Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Cary Moon, Waterfront Coalition

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 2/18/2023
  • Essay 22670
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Cary Moon (b. 1963) was a co-founder of the people's Waterfront Coalition in Seattle. In these extracts from her conversation with Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott of HistoryLink, she recounts her early experiences as the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement debate heated up. While articulating her view that a surface-and-transit option was the best way forward, she offers her perspective on the process by which the State of Washington and the City of Seattle reached a decision to build a deep-bore tunnel – a decision she maintains was a mistake – and explains how her work as part of the team redesigning Pioneer Square influenced her views on the waterfront redevelopment project. This interview was recorded in Seattle on July 28, 2022. 

Initial Involvement

Cary Moon: Going back to the very early days, in 2001 the Nisqually earthquake damaged the viaduct – probably should have been closed at that time – but Wash-dot (Washington State Department of Transportation) set about immediately figuring out, how do we replace this? And I was on the Seattle Design Commission at the time, which reviews all public projects and gives the city design guidance and builds in some professional expertise into how the city's making its decisions about the physical realm.

And two of us on the Design Commission were appalled and were like, 'Wash-dot, why are you replacing that highway? City of Seattle, why are you even entertaining the idea of rebuilding a highway? That's our most precious public land. It's 22 acres in the heart of downtown on the bay. This needs to be a city-led process. It needs to be for the people, by the people, of the people. Why are you letting Wash-dot tell us what to do with our land?' And we started kind of sketching out what-could-be instead of a highway, and at that point, I was also on the board of Allied Arts, and Allied Arts did a charrette in 2003 or '04, I can't remember, and invited seven people, seven teams, to propose what could we have instead of the viaduct, as a way to spark public dialogue.

And so I got together with Julie Parrett, who's a landscape architect and professor at UW, or adjunct professor. And actually, I'm not sure her title. She teaches at UW. And Grant Cogswell, who is an activist around town around transportation and transit. And so we put together a proposal of why we don't need to replace the highway, what we could have on the waterfront that was 100% oriented towards ecology, towards civic life, towards reclaiming that space for the citizens of Seattle to use, and why we don't need a highway, what happens to all the trips, how do you accommodate them on transit and in other modes.

And we really believed that this was a huge decision for the city of Seattle and that we needed to push Wash-dot aside and have a civic dialogue in our city about: what do we want to do with our land and our waterfront and our intertidal habitat and our shoreline and our public space?

And so we proposed this set of solutions, and we were lucky enough to have a bunch of students at UW in landscape architecture and architecture help us craft images. So basically, they were collages, collage kind of sketches of what the waterfront could be without the viaduct. And we built a presentation saying, 'Here's why we don't need the highway. Here's what great public life – public space we could have,' and we really wanted to invite people into this discussion to carry on what Allied Arts kind of sparked, because we sincerely believe that the right to this city is one of the most precious rights we have, and also the most neglected, and that we the people deserve to have the power to imagine our future together. Like, how do we want to move around? What kind of socializing do we want to do? What's our commitment to sustainability and healthy ecology? How do we want to relate to this beautiful bay and Salish Sea? And that we felt like we wanted to be part of that discussion and invite people into imagining, envisioning what to do with this 22 acres.

A little bit more on why: I think, to me, it was very essential that this be seen as an opportunity to change course on our transportation and climate, given that 60% of emissions come from driving. And this was at the time when Mayor Nickels had made a big deal about if the national leader Bush won't lead on climate, cities will, and we made all these big commitments to – we are going to show the future of what a city committed to reducing emissions and being a true climate champion would be, and we took that seriously.

We're like, 'Yeah, we need to do that,' and this is one of the opportunities we have to change course away from a car-centric, driver-oriented, or car-travel-oriented transportation system, to one where we can really focus on local access, local mobility, transit, walking, biking, compact growth. You know, the kind of things that are perfectly obvious in the profession of urbanism and city building that all cities need to do in order to grow sustainably and to be part of the solution to climate change.

