Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, whose single term in office was marked by crises from the WTO riots to Boeing’s corporate departure, but whose imprint as an enthusiastic city-builder can be seen in libraries, parks, community centers and public art, died Sunday. He was 76.
Mayor Schell, who served as Seattle’s 50th mayor, from 1998 to 2002, died at Swedish Medical Center, where he had undergone heart bypass surgery last week.
Civic leaders praised Mayor Schell as a visionary whose impact on Seattle spanned decades before he was elected mayor.
“As a citizen activist, lawyer, director of community development, port commissioner, dean of architecture and mayor he directly shaped the civic infrastructure of Seattle for more than 40 years,” Mayor Ed Murray said in a news release.
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Mayor Schell led a successful $196 million Libraries for All bond campaign that funded a new downtown library and rebuilt many neighborhood branch libraries. He championed a $198 million levy for parks and the zoo, and a $72 million effort that mingled public and private dollars to renovate the opera house at Seattle Center and community centers.
“He had a vision for the city that got articulated in bricks and mortar,” friend and former Mayor Charles Royer said. “I think if it were not for a couple of those bumps, he would have been regarded as much more effective than he was given credit for. And he is, in my book, one of the most productive mayors we’ve ever had.”
But Mayor Schell’s administration was undone by a cavalcade of bad news.
The 1999 ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which Mayor Schell had promoted as a boon for the city, turned into a fiasco of tear gas, property damage and mass arrests. Mayor Schell took heat from business owners angry that the city lost control of downtown. He also was lambasted by protesters and others swept up in the aggressive police response.
Two years later, during Mardi Gras, a young man was beaten to death in Pioneer Square while police remained on the sidelines of the unruly crowds. Mayor Schell also faced controversial police shootings and Boeing’s announcement that its corporate headquarters would move to Chicago.
If the city took a bruising, so did Mayor Schell. During the summer of 2001, he was hit in the face by a megaphone-wielding assailant while attending a Central District community event. The incident broke bones around Mayor Schell’s eye and left streaks in his vision.
“I feel like we did eight years in four,” he once said of his tumultuous term.
By the time Mayor Schell sought re-election in 2001, voters were fed up. He became the first Seattle mayor in 65 years to be ousted in a primary, placing third behind then-City Attorney Mark Sidran and then-King County Councilmember Greg Nickels, who went on to win the general-election runoff.
Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck said Mayor Schell was more interested in urban design and ideas than in the day-to-day management of the city.
Mayor Schell and his wife had a vacation home in the south of France, and he talked enthusiastically about aspects of life there that he wanted to import to Seattle, Steinbrueck recalled.
“Street markets, the plazas, the architecture, the cafes, the culture, all those good things,” said Steinbrueck. “He sought to imbue Seattle with that level of European-style civic life.”
Although Mayor Schell had been around politics for decades, he often expressed disdain for the credit-taking and blame-throwing nature of electoral politics. Aides were sometimes frustrated by his political tin ear.
“At his core, he never understood politics,” said Cliff Traisman, a former aide and political adviser. “He understood the power of ideas. He was an intellectual.”
Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, who served as deputy mayor under Mayor Schell, said “he wasn’t the kind of leader who looked to his next re-election — he looked at what he felt was best for the city.”
Mayor Schell had a gruff side and was known to flash a temper at those he perceived to have slighted him, but Daudon and others said he was loyal to his friends and always supportive of city employees.
Born Paul Schlachtenhaufen on Oct. 8, 1937, in Pomeroy, Iowa, Mayor Schell was the oldest of six children of a Lutheran minister. After graduating from high school, he attended Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, playing linebacker on the school football team.
Mayor Schell transferred to the University of Iowa and went to law school at Columbia University in New York, where he met his future wife, Pam, a registered nurse. They married on the day he graduated from law school — a double celebration scheduled so his father would have to pay for only one plane ticket.
Mayor Schell was hired by a Wall Street law firm. It was there that “Schlachtenhaufen” became “Schell,” a move he said was made because the longer name wouldn’t fit on computer punch cards used in those days.
Having gotten a taste of the Northwest as a summer law clerk in Portland, Mayor Schell wanted to settle here. In 1967, Paul and Pam Schell moved to Seattle so he could take a job with the Perkins Coie law firm. A few years later he left to form his own small law partnership.
His civic engagement began as he quickly befriended a group of young and educated idealists bent on transforming Seattle. In the 1970s, Mayor Schell became president of Allied Arts, a civic group that campaigned to save Pike Place Market from redevelopment and successfully pushed enactment of a city law setting aside 1 percent of municipal construction budgets for art.
He rallied support for Mayor Wes Uhlman’s re-election bid but clashed with Uhlman on a plan to redevelop Pike Place Market. Uhlman later hired Mayor Schell as director of his community-development department, where he made a name for himself by pushing to speed up neighborhood-improvement projects.
In 1977, Mayor Schell made the leap into politics himself by running for mayor against former TV newsman Royer. The two clashed over Mayor Schell’s proposal for a major redevelopment of Westlake Mall that would include two new public squares, theaters and a hotel. Royer criticized the plan as out of scale with downtown and went on to win easily.
Mayor Schell detoured from politics after the loss, going on to be a developer of downtown buildings and then serving as interim dean of the University of Washington College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
In 1989, Mayor Schell was elected a Port of Seattle commissioner and played a role in the port’s major waterfront developments.
In retirement, Mayor Schell remained an active arts patron both in Seattle and on Whidbey Island, where he lived. He also helped develop the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park on the Seattle waterfront.
Friends said he’d also been designing a new Whidbey Island home, which he and his wife were ready to move into.
Mayor Schell is survived by Pam, his wife of 51 years, and his daughter, Jamie.
Details of a memorial service have not been announced.