Seattle has a love hate relationship with commercial interests. Feelings have reached a fever pitch this year. Every day another superlative is heaped onto Seattle’s hyperbole mountain.
- American city
- Housing prices
- Commercial development
Seattle natives are displaced economically, culturally and by traffic jams. The beneficiaries of growth are commercial developers, residential developers, city coffers and new employees from parts elsewhere.
Blame is usually directed at Amazon which hires thousands of net new employees each year and stuffs them into an already crowded downtown. A proposed Amazon development includes 23 story and 17 story towers on the site of the now demolished Seattle institution, the Dog House. So add historic nostalgia to the list of Amazon victims.
Affordability is the greatest loss. Over the past 10 years Seattle incomes have increased 9% while Seattle housing costs increased by 40%. Left unabated this doesn’t end well for anyone.
But Seattle greed and generosity are two sides of the same coin. On the greed side, Arthur Denny didn’t come here to build affordable housing. He appropriated land from the Suquamish tribe and profited from developing a saw mill, commercial real estate, a store and the city’s first bank. Ditto for John Nordstrom who twice made a fortune from the Yukon gold rush: First as a prospector and then as a shoe salesman to provision other prospectors. The Yukon gold rush not only equaled the rate of growth of the Amazon boom, it far exceeded its growth in derivative change, helping the city go from 40,000 residents to 350,000 residents in 10 years. Insane growth and inequality are reoccurring themes for Seattle.
The flip side of unmitigated growth is improbable generosity. Arthur Denny, and other city fathers, founded the University of Washington by, among other things, donating four of the most valuable city blocks to the university. The university retains the land to this day, which generates more than $4 million a year in rent and fees.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of the University of Washington on the growth and character of the city. Perhaps nothing embodies the greed versus generosity ethic more than the UW. Microsoft was born at the UW in part by Bill Gates and Paul Allen sneaking into the computer lab to write some of their first code. UW employs and educates tens of thousands of people who rally against inequity and advocate for transfer of wealth from the haves to the have nots. One of the greatest advocates is Gates himself, who located the world’s largest philanthropy in Queen Anne.
Seattle has long been a beacon to millions of people, particularly young people, looking to start their careers. Look at the city’s geographic location. There is no larger place of opportunity north of San Francisco or west of Chicago than Seattle. That’s a lot of real estate. These people come from sleepy towns with few jobs. Like Arthur Denny, they don’t move to Seattle for an easy life of affordable housing.
The Amazon boom will eventually translate into remarkable generosity. It’s in the city’s nature. Amazon has already made significant contributions to ease homelessness. There are myriad unmet opportunities for education, the arts, housing, transportation and environmental improvement. Seattle’s greed coin will invariably flip. The question is whether the generosity will exceed the greed that brought us here.