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Former mayor Powers gets last laugh on rooftop gardens

Former Spokane Mayor John Powers and his wife, Bonnie, enjoy the communal rooftop garden at their downtown Seattle residence.Special to  (PATRICK HAGERTY Special to / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Spokane Mayor John Powers and his wife, Bonnie, enjoy the communal rooftop garden at their downtown Seattle residence.Special to (PATRICK HAGERTY Special to / The Spokesman-Review)

John Powers, former mayor of Spokane, lives in a Seattle building with a rooftop garden so massive that residents take walks in it. “We have pine trees on this thing,” Powers says. “We have prairie grass. We have wild and domestic flowers. We have vegetable gardens. It’s a park in the sky.”

The irony is not lost on Powers, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2003. He proposed a green roof for Spokane’s City Hall in 2002, long before the concept was trendy. He was mocked for the idea, and City Council opposition put a pitchfork through it.

But now, green roofs are flourishing atop Inland Northwest buildings, from the refurbished Catholic Charities building on Spokane’s lower South Hill to the Community Building-Saranac in downtown Spokane to the Stensgar Pavilion at Circling Raven Golf Course in Worley, Idaho.

Powers, however, isn’t in a neener-neener mood. In a recent phone interview, Powers, 57, explained what the rooftop garden conflict taught him about leadership, and why it hasn’t stopped him from pursuing ideas ahead of their time.

The conflict. In spring 2001, shortly after becoming Spokane’s first mayor under the new “strong mayor” system, Powers toured the green roof of Chicago’s City Hall.

“In 2001, we were going through an energy crisis,” he said. “There were rolling blackouts in California. We were bracing for blackouts in the state of Washington and across the country and energy (costs) were going through the roof!”

He returned to Spokane excited about a green roof here. The timing seemed good. City Hall was being refurbished, and the old roof was leaking.

“All I said to them was ‘While you’re up there, prepare the roof to take it green someday. I don’t know when we’re going to do that, but when you’re up there put whatever infrastructure –extra drains, extra supports – that will support a green roof when we get around to it.’ ”

He believed that then that “City Hall ought to put a green roof up there to lead by example. It’ll benefit the environment, but that was almost secondary to the energy issue.”

Council members balked. Some felt Powers tried to sneak the $16,577 project into existence – and into an already tight budget. The rooftop controversy added more tension to an already tense relationship between the council and the mayor.

“This is not the time to be spending money on things we don’t need when we are taking a bye on things we do need,” said Councilman Al French.

At one meeting in August 2002, Councilman Steve Eugster dressed up in bib overalls and a straw hat, carried a pitchfork and handed out gardening gloves to fellow council members.

Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark joked that Powers should grow medicinal marijuana in the garden for “glaucoma patients, the chronically pained … and cranky council members.”

The green roof idea died on the vine, so to speak.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t do an effective job in rolling it out,” Powers said. “Had we done that, we might have avoided some of that mistrust that led to the ridicule and the ‘he must be nuts, what’s he going to do, grow strawberries on the roof?’ ”

In a recent interview, French, an architect, said he’s been interested in green roofs since his college days in the 1970s. He knew their energy-saving and aesthetic benefits in 2002, but he couldn’t support Powers.

“My issue with him was not the green roof, it was the process,” French said. “The council didn’t know about it, that was the biggest thing. It was a good idea that might have gotten handled wrong.”

French hopes to break ground soon on one of his projects, Parc two20 Tower, a mixed-use building across the street from Providence Holy Family Hospital.

And the 10-story building’s roof?

Green, of course.

Life after Spokane. Powers lost his bid for re-election in the 2003 primary. He and his wife, Bonnie, moved to Seattle, where Powers helped reorganize the economic development council for Seattle and King County. Bonnie took a job teaching at McClure Middle School.

After he finished the reorganization work, Powers worked for Colliers International, a commercial real estate company. He lost that job in a downsizing move, and now does consultant work in his own firm, Powers Economics.

Powers, who is also a lawyer, is focusing on clean technology, “especially as it relates to development.” And he’s venturing into consultant work for companies involved in digital entertainment and digital media.

“It’s everything from games to professional training (videos) for engineers and fighter pilots,” he explained. “The digital game industry is larger than Hollywood. It’s approaching $60 billion a year in revenue.

“Seattle enjoys 20 percent of that market share because the primary publishers, Nintendo and Microsoft, are right here. And there’s a technical school out here, DigiPen, and they produce an awful lot of digital software writers for the games, as well as the graphics for the games.”

While he was mayor, Powers, along with other futurists, brainstormed a plan to retrofit the empty Kaiser Aluminum plant at Mead and build windmills in it.

“We could have been ahead of it,” Powers says now about that idea.

When his friend and former campaign treasurer, Roger Fruci, reads about the proliferation of rooftop gardens, or the popularity of wind power, he still feels steamed for the ridicule Powers endured.

“The culture of Spokane seems to treat innovative ideas with sarcasm,” Fruci said. “I’m not a Spokane basher. I love Spokane. But this is not always the place you come with innovative ideas. And it’s a lot better than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”

Powers appreciates Fruci’s loyalty, but he’s philosophical now about the nature of innovative ideas and the green-roof conflict.

“I’m a big believer that there aren’t a whole lot of original ideas,” he said. “It’s like going into a garden and all the flowers are there, but until you pick them and present them in an array of color, that’s when it has impact. People say, ‘I never saw a daffodil in that way.’ ”

Powers says the green-roof conflict helped him identify his strengths and weaknesses.

“I learned about patience, and the ability to go slow and bring others into the process, even when you are certain you have a great idea, and you know it’s going to work,” he says.

“The green roof was a three- to five-year idea, not a three- to five-month idea. I still believe in the merits of it. I hope someday someone will say, ‘Let’s put a green roof on City Hall.’ ”

Video tour of Chicago City Hall and its rooftop garden