What Ails Seattle? Chronic Indecision


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.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. Transportation Choices? What do you suppose they’ll have to say about junking the Connector? They’re the industry lobbyist organization, and their “choices” follow from that, not from serving the public interest. Forterra’s direction sounds good, but it might be a good idea to wait for something of theirs to turn out better than their deal with the Snoqualmie. Dormitories with wealth building investment opportunities? I guess I’m interested to hear more about this. Sounds like a TV comedy – mom & dad, come over and see our starter dorm room! It’s cross linked timber!

    In Portugal where there’s also been a significant rise in housing costs, the government’s talking about an end to new short term tourist accommodations, and some other kind of inconsequential measures that don’t apply here. But like here, no one says a word about the effect of real estate investors who are packaging housing into financial commodities. Seattle can’t fix that on its own, but if our brave council members really wanted to strike a blow against the evils of capitalism, here’s one that’s pretty real, and they could at least speak up.

  2. To say that ending short term tourist accommodations doesn’t apply here may be missing a critical fact. Registered “STRs” in Seattle are approaching 7,000 units and growing fast. Not only is this a horrible utilization of available housing, but it is punishing a hotel industry that is still reeling from Covid and the tech crowd heading for the exits.
    For Seattle to thrive, we need to repopulate the city with full hotels and permanent residents to help protect our mean streets at all hours. Limiting non-hotel rentals to a 3 week minimum (like Palm Springs and Honolulu) may be a very impactful step in our recovery.

    • People need to understand that those growing AirBNBs are not growing to compete with hotels, but rather in response to the ludicrously anti-landlord policies that the Seattle City Council HARD Left have implemented. Why would any sane person rent a house, apartment, ADU, or DADU when they cannot pick who they want to rent to, they have to take in felons if that felon gets there first, they have to increase their risk of damage by spreading out deposits over 6-months, and it can take a year or more to evict a non-payer? Instead of taking that risk, my ultra-liberal neighbors have all put their duplex units and ADUs in the AirBNB market, at least until a new City Council majority can repeal the worst of those anti-landlord laws. We must end the thinking that anyone who owns an “extra” housing unit is somehow greedy for wanting to collect rent that pays for the unit, the ever-increasing property taxes and insurance costs, maintenance and any other costs. Do we want seniors to stay in their own homes? Many of us are “property rich” only because the market skyrocketed since we bought our homes 10-20 years ago (or more), but we are relatively cash-poor. To take on such risk as to rent to strangers under these conditions is simply a bad business decision. Seattle City Council was warned repeatedly that those regulations enacted the past 4-6 years were going to cause small landlords to leave the market. They have, by the thousands. If you want to make it worse still, crack down on short term rentals and watch those small landlords sell out to developers, who will not be building affordable housing, but rather, 6-pack townhouses that will sell for $1M each, or more.

      • Feisty, I couldn’t agree more. The issue must be attacked on both fronts. But regardless of who is at fault, the ugly unintended consequences keep mounting.

      • If the WA state legislature was serious about ending predatory rental increases on lower-income people — they would take on the powerful nursing home and assisted living industries.

        • Whaaaaaaaaaa???? the heck are you talking about? These are completely separate issues. “Predatory” rental increases have absolutely nothing to do with long term care homes. And, BTW, the nursing home “industry” is not “powerful” at all; there is but one small association, and fewer than 300 nursing homes in Washington. And while the number of assisted living communities are growing, they are not doing so at nearly the rate of need for them.

          • “The growing number of assisted living communities.” Let’s take a look at the ones that are proliferating in Puget Sound. Aegis. Empress. Do you have any idea what the monthly rents are at those facilities? And how much they increase every year? As for the beleaguered, non powerful nursing home industries in Washington and elsewhere. A Washington Post writer tells a different story. “New findings from Democratic staff for the House panel investigating the nation’s pandemic response could bolster the Biden administration’s case for the policy opposed by the powerful nursing home industry.”