People’s Waterfront Coalition, City Interests and the Transit Option

CM: The People's Waterfront Coalition was led by Grant Cogswell, Julie Parrett and I, and we had a small board of five folks who kind of helped set strategy. In the coalition, there were eight to 12 organizations that were more or less aligned with us. Basically we spent from 2004 to 2007 making hundreds of presentations to any community group, any advocacy group. And the first, 'Yes, we believe in that and we will help,' was Sierra Club with Mike McGinn and Mike O'Brien in leadership roles there; and Cascade Bike Club; People For Puget Sound; Feet First. Those were kind of the core parts of the coalition, and we didn't have a formal process. We were ad hoc. We basically said, 'If you believe in tearing down the highway and reclaiming the land, if you believe in not rebuilding the highway, if you believe in public life on the waterfront, you could be part of the coalition.'

So there were a thousand-plus people on the mailing list, and we had meetings that a lot of different kinds of people came to, to help shape the vision and refine it. Because basically, the starting point was: no highway, invest in transit, a four-lane street in the waterfront, and street improvements elsewhere as the transportation solution, but what do we do with the public land was sort of a 'We have to protect the public land, we can't sell it off for private development, but what could go here?" ... [it] was an open question that everybody got to shape.

So in those meetings of shaping, what do we care about? What are the principles for the future waterfront? We had marine scientists, we had public artists, we had transit activists and bike activists. We had people who just care about public life and public space, parks advocates. There were all kinds of people who came together to think about what could be there instead. And we never made a plan of our own. We kept it to sketches and principles, knowing that the process to actually design a place is big and hard and expensive, and the city needs to lead on that. So we tried to build the idea of what was possible and invite people to imagine and name principles, knowing that the city would have to take the lead in order to actually execute.

Dominic Black: What were your relationships with the city like? Excuse me. How effective was the communication between the city and the coalition?

CM: In the period of 2004 to 2007, before the city and the state had a vote, we had a lot of quiet positive conversations with the city and the consultants. And often, we would make a presentation and someone high up in the city would say, 'Good job, keep going. We're rooting for you, but don't use my name publicly.' Like that conversation happened many times. And so we knew that there were a lot of people in the city who were interested, but they didn't have the permission from the mayor at that point, but we worked pretty closely with some staffers at SDOT and in the Department of Planning and Development. Not working closely. I shouldn't say it that way. We checked in with them, and they said, 'Keep going.'

And just to note, the city already had developed this plan of what to do without the viaduct. It was called the Center City Access Strategy at that point, and then it got changed to the Urban Mobility Plan later. But the city and their consultants had already done all the engineering work to figure out how to get by without any highway there.

And so they shared parts of that with us quietly to help us kind of get more accurate data and more refined ideas, and I can show you later in ... After the no and no vote, when the citizens of Seattle and the advisory vote said, 'No to an elevated highway and no to a cut-and-cover tunnel,' that opened up this opportunity of, well, maybe Streets and Transit, which is what we called our solution, maybe that is worth considering.

So the city then pushed to have three versions of that proposal, two versions of an elevated highway, a cut-and-cover tunnel, and a bored tunnel, just compare them apples to apples in this 2008 process. But the city consultants then really refined the Center City Access Strategy into option B of those ones that were studied in 2008. That was the one that most closely matched what we in the People's Waterfront Coalition had been advocating. And there were also two other versions that weren't great, but B was the one we were pushing in that process.

What we were pushing was: a four-lane street on the waterfront, like 1st Avenue; bus rapid transit in that corridor; improvements to the grid elsewhere, which meant, basically the city had recognized that there's a lot of north/south streets that are great streets to come into downtown on that you could make better connections to across Denny, across Mercer, and basically take the traffic that was on SR 99 in the north side of the city and distribute it onto these other streets. And similarly, in the far south, kind of near Spokane Street and the West Seattle Bridge, distribute trips onto city streets, so that basically you disperse and distribute the traffic that does need to be in a car or a truck, so that the number of people that use the waterfront street are only drivers coming to the waterfront, are coming to that part of downtown.

