Morning Crank: Showbox Operator Doesn’t Own “The Showbox”; Hair-Touching Times Columnist No Longer Columnist

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Image via HistoryLink Seattle.

1. One wrinkle in the news, which I reported yesterday, that Showbox building owner Roger Forbes has terminated the venue’s lease: Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the Showbox, doesn’t own the rights to the name “The Showbox”—Forbes does. (Through an LLC that he controls, Forbes registered the trademark in 2008, and renewed it again last year). That means that Forbes retains the ultimate authority over who gets to use the Showbox name, which is also associated with both the Showbox SoDo (a larger venue on First Ave. South, owned by Lyle Snyder of Mercer Island) and “Showbox Presents,” which promotes shows at other venues, such as McMenamins Crystal Ballroom in Portland.

If Forbes develops the Showbox property before the end of AEG’s lease, in January 2024, the trademark will reportedly revert to AEG. If Forbes retains the trademark and the venue at 1426 First Avenue continues to operate after 2024, it could always revert to one of its previous names, such as the Kerns Music & Jewelry Company; the Talmud Torah Hebrew Academy Bingo Hall; the Happening Teenage Nite Club; or, perhaps its original name: The Show Box.

Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the Showbox, doesn’t own the rights to the name “The Showbox”—the building’s owner, Roger Forbes, does.

2. Andres Mantilla, the director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, says the city is not—contrary to what some council members and public commenters suggested yesterday—considering the addition of more properties along First Avenue to the proposed expansion of the Pike Place Market Historical District. Rather, Mantilla says, DON’s consultants (engineering firm AECOM and PR firm Stephenson & Associates) are studying other properties inside the boundaries of the original proposed expansion (which would have also “saved” a strip club, two parking lots, a new hotel, and a Starbucks) “for context.”

“What’s currently on the table is the study of the Showbox,” Mantilla says. “Any expansion on the table right now would be limited to that. There’s overlap with [the] properties” in the original proposed expansion area, but “the analysis is not meant for any sort of particular inclusion of those properties” in the historical district, he says.

That’s news to the Friends of the Market, who assumed the city’s consultants would be looking at other potentially historic properties along First Avenue for possible inclusion in the historic district. Friends of the Market president Kate Krafft, who testified in favor of landmarking the Showbox building at a meeting of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board last night, told me she had expected the city’s consultants to contact the Market to discuss other buildings that might be appropriate for including in the historical district, but hadn’t heard from anyone at the city. (The landmarks board voted unanimously to nominate the structure for landmark status, a process that is separate from the legislation expanding the Market to include the Showbox property. Read all my tweets from the meeting here.)

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“I was under the impression that they were going to have a cultural resource specialist and that they would look at the rationale” for expanding the Market based on the historical properties of each property, Krafft said in an interview yesterday. The Friends of the Market oppose the current zoning on First Avenue, which allows buildings of up to 44 stories, like the one originally planned for the Showbox site. Krafft says historic designation wouldn’t preclude new development—it would just preclude new development that doesn’t fit in with the Market.

“Historic districts evolve,” she said. “Seven new buildings have been built in the district since 1971 and they’re in character with the district.” As for parcels included in the original proposed boundary expansion area that aren’t historic—like the two surface parking lots, or the modern, glass-walled Thompson Hotel on First and Virginia, or the Deja Vu Showgirls strip club—Krafft says they could be considered “non-contributing” properties and grandfathered in. But to do that, she says, “we need a thorough study”—and one does not appear to currently be forthcoming from the city.

3. In the wake of a widely publicized incident in which she asked to touch (and then apparently did touch) the hair of a young African American artist, the Seattle Times’ longtime metro columnist Nicole Brodeur has lost her weekly column and been reassigned to a new role covering “newsmakers” as a general assignment reporter.  Lindsay Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Times, confirms that Brodeur is now a GA reporter and that her column has been “retired.”

Crosscut and the South Seattle Emerald reported on the hair-touching incident, which the artist, Alexis Taylor, wove into an installation called “Black Among Other Things,” in May. Taylor, Crosscut reported, was “assigned to write a profile on a local journalist for a journalism class” at Seattle University. “She reached out to Brodeur more than a year ago, after the columnist apologized for writing a story about Columbia City that was called racist.” In that column, Brodeur opined that Columbia City had been a dangerous “pass-through” zone until white-owned places like Molly Moon’s, Rudy’s, and Pagliacci moved in. (In a followup column that began, “Sometimes being called a racist is just the jolt you need,” Brodeur interviewed several people of color who are quoted in a way that implies they praised her just for trying to improve).

The Columbia City columns weren’t even the only times Brodeur wrote pieces that could be considered racially insensitive. After a 2010 incident in which security officers stood by and did nothing while an African American girl was beaten in the downtown transit tunnel, Brodeur wrote a column titled “Parents, Get Ahold of Your Kids, lecturing parents of color (“there’s a racial element here that I think needs to be acknowledged”) to “set some rules for decency and public behavior” for their kids and keep them from “running wild.”

On another occasion, she wrote an uncritical single-source column about a pair of First Hill pizza shop owners, the Calozzis,  who claimed to have been victimized repeatedly by deranged, heroin-addled patients at a nearby methodone clinic. Some facts Brodeur failed to mention included the pizza shop owner’s long, colorful, and sometimes violent history of conflicts with neighbors, business rivals, and just random people that included a number of shocking racial incidents. A Vietnamese America neighbor who sued the Calozzis for damaging his property said Jennifer Calozzi called him a “gook,” and the mother of a student who attended school with the Calozzis’ son accused Jennifer Calozzi of going on an N-word-laced  “tirade the likes of which I have never seen nor heard before in my life.”

Times spokeswoman Taylor did not respond directly to a question about whether Brodeur had been demoted due to the hair-touching incident. “It is not uncommon for us to assess the best use of our resources and change focus of the staff,” she said.

