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Developer Greg Smith may run for Seattle mayor

Seattle developer Greg Smith.

Greg Smith, a real estate developer in Seattle, tells Crosscut he is “seriously considering” running for mayor in 2009. If he ends up challenging Mayor Greg Nickels, who is gearing up and has been raising money for a re-election campaign next year, it would be a surprise, given how close Smith has been to Nickels’ office in recent years.

A political consultant close to Smith explained that the developer has grown increasingly frustrated about the lack of progress on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an issue over which Nickels has been locked in disputes with Gov. Chris Gregoire and state House Speaker Frank Chopp. Another possible cause of friction is the mayor’s stand on preserving industrial zoning in areas south of downtown, where developers like Smith, CEO of Urban Visions, would like to build more housing and commercial space for new economy startups.

This consultant released an Oct. 7 poll, conducted by Constituent Dynamics, a Seattle polling company, that was apparently commissioned by Smith. It shows Nickels’ vulnerability, despite his powerful allies and entrenched political coalition. On the question of approve/disapprove of the way Nickels is handling his job, the split was 31-56. (That rating is up slightly from August, and down slightly from last year.) A somewhat loaded question, designed to bring out resistance to a third term, asked the 1,002 voters if they would “vote to re-elect Greg Nickels to a third term?” The poll was 26 percent in favor of Nickels and 53 percent in favor of an unspecified “another candidate.”

The poll also did some head-to-head contests, with these results: former City Council member Peter Steinbrueck bested Nickels, 39-26, and Councilmember Nick Licata outpolled the mayor, 35-28. Nickels was favored over council President Richard Conlin, 32-25; over Councilmember Sally Clark, 29-25; and over 2001 mayoral finalist Mark Sidran, 32-30. None of these candidates seems likely to run. Conlin says he’ll make up his mind in early December and that right now he’s feeling “really productive on the council.”

Could Smith beat the powerful Nickels operation? He’d have trouble raising money, with many environmentalists, labor leaders, business leaders, and others who do business with the city already corralled by the mayor. On the other hand, Smith is a wealthy man, son of real estate developer Martin Smith, and he could self-fund a major part of the campaign. Smith is a dynamic, gregarious, well-known figure around town and has turned into a green developer who’s got religion on sustainable buildings. His firm has developed projects all over town, particularly downtown and near Pioneer Square. One recent project is hoping to bring a Hard Rock Cafe to near the Pike Place Market.

Smith recently helped form a group, including former Mayor Charles Royer, called the Waterfront Legacy Committee that is pushing for a solution to the Viaduct that opposes any new elevated structure and wants as much open space as possible, though probably with some through-traffic bypass underground. Smith is also a leader in the new Quality Growth Alliance, a developer-oriented organization favoring attractive urban density across the region. He straddles well the groups favoring urban density, housing, environmental sustainability, and urban design. He lives in a splendid penthouse atop a remodeled historic building in the heart of downtown.

Given the past closeness to Nickels and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, the Smith candidacy still seems puzzling. Could there be some other factor? Perhaps he senses that Nickels is going to get a federal appointment from President-elect Barack Obama. Is he pushing Nickels this way to get him to be more decisive on some issues such as the Viaduct? Is he doing the mayor a favor by bluffing out stronger challengers? Smith is out of town on vacation this week and so could not comment.

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