Photo by Shewit Gebreberhan

Photo by Shewit Gebreberhan


It was not the kind of crowd you’d expect at a chamber of commerce function, but then, under Teresa Lord Hugel’s leadership as executive director since 2001, the Greater University Chamber of Commerce has not conformed to the usual expectations. 

The 100 or so people gathered at the Talaris Conference Center east of the University of Washington campus on Jan. 16 were a diverse lot, reflecting the University District’s rich social and intellectual capital: business owners and managers, landlords, University of Washington staff, social-service workers, members of the faith community, city representatives and community volunteers.

The program was billed as the “Annual U-District Business Awards,” but the heart of the evening was a farewell to Hugel, retiring from her position due to health reasons. Mayor Mike McGinn proclaimed Jan. 16 Teresa Lord Hugel Day.

As the U-District confronts big changes over the next few years, many of those present that night are the ones charged with working together through a process that raises critical questions about what kind of neighborhood the U-District will become. “Working together” is the operative phrase.

Hugel “created bridges and helped knit the community together. She helped people see beyond their front door and helped [homeless] youths see beyond the sidewalk,” said Karen Ko of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, who has worked closely with Hugel over the years. “The neighborhood and city are all capitalizing on her previous work.”

The work of the 61-year-old Hugel and the culture of cooperation she helped foster will be tested over the next several years, a challenge and opportunity articulated in a recently released blueprint for action titled, “U District Livability Partnership: A Strategic Plan for Seattle’s University District.”
Extreme makeovers in rest of the city — Ballard, Fremont, upper and lower Queen Anne, the Rainier Valley and South Lake Union — reinforce the need for a strategic plan that reflects the U-District’s values, however those come to be defined.

The arrival of Sound Transit’s light-rail station, projected to be operational by 2021, is expected to bring more than 12,000 daily boardings at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street. 

In the meantime, the city will revise its Comprehensive Plan policies for the neighborhood — think zoning. The current 65-foot cap along University Way Northeast (the Ave) could more than double. 

Additionally and independently, the University of Washington has a vision of doubling the number of new companies it spins off from campus, some of which, ideally, would set up shop nearby. 

Sound Transit and the UW are high-impact players: Some stakeholders are concerned about getting scrunched between the two as the strategic plan unfolds.


The process under way

Last April, a city grant made it possible to bring in Brian Douglas Scott of BDS Planning and Urban Design to pull together the various interests who defined the U-District’s strategic plan.

“There’s a really effective community-planning process that finds a really good blend of strong leadership and grass-roots participation,” Scott noted, which he said describes the ongoing process in the U-District, bolstered by a strong commitment from the city.

“This wouldn’t have happened without the chamber of commerce,” Scott noted. “Teresa was brave enough to get the chamber behind it.”

The strategic plan is broken into five initiatives: Marketing, Clean and Safe, Urban Design, Economics and Organization, the latter initiative aimed at maintaining a sustainable leadership organization in the neighborhood. One of the vision’s goals is to convert the neighborhood’s network of alleys into “European-style” alleyways, featuring art installations and happenings. 

A steering committee made up of 29 people reflects a neighborhood cross section of town and gown. The leadership group consists of a half-dozen community stalwarts: Kristine Cunningham, of Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS) young adult shelter; Theresa Doherty, University of Washington; Louise Little, University Book Store and chamber board member; Don Schultze, Shultze’s Sausage; Scott Soules, Soules Properties; and Roger Wagoner, University Heights Community Center.

As a landlord, Soules, longtime president of the University District Business Improvement Association, is a significant neighborhood player. Over the years, he’s seen community efforts come and go. This time is different, he believes.

“The best thing we ever did is choosing Brian,” he said of Scott. “And the city is deeply involved. They’re at the table. I am shocked that discussions are so productive.”

