The passion of Peter Steinbrueck

The Seattle architect leaves the wild ride of the City Council for calmer waters. But with his vision for a sustainable city and commitment to civic activism, he won't be coasting.
Crosscut archive image.

Former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck. (Seattle Channel)

The Seattle architect leaves the wild ride of the City Council for calmer waters. But with his vision for a sustainable city and commitment to civic activism, he won't be coasting.

It's a funny thing to watch the kids you went to high school with grow up and, in some cases, become important people in town. Last Friday, Dec. 14, they had a goodbye party at City Hall for Peter Steinbrueck, who is wrapping up a decade on the Seattle City Council. He chose not to seek re-election. (Bruce Harrell will be taking his seat.) Peter will be diving back into his first passion: architecture and urban planning. He'll be teaching this winter at the University of Washington's School of Architecture and Urban Planning and hanging out his shingle as a consultant in sustainable urban design. He'll also write (including for Crosscut) and plans to do radio commentary.

I first got to know Peter when we were students at Lakeside, the north-end prep school famously known as Bill Gates' alma mater. In that era, we were explicitly told that Lakeside was charged with grooming the next generation of civic leaders. There's an apocryphal story about the Lakeside kids cheering at a basketball game they were losing "That's all right, that's OK, you'll all work for us someday!"

That wasn't hard to believe when classmates and alums had names like Pigott, Weyerhaeuser, Blethen, and Nordstorm. Peter's dad, Victor, was famous, too, but he wasn't a timber or retail baron, he was a well-known troublemaker, the guy credited with mounting the citizen insurgency to save the Pike Place Market. Peter was not a trust-fund kid but a classic long-haired, surly, smart, funny, and angry young man. You'd hardly have picked him for a guy to be most likely to look good in a suit and tie accepting a plaque for a decade's service on the City Council.

But there he was. Handsome in a dark suit, a man who looks younger than he should at 50. The hippie bangs that used to fall over his face are long gone. A sign on the wall posted by his family declared, "Welcome back Dad." His wife and kids were there, his two teenage sons providing the evening's musical entertainment, one in a jazz combo and the other giving the crowd of well-wishers a brief Beethoven piano recital. No one seems like a political prop: You sense that here's a bright, loving family that's happy to celebrate Dad's return from politics.

Despite the picture of respectability, Steinbrueck has never really lost his edge, his ability to piss people off, his concern for the homeless, for affordable housing, for the environment, for building a city that is not only beautiful and green, but socially just. Never considered a team player on the council, Peter often angered his fellow council members by going his own way. As council mates Nick Licata, Jan Drago, and Richard Conlin, and staffers and associates stepped up to the microphone to pay tribute, the word they all seemed to use was "passion." Though Peter can cite the details of the city's land-use code, he isn't really a wonk. He's a guy driven by deep feeling about what kind of city Seattle ought to be.

That city, he suggests, is not unlike the Pike Place Market, which is now inextricably tied to the Steinbrueck name. Both father and son have saved it from ruin, Victor from the city fathers who sought to tear it down and Peter from the New York investors who planned to carve it up. Seattle can be vibrant, diverse, habitable for rich and poor, deeply rooted in history and unabashedly urban. The market isn't just the soul of the city but a roadmap of how we can become a city for all people, how we can grow without losing our essential character. Some of Peter's greatest work on the council – fighting over building heights or to preserve industrial lands or working for affordable housing or pushing for an eco-friendly comprehensive plan – all come back to this vision.

In that, he may have been unique on the council, not simply for having such a clear vision for the city but also the training, as an architect, to see how it could all come together, one saved landmark, one low income apartment, one line of code at a time. I asked City Council President Nick Licata who will take Steinbrueck's place in the city council ecosystem. He said no one. The incoming council members, Harrell and Tim Burgess, will be dynamic but different, Licata predicts. Peter's departure will "shift the ecosystem," he said.

So, too, the ecosystem of Steinbrueck's life. Peter told us that he had a dream that he was floating on a river through a complex urban landscape, wooshing and bouncing along as he pointed out various buildings and landmarks. He suddenly plunged into a watery abyss. When he landed, he was floating in a beautiful, natural pool surrounded by forest. He felt calm and at peace.

The wild ride, he said, was a metaphor for Wild Waves (every parent knows Wild Waves), and Wild Waves symbolized his City Council career. He's had a wild ride and is now headed for a pleasant respite from the rapids and whirlpools of city politics – features that are nicely represented, by the way, in the manmade creeks and fountains of the new city hall, which gush and crash through their courses, much like the waters on Madison Street during last year's 100-year storm.

Given his youth, energy, and passion, I don't think anyone thought they were saying goodbye to Peter. In fact, he says emphatically, "I do not plan to 'retire' in any way from civic life (ever!)." He's still a maverick, but now one with 10 years of training in the ways of city government, an outsider with insider's savvy.

As such, Peter Steinbrueck leaves the council more dangerous than when he joined – and that's a good thing. He can now pick and choose his battles (he's committed, for example, to making sure the waterfront becomes viaduct-free). He can help rejuvenate the city's activist corps and he has the resume (and suits) for a credible establishment takeover. Many of Steinbrueck's political friends believe he's still the best alternative to another Greg Nickels mayoral term, or is at the very least well-positioned for the post-Nickels scramble, whenever that occurs.

He won't float in that sylvan pool forever.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.