Danny Westneat On South Lake Union: A barely noticed boom

South Lake Union’s barely noticed boom

Years after a huge political and cultural battle over whether to convert a worn-down part of town into a sort of loft for the creative class — and after we kicked out the mayor who staked his career on it — an early verdict is in on South Lake Union. It worked. In terms of jobs, it has worked spectacularly. It’s exceeding even the optimistic claims made years ago by its most starry-eyed promoters

Seven years ago, Paul Sommers, an economist, wrote a report that became a flash point in Seattle’s ongoing battle about what kind of city it wants to be.

He’s the guy who predicted that if the city joined hands with billionaire Paul Allen to make over an entire neighborhood, the payoff could be huge: as many as 23,000 jobs by the year 2020.

“People did doubt that, and said it was too Pollyanna,” remembers Sommers, who has since retired from Seattle University. “I always felt it was solid.”

It turns out he wasn’t Pollyanna enough.

Years after a huge political and cultural battle over whether to convert a worn-down part of town into a sort of loft for the creative class — and after we kicked out the mayor who staked his career on it — an early verdict is in on South Lake Union.

It worked. In terms of jobs, it has worked spectacularly. It’s exceeding even the optimistic claims made years ago by its most starry-eyed promoters.

When does that ever happen? When do local leaders over-deliver?

By the close of 2010, the Vulcan-developed “Allentown” area was judged to be home, already, to 14,000 jobs. That’s 30 percent more than Sommers had projected by this time under his rosiest scenario.

Plus the figure of 14,000 jobs, included in a recent report from the city’s Office of Economic Development in conjunction with Sommers, is almost certainly low. It was tallied at the end of last year, so it includes only 3,200 jobs for Amazon. Amazon hasn’t said how many workers it has at its new headquarters, but based on square footage it’s believed to be at least 6,000 by now and on its way to 10,000.

So it’s possible that Sommer’s 2004 guess of 23,000 jobs is on the verge of coming true nearly nine years early. Despite the recession.

It’s all quite a change for an area that this newspaper called, in 2003, “the city’s garage, a half-ignored place where Seattle has crammed stuff for 100 years.”

Sommers says the area boomed faster for three reasons. The main one is Amazon. The company is on fire, and had it not decided to move in, Allentown would probably be home to about 10,000 jobs — about on the pace predicted. Many of Amazon’s jobs are being transferred from other parts of Seattle, so it’s not known how much net gain there is for the city.

But Sommers says South Lake Union’s boom isn’t just Amazon. Medical research and biotech are doing better than he projected.

“I didn’t foresee just how much money Bill Gates would pour into global health,” he said.

Sommers also underestimated the pace of residential development, he said.

It’s debatable how much of Allentown would have come to be anyway, without the city investing hundreds of millions in streets, sewers, power lines and a streetcar. The argument, which I made at times myself, was that this public subsidy was “billionaire welfare.” That Allen of all people didn’t need it and other parts of town did.

Sommers says we may never know the answer to that. His view is the city did only “what cities are supposed to do, which is provide infrastructure.”

The jury is also still out on whether South Lake Union is destined to be just an overpriced yuppie playground. Right now it feels more like a corporate campus, but maybe that’s because it’s so new.

Still, there’s little doubt that a huge gamble by both Allen and the city paid off in jobs. Also that the unholy alliance between the two that we fretted about for so long will probably end up being a major boon to Seattle.

Yet there’s been very little mention of this anywhere. The city held a news conference in May that got almost no coverage. I saw a story linking the jobs report recently on Publicola.net, a local news website. Other than that, it’s as if we never argued about it like the city’s future was at stake.

Nobody has talked about how former Mayor Greg Nickels, once again, had the big stuff right.

Last week there was another poll about how gloomy everyone is. The economy is listless. Business can’t be trusted. Government is broken.

Maybe part of the gloom is because we don’t notice what does work, even when it’s right in front of our eyes.

Reprinted by Permission from the Seattle Times

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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