            You’ll notice the article at
            has a byline of an actual person, Rachel Roubein, not someone posting behind a moniker.

  3. Interesting commentary, David. But no mention of ballooning city budget to pay for all the progressive ideas. $5B to $7B is quite a jump. Not to mention the regional housing authority’s $12B ask to build, what? Belt tightening at city hall will be required as businesses move from Seattle to Bellevue

  4. “I nominate a new culprit for Seattle’s political malaise. Lingering, malingering indecision.”

    Seattle used have lawyers who were extremely decisive, like Harold Shefelman (World’s Fair) and Jim Ellis (Forward Thrust). The politicians followed their leads.
    Where are the big civic-remake ideas from today’s young ambitious lawyers?

  5. Sorry, perhaps that was ambiguous. Portugal is doing a couple of things. One of them is about short term accommodations. Another is inapplicable here.

    Short term rentals do subtract from permanent housing, to an extent anyway. When it’s an entire separate unit. We wouldn’t be the first jurisdiction to take that up.

    We would however be the first jurisdiction I know of to propose any action against exploitive corporate financialization of housing.

  6. “The current proposal of upzoning to encourage backyard dwellings…”

    Is there a proposal for D/ADUs beyond the proposal which was enacted into law about 4 years ago?

    • DB,
      I‘m still puzzled.
      I’ve been following the DADU story closely (and even built a DADU ) and the legislation (led very well by Mike O’Brien) is one of the very few achievements, in my view, of the City of Seattle in the last five or six years.
      So I’m confused about your statement.
      Is there more D/ADU legislation pending?

      • Look up HB 1110 and its companion SB 5190. These bills mandate significantly more density and remove a LOT of local control from cities. Also recommend loosening SEPA restrictions for housing. The hearing for HB 1110 is at 1:30 today.

  7. Missing in this analysis is the person of clout and respect who can spearhead making good decisions. A friend writes with some nominees: Cauce of UW, or the 3 university presidents as a team; Brad Smith of Microsoft; a team of a labor leader, a banker, and arts leader, and Denis Hayes of Bullitt Foundation; Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke.

  8. Until city can get serious about dealing with the homeless, all other issues are meaningless. KC Homeless Authority and its ruler are a big part of the problem. The sooner that agency is disbanded or refocused, the better.

  9. While the list of potential initiatives is good grist, maybe another approach is worthy. Maybe Seattle just damaged itself. Too big. Too crowded. Too expensive. Seattle might be better off with 25,000 fewer employees. Twenty percent lower rents, apartments and commercial. Just Less. Let the city catch up. It got overheated. Yes, there are people who could lead changes but none of them can change the basic economic calculus. I’m not opposed to interventions, but many of them are to mitigate strains caused by a city that got expensive and angry.

  10. Remembering a pre-Amazon Seattle with a Boeing HQ, pre-Amazon, reasonable housing and lower taxes. Nostalgia.
    Can we start with public safety please?

    • And yet, nobody considered Seattle affordable in 2010 (before Amazon really took off) and complained about some other thing. Seems impossible to evaluate the city on its own merits without being cynical or injecting some standards from a bygone era. It actually can get worse! Let’s find some things to live about our city.

  11. David, of course, my question will be on the arts: when you say downsizing, what do you mean? I think that small and mid-size organizations can increase their impact and lower their costs by collaborating more often, which can include sharing spaces and infrastructure. Efficiency can be the enemy of inspiration and creativity; however, if we view it less as sacrificing our resources and take on the idea of having a larger, more, integrated social mind about succeeding (intstead of survival) we might have those galleries and arts centers in the corrior you’ve mentioned filled with art and music.

    Still, I worry that our primary funders and donors aren’t able to keep up with their own rising costs, slowing growth or even sustenence for many arts orgs. Artists can no longer afford to live here; we need working class afordable housing dedicated to supporting artists and craftspeople, or they will continue to move elsewhere to work and live. The arts will downsize by atrition if we don’t consider the economic impact on cultural workers themselves. (Ahem.)

