Just add water: Paul Allen's instant neighborhood

While everyone talks about endless Seattle process, the transformation of South Lake Union proceeds at a blistering pace. Now Amazon is probably moving there. So what sort of place is this?
Crosscut archive image.

The view north on Westlake Avenue North shows how the new displaces the old in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. (O. Casey Corr) CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

While everyone talks about endless Seattle process, the transformation of South Lake Union proceeds at a blistering pace. Now Amazon is probably moving there. So what sort of place is this?

Next time anyone tells you about endless Seattle Process, take them to the South Lake Union neighborhood, where, after a full-throated debate, the city embraced a massive redevelopment led by Paul Allen.

Out went the ashes of the Seattle Commons proposal, and City Hall tweaked zoning, contributed money for a new park and other improvements, and laid track for a streetcar that begins service in December.

If voters approve November's roads-and-transit measure, a portion of $323 million for Seattle projects will go toward completing a key element of the neighborhood transformation, the Mercer Corridor Project.

But already the transformation of South Lake Union may be the most remarkable development in Seattle's modern history.

Northgate made history as one of the nation's first malls and is now undergoing major renovation. Downtown's renaissance during the Mayor Norm Rice era was remarkable. After a slow start, the Denny Regrade got traction as a downtown residential district. Columbia City found a way to grow and maintain its charm. And at last, apartment developers decided to Visualize Ballard.

But all of those changes followed a kind of predictable logic. South Lake Union stands alone in the scale and speed of development, and momentum was largely sustained by two individuals: billionaire Microsoft co-founder Allen, through his Vulcan holding company, and Mayor Greg Nickels, who saw investments there as a major opportunity to enhance Seattle's national role in biotechnology.

Some questioned the need for those investments, but the City Council approved nearly everything Nickels proposed. Today, development goes at a furious pace, with no sign of a slowdown. Crosscut Publisher David Brewster reports that Amazon will soon announce a move to South Lake Union. It's hard to walk in any direction without bumping into construction workers. Concrete mixers rumble down side streets that, a few years ago, were quiet and nearly empty.

I walked around there recently to get a sense of the emerging neighborhood. It's too soon to make a complete assessment. Many announced projects are unfinished. The parts seem unjoined and underpopulated, far from the experience you'd find in Portland's Pearl District. And yet the neighborhood does show a certain character that sets it apart.

Unlike other neighborhoods that evolved over decades, South Lake Union went through some sort of worm hole, jumping from sleepy past to frenetic present. Gleaming steel and glass structures rise across the street from parking lots or blistering wood buildings. The new buildings are impressive, but few are interesting. Maybe this is a symbol of the new Seattle observed by Jonathan Raban – an anywhere big city.

But still, I found myself liking it. This is a place where I could live, work, or both. And that's mainly because it's close enough to many of Seattle's best places, such as the retail core, the waterfront, and the Pike Place Market.

Check out Westlake Avenue North, which I think will become one of our most popular walking streets, a route from Lake Union to Westlake Mall and beyond. Careful when you make your way near the Westin Hotel and encounter that goofy jumble of streets, itself a reminder of Seattle process, long ago.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.