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    Density is the new driver of Seattle's innovation

    From Bellevue to South Lake Union, our leading companies are seeking an advantage in crowded neighborhoods.
    The courtyard outside the Van Vorst Center on Terry Avenue N. offers seating for Amazon employees and the public.

    The courtyard outside the Van Vorst Center on Terry Avenue N. offers seating for Amazon employees and the public. Courtesy of Amazon.com

    Seattle is widely considered an inventive city. We rank 13th in the world when it comes to “patent intensity,” the ratio of patent applications compared to the city’s population. And, the University of Washington recently reported it now ranks among the top five American educational institutions that incubate new businesses by parlaying research into commercial applications. That’s a jump from 15th two years ago, which puts UW right up there with MIT and UCLA. We’re a creative city, too — the arts are widely touted and embraced — but creativity, broadly speaking, seeps into all sectors, from computer gaming to biotech.

    The landscape of business invention, or more broadly, innovation, changes with time. From the ’50s through the ’80s, many major businesses that relied on “knowledge workers,” from Boeing engineers to software coders, moved to the suburbs to create park-like campuses that were thought to stimulate creative juices and big ideas. Employees commuted to places with low-slung buildings and manicured landscaping, tucked away from the rough and tumble of the city and the sprawl outside company walls. Some of these complexes — Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, for example — took on the feel of college campuses, places where young, brainy workers could focus without distraction. 

    The trend has shifted in recent years, exemplified by Amazon’s expansion in downtown Seattle, where the company is building high-rises. Amazon’s new headquarters will offer employees respite, but instead of a park, it’s building bio-domes. Other tech companies are opting for urban neighborhoods, including Fremont (Adobe), Pioneer Square (game companies), South Lake Union (biotech), Kirkland (Google), and downtown Bellevue (Microsoft). Density is the new incubator.

    The shift is highlighted by a ’60s-era creative space that was recently put on the state’s “most endangered” heritage list: the Talaris Conference Center in Laurelhurst. Built for the think tank Battelle Memorial Institute, the center was where brainiacs used to tackle energy and defense work for the government. Their big thoughts were nurtured by the design of legendary landscape architect Richard Haag, who also designed Gas Works Park. The old campus is about to be converted into a housing development. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and neighbors are lobbying to protect it, but the repurposing of the property is emblematic: The pastoral is passé.

    The physical and mental landscape of our region’s inventiveness is part of the focus of a new permanent exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry called the Bezos Center for Innovation, which opened on Oct. 12. The center, funded with a $10 million gift from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, attempts to survey the history of innovation and offer wisdom shared by locals ranging from Amazon’s Bezos and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz to biologist Leroy Hood and glass artist Dale Chihuly. 

    Innovation is tied to place, but how? Architect Alan Maskin, principal of the firm Olson Kundig, which designed the new center, says that today’s innovation story isn’t fully told by the solo genius having a “eureka” moment, but is the result of a web of interactions. Innovation has a collaborative dimension, from task-oriented teams to crowd-sourcing to the idea of people sharing working spaces. “Seattle is a place where researchers run into musicians on the trails or at the local farmers’ market and those elements of a place factor into innovation,” Maskin says.

    Cross-pollination is the key. The new exhibit will have interactive elements asking young people to share their ideas for solving specific problems, helping them tap their inner innovator and provide brain fodder for other young problem-solvers.

    It used to be thought that Seattle’s geographic isolation was a virtue — we were forced to be more self-reliant in manufacturing, we had abundant resources, we developed “the Seattle Spirit,” which meant that innovation came from yanking hard on our own bootstraps. In the global era, we’ve shifted to a new model, where our more diverse urban culture, access to capital and global connectedness are seen as competitive advantages. Seattle is being reconceived as a citywide think tank in a setting that can’t be matched by any mere campus.

    This story originally appeared in the November issue of Seattle Magazine.

    Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Mon, Nov 11, 7:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good article Knute.

    The same factors have increasingly drawn non-tech as well. For example organizations like Russell and Safeco.

    Employee recruitment and retainage are big factors. Being near restaurants and hotels are big factors. One crucial element is that many industries have symbiotic relationships. For example, the construction company I work for benefits from being an easy walk to many architecture and engineering firms, developers, corporate clients, government clients, jobsites, and so on. A lot of the staff rides transit to work, and from office to jobsites. Being near restaurants, takeout places, gyms, etc., is huge as well.


    Posted Mon, Nov 11, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Far from Knute's usual fare, this piece of fluff floats on air with nary a thought to relativity. Fortunately, a few seekers of substance are willing to take on the latest tulip mania— "where ideas come to have sex."



    Posted Mon, Nov 11, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

    “Density” is a code word. It is the mantra of urban property speculators, and it refers specifically to their goals of maximizing rents and externalizing social costs onto some locale's longtime residents of modest means.

    That's why government heads around here use it all the time – that interest group is a main pillar of their political support.

    This piece blows that dog whistle, uncritically and without irony. It's pathetic.

