[URBANTH-L]REV: Dearborn on Gibson, _Securing the Spectacular City_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Sun Apr 24 19:14:19 EDT 2005

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (April 2005)

Timothy A. Gibson. _Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of
Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle_. Lanham: Lexington
Books, 2004. 312 pp. Figures, notes, bibliography, index. $70.00 (cloth),
ISBN 0-7391-0569-8.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Dr. Lynne Dearborn <dearborn at uiuc.edu>,
School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Equitable Urban Redevelopment in the Globalized City?

Urban environments in the United States have suffered as a result of
competition in an increasingly global market place. In this context, U.S.
cities begin at a disadvantage as a result of federal policies that have,
over time, increasingly supported suburbanization at the expense of central
cities and have whittled away aid to cities. Because of wage and benefits
expectations, unionization, and existing regulations, U.S. cities have not
fared well in the contest for multinational corporate investment and jobs.
In the face of fierce competition for private investment and thus an
increase in the urban tax base, leaders in some cities have engaged in what
Timothy Gibson terms a "spectacularizing" of the urban fabric. By this he
means promoting development of large, glittering office towers, yielding to
the demands of developers which may skirt zoning regulations to increase
profits, providing subsidies for large-scale development, and investing
public funds in upscale shopping districts and buildings that provide
high-culture experiences. All of these efforts and resources are expended
to provide cultural amenities that might lure global corporations and their
white-collar employees to a particular city, and draw wealthy tourists and
convention-goers. According to Gibson, the growth of the "spectacular city"
has been accomplished at the expense of development that benefits a wider
public. Likewise, the urban fabric created does not provide true public
urban space, but rather space that is privately controlled by those
corporations who own it. The result, as the author demonstrates in his case
study of creating "spectacular" Seattle, is that people of modest incomes
and few resources are driven away as moderately priced housing is torn down
to make way for world-class development projects. The marginalized in
society--fixed-income pensioners, immigrants, low-income families, and the
homeless--are associated with urban decay while new fashionable development
is associated with the rejuvenation of the city.

The author focuses on the fall and rise of the city of Seattle from the
mid-1970s through the end of the 1990s. Gibson prefaces his urban case
study with a description of Fordist and post-Fordist economic agendas in
the United States and the impact of these on U.S. corporations and U.S.
workers. He then describes in minute detail two different stories about
development in Seattle. The first concerns the development of large-scale
office towers in downtown Seattle in the 1980s including, for example,
Prescott's Pacific First Center and Unico's Two Union Square. Rapid
development of a skyline full of "trophy" skyscrapers led to a glut of
office space in the city just as the recession of 1990 took hold.
Developers were subsequently cautious and demanded concessions from the
city, while the city government became exceedingly pro-business throughout
the 1990s. The second story concerns the battles among Seattle's business
interests, advocates for the homeless and for preservation of public open
space, and the mayor and the city council in the 1990s. The business
interests in this story included the Nordstrom family, developer Jeff
Rhodes (who is seen by some as the savior of the retail core of the city),
as well as several other small-business property owners who expected to
benefit from public investment in the cultural district, which contains the
new Benaroya Symphony Hall and the Seattle Art Museum. Advocates for the
common good included several shrewd individuals who came together to
support providing low-cost housing and services for the homeless as well as
a group who sought to protect the one true public space in the retail core
area, West Lake Park. The mayor and the city council vacillated over the
course of the 1990s, supporting first the business interests, then the
advocates for broad access to the central city and then the business
interests again.

As a result of strong-arm tactics by both the pro-business group and their
opponents, a compromise ultimately gave something to both sides. When the
owner of the Mann Building, David Gellatly, discovered that a business deal
for his building might fall through because of the homeless service center
proposed for the basement of the Glen Hotel next door, he went public in a
front page story in the _Puget Sound Business Journal_ where he exaggerated
the size, scope, and hours of operation of the homeless service center. He
also exaggerated the patron to staff ratio at the center which incited
fears of drug deals in the center and incivilities on the sidewalk outside.
He followed this with a lawsuit to stop construction of the center. In
response, LIHI, the group developing the homeless service center, demanded
a million dollars to stop their project. When that demand was not met, LIHI
proposed an impossible task: find an alternative site in the central part
of Seattle. This battle continued until LIHI agreed to develop the center
in another building on the fringe of the city core, aided by one million
dollars from the City. In exchange, they were able to save another 47 units
of affordable housing. However, as Gibson points out, this compromise was
really a loss of true urban experience, by which I mean street-level mixing
of diverse people who live and work in Seattle's downtown blocks.
Fashionable shops and high-culture establishments for high-end consumers,
which Gibson terms salvation by retail, replaced this experience of
diversity. Urban public space was replaced with privately owned commercial

This book provides several well-documented and captivating stories that
draw the reader into specific events in the timeline that transformed
Seattle from a sleepy port city to the desirable location it is today. In
telling these stories, Timothy Gibson relies extensively on the Seattle
City Archives, news accounts from the mainstream and alternative press, as
well as semi-structured interviews and census data. He also aptly situates
the case of Seattle in the discussion of post-modern and tourist-oriented
urban development, the strategy supported by many city governments in the
United States.

If the author's purpose in this book is to convince readers that
pro-business urban re-development strategies do not, in and of themselves,
provide equitable distribution of public resources such as truly accessible
urban public spaces--parks and restrooms, affordable housing, and retail
establishments that provide for modest-income shoppers, his message is
muddled by the book's organization. The title of the book adds to this
confusion because it focuses attention on spectacularizing the city. While
the author briefly addresses some issues associated with creating a
spectacular city, such as the desire to remove the homeless from sight, he
does not analyze more complex questions. When human interactions are
increasingly commercialized, what are the trade-offs? What are the urban
spatial consequences of skyscrapers taking the place of human-scaled

Introducing the material about pro-business urban re-development strategies
early in the book, in place of the detailed discussion of economic theory,
would have carried the reader into the subsequent chapters with Gibson's
main theme firmly in mind. Chapters one and two, which discuss broad
economic trends, are too long and lose the reader's attention. The theory
might have been more useful integrated with the later case studies. This
would have served to tie together the various events told in the book with
the author's main thesis. Throughout most of the book, the author's
treatment is too even-handed regarding the developers' stories. When Gibson
finally assembles his argument in the final chapter of the book, he does so
insightfully, making his sympathy for the advocates of public amenities
clear. The idea of "the spectacular" holds promise and perhaps can be
developed further in future scholarship. In doing so, it would be well to
provide more comparisons to "spectacular" development in other cities both
inside the United States and in other countries. Despite the book's
weaknesses, the stories told are very instructive. With the appropriate
preface and linkages, the book can provide an educational case study for
students of planning, advocacy, and large-scale real estate development.

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