By Erica C. Barnett
Standing in the shadow of the Space Needle at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion on Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell used his second State of the City address to lay out an “optimistic” vision for Seattle—a city where there are no tents on the streets because everyone has housing, where drug users all get into “effective treatment solutions,” where a new arts district links a revitalized downtown to surrounding neighborhoods, including 24/7 streets where “you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”
But while the vibes in the room were electric—when Harrell concluded his 45-minute speech with his trademark “One Seattle!” sign-off, a guy behind me kept saying “STRONG finish!” to the person seated next to him—the speech itself was light on concrete proposals. If you let the vibes wash over you, it wasn’t hard to believe in a better future just over the horizon, once we figure out how to solve all the pressing problems that we know we can solve if we work together.
“The Space Needle is proof positive that when Seattleites put their minds to something and act with urgency and creativity, we can do big things,” Harrell said, in one of several digressions about the city’s creativity and resilience. “Framed by images of Pike Place Market and Mt. Rainier, the Space Needle stands as a symbol of our city to the nation—a pinnacle of a forward-looking vision and trailblazing leadership rooted in our DNA, of a city where innovation is inherent and progress is paramount.”
Harrell touted work the city has done to reduce the number of encampments in parks, improve police recruitment, fill potholes, and get people back downtown. But despite strong #OneSeattle vibes, he offered only a few concrete steps toward “the city of the future we’re building today” (the official title of his speech). In the coming year, Harrell said, he will:
- Unveil a “downtown activation plan” that will emphasize better use of public space and public safety as “employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing”;
- Issue an executive order to “that takes steps to address the public health crisis on our streets caused by the epidemic of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs”;
- Launch a “design competition around converting office buildings to housing” downtown;
- Propose a “suite of legislation” on police officer hiring and “a vision for the future of public safety”
- Release a white paper (originally scheduled for last year) outlining a plan for a new non-police public safety department, which now has a name: the Civilian Assisted Response and Engagement Department, or CARE;
- Issue an executive order and propose new legislation to “preserve and plant tens of thousands of trees.”
One of Harrell’s strengths—especially on display during speeches like he State of the City, which he delivered with a loose, ad-libbing style that works well in front of a friendly audience—is his ability to connect with and inspire people in a way that feels genuine and unrehearsed. But as his term enters its second quarter, it will become increasingly important to deliver on some of those lofty, aspirational goals—or come up with lesser aspirations that are actually achievable within the span of a mayoral administration. Describing people who’ve been waiting for year to see tangible improvements downtown as “cynics [who] demand the exact blueprint for our entire new downtown immediately” is dismissive, and Harrell has been in office for more than a year; no one is demanding anything “immediately” at this point.
Everyone loves a rousing speech, especially after four years of leaden rhetoric, stiffly delivered by Harrell’s predecessor, Jenny Durkan. What turns the public against mayors is when they don’t pair lofty promises with tangible, visible results. People might love the idea of a 24-hour downtown seamlessly linking arts districts in Belltown, the Chinatown-International District, and Capitol Hill, but they’ll settle for fewer pedestrian deaths, a downtick in shootings, and a sense that the city is helping people living unsheltered rather than just moving them around.
11 thoughts on “The State of the City is Vibes”
“employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing”
Yes, but do their employees recognize that?
They’ve tried the ‘back to the office, or else’ approach before, and the ‘or else’ ended up being ‘never mind’
Harrell’s driving looking in the rear view mirror, thinking the solution is to get Seattle ‘back to normal’
No, working from home is the way it now for a lot of jobs. Amazon just cut a bunch of jobs, so they have a little leverage to get people back into the office…. for now. But if Amazon starts hiring again, they lose that leverage. The Country is filled with talented people who want to work from home and that’s the way it’s going to be. You can’t stop progress to roll back the clock.
Unfortunately, many tech companies are laying off employees, and that’s what’s giving Amazon and others the leverage to get people back in the office.
From the article above…
” What turns the public against mayors is when they don’t pair lofty promises with tangible, visible results. People might love the idea of a 24-hour downtown seamlessly linking arts districts in Belltown, the Chinatown-International District, and Capitol Hill, but they’ll settle for fewer pedestrian deaths, a downtick in shootings, and a sense that the city is helping people living unsheltered rather than just moving them around.”
I’m going to guess that the Mayor is already toast politically because he doesn’t have the rising tax money other Mayors have often had over the last 40 years. “A sense that the city is helping people living unsheltered rather than just moving them around.” ?? I actually think the problem has gotten so bad that people want to see, ah, real progress? Like less homeless milling around? Not some 45 minute presentation with graphs and pie charts by the hapless KCRHA chumps.
Let’s be honest here… Seattle didn’t do diddly squat about homelessness when the tax dollars were really rolling in. That can’t change during the lean times, can it? And I don’t believe you can blame the Mayor of much of that.
Maybe what Seattle needs to do is quit pretending to be “Liberal”? I’ve been fallowing politics for 40 years in the Emerald City and I’ve seem so many good “Lefty” or “Liberal” ideas go into the dumpster…. because Seattle tax payers wouldn’t pay for them. And honestly, it’s not only Seattle…. want to know how to spell West Coast? NIMBY. My God! Cali is already dying off…. Portland soon to fallow.
