Schell and the city, a vision in 12 pages

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The mayor came in the other day. He's got a lot on his mind because his city, Seattle, is both gleaming metropolis and choking adolescent. "We've fixed thousands of potholes," Paul Schell said, with the pride that flows from the certainty of statistics. I caught two they didn't fix on my way home.

Schell's trip to Fairview and John came on the heels of a state of the city message that is long on the issues that arrive, drop by drop, like the morning coffee — housing, getting to work, neighborhoods — topics of universal and eternal significance. I haven't met a mayor in 30 years who has not kept close at hand those lodestones of the politician's art.

I am not so new to Seattle — a decade of driving the bridge every day or sitting in the 202 bus inching down 3rd Avenue — that the current life of the city doesn't seem very different than it was. What a long time ago it was, renting a loft above a garage near North 130th, later enjoying the views from Madison Park. Small benchmarks in a traveling life that swerved through the Midwest and California, Alaska and Maryland. I'll even throw in the Eastside as a stop along the way, six good years of writing and thinking about that other metropolis next door.

Schell reaches out and touches my elbow when I say, "welcome to The Times." Boy, we have blistered him over the past few years. The mayoral campaign that began so smoothly, as though it had destiny instead of wind at its back, ran into some shoals. We have pointed out most of them repeatedly. There are no references to this in our hour at elbow's length discussing the city, its vitality and its problems. His honor might lump The Times with his other problems, perhaps another pothole that needs to be filled and flattened.

He's filling me in another way, with a load of stuff on how he will fix his city. It goes on for pages in a speech I had read with honest fascination the night before, but let me boil it down for you: He's got to show leadership fixing congestion before it eats him and us alive.

In this, he is not so different from everyone standing for public office and then trying to hold on. Schell's state of the city address says he is making good on his promises - especially those made early in his administration. Offering shelter to the homeless is one example. He's also touting the city's independence from the West Coast energy tailspin, promising relief Oct. 1 when a contract for Oregon-generated power comes through. Either by luck or prescience, Seattle dodged a bullet.

On traffic, I'm not so sure. Schell wants rapid bus lanes on crowded thoroughfares, but wait until the neighborhoods squawk. Seattle is in the odd intellectual hole of hating parking garages, yet consumed by an intense devotion to on-street parking.

In Schell's formal address, he says, "Within the next couple of months, we'll be working with neighborhoods to complete analysis of two corridors: one that runs from Lake City, through Northgate and Ballard to downtown; another that runs from downtown to West Seattle." It is the message of a man with intersections on his mind.

In many ways, Schell could be mayor of Bellevue, a description I hope no one in Seattle takes as demeaning. On 148th, a stem of the north-south waist of Bellevue, engineers are counting traffic while the city shows its displeasure with the number of non-Bellevue cars passing through. Long-range thoughts of adding HOV and rapid bus lanes to residential 148th is exactly the same issue that looms in Seattle and will fill the halls with discontent when the neighborhoods react on both sides of the lake.

Any politician is measured by the tone and structure of his public speech. Schell hits the transportation crisis (his description) on Page 8 of an address that is carpentry rather than architecture. A speech that gets points for quoting Samuel Johnson, "Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome," is oddly mute on the wider vision of a regional capital.

Great mayors are their city, but convey that city's personality to the region. Coleman Young was that person in Detroit, even if the suburbs hated him. I thought Mayor Norm Rice had the panache that Seattle carried at the moment. That famous Fortune magazine cover with Rice and the regional CEOs sent a message that made Seattle the capital of something beyond itself.

Schell talks far less about the region and its interconnected parts than he did as a candidate. Perhaps that is the penalty of being mayor anywhere. I'm giving him a B for a 12-page speech that is strong on details but with limited horizons. The Mayor may shoot me one of his famous glances and think me a tough grader. But as I said, "Welcome to The Times."

James Vesely's column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is