photo by Atomic Taco

Now that Seattle is about to have a new mayor, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the outgoing one. Not only is the City of Seattle losing one of its more successful mayors, but the region is losing a giant of the light rail movement just as it begins to pay dividends.

In his capacity as Mayor Greg Nickels has three significant arguments for greatness: first, Bridging the Gap, which is significantly improving transportation in the City; second, the beginnings of the Seattle Streetcar Network; and third, a general willingness to say no to anti-density NIMBYs and bring about the dense, walkable neighborhoods the city so desperately needs. More generally, in all these efforts he displayed an ability to propose, oversee, and complete projects not often seen in Seattle.

On the other hand, there are two items on the Mayoral Agenda in which Nickels was on the wrong side or insufficiently aggressive. First, the Waterfront Streetcar was killed as part of the Olympic Sculpture Park deal for no good reason; and second, the deep-bore tunnel, which threatens to consume the City’s transportation budget flexibility for years.

Although “Mayor of Seattle” will likely be the first line in his obituary someday, it’s actually in a regional capacity that Nickels made the biggest mark on transportation. Nickels started agitating for light rail on the King County Council in 1988. He was an original member of the Sound Transit Board of Directors, and eventually became its chairman in 2008-2009. As we’ve detailed before, during that time he was the crucial figure in getting Sound Transit 2 on the ballot in 2008. Had that not happened, the region’s transportation future would be considerably darker.

More personally, Nickels the man has always struck me as one of us, a genuine railfan. I’ve now had the experience of seeing many politicians at photo-ops, but Nickels riding Link always seemed different: a combination of the completion of a life’s work, and the simple joy of the City he loves getting the system it deserves.

Here at STB, we were thrilled by the platform with which Mike McGinn won the general election. We wish him well, not only in the generic sense wished for all new leaders, but specifically that his agenda is substantially enacted. However, Mr. McGinn and all Seattlites should acknowledge our debt for over 20 years of public service and a record of epochal achievements. Thank you Mayor Nickels.

88 Replies to “Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels”

  1. Nickles was a giant in a world of little people. He was willing to get dirty, messy, and put his political capitol on the line for progress. He may have been at a million photo ops, but he was always INTERESTED and CARED about what was going on. At the Central Link opening party (open bar!), we had about a 10 minute conversation about the Streetcar network and he was suprisingly knowledgable on the subject.

    He’s the closest think we’ll ever get to a real, hard-ass political leader that Seattle desperately needs. It’s a shame 2″ of snow cost him his job while 16 miles of electrified rails didn’t get him squat.

    You shall be missed, Mayor Nickles.

    1. It was a lot more than two inches of snow. Had it been the typical Seattle snow, where a few inches fall, then a day or two later it warms up, rains, and melts, he may still be mayor.

      1. And if it hadn’t been for calling Reichert in to handle the WTO protests, Paul Schell would probably still be Mayor.

        I voted for Nickels to get rid of Schell. I voted for Mallahan to get rid of Nickels.

        Schell was a lousy Mayor. So was Nickels. Nickels’ ham-handed numb-skullery to routinely pursue personal agendas not in line with mainstream Seattleites is what killed his chance of winning re-election, not one blizzard.

      2. The WTO debacle was all Mayor Schell and Chief Norm Stamper’s doing. Woeful under staffing and failure to recognize the amount of security that would be required, not just at the meetings but throughout the City lead to the breakdown. King County Sheriffs along with agencies from all over the State and eventually the National Guard had to be brought in after SPD had let things spiral out of control.

    2. I agree. I firmly believe Greg Nickels will go down as an exceptionally strong mayor in Seattle history. He has many positive accomplishments that will be acknowledged in the future.

    3. Yes, agreed! He will be missed. Nice tribute from Joni Balter in the Seattle Times today. She looked as frustrated as I felt during the recent mayoral debates between McGinn and Mallahan as the discussion seemed so pointless – as if we had to have them rather than wanted to. Joni often looked bored too.

