Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell died Sunday morning at Swedish hospital. Schell, who served as mayor from 1998 to 2002 was remembered as a “great city builder” by Mayor Ed Murray, whose office announced the death. Schell was 76.
Schell’s rocky term as mayor was marked by public-safety and political crises including the chaotic 1999 WTO protests and 2001 Mardi Gras riot — events that doomed his reelection bid.
But civic leaders praised Schell as a visionary civic leader who left a lasting imprint on Seattle, starting decades before his election as 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,” Murray said in a news release.
As 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 also championed a $198 million levy for parks and the zoo, and a $72 million effort that mingled public and private dollars to renovate the Seattle Center Opera House and community centers.
“He had a vision for the city that got articulated in bricks and mortar,” friend and former Mayor Charles Royer said in an interview. “I think if it were not for a couple of those bumps, he would have been 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.”
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But Schell’s only term was marred by a string of bad news. The 1999 WTO ministerial conference, which Schell had sought for the city, turned into a fiasco of tear gas, property damage and mass arrests. 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. As if that weren’t enough, Boeing announced its corporate headquarters would move to Chicago.
By the time Schell ran for reelection, voters were fed up. He placed third in the 2001 primary, behind then-City Attorney Mark Sidran and then-King County Councilman Greg Nickels, who went on to win the general election.
Schell was relatively politically inexperienced when elected – he’d run for mayor in 1977 against Royer, and served as a Port of Seattle Commissioner. He frequently showed disdain for the credit-taking and blame throwing nature of electoral politics.
“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.”
Schell didn’t like pressing the flesh at political events, Traisman recalled. He “would have preferred to have one powerful conversation rather than dozens of shallow conversations.”
Paul Schell was born Paul E. S. Schlachtenhaufen on Oct. 8, 1937, in Pomeroy, Iowa, the oldest of six children. After graduating from high school, Schell attended Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where he played linebacker on the school football team.
Schell transferred to the University of Iowa and went on to law school at Columbia University in New York. It was there he met his future wife, Pam, who was a registered nurse. The two were 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.
Schell landed a position at a prestigious Wall Street law firm, where he specialized in corporate finance. It was then that “Schlachtenhaufen” became “Schell,” a truncation Schell says was practical, not political. The longer name wouldn’t fit on computer punch cards used in those days, he says.
Having gotten a taste of the Northwest as a summer law clerk in Portland, 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.
Almost immediately, Schell fell in with a crowd of young and educated idealists bent on transforming Seattle, backing new blood on the City Council as well as changes in the city’s arts and skyline. He rallied support for Mayor Wes Uhlman’s re-election bid, but then clashed with Uhlman on a plan to redevelop the Pike Place Market. Nevertheless, Uhlman wound up hiring the energetic Schell as director of his community-development department, where he made a name for himself by pushing slow-moving bureaucrats to get neighborhood-redevelopment projects off the ground. His department also designed decorative manhole covers with maps of the city on them.
Schell decided to take the plunge and run for public office himself in 1977, vying with former television newsman Royer for the mayor’s office. One of the campaign’s central themes became a Schell proposal for a major redevelopment of Westlake Mall, one that would create two new public squares, two theaters and a hotel. Royer derided it as too big and out of scale with downtown. He went on to beat Schell easily.
Schell retreated from politics, 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, Schell was elected a Port of Seattle commissioner and played a role in the port’s major waterfront developments.
In retirement, Schell remained an active patrons of the arts both in Seattle and on Whidbey Island.
Schell is survived by Pam, his wife of 51 years, and daughter, Jamie.
No details of a memorial service have been announced.
Some information in this post is from The Seattle Times archives.