Who is Peter Steinbrueck and why should he be mayor?

Child activist, outsider architect and now the man who finally wants to be mayor: Forgotten tales and revealing moments in the offbeat career of a uniquely Seattle politician.
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... and in 1969.

Child activist, outsider architect and now the man who finally wants to be mayor: Forgotten tales and revealing moments in the offbeat career of a uniquely Seattle politician.

If Peter Steinbrueck wins next November, he’ll be the first native-born Seattleite elected mayor in more than 50 years. That says something about this footloose, magnetic, end-of-the-rainbow town, where young people who don’t go to Portland to retire come to make it. But it also says something about Steinbrueck and his political niche as the familiar but perennially fresh-faced kid from down the block.

We habitually use “roots” to describe a person’s connections with his or her community, especially with someone like Steinbrueck whose ties are lifelong. But those connections are more like neurons — multi-directional and intertwined, giving as well as taking, receiving signals and sending them, and, together with thousands of others, making the body politic move.

Steinbrueck’s connections are many and deep. In a youngish city built by self-inventors, a place that preaches the gospel of fresh starts, Steinbrueck is the closest thing we have to an heir to a political dynasty. (Crosscut contributor Jordan Royer, a past city council candidate and future — who knows? — is the next closest. But though his father was a popular three-term mayor who — hard to imagine these days — left on his own rather than losing a primary, “Royer” is not a name to conjure with like “Steinbrueck.”)

In true Seattle frontier fashion, however, the Steinbrueck legacy is populism, iconoclasm and dissident defiance. His father, the artist, architect and UW professor Victor Steinbrueck, was a gadfly who became a civic savior and sage in battles to save the Pike Place Market and, less successfully, other public spaces and urban heirlooms. While still in grade school, Peter became the little drummer boy of the Save the Market campaign. He recalls watching his father paint the first “Friends of the Market” sign on the Arcade floor when was six or seven, and running the Friends' daystall, selling buttons and collecting petition signatures, when he was 13.

That’s one familiar snapshot from Steinbrueck’s unconventional career. Here are a few others that are less familiar but likewise telling:

1985-86: The Seattle School Board votes to demolish and replace Franklin High, the stately neoclassical hill-topper that’s Seattle’s second-oldest high school and Southeast Seattle’s premier landmark. Community outcry and expert criticism eventually force the district to review its questionable cost estimates and discover, lo and behold, that it can renovate the 74-year-old icon for less than it would spend to build new.

At the public hearing, a parade of local architectural eminences — Fred Bassetti, Paul Thiry — urge reusing the old building. But it’s a slight 28-year-old in a bomber jacket — as ever, looking younger than his years — who draws murmurs from the crowd: “Isn’t that Victor Steinbrueck’s kid?” Allied Arts president Margaret Pageler has recruited Peter Steinbrueck to the cause; though he attended elite Lakeside himself, his parents both went to Franklin, and his attachment is sentimental as well as aesthetic and philosophical. He speaks movingly about the school's heritage, and it seems a family heritage has also re-emerged.

1989: A previously silent circle of investors called the Urban Group makes a shocking announcement: They bought the Pike Place Market a decade earlier, and now they want to run it like a business and make the money they're due. That’s half-true: While no one paid attention, the Market’s public development authority effected a paper sale that it believed would transfer only tax credits to the private investors. But changes in the tax code have eliminated those credits, so now the new “owners” come calling for their money.

City and PDA officials and other sectors of the contentious Market community wail, roar, duck their heads and point fingers at each other. Steinbrueck is president of the PPM Historical Commission; his father nominated him to the panel in 1983. He quits it and organizes the opposition to the takeover, under a banner recalling his father’s efforts 20 years earlier: the Citizens Alliance to Keep the Pike Place Market Public. Steinbrueck enlists local attorneys and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office as legal guns; they win an initial court round, and the Urban Group falls back and regroups.

