Oddly enough, KIRO right-wing radio personality Dori Monson and I have something in common.
At a time when the city can’t take care of our own, funding a tropical shark tank seems a bit obscene.
“$34 million for a shark tank,” Monson asks, “is that really our priority in this city?”
Yes. Apparently, it is.
The extravagant shark tank is part of the vision for Seattle’s swanky new waterfront. This is what looks like “progress” in this oh-so “progressive” city.
And while developers reap the profits, the public pays the bill. The aquarium plans to raise $60 million of their total $113 million expansion cost on their own. In addition to the city subsidy, another $19 million will come from other public sources.
For Monson, the issue is semi-public institutions pulling their own weight. If they’re so busy that they need to expand, he argues, they ought to be able to pay for it themselves.
My issue is more about who benefits from the up-scaling of Seattle. It’s about the familiar story of privatized profits through socialized risk.
Within the global economy, cities such as Seattle have become enclaves for the affluent.
As knowledge workers move here for the jobs and cultural amenities, poor and working people get pushed out. We can’t afford the $30 for an aquarium ticket if we can’t pay the rent.
Writing about the viaduct removal, I said in 2011 that “the allure of windfall profits for developers is the tail wagging the dog.” The tunnel was never about efficient transportation. It was about public subsidies for private gain.
Since then, there has been a total of $7 billion in property sales within a quarter mile of the viaduct, according to an 2019 analysis by The Seattle Times.
On average, they found, a property sells every 11 days. Many of these are flipped within a few years for short-term profit.
Bob Donegan, president of Ivars and chair of the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association, recently sold his Pier 54 property at a $30 million profit. No wonder he loved the tunnel.
Another such development that’s in the news is the sale of the Hahn Building, a landmark at the entrance of Pike Place Market. The three-story building is the site of the Green Tortoise Hostel, which offers beds to down-market travelers at just $30 a night.
In the 1960s, there was a pitched battle to prevent the market’s demolition and replacement with a hotel, apartment buildings, office space, a parking garage and a hockey rink. In 1971, an initiative passed to save and restore the market and keep it in public hands.
In 2008, we renewed our commitment to this public jewel by passing a $73 million property tax levy to renovate the market’s infrastructure.
Now, the historic 1897 Hahn Building will be demolished and replaced with a 14-story hotel. I don’t think that’s what the voters had in mind. The public pays for the amenity that is the market, and Marketview Place Associates, the private company formed to develop the hotel, will reap the profits.
Seattle has the politest corruption of anywhere I know.
But back to the shark tank.
The Ocean Pavilion isn’t just a public resource hog. It’s an energy pig as well. While educating the public about the need for conservation, the ginormous salt-water tank will draw three times the energy of an average building.
That’s because the 325,000 gallons of water drawn from Puget Sound must be heated to tropical temperatures to sustain the out-of-place aquatic life on display. Then, the water must be cooled back down before being released to the Sound.
This makes about as much sense as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the 2,717-foot glass pyramid in the middle of the Arabian Desert. Both will stand as failed monuments to money, power and hubris long after the lights go out.
The shark tank is about conspicuous consumption, not conservation.
And if progress, at the end of the day, is really just about profits, it’s not really progressive.
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. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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