I look at Washington, Oregon and California and I see lots and lots of folks my age (50+) who took as much out as they could…. and put jack shit back. Sorry kids…. party’s over.
As much as I don’t agree with Erica, I really like the way she writes. It just flows smoothly and easy to understand. I always look forward to reading what she has to say.
That being said, I feel like Bruce is putting the cart before the horse. I realize he wants a revitalized downtown that’s bustling & alive but nobody wants to go back downtown or hang out down there, even if more stores open & there are more events, if the street crime isn’t addresses. People simply don’t feel safe and that is either not addressed or is minimized. I’m telling you, for most people, safe streets are the biggest factor in a return to “normal” downtown.
Well, Harrell certainly has his work cut out for him. Downtown is a complete mess.
When it comes down to homelessness in Seattle there are two different camps. Camp #1 are Moderate Lefties who believe that much (or even most) of the homeless problem comes from addiction and mental health failures. Camp #2 are Lefty Lefties who believe much (or even most) of the homeless problem from high housing prices and a lack of housing in general. Marc Dones just laid out a 5 year, 12 billion dollar plan that addresses both sides. Of course Erica hates it…. and so do moderate Lefties because it actually is a cold sober look at the actual problem, not the rose-colored-glasses political views we all have. Of course there’s not a chance in Hell Dones gets 12 billion, but we have to be honest about the decades of neglect Seattle has had dealing with homelessness. It’s all up hill from here.
If Seattle is going to fix downtown, you’d need to start with the Morrison Hotel. The Morrison is supposed to be save low income housing with wrap around services, but it’s really an insane asylum run by local drug dealers. We’re talking a place so bad that not only do the residents commit suicide, but even the people who work there are even at risk.
A friend of mine (tried) to work there and said shit like theft, assault, open drug dealing and even sexual assault happen all the time and the staff rarely calls the police. For mostly political reasons…..
We have prisons and metal hospitals because normal people just can’t deal with shit like this. As far as the blame goes…. the Left flat out refuses to take crime, mental illness or drug abuse seriously (Erica is on record saying Seattle crime isn’t bad multiple times in the past couple years)…. and the Right flat out won’t pay for the desperately needed services. We’re all to blame I guess?
Harrell wants the business community that got him into office to be happy. I don’t think he otherwise cares a jot about what downtown looks, feels, or sounds like. His principal residence is on the East Side; he simply maintains a pied a terre in Seattle for political reasons.
Tacomee, you state “I’ve seem so many good “Lefty” or “Liberal” ideas go into the dumpster…. because Seattle tax payers wouldn’t pay for them”, which is really void of evidence. When, exactly, was the last time Seattle voters turned down a bond measure, levy, or “Liberal” idea, other than the 5th vote on the Seattle Monorail, back in 2005 (when, even at the falsely reported but now astoundingly good bargain of $11 billion)? Unfunded mandate for “social housing”, I-135, just passed with 57%, for example. I’m wracking my brain trying to remember the last time Seattle voters said no, no matter how dumb the proposal was.
Yes, Seattle will vote for school levies or public housing or any number of progressive ideas…. and yet, as you pointed out, projects like the monorail don’t get built. Why? Because voters also elected stealth conservative politicians who are content to watch projects die. We might see Sound Transit as a win….. but it’s sort of a day (20 years?) late and a (gazillion?) dollars short. Instead of building transit in the 1970s… or 1980s…. or even the wildly popular monorail…. Seattle chose to hold off on building mass transit until the situation was critical…. and many times more expensive. Sound transit is so expensive that it’s sucking billions of dollars away from other important issues.
Harrell is stuck with decades of underfunded public housing. It’s just not possible to “fix” 30 years of neglect in a year or two. As are as the “house to neighbors” folks who pushed I-135. I doubt they have any idea of the actual money something like that would cost. Housing currently costs 300-400k per unit for the best nonprofits to build in Greater Seattle. If that money was bonded for 100% repayment, that cooks down to something well over $2000 per month per unit (rent). A billion dollar investment builds maybe 3200 units of housing? So it’s an uphill struggle. Of course the Urbanist, The Stranger, and Publicola couldn’t be bothered with finding an actual builder and going over the math for an hour. And in the end, when the price tag is public… I-135 does the Seattle Monorail swan dive into the abyss.
The I-135 crew likes to point to Vienna as a success story, and rightly so. The real questions are “when did Vienna start social housing?” and “how does Vienna prevent corruption?”. Europe has had successful social programs for decades because these sort of things take decades to actually build. If Seattle had started a social housing program in say, 1975, with steady funding and proper management, Seattle would be a different City today. Take a deep breath and tell me one thing….education, roads, bridges, water and sewer, public housing, transit…. that Seattle hasn’t underfunded since 1975? and let’s be clear about this… all the blame is 100% on Seattle voters.
Imagine City Council voting to fund a new 1000 bed mental hospital next week? God knows the City needs it. It’s not going to happen however.
The short answer…. blame the Boomers. We screwed you by taking as much out of the City as we possibly could and putting jack shit back. I’m sorry.