If a recent shake-up in Seattle's most prominent neighborhood group is any indication, the NIMBY reign of terror in Seattle may be over. On November 24, the City Neighborhood Council (CNC), a group that advises the Seattle City Council on neighborhood planning and budgeting, voted in Kathy Nyland—chair of the Georgetown Merchants Association and owner of the George gift shop in Georgetown—as the group's new chair. Nyland will replace anti-everything NIMBY and thorn in the city council's side Chris Leman as the face of the neighborhood movement in Seattle.
Leman's departure could signal a major shift in how the CNC deals with neighborhood issues, the mayor, and the city council.
In the last few years, as condos, townhouses, and retail developments have popped up across Seattle, activists like Leman—NIMBY stands for "Not In My Back Yard"—have filed endless appeals and decried the city's process in the hope of delaying the inevitable. It hasn't worked. Instead, the city has been saddled with ugly developments because cranky neighbors decided to fight losing battles instead of working with developers to make their projects fit into neighborhoods.
Nyland represents a new approach. In the last three years, she's been on the right side of a number of big neighborhood issues. She opposed Mayor Greg Nickels's push for a red-light district south of downtown, preferring a strategy to distribute clubs throughout the city; battled to limit the presence of big-box stores in Seattle's industrial areas; and fought to keep the city from dumping a new dump in Georgetown.
Nyland isn't reflexively opposed to development. In 2007, she reached out to developer the Sabey Corporation, which had just announced plans for a massive new project at the site of the former Rainier Brewery in Georgetown. Thanks to her efforts, the neighborhood became part of the development process, instead of an obstacle—changing the project's design from a modern steel-and-glass building to one retaining elements of the Rainier Brewery.
"We want to keep the character of Georgetown without driving out the characters of Georgetown," Nyland says.
Nyland is well liked at both city hall and in the world of neighborhood activism, both because she's willing to see both sides of an issue and because of her upbeat personality. (In interviews, Nyland punctuates her sentences with giggles.) "I think [Nyland] brings a pragmatism [to the CNC]," says city council member Sally Clark, who heads up the council's neighborhoods committee. "I think Kathy has a slightly shorter patience for process."
Leman, in contrast, hasn't done much to endear himself to the city's powers that be. He's notorious for showing up to city council meetings with interminably long lists of gripes; is known for filing public-records requests city staffers consider excessively broad; and has argued that city council aides should have to register as lobbyists.
"I'm rarely pleased when I hear he's on the phone," one city hall staffer says of Leman. "How can someone be so obsessed about this kind of minutiae day after day after day?"
"Everybody has a different style," Leman responds, when asked about his often-tense relationship with city hall. "If there's any sense [that the vote] is a repudiation of me, I can tell you I'm Kathy's strongest advocate."
Leman's departure from his CNC leadership position (he'll still be a member of the council) comes at an opportune time for the organization: Next year, the CNC will start providing input to the city about what areas like Northgate, south downtown, and South Lake Union will look like when they're redeveloped. The CNC will also provide input on the city's comprehensive growth-management plan.
Nyland, who has been deeply involved in neighborhood politics for the last few years, considered running for Seattle City Council, where as many as four seats are expected to open in 2009.
Instead, she settled on a time-consuming volunteer role as the new CNC chair—a decision she says she stumbled into almost by accident. At an October CNC meeting to nominate the next chair, Nyland says, no one stepped up to take on the leadership role. "A couple of people [were] pointing at me, and the room was spinning," Nyland jokes. "I don't know what happened."
Nyland clearly wants to mend fences at the city. "We want to have a better working relationship with the executive and the council," Nyland says. "[With] Chris... the working relationship was kind of put on the back burner."