious viaduct discussion offers a valuable clue.

When it opened in 1953, the 2.2 mile-long Alaskan Way represented a top national economic tool: providing motorists fast roads from central cities to growing suburbs. But in recent years Seattle began understanding that its viaduct cut residents off from one of the new foundations of its prosperity: a spectacular shoreline.

A big earthquake severely damaged the viaduct in 2001, prompting a discussion about replacing it for safety’s sake. That discussion has reflected tectonic shifts in how American cities now invest to enhance economic competitiveness.

“Imagine our waterfront without the noise, blight, and dirt from a nearby elevated freeway,” wrote Greg Nickels, Seattle’s two-term Democratic mayor, in an article late last year. “Imagine walking along the waterfront and actually hearing the cry of a seagull instead of rush hour.” 

So Seattle is considering three options.

The state and its Democratic speaker of the house want a new, much bigger, elevated highway, costing $2.4 billion. Mayor Nickels, the city council, his planning staff (including Mr. Rahaim) and many influential business and neighborhood groups want the tunnel, boulevard, and waterfront park, costing $3.4 billion. Ms. Moon and the People’s Waterfront Coalition want to skip the highway, take steps to ease traffic, and build the park and boulevard, costing $600 million.

The coalition points to the success San Francisco and Portland had doing to their viaducts essentially what Ms. Moon is proposing for Seattle’s, and frequently reminds people that its opponents’ proposals cost either four or nearly six times as much.

If Seattle drops the highway, it would be in good, Midwestern company: Cleveland is doing much the same thing with a six-lane parkway along Lake Erie, while Milwaukee tore down a thruway, restored the street grid beneath it, and freed nearly 20 acres of land that has since become hot real estate property.

“The hardest part was convincing people that the highway wasn’t needed,” said John Norquist, Milwaukee’s former mayor and now president of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, a national non-profit design and planning group. “Drivers have brains. They find other ways to get around.”

Ms. Moon noted that, regardless of what is built, there will be several years when the waterfront has no highway. Officials are calling for new transit service, improved streets, and systematic encouragement of other transportation alternatives during the construction.

In fact, she said, the city’s temporary plan is very similar to the one her group proposes for a permanent solution.

“We’re going to find out that’s all we really need,” she predicted.

Keith Schneider is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s editor and director of program development. A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of The New York Times. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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