Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Greg Nickels, Mayor

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 2/18/2023
  • Essay 22667
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Greg Nickels was mayor of Seattle from January 1, 2002, until December 31, 2009. In the following audio extracts he reflects on the process around replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's waterfront. He recounts the negotiations between the State of Washington and the City of Seattle as various options for replacing the damaged structure were discussed and rejected. He also describes the consultative processes by which a solution (a deep-bore tunnel) was finally agreed upon. Nickels spoke with Jennifer Ott and Dominic Black of HistoryLink on July 1, 2022.

Perception, Earthquake, Opportunity

Greg Nickels: Well in my public life, I got involved in the waterfront when I started what is now the West Seattle Water Taxi. We searched for a place for it to land over on the downtown side, and on the West Seattle side, but it was clear that the waterfront could be much more than it has been. And that when the earthquake hit ... Ash Wednesday, 2001 ... that the viaduct was no longer viable, that it was dangerous and needed to be replaced. So, as I ran for mayor in 2001, it was one of the issues that I talked about. And one of the things that I wanted to accomplish when I was elected mayor was to transform the waterfront from what it had been.

Dominic Black: Aside from your own perception of it, what was the general perception of the waterfront at that point as a space? What were people saying about it?

GN: Well, people felt it was a nice place to take tourists when they were in town. Wasn't a place where a lot of Seattleites really wanted to spend a lot of time because of the noise and the dust from the viaduct. So during the summer months, we would tolerate it long enough to take the cousins from out of town, and then not revisit until the next group of cousins came.

DB: It's quite interesting that the best way to experience the waterfront in a funny way, was on the viaduct, because being beneath it, the noise was so all-embracing.

GN: So the opposition to replacing the viaduct came from people who love the view. Again, when cousins came to visit, you'd drive the viaduct to show them off the Olympics, Elliott Bay and downtown on the other side. So that was a beloved thing – I enjoyed that when I wasn't driving, obviously. And so there was some opposition, particularly here in West Seattle because we relied on the viaduct very much. But, it struck me that the greater good, the common good said: remove it, get out of your car, walk it, enjoy it, and reconnect the city to the water.

DB: So does this kind of crystallize as an idea in terms of you wanting to have something as well that is a signature project when you're coming up for reelection?

GN: Oh, not so much for reelection because reelection happened while the process was underway, and process doesn't get you reelected. If it had gotten done, it certainly would've been something to point to. But more, it was a legacy to leave for future generations. I took it to an organization called the Mayor's Institute of City Design in Charleston, South Carolina. And I was there with the mayor of DC, the mayor of Denver, the mayor of Miami, the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, the mayor of Sugarland, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa. There was a whole group of us and we all brought a case study, and I took the viaduct and the waterfront as my case study. And what we had there were some of the top design professionals in the United States to talk about the opportunities that our various case studies presented.

Up until then I was thinking of the waterfront as north-south, and a transportation corridor. But what the design professionals suggested was that the biggest opportunity was east-west, was to reconnect the city in some uniquely interesting ways to the waterfront. That the elevation differences such that you can't have a normal street or walkway, you're going to have to invent stuff. And we had the University steps at that point, which kind of gave us a sense of what you could do. But the Pike Market and what is happening there now, really the genesis for that was back in 2003, from those design professionals who got us to think about the east-west connections along with the north-south opportunity.

DB: It's almost like the topography of the city forces you to be produce imaginative solutions.

GN: It's true. In the old days we had some of those: there were connections from near the Pike Market to some of the piers, they were over time abandoned and taken out. But with the viaduct gone, it opens up a whole new set of opportunities for that.

Setting the Agenda

GN: It was important to me. And as mayor, I get the opportunity to set the agenda. And so it was one of those items; opening, breaking ground for light rail was another. So we had a number of things that we were working on, and essentially we approach it like a campaign. How are we going to take this idea to the public, get public support for it, get funding for it, and transform the waterfront through it? We ran into lots of other ideas, including a bridge along the waterfront, over the water to replace the viaduct; a larger, wider, uglier double-deck highway that met all current standards, none of which were met by the viaduct, as old as it was; just lots of different ideas, including the idea of a tunnel, and taking that traffic through the heart of the city and removing the highway.