And so it was this mix of recognizing that Sound Transit was coming and a lot of trips would shift from driving to taking Sound Transit, bus rapid transit in the corridor, improvements to the street grid elsewhere, what Grace Crunican called 'the manifold,' and then it just allows the opportunity to only have a local four-lane street on the waterfront. So I just wanted to be clear that that's what we were advocating, because it gets misrepresented or misinterpreted in other media.

DB: How does it get misinterpreted? What do you mean? Or misrepresented as what?

CM: Misrepresented as a surface highway on the waterfront, because people had a hard time imagining what happens to all the trips, so they just imagine a highway, which is the opposite of what we were proposing. And people who are in favor of sprawl development and easy access, bypassing Seattle and out of the city, who really believe that we need to pave more of the city and we need more highways, not fewer – they often mischaracterized it as doing nothing, and that just means gridlock. That was basically a very political, dishonest argument that they were making to try to ridicule the very skillful, complicated ... not complicated, but skillful and thoughtful engineering that went into the streets and transit proposal.

Stakeholders and Lobbyists 

CM: I think there were, by the time of the 2007 no and no vote, there were a lot of people who believed in a great waterfront. Like, I don't want to claim any authorship of that. It's a pretty easy thing to see. We could have 22 acres of civic space downtown on the waterfront and reconnect the city and the city neighborhoods to the bay? Yes. Lots of people saw that. And so Wash-dot was already kind of disempowered in that way because people already saw, 'No, you cannot have our public land for your highway.' A lot of people saw that, and there was a lot of momentum around that. Whether you were for an alternative to a highway or a highway, at least a lot of people agreed on the great civic space in the waterfront.

So in the 2008 process where they were comparing all the options apples to apples, they basically set up kind of a ridiculous framework because the city, county, and state DOTs ran that process. One of the things they did was – even though car travel at that time was declining, and people who were proponents of transit and saw Sound Transit coming and saw the potential of bus rapid transit, could see car travel might continue to decline as Seattle grew more compact and dense –Wash-dot demanded that any solution had to be able to serve an increase of 27% in car trips, which is just a ridiculous baseline, especially in a time of the climate catastrophe. We knew we had to reduce driving. We knew investing in alternatives was necessary. We knew that, when highways are removed, about 27% of the trips go away, so we should have been aiming for 25 to 50% fewer trips, not 27% more trips.

So it was frustrating that they framed it that way, but at this point, the engineers in SDOT under Grace Crunican with their great consultants at Nelson/Nygaard were determined to show, 'No, you can remove this highway and it will work.'

So they proved in that stakeholder process that all the options would adequately serve Wash-dot's inflated idea of demand for trips in the corridor, and they proved that it would work in that process. And at the end of that process, remember the snowstorm of 2007 in December? It was a really weird time because the last stakeholder meeting where SDOT, King County DOT, and Wash-dot basically agreed, 'Okay, we will do the surface transit solution, or we will do a skinnier elevated with a lot of transit improvements. Those are the two options we recommend for solving this problem.' And Wash-dot, the guy ... made this impassioned speech about, 'We are not doing a bored tunnel. It is a delusional idea. It's a ridiculous cost. It's a waste of money. I can't endorse that. It's not a good use of public funds. It doesn't solve the problem. Wash-dot is not in favor of a bored tunnel, and we are in favor of these two other options.'

And so the three DOT heads went to [Gov. Christine] Gregoire and said, 'This is what we decided and this is the plan.' And she said, 'Let me check in with my people,' which meant the Regional Chamber of Commerce, who was always against surface transit solution, streets and transit solution. So she checked in with Regional Chamber of Commerce and Boeing and Microsoft lobbyists, and they are all in favor of more highway capacity because they're in favor of regional growth and sprawl development. And they said, 'No, we want you to do the bored tunnel.' And Boeing said, 'Oh, and by the way, we will bring our production of our next airplane to South Carolina if you don't build this highway.' And so she said to the stakeholder process, 'Thanks for your recommendation. We're going to build the bored tunnel.'

