Facing about 100 voters last month at a forum for Seattle City Council candidates running in District 7, Michael George sought to make one point crystal clear.
Introducing himself to the crowd inside a Magnolia church, he said, “The Magnolia Bridge needs to be replaced.” Later on, he said it again … and again and again.
The real-estate project manager and other District 7 candidates mentioned the aging bridge more than a dozen times before the night was over. These are the first races since Seattle moved to district voting for seven seats in 2015, so neighborhood issues are supposed to matter more, and isolated Magnolia is perhaps the most striking example.
“People call us the world’s largest cul-de-sac,” joked Zak Meyer, a 24-year-old who grew up in the neighborhood, which has only three access points. “It’s a unique community.”
Four years ago, blue-collar Delridge nudged Lisa Herbold to victory in District 1 and renter-dominated Capitol Hill powered socialist Kshama Sawant to re-election in District 3. This time, Magnolia voters could be the key to District 7.
Because they could cast 1/3 of the district’s votes in Aug. 6’s primary election, their particular concerns will help decide who represents a diverse area that also includes downtown, South Lake Union and Queen Anne.
There’s the bridge, which was damaged by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake and could cost as much as $420 million to rebuild. There’s Fort Lawton, the old Army base next to Discovery Park where the city intends to site low-income housing, and Interbay, the semi-industrial strip next to Magnolia through which Sound Transit plans to build a light-rail line. There are worries about discarded needles, denser development and property crime disrupting life in one of Seattle’s most prosperous enclaves.
In 2017’s general election, high turnout allowed Magnolia residents to punch above their weight. They cast 27% of District 7’s ballots despite making up only 22% of registered voters. Together with like-minded voters on upper Queen Anne, they could tip the political balance at City Hall between more and less progressive council members.
“I do think Magnolia is going to speak pretty loudly to say that we need to bring things back to the center a little more,” resident Valerie Cooper said, predicting the neighborhood will help elect someone at least slightly more conservative than the current council.
That was the takeaway from the Magnolia forum, where multiple candidates vowed to scrub Seattle’s budget and the crowd was dominated by older, white voters. Some gasped when the moderator asked about the city moving to allow more, and larger, backyard cottages on all blocks.
But even in Magnolia, there are people with varying perspectives, residents say, including voters on the lookout for candidates enthusiastic about change.
“I’ve noticed a lack of vibrancy in Magnolia Village — in our retail core,” resident Roy Kuroiwa said. “The density may not be there to support our businesses … I’d be OK with more density, properly planned.”
“Magnolia for Magnolia”
Many residents see the Magnolia Bridge as a vital connection and also a symbol of how the neighborhood has been ignored, would-be council member Jason Williams says. It should have been replaced years ago, says Williams, a Microsoft product marketer and one of three candidates who lives in Magnolia.
District 7’s outgoing council member, Sally Bagshaw, was initially elected as a citywide representative. Voters tell Williams she hasn’t spent much time in the neighborhood lately, he says.
The nine candidates at the recent forum put on by the Magnolia Community Council all said they would work to replace the 90-year-old span rather than pursue a less-costly option. “I’m from Queen Anne, but I do want to leave here alive,” candidate Don Harper joked as he made the pledge.
Labor-backed prosecutor Andrew Lewis vowed to seek more cops for Magnolia and Queen Anne to “deny crimes of opportunity,” while former police chief Jim Pugel said he would help build a special unit to deal with property crime, including stolen Amazon packages.
They’re top contenders, along with George, who’s been endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Former pro basketball player James Donaldson, a 40-year Magnolia resident who entered the race relatively late, has also called for more patrols.
Their commitments suggest the district system is working, says Jason Thibeaux, who directs the Magnolia Chamber of Commerce. “The bridge is a huge deal here,” he said, adding, “People who can prove they have ties to Magnolia … that’s going to help them.”
Thibeaux likes candidate Daniela Lipscomb-Eng, a Magnolia mom raised in the neighborhood. She became more involved in civic life due to homeless camps and break-ins near the business she helps run in Fisherman’s Terminal, and she opposes the plan recently approved by the council for low-income housing at Fort Lawton.
“We love Daniela. She’s one of our own,” Thibeaux said. “She has similar thoughts about … enforcing the laws.”
Lipscomb-Eng says she decided to include her maiden name on her yard signs partly because many longtime Magnolia residents know her family. She’s counting on her neighbors. “You could win (in the primary) with 3,800 votes,” she said, describing her motto as “Magnolia for Magnolia.”
“I need this city to be a better place for my kids. I need it to be a better place for your kids,” she said at the forum. “It is absolutely unacceptable that we have people finding heroin needles in our parks.”
Lipscomb-Eng signs have popped up along the Magnolia Bluff block where Jessica Gallegos lives. Like the candidate, Gallegos is against the Fort Lawton plan, which has been delayed for years by lawsuits and which last month was challenged in court yet again. She says the site is too remote for people without cars to conveniently shop and access services.
Though Gallegos describes herself as a liberal who would support additional tax increases to address Seattle’s problems, “I will admit I’m in ‘the 1 percent’ and I’m a NIMBY” on Fort Lawton and backyard cottages, said the homeowner, who hasn’t yet picked a candidate.
“We’re not monolithic”
Though the neighborhood probably deserves its reputation as a buttoned-up enclave, not all residents match the stereotype, says Benjamin Lukoff, a volunteer moderator on Magnolia NextDoor who sometimes rebuts “doomsayers” on the social-media site for individual neighborhoods.
“Let’s just say some people don’t like me very much on there,” he said. “But Magnolia is changing.”
There always have been more renters on the neighborhood’s eastern slope and apartments have been built there in recent years. More development could occur when the National Guard leaves Interbay. Young parents are moving to Magnolia and the local schools are crammed.
“We’re not monolithic. It just seems that way because the people with the loudest voices are the people with the most time and money,” said Lukoff, who supports the Fort Lawton plan and believes the city should consider an alternative to a new Magnolia Bridge as a way to save cash.
People who live on Magnolia’s less-wealthy north side use the bridge less and care less about what happens, says Lukoff, who doesn’t know yet who he’ll vote for. The 44-year-old doesn’t want to hear candidates promising to “take the council back” or complaining about how Magnolia has been neglected. “That’s just not true,” he said.
Life is so pleasant in the neighborhood that Maria Puentes struggled to come up with a single complaint.
“It’s very quiet. Everyone says hi. It’s safe and the buses are good,” the 34-year-old apartment renter said, watching her kids play at scenic Ella Bailey Park.
There were 50 violent crimes reported in the neighborhood last year, half as many as in Belltown, which has fewer residents. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” Kuroiwa said.
Instead, he spends his time advocating for athletic turf in Magnolia. Kuroiwa, 50, and his kids play soccer, and “we have some pretty cruddy fields” he said, urging candidates to take up the cause.
Some Magnolia voters are headed in opposite directions. Cooper would like to stay in the neighborhood but says her family may leave Seattle altogether unless the council makes headway on the city’s homelessness, crime and traffic problems. “Bend, Oregon, starts to look more appealing,” she said.
Meyer would love to leave the house he shares with his parents for a hipper Seattle neighborhood. But the insurance company employee can’t afford to move yet, thanks to the sky-high rents he’d like to see the council bring down. Because Meyer uses a wheelchair, his options also are limited to accessible apartments. He’s leaning toward Lewis, who’s only 29.
“I don’t see myself living in Magnolia for the rest of my life,” said Meyer. “So I want a candidate that’s going to try to make things better all over.”