Can Seattle get its leadership groove back?

The secret to urban success, says Ron Sims, is regional coherence. How do you achieve that? Leadership. But where does that come from, and how does it work? History offers some examples.

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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

The secret to urban success, says Ron Sims, is regional coherence. How do you achieve that? Leadership. But where does that come from, and how does it work? History offers some examples.

It was refreshing to see Ron Sims in the Crosscut offices last week. He's back from Washington, DC, slimmer than you remember, good humored, passionate, frank: a man clearly enjoying his sabbatical from heavy responsibilities and the circus of public life. Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development wasn't a fit; a new appointment to the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council is. But HUD was a great place for Sims to learn about rejuvenating cities. 

In the final years of Sims' tenure as King County Executive, he seemed less interested in governing than in innovating. He began to view his office less as a bully pulpit than a think tank full of fresh young fellows, a place to try new ideas, such as revamping the county's approach to healthcare, one experiment that appears to have worked. David Brewster once called him a "true geyser" of visionary ideas.

One of the things on Sims mind these days is regional leadership. The short version is this: what Sims has learned traveling to urban areas around the U.S. with the power of federal HUD grants behind him, is that even in the age of cities, no particular city is guaranteed success (see Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis). It is possible to get to the top of the heap and slide into decline.

Another lesson: that one thing all successful cities have is regional cooperation. In other words, there is buy-in to a regional vision. A city is bound to its satellites, suburbs, exurbs. Everyone has to get on the same page to deal with problems that jump jurisdictions, like water, air quality, transportation, economic development. No city is an island.

Sims says that urban success transcends ideology: that Democratic and Republican cities can be very effective and successful if they have their act together. He cites Tampa and San Diego as GOP cities that have their act together as well as regional cohesiveness. Seattle he assesses as troubled, in part because regional leadership and consensus is lacking. "If there isn't coherence, there is failure," he observes. Sims spent much of his DC tenure in the field at his agency's some 70 offices (only 30 percent of HUD's workforce is in DC). Here in Pugetopolis, he says, we're a little "chaotic."

Sims would like to see Seattle get its act together by creating what he calls a "viral" civic culture that will help us be more globally competitive. It's a matter of attitude; it's a hope for a regional leader to emerge. Sims himself is reluctant to position himself as that leader. For the moment he's enjoying sabbatical status, plus he carries some baggage in that area as well (he became a Sound Transit apostate). He says the leadership characteristics needed are "backbone, stomach, courage, and attitude."

Waiting for a single civic leader will be a long wait. The issues are complex enough, the talent pool broad enough, the region diverse enough, that it is best and more realistic to expect to have more leaders than a single catalyst. Before you can have a viral civic culture, having a viral leadership culture would help. And something to hang it on. 

Looking back to the 1950s and '60s, Seattle saw the emergence of new leaders in Eddie Carlson, the Western Hotels (now Westin) executive who took Century 21 from a barroom idea to a transformative event. His emergence coincided with the rise of Jim Ellis, the attorney who hatched the idea of regional coordination and improvement through Metro and later pushed Forward Thrust. The two efforts were complementary and helped transform the region's infrastructure, from transportation and wastewater treatment to the creation of Seattle Center. They also less successfully pushed for mass transit, though they planted the seeds that resulted in regional rail.

Both leaders were relatively young men when they took the reins of their respective projects: Carlson was an up-and-coming vice president of 44 when he took on the highly improbable task of putting on a world's fair in the mid 1950s. Ellis was only 32 when he first proposed Metro in '53. They weren't tied to elective office so they could operate more freely; they worked largely on a volunteer basis; they were persuasive, stubborn, charming, and in it for the long haul. Both also knew how to make allies and think big.

That isn't to say that electeds and bureaucrats had no influence: a culture of leadership involves people willing to act in the civic interest, not simply in their own. There is greater chance of success on big endeavors if there is bipartisan cooperation. The world's fair, for example, was initiated by a Republican governor (Art Langlie), funded by the signature of a Republican president (Dwight Eisenhower), and carried off by a Democratic governor (Al Rosellini) and a Democratic president (John Kennedy). Notably, Rosellini left Carlson, a Republican, in charge instead of replacing him with a patronage appointment of his own when Rosellini became governor in 1957. There was also the advantage of having the Magnuson-Jackson money machine fueling business- and labor-friendly projects that please blue collar Democrats as well as white collar CEOs.

Age was not an issue: these young leaders could motivate the old guard as well. Ellis and Carlson were not yet establishment movers and shakers, but working their way up the power ladder. Carlson, former manager of the Rainier Club, knew who was who, and how to get things done. Their projects required the buy-in of all generations, and that included private sector philanthropists who represented old-money Seattle, like Weyerhaeuser heir Norton Clapp, or the efforts of old-school downtown real estate man Henry Broderick who had helped put on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. They had a knack for getting powerful interests on board, getting them to invest or donate, take a risk.

Ellis was able to get the city and King County to put together a Metropolitan Problems Advisory Committee to help come up with a regional governance solution. Us-and-them activism often works as a defensive measure, but is not a formula for establishment success which tends to be a combination of high-minded do-gooderism and backroom deal-making.

Leadership must also have the capacity to sell. Ellis had to sell the idea of regional governance in the suspicious environment of cities competing with the monster Seattle; during Metro and Forward Thrust, he had to sell a whole slate of reforms. One powerfully effective image was of the children of civic leader Robert Block lined up on the shore, unable to swim in the toxic stew of Lake Washington.

The world's fair was another enormous exercise in salesmanship: Eddie Carlson's grounding in the hospitality industry, and his true enjoyment of people, really helped him schmooze, cajole, and convince folks to go along. Plus effective salesmen were hired to ensure the fair's success, notably Joe Gandy, a Ford Dealer who was also a terrific diplomat, and Jay Rockey, a hotshot pr man.

