The Way Back Machine: An Election and the End of Neighborhood Planning

This is part of a series looking back at 20 years of land use, planning, and housing policy history leading up to the state we’re in today. Last I covered my thoughts about why neighborhood planning was a good idea.  Apologies for the many, many names and stories I can’t mention and for anything I got wrong or misremembered. Later, I might go back and do more deep research on all this including interviews and more. 

I started working at the City in the spring of 1999 and the other 5 Neighborhood Development Managers (NDMs) started over the following months. Neighborhood plans were also going to the full City Council for final acceptance and approval. There was a lot of work being done to shift our footing from planning to plan implementation. Starting that fall there would be a number of shocks to the local political landscape that would imperil and then end the implementation process.

Paul Schell and Charlie Chong

It’s worth looking at the 1997 election because it was a contest between a classic Seattle insider and developer (yes, a developer!), Paul Schell and the ultimate outsider and opponent of the Comprehensive Plan and urban village strategy, Charlie Chong. Chong was elected to the City Council in 1996 in a special election to replace Tom Weeks who resigned suddenly late in the year. It’s pretty clear that Chong won because it was a high turnout election year with lots of voters that didn’t typically vote in city elections. And Chong had run before.

Chong rankled his colleagues and decided to gamble and run for the big job. Oddly, thinking back on it now, I was Peter Steinbrueck’s campaign manager that year. Steinbrueck had decided, initially, to run for Mayor. Some musical chairs, though, meant that there was an open Council seat, and he switched. Richard Conlin and Nick Licata were also running in for two different seats. In the end, all three of them got elected with a sense that they were more pro-neighborhood than downtown.

Schell handily defeated Chong, however. As has often been the case, voters sort of sent a mixed message. They elected a developer but also three activists to the Council who had run against downtown.

But by 1999, Schell had emerged very much as the Mayor of neighborhood plan implementation, giving lots of political backing to the effort and real authority to the NDMs. I always got the attention of Department staff and phone calls were returned fast. Schell made it clear that neighborhood planning was a big priority and we were given lots of encouragement to find ways around the bureaucratic nonsense that often plagues City Hall. Even Charlie Chong worked with me on a proposal to replace off street parking backed by Schell. We did have our struggles, but Schell was the real deal.

The WTO, New Years Eve, Mardi Gras, and Missed Opportunities

In late 1999, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was set to have a big meeting in Seattle. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I recalled the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 1993 and I figured it would be more or less the same. I imagined some traffic and a few protesters and some limos flying by and it would all be over. No big deal. I guess everyone else thought that too.

What a mess. The WTO ended up being called The Battle in Seattle, and the rhetoric wasn’t too far off from what we hear today. There was lots of hysterical ranting about capitalism and exploitation. But nobody expected the size of the protests and mess it created downtown. Ordinary people in Seattle trying to get to work and back home were appalled at the violence and the disruption. They blamed Paul Schell.

Not too long after that mess, a guy was picked up with the makings of a bomb in his trunk and the worry was he was planning an attack on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration at the Space Needle. This wasn’t any New Year’s Eve – it was the millennium. Fresh off the shock of the cities total lack of preparation for the WTO mess, Schell canceled the celebration out of an abundance of caution. This was, in retrospect, a really good idea given the events. But Schell was blamed again. He was on the defensive and was quoted in the Sunday Times, on the front page saying, “I am not a wuss! Jesus.

Meanwhile, Schell hadn’t done anything to get a campaign organized and other politicians smelled blood in the water. I’ll never forget the Mayor’s retreat at Sleeping Lady in January of that year. I had a chance to spend some time with the Mayor. I was going to stay in his house in the south of France – Schell was often mocked for his taste and his apartment in France, but his love of travel and hospitality were some of the many reasons I liked the guy so much. Schell and I talked about France and traveling and I asked him about running again. He still wasn’t committing. It was frustrating. I encouraged him to move faster.

Later I wrote a long memo to him that I never sent. I felt like the Mayor wasn’t being served well by his political advisors and staff. There was so much good he was doing. I asked, specifically, that we start to encourage more intelligent leverage of ribbon cuttings of neighborhood planning projects, school and library projects Schell had championed, and getting him doing more retail politics. His staff seemed self absorbed and unconcerned about the political crisis that was deepening around him.

