For centuries, cities have competed with their rivals to attract and retain humanity’s best, brightest and strongest. The battles fought between Athens and Sparta during the Golden Age of Greece more than 2,000 years ago provide a good example as did the competition between Florence and Sienna to be at the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance.
A similar competitive spirit has been on full display over the past year as more than 100 cities in the USA and Canada vie for Amazon.com’s second headquarters (HQ2) and its promised 50,000 jobs and billions of dollars in investment. While it isn’t surprising that mayors from coast to coast–especially those leading rust-belt cities such as Detroit–would be pulling out all stops to win such a prize, they would be wise to get a first-hand view of the challenges such instant prosperity can bring.
It’s lunch time on Friday and I’m standing just outside Amazon’s Day 1 headquarters building in downtown Seattle. The area is buzzing with activity as young techies—who are overwhelmingly male—mill about the small plaza between the main building and the Spheres, three glass geodesic domes which have become a symbol of the radical physical change that’s swept Seattle over the past decade.
To the left, right and behind me, new towers are under construction. It’s all part of the phenomenal growth of the online retailer of all things and the Amazonization of Seattle that began when Jeff Bezos founded his company here in 1994.
The Amazon Effect
By Amazon’s own estimation, it’s the largest private employer in Seattle, home to 40,000 employees currently and it invested more than US $38 billion in the city between 2010-2016. At the moment, those thousands of employees are spread around downtown Seattle in 33 buildings totaling 8.1 million square feet while new offices surrounding the Day 1 tower are being constructed in an effort to consolidate Amazon’s workforce. In addition to the 40,000 Amazon employees, the building frenzy has also expanded the city’s employment base by adding thousands of construction and service industry jobs.
But the presence of a behemoth like Amazon, and both the positive and negative impacts it has unleashed on its home city, can’t be measured simply by looking at a single company’s numbers in isolation. Amazon’s wake has exerted a powerful force that has brought other tech titans to the city looking to recruit from an abundant supply of young knowledge workers.
As Paul Roberts wrote in Politico, “This self-feeding dynamic, known as ‘agglomeration,’ has been a huge force in Seattle. In the past seven years alone—the period of Amazon’s most explosive growth—more than 20 Fortune 500 companies have opened engineering or R&D campuses here—including Facebook, Google and Apple, tech’s three other giants, plus newcomers like Uber. The city has gained 53,000 jobs (on top of the roughly 40,000 at the Amazon headquarters)…”
While all this prosperity is music to the ears of the local Chamber of Commerce and has made Seattle the envy of many of the USA’s mayors who are competing to win Amazon’s HQ2, all is not well in the Emerald City. Locally, Seattle’s mayor and city council have faced a backlash from angry residents unhappy about the rapid rise in housing costs and resultant homelessness, increased traffic congestion, growing inequality and loss of civic identity.
Homeless in Seattle
Of all the problems exacerbated by Amazon’s rapid growth, the plight of the city’s growing homeless population has taken center stage. According to Ethan Epstein, “the homeless population skyrocketed by 44 percent between 2015 and the end of 2017, mirroring the experience of other Pacific coast cities, notably those in the Bay Area, which is also experiencing a homelessness crisis of mammoth proportions. King County, home of Seattle, now boasts the third-largest homeless population in the country.” In 2017, Seattle spent $60 million on aid for the city’s homeless (up from $39 million in 2013), but the problem is still growing.
To be fair, Seattle has struggled to meet the needs of a large homeless population for decades. In the late 1980s and ‘90s, similar tech booms at area companies such as Microsoft unleashed some of the same problems Seattle is currently grappling with.
However, what sets the effects of Amazon’s rapid growth apart was Bezos’ decision to locate the company’s home and up to 50,000 employees in the center of Seattle rather than within a more controlled suburban office environment as Microsoft had done. The radical makeover of Seattle’s downtown core–where much of the city’s low-income housing was located–has displaced many and sent rents ever higher as old (cheaper) units have been replaced by luxury condos and apartments catering to the new knowledge workers and their six-figure salaries.
In response to this crisis, the Seattle City Council voted last week to levy a head tax on all companies in the city who generate over $20 million annually. This controversial measure, which has been denounced by Amazon, Starbucks and others, will charge large employers $275 per employee per year. City leaders hope to raise an additional $45-$49 million per year from the levy to build more affordable housing and offer increased services to the homeless community.
Prosperity vs Livability
While I applaud Bezos’s decision to locate Amazon’s headquarters in the heart of an urban area in order to draw the kind of forward-thinking millennials he needs for the company to prosper as well as his desire to avoid suburban sprawl and contribute less to America’s car culture, for better or worse, Seattle has been forever changed.
When I moved to Seattle in 1988, the city was a mix of modern and tragically hip, a fertile breeding ground for artists and musicians and a favored location for Hollywood films such as “Sleepless in Seattle.” This creative vibe inspired the Grunge Music scene with local bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam performing at the Crocodile Cafe and other cutting-edge venues. My friends talked less about money and the struggle to keep up with their neighbors wasn’t ever present (thanks Alexa!). In short, people were able to live on less and had more free time to enjoy the lively local arts scene and marvelous outdoor opportunities Seattle’s location afforded.
In the 1990s, I witnessed the beginnings of the gentrification that has now wiped out much of what I viewed as being unique and interesting about Seattle. I’ve also noted a less friendly atmosphere when interacting with workers in businesses all around the city. I suspect this stems from the personal stress that comes from trying to survive on low wage jobs in a city where costs are constantly rising.
However, on a positive note, new and enlarged museums have sprung up as more wealthy benefactors are created by the generous stock options offered at many tech companies. In addition, the city’s historically left-leaning political views have been preserved by a generation of tolerant, well-educated millennials drawn to Seattle by job opportunities.
Further, the blight of asphalt parking lots in much of Seattle’s north of downtown district have been replaced by offices, apartment blocks, restaurants and the full range of services any vibrant neighborhood depends on. Surely, Seattle’s downtown is thriving economically as evidenced by buzzing street activity. Considering the great number of mid-size American cities which are still struggling to energize downtown districts which are only populated from 9-5 on work days, Seattle holds an envious position.
In 2018, Seattle appears to be a prime example of both the blessings and curses that go hand in hand with sudden prosperity and over-development.
I’m a huge fan of walkable cities where density makes mass transit feasible and people from a variety of socioeconomic groups are encouraged to interact with each other. I wish I could say I’m hopeful that Seattle’s new downtown tech district will provide such a valuable link and bring various groups in the city together to share in the prosperity, but at this point I don’t see that happening.
Perhaps I’d be more impressed if Amazon decided to add much-needed green space to the city center by turning one of it’s expensive city blocks into a park rather than simply putting up more light-blocking office towers. Such a gesture of good will might go a long way toward soothing some of the intense negative feelings many Seattleites have for the company.
Good night Alexa, and please, no bedtime stories this evening.