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.