With his term coming to an end Dec. 31, the send-off party at City Hall for Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck was what you'd expect -- bright lights and balloons, with friends and staff members making speeches and giving Steinbrueck gifts at a podium.
One presentation was particularly poignant, however: After tearing off the gift paper, Steinbrueck, who is stepping down after 10 years on the council, saw that aide Neil Powers had given him a 1972 etching by his late father, the architect Victor Steinbrueck, of Occidental Park in Pioneer Square.
Steinbrueck, 50, is his father's son, an architect who has fought not only for Seattle's historic landmarks but its sense of fair-mindedness. While his father saved the Pike Place Market, however, Steinbrueck eventually lost a battle with the mayor over Occidental Park: Last year, the cobblestones that had been recycled from the Market's renovation were pulled out of Occidental and many of its trees and benches removed in a Parks Department remodel that turned the rustic square into something of a bland retail plaza.
After a decade on the council championing early education, the environment, homeless services, housing, and historic preservation, it was a only a small setback for Steinbrueck, but one that says a lot about how things have changed in his years on the council and the importance of the strides he has made in the fight for social justice.
Among his successes since 1997, Steinbrueck led the charge to restore cuts to human services and homeless programs, pass a housing levy that's built low-income rentals, establish an urban mobility plan that's become a state model, and double the fee that downtown developers have to kick in to an affordable housing fund.
In just the past two weeks, Steinbrueck forced Vulcan, the company of billionaire Paul Allen, to kick in more money for affordable housing in exchange for a building height variance in South Lake Union. He also got the council to add a new set of sustainability standards to the city's Comprehensive Plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and established a goal that a third of all new housing built in Seattle be affordable units.
But, over the years, Steinbrueck has watched high-end development and upzoning become the rule in Seattle, along with tax breaks for condo builders and regular sweeps of homeless encampments. Last year, during the council's debates over a new downtown plan, Steinbrueck -- the man who helped pass the 1986 CAP Initiative to limit the city's building heights -- found himself across a table arguing with Councilmember Jan Drago over how high downtown buildings could go. "It was quite a moment of irony," Steinbrueck says. But, "There was no constituency 20 years later for a different approach than increasing height and density."
The development agenda is favored by Mayor Greg Nickels, who Steinbrueck says has consolidated power at City Hall like no other mayor before him. "It's a command and control approach," Steinbrueck says, that's cut the council off from city departments and marginalized its work.
With Steinbrueck's departure, says Council President Nick Licata, a fellow champion of social equity, "We are going to need to pick up some of the burden he was carrying in challenging the mayor's agenda."
"He has the biggest heart on the council," says Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle's Low Income Housing Institute. "It's a big loss."
After 10 years, however, Steinbrueck says he was weary of the fight – but he’s not giving up, just going back to private life for a while. He says he plans to keep an eye on what happens with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which he has fought to replace with a surface street and increased transit.
For some years, he’s also been researching a book that he’d finally like to get around to writing. It’s a historical novel, he says, set in 1800 at the Octagonal House, the first private estate built near the White House.
In the meantime, Steinbrueck plans to teach architecture at the University of Washington and work as a consultant to companies, agencies and cities interested in instituting sustainable practices. Though he says he has no plans to return to public office for now, he doesn’t rule out a future run — perhaps even another bid for mayor?
“Been there, done that,” Steinbrueck says with a laugh. “I will say that’s not my motivation at this point in time in my life… I’d like some decompression time.”