Paul Schell: He Taught Us How to ‘Grow With Grace’

Paul Schell, the 50th Mayor of Seattle, died on Sunday morning. I was a Neighborhood Development Manager during his administration and had the opportunity to work closely with him on implementing neighborhood plans. I also got to know him and his wife Pam personally as the proprietors of the Inn at Langley their hotel and restaurant on Whidbey Island. Schell’s passing reminds us of his legacy; Schell had a vision for Seattle as a city where private entrepreneurial spirit and development open the way for public good and benefit when neighborhoods fight for good things from growth, not against what they fear from the future.

In some ways, Mayor Schell seemed all Big City. He was a lawyer and developer who, as a private citizen, carried a lot influence. He was, when I first met him 17 years ago, when he was running for Mayor, an ‘establishment’ figure, seemingly favoring downtown moneyed interests over neighborhoods.

However, he believed in neighborhood planning as much as neighbors like me. He and I went to so many meetings together when I was a neighbor that once, when he saw me coming, he said, “you again!” But he appreciated our persistence.

Later, when I was hired to make neighborhood plans real, I found that Schell was anything but a slick downtown guy. In fact, he was true to his small town roots, more interested in barn raising than high rises.

One example was when he championed replacement of a surface parking lot in the Admiral neighborhood with a layer of underground parking in the development that was eliminating the cheap off street parking. The project was controversial because it involved using some City resources to match neighborhood and developer contributions to build an additional layer of parking to meet parking demand.

Looking back, it’s a project that now I might not support; but the neighbors and I put our efforts together the with developer and City staff and the Mayor to make it pencil. The principle was that neighbors collaborating with the City and private developers should be rewarded with City resources for trying to make growth work.

Imagine that instead of complaining about lost parking a neighborhood offered to pitch in to help replace that lost parking. Buying more parking might not be the best use of resources, but the neighborhood saw a chance to contribute, and Mayor Schell met them more than halfway, committing funds and staff time. In the end, the Council ended up killing the deal; even back then, that Council struggled with new ideas.

There were times when I wish Schell had been heavier handed, more directive. After all, the neighborhoods spent years making these plans why let a bureaucrat in the Parks Department, the Strategic Planning Office, or a Councilmember stand in the way?

But Mayor Schell was a patient guide of the neighborhood planning process. I said we should put up signs next to projects that said, “This Neighborhood Planning Success Brought to You by Your Neighbors and the City of Seattle, Paul Schell, Mayor.

That might have been his successor’s style, but it wasn’t Schell’s. In fact it was a struggle amidst the other things going on around us—WTO, Mardi Gras Riots, an earthquake, and 9/11—to get attention in the 2001 elections for the many, many neighborhood success Mayor Schell helped bring about during his time in office. In the end, he couldn’t overcome the zeitgeist and he became identified with what was happening around us rather than what he accomplished.

In truth, the Schell years was a renaissance of neighborhood activism with a purpose: to capture the value created by economic and population growth to benefit neighborhoods. Parks, drainage projects, libraries, and yes, even traffic circles were popping up everywhere. And there were few angry surly neighbors wanting to punish developers and stop growth. Many of the most skeptical neighbors in West Seattle—heart of the opposition to the original Comprehensive Plan and Urban Villages—sat around the table and planned and talked about the future.

Sadly, with Schell’s departure and the firing of Jim Diers, neighborhood plan implementation was no longer as robust. And, in my view, over the next 8 years, neighborhoods grew restless and the old suspicions about growth and change flourished. Now angry neighbors fight against growth and change, opposing density and new development at every turn.

Somehow, like Nixon going to China, it had to be a developer that could make this balance of growth, neighborhood identity, and change all work together. And Schell had a light touch, giving neighborhoods resources to process themselves into a consensus about how to change instead of leaving them to coalesce into a hornet’s nest of opposition to growth.

Paul Schell’s passing on Sunday is a personal loss. Over the intervening years I looked forward to running into Paul at the Inn at Langley when I was able to make the trip. I wish I could enjoy one last great meal there with him—no political talk, just food, wine, and travel. But this City will, in the years ahead, look back at what some saw as turbulent years as the time when Paul Schell showed us how to “grow with grace.”

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