    Thanks always for your pinpoint insight.

    • Scott: By downsizing I mean adapting to the diminished support by foundations and audiences. I like the Opera’s initiatives in chamber opera, recitals, and orchestral versions. I like Seattle Chamber Music Society’s small recitals and combining professional musicians with high-school students. Combining these efforts with more outreach will also free up some social-impact funding. The wrong path is to expect Seattle performing arts to return to the Lincoln Center model of big budgets, big houses, big expectations.

  12. The David Sucher comment on ADU is spot on.

    The David Brewster suggestion to kill the CCC Streetcar is correct; his comment on the Durkan role is incomplete; the Murray-Kubly SDOT CCC Streetcar plan was a scandalous disaster; Durkan studied and paused it, challenging the Council to fund it; they have not done so yet. Spotts is not spot on regarding the CCC Streetcar. We have to consider the opportunity cost of the capital, right of way, and service subsidy. The Durkan estimate was $288 million; it will be higher with inflation and a need to get new streetcars; scarce SDOT capital is needed on many projects (e.g., pavement management, sidewalks, RR capital, bridges; why does Spotts not see this?). Any new service subsidy would be better used outside downtown where waits for transit are longer. The 1st Avenue right of way would be better used for already funded bus routes; several could be shifted to 1st Avenue from 3rd Avenue, providing shorter waits than under the Murray-Kubly plan. We also do not need the 2019 DSA plan to spend millions on 3rd Avenue to make transit flow worse. The several issues are intertwined: homelessness, empty offices, transit security, transit ridership.
    David Brewster: what is the downtown arts center aside from SAM, Benaroya, and Pioneer Square? They are near the goofy CCC Streetcar, but could all can be better served by a robust Link and bus network.

  13. Sometimes difficult situations need an extra shove to solve. How about creating a sales tax free zone in the downtown core for 6 to 12 months. Maybe even free parking for same amount of time. Bring the people back and the business will follow.

  14. “The current proposal of upzoning to encourage backyard dwellings will just produce civil war, higher taxes, and stalemate.”

    The only D/ADU proposal I’ve heard about was passed into law in summer 2019 and based on casual observation looks as if
    1. No pushback from neighbors;
    2. Significant numbers of new backyard dwellings.

    Certainly your proposal for different housing forms (“dorms”) is a fair one but it’s going to have to be in addition to the already-existing D/ADU regulations.

    I agree with you that we could be doing a lot more by encouraging the evolution of the current D/ADU law and if that’s what you’re proposing, I would agree with you completely that we could build on the existing regulations and improve them.

    I’m really glad you have come around and are a big fan of the new D/ADU law which was passed unanimously in 2019.

    Slow incremental steady change is good! That’s the democratic conservative way!

  15. Casual observation, indeed. The only post 2019 year I see data for is 2020, when there were 513 new accessory units. Up from an average of 271 for the four previous years, but only 5% of the new apartment construction for the same year. While it was a slow year for construction overall, we ought to expect a lot of “pent up demand” to appear in the first year or two after a major upzone, so when the numbers are in for 2022 – where they expected an incredible 15,000 new apartments – it wouldn’t be surprising if the accessory units are down.

    As to how much the neighbors like them … no one has asked, that I know of.

  16. Jim and Phil have raised the truly salient point: who will come to Seattle’ downtown unless some group eliminates the homeless and public safety problems? This applies to businesses, shoppers, tourists and potential residents. Many years ago I chose to live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood because it was a great place to raise a family and because of it’s proximity to downtown. I recently dropped my yearly subscription to ACT and now any interesting event downtown involves a deliberation over possible interaction with panhandlers and addicts. It literally breaks my heart to see what has happened to the city I used to brag about.


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