So we approached it like a campaign. We even produced a 30-second spot that we called the Committee to Save Big Ugly Things, because there was a strong notion in the legislature by the leadership of the legislature to replace the viaduct with another double-deck structure as the cheapest alternative. And so we wanted to get opinion leaders, we wanted to get the public to understand what some of the opportunities we would miss if that happened.

So the team for that included my mayor's office staff, the transportation director, Grace Crunican, who I had picked because she's a very strong, very, very capable individual. She went from here to the Bay Area and was general manager for BART, which paid her about three times what we paid her. I also had my planning director Mary Jean Ryan involved in that. So it was a team effort. I got people kind of out of their silos and thinking about these projects and the broader benefit, not just the benefit to maybe their particular part of the city government.

DB: How does your vision start to take shape then when you start to talk to, excuse me, different stakeholders and also different people at levels of government administration. So the State and the Governor, and so on: how do your own ideas about it start to evolve I guess?

GN: Well we, as I said, we approached it as a campaign. We felt we needed to capture hearts and minds behind the idea. We renamed the viaduct: it was the Dangerous Alaskan Way viaduct, and every time we talked about it, we talked about 'This thing is sinking, it has a very limited shelf life and dammit, you don't want to be on it when it decides time is up.' We closed it every six month and measured it. And the damn thing was sinking, especially around the curve. And there were a number of points at which we considered load limiting it, that is getting trucks off of there. And we did have the trucks segmented to either the west side or the east side, depending which level.

So we talked a lot about the safety aspect. One of our sister cities is Kobe in Japan. And after the San Francisco earthquake, about six years after, they had a huge quake. And that quake killed 6,000 people and their waterfront structure tipped over. It didn't pan like the Embarcadero, it tipped over, which is probably what the viaduct would've done had our earthquake been longer and closer to the surface.

The State, Governor, and the Public Vote

GN: We went to various groups, the Downtown Seattle Association, we produced that short video at their annual meeting in order to kind of get their attention to the problem, to the issue and the opportunity. And we worked the legislature. A friend, Ed Murray, who later became mayor, was head of the transportation committee in the Senate – the  House, sorry. He was House transportation. He went to the Senate later, but he was the transportation chair. And we got him to provide funding. We got him to agree on a process that would allow them to buy into a tunnel as opposed to a new aerial structure.

And at the end of the 2006 legislative session, some funny things happened. And the deal that we had with Representative and Chairman Murray went away, and we still don't know who did that. I have a hunch who did it.

DB: Who did it?

GN: Oh, I’m not – it's only a hunch. I don't have any proof, but the goal post was moved significantly. And they put in it a requirement that we have either a city council resolution or a public vote validating our selection of an alternative. We had a unanimous city council vote on such a resolution. And at the early part of the 2007 session, the governor called me in and had the speaker of the house, the majority leader of the senate, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, all there, and me. And their purpose was to beat me over the head with a club and insist upon a public vote.

And so that led to a public vote, which was one of the strangest public questions that I've ever been involved in, but it was because of the way they insisted on changing the rules as we went along. And the purpose of it for me, and the way we phrased it, was to get rid of a new elevated option as a viable alternative. It just would've not been a wise decision. And I literally would've stood in front of the bulldozers if that had been what they forced on us. But fortunately, we muddled the waters enough with that ballot issue – it said no to a cut-and-cover tunnel. It said no to an elevated alternative. So it kind of gave us a fresh opportunity to come at the issue, at least with the legislature.

DB: You described that as, I think you said the governor called me in, what does that feel like as a mayor?

GN: (Laughing) It felt a little bit lonely. I do remember looking in the rearview mirror on the way home and seeing the capitol dome and being very thankful I was on my way home. It was not a pleasant experience, but I was going to hold my ground, and I guess the one message I hope they took away from it was I was going to hold my ground and it would be very difficult for them to force a new elevated structure on us. So ...

And, the next year, 2008, the governor was reelected, and she suddenly became much more amenable to the outlook that we had. I don't know what the pressure was from the speaker or the majority leader, but clearly her willingness to be open to our ideas became much more evident.

DB: So I'm curious about when you walk into that room, did you know, presumably you knew everybody who was going to be there? How much did you know about what was ... 

GN: Well, I knew who was going to be there. I didn't know that it was, I didn't completely know. I had a suspicion that it was an ambush, but ... when the governor asks you to come, you come, you really don't have a lot of choice. And if she's going to be backed up by the entire legislative leadership, well, it's a bad day for you, but it's certainly within her purview.