Kathy Nyland, Who Worked to Make City’s Neighborhood Department More Inclusive, Is Out

Late last Friday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she is replacing Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland with Andres Mantilla, a veteran of the Nickels Administration who worked as a political consultant for the firm Ceis Bayne East before joining the new administration as an external-relations advisor in November. Mantilla, who responded to my questions about his plans for the department by directing me to Durkan’s communication office, has reportedly proposed reorganizing DON, perhaps by subsuming some of its wide-ranging duties—which include everything from the P-Patch program to historic preservation to funding for small neighborhood projects—into other departments such as the Office of Planning and Community Development and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

Durkan’s decision to remove Nyland—who has been assigned a new job as “senior advisor” somewhere in the parks department—wasn’t entirely unexpected (Nyland had been on tenterhooks for nearly six months), but it should disappoint anyone who liked what the city hall change agent was doing at DON. Although the Murray administration will be forever tarnished by the scandal that forced him from office, Nyland was the brains and the muscle behind one of the administration’s real achievements: Empowering people who are not traditional neighborhood activists to participate in neighborhood planning and define and shape Seattle’s changing communities. Nyland’s efforts to make DON more inclusive and responsive to people outside the traditional neighborhood power structure met with staunch resistance from both inside and outside the department, including traditional neighborhood activists who viewed community input as a zero-sum game. Nyland’s mission at the department was to prove, as she often put it, that inclusion (of renters, people of color, people who work for wages and can’t attend daytime meetings) isn’t the same thing as “silencing” the people who have dominated neighborhood conversations for decades.

Durkan’s reason for removing Nyland now—and for keeping her on at the city, instead of simply cutting her loose as she has other department heads—is unclear. (In her announcement Friday, Durkan had only praise for the outgoing director). What is clear is that Nyland has had a target on her back since at least 2016, when she rejected a move by the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation Board to grant historic-landmark status to a 107-year-old parking garage on Alaskan Way at the behest of neighboring condo owners who would have lost their views to a new 200-apartment development on the waterfront. (Nyland’s decision to overturn the preservation board’s ruling was later overturned by a city hearing examiner.)

Later that same year, at Murray’s behest, Nyland cut formal and financial ties with the city’s 13 neighborhood district councils, which had served as informal advisory bodies since the 1990s. The councils, which have generally opposed density and whose members often characterize renters as “transients” with little investment in their neighborhoods, are mostly made up of older white homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse Seattle where half the residents are renters. The district councils continued to exist, but no longer receive city funding; instead, under Nyland’s leadership, the city  funded a 16-member Community Involvement Commission and charged it with helping city departments improve their outreach to all city residents, including underrepresented communities such as low-income people, homeless residents and renters.

Back in 2017, Nyland told me that her mission was to help dismantle “systems… that are not easy to navigate,” especially for people outside established neighborhood groups. “What if someone works at night? What if someone has kids and can’t get a babysitter? What if someone can’t speak English? What if someone just didn’t know about the meetings? They’re not making a choice not to come. They can’t come!” Nyland said.

Unsurprisingly, Nyland’s dedication to inclusiveness riled the old-guard neighborhood movement—and Durkan has appeared responsive to their complaints. During the campaign, Durkan talked about “bringing back the district councils”—which, again, were not dismantled—and said she thinks “the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs.” This, as Nyland pointed out long before Durkan was elected, is a false narrative. Inclusion, in all areas of public life, doesn’t mean silencing the people who have traditionally dominated the conversation. It means that their voices no longer get to be the only ones in the room.

While it’s unclear whether Nyland’s ouster was hastened by complaints from traditional neighborhood activists, the move is hardly an encouraging message to renters, immigrants, and other marginalized communities who felt that Nyland was making progress toward opening up the city to everyone, not just the people who show up at every meeting and shout the loudest—and that she still had a lot of work to do.

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City Lets Seattle Decide How to Spend $2 Million, But Not Everyone’s Happy

This story originally ran at Seattle Magazine.

Ever noticed a new curb cut on your corner and wonder how it got there, or stopped at a brightly painted new crosswalk and wished an intersection in your neighborhood had gotten one, too?

Until recently, the process for choosing which of these small projects got funded could be a mystery to anyone who didn’t belong to their neighborhood district council—the groups which submit projects for possible funding under Seattle’s Neighborhood Park and Street Fund. In previous years, each of the 13 districts received an annual lump sum to pay for small (up to $90,000) improvements—everything from new sidewalks to lighting upgrades. The district councils, whose members had to represent established community organizations, would brainstorm a list of projects to submit to the city, which approve or reject them.

“There was very little outreach done around when the projects were being built, what the projects were, and how they got funded, and they would just kind of show up in the neighborhood,” says Jenny Frankl, a strategic advisor at the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON). “It was a mysterious process.”

That changed last year, when Mayor Ed Murray cut ties with the district councils—which, according to a 2009 audit, had long been unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse city made up largely of young renters. Instead, the city opted to expand an existing “participatory budgeting” project called “Youth Vote, Youth Voice,” in which 3,000 Seattle youth decided how to spend $700,000 in neighborhood funds. The new “Your Voice, Your Choice” invited neighborhood residents, including those unaffiliated with any formal group, to nominate projects online. After it was determined which projects were doable, residents would vote on how to spend a total of $2 million in city funding—$285,000 per city council district.

More than 900 suggestions poured in across the city, compared to 150 or so in a typical year under the old system. They ranged from benches and tables at Wallingford’s Meridian Park to a “duck crossing” sign at Denny Blaine Park in Madrona.

Although many were deemed “not feasible”—DON rejected the duck crossing “due to unpredictable nature of [duck] habitat locations”—volunteer “project development teams” considered around two thirds of them before choosing a final list of 10 projects per district that will go to a citywide vote June 3.

