Martin Selig, for those who weren’t around back then, was the Darth Vader of old Seattle.
To the Lesser Seattle movement that wanted the city to hang onto its small-town charms, Selig was enemy No. 1. At one time he owned a third of all the office space downtown, most of it 1980s mirrored glass. Including what is still the tallest skyscraper in the city, the 76-story Columbia Tower (famously derided by Victor Steinbrueck as “a flat-out symbol of greed and egoism”).
“As much as anyone, he was seen as someone who came, who saw, who conquered old Seattle,” says Richard Mann, 66, a musician who once ran Allied Arts, a civic group that fought to save Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square from development.
So it’s fascinating that Selig, of all people, has emerged as the money behind a quirky, populist drive to save the Alaskan Way Viaduct as a park in the sky.
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The group, which includes Mann, is called Park My Viaduct (motto: “the view belongs to you”). It envisions turning the elevated freeway into a promenade for the people.
“Do you think this is his way of seeking redemption?” Mann wondered. “After all those years as the face of big development, now Marty Selig is going to save this last remnant of old Seattle for the people?
“It’s almost Shakespearean.”
The 77-year-old developer isn’t having any of that legacy talk.
“It’s the view from up there, pure and simple,” he told me from his office in a skyscraper he owns downtown. “There’s no view like it in the world. Why would Seattle tear down that view?”
I agree 100 percent. Which is a little awkward, as I’m not sure I’ve ever agreed with Selig before. But, hey, when you’re pushing a far-out idea that nobody in power seems to like, you take your allies where you can get them.
Two years ago, after walking on New York’s fabulous converted rail trestle The High Line, I wrote a column suggesting we explore using the northern stretch of the viaduct, from Belltown behind Pike Place Market, for our own elevated park.
The response from readers floored me. It led to a second column titled “An Outpouring of Viaduct Love,” about Seattle’s pure affection for the crumbling old structure. I printed out hundreds of emails and turned them in to the city’s Central Waterfront planning committee.
Selig says he owns no property along the roadway — his nearest is a 40-story tower on Second Avenue, well up the hill — so he insists he has no financial interest. He just loves the view. Sometimes, early on Sunday mornings, he says he’ll stop his car on the top deck, put the blinkers on, and sit there to soak in the Sound and mountains on one side, the skyline he helped form on the other.
“If we opened that as a park, it would be the biggest attraction in Seattle history,” he said.
With his usual doggedness, Selig bought up hundreds of copies of a book about The High Line and has been mailing them to the mayor, City Council, state legislators, other big property owners — anyone who might listen.
He also said he is giving money to Park My Viaduct to do an engineering and cost study, along with architectural sketches. Obviously there are seismic issues with saving any part of the old road. The group proposes preserving 14 blocks of the top deck for a park while removing most of the lower deck to let in more light below. With my idea of just saving the less-shaky northern portion, the park would stretch about six blocks.
Selig wouldn’t say how much money he’s given, but added: “Whatever it takes to get this going, I will be happy to foot the bill.”
He is not the typical face of Seattle do-gooderism. The city once had to sue him to pay a $600,000 electric bill. Progressives are leery of him because he has backed Republicans, such as George W. Bush. So the Selig name attached to the idea could just as easily doom it as help.
Mann says he hopes people focus on the idea. He first walked on the viaduct during a Vietnam War protest that took over the highway in the ’70s. Ever since, he has been entranced by the feeling you get up there — of how nature meets civilization along a thin ribbon in the air.
“It’s incomparable,” Mann said.
So incomparable it’s apparently turned Darth Vader into a preservationist.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org