Then there was Mardi Gras. In a weird twist, police sort of held back as Mardi Gras celebrations got more and more out of control. The police chief supposedly had his forces back away, worried about a repeat of the police violence people saw at WTO. A young man was attacked by a group of people in Pioneer Square; he ran and jumped over what he thought was a parapet and fell to his death. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s press secretary, when asked about the Mayor, said he was at home asleep. Jesus.

The Mayor was finally running for reelection, but by now it was feeling like it was too late. County Councilman Greg Nickels and City Attorney Mark Sidran were now running too, and as the summer wore on it looked worse and worse. A great story that ran in the Seattle P-I that summer probably told it best.

Schell said,

“I want to be the mayor that asks, ‘What can we do together?'”

He wanted to bring back a time when people pitched in to help others. Like his father, an Iowa Lutheran minister, he wanted to appeal to the better nature of people, though his pulpit would be at City Hall.

That idealism has attracted an intensely loyal group of followers. But idealism — and perhaps political naivete — may help make him the first incumbent mayor in 65 years to be dumped in the primary election.

And that’s exactly what happened. Schell became the first of a succession of Mayors that would go down to defeat trying to get reelected finishing third in the primary.

New Mayor, Old School Politics

Just like that, a decades long era of neighborhood planning and implementation was over. Voters just didn’t care. They wanted someone strong at the helm, and that’s what they got with Greg Nickels, a gifted career politician for whom everything was political. The first thing Nickels did to show who was boss was to fire much beloved Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers. It made sense. The City had come to revolve around neighborhood plan implementation and it wasn’t Nickels’ creation. He could own it, or kill it. He killed it.

Then there as a bust in what was then called the dot com sector. Many of the web based business just couldn’t produce results and folded, wiping out a lot of invested cash in the stock market. Along with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the economy was now officially in trouble. The survivors were Nickels and Amazon, but for most of Nickels years in office the city didn’t face a lot of issues with rampant growth. Potholes were filled, trains were getting built to run on time, and everyone knew exactly who was in charge. The freewheeling days of neighbors and departments working together to shape projects were over.

I’ve likened what Nickels did with neighborhood planning (by the way I left the City just before the election for Public Health Seattle King County to be a Regional Health Officer) to the way the Bush administration just disbanded the Iraqi army after the successful invasion of Iraq in 2003; those soldiers just wandered off in the desert with their guns and their deeply local and ethnic affiliations and later turned into an insurgent force.

Neighbors were the same. After a decade of planning and meeting and implementing, it was just done. Neighbors just melted back into the neighborhoods and their lawns and gardens. Sure, individual projects stirred up resistance but there was no longer a neighborhood movement to be reckoned with. Even Neighborhood Service Centers and their staff were given a back seat or left by the side of the road. City Hall and the 7th floor of the new City Hall building was where the power was. And with not a lot of growth, there wasn’t a lot to be worried about either. City Council struggled for relevance in the face of a very disciplined machine upstairs. Nickels didn’t have a big vision, but he got things done.

The Calm Before the Storm

In 2002 I ran a losing campaign for the Washington State Legislature based largely on creating a state income tax. I had worked for a decade to position myself for the run, but somewhere a long the way I lost my interest and my passion for it. Raising money was a hassle. People who I thought would be my biggest supporters shrugged. I loved debating, but I hated doorbelling. And my opponent was an unemployed techie who really needed a job. I had a great job with almost no commute. Why did I want to be a freshman state legislator again?

The following years I spent becoming the much-hated Tobacco Tsar, tasked with snuffing out smoking in King County. I learned a lot and didn’t much pay attention to City politics anymore. During those years, the war in Iraq seemed to occupy much discussion, as did the completion of light rail.

I did my job as Tobacco Tsar too well, and in May of 2007 I was abruptly dumped by King County. I wrote a letter to giant grocery store chains Safeway and QFC urging them to stop selling tobacco products in their stores. That along with hundreds of thousands we invested in local artists to counter smoking and tobacco sponsorships in the arts community was too much. I was essentially fired. I worked for a while that summer with Michael McGinn in his start up, The Great City Initiative, studied for a real estate license, and then went to work for Peter Steinbrueck at the City Council for his last months in office. It was an appropriate and ironic entry back into city politics.

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