Saturday, January 21, 2006

Benevolent Urban Planners?

The Mayor of New York City is a very rich man. Paul Allen is shadow governing Seattle. He is also a very rich Microsoft man. Would there be less corruption and better urban governance if every serious city were run by the super rich? The logic might be that these folks have satisfied their own taste for material goods and will not steal from the public and instead will focus on being a "kind king". Was Nelson Rockefeller a good leader of New York State?

You might be concerned that the super-rich do not have a common man's touch. Bill Clinton could feel the poor's pain. Can Mike Bloomberg? You might worry that the super-rich only know the best neighborhoods of the entire city they are supposed to run. The truth here is that such a candidate would have to work extra-hard to prove to the metro reporters that he/she wasn't a snob.

The virtues of the super-rich candidate is the absence of corruption and the absence of capture. A rich union offering campaign contributions will not have the same pull with a billionaire as with a broke candidate. If the rich can pre-commmit to not "be for sale" how can this be a bad thing?

We see Corizne in New Jersey, maybe Bill Gates should run for Vice President?

You might worry that American is supposed to be one person/one vote not one dollar/one vote. Maybe that is a worry but there are checks on the power of the executive.

January 21, 2006
Seahawks Rise, as Does Seattle, in Hometown Tycoon's Vision
By TIMOTHY EGAN

SEATTLE, Jan. 20 - For years, Paul G. Allen was the invisible billionaire here, a tentative tycoon with a yacht longer than the football field where his Seattle Seahawks will play Sunday.

But just as the Seahawks have shed years of obscurity in their first shot at the Super Bowl in more than two decades, Mr. Allen's prints appear everywhere as he remakes his hometown into an urban center to match his peripatetic passions.

As an investor, Mr. Allen, who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, has had a kind of reverse Midas touch, losing billions on ill-fated ventures. But it is a different story in Seattle, which some here are calling Allentown, a nickname that cuts two ways, inciting both hope and fear. Seattle's major institutions are being drawn to Mr. Allen's vision of a new-century city built around compact urban living and a biotech job engine that some officials suggest could one day rival that of the Boeing Company, which still builds planes here.

At a time when many cities are trying to find their footing in the global economy, Mr. Allen is redesigning whole parts of Seattle with the help of what could amount to almost a billion dollars in public investment. The city, known for airplanes, software and coffee, is moving swiftly into a role as a place whose monied elite promote philanthropy, global health and the life sciences - gambling on a new economy that some worry may never materialize.

"I'm just trying to do some things that are good for the city and have a positive return on investments," Mr. Allen, who will turn 53 on Saturday, said in an interview.

And while his portfolio has shrunk by about $10 billion from ventures elsewhere, according to independent analyses of his holdings, his wealth was pegged at $20 billion by Forbes magazine, and his Seattle properties are surging.

"What's happened so far has exceeded my expectations," Mr. Allen said of his fast-moving Seattle developments in biotechnology, real estate, philanthropy, art and sports.

Critics say Mr. Allen has become a social engineer with cranes and cash.

"The job projections may be vastly overstated because no one really knows how big biotech will be, and we're still not sure how much this is going to cost the city," said Peter Steinbrueck, a Seattle City Council member who has known Mr. Allen since grade school.

But Mr. Steinbrueck added, "We're getting a very attractive urban neighborhood" that most cities would jump at the chance to have. What bothers many Seattleites, he said, is the image of a very wealthy man controlling so much of the city - philanthropy, sports, government.

Of late, it is hard to avoid the reach of Mr. Allen's empire. The Seahawks' "12th man flag," a tribute to the noise from fans that can upset the rhythm of the 11 opposing players on the football field, flies atop the signature Space Needle. Mr. Allen has owned the team since 1997, and says few things now thrill him more than the chance to slap hands with middle-aged men in Seahawks blue hair and face paint.

Down below, one of the biggest private urban makeovers in the country is briskly taking shape under Mr. Allen's hand. While his better-known partner in Microsoft wealth, Mr. Gates, is spending his fortune on reshaping the world, particularly global health and poverty, Mr. Allen has focused on his own backyard.

His company, Vulcan, is trying to build a biotech hub and housing for 10,000 or more. Nearby, researchers in white lab coats study frozen 56-day-old mice as part of the $100 million Allen Brain Atlas, an effort to go where no neuro-cartographers have gone before.

And the $240 million museum he set up to honor the hometown hero Jimi Hendrix will take a step into the visual arts this spring, becoming - for a time - a showcase for rarely seen paintings by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso, among others.

And yet, despite the fact that Mr. Allen's influence has never been greater here, he remains an enigma. In the city where he grew up, Mr. Allen, a librarian's son, is little known, and his appearance on the football field and in the locker room at last week's Seahawks game caused the kind of stir usually reserved for Bigfoot sightings.

