Eight years ago, when the fight over Seattle’s viaduct-replacement tunnel was at fever pitch, I wrote an op-ed for this paper calling the project a gold-plated gift to developers.
“The underground tunnel will clear the way for a boost in downtown property values and miles of waterfront condos. We don’t hear about this much, but the allure of windfall profit for developers is the tail wagging the dog.”
My gift for the obvious rarely fails.
Those of us who fought the tunnel saw an environmentally tone-deaf mega-project that was out of touch with the future of transportation. But more than anything, we saw the tunnel as an engine for rising land values and the ceaseless upscaling of Seattle.
We hoped an unwieldy coalition of enviros, new urbanists and human service advocates could defeat the project at the ballot and, in the process, set a more grounded direction for our city.
We lost. Our merry band of McGinnites were out-fundraised, out-messaged and out-organized. We took on power — Gov. Christine Gregoire, then Sen. Ed Murray, a politically resurrected Jan Drago, WSDOT, the construction unions, a united downtown establishment and Ivar’s Seafood — and power won.
Our merry band of McGinnites were out-fundraised, out-messaged and out-organized. We took on power — Gov. Christine Gregoire, then Sen. Ed Murray, a politically resurrected Jan Drago, WSDOT, the construction unions, a united downtown establishment and Ivar’s Seafood — and power won.
The tunnel has taunted me since. Four doors down from our First Avenue entrance stood WSDOT’s Milepost 31 visitor’s center, which regularly led tours of Bertha enthusiasts past Real Change to the staging site, one block west of our office. We were surrounded.
For a while, I consoled myself with the schadenfreude of sinkholes and stuck drills. I thought we might see the broken $80 million drilling machine as a hulking, unmissable lesson for the city.
But three years later than planned, the tunnel has finally opened. While traffic is still well below projection, profits have flowed.
Last week, the Seattle Times followed the money and reviewed every construction permit and land or building sale within a quarter-mile of the doomed SR 99 viaduct. Since 2011, a property within that area has sold, on average, every 11 days, totaling more that $7 billion in transactions.
That’s $3 billion more than the total cost of tearing down the viaduct, building the tunnel, and constructing a waterfront park. And the gold rush is far from over.
Longtime tunnel booster Bob Donegan, the president of Ivar’s and director of the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association, sold the Ivar’s Acres of Clams property at Pier 54 for $40 million. The property was originally assessed at $10 million. That’s a lot of clam strips.
More casual property speculators have also profited handsomely. “About 40 landowners have bought waterfront-area property since 2006, did no substantial work on the property and then sold it, typically within a few years,” reports the Times. “Those short-term flippers sold their property for a median of $11 million more than what they paid.”
The $160 million Local Improvement District tax that will help pay for the Waterfront Park barely skims the surface of the profit that’s been generated. The tax represents a one-time charge of about $5,900 for the median property owner, or $1,900 for condo owners.
Since 2009, reports the Times, residential rents within a quarter-mile of the viaduct are up by 72 percent, compared with the city average of 64 percent. Office rents are up by 42 percent, or 11 percent higher than the city average.
When I called former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, he said his first thought upon seeing the Times story was this: “When you remove a urban highway, property values rise. That could have been done without the expense of the tunnel.”
But his second thought was about who benefits. “Huge extractions of money from the taxpayers tend to most benefit those who already have resources. The tunnel was paid for with a gas tax. All of us pay for that. But the opportunities for profit focus much more narrowly.”
“What if we’d just taken down the highway, and created a new wealth tax to build transit?” McGinn asked.
Well, we’d be living in a different city. One that equitably values people over profit. That fight goes on.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Read the full March 13 - 19 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.