Food & Culture
Seattle Neighborhood Director Kathy Nyland, Accidental Activist
Neighborhood councils may abhor her, but Seattle’s new neighborhood director Kathy Nyland is determined to make more voices heard as Seattle reshapes itself for the future
By Erica C. Barnett January 11, 2017
One hot August night in 2015 at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard, Kathy Nyland, the city’s new Department of Neighborhoods (DON) director, struggled to be heard above the shouts from people who showed up to oppose a new, sanctioned homeless encampment in the neighborhood. Over boos, catcalls and cries of “How about we put it in the mayor’s neighborhood?” Nyland struggled to explain that, like those in the room, she had been through her own battles with the city as a neighborhood activist in Georgetown. “We want this to be a successful operation,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “We’re trying to make it work.” Then she hustled off to the sidelines of the hall.
A year and a half later, Nyland isn’t on the sidelines anymore. But as the person on Mayor Ed Murray’s leadership team charged with upending the traditional balance of power in neighborhood planning, she’s still in the hot seat.
Last July, Murray had Nyland at his side when he cut formal and financial ties with 13 neighborhood district councils, which had served as informal advisory bodies since the 1990s. The homeowner-dominated councils typically argue against allowing more density (for example, townhouses and apartment buildings) in and near Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.
Murray has charged Nyland with bringing underrepresented communities into the inner circle of neighborhood planning, including people of color, immigrants, newcomers and renters (with tenants making up about half the city).
District council leaders feel blindsided by the move, and see downgrading the councils as an effort to cut them out of neighborhood planning. Many blame Nyland.
“It was a surprise attack,” says Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area Neighborhood District Council. “Nobody knew about the mayor’s decision until [less than] 24 hours before his press conference.” Sanchez also criticizes Nyland for canceling her appearance at a City Neighborhood Council meeting. “How could she say, ‘No, I can’t answer your questions about this dramatic thing that’s going to affect your lives?’”
Nyland has come a long way since the night she stood nervously in front of angry Ballard residents, afraid to speak. A diminutive woman who is partial to simple, crisp collars, black-and-white patterns and Toms flats, she is gregarious and prone to sudden laughter. And although she’s no fan of confrontation, she’s getting used to it. “My voice doesn’t quiver as much. I haven’t passed out. I just have to remind myself that I know this stuff. I’ve been part of it. I’ve got some credibility,” she says.
Nyland started finding her voice as a neighborhood activist after she and her partner, Holly Krejci (now the mayor’s operations manager), moved into their new house in 2003. A neighbor showed up at their door and asked, “Hey, did your Realtor tell you there’s 20 level-3 sex offenders who live down the street?”
The county had just put neighboring SoDo on the list of potential locations for transitional sex offender housing—and just like that, Nyland and Krejci were sucked into the world of neighborhood activism.
After that first effort—when she learned, among other things, to put all neighborhood representatives in matching T-shirts for maximum visual effect—Nyland went on to organize the opposition to a “red light district” for strip clubs, a new trash transfer station and a proposed expansion of Boeing Field. “I’ve worked with this department for 10-plus years, so it’s dear to me,” Nyland says.
An overachieving middle child raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by a single mom, Nyland graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and quickly became disenchanted with her onetime dream of becoming a designer at a high-powered New York City ad firm. Adrift after a year of travel to Europe, Nyland illustrated a few greeting cards for a friend who owned a San Francisco card shop. Within a day, all her cards had sold. Soon, she had national clients, including Nordstrom and Papyrus. “I truly was self-employed—I would work three months at a time. In September, October, I’d be painting hearts for Valentine’s Day, and then take six weeks off.”
Eventually, San Francisco got too expensive, and she relocated to Seattle, ending up in a two-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, doing marketing and communications for Pacific Science Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In 2003, she and Krejci opened a gift shop and gallery called George, where they sold work by local artists, jewelry and T-shirts that read, “Georgetown: It’s not just for hookers anymore.” George closed in 2009 when Nyland took a job as a legislative aide to Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw. Murray snapped her up to work in his Office of Policy and Innovation in 2014.
Nyland doesn’t draw much anymore—“I don’t even recognize that part of my life,” she says, laughing—but she does channel her creative spirit. She recently suggested doing a Shark Tank–style challenge for the neighborhood matching fund—small grants for neighborhood projects such as park benches. But on tough days, she says, she still seeks out nice paper. “That’s one of my coping mechanisms—I go into Paper Source.”