Soules said the looming arrival of light rail is a big motivation for the neighborhood to get its act together. “There’s talk in the wind of increasing zoning heights around the light-rail station,” he noted. “Light rail is the biggest thing to hit the U-District since the UW moved here or the Alaskan Yukon Exposition. It’s going to drive a lot of office development. We can work collectively. We can all find something to like about it. The momentum and feeling are better than any project I’ve been involved in in the last 25 years.”

Cunningham, ROOTS executive director, brings a social-service perspective to the effort.
She values Hugel’s holistic vision: “Teresa, bless her heart, has a soft spot for social services,” she said. “We need to do well but not at the expense of everyone around us.” 

Cunningham added, “Density is going to happen; we’re going to have tall buildings. What we have to find agreement on is the mix: What is the mix of open space, affordable rent, student housing? We haven’t muddled through those tough topics yet. I don’t want to see the U- District become another Fremont.”

From Cunningham’s perspective, the next four years mean working closely with the University of Washington, which she says faces a philosophical choice: “It would be a leap of faith to invest the neighborhood where you can’t call all the shots.”


A lifetime of preparation

If part of Hugel’s legacy is the culture of cooperation and communication that helped lay the foundation for the strategic plan, it’s an attribute that is consistent with her life.

Born in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1951, she moved with her family to Dallas when she was 16 and later studied art and filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin. Hugel earned her degree at the University of California at Berkley after moving there with her first husband, who earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Meanwhile, Hugel was painting watercolors and working as manager of a do-it-yourself picture-framing business. At Berkeley, she got involved with social causes and the rights of the disabled.

“That never completely went away,” she said.

After a divorce, Hugel, mother of two kids, went through a dark time when her best friend died of AIDS.
“I came out of it knowing I am responsible for making myself happy,” she said.

And then she met her future husband, Andy, who died in 2011: “It was kismet,” she recalled.

The couple moved to the Northwest, and Hugel got a job at the Leadership Institute of Seattle, where she earned her master’s degree in organizational development. Her response to a help-wanted ad for the chamber executive directorship landed her the position in September 2001.

Hugel is whip-smart and plainspoken in an un-Seattle way, conveying a sense of “Let’s get it done.”

“One of the first great moments for me, watching Teresa as director, was at the height of crime and vacant storefronts,” said the Department of Neighborhoods’ Ko, remembering how things were a decade ago. “A gang was just running the Ave. The businesses were up in arms. Teresa pulled together a meeting of business owners up and down the Ave.” 

At the packed meeting at Costas Restaurant, Ko recalled, Hugel told the Seattle Police representatives, “We need help.”

Ko marked the moment: “She stepped in as a leader, and police stepped up their patrols.”

Ko said Hugel sent a thank you note to the officers who attended. 


A painting says it all

That night at the Talaris Conference Center, when Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen read the mayor’s proclamation, Hugel was moved to tears.

“I was trying not to cry,” she said. “It was one of the few days I was wearing makeup.”

Fifteen of her bright, vibrant paintings were on display for the occasion. One of them, “Opening,” a 30-by-22-inch watercolor, Hugel considers as emblematic of her approach toward life. The painting is dominated by a Polynesian-looking female face set in a surreal, centrifugal swirl of dream figments that reflect an openness toward creation and life.

“It’s a visualization of how to hold community,” she said of the painting.Remembering the night at Talaris, she reflected, “Here was this incredible love from this great group of people, and my paintings were around me and the community was holding me.”

A year ago, Hugel nearly died from an anti-inflammatory drug she was taking for arthritis. She lives in Bothell in an apartment with a view of Lake Washington and gets around by cane and electric scooter. She continues to paint and will remain active on the strategic plan. 

Meanwhile, not knowing which direction the plan will take, the chamber has not hired a new executive director but is run by current staff.

For now, Hugel’s legacy has helped set the table for the U-District’s future.

“I feel like my leadership was of value to the community,” she said. “Everyone wants to make a difference. I think I made a difference.”

For more information about the strategic plan, visit To comment on this story, write to