DON spokeswoman Lois Maag adds that Your Voice, Your Choice is “much more transparent” than the old district council-led process. “Not only are people able to provide their idea, but then they get to vote for that idea,” she says. “Before, it was a much smaller group of people making the decisions.”

But the process has its discontents, such as Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area District Council. An outspoken opponent of the new Murray-backed process, Sanchez says the city failed to achieve its goal of increasing diversity and inclusion, making “participatory budgeting” anything but. By Sanchez’s count, gleaned from sign-in sheets at the Your Voice, Your Choice development team meetings, it was mostly white homeowners (many 55 and over) who attended. Only two African-Americans came out, he says. “Our last district council meeting had seven African-Americans at it, for crying out loud, and citywide they got two?” Sanchez says. “Something’s wrong with that picture.”

Maag points out that during the 2009 district council meetings used to gauge diversity, staff encouraged attendees to fill out sign-in sheets, which asked for race and age. “Most of the [project development team] meetings did not have” those, she says. However, Maag concedes that the city “didn’t meet our diversity goals in this project development phase.”

For Sanchez, the groups’ lack of diversity is proof of “what we had been saying along—you can’t force people to participate.” DON had a similar experience when it organized focus groups to provide feedback on the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda—although turnout was high in the early days, many people dropped out over time, especially those who did shift work or had childcare issues.

Frankl acknowledges that participation was sometimes low—one meeting drew just four participants to review dozens of potential projects—and says the city plans to do more to increase participation next time. She admits “it was not a perfect process” and pledges to improve outreach next time.

“I would not characterize all of the meetings as a homogenous group of participants,” Frankl says. “However, there’s a lot of room to do a better job of pulling in different voices and different people.”

That could mean staggering meeting times (5:30 p.m. starts were a barrier for some) or allowing people to comment online.

Seattle residents can vote online for their preferred projects until June 30, and the city hopes to make paper ballots available at libraries or community centers. The city will fund the top vote-getters after polls close at the end of the month.

How Seattle Is Dismantling a NIMBY Power Structure

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Director Kathy Nyland (Credit: The Rose Center for Public Leadership)

This story first appeared on Next City as part a series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

For decades, activist homeowners have held virtual veto power over nearly every decision on Seattle’s growth and development.

In large and small ways, these homeowners, who tend to be white, more affluent and older than the average resident, have shaped neighborhoods in their reflection — building a city that is consistently rated as one of the nation’s most livable, as well as one of its most expensive.

Now — in the face of an unprecedented housing crisis and a dramatic spike in homelessness — that may be starting to change.

Last July, Mayor Ed Murray and the director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland, announced that Seattle was cutting formal ties with, and funding for, the 13 volunteer Neighborhood District Councils that had been the city’s chief sounding boards on neighborhood planning since the 1990s. Through this bureaucratic sleight of hand, Murray and Nyland signaled their intent to seek more input and feedback from lower-income folks, people of color and renters — who now make up 54 percent of the city — and away from the white baby boomers who have long dominated discussions about Seattle’s future. The message: We appreciate your input, but we’re going to get a second opinion.

A few months later, the Department of Neighborhoods doubled down on its commitment to community engagement, putting out a call for volunteers to serve on a new 16-member Community Involvement Commission, which will be charged with helping city departments develop “authentic and thorough” ways to reach “all” city residents, including underrepresented communities such as low-income people, homeless residents and renters. Finally, DON will also oversee and staff a second new commission, the Seattle Renters’ Commission, which will advise all city departments on policies that affect renters and monitor the enforcement and effectiveness of the city’s renter protection laws.

The shakeup has rattled traditional neighborhood groups, which have grown accustomed to outsized influence at City Hall, and invigorated some groups that have long felt ignored and marginalized by the city.

The shift toward a more inclusive neighborhoods department, and neighborhood planning process, is more than just symbolic; it’s political. The homeowner-dominated neighborhood councils have typically argued against land use changes that would allow more density (in the form of townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s traditional single-family neighborhoods, which make up nearly two-thirds of the city. Including more renters and low-income people in the mix could dilute, or even upend, those groups’ agendas.

“Our city has changed dramatically since our district councils system was created three decades ago, and we have seen them over time become less and less representative not only of their neighborhoods but of Seattle itself,” Murray said last year.

His statement echoed a point Nyland made in a memo to the City Council back in May: “We have heard from residents active in the system that ‘District Councils work for us.’ … However, they don’t work for everyone.”

Nyland should know. She came up through the council system, first getting involved in the Georgetown Community Council where she questioned the purpose of a new trash dump in the largely industrial neighborhood where she lived and owned a boutique called George with her partner, Holly. She also got involved with the Greater Duwamish District Council and helped fight down a proposal that would have turned Georgetown into the city’s official strip club district. She eventually became the chair of the citywide Neighborhood Community Council, and recalls sending emails “at 1 in the morning in my pajamas sitting in my living room, because that’s when I had time to do it.

“We have systems in place that are not easy to navigate,” Nyland says, and people in established groups who say that “people are just choosing not to come to the meetings. … What if someone works at night? What if someone has kids and can’t get a babysitter? What if someone can’t speak English? What if someone just didn’t know about the meetings? They’re not making a choice not to come. They can’t come!”

 

Mohamud Yusuf came to Seattle as a refugee from Somalia by way of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1996, when the Somali community in Seattle was still “very small,” he recalls. Today, his community is thriving in areas like southeast Seattle, which is still one of the most affordable parts of the city, although rising costs are pushing many immigrants and refugees farther south, outside Seattle. Yusuf was a writer, activist and photojournalist in Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s, and 10 years ago, he started a newspaper called Runta News; “runta,” in Somali, means “the truth.” Today, Yusuf also works as a community liaison to the city, earning $50 an hour to connect community members to city programs and services.

