Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Anita Rodgers and Alison Krupnick some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

Are we headed down a gentrification gyre?

The Northwest's tech scene is looking more and more San Francisco-like. Should we be worried?

A Crosscut.com collaboration with Seattle Magazine.

Strolling around Blanchard and Seventh in Seattle’s Denny Triangle, I’m taking in the last days of a forgettable block. It’s an easy spot to ignore as one passes by. Nondescript mid-rises commiserate with a Budget Rent A Car, a strip club and a fenced-off dirt lot. Having passed through the area for years, it’s hard for me to believe that by 2016, this block will resemble the set of a sci-fi movie and serve as an epicenter of global retail. But the wheels are already turning, and change is on its way.

Last December, Amazon received the green light to build a 3.3 million-square-foot campus encompassing this entire city block. Even for a city that prides itself on forward-thinking design, the retail giant’s plans are striking.

The headquarters will not only include a 38-story skyscraper, but also a series of interlocking, five-story domes made of glass and steel (which Amazon has dubbed ‘The Spheres”), positioned in the middle of a park-like area. The biosphere-style orbs will be filled with trees and plant life, various retail stores and eateries, and workspaces for Amazon staff.

Initial public response has been mostly positive. The Spheres have been cast as another futuristic addition to the city’s architecture, following the library downtown and EMP Museum, and some of its ground-floor retail will be open to the public.

But as the glow wears off, The Spheres could come to represent other things. Fair or not, some Seattleites may pass the ultramodern facility years from now, consider the workers among their climate-controlled greenery and see a symbol of progress only for the few, disconnected from the rest of the city.

'The Spheres', Amazon's future Denny Triangle campus. Image: NBBJ

In San Francisco, resentment against tech-fueled growth has boiled over into regular protests. John Cook, editor of Seattle-based tech publication GeekWire and serious booster of the local tech economy, worries that a San Fran–style clash may be brewing in Seattle as well, with Amazon’s rapid growth serving as catalyst.

There are gentrification concerns, but also the potential for cultural clashes. For example, Amazon is a company with established anti-union bona fides, a spotty environmental record, and one of the world’s fiercest capitalists — Jeff Bezos — as CEO. It’s creating a massive footprint in a labor and environmentalist stronghold, a city that just elected a socialist to its city council, who campaigned on taking Amazon and Microsoft into “democratic public ownership to be run for public good, not private profit.”

It’s safe to anticipate some friction on the horizon.

Urban Magnetism

Tech has been in the region’s DNA for decades — Microsoft, RealNetworks and Expedia are just a few other companies with local roots. But as the Puget Sound region weathered the recession, tech’s place in its economy grew. The area is consistently ranked as one of the best places to launch a startup, and hundreds of these companies, as well as titans like Google and Facebook, have outposts here.

Early tech companies located themselves on the periphery of cities, where there was more room to grow inexpensively. Microsoft put down roots in Redmond, for example. Apple and Google are located just outside of San Francisco.

For the young and well paid, however, city life is increasingly preferred over suburbia. Thus, some tech companies are now adopting more urban milieus to attract talent. Twitter and Dropbox recently moved to San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. In Seattle, Tableau, Adobe and Google have set up in Fremont’s urban hub, while Zillow and Facebook camp out downtown.

When it comes to staffing, though, none of these new companies holds a candle to Amazon. While the company would not confirm workforce stats, The New York Times estimated that Amazon had about 15,000 Seattle employees in 2013, most of them high-salaried programmers and managers. When its current expansion is complete, the company will be able to support roughly 30,000 workers in the city.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, May 29, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Amazon alone is going to spend more than $1 billion in construction over the next decade, and most of that money is going to go to the union jobs that build things here. The projects will be hiring hundreds of skilled laborers, all dues-paying Union menbers. When the buildings open, there will be thousands of new jobs added. All of those new jobs will be filled by people who live, eat, and shop in the region. Many of them will hire union labor to remodel homes or provide other services. There are tons of other building projects underway for housing and offices, all of which are being built by union labor. And most of these projects will be buying services and material or renting heavy equipment from local businesses.

The more people there are living and working in these areas, the safer the streets will feel and the more people there will be coming in to eat at the restaurants or shop at the stores. The more people spending money here, the more tax revenue we generate. The more tax revenue we have, the more bus service we can fund, the more cycle tracks we can build, and the more social services we can provide, and the more money we have for schools.