Leaders must also have a plan, an organizing idea or principle to latch onto. It must transcend self interest, but also have something in it for everyone, from corporate boardrooms to union halls to the woman in the street. It must appeal to the culture of civic good and must push people to the next level of achievement. It has to be worth years of early-morning meetings, arm-twisting lunches, and endless banquets rewarding the participants. Self-congratulation is a useful tool.

There has to be cooperation without corruption.  Funding has to come from multiple sources so that everyone has skin in the game (donors, investors, city, county, state, feds). The projects need to offer lots of leverage points: civic improvement involves jacking oneself up, the ability to turn the first million dollars into the next ten into the next 100 is essential. One reason world's fairs and Olympic games have been used successfully in the past to boost urban aspirations (as in Seattle, Vancouver, Spokane, Calgary, San Francisco) is the way they are leverageable in so many ways.

Civic boosterism also seems to work best if it generates tangible, practical results, something beyond image improvement or marketability. The aim should not be to further boost elites, nor to push endeavors wrapped too tightly in moralistic swaddle, a pitfall of some green arguments. Look for the optimistic and high-minded; pull a bandwagon people want to jump on rather than one they are shamed into supporting (though shame too is sometimes useful). Brain experts tell us we are hardwired with an optimism bias, and civic transformation requires that leaders play to that.

Transformational agendas, whether they fully deliver or not, can have the benefit of preparing more leaders. As Century 21 general manager Ewen Digwall, put it, such a project gives a team "the heady experience of working together in a common cause." He believed that the fair had left the region a leadership legacy: "A whole new generation of civic leaders came into being — exhausted, triumphant, convinced they could accomplish almost anything they set their minds to." Many of them did, going on to build up the arts community (the Rep, the Opera, the Symphony, PNB, SAM), attract pro sports franchises (Pilots, Mariners, Seahawks), support expanded infrastructure and development (Kingdome, Convention Center, Seattle Center, Sound Transit), and much more.

After 1962, Dingwall went on to work for or consult on a number of fairs. After disappointments in San Antonio and New Orleans, he concluded that few cities had the can-do civic culture of Seattle. He observed that "People here [in Seattle] will break their ass to make things go right. That's pretty good stuff to have in your leadership."

The fair-era leadership also drew the envious eye of one of the most influential civic organizers of all time, New York's Robert Moses, who visited Seattle in '62 to scope out the Seattle fair as he built his own fair in Queens. "There seems to be much less fault-finding and bickering here [in Seattle] than on the Atlantic seaboard," he told the press. "You can give us some wholesome lessons in local leadership and citizenship. We spend too much time in the East tearing each other down." 

What a difference 50 years makes! Today, some Seattleites yearn for a little more of the old Moses strongman approach. But, he was feeling backlash from a new generation of Jane Jacobs urbanists. They blossomed here too, even without a "Moses" to rail against. There were plenty of bad ideas proposed that were worth shooting down, and a new conception of the city was evolving: something more layered, more diverse, more multi-faceted.

The fair represented a moment when Seattle and the region were able to get something big done. The question is, can such leadership be sustained beyond the "heady experience" of a once-in-a-lifetime project? By the 1970s, even Seattle wasn't what it had been: the public was more skeptical of governmental and corporate promises and results, and had begun, thankfully, to assert itself as a counterpoint to civic excess. New laws started to come on line to protect the environment and require public participation. Trust in authority had eroded. The people wanted the right to second-guess the power brokers.

Lesser Seattle wasn't opposed to fairs or big ideas, but opposed attempts to flatten the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, and determined not to let the civic agenda be set solely by business insiders. Columnist Emmett Watson had praise for many of the era's leaders, including Carlson, Ellis, the Nordstroms, and David "Ned" Skinner. But he also warned, "A city is too important to turn itself over solely to commercial interests; a city should have too much pride to let itself become what a few bottom-line rubes in polyester suits want it to be."

A key to leadership is defining the problem and solutions. There are many things on the conventional civic wish list: Making the region globally competitive, cleaning up Puget Sound, reforming regional governance, leading a new Green Age, improving regional transportation, shaping a more socially just city, capitalizing on being a center of global health and philanthropy. Could new leadership find a way to tackle the whole list? A big part of leadership is the ability to synthesize many interests into a positive vision, then break it down into doable steps that leave people feeling exhilarated with accomplishment, not hung-over. One reason world's fairs and Olympic events have often been effective is that they add an element of fun and wonder to the proceedings, the value of which should not be underestimated. 

Nor should we underestimate projects that can inspire, that you can look to afterward and still feel a frisson of pride or awe. The Olympic Sculpture Park, the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center, the Koolhaas Library are examples. (The only thrill the Kingdome ever gave was when it was blown up.) Civic leadership must have a Steve Jobs component, an aesthetic commitment and flair that can save the project from civil and social engineers. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat addressed this in a recent summation of Jobs' cultural impact:

"Jobs revived the romance of modernity — the assumption, shared by Victorian science-fiction writers and space-age dreamers alike, that the world of the future should be more glamorous than the present.

"The question is whether this revival has staying power. The age of architectural Brutalism is past, but between the travails of planning-by-committee and the red tape of bureaucracy, our civic projects still tend to be uninspired in design and interminable in execution."

Regional leaders must address this: it is not enough to have smart grids, deep-bore tunnels, bike lanes, and high-rise density stacked upon density, but an urban environment that is both more functional and more beautiful. Leaders are not an end in themselves, but the folks who can help take us to a better place.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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