The changes at City Hall excite Yusuf. “I’ve been involved in the community since I was here but I’ve never seen this kind of involvement,” he says. “What we needed was to be included, to be at the table and have a voice.”

Credit: Alex Garland

Mohamud Yusuf came to Seattle as a refugee from Somalia in the 1990s and now works as a community liaison to the city.

Yusuf recounts a recent effort to get the Somali community involved in a long-range plan for Seattle Public Utilities, which provides the city’s trash service and drinking water. Instead of just making materials available in Somali and other languages upon request, the city sent outreach workers to meet with community members where they already were — in neighborhood community centers, in libraries and during English-language classes at the local Goodwill — and talked with them, in their own language, about what forthcoming changes will mean. They taught the immigrants how the city’s sanitation system works too, equipping residents with knowledge they will be able to use next time there is a question about trash collection or clean water in their community.

“The people I talked to were so happy to know more about where the water goes,” Yusuf says. “They would say, ‘We all know our garbage goes away, but we didn’t know where it was going. We are drinking clean water now at home, but we didn’t know who was doing it.”

Nyland’s reform can be traced back to a 2009 audit of the district councils that found an obsolete system that did not reflect the city’s true demographics. “The system is dominated by the presence of longtime members whose point of view is overly dominant at both the district council and city neighborhood council levels and potentially not representative of their communities,” the city audit found. “The district councils in general are not sufficiently representative of the communities they nominally represent,” it concluded.

The disconnect was even deeper in 2016, when a report by the neighborhoods department found that while the population of Seattle was becoming younger, more diverse and more evenly split between homeowners and renters, “residents attending district council meetings tend to be 40 years of age or older, Caucasian and homeowners.”

“If you’ve ever gone to some of these community meetings, they’re just deadly dull, and the same 25 people have been there for 100 years,” City Council Member Sally Bagshaw says.

At a meeting of the Ballard District Council in northwest Seattle immediately after the announcement, district council members seemed shell-shocked by the city’s decision to cut them off. Sitting around a horseshoe of tables at the area’s branch library in northwest Seattle, they took turns grousing about the change. One member argued that the mostly white, mostly middle-aged council should be considered diverse, because “this group represents homeowners, environmental groups, businesses and other organizations.” “We have people here from every state,” he added. Another suggested that the city had made the move in haste, without a plan to replace the councils. “If you’re going to get rid of the current plan, you need to have a new plan in place before you get rid of the old one,” he said.

“Right now, we’re just planting seeds. We might not see the results for a long time.”

At another recent meeting of the group formerly known as the Magnolia/Queen Anne District Council, which represents a wealthy enclave just south of Ballard, one member asked plaintively, “Why do we have to encourage certain groups to come? Why can’t it just be an open forum?”

In a sense, traditional neighborhood groups are right to feel threatened. Nyland’s announcement, coupled with her department’s new emphasis on outreach to communities that have rarely had a say in city decisions, represents a fundamental shift in the very definition of the “neighborhoods” department. By emphasizing outreach to underserved groups such as renters, immigrants and refugees, Nyland is shaking up traditional notions of community engagement and redefining community as something based not on geographic proximity, but on personal and cultural affinity.

“It’s kind of taking off in a way that I can’t keep up with,” says Sahar Fathi, a member of Nyland’s team. “We get a lot of emails from people who are like, ‘We want this to come to our community. We’re starting to go into places where people have never heard of us, and they don’t even know what government services are” — including, she says, “communities we didn’t even know existed.” In Seattle, a city of about 650,000, 25,000 residents were born in another country; of the 120 languages spoken there, the city’s liaisons collectively speak at least 65.

Fathi is one of Seattle’s relative newcomers. The Boston-born Iranian-American moved to the Emerald City a decade ago, when she was in her early 20s. After a stint as a legislative aide to City Council Member Mike O’Brien and an unsuccessful run for the State House of Representatives, she put her background as a lawyer and immigrant rights advocate to work as a policy analyst for the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. These days, Fathi oversees DON’s Public Outreach and Engagement Liaison program, which recruits and pays community members like Yusuf to serve as links between the city and marginalized groups. The liaisons’ job duties include everything from driving people to resource fairs where they can sign up for city assistance programs, to facilitating meetings at community gathering places and interpreting for city staffers, to engaging people in their first language in larger community discussions over neighborhood spending, parks programs, and planning debates.

“Before, the city would say, ‘We have a pedestrian master plan meeting, and we want people to come and give us feedback,’” Fathi says. “With all due respect to the pedestrian master plan, there are a lot of people who can barely afford to pay rent. So how do we meet people’s needs first and then build their capacity” to come to meetings about city policies that affect their neighborhoods.

Seattle’s modern neighborhood movement dates back to at least the late 1980s, when then-Mayor Charles Royer appointed neighborhood activist Jim Diers to head up the new Department of Neighborhoods and create the 13 neighborhood district councils and a citywide council made up of representatives from all the councils. Ever since, the district councils have enjoyed outsized influence at City Hall, staking out and defining “neighborhood” positions on issues and channeling city grant dollars toward their own pet projects, such as National Night Out events, neighborhood welcome signs and security lighting.

For decades, the councils advised the neighborhoods department on what “the neighborhoods” wanted, and if that advice happened to coincide precisely with the interests of the comfortable, white homeowners who dominated the council, nobody at the city seemed to mind. The councils frequently advocated against zoning changes to allow more development in or near the city’s single-family neighborhoods, including Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the city and require developers to build affordable rental housing. Neighborhood activists have shown up in force at council meetings and community briefings by city staff to oppose the HALA recommendations, and one neighborhood group has successfully sued to block an approved HALA rule change that would make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages.

