Peter Steinbrueck was Mike McGinn before voters ever heard of McGinn.
Both came into office as neighborhood activists. Both have reputations for jabbing at The Man. Both can be self-righteous to a fault. Both are deep green; Steinbrueck even backed Ralph Nader’s Green Party run for president in 2000. And, both staked their political futures, at one point, on replacing the decrepit Alaskan Way Viaduct with a proposal intended to reduce car use.
But while some see McGinn, the one-term incumbent in the race for mayor, as a forward-looking urbanist, Steinbrueck, a former City Council member, is tagged with the label that he’s yesterday’s news.
He missed his chance by not running four years ago, some say, when two-term Mayor Greg Nickels was ousted in a primary by McGinn and Joe Mallahan, another virtual unknown.
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Back in 2009, The Stranger, the enfant terrible of Seattle media, urged in a headline: “Run Peter Run!” When he didn’t, The Stranger enthusiastically backed McGinn.
Now the weekly newspaper, NBA fans and some transit advocates are advancing the argument that Steinbrueck is anti-progress, the face of the NIMBY movement, the candidate for the get-off-my-lawn “lesser Seattle” crowd.
Steinbrueck smiled and shook his head during an interview at a cafe inside one of the Amazon.com towers in South Lake Union — a building over which he battled Paul Allen’s development firm, Vulcan, for an additional $1.3 million in affordable- housing fees just before he left the council in 2007.
“I think they’re attempting to reinvent Peter,” he said of opponents. “How do you bring down somebody with the name, the record, the vision and insight, somebody who is committed to a better future for all of the city? By redefining who they are, or attempting to.”
His supporters have noted he brushed aside the city’s cap on building heights while leading the City Council through zoning changes in 2006 that allowed more dense growth in downtown.
“I didn’t go to Harvard to study NIMBYism 101,” Steinbrueck added, referring to his recent fellowship at the fabled university. “I’ve been a student of growth management before it was even a term. I’d like these people to show some facts that support these characterizations.”
Steinbrueck resurfaced publicly in 2012, staking out positions that separated him from McGinn.
He worked as a consultant and lobbyist for the Port of Seattle against a sports arena in Sodo proposed by the mayor. He also lobbied for residents of a South Lake Union retirement home who disliked zoning changes recommended by McGinn.
Those positions fueled the NIMBY charges that he cared more about Lake Union views of retirees and the Port’s fear of stadium traffic than a thriving city.
“I think he’s out of touch with the rest of the city’s vision on growth. He seems more intent on restraining growth and keeping things like they were back in the old days,” said Brian Robinson, a longtime NBA arena advocate who has endorsed McGinn.
Steinbrueck contends that critics are missing the point. His positions in both Sodo and South Lake Union are part of his view of smart growth — density that is walkable, livable, compact and economically diverse.
One of the best ways to counter gentrification in Seattle, he said, is to preserve good-paying blue-collar jobs on the waterfront.
“The Sodo arena [debate] was about living-wage jobs and protecting a very important sector of our economy,” he said. “Not all kids are well-suited for college, and there are other pathways to good jobs for them.”
In South Lake Union, he said, McGinn’s proposal came nowhere near providing enough housing diversity. He also argued that Vulcan’s proposed 240-foot towers near the lake’s edge would cast shadows on Lake Union Park and encourage luxury housing.
The City Council seemed to agree. It limited the lakefront towers to 160 feet and increased fees developers would pay into an affordable-housing fund.
“I’m enthusiastic about the newcomers to Seattle,” said Steinbrueck, 55, proud his hometown is a magnet of innovation and creativity.
“That’s the good side” of growth, he said. “But if it doesn’t come with the same commitment to place, then I have an issue with it. If you just take what you can for yourself, if you take advantage of the opportunities, then I have an issue with it.”
Dealing with developers
Despite those two public fights, Steinbrueck acknowledges similarities with McGinn, particularly on environmental issues. Others see a notable difference: Steinbrueck wants a side order of what he considers economic justice with his green policy.