DB: How do you know that's how it went down?

CM: Because people involved, people in the room told me at the time, because they were incredibly frustrated. And at first I thought, 'Okay.' I wasn't sure it was the truth, but then months later, maybe even a year later when Boeing announced they were moving to South Carolina anyway, I heard Gregoire say, 'But we gave you everything you asked for. How could you do this?' And I know she was ... probably there were plenty of other things, but I know she was referring to the tunnel decision as part of that.

DB: What's your understanding of how ... Yeah. So I guess what I was going to ask you then was, just to be clear, you're saying that the reason the state changed its mind and came out in favor of, that's why?

CM: I believe that's true, yeah. 

Killing the Transit Option and After

CM: Yeah. I was in the stakeholder process, so I ... Transportation Choices, People For Puget Sound, Futurewise, Sierra Club, Cascade Bike Club, we were all at the table in the stakeholder process, so we were there for every single step of analysis, like defining principles, seeing the analysis, seeing the results, giving input to the progress towards the decisions. And then at the end there was a faction that wanted the bored tunnel and the waterfront, and then there was a faction of enviros and urbanists who wanted no highway.

And so at that time, Tim Ceis called us all in together and said, 'We have to have a unified position.' And so we had these several sessions of trying to negotiate, do we have common ground? And the common ground that we signed off on was surface transit/I-5 or streets and transit is the plan that we will promote and support, but when we do the EIS, we will also study the bored tunnel. And to me, that was a sign of: we're going to do the streets and transit, and the bored tunnel didn't go away yet, but the EIS will study it and we can use the EIS process to make the bored tunnel go away. That's where I thought the politics were at that time.

But what I didn't know is that, at that time, Wash-dot changed a statement of purpose and need ... Sorry, this is super wonky, but ... 

DB: Go ahead.

CM: ... in an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], you basically say the purpose of this project is X. The need for this project is Y. So that statement all along had been about mobility. We need to serve access that the viaduct serves. They changed the statement of purpose and need to say capacity. We need to replace the vehicular capacity on a highway after the 2008 process. So they changed the statement of purpose and need, so then in the EIS it knocked out the streets and transit alternative, even though they had politically committed to doing it, and made it ineligible because it wasn't replacing the car capacity on a highway. And so that was the trick that got played on us by Tim Ceis and the tunnel proponents and Wash-dot at the time.

DB: This might seem like a naive question, but was there a moment where you found out ... was there a meeting or was it an announcement, or do you know what I mean?

CM: No, they kind of stopped talking to us at that point.

DB: So who's they?

CM: Sorry, the city people and the SDOT and the city leadership. In 2009, the beginning of 2009, there was this confused time of like, wait, what just happened there? Why did Gregoire go against the recommendation of the DOT heads? Why is now there this giant PR push to say it was unanimous, everybody agreed to the bored tunnel? Why did they manipulate what agreement we thought we made and presented as that? It was kind of confusing. We definitely got played, but we didn't understand it. It came in pieces. And when we saw the EIS and saw that they had changed the statement of purpose and need, no one told us in advance they were doing that, so we didn't see that till maybe months or ... later that they changed the statement of purpose and need.

And then immediately King County reneged on spending $200 million on bus rapid transit in that corridor. They basically had promised that as a way to get us to yes, and then they reneged immediately as soon as the bored tunnel had kind of the full backing of the city and the state.

DB: Oh, just for clarity, who was Tim Ceis?

CM: Tim Ceis was deputy mayor under Greg Nickels, known as The Shark. Often was the key, kind of like the Rahm Emanuel of Mayor Nickels' administration, was basically seen as the political operator.

DB: What was it like on a personal level for you as this was unfolding?

CM: I think all of us were very frustrated and disappointed, and I mean, I'm speaking for myself, but there were lots of other people in the coalition and I don't want to claim leadership. There was a lot. I was tenacious and I was consistently involved, but I wasn't as a leader that was elected or anything.