In recent years, though, groups that have traditionally been left out of the process have started demanding seats at the table, including advocates for transit-oriented development and immigrants and refugees, and renters. At a recent City Council briefing on the new renters’ commission, Erin House, a renter, told the council, “I see conversations at both City Hall and in neighborhoods dominated by homeowners, often at the expense of renters’ best interests. As a city, we need to find ways to correct this trend and give renters a seat at the table on conversations about Seattle’s future.”

Last year’s announcement severing ties with the neighborhood councils was a first step in that direction. For the first time since its inception in the late ’80s, the city’s neighborhoods department would spend as much time engaging with underrepresented communities as it did listening to the concerns of white property owners.

“DON has great programs,” Nyland says, “but the department has not evolved with the changing demographics of the city.”

Nyland’s department is small relative to other city agencies, but it has found ways to connect with residents without a huge infrastructure. Ice cream giveaways at summer events. Crowd canvassing at the West Seattle Farmers Market. Plopping down in a temporary parklet on the annual (PARK)ing day. And partnering with organizations like the local Goodwill training center once a quarter, to offer services and information about opportunities to get involved with city initiatives. Some of the department’s efforts have had mixed success. A recent push to engage people of color and low-income residents in the HALA planning process fizzled after the city failed to adequately prepare new participants and follow up when they stopped showing up. But others have been effective at getting new people connected to City Hall.

Nyland notes that many people bemoan the loss of neighborhood service centers, the “little city halls” where residents could talk to city staffers face-to-face. Most of those closed down years ago, the victims of city budget cuts and a population that increasingly does business with government online. Today, Nyland says, what people need more than storefronts is opportunities to engage with the city on their own time. That means telephone town halls instead of in-person presentations by city staffers; online surveys instead of public comment cards; and Skype calls instead of nighttime meetings in library activity rooms and church basements.

“My mantra is, people should be able to participate on their own timeline, from their own location,” Nyland says. “DON has been in existence for 30 years, and it has a lot of really important programs, but I think its mission and its purpose has gotten lost. We haven’t kept up with change. We haven’t refreshed. … I mean, I can’t force people to participate, but we can create opportunities to make it easier.”

At the most recent Goodwill event, Fathi says, the public outreach liaisons came in and took over the second hour of a group of immigrants’ English as a Second Language class. First, they talked briefly — in 17 different languages — about the mayor’s upcoming education summit, which aimed to find solutions to address racial disparities in Seattle schools. Then, they signed the residents up for “all the services the city had to offer” — utility discounts, low-income transit passes and summer programs for kids. This may seem superficially unrelated to the kind of community building and neighborhood planning that is DON’s primary mission, but Fathi says it isn’t. “There are a lot of people who can barely afford to pay rent, so we ask ourselves, how do we meet people’s needs first and then build that capacity, and we think being a good government neighbor is the first step.”

But what the next step holds is a question that some critics say hasn’t yet been substantively answered. Dustin Washington is an experienced community organizer in Seattle and the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s local community justice program. He used to be a member of a race and social justice roundtable created by Murray and is no stranger to City Council. To him, DON’s community outreach efforts are little more than meaningless lip service to cover for the mayor’s pro-gentrification, developer-friendly agenda. “When the mayor and the City Council want to engage with developers — the folks who really hold the power in the city — they don’t have to create any of these mechanisms,” Washington says. “You can set up any mechanism that you want, but I don’t think this mayor is truly interested in engaging with voices that have been left out of the process.”

In many ways, community activists who question the mayor’s sincerity and neighborhood activists who think the mayor is trying to shut them out are coming from the same place — a profound skepticism that the city is interested in hearing what they have to say. Nyland says she understands those concerns. “Right now, we’re just planting seeds,” she says. “We might not see the results for a long time.” Nyland urges skeptics on both sides to be patient and give her a chance to earn their trust.

Over in Magnolia, at the meeting of the group formerly known as the Magnolia/Queen Anne District Council (they’re still searching for a new name), members spent more than an hour crafting a new vision statement to reflect their new mission as an organization. On the second pass, they came up with this: “This group is a catalyst for enhancing quality of life and community building by being a forum for all voices, leading to effective influence on government and in our communities through innovation, education and advocacy.” Hardly a full-throated endorsement of Nyland’s agenda, but it’s a start.

Neighborhoods Director Kathy Nyland, Accidental Activist

This story was published in the January issue of Seattle Magazine; I highly recommend picking up the hard copy, which has a very cool two-page spread of the photo at the top of this post, at your local grocery or bookstore. (I also recommend Knute Berger’s column from the same issue on the coming Trump era in Seattle, which takes a long view of the arc of progress.)

One hot August night in 2015 at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard, Kathy Nyland, the city’s new Department of Neighborhoods (DON) director, struggled to be heard above the shouts from people who showed up to oppose a new, sanctioned homeless encampment in the neighborhood. Over boos, catcalls and cries of “How about we put it in the mayor’s neighborhood?” Nyland struggled to explain that, like those in the room, she had been through her own battles with the city as a neighborhood activist in Georgetown. “We want this to be a successful operation,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “We’re trying to make it work.” Then she hustled off to the sidelines of the hall.

A year and a half later, Nyland isn’t on the sidelines anymore. But as the person on Mayor Ed Murray’s leadership team charged with upending the traditional balance of power in neighborhood planning, she’s still in the hot seat.

Last July, Murray had Nyland at his side when he cut formal and financial ties with 13 neighborhood district councils, which had served as informal advisory bodies since the 1990s. The homeowner-dominated councils typically argue against allowing more density (for example, townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.

Murray has charged Nyland with bringing underrepresented communities into the inner circle of neighborhood planning, including people of color, immigrants, newcomers and renters (with tenants making up about half the city).

