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Sunday, July 21, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Metropolis -- Corrected Vision -- In Hindsight, When It Comes To City Planning, We Blew It!

"City planning, as we regard it today, is but the development of the Civic Idea, old as the human race." - Virgil Bogue, engineer, summer of 1911

IT'S BAD OUT THERE. FROM THE MERCER STREET entrance to the Renton S-curves to the Northgate interchange, we've outgrown our city. Somebody has to do something.

So here's the plan, says the woman from Metro Transit. She points to a King County map, criss-crossed with solid lines and dotted lines and squiggles and arrows.

We're going to build a rapid-transit system, she says. It will be a rail system, or perhaps buses, and it will be built in phases over 25 years, eventually linking Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma, Issaquah and points between.

It's an ambitious plan, and it will cost a great deal of money: $10 billion to $12 billion, maybe more. To raise that money, Metro will ask voters to increase the sales tax, or the auto-license tax, or some combination.

Her briefing complete, the Metro official looks around the downtown conference room full of local journalists. So what do you think?

"What have you been smoking?" a TV commentator asks in mock dismay. There's a tax revolt going on, he says. Voters just slapped down a tax levy for Seattle Center. They've voted repeatedly against taxes for mass transit.

"Face it: Public transit is a welfare program," says another reporter. "Railroads can't make money moving people. Most airlines can't make money moving people. How are you gonna pull this off?"

"What you guys need is a good futurist," says another. "The future is in tele-commuting. By the time you finish this thing, it'll be obsolete."

And so it goes. The Metro planners are dejected. Me, too. I feel myself sinking into my chair, weighted down by a sense of futility.

The debate fades as my mind wanders. I'm riding rapid transit across time, speeding through two world wars and four generations. I get off at the Central Building, one block away and 80 years ago - almost to the day.

I'm looking for Virgil Bogue.

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1911. Europe was stumbling toward world war, but America wasn't paying attention. President Taft was sending troops to the Mexican border - another of our patented gallant missions in defense of a foreign tyrant.

America was on a roll. Henry Ford had been making Model T's for three years, and General Motors was introducing the first electric starter. The Titanic was being readied for its first and last trans-Atlantic voyage. Frank Lloyd Wright was approaching the peak of his career. Christy Mathewson was pitching the New York Giants into the World Series.

The Seattle of Arthur Denny and the Mercers was history, their mill town metamorphosing into a metropolis. The Alaska-Yukon Exhibition had put the city on the world map. It would be five more years before Boeing would build his first airplane plant on Lake Union, but railroads and lumber and ore shipments from Alaska had fueled a population spurt from 80,000 to 240,000 in a mere decade. To accommodate all those people, City Engineer R.H. Thomson had literally moved mountains, sluicing Denny Hill and part of First Hill into Elliott Bay.

Local newspapers heralded a real-estate boom. Streetcar lines pushed the city limits out to Ballard, Ravenna, Rainier Beach and West Seattle. For $1,800 - $50 down and $15 a month - one could buy a five-bedroom, mission-style bungalow near Woodland Park; for a little more, an upscale Victorian at 19th and East Union.

Seattle's merchants offered all the ingredients for the American Dream. The Seattle Times advertised men's suits for $4, coal shovels for 3 cents, an oak-barrel "washing machine" for $6.95, a bottle of Monogram whiskey for 75 cents, and a shiny new Stoddard-Dayton five-passenger touring car for $1,600.

And Virgil Bogue was holed up in his office in the Central Building, crafting the vision of his City Beautiful, a framework he hoped would guide Seattle through the new century and into the next.

At 64 years old he was a handsome man, with brooding eyes, a full mustache, and a bold, cosmopolitan soul. His engineering career had spanned four decades. He had learned at the feet of the master, assisting Frederick Law Olmsted in the design of Brooklyn's Prospect Park. He had toured the capitals of Europe, supervised construction of the trans-Andean railroad in Peru, built railroad terminals in San Francisco and Baltimore, and advised major projects from Alaska to New Zealand. Along the way, he had made a name in the Northwest, having discovered and named Stampede Pass and built major portions of the Northern Pacific Railway.

