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Remembering Paul Schell

Paul Schell, as mayor in 1999 Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives/Wikipedia

Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who died Sunday morning at the age of 76, was one of the rare defining figures of our political history. He played an inspiring role, releasing the city’s creative juices from the 1970s onward. He and Pam, his inseparable partner, were good friends to me and to hundreds of others. It’s hard to imagine our region without him and his spirit.

Schell suffered the ignominy of losing his re-election race in 2001, and he took that loss very hard during his years in semi-exile on Whidbey Island. But any appraisal of his accomplishments must take the long view, for this remarkable man compiled a long list of civic achievements.

Redeveloping parts of Seattle’s downtown while heading Cornerstone Development, a Weyerhaeuser affiliate, as well as admired projects in Tacoma and Portland, pioneering mixed-use urban projects in all three cities. The same for the Seattle central waterfront while a Port Commissioner. Guiding the renovation of the Pike Place Market as part of then-Mayor Wes Uhlman’s impressive team.  Steering legislation to help the arts while president of Allied Arts. Helping Langley to develop a rich community life, and building elegant small hotels there and elsewhere. And then, as mayor during the boom times of the late 1990s, building new libraries, community centers and parks, all over town; stirring neighborhoods into better urban planning and community-directed projects; doubling the funding for the homeless 

He loved the city for its confidence, pluck and creativity. And no mayor or political leader of our times better exemplified these qualities. I suspect we’ll see this more clearly now that Paul has passed, finally paying him his proper due. He was more loved than he knew, or than we knew.

One reason for so many accomplishments, particularly regarding Seattle’s physical environment, is that Schell and his wife Pam were very good and steady friends to a long list of talented civic activators. He was always spotting talent and placing it well. He was unstoppable: taking friends like Tom Alberg out of his law office for a lunchtime walk to see possibilities for better urban design in downtown, or driving former City Councilmember Bruce Chapman to neighborhoods that he appreciated when Chapman would drop by the Schell home after church on Sundays. “Hey, can I try an idea on you?” he would say to us, over and over, as our eyebrows rose.

“Paul was restless and infectious,” says his good friend Eileen Quigley, who helped with his mayoral transition. “A deeply civic-minded visionary with one idea after another. Working with him was both inspiring and challenging, but being his friend was a true delight. He was incredibly generous and compassionate toward me.”

Schell never lacked for ideas, some of them ahead of their time or too disruptive of the complacent status quo. Sell Key Tower (that got the city council in opposition early in his mayoral term); illuminate bridges as Paris does; route Sound Transit directly south from downtown rather than the long detour of Rainier Valley; bid for the 2012 Olympics; high-speed rail to Portland to obviate the need for the third runway at Sea-Tac; turn Memorial Stadium into a kind of Butchart Gardens; put a park atop the Viaduct; bike-taxis.

But he also applauded ideas from his wide circle of creative people, suggesting ways to implement them and urging them to others. The result was a vast network of smart, motivated, idealistic, grateful civic actors. This was the secret of Schell’s effectiveness and why his impact rippled outward. Paul helped me on three of my brainstorms: the Mark Tobey Pub, the quarterly “The New Pacific,” and the launching of Crosscut.com. He liked doing tough and high-minded things, and served as a kind of inspiring John F. Kennedy to his generation locally. His new friend in Langley, the leading American editor and historian Bob Merry, praises Schell’s “indomitable spirit and lovely disposition.”

Schell was an architect without portfolio. He was always seeing things that could be better designed: manhole covers, an alley, an old industrial space that could be a vibrant Italian restaurant, an idle pier that could be a museum. Virginia Anderson, part of the talented crop of employees who worked for Schell at Cornerstone and later as the dynamic director of Seattle Center, notes that Schell was “an artist of the public sphere,” a phrase that captures him well and underscores his rarity as a mayor.

We had a hard time placing him and appreciating him because he was both behind and ahead of the times. He was a mismatch for Seattle’s politics during his 1998 to 2002 term as mayor just as his shy and thin-skinned personality made him miscast for politics generally. “Behind the times” because he exemplified the design politics of the 1970s (saving the Market, battling freeways) that had pretty much run its course. Had Schell been elected mayor in 1977, when he was defeated by Charles Royer, running as a populist, Schell would have been at the head of the parade. By 1997, when Schell defeated Charlie Chong, he was a nostalgic candidate, wondering what happened to the parade.

“Ahead of the times” as well, because Schell introduced a sophisticated agenda for the creative class, much as Seattle’s economy was turning into entrepreneurial disruption. One reason for this was Schell’s restless creativity. Another was his background as a port commissioner, hotelier and private developer — experience that translated into pushing through obstacles, meeting deadlines, satisfying investors. (No other Seattle mayor has had business experience for 50 years.) Like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schell wanted to innovate, to challenge bureaucratic sludginess, to step on the gas. His deputy mayor, Maud Daudon, says, “Paul wanted to get a huge number of things done for the city in a short time.”

Given all that, it's little wonder that when he erred, mostly by not paying enough attention to police issues, resulting in  the WTO and Mardi Gras riots, the judgment of the city and the voters and the media was harsh.

The irony is that Seattle turned out to be pretty much the kind of gentrified, globalized, expensive, progressive, churning kind of city that the Microsoft/Amazon economy was bound to produce and which Mayor Schell anticipated.

Paul Schell had wonderful human qualities: humor, warmth, loyalty, irreverence, trust, curiosity, idealism, lovability. Such qualities can be political liabilities, and Schell always put himself dangerously above politics and sealed himself off from dissenting voices. He was shy in public, though bursting with public spiritedness. A doer, he bridled at the doubters, particularly in the media.

In the end, I think of him as the oldest son of a Lutheran minister growing up in a tiny burg in Iowa, and like his dad, Ervin Schlachtenhaufen, walking the streets, building community, following a high calling. “A politician gives people what they want,“ Churchill once observed. “A statesman gives them what they need.”

Indispensable — but hard to appreciate at the time.

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