The following is an expanded version of a “Letter to the Editors” posted May 8th in the Seattle Times by John V. Fox
Earlier this week the Seattle Times reported that Alan Justad was one of the victims of the South Lake Union crane accident. It’s shocking and a tragic irony that a longtime staffer, who’d retired five years ago from what then was called the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and in charge of building permits, would fall victim to a construction crane.
Over the years – even decades – I got to know and like Alan through our regular conversations in his various job capacities within DPD, now called the Department of Construction and Inspections (DCI). Alan became my go-to guy for information and data on housing demolitions and new residential construction. Before they began to post most of their material on line, I just had to give him a quick call and he’d forward me literally spread sheets of information I’d requested with addresses, maps, and more.
When Alan moved up to Assistant Director of “DPD”, I could call him for all sorts of other information about issues and research they were doing around development of the city and he’d direct me to staff I needed to specifically talk to…. Always… Always he would respond promptly, courteously, thoroughly, and professionally.
After he had retired I’d even run in to him occasionally at the Burke Museum Coffee shop and we’d have friendly informal conversations about this or that, nothing special but which I always appreciated. He was a genuinely nice guy.
I remember the last time I gave him a call while he was still on the job and he told me he was about to retire. While this was a few years ago now, I recall vividly thinking to myself at the time – and now I wish I’d told him this directly – that Alan was really one of the last of a now long gone breed or generation of a planners who carried into their job at City Hall notions of public service and a kind of dedication to their jobs at odds with what we are now seeing from most staff at City Hall.
I saw in my numerous conversations with Alan over the years – a deep sympathy for our work and the efforts of all those in the community who took the time and effort to care about and wanted to do something to help their neighborhoods beset by new development and growth. We were never defined as a nuisance or trouble makers standing in the way of staff “getting their jobs done”. The customer was the community that Alan served, not first and foremost those in suits with blueprints in hand standing at the permit counter for one more master use permit.
Never was I looked down on condescendingly as the lowly citizen going to the all seeing all knowing “expert”. Too many at City Hall now – not all but darn near all – are simply functionaries looking to get ahead, spinning facts and information to defend the status quo, covering their rear ends, mining their job for pay and perhaps an opportunity later for lucrative position as consultant or work in the private sector.
And when the Times story earlier this week quoted Alan speaking for his department over a decade ago defending increasing amounts of growth in South Lake Union, I don’t believe it gives us a full or even accurate picture of Alan’s role back then. He never really was a big cheerleader for that kind of stuff – again his sympathies I believe really were with the grassroots. And this deepens both the tragedy and terrible irony here for me that Alan’s life would end this way.
The gods of runaway growth and development that now run City Hall – that nearly all staff genuflect to – it wasn’t enough to push out over time real public servants dedicated to truly objective planning and honest service to the community – they had to stamp out and bring short the life of a good man who believed in those things and put them into practice.