Now he was ready to design his crowning achievement, and Seattle would provide the opportunity. A year earlier, in 1910, Seattle voters had approved an amendment, creating a 21-member Municipal Plans Commission chartered "to procure plans for the arrangement of the city with a view to such expansion as may meet probable future demands." Largely through the influence of Thomson, the commission hired Bogue to draw up that plan.

Bogue seized the opportunity. He rented an office in the Central Building (one block from Metro's meeting site 80 years later), filled it with engineers, surveyors, draftsmen and secretaries, and went to work.

By midsummer 1911, the plan was sent to the printer. And in September, Bogue and the commission unveiled a 191-page document, finely printed on heavy paper, complete with dozens of maps, illustrations, diagrams and photographs.

DEEPLY INFLUENCED BY THE "City Beautiful" movement, Bogue traced Seattle's roots to the great cities of the world, from Athens to Paris and Milan. According to the City Beautiful thesis, city planning was both an art and a school of social reform; the "civic idea" would engender a beautiful city, and vice versa.

"We have seen cities, whose inactivity had permitted blunders to stunt and impede their growth, come to admit the errors of former years and bravely face the stupendous tasks necessary to remedy them," he wrote.

Bogue warned against repeating the mistakes of others - particularly the evils of "the unregulated skyscraper" whose popularity he attributed to "the attitude of the American mind in attaching more importance to individual property rights than to community interest."

Instead, society should build things that benefit everybody - in both economic and aesthetic terms, he said. Bogue's monument to this concept would be his Civic Center - a neo-classical courthouse, federal building, library, art museum and city hall with a 15-story tower, all facing a grand, oval-shaped plaza at Fourth and Blanchard in the flats where Denny Hill had been sluiced away. The plaza would open onto a broad boulevard, lined with trees and monuments, accommodating "large gatherings and pageants," extending 10 blocks north to an equally impressive plaza and railroad station with matching tower at the southwest corner of Lake Union.

"The impressiveness of a group of imposing buildings is greater by far than the sum of the effects of each standing alone amid meaner structures," Bogue wrote in an argument echoed far more recently for Westlake Center and other downtown malls.

To do otherwise would be an injustice to future generations of Seattleites, he warned. "Mean surroundings produce mean men, slovenly women and lawless children . . . while elevating scenes inspire to higher aims, better speech and manners, and a wholesome respect for the law."

TO THE EXTENT THAT HE IS remembered at all, Bogue is known for his Civic Center. But that project comprised less than 5 percent of his city plan. Bogue envisioned a Seattle of 150 square miles, encircling Lake Washington, encompassing all or most of present-day Mountlake Terrace, Bellevue, Kirkland, Renton and Burien. The expanded area would provide an expanded political and economic base, a bigger and better and more beautiful Seattle.

Greater Seattle would be green. Over the previous decade, the Olmsted team had laid out thousands of acres of parks and parkways for the city. Bogue embraced the Olmsted plan and proposed 60,000 acres of additional suburban parks and greenbelts, ranging from Richmond Beach, Mountlake Terrace and Juanita to Lake Burien and Three Tree Point and more.

The city beautiful would be nice to children, "supplying diversion from the dearth of interest and occupation engendered by the conditions in which many children are compelled to live." Bogue pleaded that investing now in "healthful exercise, amusement and self-improvement" would reap great long-term rewards by simply keeping kids out of trouble.

The fitting climax to this park system, Bogue wrote, would be to "acquire Mercer Island and set aside this 4,000 acres as an island park - a people's playground, worthy of the city of millions which will someday surround Lake Washington."

Several of the smaller parks were oriented toward vast harbor developments, clusters of piers and railroad terminals not just in downtown Seattle but on the waterfronts of Bellevue, Kirkland, Ballard, Renton and Lake Union.

Bogue did not foresee the automobile revolution. He planned a network of roads and parkways, but the primary means of transportation would be an elaborate rapid-transit system with 33 miles of subways, 27 miles of Chicago-style elevated trains (most of which he expected would eventually be turned into subways), all fed by scores more miles of surface trains and streetcars.