DB: Do you get nervous in a situation like that? Or do you feel quite confident?

GN: I felt okay, actually. I would rather not have been so outnumbered; I could have brought, in fact, I think we had a audio link with Jan Drago, a member of the city council. I think she was president of the council at that point. So she listened in, but she wasn't physically there, and we didn't have Zoom then. So it was a fairly lonely feeling, but I knew what my position was. I knew I wasn't going to move off of it. So that gave me some confidence that once it was over, it would be over.

DB: So just to clarify, what were the positions that they were taking and what was the position that you were taking?

GN: So they were ... there was strong support there for a new elevated structure. And because of the design differences today versus 1950, it would be a much wider structure. Lane widths would be bigger. You'd have to have shoulders. It would be a double-deck monstrosity, but it would be cheaper than a tunnel. And so what they were demanding was that in addition to the council resolution that we had gotten a unanimous vote on, that we have a public vote. And that was kind of their bottom line. And again, we shaped that – it was a very strange question – but we shaped it in a way that could help us eliminate that elevated monstrosity as an option.

DB: And you mentioned the word strange as well about the strange things that happened around the budget – was it the budget that you were talking about previously with Ed Murray?

GN: It was the transportation bill from the 2006 session, which wrapped up at the very end of the session and changed pretty dramatically.

DB: And is there any sense of what the undertow was there?

GN: I mean, I have my suspicions, but I don't know. And it's a story that's really never been told publicly.

The Ballot, the Options, the Resolution

GN: The tunnel – the cut-and-cover tunnel. It was less expensive than a deep-bore tunnel. It was very disruptive, but we also knew that the sea wall needed to be replaced, so you do the seawall and a tunnel at the same time, you at least are only disrupting it once. So that was the one that I supported.

We looked really hard at whether you could get away with not replacing the viaduct with a new transportation corridor, and we could not figure out how to make it work without absolutely jamming the transportation network, which is already unsatisfactory I think in many respects. 

Jennifer Ott: Do you think Sound Transit could have provided enough capacity to make up for that loss – like in a perfect world where you had lots of money?

GN: Well, at the end of Sound Transit 2, which is the stuff being built now, we should have the capacity to carry a million people a day. We won't be carrying a million people a day and the stations are not in enough places for it to completely replace – I mean, West Seattle won't be hooked up until 2032, '34, Ballard, not till 2037 or '38, something like that. So, that for our kids and our grandkids will be a great alternative. They'll be able to live in buildings that don't have parking and not suffer, because they'll have access to great transit. But today that isn't true and it's going to be some period of time before it will be true.

JO: And that’s even – like, that’s as fast as those projects go. It’s not like you can really streamline it. 

GN: It is the largest construction program for transit in the United States already. To try and jam it through fatser, I think you would suffer in terms of quality and potentially some pretty bad episodes. 

JO: And I don’t know if this is too speculative, but I’ve always been curios – I know part of the reason the cut-and-cover tunnel was rejected was because it was so disruptive to the waterfront businesses. But it seems like this whole process has been wildly disruptive – like, you’ve had to replace the seawall. Is it possible to assess as we’re getting near the end, was it less disruptive to do the deep-bore tunnel than the cut-and-cover would have been, had everything gone right?   

GN: Had it gone right, absolutely. With Bertha being stuck for two years underground, I don't know, but with cut-and-cover things can go wrong too. So I was satisfied, and the deep-bore tunnel technology had advanced enough that after we had eliminated the double-deck highway, along with the cut-and-cover tunnel, I thought it was a good alternative.

DB: This may be an obvious question. Why did you prefer the tunnel to the cut-and-cover?

GN: Well, the cut-and-cover was the tunnel initially. And I preferred it because it got the traffic off of the waterfront, and the expense, while more than a double-decked highway, was not extremely more expensive, not as expensive as the deep-bore tunnel for instance. So I thought it was a reasonable way for us to proceed.

DB: So I'm just curious. So am I mistaking the terminology here?

GN: They're both tunnels, and it's the construction technique that's different between the two.

DB: Yeah. So the deep-bore, as I understood it, the initial suggestion from WSDOT engineering was that the cut-and-cover was the preferred option. How did that transition to becoming deep-bore? Sorry, maybe this is obvious.

