Praise from a planner
Thank you for writing such a great introduction to what I'm sure will be a fascinating series. I am a Washington-born, raised and educated land-use planner living in Seattle, and share many of your views regarding growth and Seattle's future. I am very much looking forward to following this series, and would like to offer my assistance, if you have the need for input from a local planner, or just a local citizen.
Cities as living organisms
I have read William Dietrich's article, and was impressed with the assessment of the situation. I have been lamenting that most of the media and my fellow voters have missed a vital part of the transportation equation, and that is an investigation of where people live, where they work, where they spend the rest of their time, and especially why. This article makes a start at this sort of investigation.
I'd like to make a couple suggestions as to resources for further research into this topic for the upcoming articles and any related ones. First, a must-read is "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs.
In this classic tome of how central planning can ruin big cities, Jacobs introduces a new way of thinking of cities, as living organisms that obey the "rules" of complex systems. There has been much literature devoted to this subject area since, and I think you can get a better idea of the dynamics of cities if you read this book and others of similar ilk.
Second, I recommend you look into the burgeoning "local economy" movement. One of its main prognosticators is David Korten, of Bainbridge Island, and there is a local group (BALLE) that is looking into how that can work in Seattle and its surrounds. The idea here is that transportation needs (as well as other needs, which encourage sustainability) are severely reduced due to most needs being met in the immediate community. Vashon Island has a group (Sustainable Vashon) that is exploring this concept also.
Both of the above ideas are departures from the mainstream of thinking, but in line with the thoughts expressed in this first article that, like the staircases at Hogwarts, things change, and you had better get used to it.
No condos without consumer protection
I live in North Seattle. I chose my home, a small one-bedroom condo, because of its proximity to my work. I can walk if the mood strikes me. I prefer to shop, recreate and do all activities close to home. Which is a far cry from 20 years ago when I moved here. Back then I could zip from Mountlake Terrace to downtown for Friday-night fun in what seemed a blink of an eye. Contrast that with the present groan in my gut every time somebody asks me to meet them downtown for something. And, oh, the gut-wrenching turmoil I feel if a friend asks me to drive to West Seattle at any time close to or around a rush hour.
On the higher density question: I believe in it. The condo option is very effective if done right. I think it's necessary. However, I don't buy into the developers' arguments completely. I would hate to see the model for a cheaper, more affordable multifamily dwelling they have in mind. After watching what seemed like half of Seattle's newer condos being wrapped up in plastic for siding problems and repairs, I thought I chose wisely in my home. No EFS, or Drivet just true stucco and vinyl and brand spanking new assuming that the lack of failed materials of the past would protect me. But alas, within the next year my building will look like all the others with a lovely plastic draping while the exterior is completely rebuilt (that is if we win our $3 million lawsuit). Which drives me to my next point.
If Seattle opts for density, which means condos by definition, the building codes, permitting and inspection process must be stronger, not weaker. Developers, architects and the City of Seattle must be held accountable to putting up buildings that are durable, and don't require expensive processes to maintain them. It will be of little help to Seattle to have a downtown and its neighborhoods littered with condos that structurally fail after four years (the length of warranty under the Washington Condominium Act). These buildings end up costing the resident owners huge sums of money in special assessments to repair or maintain. It's hard to calculate what type of return on investment, regardless of tax deductions, owners receive when their annual dues are exorbitant and market value is plummeting because the building is deteriorating at an accelerated pace.
I can guarantee that the consumers are going to be getting smarter not dumber on these housing issues. If the city wants to achieve its density objectives, it is going to have to make some assurances to the consumers, not just in philosophy but actual responsibility. Namely that the housing options they are permitting and building are architecturally pleasing, diverse in style, durable, and offer people and families homes to live in not just holes in walls with beds. The question about condos is huge from a consumer point of view. Buying or investing in a condo is so much more complex than a typical stick-built free-standing home, and many buyers will find themselves in a situation they cannot afford if measures are not taken to protect them
Leadership is lacking
You touch on the subject of leadership, but I believe that is THE quality that is missing from our area. ANY one of the options you mention in the article would provide a better quality of life for the future residents of the Puget Sound area. The problem is that we have no public-oriented (other than business) leaders in our area or in the state. If the state of Washington was one of the original colonies there would be no vote, there would still be consultants and commissions studying it, wondering how to make all of its citizens happy.
I would define a leader as someone who has a vision, can sell that vision to others, then bring the vision to fruition. Our area hardly has any one with a vision (other than a collection of good ideas) let alone the capability of selling and executing the vision. Your example of the Seattle political structure making the mayor and city council powerless is a good one as a reason for inaction. However, a good leader has to sell his ideas to others in any case. At the other extreme, martial law in Seattle would make it easy to be a political leader in the city (takes care of selling and execution steps). However; we'd still need a general with a vision.
Even a good leader can't make everyone happy with the vision and the results of implementing it. A true leader gets his vision implemented (much like the business leaders got Safeco built) in spite of the opposition.
As an "outsider" who came with the masses in the early 1990s, I'd say the last leader(s) in Seattle were the people who brought the World's Fair. Since then not much visionary has happened.
So in the end, any of the basic ideas for improving (or even keeping) the quality of life in Seattle will help. Whether it's the monorail, light rail, higher-density zoning or better urban planning. But with the current politicians in place the area will most likely continue to slide downhill as usual.
Get over it, Seattle
The provincialism of "old guard Seattle" never ceases to amaze me. Much akin to the proverbial ostrich, apparently many inhabitants in the Seattle of yore (prior to 1985) thought that if they stuck their heads beneath the moss and pulled the rain clouds up tight, that no one would see them here, hiding in this far corner of the nation. That the forces which have honed and shaped every city on this planet, since there have been cities, would somehow overlook Seattle, a silver outline barely traced in the mist, and it would remain this timeless museum piece.
Well, get over yourselves. Newsflash to Seattle: "Scientists have confirmed that Seattle actually IS connected to the rest of the Earth. Film at Eleven." The reason Seattle has no coherent master urban plan is that so many people here firmly and most sincerely believed that Seattle could never, ever change. To even entertain such a notion was a painful betrayal. Nearly all Americans want their lives to be like car commercials the streets are always wet, but the sun always shines, there are fascinating jobs, but never a commute, and there are abundant restaurants and entertainment but always a parking spot right out front. Apparently people in Seattle truly thought that was all possible. I imagine the native people here had their own version of Northwest perfection, too, before the Denny party arrived. Alas, things change.
The only problem Seattle has is its steadfast refusal to grow up. I'm truly sorry that everyone can't get what they want, but holding your breath and stamping your feet generally doesn't make it happen, either. All of us here, regardless of how we came to be in this lovely place, need to accept that it has changed, that it will continue to change and that, indeed, it must change in order to survive. And we will change with it. The task we have before us is not to wail and tear at our clothing, but to find solutions to transportation and housing problems. Seattle is not disappearing, it's simply giving signs of life.
Thomas R. Smith