I nominate a new culprit for Seattle’s political malaise. Lingering, malingering indecision.
The causes are many for this paralyzing oscillation. There’s the who’s-in-charge guessing game between the city council and the mayor’s office, sometimes referred to as our 10-mayor system. There’s the city council deadlock between the two equal-strength factions of liberalism, Hard Left and Soft Left.
Add to this the tentativeness of recent Seattle mayors. Mike McGinn was a surprise winner and poorly prepared for the job. Ed Murray was certainly decisive in the legislative practice of locking key players in a room and not letting them out until a messy compromise was reached. But Mayor Murray seems in retrospect to have glanced over his shoulder at dangerous revelations, which finally toppled him. Jenny Durkan didn’t want the job and didn’t want to learn how to do it effectively, so she temporized.
As for Mayor Bruce Harrell, he was known during his city council years for being slow to decide, not tipping his hand, and then casting the tie-breaking vote. He is said to be determined to break the curse of the one-term mayors and so is bent on keeping his coalition of odd bedfellows together, rather than risking divisive decisiveness.
An emblem of this is the reported battling between Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell, who ran the Harrell campaign and is determined to keep the Left in the Harrell camp, and on the other hand Tim Burgess, director of strategic initiatives, whose job is to court the moderates and the business community. Equilibrium Rules! Mayor Harrell delays sorting out his “team of rivals.”
The result of this hedging is a risk-averse city, since you don’t know which way the wind is blowing, where to invest, and which “leader” to follow or fight. At the national level, Democrats create the same problem by assemling and rewarding an unstable coalition of interest groups.
Here are some of the big issues hanging fire:
Downtown streetcar. Mayor Durkan kicked this one down the road, and so far Mayor Harrell is following suit. Downtown retail is suffering, and the city transportation director has repackaged the First Avenue connection of two stubbed-off lines as the “Cultural Connector.” That’s a stretch since the new streetcar would avoid both Seattle Center and the arts core downtown. Building the line would have an adverse effect on narrow First Avenue, which means developers hesitate. Even Warren Buffett opposes the streetcar idea for Omaha: too fixed, too slow, too expensive. Solution: Disconnect the Connector.
Rapprochement with Amazon. We can’t go on this way, you two, since Amazon is the big gorilla in development and employment. Somebody needs to work out a post-nup agreement involving taxes, urbanism, and housing. Leader: Rachel Smith, new head of the revitalized Chamber of Commerce.
New direction for the arts. The current ruling idea is diversity and inclusion, which will help attract some new audiences but also drive up costs. Meanwhile downtown arts venues, particularly at night, will suffer for years. My recommendation: downsize, incubate, and innovate. Also: design and build a new performance complex in Southeast Seattle. Leader: ArtsFund’s Sung Yang.
Affordable starter housing. Everyone complains and yet the costs keep rising. The current proposal of upzoning to encourage backyard dwellings will just produce civil war, higher taxes, and stalemate. A better solution is to build modern “dormitories” with smaller rooms, common areas for socializing, and opportunities for wealth-building investment. Also: fast transit out to the outlying towns, where land costs are reasonable. Leaders for this: Forterra and Transportation Choices.
A new economic model. Boeing has moved to Chicago and now to D.C. Amazon and tech have thrown in with suburbia, not Starbucky urbanism. Tech employment is now on a roller
coaster and the sector faces political and consumber backlash. So, Seattle needs a new ruling paradigm, lest tourism (with its low wages) move into the vacuum. Best idea so far: more colleges (including transplants), more technical education (including off-hours at Seattle school buildings), universal pre-K, selective public high schools. Leader for this reorientation: UW’s Ana Mari Cauce.
New model for downtown. Make it curiosity-driven by subsidizing high-character startup stores. Strongly favor residential, especially for human-scaled smaller buildings. Lots of arts: storefront galleries and theaters, more daytime matinees, buskers, book stalls, art-rich playgrounds. Lead people down to the new waterfront park by intricate, small-scale shops and gathering nooks. Animate the ground floors of places like ACT, the Moore, Seattle Children’s Theater. Create a combined, venturesome combo of foundations to fund these vitalizations, including lots of free tickets. Leader: Ben Franz-Knight, former head of the Pike Place Market.
Resolve the police wars. Back and forth we go between hiring more police and failing to get started alternative approaches. Work it out by increasing funding for both cops and social-service groups, adding accountability to the dollars. Leader for this resolution: Jim Pugel.