He’s not so much anti-growth as anti-greed, thanks to his upbringing. “Raging against the machine is a family tradition,” The Seattle Times wrote when Steinbrueck retired from the City Council.
In waging an eight-year war to stop the demolition and redevelopment of Pike Place Market in the 1960s and early 1970s, activist architect Victor Steinbrueck instilled the importance of place, authenticity and other values in his son.
“Lying, deceit, greed and selfishness” were circles of hell in his father’s eyes, Steinbrueck told The Times in 2007.
Without government intervention, Steinbrueck believes, developers would put profit above public interest. “They build to where the highest profit margin is. They don’t build for low and moderate income. Why would they? There’s more profit on the high end,” he said.
During the downtown rezone, Steinbrueck pushed to double the fees Nickels wanted developers to pay for public benefits, such as affordable housing, in exchange for taller buildings.
He also called out potential conflicts of interest on the Planning Commission. At the time two commissioners were working for Clise Properties, one of the biggest downtown landowners. Both commissioners subsequently resigned. Planning commissioners now disclose even the potential appearance of conflicts, which 12 of 16 did during the recent South Lake Union zoning debate.
“They know they can’t put one over on me. They respect me,” Steinbrueck said about developers, pointing to contributions to his campaign from Kevin Daniels, Richard Hedreen and William Justen.
“Peter certainly supports density,” said Justen, who developed a 38-story condo tower at 1521 2nd Ave. that opened in 2009. “But he feels strongly that density should go in certain places where there is good transit and a variety of good planning principles.”
Justen said he paid a lot more than he wanted, $1.9 million, in affordable-housing fees under Steinbrueck’s downtown zoning regulations. But Justen called it a “fair outcome” and believes Steinbrueck “extracted as much as we felt we could tolerate such that it didn’t impede increased density and development.”
Most contributions from the real-estate industry have gone to other mayoral candidates, with Clise Properties and Vulcan giving the $700 maximum to McGinn.
And Steinbrueck lags behind four other candidates in total contributions.
Diving back in
When Steinbrueck decided not to run for mayor four years ago, it was mostly for personal reasons.
“I needed to rebalance my life, to have a break from politics,” he said. “And there were other financial and personal considerations involved.”
His sons, Mason and Ben, now 20 and 17 respectively, hung a banner at his City Hall retirement party that said “Welcome Back, Dad.”
Steinbrueck vowed to stay active in civic life when he left the City Council, pledging to fight against a new elevated waterfront highway. He threw his support behind the so-called surface-transit option, which would’ve had travelers relying on public transit and existing streets instead of a new viaduct or tunnel.
Before he left the council, Steinbrueck helped shift $7 million in city funds to study that option. “I thought we had charted a good course,” he said.
He also thought he had a great consulting job lined up, developing a sustainability plan for San Diego. “I was thrilled,” he said. But the job fell through. And the recession hit.
In the spring of 2009, Steinbrueck accepted a fellowship for the next academic year at Harvard, where he studied urban environmental policy.
Meanwhile, civic leaders had steered the central waterfront to a new solution — a deep-bore tunnel. “I was never actually opposed to a deep-bore tunnel,” he explained, “because it was less expensive, had less capacity and was less disruptive” than the cut-and-cover tunnel Nickels had initially proposed.
After returning to Seattle in 2010, he eventually separated from his wife, Marilyn Taylor. The couple divorced this year after 21 years together.
Struggling financially, Steinbrueck did some carpentry and design for small residential additions, he said.
Steinbrueck said he doesn’t “believe for a second” he missed his best shot at being mayor four years ago.
Alex Fryer, a political consultant and former spokesman for Nickels, agreed.
“ I don’t think he’s yesterday news,” Fryer said. “I think the conventional wisdom is that it’s going to be McGinn and [state Sen. Ed] Murray” emerging from the Aug. 6 primary. “But if you’re looking for a surprise it’s going to be Steinbrueck. I think he could pull off a very big surprise.”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org