Until last week, Seattle’s growth looked endless and predictable. Amazon was hiring at a fierce pace, and planners were struggling with housing and transit needs that are a consequence of all the new jobs.
But with Amazon’s announcement that it will build a second headquarters elsewhere, bets about the future of Seattle’s growth are off.
Consider how quickly we went from bust to boom to uncertainty. It wasn’t long ago that the Whole Foods at Westlake Avenue and Denny Way was the grocery store of the edge of nowhere.
In recession-era Seattle, it stood lonely in a desolate street-scape. The housing boom of pre-2008 had ended in a global credit crisis. Construction firms were intent on survival. They told city planners that Seattle’s future growth would be slow and steady – but no more.
That’s not what happened. Jobs, construction and life exploded into being on the doorstep of that grocery store. It happened fast, and from the planners’ point of view, too fast.
“We did not expect the rapid growth of Amazon so quickly,” said Jim Holmes of Seattle’s planning department.
Holmes was working on South Lake Union from 2008 to 2013, as Amazon was taking over the neighborhood. Now he goes to the Whole Foods and marvels.
“Last time I was there eating lunch there were some people tap-dancing and they had their hat out,” he said in an interview. “It was just a nice, exciting place to be. And that place used to be nothing.”
Planners expected 18,000 workers in South Lake Union. They got 40,000 so far and that was from Amazon alone. Other tech companies positioned themselves here, creating a vast new market for tech talent to the city.
When Holmes looks back, he sees one moment that signposted the future.
“I remember hearing, probably 2011, 2012-ish, that they were going to be hiring 1,900 new jobs. And that seemed like — that was in the Great Recession — and that was really interesting. That probably should have been my first clue that Amazon was on a different trajectory.”
Amazon's trajectory was so large it took in the whole region. We feel it everywhere, on the roads and in our homes.
There is a widening gap between the number of new people and places for them to live. That gap stands at an estimated 11,000 people in Seattle alone, according to Census housing and population data.
That's the equivalent of four Bainbridge Island ferries and a Whidbey Island ferry full of people who need places to live.
The housing gap also extends deep into King and south Snohomish counties, triggering fierce competition in rental and resale housing markets and a soaring cost of living.
“If we had grown at a steady pace, perhaps we could have seen these problems sooner and reacted sooner,” said Diane Sugimura, who was head of Seattle’s planning and development department until she retired last year.
The city has been engaged in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort to build new affordable housing, a process known as HALA. Sugimura says the going is too slow.
“I was hoping it would be put in place faster,” she said in an interview. She says she understands why it hasn’t: Changing regulations means you have to hold community discussions. Those take time.
“I totally get that,” she said. “It’s just that we need the housing now.”
And because we lack sufficient housing for the people who have already moved here, Sugimura says Amazon’s plan to grow somewhere else will not take rents and prices down soon.
“I think it’s still going to be awhile because there are so few houses for sale. And there’s still a gap in terms of those housing units, and my guess is developers will probably try to get that next project done before things start slowing down. If they do. “
It's that “if” that has entered the room, where before it wasn’t there.
A few weeks ago, regional planners were talking about the possibility that Seattle would grow from a city of 700,000 to a million.
Josh Brown is executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council:
“The city’s comprehensive plan calls for about 800,000 residents,” Brown observed before the Amazon announcement. “But at the pace of growth we are looking at, perhaps the city of Seattle should be thinking about more like a million.”
After the announcement, Brown pointed out he was right about Amazon’s capacity to create jobs that would lead to more population growth.
But the company’s stated intention to place that growth outside Seattle had altered the discussion:
“Everett and Tacoma,” he said in a more recent interview. “Both of those communities are planning for 80,000 or more” and could handle the growth. However, space is not the only criterion. Another is solid transit connections, and that is a major problem for the Puget Sound Region.
And with the news that Seattle will share Amazon with a rival, recriminations have started: In addition to the inadequacy of the light rail system, our business climate isn't friendly enough. There is jubilation at the prospect that someday maybe our housing markets will re-balance.
And there is apprehension:
Is there a price to pay for losing much of Amazon's future growth, just as there was already a price for having it here in the first place?