So I think all of us who had been fighting hard for that were frustrated, and so we shifted in two directions. First, making the bored tunnel fail in the EIS, because we thought there was still that opportunity, and then working with the city on developing the best possible waterfront, which was actually really fun at that point because the city ... had hired JCFO and we had played a really strong part – and by we, I mean a small group of People's Waterfront Coalition leaders and others in the design community – had worked really closely with the city to say you can't just build the seawall. Hire someone to build the road and then see if there's any land left over. You have to hire a landscape architect who will see the whole 22 acres as a cohesive whole and be able to figure out, how do we integrate shore ecology, parks and public life, our commitment to green infrastructure, a modest four-lane street, and how do we connect the market and all the downtown neighborhoods to the waterfront?

You have to conceive the project as a whole and you have to hire someone, a firm, that knows how to do that kind of physical planning, because if you just build a seawall and then a road, the road will take up the whole available width and you won't have any space left for public life.

And so I got in a screaming match with Tim Ceis around that very question, because he was pushing hard for – just let's hire a road engineer – and it was fascinating to see. He did cave on that one point and said, 'Okay, I see your point. We will have this process of building, hiring a design firm to do the whole 22 acres, and look at all the layers at the same time instead of just let SDOT do a road.' And so it was at that point the city set up the waterfront committee, and I was on the design oversight committee, and there were several of us who were super active, deeply working with the city and JCFO around, what is the waterfront and how do we build this plan? And that was really fun to be in the room and helping with those conversations.

DB: After everything that's happened between the city and the state and those in the coalition and onto other people ... Let me take out. How do you go about continuing to work with the city after there's been, what sounds like, from your perspective, like a breach of faith? Is that an accurate description?

CM: Yeah. I mean, I think you have to be realistic. There's a lot of big money politics in the highway industrial complex, and there's a lot of power that wants sprawl development and car travel. I mean, clearly. We've known about the climate crisis for 30 years now, and look how little progress we've made as a nation, as a state, as a city. There is a lot of power and money pushing for the status quo.

And so we recognized ... like ... we kept fighting. If you'll look at, there was a lot of dialogue in 2011 around the EIS. There were lots of articles written in The Stranger, in PubliCola, at Grist, in other publications about what a ridiculous, stupid idea this was, but there was a lot of momentum behind it and a lot of power and money behind it. And so, at some point you have to concede, like, we didn't win. They're going to build the tunnel, even though it's a stupid egregious waste of money and is the opposite of our commitment to climate, being a climate champion, and just had to let it go.

But the opportunity of shaping 22 acres on the waterfront is huge, and it's like the most ... Cities hardly ever get that chance, and to be able to help represent what I understood to be the public interest and what I understood to be Seattle's green values and our commitment to equity and inclusion and public life and revealing all the layers of history and taking care of our shore ecology, I wanted to bring those ideas and that wisdom that I had gained through all the years of PWC into that conversation.

James Corner’s Vision

CM: In their presentation, which was public, which I thought was awesome, 1,500 people showed up to watch the presentations of potential design firms a city might hire, and it was really clear they understood how we needed to reweave urban fabric; that we needed to reconnect downtown neighborhoods to the bay; that Seattle has this rich deep relationship to our watery terrain, whether Lake Washington or the Salish Sea and the islands; and that that's a key part of our identity and it needed to be this center driving idea of the whole plan. And they understood the muscular industrial part of Seattle and how that is also part of our identity, working class, no nonsense, let's not make this too fussy and elitist, but let's make it industrial and reflective of our waterfront history and our industrial working class history. They got all of that about our city.

And then the clarity about how to connect Pike Place Market to the waterfront, nobody else had thought through that as well as they had. And it was really important because, it's funny, living here in between Pike Place Market and the waterfront, I answer the question of tourists at least three, four times a day, 'How do you get to the market?' when they're standing right in front of it. 'How do you get to the waterfront?' when it's a hundred feet away, and people don't understand the connection. There hasn't been a connection between the two, and there will be.

