Amazon Smile

Amazon is doing this whole HQ2 thing, and that’s nice for them I guess. That whole process has got me thinking about what they’ve done for and to Seattle: what is each, exactly, and what does Amazon have to do with it?

I keep going back to a conversation I had with my dad in the early part of the 2010s—don’t remember what year—when South Lake Union was really starting to go off. I was complaining about how bland and soulless the neighborhood was. Maybe we had just driven through the neighborhood together.

My dad heard me out and said,

“You know, Detroit would kill to have that kind of development.”

The old urban crisis

My dad’s view is informed by what was going on back in the day.

Downtown Seattle was in rough shape in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Seattle’s boomers got involved in civic life. It was dingy and dangerous. Commercial tenants were moving out of the urban core. So were retailers and residents. Nobody in their right minds would want to raise a family there if they had the option not to. Similar conditions existed in most U.S. cities.

At the time, it was hard to get Serious People to invest in Downtown. Anchor projects like Nordstrom and Westlake Center had to include generous tax incentives and public-private partnerships—public money—to get off the ground. Commercial interests—retail, office, whatever—were simply not interested in going to a dingy, gross place like Downtown Seattle. There was no parking, anyway. Better to build, the thinking of the time went, a cheap, greenfield office park in Redmond or Bellevue. Enticements had to be made to bring major players back into the city.

Or else raze the “slums” and “blight” that existed in the city center. Some fools wanted to bulldoze Pike Place Market and build a mall.

Fortunately, important historic spaces, like Pike Place Market and parts of Pioneer Square and Chinatown, were protected from idiotic urban renewal projects and were instead legally protected and rehabilitated.

There was a real risk, which Seattle’s boomers foresaw, that Seattle would turn into Detroit or Cleveland or St. Louis. Each of those cities, like dozens across the United States, succumbed to the fool’s logic of “urban renewal” and destroyed the very things that made their downtowns vital and essential.

Fortunately, boomers spent more than twenty of years of their careers and lives getting Downtown into fighting shape. They succeeded.

The Cascade neighborhood

So, back to SLU. My dad wasn’t wrong about Detroit: they would do anything to get HQ2.

Yet, in January, I got off the freeway at the Mercer exit and turned left onto Fairview. Two years ago, I lived a quarter mile away from that intersection and passed through it often. Yet the streetscape was unrecognizable. It was a canyon of high rises, where once had been the Cascade neighborhood.

And that’s great! That’s not sarcasm: really, it is. That land was not well-used in the ‘90s. The area was an industrial district absent industry. If there were not housing there, the crisis would be even worse.

Filling those several square miles with housing and jobs was exactly the right thing to do. There was even a really cool, thoughtful plan to do just that! It had low income housing, services, retail spaces for small businesses, transit, and a park! It was seriously some Jane Jacobs shit, for real.

Unfortunately, Seattle NIMBYs, as they are wont to do, rejected the super rad Seattle Commons plan, out of some ineffable spite directed towards evil developers and high rise types. You know, the same old thing that people complain that Amazon has brought about.

It’s ironic: in the spiteful rejection of the Commons plan, the NIMBYs created the conditions that would create exactly the out of scale development bonanza that they so feared.

Instead of the Commons, we got South Lake Union, the neighborhood nobody wanted. Instead of an all-income gathering place for the city, Seattle turned prime land into a sea of luxury apartments and Class A commercial offices, and not much else besides a useless streetcar.  South Lake Union is any developer’s wet dream: a whole neighborhood occupied by DINC renters and one of the largest corporations in history. Those NIMBYs sure showed Paul Allen.

Amazon disrupts Seattle

Enter Amazon, an opportunistic company if there ever was one. Seattle’s existing, painstakingly cultivated downtown would not be big enough for Amazon’s world-domination-level plans, but Amazon’s leaders smartly recognized that knowledge workers did not want to work in the burbs any more.

In the aughts, when Amazon began its current stage of growth, the city was still struggling to fill the blank space of South Lake Union. Amazon provided certainty, security, and a very substantial expansion of the tax base. Plus, there weren’t a ton of companies clamoring to build high rises in the area.

The city and civic types helped broker a deal between Amazon and Vulcan, which still holds some of the land. Paul Allen, Vulcan’s founder and backer, bought up the neighborhood in order to donate it to the city for the Commons. He was motivated by genuine altruism with the Commons project, but he did OK in the end.

Amazon grew and grew and grew (and grew and grew…). South Lake Union was no longer able to hold the company, even though in the Aughts real estate people thought Amazon was crazy for leasing as much space as it did in the neighborhood over the subsequent decade.

It’s hard to remember, but there was plenty of hand-wringing about Seattle’s post-dot com and post-Boeing economy in the Aughts. Without developing SLU, the economic health of the city could have reversed and snowballed. That was the (controversial) fear, anyway.

Amazon exploited those fears. Amazon.com, as it was quaintly still known back then, did help Seattle stave off blight and decay, or wasted space at least. But, all these years later, we know Amazon also has contributed to a massive wave of displacement and helped make this city obscenely expensive.

Amazon execs have generally been indifferent about these impacts. In fact, the RFP for HQ2 is full of implicit rebukes to Seattle for problems that Amazon helped to create: our rents are too high and our transit is too slow.

I do not know if Amazon was a good or bad thing for Seattle. No one ever will. Cities exist in permanent transition. To try and keep one the same is impossible and maybe wrong. I would take the present spiritual emptiness of South Lake Union over the literal emptiness that could have been.

But I do know this: Amazon is a company whose entire guiding philosophy is to to cut costs and study efficiency. All companies do that, but Amazon is more focused on those goals than any before. Amazon realized through its Seattle development experience that cities will subsidize the cost of its growth if their leadership feels a sense of crisis.

Remember: your city’s desperation is its inefficiency. Amazon will not hesitate to exploit it and race you to the bottom—or right out of town.

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