  2. Generally a great summary Martin, but I’m not sure I would have gone with the obituary angle. He’s not dead yet.

    I wonder what’s next for him. He’s shown a strong national leadership position, being the elected head of the US Conference of Mayors. Selfishly, I think he’d do more good for us either in a county or statewide role, but I could see him in a national role as well.

    1. I really hope to see him help push for the same kinds of initiatives he did as mayor, but without having to worry so much about the political cost. I’m waiting to talk to him until after he’s had a week or two to unwind. :)

  3. (off topic: what’s up with wearing a large brand logo to a photoshoot? I sure hope Adidas paid him for that.)

      1. (I can’t actually see the photo thanks to my work’s internet filtering)

        It beats the politician showing up in a $600 suit and they obviously don’t want to be there.

      2. God, I hope SO. McDermott is a powerless (odd for someone with his seniority) laughinstock, and it’s high time we got someone in that office who could be taken seriously and actually get things done for the people of Washington.

        While I admire many of his values and goals – particularly that of single-payer healtcare – his wishy-washiness and general icompetence as a Congressman don’t add up to my voting for the man if and when a non-Republican challenger presents themselves on the ballot.

      3. McDermott is widely seen as ineffective and is much more focused on National and International issues rather than helping his district.

    1. That’s definitely a Sounders scarf. They are Seattle’s soccer team. Their colors are bright green and blue and Adidas supplies their jerseys.

      [deleted, off-topic]

      1. Yes, it’s a Sounders 2009 season ticketholder’s scarf (I have one too). I actually saw Hizzoner the Mayor walking near City Hall last week, and he was wearing his Sounders scarf then as well!

      1. Yey!!

        Go Sounders! Yes it is a Sounders scarf but you would have to be a fan to recognize the 2009 logo on the scarf.

    1. That’s exactly it. Every time you do something, you annoy someone. Eventually, you annoy enough people that they vote you out. Even if everything you did was great!

      1. People acted like it’s so woeful that we won’t have Nickels in office and we’re ending up with McGinn. At worst, it’s just back to the normal non-doer Seattle mayor. At best, McGinn can use some of the political capital/power that Nickels has consolidated in the office of the mayor to get some great stuff done.

  4. I thank Greg Nickels for his hard work trying getting Seattle to become a world class city. It still has a long way to go, but he did a lot in the first decade of 2000. It’s sad to see a loss of a great mayor of our time. Let’s shall see what the next mayor will do for Seattle.

      1. Jeff — I’m not a Seattleite and so don’t know much about Mayor Nickels other than what I’ve read here. You’ve twice mentioned that you think he was a poor mayor, but have yet to give any specific reasons. What are thinking of in particular?


      2. Jeffrey,

        It’s a pretty big list. Early on in his tenure his lack of willingness to work with the City Council stood out, as did a number of incidents of Nickels sending Ceis down to Council chambers to threaten/bully councilmembers into acting a certain way rather than working with them and engaging in some local diplomacy.

        Nickels had somewhat of a Huey Long approach to his politics – having a laudable agenda, but using less than laudable tactics to ram it down the throats of other leaders – and the public. Many times when Nickels hasn’t gotten his way going through channels – he’s done an end-around. The tunnel, the streetcar, attempts to ban bag fees and unconstitutional bans on firearms (destined to fail court challenges and make things worse) are some prime examples.

        I believe he’s been a lousy leader, and I’m very, very glad to see him go. I fear however that Mallahan may be Nickels with a beard – or worse. We shall see.

      3. Jeff, didn’t you mean to say “McGinn may be Nickels with a beard” instead of Mallahan? McGinn’s the one who won the election.

      4. TomK,

        LOL – freudian slip to be sure. You’re correct of course. Mallahan is probably Nickels with an aversion to taking public transportation. Oops – that was Nickels as well.