    Nice find, “afreeman”. Here's another debunking of this kind of effluence from “urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty togetherness” --



    Posted Mon, Nov 11, 5:36 p.m. Inappropriate

    afreeman and crossrip noted respectfully but when the atomic bomb was developed… probably the most challenging scientific contest in the past century.. .the physicists and mathematicians were clustered together in near isolation. And it worked. Los Alamos was certainly not an attractive place, nor was Oak Ridge, but it can be argued that the clustering enforced the exchange of ideas that would have taken much longer if the principals were scattered.


    Posted Mon, Nov 11, 8:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    What does a few hundred scientists and engineers doing a forced (due to fear the Nazis would get there first) crash course in bomb making based on known (or guessed) physics principles have to do with promotion of urban density for its purported generation of innovative?


    Posted Mon, Nov 18, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    Everything. Multiple disciplines, brought together to solve a thorny problem. Throw in urgency, common goals, some good critical thinking (and critical posturing) and stir. It's just interesting what comes out in our lunchroom discussions that won't happen with the same people in a meeting room.


    Posted Tue, Nov 12, 6:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    If I'm not mistaken, Talaris actually started as a nunnery or monastery, a housing development for nuns or monks, and then,when the order failed, someone tried to find a new home for it first as a conference center and then as an office complex for Battelle. Given that it's on or near the water in one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods, is it any surprise that residential developers are after it? Look for the developer to ask for a lot of density and then trade this away for approvals. The ultimate sales price will probably be tied to those approvals, so it's the current owners who will win or lose on the density issue, not the future developer. He or she will get a margin on every sale, so they'll benefit from volume, but if they're doing it right, they won't overpay on the land.

    The big issue here isn't the redevelopment of a large infill parcel but where we put our work centers and what they look like. Yes, the places with high-value added do employ thinkers, skilled professionals for whom face-to-face meetings are part of the creative process. And no, those places don't have to be in the middle of a single-family neighborhood for which there is very limited access. Large or high-end employers locate in center cities for a very few basic reasons: first and foremost, they live nearby, in places like Magnolia, Laurelhurst or Madison Park. Second, they need to draw on a regional labor market, and those center city locations provide transit access from the Eastside, Northside and Bainbridge. And third, an increasing number of young tech workers want to live in the city. But with those people scattered between Greenlake, Capitol Hill, South Lake Union and Queen Anne, a remote, drive-to location like Laurelhurst is a poor selection. Even the Bullitt center, up on Capitol Hill, is somewhat remote, since there are not good city-wide transit lines serving it.

    Posted Tue, Nov 12, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    Talaris, the campus, started life as a Battelle campus and conference center, not the other way around. However, Battelle found significant neighborhood resistance to any additional development later on, just as nearby Children's hospital has. This owner is faring no better, unfortunately.

    Talaris, the research organization, moved to the Battelle campus after Battelle sold the property. First though the property was sold by Battelle and became the Aljoya Conference center with Battelle continuing as a tenant in the office portion of the campus. After Battelle ended its lease and moved to new quarters, the campus sold again and became the Talaris conference center and campus for the Talaris Institute.

    The fight over the future of the Talaris campus turns out to be not so much a fight about density or historical preservation, but rather an attempt to force an underdeveloped urban parcel of substantial size to remain as it is. It is as much a struggle over landowner rights on one side versus landowner political power on the other.

    There is precedent, I suppose, for the public acquisition of large tracts of land whose former use has ended, to preserve them as is. See, for examples, Gasworks park (20 acres, purchased by the City of Seattle in 1962), Discovery Park (534 adcres, deeded to the City of Seattle in the 1970s) and Magnuson Park (350 acres, deeded to the City of Seattle in 1975).

    However, it is unprecedented, to my knowledge, to have designated acres of private land in the Seattle urban area as a historic site. (Admittedly, individual privately owned buildings have been designated as historical structures.) Friends of Battelle/Talaris, a group of Laurelhurst neighbors, has won their latest battle. It remains to be seen what limits can actually be enforced on the site.

    Posted Tue, Nov 12, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    The thing I find most interesting is that a right wing commentors are forced to advocate government regulation to the free market in order to limit density, while left wing commentors advocate lifting regulations to let the free market work to create density.


    Posted Tue, Nov 12, 5:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    Things make more sense when one gives up the labels.


    Posted Wed, Nov 13, 5:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    How is density "Free Market" in a selectively enforced GMA environment? When one form or another of Government owns over 50% of the land mass of the County? In some districts 60%? This is a Government mandated, Government run and enforced densification. The Government is using your dollars to impose it.


    Posted Wed, Nov 13, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

    Density equals control, that's the primary reason for government endorsement of the concept.


    Posted Wed, Nov 13, 9:36 p.m. Inappropriate

    Wrong. Density means more real estate sales subject to the real estate excise tax, and it is a good cover story for grandiose and excessive regressive transit taxing. Catch a clue: it's all about the revenue off the lower middle class. You think Dow Constantine, Ed Murray, and Frank Chopp want to control millions of people? For sure not. They just want to tax us.


    Posted Mon, Nov 18, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    Update: The old Battelle campus I mentioned in this story has received city landmark status; it's future is still under negotiation.


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