Mayoral candidates: Please forget the streetcar and biotech dreams

How about buses and a community college? Murray and McGinn court voters and praise diversity in Southeast Seattle. But are they asking what Seattle hardest-scrabble district really needs?
Crosscut archive image.

Mayoral candidates Mike McGinn and Ed Murray debate during the League of Women Voters/ Allied Arts Forum at the Cornish Playhouse on Sept. 30, 2013.

How about buses and a community college? Murray and McGinn court voters and praise diversity in Southeast Seattle. But are they asking what Seattle hardest-scrabble district really needs?

A curious piece of campaign mail arrived last week: A standard jumbo card proclaiming, “Southeast Seattle Leaders are United: Ed Murray for Mayor!” Below were endorsements from Rep. Eric Pettigrew, immigration advocate Pramila Jayapal, City Councilmember and ex-mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell, and (you didn’t know he was a Southeast Seattle leader?) City Attorney Pete Holmes. This message was addressed to myself “or current resident” at my old address on Queen Anne. I did not receive one at my current (and registered voting) address in Southeast Seattle. No doubt everyone else on Queen Anne will be gratified to learn about Murray’s Southeast Seattle support.

Still, there’s nothing strange about Murray and incumbent Mike McGinn courting support down there, as when McGinn launched his re-election campaign at the Filipino Community Center in January and Murray delivered a supposedly definitive (actually deflating) “vision” speech at the Columbia City Theatre last month. Last Sunday, Murray held another rally next door, at Tutta Bella.

Throughout his term, McGinn has been more visible in Southeast Seattle than any mayor since Norm Rice. He boasts of the 25 town hall sessions he’s held here, and in June he delivered a State of the Valley Address to the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, with no corresponding “State of the Bluff” for Magnolia.

In 2009, McGinn even established a campaign office at Othello Station, and the attention paid off; Southeast Seattle was a stronghold for him that November. But another factor roiled the results in this year’s primary, the mayoral bid by City Council member and Southeast native son Bruce Harrell.

As this Seattle Times map shows, most of the city’s other precincts went for McGinn or Murray in  a conspicuous economic and social pattern: McGinn dominated younger, faster-changing inland districts, often the the most bike-friendly ones: Ballard, Fremont, Greenwood, Wallingford, South Lake Union, South Capitol Hill, the Central Area, Georgetown, North Beacon, Delridge. Murray led in more affluent, established, view- and waterfront-rich neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Magnolia, View Ridge, Laurelhurst, western West Seattle, Madison Park and the rest of the Gold Coast.

Southeast Seattle, by contrast, was a patchwork of precincts going for McGinn, particularly around gentrifying Columbia City, and Harrell, who dominated Rainier Beach and South Beacon Hill. Harrell has since endorsed Murray. Campaign strategists look at maps like that and see votes up for grabs. And so Southeast is a prime battleground, and a big piece of any scenario for another come-from-behind upset by McGinn.

Harvesting votes in neighborhoods with high immigrant, minority, and lower-income populations commonly means turning out the vote. McGinn’s team has the edge here, judging by campaign operations so far and the kind of ground game they deployed in 2009.

For all that they court the Southeast, however, it’s striking what McGinn and Murray don’t talk about down here. Both intone platitudes — sincerely, certainly, but also obligatory — about the importance of diversity and Southeast’s importance to Seattle because it is so diverse. Murray tries to establish some ethnic cred by recounting how he grew up in a big working-class Irish family. Both talk a lot about education, opportunity and public safety. Murray cites all the funding he got for these as a state senator. McGinn recounts how he boosted the Families and Education Levy, how he’s hiring more officers and the police are more accountable now (though the U.S. Justice Department had something to do with that), and how crime, especially homicides in Southeast Seattle, is way down, after an alarming rash of shootings early last year.

To say, as McGinn did in June, that they’ve declined “100 percent” defies reason and fact. And the claim that the police are getting a grip in Southeast is belied by the musical-chairs command at the South Precinct, which has its sixth captain in six years. The better-regarded the captains are, the shorter they seem to stay down south before the department bumps them up to some citywide command; the post is starting to seem like a waiting room.

