In Seattle, Amazon is blessing and burden
SEATTLE — First, you notice the cranes. Dozens of them dot the skyline here, towering over the city like the tallest trees in the jungle.
Thanks in large part to Amazon’s unrestrained growth, Seattle is in the middle of a building boom that makes Boston’s largest-ever construction surge look almost laughable. So when the company announced it would build a second headquarters, it seemed like every city with more than three stoplights started preparing a bid. After all, who wouldn’t want a piece of that action?
But in Seattle, where Amazon dominates the business landscape like no other company currently consumes a major American city, some say HQ2’s many suitors may not quite realize all that they’re signing up for.
On Amazon, ordering a paperback book or a cutting-edge gadget is one-click easy; but living alongside Amazon, things are considerably more complicated. In the years since the company began buying and leasing tremendous amounts of land in the city’s core, housing costs have skyrocketed here, and so has homelessness. Planned improvements to public transit to shuttle all those new people around the city have lagged far behind the growth. And in a city that once prided itself on its egalitarianism, some blame Amazon for widening the gap between rich and poor.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because the most critical descriptions of what Amazon’s amazing growth has done to Seattle sound suspiciously like the problems already confronting present-day Boston. A housing crunch. An overburdened transit system and soul-crushing traffic. Worsening income inequality. An influx of young, well-paid, mostly male tech workers has turned gritty but beloved neighborhoods into constellations of new condos and cookie-cutter cool restaurants.
“Amazon will not solve any of those problems,” said Knute Berger, a journalist and historian who has been sharply critical of Amazon’s effect on Seattle. “It will make them worse.”
Amazon — conqueror of cities, seller of lots of stuff — has left an indelible mark on Seattle. Unlike Boeing and Microsoft, big companies that once helped shape this city from home bases in the suburbs, Amazon planted its foot squarely in Seattle’s center. And rather than contain its 40,000 or so employees here on an insular campus, it set about changing the city’s DNA. Whether, on balance, all that growth has been more to the good or the bad depends on who you ask.
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For Seattle, Amazon’s HQ2 announcement coincided with a period of uncommon upheaval: The city’s mayor resigned after a fifth person — his cousin, this time — accused him of sexual abuse decades before he took office. That triggered a sort of mayoral musical chairs; including the initial resignation, the city had three mayors in the space of two weeks.
But Amazon and the change it has engendered here have remained the focus of local politics. Yard signs urge action on affordable housing. One mayoral candidate is running behind the curious slogan “Keep Seattle.” Just who is trying to take it away is left unsaid.
So central is the company to Seattle’s political discourse that a city councilor who briefly ascended to interim mayor used his three days in office to order the city to submit its own bid for HQ2 — conjuring the notion that the competition would end like Dick Cheney’s vice presidential search, with the best option conveniently staring back in the mirror. A Seattle bid is seen here as largely symbolic — a signal to the company that city leaders are eager to keep the company happy at home, despite the sometimes sharp criticism it has endured for essentially all the city’s problems.
“I think they’ve been a convenient scapegoat,” said Simon Stevenson, director of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. “Everything that has gone wrong about Seattle has been laid at Amazon’s door.”
That’s not entirely fair, of course. Other cities have suffered similar growing pains without Amazon’s involvement, and Amazon is hardly the only tech company changing the area’s landscape. Microsoft’s campus is similar in scale, but doesn’t get the same grief for driving up home prices and contributing to traffic, at least in part because it’s tucked away in nearby Redmond.
“Putting a lot of jobs in a city like Seattle is a good thing,” said Dan Bertolet, a senior researcher at the Seattle think tank Sightline. The city is still only half as densely populated as Boston, Bertolet said, and density unlocks the important environmental benefits that cities bring. People walk to work or take public transit, reducing their footprint on the earth.
What Amazon brought to Seattle, and what it’s promising to bring to another city, is something city planners can’t control. Tens of thousands of good jobs are “like a gift from the Gods,” Bertolet said. Even in a state like Washington, with no income tax, that influx creates a revenue windfall in other ways. (In July, the City Council here approved an income tax on the rich that is making its way through court). It also guarantees the city will thrive into the future — something that seemed far from clear when Boeing packed up its headquarters and moved to Chicago.
