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A Leading Question: Peter Steinbruck and Smart Growth

Bellamy Pailthorp

Editor's note: KPLU has asked all nine candidates in the Seattle mayoral race to tell us about a time when his or her leadership skills were put to the test. One candidate's answer follows.  

Peter Steinbrueck served on the Seattle City Council for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007.

“They called me the activist council member. I’m also an architect, so I brought my background, experience, training as a problem solver and designer to public policy,” Steinbrueck said.

He’s also known as the son of the late Victor Steinbrueck, a University of Washington professor of architecture who led the campaigns to save Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market in the early 1970s.

“Yes,  I’m proud of our family’s legacy in this city, of standing up for what’s right, protecting what we value,” he said.

And after a six-year break from elected office during which he studied urban planning at Harvard, got a divorce, and set up a private practice as a consultant and lobbyist, Steinbrueck says he’s ready to lead Seattle.

He wants to strengthen neighborhoods and improve livability through what he calls smart growth.

I think there’s smart growth and there’s dumb growth. It’s ill-planned, it’s ill-placed, out of scale, and defies the character of the neighborhood,” Steinbrueck said.

He says much of that could be stopped with the right zoning laws. One of the most important leadership tests of his career had to do with zoning. In 2005, then-mayor Greg Nickels was intent on revitalizing downtown Seattle. Nickels plan: allow more density and high-rise buildings. At the time, Steinbrueck was chair of the city’s Urban Development and Planning Committee. And there was a lot of pent up pressure to develop.

“So I had virtually every developer and property owner in downtown breathing down my back to get this job done and simply rubber stamp the mayor’s height and density scheme,” he said.

He put the brakes on the plan and spent several months honing it. As a result, the council brought in planners from Vancouver B.C.—where a similar development scheme got high marks—and asked for their ideas. Steinbrueck proposed adding in requirements for livability.

“Things like separating the towers, so that we get more light and air, so that you’re not looking into somebody else’s bedroom through your living room window. There was a lot of pushback on that.”

He persevered and also succeeded in requiring developers to pay millions in extra fees to fund affordable housing.

Steinbrueck says if he’s elected, he would continue to stick his neck out for smarter growth. He’s been an outspoken critic of the plan to build a new basketball arena in the Sodo area. Instead, he’d ask the council to slow down and study other sites. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to