Paul Schell, Innkeeper And Former Seattle Mayor, Dies At 76

Jul 27, 2014

Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell in 1999.
Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell in 1999.
Credit Flickr Photo/Seattle Municipal Archives

He is the reason fish fly at the Pike Place Market, or so the story goes.

On Sunday, Paul Schell, a former Seattle mayor and champion of urban neighborhoods, died. He was 76.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Murray confirmed that Schell died at Swedish Hospital.

Schell, a lawyer and developer who became the city’s 50th mayor, was in office from 1998 to 2002. He has been lauded as a mayor who campaigned to preserve the Pike Place Market in the 1970s, who championed the arts and who oversaw a massive effort to draft 37 neighborhood plans.

He also worked closely with Vulcan, Microsoft Paul Allen’s development company, to develop South Lake Union, which back then was mostly a matrix of parking lots.

Schell lost his bid for reelection in the primary in 2001 to Greg Nickels. There were several reasons: the police department’s handling of the WTO riots in 1999, violent Mardi Gras celebrations in 2001 and Boeing headquarter’s move to Chicago.

In a statement, Mayor Ed Murray’s office recalled Schell as “one of the great city builders of the Pacific Northwest.” Schell “led the effort to fund Seattle’s first parks levy, rebuild the opera house and was instrumental in building the Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle’s City Hall and Justice Center.”

Former Mayor Charlie Royer – who beat Schell in his first bid for mayor in 1977 – recalled: “Paul fell in love with Seattle when he moved here, as a lot of us then younger people did, then as a civic leader and a mayor he went about making this city even a better place.”

(Royer is the man behind the story that Schell is to credit for fishmongers at the Pike Place Market being allowed to throw 3-foot salmon.)

Before becoming mayor, in 1989, Schell opened the doors to the Inn At Langley, a boutique hotel on Whidbey Island that boasts a James Beard-nominated chef.

Schell is survived by Pam, his wife of 51 years, and his daughter Jamie.

'There's No Escaping Your Record'

In 2001, KUOW reporter Sam Eaton followed the former mayor for a day on the election trail. Below is the story he produced.

It’s campaign time, which for Seattle Mayor Paul Schell means a 7 a.m. start from his downtown waterfront condo.

As the mayor steps into his waiting car, still bleary-eyed from a candidate forum the night before, his campaign secretary goes over the morning’s press coverage.

Image is key in this race, and the mayor is the first to admit that his ad-lib strategy has backfired. The new Paul Schell is trying to hone the art of the sound bite.

As Schell engages his first audience of the day – the Rotary Club of Emerald City – he attempts to land one.

“Measure me by the passion of 30 years of commitment to the city and what I’ve gotten done and ask yourselves, ‘Do you want someone who’s going to take us into the next four years and get the most out of us or somebody who will feed us rather than lead us?’”

Then, laughing, he adds: “That’s not a bad phrase. That may work in a 30-second sound bite.”

It’s been 45 years since an incumbent mayor has been defeated in Seattle, which Schell hopes will benefit him as he seeks reelection. But he has reason to be nervous: The economic boom is fading, and protests and police shootings threaten to overshadow his first term.

Back in the car, Schell flips through a thick schedule book. These are the rare moments when he can relax as he races to the next speech, ribbon cutting or budget deliberation.

“If you do three or four of those a day plus everything else … you come home really tired,” he says.

But even those moments between the flurry can be exhausting. On the drive south to the University District from Rotary meeting, traffic stands still because a woman is perched on the ledge of the Ship Canal Bridge. Even the back roads are jammed.

Schell talks about the city’s need for mass transit. He’s long supported Sound Transit’s light rail plan and recently embraced the Monorail. The key, he says, is having more choices.

“People talk about free buses,” he says, but “you need something independent of existing traffic system to give people real options, and then it needs to be a quality ride.”

Although traffic has stalled, the mayor pushes through: His quality ride is a sleek black sedan with sirens, flashing lights and a police driver to navigate through the congestion.

“There are benefits of incumbency, and there are challenges,” Schell says. “I mean you sort of sit there as a target in many ways, and there’s no escaping your record.”

That record, critics say, includes the botched handling of the World Trade Organization protests, Mardi Gras riots and controversial police shootings. But Schell hopes that what he calls his achievements – such as more funding for libraries, parks and neighborhoods – will stand out.

The car pulls up to its destination.

“OK, mayor, you’re on time,” the driver says.

The day continues this way into the evening. Back in the car, Schell watches his city pass by in a blur. He says that despite it all, he feels relaxed.

“I was a lot more tense the last time I ran than I am this time,” he says. “I feel that I have a record to run on, and I understand the job, and I understand it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m sort of at peace with letting the people exercise their judgment.

“My job is to get the word out to them and live with the consequences. I wouldn’t trade the last four years for anything.”