Thanks, Seattle Center! The mayor needed that

In forging a deal in the back rooms for Seattle Center, Mayor McGinn provided a first instance of mastering the weapons of his office.

Crosscut archive image.

The proposed Dale Chihuly museum rendered from the southeast corner of the Seattle Center.

In forging a deal in the back rooms for Seattle Center, Mayor McGinn provided a first instance of mastering the weapons of his office.

The year-end report cards on local politics are rolling in. One of the more interesting, and surprising, is the assessment of Mayor Mike McGinn filed by Erica Barnett of Publicola, the most indefatigable reporter at City Hall. Normally aligned with McGinn on issues, Barnett gives the mayor a very negative summing up. The main problem, she writes, is that McGinn has so few allies that he can't get much done. As a result, the action has shifted to the City Council.

Barnett puts her finger on one problem: McGinn remains a single-issue politician (fighting the waterfront tunnel). I agree, and would add that another big problem is disorganization, and the lack of experienced lieutenants to get these other jobs done. Some department heads I know find it so hard to figure out whom to report to that they repair to the City Councilmember in charge of their area, have a good discussion, and get some clear leadership. The council has never been more together, or felt more heady.

That said, there was an interesting exception to this picture just last week, having to do with the decision on the Chihuly exhibit hall at Seattle Center. Suddenly, Mayor Mike was behaving like mayors of old, patching together political deals behind closed doors, keeping the council largely in the dark, and then rolling out the decision with a well-coordinated press event that wowed all the local media. Hmmm.

Up until a month or so ago, the mayor was his usual elusive self on this issue. Originally he signalled his tempered approval of the Chihuly plan. Then, when the criticism got hot, he insisted on his neutrality, on leaving the matter in the hands of Seattle Center director Robert Nellams, and on wanting to do "what the people want." The predictable mess ensued, with ideas popping up, advocates not knowing whom to lobby, and vaguely empowered citizens' panels weighing in ambiguously.

In fact, it was much like the days of Mayor Greg Nickels. The three most powerful voices all played an inside game, bent the mayor's ear, and eventually got satisfaction. One always knew the Space Needle-Chihuly juggernaut would win — way too many generous political supporters in that camp — so it was just a question of how many concessions they would cough up. It was pretty clear, given the mayor's political base of youth and popular music, that KEXP would get a sweet deal, even if it is off in a kind of Siberia zone of the Center, the forlorn northwest corner. The environmental artist Lorna Jordan wore down resistance to her green arts park idea, and won a vague promise for further consideration in the suddenly-appearing open space in the north Fun Forest and the slope leading down to the football field.


In the previously operative script, all this mayoral deal-making and favor-dispensing would have run into a skeptical City Council. Yet there was Sally Bagshaw, erstwhile foe of the Chihuly plan as an unwarranted seizure of public space for commercial gain, standing alongside the mayor and saluting Chihuly and the new plan. The city council had been excluded from the negotiations between the mayor and the Center's Nellams, but they could be heard emitting a large sigh of relief that they didn't have to poke all the sleeping dogs at the Center, and that they could protest their deep love for rock and roll. (KEXP provided a brilliant deflection from the politically tricky ratifying of the Chihuly plan; and Dale Chihuly was notably absent at the press conference.)

Another tacit benefit of the deal is that the Center's once-vaunted Master Plan — unanimously endorsed by the council some years back but without a prayer of finding the money — could endure three big violations and be quietly interred. (The three changes: no park, no community meeting rooms in the northwest corner, no parking garage with park and amphitheater on top replacing Memorial Stadium.)  Here was mayoral finesse indeed.

In retrospect, the council opposition fizzled out once there was an open competition for the Fun Forest Pavilion that the Chihuly folks wanted. That competition validated the usage of the pavilion, supposed to be torn down for public open space. The rapidly produced ideas all made the Space Needle plan look better, since it was the only entity with any money to build anything and pay (albeit low) rent. The anti-Chihuly legions fractured into feuding little platoons. (I speak with knowledge, being part of the platoon seeking a park space there and earning zilch public and media support. Our group, called FROG for Friends of the Green at Seattle Center, turned into the FROG that croaked.)

What the council opponents should have done, early on when they held this position, is say to the Needle that it can have its Chihuly, but not smack in the middle of public open space. They did say this. The Needle folks said no way. And the council immediately folded, shifting to getting some concessions like 9 percent of glass sales and some money for the arts park.

Somebody had to end this spectacle before the Center was forced to give away still more sweetheart leases to mayoral and council favorites. The mayor stepped into this vacuum, used one of his few veteran political operatives, Ethan Raup, to knock heads together, and produced a clumsy resolution that everyone frantically saluted.

And so the rookie mayor ends his year with a pretty impressive victory, and a sign that he's learning the ropes. To be sure, this is the kind of please-everybody politics that has turned Seattle Center into a kind of failed state, ripe for the plucking. But it may also prove to be an object lesson in how to be a mayor, not just a single-issue pied piper.


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