Ascension to the 17th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower is the result of what Kathy Nyland calls “a crazy road map” starting with her arrival in Seattle in 1998.
Kathy Nyland felt marooned when she first moved to Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. The grittiness. The lack of a grocery store. She had to drive everywhere.
But one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods would be the place where Nyland would find new purpose. Not only did she grow to love the Wild West vibe of this early hipster hamlet, she would help empower its residents through a series of battles with the city.
Over the course of a decade, Nyland, 48, found a new passion that would lead to her recent appointment as director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods.
“I never thought of politics,” Nyland said one recent morning. “I only got in because it was the neighborhood I lived in. I saw how decisions were being made and it didn’t seem very fair.
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“It’s the middle child in me,” she said with a signature big laugh. “I’m all about fairness.”
Her ascension to the 17th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower is the result of what she called “a crazy road map” starting with her arrival in Seattle in 1998.
Nyland came from San Francisco, where she had started a greeting-card business after graduating from The University of California, Berkeley. She had intended to move to Fremont (“I heard it was artsy”), but landed on Capitol Hill.
She was working in marketing at the Pacific Science Center when she met her longtime partner, Holly Krejci. Together, they moved to Georgetown, where they opened a gift store called George.
Not long after, Southwest Airlines proposed moving to nearby Boeing Field, which would expand to accommodate it. Nyland and Krejci canvassed their neighborhood, informing people of the plan and its impact, and letting them know what they could do.
“Time and again, we met these deflated souls,” Nyland recalled. “They said, ‘This is Georgetown, this is what happens.’ People were almost broken.”
But they rallied, and the expansion plan was abandoned.
One year later, Nyland and Krejci were canvassing again, this time about a trash-transfer station that would send some 200 trucks through the heart of Georgetown every day.
“I thought we should just recycle more,” she said.
Nyland specifically remembers a man on Homer Street who took their flier and said, “Of course I’m going to get involved. This is Georgetown. They can’t do this to us.”
(Ultimately, they didn’t; the city opted to renovate the transfer stations it had, and implement a zero-waste policy.)
It was a transformative moment for Nyland, who saw how action could move a community: “A little handful of people in a neighborhood had questions and made a better way.”
When Sally Bagshaw decided to run for Seattle City Council in 2009, political consultant Christian Sinderman recommended she hire Nyland to help connect her in the neighborhoods.
Two minutes after her win, Bagshaw asked Nyland to be her chief of staff.
“It was fascinating,” Nyland said of working in City Hall. “I was used to working against the city. But when you’re working in a council office, you learn everything.”
Traffic control. Public safety. Libraries. Parks.
She stayed with Bagshaw through her first term (“I kept her visible,” Nyland said. “I made sure she was in the neighborhoods.”)
Then in 2013, new Mayor Ed Murray asked to “borrow” Nyland to help plan a Neighborhood Summit. She pulled together some 600 people who spoke in eight different languages, and representatives from every city department.
Afterward, Murray asked Nyland to stay with him permanently as a senior policy adviser.
A few months ago, after a briefing, Murray asked Nyland to stay after. “I think I’m going to send you over to neighborhoods,” he said.
She didn’t know what he meant.
“Did he forget a file over there? His coffee cup?” Nyland said with a laugh. “I truly had no idea.”
That night at home, Krejci — who works in Murray’s office — asked her: “Do you have anything to tell me?”
Nyland didn’t think so — until the next day, when Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas called her in and confirmed: They wanted her to head the department. She oversees a staff of almost 50 who manage seven programs and services aimed at community engagement. Historic Preservation to P-Patches to Neighborhood District Coordinators. The idea is to bring government closer to residents, and vice versa.
“If they wanted the status quo,” Nyland said, “I wouldn’t have taken it.”
That is especially true now, when the City of Neighborhoods is turning into a city that longtime residents don’t recognize, or like. Sleek, modern high-rises crowding every available block, and smaller, older homes being replaced by bigger, boxier new ones.
It’s crowded, it’s a little tense, and the easy, over-the-fence feeling Seattle has long enjoyed is quickly eroding. A lot of people blame that on City Hall.
To remedy that, Nyland said, Murray is creating an Office of Planning and Community Development, to inform, educate and solicit feedback about new development in the city.
“We need to understand what the communities are thinking and feeling,” Nyland said. “They don’t know what’s going on and are concerned about the pace of growth.
Her department can’t do much about that, she said.
“But we can facilitate conversations,” she said. “There’s a disconnect and our job is to be that bridge,” she said. “It’s our job to listen.”
The department was created 30 years ago, and is best associated with former head Jim Diers, who reached folk hero status for his devotion to community building — and Murray mistakenly mourning his death last year (he confused him with Joe Dear, former head of the state investment board).
Diers’ is a fine legacy, but Nyland is ready to make her mark and innovate.
She plans to broaden the department’s “access points” by holding community meetings at times and in locations that are convenient to people. She wants to engage all communities and improve the department’s online presence.
“I want this department to provide a proven service that no one does better. A lot of the way things were done were developed 30 years ago,” she said.
Her experience as a community organizer is what makes her such a nice fit.
“I came from that, ‘I don’t understand this process or decision,’ ” she said. “I was that person.”
As Nyland has changed and grown, so has her beloved Georgetown — with its core community keeping watch, and walking everywhere. Fran’s Chocolates moved into an expansive space on Airport Way and winemaker Charles Smith just opened his new Charles Smith Wine Jet City on Albro Way, to much fanfare.
“And now there’s a restaurant row,” she said with another big laugh. “And you can buy a $5,000 chair!”