Campaigning for mayor four years ago, Greg Nickels blanketed the city in promises. He said he'd station tow trucks at bridges, convene annual...

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Campaigning for mayor four years ago, Greg Nickels blanketed the city in promises.

He said he’d station tow trucks at bridges, convene annual neighborhood summits, check property-tax growth, and build light rail and a monorail. Above all, Nickels promised to govern in what he called “the Seattle Way” — shorthand for an inclusive style of leadership.

In his first term, Nickels kept some of those promises and ignored or reversed course on others. By now, it’s old news that he dropped the Seattle Way slogan in favor of an aggressive style at City Hall.

But as he heads for a likely second term, Nickels, 50, is just as well known for policies he didn’t talk about four years ago.

His administration has pushed hard for a streetcar in South Lake Union to augment redevelopment driven by billionaire Paul Allen. He’s peeled away development-limiting neighborhood compacts in Northgate and the University District. He has proposed raising building heights downtown.

Nickels explains his evolution by pointing out that he took office shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the accompanying recession and dot-com bust. The Puget Sound area lost nearly 7 percent of its jobs between 2001 and 2003, according to the city budget office.

“The idea of getting people back to work really did come front and center,” Nickels said. “As I learned about impediments to investment in the city, I tackled them. Every time I see a building going up, I think of carpenters and painters and roofers and plumbers going to work.”

Nickels has framed his support for development in the language of environmentalism, advocating a denser city to curb suburban sprawl. In exchange for developer-friendly changes to city codes, he has proposed that developers construct “green buildings” and pay for new parks.

Neighborhood critics

His critics say Nickels has grown too developer-friendly and disdainful of neighborhood concerns.

“When Greg ran the first time he presented himself as a champion for neighborhoods, and that clearly has not been the case. Most of the neighborhood people feel the mayor has shut them out of the city’s future,” said Mike Thompson, a longtime Maple Leaf neighborhood activist.

Thompson supported Nickels in 2001, and was a member of the mayor’s first-term transition team. But he said the Nickels administration has responded angrily to people who disagree with his policies.

The administration’s style puzzles Thompson, who said he always found Nickels personally likable.

Asked about his neighborhood critics, Nickels said he has support of “neighborhood people all over the city” — they’re just not as loud as the naysayers.

Seattle historian Walt Crowley said Nickels’ primary-election numbers — he got 57 percent of the vote — were the best of any mayor in two decades. Despite ruffling some feathers, Crowley said Nickels has done a good job representing the “urban consensus” about how the city should grow.

“There is an impatience, I think, in his administration, with perpetual process, and who can blame them?” said Crowley, director of Historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of local history. “We’re a contrary town. You’re always going to have 40 percent of the people pissed off.”

Despite the discontent, activists were unable to recruit a big-name challenger to Nickels, who raised $500,000 for his re-election bid. He faces Al Runte, a former University of Washington professor, in Tuesday’s election.

Recession a challenge

While Nickels has faced no major public-safety crisis of the type that plagued predecessor Paul Schell’s term — WTO, the earthquake and the Mardi Gras riots — he said the recession has been similarly challenging.

The sagging economy, combined with city expenses that swelled during the Schell years, forced Nickels to cut spending $120 million from what would have been required to keep services at 2001 levels, plus keep up with inflation and rising labor costs. Nickels spread the cuts throughout city government, reducing everything from police staffing to library hours.

While cuts were needed to keep pace with sluggish tax collections and rising expenses, the budget has continued to grow under Nickels, albeit more slowly. The general-fund budget this year was $717 million, up from $643 million in 2002.

And the budget news appears to be getting rosier. Nickels recently announced a $55 million windfall for the city, thanks to booming tax collections from construction and home sales.

Nickels said that if he’s re-elected, Seattle should not expect to see fundamental changes in his administration’s style or the issues he pursues.

He hopes to make further progress on the city’s big transportation dilemmas.

Nickels signaled he would continue the city’s string of tax levies by asking voters to approve a tax increase next fall to pay for basic road maintenance. The city has an estimated $500 million backlog in road-maintenance projects. Nickels said he did not know how large the levy would be.

Viaduct dilemma

In what may be the biggest challenge for his second term, Nickels remains steadfast in his insistence that a tunnel replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, despite criticism from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray that it may be too expensive.

Nickels said he won’t back down even if Initiative 912 is approved by voters, repealing a gas-tax increase that would include $2 billion for the viaduct.

“I’m not going to give up. I’m going to get it done,” Nickels said. He refused to say what the city’s next step would be if the gas tax is repealed.

Nickels remained squarely behind Sound Transit’s light-rail project through tough times, and the rail line is now under construction.

One of his first major efforts as mayor was to win approval for a $50 million community-development fund to soften light-rail construction in Rainier Valley. The mayor walks the light-rail route every other week, chatting with shopkeepers and residents affected by the construction.

But on the city’s other hoped-for rail line — a West Seattle to Ballard monorail — Nickels dramatically withdrew his support after the project’s troubled finance plan came to light. He opposes a measure on the ballot for a shortened monorail that won’t reach Ballard.

Nickels said that if the monorail is again reaffirmed by voters, he will find a way to make it work. If it fails, Nickels said he would oppose any effort to redirect monorail tax money to pay for other projects, such as the viaduct.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com