      5. I’m on Nickels’ people’s side on this one. Having changed jobs a few times, it’s often customary to either give notice or discharge employees (not fired for cause but right-sizing, other changes) after the first of the month to give them time to make other arrangements for health insurance – including time to budget/decide if COBRA coverage is an option. The cost given the few employees involved would have been nominal, courteous, and well – the humane thing to do. None of those people did wrong, all served their city well, and whether or not they have a place in the new administration, deserved at the very least the ability to get a doctor’s appointment in before their health insurance lapses.

        I see the team’s response to McGinn not letting him move in to his offices until after midnight tonight as equally smarmy, but given McGinn’s adherence to the artificial deadline of January 1 and the very real negative impact to those employees – an understandable “gotcha back, so there”.

      6. I guess it denotes feeling depressed and self-neglect! Bobby Kennedy grew his hair long in the 1960s to show his emotional turmoil over his brother’s death.

      7. He needed to be bully to get things done. Otherwise he would have been voted after the first term.

  5. Both Nickels and McGinn are huge transit advocates. But nickles was not one to listen or work together. When it came to transit, he would quickly jump in to the cross agency firefights that kept transit progress from happening in this city for so long. Yes, he got light rail, but he got it by sidelining and angering many people in the city who could have easily had their concerns explained. Mcginn is a better Nickles. He is not in either the Sound Transit or King County Metro camps, and he is better at listening.

    And don’t get me started on Nickelsville

    1. Chetan,

      “Sidelining” detractors is how things get done.

      McGinn may turn out to be better than Nickels. It depends on whether or not his initiatives are paralyzed by chatter and process.

      1. Martin,

        Regardless of weather or not sidelining other people is how things get done (I don’t believe it is) Nickles could have done a much better job of clearly explaining why streetcars and light rail are good things, and why they are better than the monorail or BRT. In this aspect, he failed and was forced to ignore and anger those who disagreed with him.

      2. GW Bush certainly got a lot done: a massive tax cut, a huge deficit-financed prescription drug benefit, at least one very controversial war, and that’s just the highlights. Whether or not you agree with his policies or appreciate their outcomes, people of any persuasion should hope their agendas are pursued with such vigor and success.

    2. Nickels did what was necessary to get things done. Seattle is too indecisive and it needed an strong mayor to move things forward. Unfortunately, this sometimes mean angering some people. It is sad to see him go.

  6. Nickels was a reasonably good mayor throughout his career. I did not realize how much he had spearheaded light rail until STB reported on it this summer. (I was a monorail supporter, so at the time I didn’t pay attention to who led the light rail effort.) He doesn’t deserve the derision people gave him for Snowpocolypse-gate, any more than Schell deserved the drumming for WTO. Big problems happen, and people respond to them as best they can.

    But Nickels did give the appearance of favoring his developer buddies, especially Paul Allen, over everything else. Why couldn’t the first streetcar line have been on 1st Avenue or First Hill or Ballard-UW rather than SLU? Those would have immediately gained a larger number of riders and public support.

    1. The first streetcar was SLU because Allen was willing to pay for half of it. Nobody else would have done that.

    2. Why do so many people mock Mr. Nickels for his supposed alliance with Paul Allen? It has led to a lot of constructive and worthwhile activity in a part of the city historically known for ugly parking lots and weed-strewn areas with graffiti and nothing much of note. Paul Allen and Vulcan have revitalized the area and brought much needed development into the area.

      We’ll get to the other areas of the city as soon as we can. Kudos to Paul Allen for jump starting one area into rejuvenating its appearance. It even made the New York Times Travel Section earlier this year!

      South Lake Union Park opens next Summer which will be an added piece to the puzzle. Are you saying we should stop and just rip it up?

    3. “Allen was willing to pay half of it.” Or, Allen wanted the city to pay half of an investment intended to raise his property values, even though it wasn’t among the top 10 transit needs in Seattle. Like he got the public to pay for his revenue-generating stadium with its luxury boxes and $7 hot dogs, even though we had a perfectly good Kingdome that could accommodate a wider variety of events.