Mitigating the growing pains that come with tens of thousands of new people arriving in fairly short order isn’t just the responsibility of the city — it’s sort of the whole point of being a city. Housing has become a real problem, Bertolet acknowledged, and the region has seen a major increase in the number of so-called super commuters, who journey 90 minutes each way to and from work. Expansions to the city’s north-south light rail system, Link, are underway, but still decades from completion. And some who aren’t making Amazon salaries have found it impossible to stay in the city. But solving these problems is the job of government, not Amazon.
“The city is more to blame for Seattle’s problems than Amazon is,” Bertolet said.
The median home price in central Seattle is about a million dollars now — unthinkable not so long ago. The city has been the number one major market for home price growth in America month after month, far outpacing the national average. Many of those cranes all over the city — even in neighborhoods still dominated by rows of single-family homes — are popping up housing as quickly as possible. It’s not quickly enough.
Mary’s Place, a local nonprofit that operates several homeless shelters that focus on getting children off the street, has seen a dramatic increase in demand in recent years. In 2010, executive director Marty Hartman said, the first overnight shelter they offered filled 2,300 beds over the course of the year. This year, they’re on pace for 170,000 across eight facilities. Homelessness and its many causes can be complicated to trace, but nobody would deny that the city’s severe lack of affordable housing has contributed to the problem here.
Mary’s Place does not operate traditional shelters. Instead, it occupies vacant buildings, often awaiting redevelopment, with the permission of landowners who are happy to have a tenant on site until construction can begin. In the middle of downtown, an old Days Inn is now housing some 150 kids and their parents every night. The landowner is Amazon, which paid to retrofit the building and sends leftover food from its Amazon Go store next door every day.
The old hotel is smack in the middle of the once shabby section of downtown that Amazon is currently remaking in its image. Amazon’s biosphere — three giant interconnected orbs filled with rare foliage — is just a couple blocks away. On a rainy day, dozens of little faces in the hotel windows peered out at an active construction pit across the street. It’s not just another tower: Amazon recently announced it would include a permanent shelter in one of its buildings, reserving several floors for Mary’s Place.
For a company that had been criticized here for its comparatively modest contributions to charity, it was a grand gesture. “They knew there was a state of emergency,” said Hartman. “It’s a relationship that has been lifesaving.”
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Almost since the pioneers arrived, Seattle has always been something of a blank slate. It has been a place where people with ideas can come and build something new and different — an “ahistorical city,” Berger said.
Conspicuous consumption was frowned upon (except when it came to coffee). First on the back of Boeing and then behind Microsoft, the city became a place where a good job and a comfortable home were, if not guaranteed, then plainly achievable. In Berger’s telling, it was a city that offered an affordable suburban lifestyle. And the city’s gritty neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill, helped give birth to grunge rock and became home to one of America’s largest and most vibrant gay communities. To some, Amazon’s rise coincided with — or maybe even caused — the end of all that.
Berger recalled one familiar description of the Roman empire: “Where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”
In South Lake Union, the neighborhood Amazon built up during its initial expansion here, and increasingly in the Capitol Hill section, disenchanted locals decry corporate sterility and homogeneity. Outside of the campus itself, that’s hard for an outside eye to identify. On a sunny afternoon in September, Seattle still seems quirky and cool and inviting, filled with friendly people. Amazon’s efforts at fitting into that culture don’t really even earn it much credit. Stevenson pointed out that the company’s decision not to provide lavish catered spreads for employees inside its own facilities is itself an intentional act of community outreach. Good restaurants dot the campus, open to both employees and the public; a phalanx of food trucks descends daily at lunch.
Whether Amazon would consume another city the way it has Seattle depends largely on where the company lands.
“Boston has a history we don’t have,” Berger said. “A wave of newcomers can’t really shift it.” It’s impossible to imagine Amazon, no matter how big or how fast it grew, overtaking, say, Harvard in a Boston/Cambridge word association game.
To the extent that Seattle’s experience is the cautionary tale critics say it is, it can inform how the next city to host Amazon might prepare and react. That means confronting our own housing crisis head on, for one thing, and allocating some of what would surely be new tax revenue to improving transit. Cities aren’t for companies, after all. They’re for people.