District council leaders feel blindsided by the move, and see downgrading the councils as an effort to cut them out of neighborhood planning. Many blame Nyland.

“It was a surprise attack,” says Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area Neighborhood District Council. “Nobody knew about the mayor’s decision until [less than] 24 hours before his press conference.” Sanchez also criticizes Nyland for canceling her appearance at a City Neighborhood Council meeting. “How could she say, ‘No, I can’t answer your questions about this dramatic thing that’s going to affect your lives?’”

Nyland has come a long way since the night she stood nervously in front of angry Ballard residents, afraid to speak. A diminutive woman who is partial to simple, crisp collars, black-and-white patterns and Toms flats, she is gregarious and prone to sudden laughter. And although she’s no fan of confrontation, she’s getting used to it. “My voice doesn’t quiver as much. I haven’t passed out. I just have to remind myself that I know this stuff. I’ve been part of it. I’ve got some credibility,” she says.

Nyland started finding her voice as a neighborhood activist after she and her partner, Holly Krejci (now the mayor’s operations manager), moved into their new house in 2003. A neighbor showed up at their door and asked, “Hey, did your Realtor tell you there’s 20 level-3 sex offenders who live down the street?”

The county had just put neighboring SoDo on the list of potential locations for transitional sex offender housing—and just like that, Nyland and Krejci were sucked into the world of neighborhood activism.

After that first effort—when she learned, among other things, to put all neighborhood representatives in matching T-shirts for maximum visual effect—Nyland went on to organize the opposition to a “red light district” for strip clubs, a new trash transfer station and a proposed expansion of Boeing Field. “I’ve worked with this department for 10-plus years, so it’s dear to me,” Nyland says.

An overachieving middle child raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by a single mom, Nyland graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and quickly became disenchanted with her onetime dream of becoming a designer at a high-powered New York City ad firm. Adrift after a year of travel to Europe, Nyland illustrated a few greeting cards for a friend who owned a San Francisco card shop. Within a day, all her cards had sold. Soon, she had national clients, including Nordstrom and Papyrus. “I truly was self-employed—I would work three months at a time. In September, October, I’d be painting hearts for Valentine’s Day, and then take six weeks off.”

Eventually, San Francisco got too expensive, and she relocated to Seattle, ending up in a two-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, doing marketing and communications for Pacific Science Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In 2003, she and Krejci opened a gift shop and gallery called George, where they sold work by local artists, jewelry and T-shirts that read, “Georgetown: It’s not just for hookers anymore.” George closed in 2009 when Nyland took a job as a legislative aide to Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw. Murray snapped her up to work in his Office of Policy and Innovation in 2014.

Nyland doesn’t draw much anymore—“I don’t even recognize that part of my life,” she says, laughing—but she does channel her creative spirit. She recently suggested doing a Shark Tank–style challenge for the neighborhood matching fund—small grants for neighborhood projects such as park benches. But on tough days, she says, she still seeks out nice paper. “That’s one of my coping mechanisms—I go into Paper Source.”

Nyland’s focus these days is on rebuilding the Department of Neighborhoods. Her signature line is “New Day, New DON!” That means figuring out ways to connect with residents who can’t be reached through the channels developed 30 years ago.

“My mantra is, people would like to participate on their own timeline and from their own location,” she says. So instead of relying on community council mailing lists, postcards and leisurely neighborhood meetings, she looks into town hall meetings via phone and Skype, and sending DON staffers with interpreters to meetings of immigrants and refugees. “It’s broadening those access points,” she says.

Traditional neighborhood meetings, which tend to take place in the early evening and are not widely advertised, exclude people who aren’t on neighborhood mailing lists: renters, night-shift workers or people who don’t speak English fluently. Those people, Nyland says, “are not making a choice not to come—they can’t come! I want to turn those obstacles into opportunities.”

Some have resisted Nyland’s changes at DON, which hasn’t had a major shakeup since founding director Jim Diers retired in 2002.

“There are so many programs at DON that were kind of parked there over the years,” says Tom Van Bronkhorst, a strategic adviser helping to revamp the department’s community outreach process. Besides neighborhood planning, Nyland’s 50-plus employees administer grants for neighborhood improvement projects, P-Patch and historic preservation programs, outreach and engagement services for other city departments, and the popular “Find It, Fix It” program. “They’ve been successful individually, but I think what Kathy wants to do, and what the department needs, is a bigger sense of what the overall mission is. Maybe DON has had more issues with change because it’s so program-focused,” says Van Bronkhorst.

“I remember the first meeting after I was selected, saying, ‘I don’t know if you guys are ready for me,’” Nyland says. “DON has been in existence for almost 30 years, and it has a lot of really important programs, but I think the mission and its purpose has gotten lost. We haven’t kept up with change.”

Van Bronkhorst first met Nyland during the battle over the proposed Georgetown transfer station back in 2005, when he was a staffer for then City Council member Jean Godden. He says Nyland immediately “struck me differently because she was very, very strategic and politically savvy from the beginning. That came up again later when [then council member] Peter Steinbrueck was talking about strip clubs,” and whether they should be dispersed or concentrated in one area, in 2007.

“I think one of the reasons we bonded so quickly is because we both tend to think that way—she’s constantly three or four steps ahead,” Van Bronkhorst says. Plus, “She knows more about politics, about legislation, more about just getting things done than most anyone else that I’ve ever met.”

Another thing that sets Nyland apart from a stereotypical activist: She isn’t reflexively opposed to development—or, for that matter, to strip clubs. “I had no problem with strip clubs. I live in a city. That’s part of urban life,” she says. “I just thought it was bad policy to have them all concentrated in one area.” Ultimately, in no small part due to Nyland’s willingness to lead her neighborhood toward a compromise, the “red light district” proposal fizzled, and the city dispersed the clubs throughout the city.