  7. For non transit fans, Nickels will always be seen as the mayor that let the Sonics leave Seattle.

    1. I’m a transit fan, and frankly don’t give a crap that the Sonics left Seattle. That one wasn’t Nickels’ fault – there was a public vote showing them the door, and I’m tickled they went through it. Could they take the Seahawks and Mariners with them, please?

      1. [deleted, ad-hominem] Whatever in the world is wrong with having professional sports teams in this city?

      2. David,

        I’m guessing that you disagree and will be looking for the “deleted – ad hominem” that usually shows up after a comment like yours.

        No, nothing wrong with having professional sports teams in the city. I’m in agreement with the I-91 folks that multi-billion dollar industries shouldn’t receive the type of taxpayer subsidies that this city’s teams have, especially when those subsidies specifically thwart the expressed will of the people and are blatantly wasteful.

        We used to have a perfectly good dome stadium in this town – in fact, I think we’re still paying for the repair to the ceiling that was done just before the thing was blown up. Now we have redundant stadia that spend most of their time empty. As for the Sonics – like Boeing, they never had any attention of staying, repeated attempts to extort Seattle taxpayers to enhance yet another redundant sports facility notwithstanding.

        Oh – and both the Seahawks and the Mariners SUCK. If we had winning teams with some local talent on them – I’d probably feel differently.

    2. I really can’t fault Nickels for that. It’s a lot of money to blow on a sports team.

    3. Few seem to be that sorry.

      The Sounders also arrived on his watch and they have way more life to them at the moment than the Sonics ever seemed to.

      One for one swap and not one for none

      1. If you don’t think the Sonics ever had any “life to them” then you obviously never followed them — especially during the mid-90s.

    4. I miss the Sonics more than most, but Howard Schultz deserves the blame for the Sonics leaving.

  8. There were multiple reasons I didn’t vote for Nickels again beyond the snowstorm debacle. I disliked his particular green policies. For instance, periodically he made statements about outlawing disposable diapers (easy to do once your children are grown.) The changes in recycling and composting somehow always seem to be accompanied with huge increases in utility fees especially when compared with other cities. And every initiative seemed to trickle down with minimal feedback.

    Then there was preoccupation with Downtown/Vulcan. I can’t see how either the viaduct tunnel or the Mercer Street Realignment serve the best interests of the city transportation wise. Even the SLUT felt like another giveaway to Vulcan as opposed to a real street car commitment. At the same time, basic street maintenance continued to be neglected outside the core and progress on building the rest of the sidewalk network was barely made.

    Finally, safety and security have also seemed to be under supported. There was the failure to hire more police officers over the last few years which is just starting to be rectified. The wave of high schoool gang violence has been pretty terrible. At the same time car prowls/burglaries continue at fairly high rates and the police can’t patrol/investigate enough to abate the problem.


    1. I just have to say – neither I nor my brother had disposable diapers, and my mom was seriously poor when I was a kid.

      Everyone should be preoccupied with downtown. Six feet of sidewalk in downtown serves a hundred *times* as many people as six feet of sidewalk up in the north end. It’s where by far the biggest improvements can happen, and it’s where we can easily put a lot more density without ruffling any neighborhood feathers. We have people moving here – and they need a place to go. That’s by far the best place to put them.

      1. This is just plain mean spirited.

        What is? Did his post contain something you disagree with? What part of it was “mean spirited”?

        Are you writing from a ‘Republican’ agenda?

        What folly would make you say that? Forgot to mention Kemper Freeman and Rush Limbaugh – the favorite guilt-by-association names that some folks around here tend to raise when someone expresses a view that they disagree with.

        You want “mean spirited”? How about depriving a handful of employees of a month’s worth of health insurance?

