by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Mike McGinn will be sworn in as Mayor of Seattle on January 4. SGN recently spoke with outgoing mayor Greg Nickels about his eight years in office, and the issues he believes will occupy the new mayor's attention.
'You want to know the untold story of the last eight years?" Nickels asks. "I started as mayor in a recession and I'm ending in a recession. But we're in a much better place now than when I started.'
"In 2000, when I came in, we had 100,000 people out of work. Unemployment was as bad locally as it is now, although in 2000 it was just Seattle that was hit as hard as we were, not the whole country," he explains.
"So we prepared for the next recession - this one - and that's why we didn't have to make the deep cuts that the county and state did. We put away a $30 million rainy day fund for just that purpose."
How would Nickels suggest the new city administration use the funds?
"I guess I'd urge them not to take on an irrational exuberance and spend it all," he chuckles.
"I think there are three overarching issues going forward," Nickels says.
"Transportation - we've made progress on this, but we need to get the viaduct down and the replacement done. Affordable housing - we have an attractive city, people want to live here, so how do we accommodate them? And education - this is the most educated city in America, but confidence in our public schools is not where it needs to be."
Transportation was one of the central issues in this year's mayoral race, and arguably the issue that brought Nickels down. He was closely identified with the tunnel option to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct, and the eventual winner, McGinn, was its most vocal opponent.
At Nickels' recommendation, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously on October 19 to go ahead with tunnel construction. Some observers saw this move as a pre-emptive strike designed to prevent McGinn from derailing the project should he win the election.
Nickels denies that was his intention.
"I saw it as a way of ending the debate. Getting something done," he says. "Quarts, if not gallons, of political blood have already been spilled on this - much of it my own."
Seattle politics often seem more inclined to prolonging debate, rather than ending it, but Nickels says he has no regrets about his support for the tunnel.
"No regrets, oh no, no, no. Any time you make a decision, somebody will be unhappy," he says.
Nickels hopes that the tunnel is now a done deal.
"[McGinn] said that with the City Council supporting a deep bore tunnel, he'd accept their decision," he told SGN. "I expect him to honor that, and see that it's done well, that it's on schedule and on budget."
Asked about Sen. Ed Murray's often-quoted opinion that 520 replacement is the real challenge for Seattle, Nickels disagrees.
"I look at the fact the viaduct is 100% in-city - on our front porch, really. So I think that's more urgent," he says. "Also I didn't think we could resolve 520 three years ago [when negotiations to replace the viaduct began]. The legislature was screwing Seattle. We had to get back on the same page and rebuild trust."
Nickels, who chaired Sound Transit's Board, thinks that his accomplishments in establishing a light rail line have been overshadowed by the controversy over the viaduct replacement.
"Look what we've accomplished," he says. "The first line of Sound Transit is up and running. We extended it to the airport before the end of my term, as I said we would. We cleared land for the Capitol Hill station."
"On housing, it's a supply problem," Nickels continues. "We encouraged new investment. So there is a healthier market for buyers. Right now buyers can write their own terms - the problem is the buyers are out of work."
"One thing we have done," Nickels says, "is to reduce parking requirements for developments in the central city, so it's market-driven and not an artificial requirement imposed by the city."
"You know, you increase the cost of new housing units by $50,000 if you require additional parking units," he explains. "If you give buyers an option not to have parking, they can purchase more affordable units."
Nickels has earned a reputation as a solid ally of Seattle's LGBT community. In July this year, Nickels hosted a round table with local LGBT leaders to address community concerns. At that meeting, he made specific commitments for city funding and other support. Many have been fulfilled, but some are still pending.
Asked how the city will follow up now that he will no longer be in office, Nickels replied, "I have to punt that to the new mayor. It's his decision now and his staff that will have to follow through."
"For the LGBT community, I think we've made great strides in my eight years," Nickels continued. "On marriage, obviously I couldn't authorize marriages, but we did recognize marriages done in other jurisdictions for benefits."
"And R-71," he continues. "I'm proud to live in a state where R-71 passed. You know, this city carried the state for R-71. And that's not new. That's something Seattle has done for 35 years."
Nickels laughs when asked about speculation that he will run for mayor again in four years.
"Well you never say never," he replies. "Politics is part of my life. And I like local politics, especially in a place I love."
"I've had the best job I can imagine," he concludes, "but I have to tell you, now that I'm within sight of the end, it's a lot less stressful."
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