Amazon joins a parade of high tech to the urban core

The New Economy started in the suburbs, but the new trend is back to urban neighborhoods. Amazon is a good match for South Lake Union, but the danger is that it could be too big, with too few small companies clustering around.
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Near Rosetta Inpharmatics in Seattle's South lake Union neighborhood, rail for the new streetcar was laid near old rails that once served industrial customers. (O. Casey Corr)

The New Economy started in the suburbs, but the new trend is back to urban neighborhoods. Amazon is a good match for South Lake Union, but the danger is that it could be too big, with too few small companies clustering around.

The remaking of Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood got a boost last week with a City Council vote paving the way for online retailing giant Amazon to move its headquarters into a multi-block development at the neighborhood's heart, along the new Seattle Streetcar line. Amazon's move will make the neighborhood home to major players from all four pillars of the Seattle region's knowledge economy - biomedical research (the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), higher education (the University of Washington), global philanthropy (the Gates Foundation), and technology.

Amazon's move - and the redevelopment of South Lake Union generally - is part of a global trend that has been gathering steam for about a decade. New-economy companies are clustering in old manufacturing and warehouse districts in cities from San Francisco to Vancouver to Barcelona. These and many other cities worldwide have redeveloped broad swaths of urban industrial land for new high-tech campuses only minutes from downtown. Drawing on a creative, young workforce who prefer city life, high-tech companies use an urban location as a recruitment and retention tool to show that they are not only innovative, but they are also cool.

These landscapes are a departure from high-tech and biotech companies' usual habit of locating in self-contained campuses, separated from other kinds of industries and land uses - landscapes that American suburbs have been very good at providing. Techies were among the first white-collar workers to move to the suburbs, and research park developers were among the first to create grade-A suburban commercial real estate.

From the Ferrari-driving California tycoons immortalized by Tom Wolfe in the late 1960s to the film Office Space and the cubicle-culture cartoon strip Dilbert in the 1990s, technology seemed to occupy a particularly anonymous kind of suburban space in the public imagination. Pundits called these "technoburbs" and "nerdistans"; boosters called them "Silicon Valley" and "Silicon Prairie" and "Silicon Forest," but never "Silicon City."

The strong suburban association has persisted as technology has globalized. The rise of countries like China and India as high-tech powers has resulted in new landscapes of research parks and campuses at the urban periphery, whose buildings looks as though they could just as easily be in Redmond or Cupertino.

The gradual emergence of an alternative, more-urban model for the high-tech district is a result of the growth and diversification of the technology industry and its workforce. Larger urban trends have also paved the way for this change. It is hardly a coincidence that technology industries returned to older urban centers after a decade of national prosperity and declining crime rates during which big cities "came back" and once again became desirable locations for the professional class.

Remodeling older buildings as airy live-work lofts and building glass-clad towers on the sites of low-rise midcentury structures and surface parking lots, new-economy companies have helped to drive a huge transformation of the urban fabric. Early adapters like San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood have been joined by the Pearl District in Portland, downtown San Diego, and Old City in Philadelphia. And while the internet-media firms of New York's "Silicon Alley" are scattered across downtown Manhattan, their rise and public prominence helped redefine high-tech as an urban activity. The cubicles are still there, but Dilbert has left the building.

These areas have prospered also because they have been able to create the kind of self-contained, amenity-rich environment that drew tech companies to suburbs in the first place. Technology and other knowledge-intensive industries tend to thrive when located in a place that is built for them, surrounded by other companies like them, filled with features that educated workers want and need.

This is another kind of high-tech bubble, one built not on company valuations but created instead by the actual physical environment of a place. The most successful dot-com and knowledge-worker districts in big cities across the world have managed to recreate this bubble in an urban setting, while managing to retain enough funk to keep the neighborhood interesting.

It's not just large cities that are getting into the act. The same day of the City Council vote, real estate developer Wright Runstad announced plans for a 36-acre "urban village" in east Bellevue, which promises to offer all the amenities that new-economy companies demand, in a dense and transit-oriented setting. Eastside communities and suburban cities and towns across the country are taking note of the growing needs and market demand for city-like retail, commercial, and residential districts. If a company wants a denser and livelier landscape for its workers, it may not need to go to the city to find one.

However, older large cities still have something that suburbs, by and large, do not. City neighborhoods can be more diverse and interesting architecturally, economically, and demographically. History gives the urban fabric an interesting quality that is hard to replicate in a newer suburban setting. The funkiness that urban high-tech districts retain - whether accomplished by rehabilitating older buildings or keeping the homegrown retailers - is what gives the city a competitive edge over the suburb.

The other ways that urban tech districts can set themselves apart from suburban developments - both the high-tech campuses and the "urban villages" - is by recruiting the right kind of tenants. Not all knowledge-economy firms are created equal when it comes to creating and maintaining a vibrant urban environment. Firms engaged in sensitive research, like many biotech firms, must have elaborate building security systems that make it difficult for people to enter - and for workers to go out for lunch, or pick up clothes at the dry cleaner, or shop in local stores. They may need to be surrounded by walls or gates, without street-level windows. The need for this kind of security is part of what drove technology firms to suburban campuses in the first place.

Size is the other thing that sets these firms apart. The high-tech category ranges from 10-person startups to 70,000-head global giants like Microsoft. In an urban setting, smaller tends to be better. An area has multiple tenants rather than one or two, and these tenants also may interact and socialize with one another - collaborating on projects, hiring one another as clients, or simply having a cup of coffee. The enthusiasm of boosters for anything "high-tech" tends to ignore these distinctions, giving urban high-tech districts the potential to be as bland as any suburban office park.

On balance, Amazon's move is welcome news for South Lake Union. Its business activities and its workers are the kind of things that a city neighborhood needs. Neither trafficking in state secrets nor performing intensive laboratory research, Amazon can occupy a facility that opens up to the outside world, and its employees can become part of the neighborhood's street life.

However, Amazon is a very large company, and its sheer size means that its part of South Lake Union runs the risk of becoming a corporate campus rather than a real neighborhood. Although Amazon is a giant employer, there's potential here to make the area around it an aesthetically interesting and diverse urban place that will, in turn, be attractive to other, smaller companies.

In order for this potential to be realized - and for South Lake Union to hold its own in the regional high-tech real estate game - the development process needs to retain some of the neighborhood irregularities and imperfections that make cities interesting. A lot of this can be accomplished through interesting architecture, and more by a good retail mix. But buttressing Amazon's tenancy by attracting smaller high-tech firms is truly essential. Seattle, get to work.


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