Five to Four
Municipal Building Memories
"The new City Hall has an aspect of being a museum of modern art," the Seattle Times wrote on October 4, 1962. "The City Council meets in a plush setting. An aide described the lighting: 'Like a cocktail lounge.' A sunroof atop the building has exotic plants and driftwood." This early-'60s idealism about the new $7 million Municipal Building was capped off with the headline: "City Hall Modern as Tomorrow."
Because I've covered city hall since just 1999, I only got to catch the tail end of "Tomorrow": Business for the 41-year-old building on the block between Cherry Street and James Street and Fifth Avenue to Fourth Avenue will end by July 21. The mayor and the city council have already moved their offices to the new $75 million glass complex that went up next door. With its titanium-plated domes, waterfalls, and floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the new building is today's version of Tomorrow.
Though the old Municipal Building was definitely an eyesore--maybe a Howard Johnson's "cocktail lounge"--I'm actually going to miss it. Like anyone's regular hangout, be it a favorite coffee shop or bar, the green-trimmed cement Municipal Building is loaded with prized and subtle memories that chart my days in Seattle. Here are five film clips stored in my temporal lobe--one for every year I've been traipsing down the hill and back to file stories from the Muni Building.
On Thursday, May 20, former Stranger news writer Ben Jacklet--a lumberjack of a guy and a brave reporter who worked this beat for three years before me--walked me down from The Stranger's Capitol Hill offices to city hall for my first time. Jacklet briefed me as we walked, sketching a political diagram of city council personalities and alliances (Martha Choe = Tina Podlodowski = Margaret Pageler = Bad guys. Nick Licata = Cool!). We entered from the Fifth Avenue parking lot under some ridiculous sloped concrete awning, and took the elevator up. (I was struck by the dingy gold tarp blanket draped over the elevator walls.) In the 11th-floor council chambers, Licata's aide, Lisa Herbold, was staffing a public hearing on a bit of Licata legislation that would reform former City Attorney Mark "Republican" Sidran's suspect parks exclusion ordinance. Licata was cool. And his aide, Herbold, it turned out, was even cooler. With long wine-red hair (groovy like Mary Jane from Spider-Man) and a nose ring that stood out at city hall like a quarter in a bowl of pennies, this former Tenants Union organizer was working in city hall to fight city hall. Herbold and I soon became fast pals.
On Thursday, July 27, I watched from the back of the mobbed city hall chambers as council got ready to pass a proposal to kill the voter-mandated monorail. My excitable boss, Dan Savage, stood next to me, furiously bouncing on his heels, looking like a suicide bomber about to push the detonator. Monorail advocates like Peter Sherwin, Grant Cogswell, and Dick Falkenbury had already given fantastic speeches denouncing the council for abandoning the public, and like an embarrassed teenager, I secretly hoped my boss--rather than adding his 800 cents--would let those speeches stand. In what turned out to be one of my favorite moments at city hall, though, Savage took the mic, paused, and turned directly toward City Council Member Heidi Wills, the sponsor of the anti-monorail legislation. "Hello, Heidi," he began, cuing up his populist speech. Managing to get in a dig about the planned $72 million new City Hall, which Savage called a "playpen," Savage's talk on government priorities earned a tingling standing ovation from the crowd. Even though council went on to pass Wills' resolution seven to one (with Licata voting against), that public hearing was the Boston Tea Party of the monorail movement: Sherwin ignited the I-41 campaign from the energy in the room, and the public eventually rolled over Wills' obstructionist legislation with what would become today's monorail plan.
On Thursday, November 29, 28-year-old Marco Lowe held impromptu court at a nook along the second-floor hallway across from an old water fountain. Lowe was unemployed, but he'd just run incoming Mayor Greg Nickels' campaign against Mark "Republican" Sidran so he had some obvious prospects in the new administration. Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske shook Lowe's hand, then I did, then Council Member Peter Steinbrueck, then Post-Intelligencer city hall reporter Kery Murakami, and finally council member Wills, as we all gathered around to kiss some new mayoral ass. (Kerlikowske had been Nickels' campaign whipping boy and was worried about his job.) I happened to glance away from Lowe at the exact right moment to spot Sidran walking by. Sidran was looking over at Lowe's growing entourage of reporters and politicians--then looking away. Then he left. No one noticed.
On Tuesday, May 28, I sat in council chambers during public testimony on the Teen Dance Ordinance. I had a typed-up speech folded in my back pocket. I also had a reporter's notebook in my hand. I still hadn't decided if I was there to report or to participate.
Earlier in the day, I'd asked two close friends what they thought. Both of them--to my disappointment--told me a speech wasn't a good idea. Herbold advised me it would be inappropriate for a city hall reporter to speak at city hall. Savage told me to let him play the performance journalist, while I maintained some shred of credibility. Taking my friends' advice to heart I decided not to speak. But I'd also jotted my name down on the speakers' sign-in sheet. When the legislative aide called my name, I reflexively took the speech out of my pocket and went up to the microphone and began to read. My ambivalence about participating in the process evaporated. Objectivity is a fraud, and I felt honest speaking in public about an issue I had reported on in-depth. The next thing I knew, I was back at my apartment gleeful and boasting on the phone to Herbold about the best day I'd ever had at city hall.
Last week, Friday, June 20, was moving day at the mayor's office. I headed down at 2:00 p.m. to take one last walk around the place; maybe tease senior staffer Marco Lowe while I watched him lug boxes. When I stepped off the elevator on the 12th floor, I was surprised to see Aaron Jenkins, The Stranger's 17-year-old intern, parading around the lobby. There was no one else around. Aaron had the run of the place. Much earlier in the day, I had sent Aaron down to pick up some documents from Nickels' public disclosure officer, Lisa Jackson. With the exception of some newspapers and magazines on the waiting-room table, though, Nickels' office lacked any sign of life. Packing boxes leaned against the front desk. We shrugged, sat in the lobby couches with our feet up, and lounged in the empty press conference room. Aaron prowled around the office and goofed in front of the surveillance camera.
I headed out to the sunroof. It's still 1962 out there right down to the wooden picnic benches and Jetsons trash can. (And don't forget about the exotic plants and driftwood.) I sat down on one of the benches and looked out at the new City Hall going up next door with its glass fins, ocean-green windows, and photovoltaic glazing.
Suddenly Aaron came outside with a security guard named Theresa stomping behind--and toward me in her uniform. Aaron had apparently asked Theresa if she was Nickels' staffer, Lisa Jackson, which Theresa correctly read as a wisecrack. After I explained that we had just come by to pick up some documents, Theresa pointed to another surveillance camera, this one perched on the roof. "See that?" she said. It was as if she had evidence I had been organizing an al Qaeda cell. "It saw everything you did. You looking in those windows, it looked pretty suspicious."
After Theresa kicked us out of the mayor's office, escorting us onto the elevators, I told her to drop us off at the 11th-floor council offices. (The council wasn't leaving until next week.)
"What," Theresa asked, "are you just going to go from floor to floor looking for your documents?"
No, I thought, I just want to take a last look at my favorite place in town.