      2. Well we are supposed to be honoring the guy’s achievements, not coming up with denigration!

        The health care issue was actually on McGinn’s request, not Mayor Nickels’. Read today’s paper.

      3. Tim,

        My point exactly. McGinn’s decision to officially end employment of staffers specifically to deprive them of a month’s insurance coverage – whether it was intended that way or not – was mean spirited. Agreement on that here. Not a great leadership move, IMO.

  9. I have to add my thanks to Mayor Nickels. I think he was a great and strong mayor for our city, who believed in looking beyond the ring of process and making decisions from outside of it.

    I liked your tribute, Martin, with the exception of the jarring note about the tunnel which I do believe he will be seen as being on the right side of.

    I also got to know Mayor Nickels a little personally and I always found him to be polite, welcoming and friendly and keen to move beyond the photo op. I met him at many Seattle Green and Clean events and I think he made a great contribution to city life in this initiative, separate from his obvious achievements in transportation. He also at my request at one such event, began the process of getting a tree sapling from ‘Anne Frank’s tree’ outside of her annex in Amsterdam. Although, as many people seem to have since claimed credit for securing this sapling as have worked on claiming credit for Light Rail, I do like to think that I was amongst the first to let the City and Parks Department know that such a sapling existed for adoption.

    Yes, he could have done more to save the waterfront streetcar and the Seattle Monorail Project, but on balance he did not deserve to be thrown out in August and he will be greatly missed. I really hope that he remains in Seattle. He clearly loves it here as much as the rest of us do. He sought to make a difference and to offer leadership on a host of issues that had had weak or non-existent leadership before. I also believe he would have learnt from the snow debacle and not repeated the response or lack of it in any future such mess. He had the capacity to learn and grow from such mistakes.

    As Joni Balter said in the Times today, the current Mayor leaves with his head held high, just as the new one ‘cycles’ in with a thousand questions stapled to his back. I am sure we will probably get to like him as we move into 2010, but for now, lets celebrate the achievements of the outgoing mayor and wish him all the best and happiness for years to come.

  10. Go Sounders! Like the scarf Mayor Nickels and thanks for having a Sounders Day proclamation during the playoffs! I have printed and saved this.

  11. Nickels had the knowledge of transit that only decades of experience can give, the ability to make public agencies responsive that depends on experience in office and consistency in pushing the agencies, and a very shrewd ability to work the street, as illustrated by getting the SLUS built. I suspect he was a lot closer to having a streetcar building on 1st Ave then we will ever know, now.

    In contrast, McGinn, with basically no experience in public office, didn’t become a transit advocate until transit polled better than himself on the straw vote website the McGinn campaign put up. Now that he’s fired the clean-up boss that Nickels put in, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy for him to control the SDOT. Not lookin’ for any great stuff to happen any time soon.

    1. I agree with this analysis and conclusion. Greg Nickels is supposed to have recommended to McGinn that his successor concentrate on a few immediate successes to get his feet wet and so we shall see what these will be if he indeed wants to go down this path.

      My hope is that he chooses to push for a quick preferred alignment for the First Hill streetcar and that he finds some funding for the Mercer Street realignment.

    2. This is an utterly ridiculous comment, serial…, and the editors should delete it from the comments.

      To suggest that McGinn never advocated for transit until after he began campaigning for Mayor shows you clearly have not been involved in transit advocacy around the city.

      Not only did McGinn start an organization [Great City] that has density and transit and sustainability amongst its main goals, but he was quite involved in defeating Roads+Transit and bringing back the transit-only ST2 package.

      1. Mickymse,

        We generally don’t delete comments that are factually wrong as long as they’re not part of a trolling campaign to spread disinformation. Catowner’s comment has enough words with elastic definitions that it would probably pass muster anyway.

        Of course, you’re more than welcome to correct the record.

  12. Seattle has gone from Charles Royer to Norm Rice to Paul Schell to Greg Nickles to Mike McGinn. Is this getting better or worse, I cannot tell.