The gentrification of this area will have huge benefits for the entire city and the county and the state, not just in tax revenue but in jobs created.

talisker

Posted Thu, May 29, 12:53 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't have time now to get into an on-line debate on such an important subject. However, your rosy-glasses view that gentrification is all good is simply not true. At the least, you should look at the extensive literature on the subject before drawing such one-sided conclusions. Here is a list of a few links that discuss some of the negatives (and no, Smart Growth Seattle is not on the list):

https://sites.google.com/site/gg2wpdermotmitchell/gentrification-impacts (basic list of positive and negative, plus lots more info, from Britain)

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=970310 (definitive study of Seattle CD 1990-2006 by Henry McGee at Seattle University)

http://www.nssa.us/journals/2010-35-1/pdf/35-1%2001%20Aka.pdf (a paper on Atlanta)

http://www.livablecities.org/blog/other-side-gentrification-health-effects-displacement (what the URL says)

https://nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/24002-confronting-the-health-impacts-of-gentrification-and-displacement.html (Bay Area)

http://www.unc.edu/courses/2005fall/geog/021/001/HumanGeogFall05/smith.pdf (paper on global gentrification trend and "neoliberal urbanism", by Neil Smith at City University of New York)

louploup

Posted Thu, May 29, 10:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Your claims run counter to the situation in California. They would need a dozen San Francisco's to make your claims even half-way true.

Djinn

Posted Thu, May 29, 4:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Gentrification's basic problems is this:

1. Most of the "solutions" presented by people who want to assure gentrification doesn't erase economic diversity require government intervention into the private economy in the form of straight subsidy, and this hurts people who took risks, worked hard, and tried to improve themselves and their communities.
2. Most of the people who say Gentrification is a good thing and doesn't need to be controlled seem to believe the economies (local, national, global) are automatic things where distribution follows simple, equitable rules which are intrinsic. Automatic. And most importantly, these economic fairness qualities of our economy require no effort, intervention, or messy guidance.

#1 thinks like this: If housing is getting too expensive, require it be sold for less, subsidize it, or forbid more expensive housing from replacing less expensive housing. Subsidize more economic basics for more people (transportation, housing, healthcare, utilities). Those home owners, land owners, etc. that want their property to get ever more valuable are hurt by these efforts (their equity suffers). Also, these methods ghetto-ize where we put people. Where are all the developments with mandated levels of "affordable housing?" Are they spread throughout the city? Nope. Magnolia says no, Laurelhurst says no. The Rainier Valley gets a massively outsized share of the MANDATED "affordable" units - so the land owners in the Rainier Valley have lower-equity homes as a result, and the wealthiest in the city aren't impacted at all.

#2 thinks like this: A rising tide lifts all boats! Sure its more expensive, but there's a lot more opportunity as well. Small businesses can afford to pay more because they can charge more or deliver more valuable services. With more wealthy and/or upwardly mobile people to serve, more money can be made and the bottom of the economy grows as well. This, however, never keeps pace with those costs that have consistently grown faster than core inflation - like healthcare, housing, education... any of a number of things that make life in the city untenable at the lower end of the income scale. Also, it was a balance of many public initiatives and private enterprise that gave us our system - it's not some magical system that governs itself. For instance, we used to have a minimum wage with more purchasing power AND we provided massive subsidy for in-state tuition to higher ed. We don't do that anymore. We got cheap, and it shows in the starkness of the line between those who are raising the tide, and those in the boats that are washed out to sea.

Frankly, it's the unthinking, knee-jerk dialectic that drives this debate into the realm of "I guess we'll never fix it."

#1 needs better ideas than "subsidize it." Raising the minimum wage, and providing pre-school, frankly, are 2 of these types of solutions. But we need to do far more than that - education funding, zoning laws that don't involve simple subsidy but diversify the housing base, etc. Mandating %-ages of affordable units has turned into a horse-trading affair, and ghettoized the city further.

#2 needs to get real and stop being intellectually lazy. By in large, the people with this view have it because they can afford to have it. If they have the money, they have the smarts to realize that the economy is not magic beans and fairy dust, and real structural, reform takes actual work, not assumptions of good intent and apathy. There's a difference between defunding and reforming government's role in the economy, and one way is clearly the lazy way out.

nullbull

Posted Thu, May 29, 6:48 p.m. Inappropriate

"...Seattle’s dominant culture is low-key and unflashy, and its tech community largely follows suit, which could prevent some of the resentment found in San Francisco."

Have you been to Ballard lately and asked about skyrocketing housing prices and rents or how hard it is to get downtown? Or how developers can come into neighborhoods and build out of scale and ugly buildings with hardly a how-do-you-do for the neighbors, thanks to the Council being in bed with developers for years. There is a lot of anger out here that is not reflected in the reported comments by venture capitalists, City Councilmember O'Brien, or even "anarchist Erickson." The resentment has less to do with "unflashy" tech workers; it has much more to do with communities being screwed by a neoliberal ruling elite.

