Diane Sugimura: 35 years of planning for Seattle

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Diane Sugimura

By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly

One could consider Diane Sugimura as the woman behind Seattle’s skyline. She is the city’s director of planning and development and leads the 300-plus employees of the city’s department. Last year, she celebrated over 35 years of service to the city.

“I tried to surprise her,” said Bonita Chinn, Sugimura’s administrative assistant. “I called the Mayor’s (McGinn) Office and asked if he could make a special appearance.” Chinn has worked with Sugimura for 10 years, but has known her for almost 30 years.

Sugimura has been department director under three different mayors, but has been at the city through six different mayors.

“The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) covers the full-range of planning and development from comprehensive and area-specific planning, to policy and code development, to implement the plans,” she said. “The department has, at one time, touched all of the buildings one sees in the city.” Sugimura has led this department since 2002.

DPD’s vision is to build a dynamic and sustainable Seattle. It is responsible for project and plan reviews, land use permits, building inspections, city-code enforcement, and the implementation of the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance that will help educate property owners and tenants about their responsibilities.

Over the years, Sugimura and DPD have been involved in encouraging the revitalization of neighborhood areas, including the Chinatown-International District. In the aftermath of the Louisa Hotel fire last December, DPD and other city departments helped facilitate permit approval to get the building stabilized. Working with the Seattle Department of Transportation, DPD is also involved in streetscape improvement projects.

DPD has partnered with the diverse community in the Rainier Beach neighborhood to further equitable development of the area, helping it with its goals to keep businesses and residents from displacement as the area grows.

One of the department’s largest efforts and campaigns is planning for the city’s future. “We must plan for 120,000 new people and 115,000 new jobs,” said Sugimura.

The Seattle 2035 campaign, led by DPD, will help “accommodate growth and help ensure a great city where people want to and can afford to live, work, shop, and play…no matter their lifestyle, culture, income or interests,” said Sugimura.

Sugimura was born in Portland, Ore., to second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei. The family moved to the Seattle area when she was 8 years old, just outside Normandy Park.

“Normandy Park was an exclusive community in the mid-1950s, so we lived literally on the other side of the line,” she said.

Her parents, who both grew up in Oregon, met at college and were married during their internment under Executive Order 9066. Her sister, Sharon Maeda, is the executive director at 21 Progress.

Sugimura has witnessed Seattle grow in exciting ways from a “quieter town,” she said. “There are greats place to live…and be entertained.”

“The challenge with this change,” she said, “is growing inequity, which is something that I am working on.” She also notices less tolerance for change, people complaining about “those” people moving into their neighborhood or the birthplace of construction workers, for example.

“Comments I’ve heard in the past year are sad,” she said.

But Sugimura is an inspiration and a role model to many. Nathan Torgelson, of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, says Sugimura has one of the hardest jobs in the city. He said he learns by watching her interaction with people and how she treats everyone fairly, regardless of status.

“She does it with patience, integrity, and grace. Diane is always willing to listen to every side before making a decision,” he said. “There’s a reason why three consecutive mayors have wanted her to be the department’s director.”

In January, Sugimura outlined details of her goal for Seattle in the next 20 years.

“My dream is that we are a city where the color of your skin, country of origin, zip code are not determinants of how you live, learn, succeed, and how others see you.” (end)

Irfan Shariff can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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