Van Bronkhorst and council member Bagshaw describe Nyland as a borderline workaholic who puts in longer hours than anyone—the consummate straight-A student. “She would have been your nightmare in school, because you’d be thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll go out tonight,’ but you’d know that Kathy would be home on Friday night getting her homework done,” Bagshaw says. “I don’t think the girl ever sleeps. She’s the kind of person who loves to give people credit—she never wants to be out front.” Bagshaw adds, “From the time when I first saw her speaking [as DON director] to today, I have seen her become more settled and more confident.”

Nyland says there’s only one thing she absolutely cannot abide: People speaking ill of her dogs. Earlier this year, after she single-handedly overturned the decision of a city preservation board and approved the construction of an 11-story building in Pioneer Square, someone called her to say he was glad her dog had died.

“That crushed me,” says Nyland, whose office features a large black-and-white photo of her late border collie/Lab/terrier mix, Fannie Mae. “You can say whatever you want about me, but don’t wish death on my dogs, because those are untouchable.”

Nyland, like all department directors, serves at the pleasure of the mayor—in this case, a mayor given to firing and reassigning staff with little notice, and one who seems unusually sensitive to criticism. Ask Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, who reportedly got the silent treatment from Murray for a few weeks, then suddenly was reassigned to a lesser role. By all accounts, though, Murray is fond of Nyland, and trusts her political instincts and efforts to shake up DON.

“Since his first day in office, he’s been very clear that the status quo was not an option,” Nyland says. “DON has great programs, but the department has not evolved with the changing demographics of the city.” Nyland claims she has never seen Murray lose his temper or lash out unreasonably at high-level staffers. “I think the mayor’s really passionate and he wants to get things done, and my job is to help that agenda,” she says. So, does she think she’s above the fray? “I don’t even know if there is a fray,” Nyland says. “I think I’m in the mix.”

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Why Did the Mayor Cut Ties to District Councils? These Folks Have Some Theories.

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When I got notice that the Eastlake Community Council was holding an “urgent public meeting” to discuss how to “save the district councils,” I figured it was as good a time as any to check in on how the traditional neighborhood councils—the homeowner-dominated, largely white, largely elderly groups that feel they’re losing sway at City Hall—are dealing with the changes Mayor Ed Murray and Department of Neighborhoods Director Kathy Nyland announced in July.

Turns out  the answer is: Not well at all. At last night’s meeting on Eastlake (more sparsely attended than a West Seattle gathering held just after the mayor made his announcement), neighborhood council and district council members from across the city (north of I-90, at least) denounced legislation that would codify the mayor’s executive order, which severed formal ties between the city and the neighborhood councils and cut $1.2 million in funding that, until July, paid for staffers to attend district council meetings and assist the groups.

The purpose of the meeting was, ostensibly, to discuss and propose amendments to an ordinance and resolution that would redirect DON resources to creating a more inclusive community involvement process.

What it turned into, though, was a chorus of disappointment and despair, borne out of a shared conviction that Murray and Nyland want to eliminate geographically based community groups and redefine “community” along demographic lines. I got the sense that this was a group that would like nothing more than to go back to 1987—a year that was invoked frequently last night, because it’s when the neighborhood district councils were formed—before the Internet, politically active renters, and the notion of “inclusion” as a critical cultural value.

The concerns I heard—many of them based in what I’d call a somewhat paranoid view of city government—fell into a few broad categories.

1. Nyland and Murray “based this entire change on a single sign-up sheet,” rather than any process or data. The charge, first raised at last night’s meeting by Central Area District Council president Dan Sanchez, seems to be that the decision to cut ties with and financial aid for the district council was based on reading a single sign-up sheet at a single district council meeting where most of the people were white.

As far as I can tell, there’s no basis to this claim, except that Nyland may have picked up a sign-up sheet and made a comment about it at some point. Having gone to countless neighborhood meetings over the years, I can tell you anecdotally that the people who show up are overwhelmingly white and over 50. But actually, you don’t need me to say that because a city audit confirmed it all the way back in 2009, and warned the councils that “if the City is truly to prioritize race and social justice, use of Roberts Rules, complicated bylaws, and tedious meeting requirements, coupled with a lack of funds for translation, childcare, or other incentives and aids for participation must be addressed for the entire district council system, including the CNC.”

None of that has taken place in the intervening seven years.

Nyland told me recently, with some exasperation, that the district councils have been well aware that the city planned to reduce their role if they didn’t make the changes suggested by the audit. “The audit is from 2009, and that audit was triggered by years and years and years of conversations; this is nothing new,” Nyland said. “Since [Murray’s] first day in office, he’s been very clear that status quo was not an option. DON has great programs, but … .how we do outreach and engagement as a department and as a city has not evolved with the changing demographics” of the city.

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2. It’s more important that the neighborhood councils be geographically representative than that they’re demographically diverse. In fact, it’s “unconscionable” to point out that the district councils and their constituent groups are dominated by white, middle-to-upper-middle-class homeowners.

“All the stuff about diversity, about age, about income, has all been part of their strategy,” one speaker (whose name, unfortunately, I did not catch) said. “It seems unconscionable to me that the mayor would talk about one end of town being racist, and all this terrible, divisive kind of talk.” (He didn’t.) “If you really want to talk about what’s happening [with] gentrification that’s impacting people of color, it’s the gentrification of Columbia City, that whole thing. I used to drive down Martin Luther King Way to get to Boeing, and you could see a very sizable African American community waiting out there for the buses.” I think the implication is that “you” no longer see that as you drive past, ergo: Must be gentrification.

Suzie Burke, a board member for the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, put it this way: “I don’t identify as an Irish person—I identify as someone from Fremont, for goodness’ sakes!” Thing is, Irish people have not been historically (or at least recently) excluded from the organizations that supposedly represent Seattle’s neighborhoods. And suggesting that African Americans, or renters, or young people, or any other demographic group, don’t share any common interests shows a profound need to actually engage with people outside your social circle.

