In Seattle, more want less

Opposition to NBA subsidy, underground highway

December 01, 2006|By Sam Howe Verhovek | Sam Howe Verhovek,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE -- For believers in a Lesser Seattle, it was a fantastic month.

First, Seattle voters said a resounding "no" to spending public money on a new professional basketball arena, all but begging the NBA SuperSonics to leave town. Strong opposition also has emerged to the mayor's plans for a "Big Dig"-style tunnel project along the waterfront.

And the National Weather Service announced last week that November was the rainiest month here in nearly 75 years.

Wonderful, from the Lesser Seattle point of view. Let the word go out. Who would want to live here?

"Lesser Seattle" was a term coined in the 1980s by late newspaper columnist Emmett Watson as a puckish play on Greater Seattle Inc., the name of an early group of tourism and growth promoters. It never became a formal organization, but "Lesser Seattle" is nonetheless a powerful and enduring state of mind.

These Seattle residents pine for the good old days, when an average worker could afford a house here. And Seattle, they say, can take or leave the mantle of being an NBA city.

"Seattle doesn't need to have a pro basketball team in order to feel special," says Chris Van Dyk, a co-founder of Citizens for More Important Things, a nonprofit group that won the anti-subsidy vote Nov. 7.

Plenty of people welcome growth and development. But plenty say Seattle has given up too much of its blue-collar soul in the process.

"Part of our civic makeup is this idea that being too big for your britches is a bad thing," says Knute Berger, former editor of the Seattle Weekly newspaper. "In that sense, `Lesser Seattle' is due for a resurgence."

Al Runte, a former University of Washington history professor and unsuccessful mayoral candidate, says he detects an "enough is enough" feeling among voters in their passage, by nearly 75 percent, of the initiative barring public funds for a new basketball arena.

"A city of this quality does not need to give incentives to developers," he says. "They should be paying taxpayers for the privilege of being in this city."

Once, the Seattle area seemed quietly tucked away in a corner of the map; now, it's the headquarters of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon.com, and it remains a magnet for global talent.

Nick Licata, a member of the Seattle City Council and a leader of both the anti-subsidies and anti-tunnel forces, says Watson's spirit is alive and well, although Licata says he wouldn't quite adopt "Lesser Seattle" as his own slogan.

"I knew Emmett; I certainly understood his concept in a visceral way," says Licata. "It's dangerous for any public official to say you're in favor of Lesser Seattle. It sounds like you're a Luddite. But there's an element of Lesser Seattle that everyone identifies with. It's more neighborhood-oriented. Less glitz, more substance."

In another unfolding battle, Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a highway that some say cuts like a scar along the Seattle waterfront, with a tunnel.

But that option could cost $2 billion to $3 billion more than the roughly $2.5 billion needed to rebuild the road. The battle might get to voters in a referendum.

State House Speaker Frank Chopp, a Democrat from Seattle, sent a letter Nov. 16 to Gov. Chris Gregoire urging her to help scrap the tunnel plan.

"An aboveground solution is the only viable option," said the letter, signed by 29 of Chopp's colleagues. "Simply put, the tunnel is a luxury the taxpayers of Washington cannot afford."

Similar sentiment seemed to be at work in the vote on an arena for the SuperSonics, which Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz sold this year for $350 million to an Oklahoma City-based partnership. The group has said it wants to remain in the Seattle area and might consider building an arena in the suburbs, but many fans think the franchise is ultimately headed to Oklahoma.

Van Dyk, the co-chairman of Citizens for More Important Things, which is funded in part by a union of state health-care workers, says neither the city nor state should give "handouts" to pro sports franchises.

Instead, he says, they should be spending more on "affordable health care," schools and salaries for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees.

Sam Howe Verhovek writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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