“We don’t have to buy them out,” Steinbrueck declares, but the city, state and PDA pool funds to do just that, for about what the tax-credit sale originally brought. Despite that grubby though perhaps inevitable conclusion, Peter Steinbrueck emerges as the hero, the second Steinbrueck to save the Market.

1992: He fights the man on his own behalf, for the right to be an architect. He's gotten a master's in architecture from UW, been mentored by his father and practiced the trade for years with an architect partner, out of their classic Pioneer Square office. But state licensing authorities won't let him take the professional test and call himself an architect until he's drawn three years' paychecks from an established firm, and he's always worked for himself.

Steinbrueck lobbies the legislature and, over the American Institute of Architects' resistance, gets the law changed. He passes the test, joins the AIA and in 1999 is anointed as one of its elite lifetime fellows.

1997:  Steinbrueck has fought more battles and won more activist cred as president of Allied Arts and a co-author of CAP, the Citizens’ Alternative Plan to limit high-rise growth downtown. (Even today he sneers at reflexive density orthodoxy: "Density is a valueless term.") Now he runs for City Council.

It’s an insurgents’ year: Councilmember Charlie Chong, a Yoda-like voice of neighborhood reaction against downtown grandiosity, runs a quixotic smaller-is-beautiful campaign for mayor. The establishment seems most alarmed at the council candidacy of Nick Licata, a supposed peacenik radical who consorts with artists and lives in a communal household on Capitol Hill. Licata tells me they’ll be surprised to learn he’s actually a pussycat; Peter’s much more the confrontational type.

Chong loses to downtowner Paul Schell, but Steinbrueck and Licata win and at first operate as an upstart pair on the council. Later they'll diverge on big issues such as the waterfront viaduct (Licata’s for rebuilding it, Steinbrueck against). Licata’s prediction proves right: Steinbrueck’s style is feistier, and he emerges as the most outspoken resister to the blunt efforts of Mayor Greg Nickels and his deputy Tim “The Shark” Ceis to bust City Hall’s diverse power centers and assert unitary executive authority.

1998-99: For nearly five years Seattle Public Library officials, citizen advisors and civic and business kibitzers have hashed and gnashed over where to build a new downtown library. High-powered meddlers push various schemes to co-locate it with (and, sometimes, bail out) such other projects as the state convention center, a new symphony hall, and Market-area condos. Momentum is building to rebuild for the second time on the current site, even though that would entail two moves, would perpetuate that site’s limitations of size, access and steep slope, and would forgo a sweet offer from the feds, who are clamoring to buy it for a new courthouse.

At the last minute, Steinbrueck proposes a better idea: a cheaper, larger, flat and nearly empty block at the northeast corner of Seventh and Stewart. This site offers more design flexibility, a chance to incorporate commercial and codevelopment (such as the entry arcade at Vancouver’s popular new library) and better access to transit, parking, freeways, and neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and Queen Anne. Also, as a bonus, there's no wasteful double move.

Shortsighted critics object that the locale’s too remote and unattractive, but that’s clearly about to change with development already underway at Pacific Place and gathering to a boil at South Lake Union. The feds ratify Steinbrueck’s choice and build their courthouse at Seventh and Stewart. Too bad his timing wasn’t better. The library rebuilds at Fourth and Madison: a magnificent but functionally flawed monument stranded amidst hotels and office towers..

Steinbrueck’s architectural training and experience have informed his analysis of the library siting and many other issues — a skill set he’ll doubtless tout as he runs for mayor. But he’s had a sometimes-testy relationship with the profession: fighting the licensing rules and grumbling about corporate architect John Graham stealing credit for the Space Needle design from his father (who was working for Graham when he drew this idea for the iconic double tripod).

But unlike McGinn, who seems combative and defensive even when he’s trying to be conciliatory, Steinbrueck can wax angry, preachy and self-righteous with a smile, and somehow leave people smiling afterward. That likability, together with his disarming, still-boyish earnestness, may count for more than policy differences in this race.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.