Is Dow Constantine more powerful than Mike McGinn?

Dow Constantine put himself through college tending bar, and counts among his good friends some of S
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Two weeks before the November 2009 election, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder addressed a sold-out concert crowd at KeyArena.

“I got this phone call the other night from Krist Novoselic from Nirvana,” Vedder said as his bandmates played softly in the background and fans screamed for their favorite songs. “He asked me to tell everybody here tonight, because there’s a local election coming up...he suggested that in November...for sure we vote for a guy called Dow Constantine.”

It’s a good bet that most people at the concert had no idea who Constantine was. But he soundly defeated former TV anchor Susan Hutchison in the King County executive’s race, winning the office previously held by Ron Sims, who left for a job in the Obama administration. Since then, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has been getting all the headlines for his fight over the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and his take-no-prisoners style of governing. Constantine, meanwhile, has quietly tackled profound budget problems in his shop, negotiated givebacks from the county’s unions and stared down sheriff’s deputies over pay raises. He is now being seriously discussed as a potential candidate for Washington governor in 2012.


At first glance, the youthful-looking, 49-year-old Constantine seems like a straight-from-central-casting politician. While one local columnist compared the rumpled McGinn to an “unmade bed,” Constantine—with close-cropped, gray-flecked black hair and a crisply pressed uniform of blue suits and white, cuff-linked shirts—brings to mind a bed made up with military corners.


But as the shout-out from Vedder demonstrates, looks can deceive. Constantine has the expected background of an elected executive: student body president at West Seattle High School, Eagle Scout, University of Washington law degree, and stints in the state Legislature and on the King County Council. But he’s also been a bartender, a ski instructor and a DJ at KCMU, the alternative music station that was the precursor to KEXP. It was while DJ-ing in the 1980s that he met people like Sub Pop Records cofounders Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, and Kim Thayil, guitarist for Seattle-based supergroup Soundgarden. Constantine moves easily between worlds—from the noisy music clubs of Seattle to the staid rubber-chicken events that are the staples of any public official’s life.


“I’ve gotten to know a lot of politicians. Most are very smart, most are very wonky. Dow’s a really normal guy,” says Dave Meinert, who manages the Seattle bands Fences and Hey Marseilles. Meinert also owns the venerable Seattle dive bar The 5 Point Cafe and is active in civic affairs. “Dow can sit there at the Comet Tavern and have real conversations about music with that crowd, and then walk into a boardroom and talk to the business guys.”


Novoselic introduced Meinert to Constantine in the 1990s, when Constantine was in the state Legislature and Meinert was among the people trying to get Seattle’s music community more active in politics. “I held Dow up as one of the people we should be involved with, long term,” Meinert says.


Constantine says he was happy to help the musicians get their political act together by making introductions and suggesting how they could better organize. The effort eventually became JAMPAC (Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee), a group that over the years has fought to create broader access to music shows, provide more opportunity for artists and back candidates it sees as friendly to its causes.

“I was in a position, as a fairly young politician, to lend a hand. I relished the opportunity, because I love music, particularly what became known as alternative music,” says Constantine, who believes a vibrant cultural scene is one of the keys to economic growth.


Meinert, who also owns the Capitol Hill Block Party, an annual, multiday summer music festival, insists Constantine is no poseur. “He may see more shows than I do,” says Meinert, one of Seattle magazine’s “Most Influential” honorees in 2004. The local impresario recalls a day in 2003 when punk stalwarts DOA were scheduled to play the Block Party, and Meinert’s phone rang. “Dow called me and says, ‘I really want to introduce DOA.’”


It’s hard to imagine Gary Locke, the former King County executive who went on to become Washington’s two-term governor (1997–2005) and President Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce, making a similar request.


Constantine has been a longtime supporter of labor issues, not surprising for a Democrat. But with King County facing a $60 million operating-budget deficit, many wondered if he’d actually go to his political supporters—the unions—and ask for concessions. Throughout much of 2010, he did just that, getting almost every county bargaining unit to agree to waive 2 percent cost-of-living raises for this year. While some critics said the unions could have given up more, most observers were surprised Constantine got them to budge at all.


David Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council, says it was because of the longstanding relationship Constantine had with unions that he was able to get them to leave money on the table. “I think the thing that makes him successful with labor folks is he really understands our issues. He’s there when we need him. When he comes and says, ‘Look, I’ve got a problem, I need your help,’ we listen. We have a basic political trust,” says Freiboth, who has known Constantine since before he was first elected to the state Legislature in 1996.


Another home-team advantage: Constantine is a lifelong Seattleite. The son of two West Seattle teachers (John and Lois), he still lives in the quirky, insular Jet City neighborhood he grew up in, not far from his parents and younger brother Blair. Constantine earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington and shares a passion for Huskies football with his father. He’s not married and has no children, but he is in a long-term relationship with partner Shirley Carlson (who works in strategic and brand marketing). The two met while both were DJs at KCMU.


Constantine says his parents aren’t always thrilled that their eldest son chose the difficult life of an elected official as opposed to, say, a less stressful, less visible career. “But they raised me, and who I am is a large product of my upbringing, so they have no one to blame but themselves,” he jokes.


