Mike Gray stepping down from FHIA

Community groups often take on something of the character of the volunteers who choose to take part. The typically small number of people who usually make up a community organization's core can become synonymous with the group. Frequently a single member gives a neighborhood group its shape.

That's certainly the case with the First Hill Improvement Association (FHIA), where Mike Gray has been involved with the First Hill Improvement Association since 1987. But his personal circumstances have changed, and after 18 years Gray is phasing himself out from his long-standing role as president. While other volunteers have taken on many of the tasks Gray has performed for years, the FHIA will be without a president when he steps down. Gray said he expected to stay at the FHIA helm through the end of the year.

Gray became involved with the FHIA while working for Virginia Mason hospital, a job he held for 13 years. His tenure continued despite leaving First Hill for a job at Safeco, and it continued even when he took on a new job in Des Moines and moved there about a year ago.

But the obligations of his current job, plus the lengthy commute to First Hill, made it clear that he couldn't stay at the First Hill helm indefinitely. In June, he announced to the board that he would be stepping down, though he said he would stay around until others could step in.

It's somewhat ironic that a flurry of activity has taken place since he gave notice. In July, Sound Transit decided not to build a light-rail station on First Hill. First Hill had been largely supportive of light rail; reacting to the announcement is exactly the sort of thing a community organization is set up to do. Gray was, and remains, busy responding to Sound Transit and First Hill's transit issues.

"It's hard to leave at this time. There seems to be more going right now than at any time I can remember," he said.

As for Sound Transit, the FHIA was able to prompt the agency to go on record and say it would explore suitable transit alternatives for the neighborhood. Gray thinks that the agency is taking the neighborhood seriously and, with community prompting, try to come up with a solution that works better than simply adding more buses.

"More buses simply won't work on First Hill," he said. "We've asked Sound Transit to consider a spur light-rail line, perhaps to Broadway or one extending from the Beacon Hill line. I think Sound Transit realizes that First Hill needs more. But we do have to keep their feet to the fire. If they were willing to spend $350 million before, they should be willing to spend half that much on a viable alternative."

Development and land use have been key issues over the years. Gray said he thought there is more development activity now than at any time over the last 20 years. He counted five major projects that are in process, including major expansion at Virginia Mason - the hospital recently spent $25 million to purchase most of the block bounded by Madison and Spring streets and Boren Avenue - along with resumed efforts to complete the grocery store project on Eighth Avenue and Madison Street. Given that there's been a huge hole in the ground at that location for years, that construction has resumed there is a welcome relief.

"The neighborhood strongly supports density and growth as long as it's done right," Gray said. "We've been working with the city to require developers to come up with trade-offs that benefit the community."

Gray felt that the FHIA's input on development has made its mark, that members have had input that has led to positive design changes on nearly every project. These changes usually concern pedestrian amenities along with trying to ensure a project's final design is reflective of the community.

As for disappointments during his involvement with the FHIA, beyond the loss of the First Hill light-rail station, Gray said it has been frustrating that more open space hasn't been secured for the neighborhood.

Gray plans on remaining connected to the organization he's helped nurture for so many years. The FHIA has been in existence since 1958. He said he's happy to still make a few phone calls and send e-mails to city officials as the need arises. He's hopeful that what momentum has been built during his time in the group can be maintained, even expanded.

"I'd be crazy if I said I thought I'd be involved this long," he said. "I've been part of First Hill for so long I'm having a hard time leaving. I'll continue to be supportive, help keep the organization going. I don't think I can completely walk away. "

The FHIA next meets on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 6:30 p.m., at the Swedish Medical Center conference room No. 1 (located on B-level). More information is available at www.firsthill.org.

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.

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