3. People who don’t show up at neighborhood council meetings just aren’t interested in participating, and the city shouldn’t coddle them with things like “online engagement.”

Chris Leman, president of the Eastlake Community Council, argued passionately in favor of the old-timey, drawn-out community meetings the 2009 audit called “tedious,” saying that the “town meeting” was part of the fabric of American life and culture.

“If you go to a public meeting, you don’t have to have internet access. You don’t even have to be able to read, as long as you can understand,” Leman said. (In all my years of attending community meetings, I’ve never seen someone attend who can’t read, but I guess the point is that strangers can wander in to community council meetings even if they don’t have computers and weren’t on the email list. I haven’t seen that happen either.) “The fact is that town meetings are so fundamental to the whole American way of life. Meetings go back hundreds of years. This notion of social media—what they call slacktivism—that as long as you just check off on a petition electronically, that you’ve done all you need to do… I’m just frightened that we have a Department of Neighborhoods that knows so little about organizing anymore.”

The notion that you have to show up at nighttime meetings to truly participate (anything less and you’re just a “slacktivist”) conveniently sidelines people who work at night, people with kids, young people who live their lives online, and anyone who would be intimidated by walking in a room, like the one last night, and put on the spot by a stranger demanding that you tell the group your full name, where you live, and who you represent (true story, and not for the first time).

There was also a bizarre tangent about whether allowing people to participate and engage in dialogue online would allow “bad actors” to engaged in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks or flood council members’ inboxes with  “millions” of letters and their feeds with “unfiltered hashtags” to skew their opinions and votes. To me, that speaks to the need for neighborhood groups to learn a little bit more about how the Internet works (and how council members process the form letters they receive) before condemning all digital communications as “slacktivist” silliness.

4. It’s all a plot.

Reasonable arguments can certainly be had about the value of online communication, or the definition of “community.” But some of the conspiracy theories fielded last night truly deserve that name. Blogger David Baum, who has written many posts on his blog accusing various groups of being in secret cahoots on HALA, the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, spoke about the “explicit strategy to move control from us up to city hall,” demonstrated, somehow, by the progressive policy think tank Sightline Institute, which is supposedly itself in the pocket of Facebook.

“It is a deliberate strategy based in ideology, and they’re executing it with extreme deliberateness to move authority up, so that people can’t resist the new way of thinking,” Baum said ominously. “They can’t say no to increased density on [the city’s] terms.”

Another speaker, eager to be heard in the back of the room, kept jumping in while others were talking to say that the real reason the mayor “got rid of” the district councils (he didn’t, and Burke herself noted at the start of the meeting that few of them intend to disband) is because “they were too effective.”

Finally, there was Leman’s theory that Kathy Nyland, who was appointed head of DON in May 2015, has personally spent years obsessively “collecting complaints about district councils” and waiting for her opportunity to pounce. “She never shared them. She just saved them up and pulled them out now. … She suppressed that information and kept it to herself,” Leman said.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the meeting before its scheduled end time of 9pm (typical slacktivist), but I talked afterward to Sarajane Siegfriedt, who stayed until the end; she said the group never reached consensus or voted on anything, including her proposal to ask the city council to change “community” to “neighborhood” in the mayor’s resolution.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

P-Patch Overreach?

As an avid P-Patch gardener and longtime participant in the program, I receive all emails that go out to the P-Patch listserv.  Usually, they have subject lines like “FREE Farm Talk & Tour” or “You’re invited to our Garden Gala on Sept 16!”

But the one I received yesterday was different. Subject-lined “Issues related to unauthorized encampments” and signed by P-Patch supervisor Rich MacDonald, the letter read,

Dear P-Patch Community,

Unauthorized homeless encampments and their impacts on neighborhoods has been a recurring issue, and we’ve heard from many of our P-Patch community gardeners in recent months.

How we manage Seattle’s homelessness crisis is a much debated topic in our city. What is clear is that we need to find solutions that are compassionate while also prioritizing public health and safety.

We wanted to make sure you were aware that there is a draft bill being put before the City Council on Tuesday that could limit the City’s ability to balance those two factors, effectively making it more difficult for the City to address various issues as it relates to unauthorized encampments.

While we work to address the root causes of homelessness and find long term solutions for our region, we also have an obligation to address and mitigate public health and safety risks in all of our neighborhoods.

As we know this is a topic of concern for you, we just wanted to encourage you to learn more about this issue and add your voice by writing or calling your city councilmember.

(Bolds mine.)

What strikes me about this letter, which encourages gardeners to write or call their city council members, is that it’s an unusually political use of a listserv whose primary purpose is to share news about gardening and gardening-related opportunities. By characterizing the legislation, which would protect unauthorized campers from sweeps and the confiscation of their property and is supported by homeless advocates and the ACLU, as a proposal to “effectively mak[e] it more difficult for the City to address various issues as it relates to unauthorized encampments,” this letter tacitly advocates against the legislation, and puts the Department of Neighborhoods, which has not expressed an opinion on the proposal, in the position of opposing the bill as well.

At least, that’s how I read telling people that a bill will make it “more difficult” for the city to “mitigate health and safety risks” facing P-Patch gardeners, and asking those gardeners to contact the city about that bill.

As someone who opposes the city’s rather heavy-handed approach to sweeps, I wouldn’t characterize my concerns about encampments as being primarily about their “impacts on neighborhoods,” but rather about the impact the city’s sweeps are having on the homeless people who are being swept from place to place with no offer of immediate housing or meaningful services. I would imagine that at least some of my neighbors share those concerns, rather than just the ones MacDonald flags in his email.

I’ve contacted MacDonald and will update this post when I hear back from him.

 

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