Instead of bridging Lake Washington, Bogue proposed to burrow under it - a five-mile transit tunnel, carrying commuters from Yarrow Bay, beneath the lake, Madison Park and Capitol Hill, and delivering them to downtown Seattle. Impossible? The engineer already had tunneled through the Cascades, and had advised New York City on the practicality of tunneling beneath the East River.

Other than the tunnel, Bogue's 1911 transit system is virtually duplicated by Metro's. But Bogue's would have been in place by 1935. The engineer argued that Seattle's unique topography - hills and lakes and bays - poses problems for road-building, but is ideal for public transit. Eighty years later, his rationale reads like an oracle.

"The city's growth will be retarded with a tendency to develop congested, undesirable and unhealthful districts unless rapid-transit facilities are provided," he wrote. "Businessmen and workers cannot be served by a surface railway system, over lines stretching out six or seven miles, with stops at every street crossing, consuming from 30 minutes to an hour twice each day. The more the population increases in these suburban sections, the more difficult the problem becomes."

What would it all cost? Bogue made a few estimates; acquiring the land for the Civic Center would cost about $3.5 million, some of which would be offset by the sale of city property at the south end of the central district, he said.

No doubt, the total cost of Bogue's vision would have been in the hundreds of millions.

But it must be done, he said. And it would not get any cheaper.

Seattle would "find means to continue a good work, especially in view of the certainty that work performed haphazard and piecemeal, or which does not follow an approved general plan, will cost more, produce less and be less creditable."

WHEN UNVEILED IN September 1911, Bogue's plan was met with initial enthusiasm. The Municipal Plans Commission overwhelmingly endorsed it, 18-3, the only negative votes coming from three city councilmen. Even Col. Alden Blethen, fiery patriarch of The Seattle Times, initially allowed that Bogue's vision was worthy of "most careful study." (He railed, however, at the $50,000 cost of the study, particularly $2,500 in printing costs.)

But five months later, on March 5, 1912, Seattle voters went to the polls for possibly the longest ballot in the state's history. And they voted against adopting the Bogue Plan, by 24,966 to 14,506.

REVISITING NEWSPAPER COVERAGE after the vote, it is remarkable how quickly Bogue and his plan vanished. Bogue returned to New York City, and died four years later, in 1916, aboard a steamer in the Atlantic. In its obituary, The New York Times remarked on Bogue's work from Prospect Park to Stampede Pass, but made no mention of his unfulfilled plan for Seattle.

Since then, other Seattle city plans have come and gone. None was as far-reaching, and few got any further from the drawing boards. The automobile took over Seattle and other cities. Bellevue and Kirkland became cities, linked to Seattle by floating bridges. Bogue's proposed suburban parks became housing developments. Some of his harbor improvements were folded into Seattle's Harbor Island project, and there were passing references to Bogue during planning for the 1962 World's Fair and the Forward Thrust programs of the late 1960s. But these days, local city planners know little or nothing about Virgil Bogue and his plan.

I found my copy early this year, collecting dust on the second story of a downtown used-book store. It was in good shape, with a full set of maps tucked behind the cover. That evening, I sat down and began thumbing through Bogue's prose and drawings. Allow for 80 years of deterioration to the English language, and his arguments could be incorporated into Metro's plans for the year 2020.

So why did Seattle pass on the opportunity?

It would be easy to blame its defeat on a short-sighted and mean-spirited electorate. But the evidence isn't there. Even as they defeated the Bogue Plan, voters overwhelmingly approved tax measures on the same ballot - $5 million for new Harbor Island marine terminals, $500,000 for city parks, $150,000 for the Bellevue-Seattle ferry run, more for hospitals and hydroelectric projects. The only defeats were for a city welfare department, and for the Bogue Plan.

The engineer didn't help his cause by stumbling into some personal and political rivalries. By allying himself with R.H. Thomson, the city engineer, he inherited some of Thomson's clout, but also his rivals in the feudal politics of City Hall.