Disappointment in Seattle's governance is reflected in the 2:1 vote for a district based City Council election. Yes, Seattle culture is not generally "in your face," but if gentrification continues on the current path and people and constituencies all over town continue to be excluded from the political process ("Shouldn’t the fight be over shaping development"), 4th of July fireworks and chairs at UW tech departments won't cut it. Significant turnover in the first City Council district elections will.

louploup

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen . . . an increasing proportion of people can't afford to live in the city or a growing number of neighborhoods . . . this especially includes people of color.

Posted Fri, May 30, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

The techies are affecting the negatively dating scene too. The girls don't like 'em. I was following a twentysomething on a 4th ave sidewalk today. He was wearing green plastic sunglasses that you usually see on toddlers and wearing a Huuu branded backpack. Made me this of this salon.com article from today: Amazon is killing my sex life
The tech boom in Seattle is bringing in droves of successful, straight single guys -- all of them insufferable

http://www.salon.com/2014/05/30/amazon_is_killing_my_sex_life_partner/

Then there was the guy on the SLUT talking loud and long into his phone. I kept thinking how does he do that? Sit in the middle of a group of strangers completely unaware that they are there. Is it narcissism or thoughtlessness or entitlement or what?

Orwell

Posted Fri, May 30, 3:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Question: why pick on techies? don't lawyers, stockbrokers and real estate brokers make big money too? how about skilled construction workers, they can easily outlearn most techies and, at this moment they are in big demand. Some of the aforementioned categories may dress contrary to local standards but, as in the case of lawyers, do we want all pinstripes and rep ties, is that what would make us happy? I have a more direct approach: simply make it known (through our elected officials) that we don't want anyone who moves to Seattle to make more money than we do. This should be an easy message to get distributed worldwide; it's the kind of manifesto that gets free coverage probably even including the late night TV shows.

kieth

Posted Fri, May 30, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

$150G/Now! (max)

louploup

Posted Fri, May 30, 5:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Techies usually get attention because of their numbers and their relatively high pay (particularly given their age). Add to this a a tendency to clone-like attitudes and you have a demographic that has a big impact on the community. Lawyers, to take Kieth's example, come in many more flavors and cover a broader age range. There are also many more female attorneys. You could have a lawyer or two living in your neighborhood and never identify them as such!

I live in Ballard and it is like living in a construction zone. Daylight is disappearing from some streets as the buildings go up. Restaurants come and go as the winds of trend shift. Commercial diversity is dropping as rents go up and push out businesses whose sales can't compete with those commanded by luxury goods and foodie pretense. At least I can still buy hardware and lumber without having to go to the Home Despot but who knows for how long?

Mr_Jones

Posted Sat, May 31, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Got it. Techies = Construction zone.

kieth

Posted Mon, Jun 2, 5:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Construction zone: my god, the horror. I hear there's little to no construction in Detroit. Must be heaven. The whiners should move there.

Simon

Posted Fri, May 30, 5:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Afterthought: John Schoettler's comments reflect part of the problem. His list of Amazon community contributions, with the possible exception of the fireworks, consists of things that serve Amazon rather than the general community.

Mr_Jones

Posted Mon, Jun 2, 5:53 a.m. Inappropriate

There's plenty of affordable housing in Seatac and Tukwila, both and easy train ride to downtown. Or do these whiney (invariably white) anarchists just have to live on Capitol Hill?

Simon

Posted Mon, Jun 2, 5:53 a.m. Inappropriate

There's plenty of affordable housing in Seatac and Tukwila, both and easy train ride to downtown. Or do these whiney (invariably white) anarchists just have to live on Capitol Hill?

Simon

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 12:54 p.m. Inappropriate

"Murray is more upbeat. “People talk about how well the real estate market is doing in Seattle,” he says. “Almost all of that downtown, in the city itself, is due to Amazon.”'

Yes, Murray's more upbeat because his developer and construction friends and donors will make more money. The market doing well meme is for them, and those flipping residential properties. For the rest of us "little people" well, who cares. Pay the skyrocketing rents, watch our neighborhoods disappear under an avalanche of unaffordable concrete monoliths, or get out.

Maybe we won't get out. We came after those wanting to pay peon wages and we won. Maybe we'll come for the landlords and out-of-state developers next. Think that's not possible? Think again.

TomB

Posted Thu, Jun 12, 4:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Amazon should be required to build housing as part of that development.

Personally, I boycott that company.

Posted Thu, Jun 12, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Since when do we expect employers to house their employees? Company towns were not so great in case you studied them. If not, please do.

Personally, I think Amazon brings a lot to Seattle. I don't like all of it, but then, I don't like everything that Microsoft, Fred Hutch, Boeing and even the UW brings. But I especially dislike the Seattle City Council, Metro and Sound Transit.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »