Mayor Harrell: Fixing Downtown with “Space Needle Thinking”


One thing that was clear when Mayor Bruce Harrell recently kicked off his promised downtown activation plan. It’s that the mayor is dead set on rescuing downtown but he’s still tentative about what it’s going to take to mitigate the city’s drug use epidemic, crucial steps toward bringing life and activity to downtown streets.

At the Pioneer Square press conference, Harrell admitted to reporters that, no, he’s not sure if he’s going the tough-love route — misdemeanors for possession of hard drugs — or if he’s going to rely most heavily on monetary rewards for better behavior. All he’d say is that he’s depending on treatment, treatment, and more treatment.

The mayor’s action plan to combat the fentanyl crisis – the one that has killed 587 people in the city last year — has several parts. First he’s issuing an executive order dispatching paramedics to respond to drug overdoses, stay with those overdosing (“contingency management”), and help them find alternatives. The program will require beefing up the Seattle Fire Department’s three Health One teams.

Secondly, also by executive order, Harrell is initiating a rewards program to persuade drug users to get into treatment. Working with the University of Washington’s drug and alcohol institute, the program will hand out gift cards to get users to accept and stay in recovery. Parts of the program will be managed by Plymouth Housing. The mayor also spoke of creating a new “overdose diversion facility.” He left unanswered questions about budgetary details.

Harrell also is directing the Seattle Police Department to cooperate fully with federal law enforcement to target drug dealers who fuel the lethal fentanyl epidemic. Since 2021, Seattle police have confiscated more than 400 million fentanyl pills — more than enough to kill off the city’s entire population.

City Councilmember Sara Nelson stood beside the mayor at Kasama, a Pioneer Square event venue. Lauding Harrell’s approach, she added, “It’s personal for me.” Nelson said she would not have been standing there were it not for her one-time decision to enter and stay in treatment. She added, “We have a moral obligation to try something new.”

Harrell’s activation kickoff, his so-called “Space Needle thinking,” went on to cite steps he’ll be taking to make downtown safer and more welcoming. He spoke about more lighting on downtown streets, an emphasis on graffiti removal and trash pickup, as well as encouraging firms to return to in-person work.

The mayor said the city would be asking the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board to approve “sip and stroll” permits allowing gallery hoppers to carry plastic cups — likely half-filled with Two-Buck Chuck — from one venue to another. He added the City would help move 20 small businesses owned by women and minorities into vacant storefronts. Additionally, he spoke about reopening City Hall Park with giant chess boards and movie nights. He envisioned making it easy to activate downtown streets with food trucks, pop-up food vendors, puppy yoga, and even pickleball contests.

The mayor had more bread and circuses, some in time for the MLB all-star game at T-Mobile Park next July.  Harrell said he would set an example, pushing harder at getting city workers to return to the office. As in the past, he promised more details to come.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at


  1. There’s a huge irony about cracking down on those who deal and use substance such as fentanyl and sitting down on the streets, and encouraging the use of a legal substance – alcohol – to stroll around the streets looking at art. Et tu, Bruce?

    I am all-in on cracking down on the drug dealers AND demand we change our leniency on drug addicts. But newly-elected Member of Congress Marie Glusenkamp Perez is spot-on when she accuses Democrats of elitism. We have Exhibit #1 right here, at the Harrell Gallery of Grasping Goals, just opened in Pioneer Square. See the empty frames!

  2. City core decay is a huge multi-city issue and people are wisely differentiating homelessness from lawlessness. Kudos to the Mayor for doing more than hand-wringing. What will work? We won’t know until we try some things. At least Harrell is actually doing something to restore a once great city.

  3. No disrespect intended. Mayor Harrell is a vast improvement.
    Having said that there are 100 puzzle pieces in this “crime, drug, Homeless puzzle” and the Mayr’s “Treatment, treatment, treatment” has so far not been an effective puzzle piece.
    And to bring back the “Space Needle” analogy is a step way too far.
    The Mayor wouldn’t join his fellows wanting to upgrade “open drug use” to a higher class of misdemeanor?
    Okay, letting it all out: The “Welcome Home” gifts being distrusted by a non-profit on 3rd Avenue to shoplifters, Homeless and drug addicts? There has to be some City non-profit money in there somewhere.
    There is no “one solution” – treatment is a part of it for sure.
    But the puzzle is still missing too many pieces. Motivation among them.
    Handing out gift bags and ordering Police to “stay with” the “down and out” (literally) just to revive them and encourage “a program.”
    AA has this figured out 100 years ago. : “Until you hit bottom” there is no help – programs or other – that can help. No motivation. No help.
    I know this sounds cruel and it is. But some alcoholics never recover. And neither do some drug addicts.
    How many more puzzle pieces will we look for before figuring out that the City’s job is to guarantee “public safety” and not “public health.”

    • ” The ‘Welcome Home’ gifts being distrusted by a non-profit on 3rd Avenue to shoplifters, homeless and drug addicts? ”


      It hurts to see Seattle (a city people that once flocked to) become such a laughingstock.

  4. The City’s job is to guarantee “public safety” and not “public health.” Great quote, Jim.

    The walking around with wine thing is beyond tone-deaf elitist — it’s just stupid. In the middle of a drug crisis revive the city by encouraging people to walk around self-medicating?

    Today’s story in the Seattle Times about how the Lived Experience Coalition was given one million dollars to run hotels for homeless and managed to piss away 1.7 million and then run out of money with no warning, oversight or plan leaves me in despair about the basic competence of local government. I can’t see voting for any levy of any kind until common sense, accountability and skillful management is restored. Harrell gets points for acknowledging the city’s problems, but the solutions seem based for the most part on fumes and wishful thinking.

    • I agree with Iskra. Wandering around Pioneer Square sipping wine from plastic cups? I’m sorry, Mayor Harrell. The 90s are over. And they’re not coming back again. Please don’t make Seattle a laughing stock.

  5. Space Needle Thinking? In 1962 the Seattle area was on the cusp of an economic boom due to federal government spending (war products from Boeing, & UW funding). Harrell does not see big federal largesse headed here in his crystal ball. That Boeing boom led to the Boeing bust impacts here. The cycle is repeating: the tech boom is over and the ongoing, profound tech bust has yet to fully manifest.

    It’s no wonder Harrell harked back to Space Needle Thinking — he’s hoping for some event that will make large local corporations wealthy. He wants a new Viet Nam War.


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