With the MarketFront project, which was the first one built, and then the overlook walk that integrates with the aquarium and their new public space on the roof, we're basically creating a terraced set of public spaces between the Market and the waterfront, and it's kind of genius the way they figured out how to do that and how to integrate buildings into that – because for a landscape architect, 22 acres is not that much. For an architect, it's scary. It's like, 'That's way too much space. We don't know what to do,' but landscape architects, that's like their sweet spot. Like, we know exactly how to handle 22 acres of urban fabric, and how all the parks, and promenades, and play spaces, and gardens, and shore ecology, and access to the water, and piers and connections through and across and bike lanes – they completely got how to do all those layers and how they could all work together.

DB: What are the things then, are there specific points that really excite you about how it's developing now?

CM: What's fascinating living nearby is, already, there are thousands and thousands of people here every day, and it's phenomenal because it's a construction zone and it's not that pleasant to be here in the dust and the noise – but people are so fascinated by the water's edge and public life, and what is the city doing, and how is it shaping up, and what's it look like now? It's amazing how beloved it already is. And so, to me, that's my favorite part, is that people want to be here, and that this culture of public life, and vision for how we can have healthy society together in parks and public space that drove us from the very beginning, is already coming to fruition. That's what makes me most happy.

Hope and Vision 

DB: How did your experience then of this entire process over a long period, how did that inform your view of taking part in public life? And I mean, I'm not specifically talking about running for mayor or anything, but just like, what did you learn from that process?

CM: It's funny, because this is a part of the question that gave me the most epiphanies when I was thinking about preparing for this interview because, at the time, right after the neighborhood planning process, when Jim Diers was sort of ... his ethic around involvement and citizen engagement and right to the city and we-the-people need to be involved in shaping our future … it felt so real and so possible and so promising and filled with potential at that time.

And now when I look at how hard it is, there's basically no framework to be involved in shaping the future of our city right now. The neighborhood councils had their problems because they were often taken over by wealthy elites who had the time to advocate for their own interests, so there was a problem with the neighborhood councils, but we shouldn't have just got rid of them. We should have figured out a more just and inclusive and fair way to do it.

Because now when I look ... Like that's the question people ask me most, is like, how did you know that you could do this? How did you know that you could actually just, as a citizen group, create a vision and advocate for it? The culture was different then and it felt very possible. It felt like the monorail had been a citizen-led initiative, Forward Thrust wasn't that far in the history, WTO had just happened. It felt like we-the-people have a voice and a right to shape our future.

And now when I look at how this city operates, it's really hard to imagine doing something like that now, because there aren't avenues. There's not the media to support it because the left media is so diminished in this city. People are dealing with crises of wealth inequality and poverty, and the urgency around ... It's really hard to live in this city, the cost of living is high. There's a homelessness crisis that is affecting all low-income people. It's not safe if you're poor and low income and don't have a safe place to sleep at night. There's all these kind of urgent, breakdown-of-society kind of problems that are front and center that we do have to deal with, and racist policing. I mean, including the 2020 uprisings in this.

So the idea that we could constructively, optimistically plan something great for the wellbeing of our citizenry just feels like a million miles away in the current way the city operates right now. So I think I want us to still have hope. I want us to still believe in the possibility of vision, because that's what we need if we're going to actually deal with the climate catastrophe and actually reduce car travel and our vehicular emissions. If we're going to actually create a city that's affordable and welcoming and sustainable, we the people have to be involved and we have to bring our voice and our power, and the way to build that possibility is to do it – is to set the vision, is to name the vision, invite people into shaping the vision, show the steps to achieve the vision, show how we the people can do it, that we do have the power to build the city that would be the city of our imaginations. And it's really hard to do that right now, but we still have to.

One more thing, and just one of the things that I kept on the wall through this whole process in the early days was a quote from one of my teachers in grad school, which was, 'The best public spaces express the dreams a city has for itself.' And to me, I still feel that way. I still feel like the public realm and public life and parks and the street is where we have to show our commitment to including everybody, and health of our environment, health of our population, and respecting and welcoming all the people that live in the city and helping everybody thrive.

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