Robert Feldstein is the kind of urban policy nerd who gets his kicks making up phony names for neighborhoods—like Jaws, for Just Above Wall Street. That’s what he calls the stretch of bars where the stockbroker frat boys party after work. And then there’s Crapensta, for Crap Around Penn Station.
Studying a jigsaw map of Seattle, Feldstein, an energetic and lanky 39-year-old, is now trying to memorize the names of real neighborhoods. Seattle neighborhoods.
Fresh from a gig as chief of staff in former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, Feldstein is trying to get up to speed for his new job in Seattle as mayor Ed Murray’s policy director. The Seattle neighborhood map hangs on Feldstein’s wall in an otherwise minimalist office on the 7th floor at city hall.
A best-and-brightest do-gooder type, Feldstein ran a community court in Brooklyn's tough Red Hook neighborhood right out of college. He went to Harvard, though he humbly says he went to school “in Boston” where he majored in “the history of physics.” He taught middle school math for several years, in New York City and in Oakland, where he lived for a few years after getting his teaching degree “in California” —i.e., at Stanford. When he returned to New York, John Feinblatt, Feldstein’s old boss from the community court, was now working in Mayor Bloomberg’s office as the chief policy adviser. Feinblatt says, “The second I heard he came back to New York, I put out the APB: Find Robert Feldstein. Wherever he is, get him here.” Feinblatt put Feldstein on an urgent project—watching hours and hours of film and reading pages and pages of transcripts from an undercover sting operation to write a report for a big Bloomberg press conference on a gun control initiative. “He started working 20 hours a day, no questions asked. The result was great…I made him my chief of staff.”
Feldstein, his former boss says, went on to master other topics for Bloomberg. “Literally, Robert became encyclopedic about immigration reform and immigration law. And months before, he’d known nothing about it.”
But it’s not just Feldstein’s smarts that Feinblatt marvels over. Feldstein was not only the researcher, but also the political lead on Bloomberg’s immigration reform initiative, talking to the public and the advocates out in the community. “His brainpower is prodigious,” Feinblatt says, “but his ability to actually relate to people is as well. He has the ability to communicate at an altitude of 10 feet and an altitude of 30,000 feet.”
Feldstein’s knockout resume landed on Murray’s desk last November after Feldstein decided to move to Seattle because his girlfriend, an architect at ZGF, moved to Seattle from Brooklyn a year earlier. Even before the Murray job came up, Feldstein had, in fact, started doing informational interviews with old family friends such as former mayor Norm Rice (who knew Feldstein’s dad, the former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation) and former monorail antagonist Henry Aronson (who met Feldstein’s mom and dad during their days as young civil rights organizers in Mississippi in the ’60s). Feldstein’s name quickly came to the attention of Martha Choe, Murray’s transition team cochair.
Feldstein, who worked for Bloomberg for more than four years, is just one of Murray’s nerdy hires. The new mayor stole the city council’s longtime policy staff chief Ben Noble along with one of Noble’s standout colleagues, Mike Fong. Murray also pilfered King County executive Dow Constantine’s transportation whiz Andrew Glass Hastings, and former Microsoft exec and city council member Tina Podlodowski. Murray’s policy team of former council members, county transit gurus, and city council staff vets are all longtime locals. But Feldstein, a New York transplant with zero experience in Seattle issues, is Murray’s No. 1 policy hire, the director of the Office of Policy and Innovation.
The new mayor is relying on Feldstein and his team during a dramatic time in the city’s history as Seattle is dealing with major league growth. It’s a dramatic time for all cities, as metro regions across the country—offset by paralyzed and removed federal and state governments—chart the course for the twenty-first century. Cities are now laboratories of a go-it-alone urbanism that weds traditional city functions—collecting garbage, fixing potholes, and keeping the lights on—with larger, traditionally federal issues such as economic equity, education, health care, transportation, and even climate change.
And New York, once stuck in the amber of its own defining black-and-white iconography of the past, has emerged after the Bloomberg years as an example of the new urbanism. Just 10 years ago, New York City seemed like a newsreel amalgam of Babe Ruth baseball games, 1930s skyscrapers, rattling subway cars, Duke Ellington nightclubs, and doo-wop street corners, enhanced with a slight Technicolor “update,” starring: Studio 54 jump suits, Sugar Hill Gang graffiti, and a Sex and the City dating scene. But now, the High Line has displaced the Empire State Building as the go-to attraction and a pedestrian mall has taken over Times Square. New York City is a green metropolis.
