Mayor answers big-picture questions: Getting to know your mayoral candidates, Part I

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels exudes a solid presence the size of a quarterback fully suited up. With the ease of a seasoned politician, he offered me a seat beside him at a conference table, giving me his complete attention for my scheduled interview.

Nickels began his political career at age 19 as legislative assistant to then Seattle City Council member, Norm Rice. In 1987 Nickels won a seat on the King County Council. He served there for 14 years before being elected mayor in 2001.

With this in mind, I pulled out my half dozen big-picture questions and began:

What is your plan to get Seattleites out of their cars?

(Laughs) As you know, I've been a very strong supporter of Sound Transit ever since I joined the King County Council in 1988. I've seen that through because I think it's an important first step.

Secondly, we're working on a smart growth city center strategy trying to encourage much more residential living downtown so that people can walk and bicycle to work.

We want peoples' toughest transportation decision to be what color shoes to wear when walking to work. People want a vibrant, dynamic, safe, 24-hour city center.

So we are creating incentives for developers to go taller and skinnier with their buildings, but in return we expect these firms to support a number of public goods like affordable housing, childcare, open space and historic preservation.

We are also working on city center parks such as Freeway and Occidental parks and trying to reenergize them to make them safer, more attractive, and vibrant. Likewise we are working with schools to enhance and expand our two city center locations, Bailey Gatzert and the Seattle Center School. We will also work with the school district on siting additional schools in the city center.

Another important piece is that we are about to embark on the first step of the South Lake Union Street Car system which ultimately will be extended northward to the University District and connect with the waterfront streetcar which will later continue on up Jackson to as far as 23rd. Ultimately that will be a system whereby people can get around town more easily.

Finally, in business districts around the city we are discouraging parking by requiring fewer parking spaces in buildings. I know this is controversial, but to increase the demand for transit we have to make driving less convenient.

What is your plan to assure that our children will be able to live in Seattle?

I was the champion of renewing and expanding the housing levy in 2002. It provides low income and moderate income housing that will need direct public subsidy. The next step is to make sure there is good workforce housing being produced.

For that I've expanded the multi-family tax exemption program, so that when someone builds multi-family housing, and they set aside a certain number of units at different affordability levels, they get a tax break. Consequently, about 500 units are either already built or in the pipeline.

Housing ownership is an important part of this. So a large part of the levy was set aside for home ownership. This would provide funds to help with down payments and spending down interest.

We also have work to do with the permitting and regulatory processes to make sure that we're not adding undue costs to the production of housing. In the long run it really is supply and demand that is going to determine what kind of affordable housing we've got.

We have important responsibilities to make sure that buildings are safe. But sometimes in the past we've had regulatory processes that did not add value.

Do you regulate to assure that buildings are not shoddy and poorly designed?

Our system to assure good design is not a regulatory process. It is based on community input and the design review process.

I've heard some people say that your policies are friendlier to developers than to working people. How would you respond to that accusation?

When I became mayor in January 2002, the economy was in a tailspin. It was a few weeks after Sept. 11, the Greater Seattle area laid off 96,000 people.

We've been working hard to invite new investment and new jobs. Every time you see a construction project, you see people at work. I'm proud to say that 60,000 jobs have been created. However, I recognize that it's very important that when new growth occurs in a neighborhood that it be complementary to what's there.

I have lived in Seattle since I was 6 years old. I love my neighborhood. There is an important balance that has to be maintained. When we have a new developer come in, we ought to have them pay for the impacts of the growth. So I proposed in Northgate, the University District, and Center City that there be a fee on new development that helps pay for more parks and preserves the quality of those neighborhoods.

Has all your job growth creation been through building and development?

No, we work with companies. For instance, Washington Mutual, one of the larger economic institutions was going to move their headquarters to another city. I thought it was important not to lose another flagship company after the Boeing headquarters moved. So we worked with them to stay.

Their new building is now under construction. This not only creates construction jobs but also other quality, high paying jobs. We're also trying to attract jobs in life sciences, the maritime industry, and manufacturing.

How do you work with the companies to attract new jobs?

By sending a message that we will help and try to work with them. We won't put up hurdles to getting things done.

What is your plan to end homelessness in Seattle?

I worked for Norm Rice back when the present system was developed. We thought we would have to deal with this for only a few years, but here it is, 25 years later, and we have more homeless people than before.

So we have developed a 10-year plan involving city, county, and communities of faith. We're going to take resources from treating the symptoms of homelessness, as we have in the past, with shelter, food and health care.

Instead we're going to begin to move investments into transitional housing and long-term services that help people stabilize. This includes alcohol treatment, chronic mental health services, addiction services, job training and counseling for victims of domestic violence.

Over 10 years we will move 10 percent of our funding annually from triage to the longer-term system. My current budget contains the first step in that direction.

What are you doing to assure that future development in the Rainier Valley will create attractive and livable communities throughout the Valley?

We've seen a transformation begin in the Rainier Valley with NewHolly, Rainier Vista and Sound Transit. These projects have created the opportunity for fundamental change. That doesn't mean that we displace people. We want to be sure that the people who live there, who have invested their lives in the valley, will experience the benefits as well as the disruption that it's causing.

We have set aside $43 million in a community development fund. The fund provides a variety of services for small businesses impacted by light rail construction. Through apprenticeship training we have made it possible for Rainier Valley residents to obtain long-term family wage jobs in the light rail construction.

Every other Monday I go down to talk with shopkeepers along the light rail construction line. I've met with about 90 percent of them. Lately I've noticed a fundamental change taking place.

For instance, at a dress shop the other day a woman showed me her plans to build housing above her shop for her family and for rentals. This woman and many others feel confident they will survive the construction. She feels more and more optimistic about her prospects for the future.

I've heard that the under-grounding of utilities is creating a lot of the disruption.

The under-grounding of utilities is winding down. In October they will start building the permanent street. That will be disruptive, but people will see something permanent and nice instead of temporary sidewalks and long trenches.

That will be a real turning point. The idea of change is frightening. The process of change is disruptive. But once it occurs, people begin to figure out how to make it work.

How does it feel to be headed into the election without any serious opposition?

(Laughs heartily), you never take anything for granted. I was pleased with the primary returns. I had the best showing of any incumbent mayor in Seattle for 20 years.

I've worked hard and have not shied away from controversial issues. I look forward to the general election, but I'm going to work hard to earn every vote.

Make sure to pick up next week's editon of the BHN&SDJ for part II of "Getting to know your mayoral candidates" where we'll feature Mona Lee's interview with Nickels' challenger, Al Runte.

Mona Lee may be reached through[[In-content Ad]]