  13. Noe that I think about it. I don’t think I’ve liked any Seattle Mayor since Ole Hanson.

    (That was a joke)

  14. I think Nickels’ leadership will be sorely missed. I don’t see how McGinn’s all-inclusive, touchy-feely leadership style can result in anything worthwhile for those of us who support increased density and transit. People who cheered at the failure of the City to overcome NIMBY opposition for the new Queen Anne fire station or the Goodwill site development will love the do-nothing, gridlock approach of McGinn.

  15. I was never a fan of Greg Nickels. I voted for Mark Sidran over Schell. Someone mentioned that Nickels has made Seattle a more walk-able city, but where’s the evidence? The South Lake Union area is just one big block-sized building after another, built right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Where are the set-backs that make walking more pleasant? Go walking in downtown Portland and you’ll see what I mean. And about the ‘bridging the gap’ levy. I still have yet to see any real evidence of that. North 45th street was finally repaved, but that was done with money BEFORE the levy was passed. Finally, we’re getting sidewalks on Greenwood Avenue but only about 10 blocks’ worth. Someone point me to a website that shows where this money has actually been spent, please! Instead, it seemed that Nickels spent far too much time worrying about legacy stuff, about becoming a more ‘green’ city, trying to ban plastic bags and such. Well, I already use reuseable bags and get 3-5 cents off at the grocery stores I go to. I want a mayor who is looking out for me. Where was Nickels’ outrage about panhandling? I am more annoyed and nervous about the freaking bums on the street than I am about some nutjob and a concealed weapon. And I think the tourists would agree too, trying to walk from a hotel on 5th Avenue to Pike Place Market. Go ahead and ban the bums at streetcorners and freeway off-ramps and then let someone sue you, like he did with the gun ban. I want to feel safe while waiting for a bus at night.

    Now, if the things that he did do can sprout up and grow, then maybe 10 years from now I can look back and say, sure, Nickels was a good Mayor…I do look forward to more streetcar lines, more Sound Transit rail, and a stronger downtown core.

  16. 80 miles of roads paved, 32 blocks of sidewalks created, plus new signs, etc these past 3 years. It seems like that ain’t all that much considering the money we’re spending. So, where are these 80 miles of newly paved roads in Seattle? I sure don’t see them where I drive or ride the bus every day. Northgate Way had one lane out of four repaved, but only for a few blocks and it looks like a bad temporary job at that. The rest of it is still horrible to drive on. Where exactly are these 32 blocks of new sidewalks?

  17. Nickels made progress, but the Martin post in incomplete.

    it understates Bridging the Gap. Decades of under spending on pavement management is being corrected. Nickels helped negotiate the simultaneous ballot measures of Transit Now and BTG; the former included the service partnership program; the latter spends $1.5 million annually on new service. With BTG, Nickels finally realized he had to use the commercial parking tax and it has worked out quite well. SDOT has several years left in the program and we will see more improvement. sidewalks were really a modest part of it.

    the Seattle Streetcar network and its SLU line are distractions. As Ben acknowledged, the SLU line would not have been built without Vulcan. It main purpose is as a marketing devise for their development. it is a poor use of scarce service subsidy.

    Nickels was a leader at ST for all of its existance. so, he shares credit for their successes and blame for their poor decisions (e.g., south-first Link, the Tukwila alignment, and north Sounder). He designed Route 570, the rump of which is attached to Route 560. a station north of the DSTT will not open until 2016, 20 years after the sound move measure was adopted. the transit capacity of downtown will be constrained during the AWV construction program.

    the George Benson line need not have been killed. no elected official was willing to pressure SAM to incorporate the maintenance facility into their design. a shame.

    the zoning changes he asked for were very modest.

    the fire levy was a sound move; the libraries were improved

    on net, a very nice record, but transit pe se, was not a strong point.

  18. I believe that after a year of McGinn the people of Seattle will wish they had Nickles. Thankfully I live in Kent.

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