From traffic and taxes to tall trees, you've got the answers
If you were ruler for a day, what one thing would you change?
Pacific NW staff writer
GIVE US an idea, we asked. Just one thing to make life better for everybody.
The premise was simple: If you were ruler for a day, what one thing would you change? The idea was to compile a societal wish list, if you will, of sound ideas to make Puget Sound a better place to live.
Don't mind if I do, many of you said. The ideas began with a trickle several months ago, but like any good Northwest stream, quickly grew to a rapid flow.
Of course, in the torrent, a few unsightly clumps of flotsam wound up along the shore.
One reader, Jim Ewins of Seattle, opined that the entire "idea" premise was flawed. Ideas following the original plea to be "as specific, practical, achievable and as locally focused as possible," he wrote, "aren't worth writing, as people want something for nothing."
Ewins has a point: Some people's societal pipe dreams, if you will, fit that definition.
But here's the encouraging thing: Not many, let alone all, of these did. The dozens of ideas submitted ran the gamut from grass roots-simple to globally complicated. But most of their proponents, realizing that "something for nothing" is a non-starter these days, had already given ample thought to ways of paying for them, if money was involved, or spur public activism or volunteerism, if those were the keys.
So, sorry Mr. Ewins. Even with the local and national economic challenges, not everyone in the region is mired in do-nothing mode. Some evidence follows.
MANY OF THE ideas, in keeping with the guidelines, seemed simple and attainable by local-government decree or public pressure.
One of the most enthusiastic, not to mention well-developed, came from Janette Turner of Edmonds, who sees her community aging — not necessarily in the best way — and seeks to give it a shot of civic adrenaline through a creative marketing campaign. Thus, the suburban city of Edmonds would take on a new persona: "TrEdmonds!" using the "tread" concept to promote an outdoorsy, foot-powered theme for the town.
Turner, a mom and reporter for a local news blog, has already taken the definitive modern yes-I-am-serious-about-this step, registering a domain name for the word "TrEdmonds."
"The town would be known for treads of all kinds," she wrote in her pitch. "Shoe treads, trail treads, biking treads. To do this, Frances Anderson center and park would be turned into a community activity core, like Green Lake, with a workout facility and free classes (led by volunteer teachers) in tai chi, yoga and more on the grassland. There would be weekly events for bike-riding trails through Yost and Olympic parks, and a monthly trail-to-tide run down to the beach and back. The outdoors would be the priority in town, because that attracts the leisure and creative class."
Turner, a reporter for My Edmonds News and just a "cheerleader for the town," has submitted the idea to the mayor and awaits a response.
Her suggested new city motto — "Get Your Tread On!" — surely would lead to an entire new industry in revisionist bumper stickers, urging all onlookers to "Have A TrEdmonds Kind of Day!"
Most respondents focused on more-universal themes, reacting to public systems or features already in place — and deemed broken. Gwen Harrell of Seattle was one of many calling for election reform. Fed up with the blizzard of political advertising during the most recent general election, she would happily wave a magic wand to eliminate junky campaign yard signs, endless hyperbolic TV spots, mailings, phone calls, billboards and all the rest. The goal: "Issues should be discussed in public debate, reported by the media in actual news stories."
Betsy Braun would have restaurants expand menus to list not only calorie counts (already being done in some jurisdictions) but the presence of any of the most-common food allergens, such as milk, eggs, nuts, some fish and shellfish, wheat and soy.
Several other writers, reacting to The Seattle Times' investigation of breeding practices of elephants in U.S. zoos, would retire the Woodland Park Zoo's elephants to a sanctuary, shutter the elephant exhibit permanently and advocate for similar action across the nation.
PREDICTABLY, GOVERNMENT, be it too big or too small, was on the minds of many.
Several people (all writing before voters in November approved a measure to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana) advocated ending, once and for all, the nation's larger, expensive, arguably ineffective "war on drugs."