McGinn nevertheless speaks more concretely about what the Valley needs and how to provide it than Murray does — as you’d expect given his four-year lead on Murray in Mayor School. But there are many questions they haven’t confronted, which the neighborhood needs answered:

How do you attract private investment to the forlorn lower valley, especially the areas around the Othello and Rainier Beach Link stations? Light rail was supposed to do that but has largely failed so far; it may even have worsened some blight. A showpiece of the Othello development, the splendid but unsustainably oversized Deo Valente Cafe, folded in July.  Further north, Columbia City is humming and shoots are poking up on Beacon Hill and around the McClelland station, But a new version of redlining chokes off the south. One investor trying to develop property there says his bank told him, “That’s about three blocks farther south than we like to lend.”

Are over-concentrated subsidized housing and social services driving away investment? That question and its corollary — “How can we overcome the cost and political barriers to distributing them around more affluent neighborhoods?” — form the third rail of urban planning. The McGinn administration hasn’t been any more eager to face them than its predecessors, and there’s no indication Murray will be.

Can we protect and extend current transit — i.e. bus service  — while building new rail? Metro Transit is in a world of recurrent hurt, narrowly escaping dire service cuts with each budget cliffhanger. McGinn meanwhile pushes much costlier rail — A whole streetcar network! Light rail to Ballard! It’s true that Southeast enjoys founder privileges as the first to get light rail. But it lost express bus service as a result. Rainier Avenue buses are still packed to groaning, and the ride during traffic hours is anything but rapid. Murray has expressed some caution about starving the old in order to feed the new.

What about a community college for the quadrant of Seattle that needs it most? Expanding preschool and turning around failing high schools are vital projects, but young folks need a higher educational ladder than that if they’re going to climb out of the under-employed minimum-wage pit. Community college is the essential next rung. For students without cars, with jobs and/or children, access is key. Alas, aside from a small adult-ed program operated by South Seattle Community College at the New Holly Community Center, that access is tougher in Southeast, the district that needs it most, than anywhere else in Seattle.

Ballard and Greenwood residents might take issue, since there’s also no college with an “NW” address. But North Seattle Community College perches on the line between the northeast and northwest quadrants and is readily accessible by car, bike and bus. UW, Seattle Pacific University, and Shoreline Community College are also close by at one end or the other.

South Seattle CC is actually in West Seattle. Though it’s just a couple miles away as the seagull flies, it’s cut off by terrain, water and the Duwamish industrial belt. It takes an hour or more to get there by transit from the Rainier Valley — longer  than it takes to get to Seattle Central, Seattle University or the University of Washington.

House Speaker Frank Chopp has kick-started a scheme that would start to alleviate the southeast ed shortage: Seattle Central CC, which needs space, would move its nursing, dental and other health-care programs to the old Public Health/Pac-Med/Amazon headquarters tower at the north edge of Beacon Hill. But those are specialized programs, and the Pac-Med tower is closer to downtown and the Central District than to most of the Rainier Valley.

There’s still a need in this higher-ed desert. Southeast Seattle Community College? A UW satellite at Othello? There’s plenty of land available there, and come 2016 it will be just half an hour by rail from the main campus.

Renton Technical College has looked at establishing a branch. City Councilmember Sally Clark and various community players have championed the cause. But Seattle’s mayor and mayoral challengers have been oddly silent. It’s not enough to extol education, opportunity and “widening the circle of prosperity.” You’ve got to show how.

When the Rainier Valley Post asked how he would spur development, Ed Muray spoke of “untapped avenues that are yet to be explored.” He cited one starry-eyed example: a “biotech center” that would create “an incredible number of jobs.” Biotech has been the vain hope of faded cities across the land fumbling to reinvent themselves. Seattle’s UW/South Lake Union-based sector struggles not to be eclipsed by larger hubs. Why would anyone dream of starting a new center in the Rainier Valley?

Still, a community or technical college would be a hub of a different sort, preparing the workforce for more likely jobs and fueling more modest but plausible startups. Whaddaya say, Mr. Mayor-to-be?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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.