Seattle City Council President Sally Clark says she is looking forward to her new leadership role and that her interest in creating strong neighborhoods gives her and Mayor Mike McGinn common ground.
At a meeting early this year of the Seattle City Council, Councilmember Bruce Harrell stumbled over colleague Sally Clark’s new title.
“Council President Clark,” he addressed her, then shook his head. “Do I have to say that every time?”
“ALL the time,” Clark said to laughter.
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Clark, 45, was elected president this month by her colleagues, who say she combines wonkiness and wit, a deep interest in what makes cities work with a practical approach to issues and a sharp sense of humor.
“Sally at the core is a city geek. She loves city policy, city process and how to create great urban areas,” said Clark’s friend and mentor, former City Council member Tina Podlodowski.
Clark was criticized by opponents in her re-election bid this fall for being indecisive. While she was chairwoman of the council’s land-use committee for the past four years, several major rezone packages stretched out to two and three years. But she easily won re-election to a second term in November and is looking ahead to her leadership role in setting the council’s business agenda and directing regional relationships.
Clark jokes that her ring tone is now set to “Hail to the Chief.” When asked about rumors that she might run against Mayor Mike McGinn in 2013, she muses aloud about the pros and cons before concluding, “I’d be great!”
As president, Clark will be the council’s main liaison with McGinn, with whom the council had a rocky two years as it stood in support of the waterfront tunnel and in opposition to the mayor. Voters ultimately sided with the council in support of the $2 billion project.
“What I heard during the election was that voters want us to be a source of steady leadership, to hang together,” Clark said.
But she also believes her interest in creating strong neighborhoods gives her and McGinn — who founded Great City, a nonprofit to advocate progressive urban ideas — a common cause.
“McGinn really cares about the city. He wasn’t just the head of an organization called ‘Great City,’ He cares about building a great city.”
Clark and McGinn are largely in agreement, for example, on the importance of adding density in the Roosevelt neighborhood around the planned light-rail station. But it’s Clark who has born the brunt of neighborhood opposition to the city’s plan to allow six-story buildings across from the historic Roosevelt High School.
“We all feel betrayed,”said Diane Haddock of the adjacent Ravenna-Bryant Community Association.
Haddock said the neighborhood thought it had an agreement with the city. It would accept greater density around a future light-rail stop, about three times as much as originally proposed by the city, in exchange for preserving views of and from the high school.
Architect Lorne McConachie, who lives in the Roosevelt neighborhood, said Clark often talks about creating sustainable communities where people can live, work and shop, but still have a strong sense of place.
“A sustainable community needs to be designed around what should be sustained,” he said. “What’s more important to sustain in the Roosevelt neighborhood than our historic, neoclassical landmark?”
Clark largely got high marks for a similar rezone in Pioneer Square last year where McConachie, who serves on the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, said she found “edges and lots” that might be redeveloped without eroding the district’s historic character.
Clark said she sought a similar balance in Roosevelt.
“In conversations with advocates, I was very clear that my goal was to respect the neighborhood plan as much as possible but to balance that with the right policy for the city and the region for development adjacent to light rail,” Clark said.
A five-member council majority voted in December to accept higher buildings across from the high school. They said that at 65 feet, the city could require wider sidewalks, underground parking and a densely landscaped street, improvements that they couldn’t require at 40 feet, the property’s current zoning. The council will take its final vote Jan. 30.
Clark grew up in Portland, on a quiet street where she could ride her bike, walk to the grocery store and attend an excellent school, she said. Her ideas of what makes a good neighborhood haven’t changed much, she said, though now she would add a variety of affordable housing options for people at all stages of their lives.
She lives in the Brighton neighborhood of Rainier Valley with her partner, Liz Ford, an assistant dean at the University of Washington School of Law.
Clark was a largely unknown community-program manager for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance when she submitted her name, along with almost 100 other applicants, for a 2006 vacancy on the city council. She’d worked a stint as Podlodowski’s legislative aide and earned a master’s in public administration from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, but had never run for office.
The council narrowed the list to six finalists, five women of color and Clark. In what has become an infamous story in city politics, the five banded together to support each other — and left out Clark, a white lesbian.
Then as now, Clark says she has no bitterness. She quipped at the time that while the others were bonding, she was studying the issues.
Reflecting back, she said, “Seattle is a progressive city with a number of victories for gays, but it’s always important to ask who’s still left out.”
In assuming her new leadership role, Clark becomes Seattle’s first openly gay City Council president. The position gives her an opportunity to address issues important to her: health care for lesbian, gays, bisexual and transgendered people; marriage and family equality; education and bullying.
But her sexual orientation only extends so far into city business, Clark said.
“Do water rates have an LGBT factor? A library levy?”
One of the first pieces of legislation the council may pass under her leadership is the Roosevelt rezone. The questions Clark said she asks about a neighborhood are, is it safe, is it well-lit, are there dynamic things happening on the street?
“Height and density do not make a good community. The greenscape, healthy schools, a vibrant business district, a range of housing options, that’s what makes a neighborhood strong.”
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.