Others had specific tax ideas. Jim Bruner of Whidbey Island would spend his "one-thing" credit on a revised, more recession-proof state tax system that includes an income tax — not in addition to current taxes and user fees but in place of them.
"Beyond the need for an income tax is the need to GET RID OF all the other taxes that proliferate under our insane state tax code," he wrote. "The anti-tax mentality in this state is incomprehensible to me, and the abject fear of the tyrannical almighty voter majority by all elected legislators and county officials is approaching paranoia."
One way to make that happen might be via the initiative process, which reader Mike Hall singled out for reform: He would ban paid signature gatherers for state initiatives.
"If an initiative truly has popular support, you shouldn't have to pay people to gather signatures for it; people will be happy to volunteer for a cause they truly believe in," he writes.
(We must note here that overturning the legality of paid signature gatherers would likely require a law change prompted by ... you guessed it, an initiative. Could sufficient volunteers be found to support an initiative to ban paid signature gatherers, or would organizers pay their own signature gatherers as a final-act-of-employment gesture? Like time travel, it hurts your brain to even think about it.)
THE LOCAL SOCIAL safety net was another recurring theme.
Margaret Ames of Seattle was one of several whose "one thing" revolved around helping alleviate or preventing homelessness.
"The way we treat our homeless is inhumane," Ames said.
Her solution: "Spend money fixing up small units so people can get out of these cold, rainy nights in Seattle. How much would it take to take a building and convert it to studio apartments?"
Mind you, she has heard the chorus of dissent on this — the notion that assisting homeless men and women encourages more homelessness. And she wholly rejects that.
"Encourage homelessness? Who really wants to be without a roof over their head? There will always be people who take advantage if they can, and there are some who prefer to live on the streets, but for those who desperately need a place to go, they should get more help than they do."
Suzan Frank of Ballard echoed those sentiments, but focused more on helping people transition out of homelessness.
"If I could change one thing in my community, I would arrange with the (philanthropic) owners of a large vacant building or space to become a resource center for the homeless and needy in this area," she wrote.
Frank cited Compass Center's day-use facilities throughout downtown Seattle as a model that could spread to every city neighborhood.
"There would be toilets, shower and laundry facilities, and an emergency shelter with beds. They would serve a meal on Sunday, if not more often. Ideally, the meal would be served and occasionally provided by local groups and churches, who were scheduled in a rotation."
She's realistic about funding for this, and says the money need not come from taxes. As a first step, Frank urges more local churches to follow the Car Camp Project model advocated by a neighborhood group, Ballard Homes for All Coalition. The plan includes seeking grants or donations to install portable toilets on church or other private property so homeless campers will have a literal sanctuary from the fray.
And like others, Frank would love to light a fire under local residents to literally lend a hand. The Puget Sound area has a strong network of charitable services for the homeless. Compass Housing Alliance (www.compasshousingalliance.org), which runs the centers Frank mentioned, is a nonprofit group operating 19 facilities. Like similar organizations, it constantly seeks donations of supplies, time or money.
Coming at the homelessness problem from another direction was Bobbie, a reader whose one idea would be to get pesky panhandlers out of sight.
"I would like to see street-corner beggars stop," she wrote. "Especially the people who use pets to further their pitiful countenance."
Lest you misunderstand: "I am not coldhearted," Bobbie assures, "and have actually given to them. But I know in my heart it is not the answer to improve their situations." Not only that, she adds, "Using dogs tethered out in the cold is just plain cruel."
Bobbie's bottom line: "A helping hand for any one of us is at the end of our arms."
WELL, OK, THEN. Let's move on to something less controversial. Traffic, anybody?
Donald Padelford of Seattle would find a way to build a regional rubber-tired transportation system that's "compatible with self-driving transit vehicles," which he believes will make fixed-rail systems obsolete. He would complement that system with a "world-class bike network" for shorter, human-powered trips.