GN: The ballot issue I talked about that the legislature demanded, the way we set it up was, do you want a new elevated highway? Do you want a cut-and-cover tunnel? Do you want nothing, or rather neither? And the public kind of said neither. So it eliminated the cut-and-cover as a viable alternative politically. And it eliminated the double-deck highway politically. So then the alternative is do nothing. And I suppose you could do nothing and tear the viaduct down or you could do nothing and wait for it to fall down: we had a preference there. Or the deep-bore tunnel. And so that's where the political minds started to come together and ultimately we came to an agreement.

DB: What about then the, this is so flippant, but when you have that sort of interaction with the governor and those other sort of offices of the state, how do you measure that in your head in terms of significance with the interactions with a lot of the local stakeholders? So people who are based in the city who are representing businesses on the waterfront and all those things that seem on one level, they seem less important, but obviously they're extremely significant, right? Less important because there's less power there but obviously they're equally important in terms of the grand vision of the city. I'm expressing that very badly, but I think you know what I'm getting at.

GN: Well to me, the priority were the people who live and work in the city. They were the ones who used the viaduct. And if it went away would be left without that facility. So what alternative makes sense for them. And then, how do we make this city an attractive place? We increased densities in the city greatly. You've seen the growth since you were here in your younger days. That growth is because of the policies we adopted to increase the density in the city and take the pressure off of the outlying areas.

And so, how do you make this place as livable a place as you can? Well you want to have great parks and libraries, and you want to have things that are attractive to people who live in the city. And that waterfront is the top of the list: it's a beautiful place, and it's our shared space, and we could create something really special there as opposed to a place where you went gritting your teeth because your cousin was in from Illinois.

DB: How much time in your day-to-day, or how much of your headspace was the waterfront taking up alongside all the other things you have to put your head to as mayor?

GN: So going into the 2006 session was intense, because we wanted to get a transportation bill passed that included a significant amount of money for the viaduct. And then it changed at the end. The money was still there, I think, but the conditions changed dramatically. So that particular time was pretty intense through the 2007 session. Then it went to sleep for a little while, and after the 2008 election, it got intense again, and it took up a fair amount of time and bandwidth. And we finally came to an agreement, and from then it was less so because the politics of it had been resolved.

Legacy and Decisions

GN: At the end of my time as mayor, we signed an interlocal agreement with the state and the county committing us to the tunnel. And I did that, knowing that I was being replaced by someone who opposed it to lock the city in. But that was as far as we got, we didn't get to get into the, how are we going to do this or what is it going to look like phase? But I did appoint a committee. I created a Waterfront Oversight Committee, Charley Royer and ...

JO: Was that Maggie Walker?

GN: Maggie Walker, co-chairs. And we put that under the city council because we thought that Mayor McGinn would screw with it. And we wanted it to then direct how that waterfront got reshaped.

DB: When you were not reelected ... 

GN: That's a polite way to say that.

DB: Was it difficult to sort of let go of ... parts of your vision that you still had to accomplish? You know what I mean?

GN: Yeah. I enjoyed my time as mayor very much. I approached it though, realizing there was a limited amount of time, which is why I tried to get stuff done and rubbed people the wrong way sometimes by forcing something to happen rather than going through another process and another conversation. So there were lots of things. 

I would like to have taken the light rail the next step. I would like to have been there to shape the waterfront redevelopment, and lots of others. I would love to have tackled Aurora Avenue North. I think that could be a wonderful urban street with neighborhoods on either side that are not dissected the way they are today. But you get your time, and hopefully at the end of it you look back on it and feel good about what you were able to accomplish and what you were able to put into motion that might be accomplished later. So…

We put some loose ends together. For instance, on the waterfront, we appointed a powerful citizen committee to oversee that and report to the city council as a way for this to actually happen in spite of an administration that was ... in a different place politically.

DB: We've mentioned this word process at several points, and when I arrived here, people told me straight away about this idea of Seattle process. What's your understanding of that and how does that intersect with your own style of doing things?

GN: Well the Seattle process to me is largely a good thing. People want to be around the table. They want to be part of making decisions. They want to help shape the city and they have a stake in it. So I don't object to that. What I object to is leadership that at the end of the process lets the last person who says no have a veto. And Seattle had gotten to the point, in my opinion, where that was happening too often, that decisions that were perhaps politically difficult weren't being made. And so what I tried to communicate was, 'Please, come around the table, help us make these decisions, but a decision will be made.'

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