How the tech industry is re-shaping Seattle

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

A 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.

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

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray likes to say that other mayors “would do a jig on top of the Space Needle” to have Amazon located in their city. And while Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien — chair of the city’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee — agrees it’s a great opportunity, “We have to be extremely vigilant to become the kind of city we’d like to be,” he says, “and avoid what’s happening in San Francisco.”

What’s happening in San Francisco, to some observers, is old-school class warfare. Tech workers stand accused of pricing people out in droves and gentrifying areas at whiplash speed. A few rising young tech execs have stirred the pot, publicly describing the city’s poor as “degenerates” and “trash,” mocking the city’s women as unattractive, and generally acting obnoxious and entitled.

Tensions have gone from smoke to fire in recent months. Activists now regularly blockade the private buses that tech workers take to Silicon Valley. They’ve thrown rocks at them and even protested outside the homes of tech execs. A group calling itself the Counterforce has taken credit for some of the most aggressive actions.

Evidence that this vitriol could spread to Seattle is sporadic, but it’s there. Flyers popped up around South Lake Union in 2012 that labeled many Amazon workers as rude “Am-Holes.” This past February, a handful of Counterforce activists blocked a Microsoft bus on Capitol Hill and a streetcar in South Lake Union used by Amazon employees. They held up banners featuring slogans such as “Gentrification Stops Here” and passed out flyers accusing the two companies of a wide range of offenses, such as driving the creation of boring high-rise apartments (“the bland architecture of conspicuous consumption”) and higher costs of living.

“Fight Development! Join the Counterforce!” their flyers read.

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Credit: Sean McGuire.

They may be looking for recruits, but finding the Counterforce isn’t easy, with no contact information listed on the group’s flyers. I visit anarchist bookstores, reach out to journalists who’ve covered Seattle’s activist scene, and touch base with every radical I know. After more than a week of effort, some back-and-forth with Seattle anarchist publication Tides of Flame — which published the protesters’ manifesto — nets me an interview with Matt Erickson, a dreadlocked 28-year-old spokesman for the February protests.

“There’s no large organization of us assigned to attack Amazon,” says Erickson, who was noncommittal on plans for future actions. “This is about supporting the people who have roots here and are getting pushed out. To fight back against companies who are trying to make Seattle a yuppie paradise.”

It’s fair to say Erickson represents the more radical side of the debate. But he’s not alone in worrying that the expanding tech sector will price longtime residents out of town.

“Look at our overall job portfolio,” councilmember O’Brien says. “The majority of the growth is coming from the tech sector right now. To the extent people are worried about the conditions of affordability in the city, it’s easy to understand how that gets channeled toward the tech industry.”

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.”

Crosscut archive image.The market hasn’t been rosy for everyone. The Seattle Times reports that 80 percent of landlords in Seattle and King County plan to raise rents in the coming year. Apartments across the city are becoming more expensive, affordable single-family homes are disappearing, and the character of neighborhoods is changing.

A wide array of factors is at play in all of this. For gentrification activists looking for a narrower target, the cash-rich tech industry presents one.

“The problem with San Francisco is they’re preservationist, not growth oriented,” says Chris DeVore, general partner at Founders Co-op, one of the area’s leading venture capital funds. As more people moved to San Francisco in recent years, he says, the city declined to prioritize new housing construction. Supply and demand are out of whack.

O’Brien agrees with this assessment and contrasts it with Seattle. More apartment buildings opened in 2013 than at any point in the past 20 years, he says, estimating the number to be 6,000. The trend shows no signs of slowing; another 14,000 units are expected to come online in the next one to two years.

But how affordable will this housing be? How much influence will neighborhoods have in the city’s growth? Murray says maintaining the city’s affordability is the top priority of his administration, and neighborhood groups need to be given more sway.

“We’re not providing a process for the city and neighborhoods to be collaborative in deciding how to move forward,” Murray says. “There are things the government can do to correct what the market is doing.”

An Amazon Sea-change?

That viewpoint — of government needing to intervene in markets — is common in left-leaning Seattle. It doesn’t sit as well in some tech circles, where progressive social politics are often accompanied by libertarian economic streaks.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos exemplifies this. On one hand, Bezos made a $2.5 million donation to the state campaign to legalize gay marriage in 2012. On the other, his business practices lean decidedly right. Amazon has been compared to Walmart in its battle against unionization, fiercely fights many taxes, and was rated among the least environmentally conscious tech companies by Greenpeace.

Any of these issues could rile up tensions locally. In addition to housing affordability, San Francisco tech workers have been targeted for not fitting into the city’s “culture,” a vague sentiment that has created real resentment.

In Seattle, venture capitalist DeVore says, Amazon has a reputation for being unengaged in civic culture, in a city where that sort of thing is valued. However, both he and Murray said the company has been improving its image in that regard.

GeekWire’s Cook is more blunt. “Amazon was perfectly positioned when they were located on top of Beacon Hill, in an old Art Deco building that no one ever noticed,” Cook says. “They’re not historically a community player, and now they’re locating themselves in the middle of a city that’s very, very community oriented.”

John Schoettler, director of corporate real estate and facilities at Amazon, pushed back on this. He noted that Amazon cosponsors the annual Fourth of July fireworks on Lake Union, contributed to streetcar improvements for South Lake Union, is a strong supporter of University of Washington’s computer science program, including endowing two professorships, and supports dozens of local charities.

“We look forward to working with the whole community as we continue to invest and grow in Seattle,” Schoettler says. Given that Amazon is notoriously close-lipped to the press, just getting a spokesman on the record could signal a sea change.

Whatever the specifics of Amazon’s case, Cook says 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.

“If you look at the last three tech companies to go public here, they’re run by executives in their 30s and 40s,” Cook says, referring to Tableau, Zulily and NanoString. “People don’t see 24-year-olds cruising around town in Lamborghinis.”

Looking Ahead

So are Bay Area levels of bile on the horizon for Seattle?

Almost no one I spoke with thought so. In a former one-company town, successful tech firms give Seattle a stronger foothold in the global economy. Tech workers usually make great additions to the city, contributing to the tax base and having the income to support a vibrant culture.

Present that assessment to anarchist Erickson, however, and he’ll just shake his head and sigh. And when he connects tech workers to the pricey apartments popping up all over town, to rising rents and bland high-rises, he’d likely find agreement in many circles.

Sitting across from Erickson in a Capitol Hill coffee shop, I press the point. Shouldn’t the fight be over shaping development, not stopping it?

“I don’t think people getting pushed out of their communities would have a problem with us fighting development,” Erickson says. “Those apartments aren’t for them. They’re for high-paid workers who aren’t even from here.”

“So if you’re going to get paid well or don’t hold progressive enough values, don’t come to Seattle?” I ask. Pushing further: “People will move here if they want. I mean, it’s a free country.”

Erickson looks at me like I’ve just emitted a noxious odor. “This is a capitalist country,” he says. “The market is what matters.”

And on this point, the anarchist and Jeff Bezos just might see eye to eye.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at