"Ironically," he writes, "Mayor McSchwinn (Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn) has backed away from such a network. Imagine: physically separated bike lanes as found in Vancouver, B.C.; green streets optimized for bikes and pedestrians as found there and in Portland; a bike-sharing system as found in Washington, D.C., London and Paris; bike viaducts to separate bicycle, vehicular and pedestrian traffic (almost exactly the same cost per mile as a trolley) on dangerous arterials, etc."
The two systems would "combine personal mobility with walkable urban development," Padelford believes. "It's within our grasp."
Eric Martenson of Kirkland had a similar idea, but his concept is for a ride-free bus zone that encompasses the entire King/Pierce/Snohomish County region. To finance it, Martenson would pool money private businesses now spend on bus passes with even more corporate, and some public, investment.
He uses the word "investment" seriously: Martenson's notion is that a hip community with free regional transit would be a national magnet for new industries and the best, brightest workers. It also would speed up commerce by unclogging freeways. The local economy would boom. Money saved on expanding road systems could be diverted, as well. And, yes, user fees for those still driving around aimlessly would go up to help fund the service. He would put the entire thing as a package deal to voters.
Having solved the regional transportation problem, Martenson also offered a more humble, distinctly local, idea: He would mount the historic Seattle Post-Intelligencer globe atop a building at Westlake Mall.
"Since it is the center of the city, we might as well have our world there," he says, tongue only slightly in cheek.
In a more pedestrian vein, another local reader posed an intriguing question about urban traffic and crosswalks: Why can't the "all-way crossing" or "pedestrian scramble" systems, in which traffic stops in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross intersections in an X pattern, be extended citywide? Wouldn't this help both walkers and drivers?
We hate to be the one holding the cold water bucket, but actually, no, says Brian Kemper, signal operations manager for the city Transportation Department. Most of those crossings, especially three on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, have unique circumstances that make the all-way crossing effective — notably one-way traffic or lack of any traffic at all from one direction. This allows extra time in the traffic sequence for an additional cycle, such as an all-way crossing.
A recent consultant's report showed that installing them on traditional intersections would benefit pedestrians crossing to a kitty-corner destination but literally no one else, Kemper said. The crossings slow down other pedestrians just going from one side of a street to the other, and really slow down traffic and buses.
Bottom line: Like many other solutions that seem obvious on the surface, this one has already been considered and upon closer examination, simply doesn't pan out.
MOTHER NATURE, in keeping with Northwest tradition, also entered the discussion, with some advocating ideas that would put more of us more often out into it — and others suggesting we work to keep it under control.
David Gallagher, a local builder, offered an intriguing question and his own possible solution: Does the design of our floating bridges, specifically the one on Hood Canal, inhibit tidal flow of water just enough to contribute to ecological dead zones on that long finger of Puget Sound? He wonders why concrete pontoons can't be turned 90 degrees, perpendicular to the road surface, allowing water to flow between them, a la some military-style floating bridges. A flow-through design, he thinks, would have another obvious, practical benefit: easing the powerful storm-caused wind and wave stress that already has proved to be the death knell for two local floating bridges.
Annette Case of Phinney Ridge had trees on her mind — big, obnoxious, view-blocking trees.
"Let's have a law limiting the height of trees so as not to spoil each other's views," she wrote. "These old Doug firs and cedars are beautiful but belong in the forest."
Don't be calling her anti-tree, either.
"Cities need small, short trees, many of which are truly beautiful also, and some fruitful as well," Case wrote. "They don't shade the neighbors' yards or drop tons of debris or block the view or interfere with power lines. It makes sense to choose your tree carefully. The city arboriculturalist undoubtedly has a list of good choices. Let's have a rule instead of a lawsuit."
So there you go, local politicians, activists and other societal do-gooders: A shortlist for action. Pick, choose and commence the public hearings.
Meantime, it might be worth noting, for the proverbial powers that be, the single thing that nearly all of these idea people had in common: Almost everyone who responded to The Times' solicitation expressed gratitude for being asked, and for a forum to put forward an idea.
To all who responded: You're welcome, and thanks back.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.