The mayor, Greg Nickels, has met Mr. Allen only once, said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis. Stimson Bullitt, whose family has been a driving force in broadcasting, real estate and philanthropy here for nearly a century, said he did not know him. Most politicians, though they receive campaign contributions from Vulcan, say they have never met Mr. Allen.

"You hear all these stories from people who go to dinner at his house and they wait for him to arrive and then when he materializes, you don't know what door he came in from," said David Brewster, who founded Town Hall, Seattle's idea salon and culture center. "He is a real interesting eccentric, and this town has always had a high tolerance for that sort of thing."

Mr. Allen, who has been in remission for Hodgkin's disease since 1985, has been a part of three big waves during his life: the personal computer, the Internet and private space travel. (Vulcan financed the rocket that launched successfully in 2004, winning the Ansari X Prize.) For a man who has his own submarine and bought Captain Kirk's chair from "Star Trek," it can seem like he is casting about, trying not to miss a bet.

In the interview, Mr. Allen said he had no specific master plan for the city he was remaking, and he laughed at the idea that he was Carnegie in khakis. If anything, his idea is a back-to-the-future Seattle he remembers as a boy, where people got around the center of town by walking, combined with a New Urbanist view made expansive by the sheer size of Mr. Allen's wealth.

In the South Lake Union area just off downtown, he plans to build 10 million square feet - the rough equivalent of a dozen 50-story towers - of condos, European-style alley-fronted homes, biotech and medical research facilities, hotels and retail space, with a trolley car connecting it all. The projects are ahead of schedule, with the cluster of condos built around a luxury hotel, Pan Pacific, and a Whole Foods store set to open later this year.

The words "Rethink Urban" and the eco-friendly phrases of "sustainability" and "authenticity" and "urban sanctuaries" are used in almost every presentation of what Mr. Allen is trying to do with the 60 acres he owns in South Lake Union.

The South Lake Union plan also includes a retirement home, moderate-income apartments, a big new park, and medical research facilities drawn to the magnet of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a non-Vulcan property that moved to the area before Mr. Allen began to build.

"The thinking was to really have a place with activity going on all the time," said Ada M. Healey, the head of Vulcan real estate.

Ms. Healey said South Beach in Miami Beach, the pedestrian shopping area in Santa Monica, Calif., and the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., were inspirations.

But each of those neighborhoods has been criticized as one-dimensional and empty of children or people from certain income groups. Ms. Healey said the demographic trends and costs of in-city living might be beyond Vulcan's ability to do much to attract families.

Mr. Allen said he "pushed my people" to come up with a new-century neighborhood, with green building principles and tight density, imagining a community of scientists who were never more than a few minutes stroll from their experiments.

But the biotech idea, which many cities are pursuing, has been oversold, Councilman Nick Licata said, and ultimately may not be the kind of job producer worthy of substantial public investment. And Mr. Allen's experience in Portland, where he encouraged development around a sport complex he owned, ended in bankruptcy and hard feelings between city officials and Mr. Allen.

Still, in Seattle, the Seahawks have taken the town by storm. The $430 million stadium where they play, Qwest Field, with its urban intimacy and its sophisticated use of video and computer graphics, has been a fan favorite since it opened for football in 2002, after a substantial public investment and about $100 million from Mr. Allen. He asked his executives to try to re-create an atmosphere similar to the one Mr. Allen felt while attending University of Washington football games as a boy.

"For a sports team owner, you better enjoy this because it doesn't get any better," he said.

Coming on the heels of a dot-com bust that left Seattle leaders wondering about their next economic engine, the city approved most of what Mr. Allen asked for in the South Lake Union area, and the public investment could total $500 million to $1 billion, with traffic improvements and other infrastructure changes, city officials said.

"Paul Allen is doing some very good things," Mr. Steinbrueck said, "but it's tainted by the public image people have of him - this very rich, flamboyant guy who hasn't grown up. He is seen as an enigmatic guy who wants to fulfill his fantasies from childhood."

3 comments :

Lance Knobel said...

If you do a survey of what countries pay their politicians, Singapore comes out way, way ahead of the pack. Last time I looked, the prime minister of Singapore had a seven-figure salary, when converted into US dollars. Other top governmental posts are similarly well rewarded.

The reasoning behind this is twofold. First, it helps attract the nation's top talent into government. Second, it reduces the incentive for politicians to be personally corrupt, which -- when Singapore started its high-pay policy -- was a huge problem in many parts of east Asia. There are lots of things to argue about in Singapore's polity, but it does seem thoroughly non-corrupt financially.

Rather than encourage the billionaires to go into politics or public service, it might be a better strategy to offer higher rewards to governmental leaders.

Rob Dawg said...

Lance assumes our best and brightest are best utilized in government. I'd much rather the Forrest Gumps of the world than the Donald Trumps.

neubrain said...

Common misconceptions about the Allen Brain Atlas:
http://braintechsci.blogspot.com/2006/10/paul-allen-brain-atlas-misconceptions.html