Dow ConstantineHaving been involved in public affairs for more than 30 years, Constantine is obviously no kid. He pokes fun at his gradual transformation from young man on the rise to not-so-young power player by annually celebrating his 39th birthday at public bashes that draw friends and acquaintances from the many, varied parts of his life. The 12th such observance will be held this November; his birthday is November 15.

Constantine got his start in politics in his late teens, in West Seattle, which has produced more than its share of public officials. He worked for and with most of them during his rise: He was a legislative intern for former state senator and Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge; he was on former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ staff when Nickels was on the County Council; he worked with former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis’ mother during a stint with the 34th District Democrats, a local organization for West Seattle Democrats (Tim Ceis was on his transition team when he became county executive); and he honed his activist chops with “a funny little man” who successfully fought plans in the 1980s to develop a wooded West Seattle ravine. That man was the late Charlie Chong, the outspoken and often outrageous West Seattleite who served on the City Council and ran for mayor.


“He showed me and the neighborhood how to organize, sometimes theatrically, sometimes with reason,” Constantine says. “Ultimately, we succeeded in saving that ravine. I learned a fair amount from Charlie. He once told me, ‘Provide only quotable quotes.’ That’s one I’ve so far failed to internalize.”

Indeed, reporters searching through their notebooks after a Constantine news conference sometimes struggle for anything beyond standard political boilerplate. His public statements can be as dry as a good martini, and he’s extremely cautious, sometimes to a fault.


But, paradoxically, Constantine is also known for his high-profile brawls, whether it was his years-long battle over plans to expand a gravel mine on Maury Island, or calling out former TV broadcaster Hutchison during the putatively nonpartisan executive’s race as “an extremely conservative Republican whose views are way out of step with the general public.” Constantine’s attack allowed him to pull ahead of his Democratic rivals for the executive’s office and helped change the public perception of his opponent.


 He also rejected a late wage concession offer from sheriff’s deputies seeking to avoid layoffs, saying there were too many strings attached and the offer was a bad deal for the financially struggling county. And he says the powerful King County Police Officers Guild was seeking a deal that was better than the one to which all the other unions had agreed to help King County balance its books.


“I’m somebody who, by nature, wants to get along,” Constantine says. “I reserve getting in a fight for times when I think there’s a real matter of principle involved—where the stakes are really high. I don’t feel like getting in a fight just for the fun of getting in a fight.”


With the help of county employees, Constantine and his deputy, Fred Jarrett, have implemented a broad plan to repair the county’s broken budget. Specific non-management county employees like bus drivers and clerks—selected by their coworkers—have been charged with finding ways to deliver the same level of services to the public each year at 3 percent less cost. Constantine says it’s the employees who actually provide services, not managers or elected officials, and are therefore in the best position to effect change. In a government that has been running annual budget deficits in the tens of millions of dollars as tax revenue has fallen, and where demand for services has increased while the Great Recession has exposed unsustainable public employee wage and benefit packages, the status quo is no longer an option.


“There really is no alternative,” Constantine says. “Circumstances have changed and we failed to change to keep up.”

Dow Constantine
Even some of Constantine’s harshest critics say the new executive is making smart moves. County Council member Kathy Lambert, a Republican who was often at odds with Constantine on the council, says, “I think Dow is doing a great job. He has selected excellent, qualified people....They are making changes and working with the council in a collaborative, respectful and truthful manner. They are dealing with the current economic challenges while maintaining one of the highest county credit ratings possible.”


And while Seattle’s feisty mayor gets all the attention from the press and the public, Democratic insiders are increasingly talking about Constantine as perhaps his party’s best hope for keeping Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna from being elected governor in 2012. McKenna lives in Bellevue and may be able to blunt the Democrats’ natural advantage in the state’s most populous county. No fire-breathing conservative, McKenna is also a former King County Council member with an intrinsic feel for issues that resonate in the suburbs. If he can get more than 40 percent of the vote in King County, he will be tough to beat. But if Constantine continues to right King County’s listing ship, he would arguably be in a better position than someone like U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, another possible Democratic candidate, to take on McKenna. Constantine, unlike Inslee, is obviously well known in the area that is home to one out of every three voters in the state. He could point to his executive experience running one of the nation’s largest counties, and his collaborative style would allow him to call in favors accumulated over his decades in local politics.


Additionally, Seattle Mayor McGinn makes Constantine look less liberal than he actually is—which would help Constantine if he were to seek votes outside his big-city political base. Meinert, for one, says Constantine’s views about fostering a healthy business climate would appeal to people outside Seattle.


“Here’s Dow, I think, a very liberal politician, but he understands business maybe a little more than most liberals,” Meinert says. “He gets that our government income is dependent on transactions happening.”


For now, Constantine is focusing on the task at hand, but says after his time in the county executive’s office, he’d like to continue in public service. “I don’t know if that means higher elected office,” he says. “I have always, since I was a kid, been driven by a desire to make things better.”

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”