Renton Mayor Denis Law took office just as the Great Recession hit in 2008. Companies were having mass layoffs, like Paccar at its Renton manufacturing plant. The city had annexed an area of unincorporated King County, but revenue wasn’t keeping pace. Things were grim.
“It was hard to conceptualize what the future was going to bring,” Law said in an interview during his final days in office.
He certainly didn’t imagine the Renton of 2019, with a population double the size of a decade ago, a balanced city budget and massive developments across town hoping to woo large companies.
Law, along with outgoing mayors John Chelminiak of Bellevue and John Marchione of Redmond, saw firsthand the region’s growth that also shaped their careers as city leaders. At the end of their terms, the three mayors reflected on what they did well, what they missed and what they expect for the future.
Law and Marchione both took office in 2008 after winning their mayoral elections. Chelminiak was elected to the Bellevue City Council in 2004 and then was chosen by his fellow council members to serve as mayor in 2018. Early on in their tenures, construction had largely stalled in each city, and there had been little development in downtown neighborhoods.
Marchione: Downtown Redmond wasn’t a place that you wanted to go 12 years ago. It was a place you drove through. People wanted to stay in their own town to shop and to dine.
Chelminiak: When I first ran, the number was something like 2,500 people living in downtown Bellevue. Now, it’s over 14,000. People would talk about how many empty nesters would want to live here because they thought those are the only ones who are going to live in a high-rise condo.
The economy started to recover. Demand for housing soared — as did housing costs.
Chelminiak: When Washington Square [in Bellevue] developed, the developers did an open house for the presale and there was a line around the block. If you looked at the [promotional] material, the images were all 60-year-old white males and females. The line at the door looked much more like the rest of the world. That’s when even the developers realized the market was completely different. I remember them hustling to make the photographs more diverse.
Law: When I first moved to Renton, you could find affordable housing anywhere. We hadn’t reached the point in the market where middle-class families were being pushed out.
The leaders expected housing costs to rise but weren’t prepared for the rapid pace that lower- and middle-income families were priced out. Now the cities are playing catch up.
Chelminiak: We were already a more expensive place to be, but not like this. That is probably the story of the decade in the greater Seattle area, the crisis of affordability and housing across all strata. And really, we missed it. We didn’t pick up on it. It’s going to take a lot of work over the next decade, if elected leadership can get a handle on it.
Law: One thing I regret is that we didn’t have a full understanding of what the gentrification of our area would mean. We didn’t develop some true affordable housing for middle-class families. But I’m very happy that the [Renton] City Council is looking that right now as a priority.
Homelessness has surged in King County and cities have scrambled for solutions through different partnerships. Microsoft, for example, allocated $25 million in grants to address homelessness as part of its $500 million pledge to support housing affordability on the Eastside.
Marchione: I’ve learned more about homelessness than I knew before. One of the better things I did was create a homelessness outreach coordinator. With my mother as CEO of Hopelink (Doreen Marchione, who died this year), I was aware of homelessness and the many reasons people are homeless. It can range from domestic violence, drug use to job loss. Because it’s multifaceted, it’s a difficult problem to manage and solve. As mayor I learned even more about the various causes of homelessness and how difficult it is to come back once you have hit that point.
Law: I think that one of the big problems we have as a region is we throw everyone in the same bucket when we are talking about homelessness. The larger share are people who truly are falling through the cracks because of housing, and all they need is one hiccup in their life and they find themselves living in their cars. We have programs for those who are falling through the cracks, and it’s changing their outcome. The population we have failed is those who are addicted and mentally ill and refuse services. We need to have services to help break the pattern they are in.
The leaders are all moving away from politics. Marchione will start a job at the Public Stadium Authority, which oversees operations and maintenance at CenturyLink Field. Law plans to be a “lazy retiree” in Anacortes. And Chelminiak is going on vacation, but he still gets to keep his title as the only Bellevue City Council member to have wrestled a bear.
Chelminiak: What’s really funny is there is a fellow who was a member of a city council in a small town, and like 20 years before my attack, he was attacked by a bear. I lost my left eye, he lost his right eye. I remember meeting him and talking with him at a couple events. So I should say I am the only Bellevue City Council member, but not the only [council member], who has been attacked by a bear.
I learned things coming out of the attack. One is your ability to recover relies on other people. Those of us who would talk and walk with each other, and visit, and talk positively about the future, we did really well. It was really keeping that strong attitude and willingness to accept other peoples’ help. I was awed by that. I just really felt the community behind me.