The stupefying transformation took place because Bloomberg did things his own way, building 350 miles of bike lanes with little regard for neighborhood opposition, making big hires without soliciting advice from the community, and even telling people they couldn’t drink soda. “Bloomberg,” Feldstein says of the three-term mayor’s process, “would do things, making a decision without all the community input. You get a quicker decision.”
Murray, famous for deliberatively passing the gay marriage bill over a series of legislative sessions, has an opposite, incremental approach. Can Feldstein mix the strong-arm Bloomberg style with Murray’s signature consensus-driven method? “I spend time thinking about this,” Feldstein acknowledges. But there is a common denominator, he says. Both mayors are driven by data and deadlines.
Feldstein says the Murray method has more of a Bloomberg touch than his new boss gets credit for. “Murray has this commitment to using data to better inform the Seattle process,” he says, “and using time frames to make it go fast.”
Feldstein cites the minimum wage task force as an example. Yes, the process is burdened by Seattle’s commitment to three-dimensional identity politics (you have to have an environmentalist woman from the low-income community, say). But, Feldstein says, Murray has commissioned studies so that “it’s not just people’s opinion. Everybody’s on the same page with the same data, and he’s set a tight time frame.” The mayor has pledged to have a proposal in late April. He concludes: “It’s set up so the process doesn’t become the outcome.”
While the outcome of the $15 minimum wage hand-wringing isn’t known yet, Feldstein points to the police chief search and the waterfront planning as deliberations with similar confines: “Have your community. Have your collaboration, but do it in a structure that’s going to result in everyone knowing the same information, battling over a discussion, but then coming up with a decision.”
In perhaps a sign that Feldstein and his team actually can tame the infamous Seattle process, Team Murray ended a standoff between businesses on Westlake Avenue North and bike advocates. During the McGinn administration businesses sued to stop the city from building a protected bike lane there. However, in February, after a series of meetings with the mayor’s office, the business group withdrew its appeal and agreed to be part of the stakeholders group to move the lane forward.
“This is fantastic,” Brock Howell, a spokesperson for the activist Cascade Bicycle Club said after the accord was reached. The same day, the Westlake businesses issued a press release too: “We…thank mayor Ed Murray and his staff for their commitment to comprehensive transportation planning. This settlement would never have been possible without their support and advocacy.”
Murray’s amicable relationship with business certainly paved the way for a deal. “He gets the personal stuff right,” Feldstein says, “but he’s also comfortable being the decider. There are open discussions and then clear decisions.”
Feldstein’s rosy characterization of his new boss will be put to the test at this month’s neighborhood summit, the big April powwow to help Seattle vet its thorny, chronic debate about development and growth. There’s bound to be “open discussion.” We’ll see, however, if there are any “clear decisions.”
Already, a “federation” of cranky neighborhood groups is lining up to “rein in density” and promote “tough growth controls.” That’s the message they circulated in an email before Murray’s summit, promoting a unified agenda to check what they see as a city plagued by “runaway development, up-zones, gentrification, small lot development, skinny houses….” They plan to hold a press conference a week before Murray’s summit where I imagine they’ll make their agenda clear: Not in my backyard.
Feldstein has been warned.
But Feldstein, who has tacked up a color-coded flow-chart calendar right next to his neighborhood map laying out all the policy tracks he’s now responsible for—the minimum wage task force, the police chief search, waterfront development—is most excited about the neighborhood summit.
Speaking with both the energy of a teenager and the weathered wisdom of a New Yorker, Feldstein says: “I’m excited about the neighborhood summit because it feels like a very Seattle question. This idea of what is the best way to interact with citizens to shape the future of the city is at the core of what we’re trying to do.”
Then he adds a Bloombergian dose of reality: “And guess what? We have to tell them what we’re not going to do. We have to set some priorities.”
Ultimately, whether Feldstein is successful in Seattle may have more to do with his time before New York and Bloomberg. He grew up in a small town of 1,000 people in New Hampshire, which he likens to Seattle. “The personal matters here,” he says, noting that political circles overlap with social circles. During his job interview, Murray warned Feldstein that the brusque New York style did not play well in Seattle, and Feldstein responded that he actually relied on his New Hampshire sensibility: “In New Hampshire, where I’m from, if the cop pulls you over, you can’t be too rude to him as just the cop, because his kid and your kid are on little league baseball together. And that informs the way I interact. I think that is true in Seattle as well. Being into policy, but also being into relationships. Being into consensus wins rather than power wins.”