Paul Schell's Seattle legacy

Guest Opinion: The former mayor's civic activism left behind a richer city than the one he inherited.
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Paul Schell, as mayor in 1999

Guest Opinion: The former mayor's civic activism left behind a richer city than the one he inherited.

I wasn’t lucky enough to be born in Seattle, but, like former Mayor Paul Schell, when I did make it here as an adult, I never wanted to leave.

While I became a journalist covering my adopted city, Schell, long before his eventful term in the mayor’s office, became a true city builder.

As a reporter and columnist for our local newspapers, I covered his career. Too often cities brush visionaries aside as unrealistic. In Seattle, Schell found not only a pulpit from which to participate, but the ability to shape our city’s visions so that they moved from far-off dreams to achievable goals.

From the moment he arrived in Seattle to work for the law firm Perkins Coie, Schell was a citizen activist. And his arrival was a double gain: His bride, Pamela Schell, was equally as visionary in the arts world as he was in civic affairs.

Paul first ran for mayor in the 70s, losing to Charles Royer, who, at the time, was a household name, a popular TV commentator. But the two opponents, vying for the 1977 election, grew to admire one another. And, after Royer won the election, he succeeded in persuading Paul to join his administration. During those years, Paul would help empower neighborhoods, drawing up plans and crafting people-oriented solutions.

Later, Paul would be elected a commissioner of the Port of Seattle and, along the way, he would head up Cornerstone Columbia, a development firm. He would develop properties along the waterfront and work with neighborhoods to ensure that citizen voices were being heard in city planning.

It was inevitable that Seattleites would want Paul to run again for Seattle mayor and, in the 1997 election, he did. From 1998 through 2002, an apt millennial selection, he served as mayor of Seattle.

There were times that Paul’s belief in his citizenry worked against him.

The World Trade Organization riots and their aftermath had their origins in Mayor Schell’s conviction that citizens ought to be unfettered, free to express dissent. Unfortunately, he had not anticipated the risks of giving free reign to anarchists.

And, while Seattle was still recovering from the WTO riots, the city’s 2001 Mardi Gras celebration erupted into violence, helped along by a too permissive attitude. In the resulting chaos, Seattle police were unable to stop the beating death of a local man.

Despite those two high-profile disasters, the mayor accomplished an immense amount during his four short years in office; accomplishments that still guide and shape our city’s development. 

Mayor Schell led the city’s efforts to pass the “Libraries for All” levy, the largest bond issue in city history. Ten years later, we are reaping the rewards: a world-famed Central Library building and 26 new or refurbished branches.

He also gave us the first Parks Levy, a push to upgrade our parks system and community centers. Finally, he championed the effort to renovate the Seattle Center Opera House and create the Seattle Art Museum’s Sculpture Park. He oversaw plans to create a Seattle municipal campus with a new City Hall and Justice Center.

Today, we work in the house that Paul built.

It’s fitting then that City Hall Plaza shows off a generous gift from Mayor Schell, the handsome Japanese Maple that he impulsively bought and, when refused city money, insisted on himself donating to the city.  

That maple serves as a reminder that the former mayor’s grandiose ideas many times worked out for the city’s great benefit. Mayor Schell’s many visionary plans are now being realized. His dreams have become our dreams. He has left us an unbelievably rich legacy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.