March 25, 2012

Eleven stories above a former parking lot, construction workers are hanging windows on Arizona, the capstone of Amazon.com's 11-building headquarters in South Lake Union. Since Amazon's move to the neighborhood was announced in December 2007, the company has taken leases at part or all of four additional buildings in the vicinity. This extended campus totals 2.7 million square feet, but the company isn't stopping: Amazon announced in February that it would build office towers totaling 3 million square feet on newly-acquired land nearby.

I moved to Seattle in May 2006 to work at Amazon, a company which was about one-sixth as valuable and occupied about one-third as much space in Seattle compared with today. A lot of marketers were using the phrase "world-class city" to pitch newly-built condominiums and townhouses. Refugees from recently converted or condemned apartment buildings provided heavy competition for rentals. Having moved from Pittsburgh, a city where the median house price was $85,000, I burst out laughing when a saleswoman asked whether I'd be interested in buying my temporary housing apartment in Chinatown for $280,000. (Someone paid more than that in 2006; the bank foreclosed last year and sold the property for $100,000 less.)

Over the next few years, the only thing "world-class" about Seattle was its economic collapse. By 2009, Seattle was no longer special. Washington Mutual became the largest bank ever to fail. Boeing and Microsoft, once considered rock-solid, laid employees off. Many proposed new condominium projects were never built, although the buildings they were meant to replace were vacated or destroyed anyway. One such building, the Marion Apartments, was torched by its 89-year-old caretaker who was to be evicted 12 hours later. The empty Marion building became a disgusting squatters' haven for three and a half years before a crew knocked it down over the course of two days.

As the Marion's replacement goes up and Amazon finishes its corporate campus — and starts work on another one — one thing is clear: Seattle is coming back. Many mothballed projects are finally being built. A block of Capitol Hill's most venerable bars was known as the People's Parking Lot after being razed and sitting unused for three years. It's now Terravita, a mixed-use building opening in July. A one-story auto repair shop has given way to another massive mixed-use complex with a pretentious name: Citizen of the Pike Pine opens later this spring. A long-delayed project to replace a 491-stall parking lot just north of CenturyLink Field (formerly Qwest Field, speaking of economic problems) will now yield 444 apartments in two towers, plus retail and parking, for those who really want to live next to a train station and a football stadium.

Not everyone is happy about these new projects in Seattle. The city continues to badly neglect the poor with a high 9.5% sales tax, no income tax, cutbacks in mass transit and social services, and insultingly high rents for "affordable housing." The low-income housing at Citizen, for example, costs 30% more than what I pay for my non-subsidized apartment less than a mile away. South Lake Union, once a quiet working-class neighborhood, also has its detractors: Crosscut architecture critic Lawrence Cheek called the Amazon headquarters "stiff architecture that stints on the fun" while an anonymous author coined the term "Am-hole" to oppose thousands of new white-collar workers (but not "those of you … who act friendly and normal"). The residential real estate market is frigid: willing buyers like myself are finding a very low inventory of homes for sale and a clear bias in favor of cash sales: 38% of homes sold last year in King County, which includes Seattle, were bought entirely with cash.

Seattle is a young city, especially for one which strives to be world-class, and as such there is a great deal of confusion of how to meld history with development. "More than 350 sites, buildings, vehicles, vessels, and street clocks" are designated as landmarks, from the obvious (the Space Needle, designated in 1999) to the banal (a bulletin board in Chinatown, which became a landmark in 1976). I've also observed that Seattleites resent anyone who moved to town after they did. In this city of transplants, those who move in tomorrow will ruin all my favorite places, which in turn ruined all the great places of the '90s, which in turn ruined the famous hangouts of the '80s, and so on. The one constant I've seen, particularly on Capitol Hill where I spend a lot of my free time, is that everyone fears becoming the next Belltown. Belltown is a region that I hesitate to call a "neighborhood" because young professional neighbors rarely commingle between the high-rise residential buildings and bridge-and-tunnel-crowd nightclubs. With an involved citizenry — and my neighbors young and old are very civic-minded — I have high hopes for my adopted city.

Seattle is rising: growing, changing, building. As the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 Exposition, a World's Fair that gave the city several of its lasting claims to fame, it's remarkable to note that from 1960 to 2000 Seattle's city population dipped and rose to the same level; it wasn't until the 2010 census that the city officially topped 600,000 residents. In just under six years I've seen phenomenal growth, a sudden collapse, and a heady recovery in this city — and there's a lot more yet to come.

Disclaimer: Amazon.com is my employer. The views expressed in the above post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Amazon.com.