Mayor Dynamite

Greg Nickels got Northgate development unstuck by blowing up the entrenched sides. But is that the best way to make friends? Or to clear icy streets?
Greg Nickels got Northgate development unstuck by blowing up the entrenched sides. But is that the best way to make friends? Or to clear icy streets?

Eric Pryne of The Seattle Times has a good story about the long saga of Northgate in its quest to become an urban center, not just a giant shopping mall. Fifteen years after the battle was joined, about 700 apartments and condos are finally under construction.

The story is revealing about Seattle's glacial politics — a familiar theme — and also about Mayor Greg Nickels' style of leadership. That may be more of an issue after the snowstorm of the past week revived public interest in having a different mayor in 2009 (when Nickels will be seeking his third term).

Nickels has explained his style as "inserting a stick of dynamite" into major impasses that have dragged on for years, and "then putting the pieces together again in a better way." That he did in the Northgate situation, which had become a standoff between neighbors who feared more traffic and used the daylighting of Thornton Creek, running from Northgate to Lake Washington, as a blocking tactic. Former Mayor Paul Schell refused to endorse the expensive creek program as a way to bring back some salmon runs, and that helped tip the Sierra Club endorsement away from him to challenger Nickels. The new mayor inserted his stick of dynamite and by 2004 some agreements were reached, in part due to some shrewd brokering by the City Council.

That meant the 1993 goal of 3,000 new housing units in the transit-friendly Northgate could make some progress. (Only 200 units had been built until recently.) But now that the developers are finally cleared for action, the economy has dampened their enthusiasm. And more battles loom with the neighbors, who want the new projects to prove themselves before allowing wholesale redevelopment.

The Northgate saga is indicative of the problems of densification in Seattle. The area is about as ideal for infill as you can imagine: transit lines, Seattle Community College nearby, all those shops and cinemas, big parking lots for redeveloping into residential complexes. But it's still block-by-block guerrilla politics, mostly because the nearby neighborhoods are resistant to more traffic. Infill remains a great idea in the abstract, but a bloody flag to those living next door.

One political paradox is that Mayor Nickels seems courageous in busting up logjams at Northgate, at South Lake Union, in the University District, but oddly passive about sluggish performance in clearing snow-clogged streets or gang-clogged streetcorners. Can he be as tough on his bureaucracy as he can be on neighborhood activists? He's been in government his whole work life, which can lead to a reflexive instinct to defend it and scowl at citizen complainers.

There's still no sign of a serious challenger to Nickels next fall. But anger over the week of ice might produce a political dynamic that could reward a candidate who is more snow-shovel-ready, and more sympathetic to the ordinary citizens getting wary of rapid growth. My fearless prediction for 2009: a serious challenger will get into the race at the last minute, riding a media wave by the surprise entrance and the chance to criticize the unpopular (but still Teflon-coated) Mayor Dynamite.


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