Thomson had been at odds with Olmsted, the landscape architect, over elements of design. Thomson's style was to move earth, and heaven if necessary, to accomplish his ends; he certainly moved more dirt than all Seattle's other city engineers combined. Olmsted designed aesthetic parks and parkways that blended into the landscape; witness the organic curves of the Arboretum and Lake Washington Boulevard.

Bogue was fundamentally an engineer, not a designer; a builder, not a planner. His vision sprang from the Thomson tradition, not Olmsted's.

Bogue also ran headlong into Col. Blethen at The Times. By February, Blethen had launched a first-strike editorial campaign, warning that the Civic Center would lead Seattle down a path to "pall and blight," to "waste and ruin."

Blethen's argument was mostly economic. The Civic Center would cost too much, Blethen warned, and its approval would throw the entire Denny Regrade into commercial uncertainty. Bogue "would radically overturn the most expensive regrade work Seattle has done in the last 10 years," the publisher wrote.

In part, that argument had to do with Seattle's business establishment, which was investing heavily in new buildings - the Dexter-Horton Building, Alaska Building, etc. - at the south end of downtown. Regardless of the aesthetic qualities of the civic center, businessmen did not take well to the idea of moving their government offices to the other end of town.

But none of these arguments appears to explain the 2-to-1 defeat by voters who likely did not much care which school of design was followed, nor which end of town it ended up in.

Chances are the Civic Center underscored a sense that Bogue had bitten off more than even boom-town Seattleites were ready to chew. Blethen's editorials argued persuasively that the land acquisition and construction would cost much more than Bogue's $3.5-million estimate. Taxpayers were understandably wary of issuing blank checks for Bogue's transit system, harbor improvements, parks and monuments and parkways. Bogue's plan was long on ideas but short on economics. A far-sighted vision with a near-sighted budget.

But, given 80 years of hindsight, who among us would not have voted for it? Bogue's expanded city limits would have made regional government politically feasible. If we didn't like Bogue's neo-classical design, we could have torn down the buildings, and used the land for the city park that Times columnist John Hinterberger is campaigning for today. Instead of a wealthy suburb, Mercer Island would be a city park. The parkways would have enhanced property values throughout the region . . .

And, instead of planning a rapid-transit system for the year 2020, we'd be debating the far less-costly prospect of updating what had been in place more than 50 years.

VIRGIL BOGUE IN TOW, I wander back into 1991 and into that downtown conference room. The engineer listens intently to the Metro briefing, to the accounts of 1.5 million vehicles in gridlock, of an inadequate bus system, of deteriorating roads and bridges and parks. His eyebrows arch at Metro's proposal to put their 2020 transit proposal on the ballot in 1992.

The venerable engineer shakes his head and thinks for a minute, fighting off an impulse to lecture us on the moral implications of the 50-story skyscraper to which he has been summoned. Those brooding eyes survey the roomful of planners and journalists. And then he recites from his romantic conclusion of 1911:

"With Mount Rainier looming over the city on the south, the rising terraces of encircling hills, the lofty snow-capped Olympic peaks closing the westward view beyond a harbor unsurpassed, it would appear that greater opportunities for high and permanent distinction never fell within the privilege of a municipality."

Be brave, he is telling us. Take risks. Learn what you can, translate that knowledge to ideas, ideas to plans, and then build them. Build something that works, but also something "with breadth of vision and steadfast purpose, with a disregard of purely self-seeking interest, in consideration of the good of the whole . . ."

And here he switches into his oracle voice:

"Before her citizens realize it, Seattle will have accomplished these things, and she will have translated her commercial and civic activities, her ambitions and determinations, into terms of art, art in its truest and highest significance: `The doing well of what needs to be done.' "

ROSS ANDERSON, THE SEATTLE TIMES' CHIEF POLITICAL WRITER, OCCASIONALLY WRITES FOR PACIFIC ON POLITICS, ALASKA, NATURAL RESOURCES AND REGIONAL HISTORY. FRED BIRCHMAN AND LISA REMILLARD ARE TIMES NEWS ARTISTS.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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