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Who Says “Visionary” is a Bad Word?

He was a restless young attorney who was also a frustrated architect and planner. On Sunday afternoons in the late 60’s he used to recruit his wife and a friend (me, on some occasions) to drive around Seattle looking at any new buildings going up. He would complain about the lack of good planning in town and sketch in the air how it could be done better. He was a visionary, the kind of person who is impatient because he sees what might be and still is not; the person whose mind casts far back into history for lessons and far forward to the image of a better future. Even then he saw Seattle as both more livable for its residents and more pleasing to behold.

So he opposed the city’s scheme to put a freeway through the Montlake and Central Area neighborhoods and another separating downtown from Lake Union. He railed against the City for not saving Pioneer Square and failing to invigorate the neighborhood shopping districts. How could a town as naturally beautiful as Seattle not plant street trees? He couldn’t imagine why the City would want to tear down the Pike Place Market.

Some summer weekends he traveled up to Vancouver or Victoria and, with a couple of pals, came up with the term “Cascadia” to describe this whole bi-national region. It seemed odd that Washington State and British Columbia, with so much in common, found so few opportunities to collaborate. A town, like a person, can easily find fault with his neighbors, but Seattle–within the region and within the state–faced the more difficult long-term challenge of changing mere neighbors into friends.

Making allies out of rivals was his philosophy and it became his practice. When municipal reform movements came along, he joined them. Eventually he was asked to take a leadership role, and the critic found his voice magnified as the president of a ginger group called Allied Arts of Seattle. Others were against any development and were doomed to constant frustration. He argued that preventing bad development and managing growth well required good development.

A lot of the downtown business establishment viewed this young critic as an antagonist. But the mayor of the day was wise enough to recognize that here was not just another gadfly; but a smart and positive player, the kind you want inside and responsible, not outside making trouble. So, in a smart move, the Mayor hired the critic as Director of the Department of Community Development.

The new director was in heaven. At last he could integrate vision and philosophy and join both with the activating agents of common sense and practical know-how. Inside or outside of government, anybody can be a critic; and visionaries, while rare, seldom have what it takes to implement the vision. But a positive vision and practical know-how conjoined are a formula for success. He got that formula down pat.

Bright people of varied backgrounds were attracted to his department and he inspired them with praise and a air of gruff resolution. He learned how to make do and stretch a budget. He carefully managed the renovation of the Pike Place Market and helped neighborhoods with park improvements and recycling old buildings as community centers. Street trees were planted, and planting them became a standard practice thereafter. All the big projects and all the little touches combined to improve the image of the city and to increase its optimism. He made diverse allies, and from all their efforts Seattle started getting those “most livable city” awards that embarrass and secretly please local citizens.

Then he ran for mayor himself–and lost. Seattle was not ready for him, and now he was broke. So he decided to employ his new skills in the private sector–doing high quality, site-sensitive and eminently successful development. He made money for himself this time, but he also gave the city a revitalized waterfront district of renovated warehouses and hotels, and was called upon to do similar work around the Northwest.

But he didn’t lose his desire for public service. He was elected twice as a port commissioner, and once again, he showed that a vision only works when it is shared. Look at how the Port has managed to expand while actually lowering your tax rates. Look over the flock of shipping cranes at the south end of the harbor and see the results of practical vision. Drive along Alaska Way and see the new piers, the International Conference Center, the World Trade Center going up and the forthcoming Odyssey Maritime Museum, as well as the new housing and hotel units that are enlarging the city tax base and recapturing pedestrian use of the Waterfront. He and his colleagues did that.

So why do certain people use the word “visionary” as a kind of slur? If vision were unconnected to prudent economic sense and a knowledge of how to get things done, it might indeed serve as a rebuke. But what is so bad about having people in office who can think ahead and conceive of the city where our children will live–if they also know how to get us there in good shape? Isn’t that exactly what you want in a leader?

Paul Schell is certainly ready for Seattle. If Seattle is ready for him, it could be an exciting era ahead.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.