South Lake Union abounds with construction and other activity as the neighborhood continues to expand and improve. Photo by Eric Mandel
South Lake Union abounds with construction and other activity as the neighborhood continues to expand and improve. Photo by Eric Mandel

DJ Woolsey enjoys driving from Wallingford to drop his girlfriend off at work in South Lake Union (SLU). It means he can shoot hoops on the blacktop basketball court surrounded by a chain-link fence and glassy retail space. It’s nice that the court is rarely crowded, but he really likes how the high-rise buildings block the sun from his eyes.

A few blocks east, Mike McQuaid leaves Starbucks and waits for a walk sign with a horde of people: Some will venture to the streetcar; others will head back to work at Amazon or UW Medicine.

It’s a weekday afternoon, and all McQuaid can do is marvel at the change from what, just 15 years ago, was business purgatory. Back then, the main question city officials asked was, “What to do with South Lake Union?” Now, McQuaid hopes South Lake Union’s solutions to preserving a way of life while also creating opportunities for success can be a model for the rest of the city.

“To me, that’s everything a person could want in a city,” said McQuaid, president of the South Lake Union Community Council. “The question is how do we make it work?”


Incentive zoning changes

SLU is the tech-hubbiest area in one of the country’s fastest-growing tech cities. It’s keeping pace with the tremendous growth estimates for an additional 12,000 households and 22,000 jobs, thanks in part to the Seattle City Council’s incentive zoning changes in SLU in May 2013 that increased the development capacity of the neighborhood to accommodate projected future job growth and housing demands, while also adding affordable housing. 

The city’s public transportation system will also soon get another boost from Amazon, which is funding an additional streetcar on the existing line to cut commute time even further. The streetcar system is an example of the grand experiments forged in SLU and being replicated citywide — with the First Hill Streetcar line following suit, expected to start running this summer from the International District to Capitol Hill.

SLU’s growth famously stems from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who’s Vulcan Real Estate Co. has developed 24 buildings that count for more than 5 million square feet of office, life sciences, residential and mixed-use projects since 2004.

The city has readily joined in with the private funding, even if anecdotal evidence is more readily available than statistical.

Bryan Stevens, with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the department doesn’t track the number of buildings that go up in SLU versus the rest of the city and that sifting through permits for new construction would be a tricky venture.

The numbers show that from January of 2011 to February 2015, 25 projects have been approved and/or built in SLU. Another 42 are in the early planning stages or are under review for permits from the city. The city’s developments in progress website shows the area between Mercer Street, state Route 99, Denny Way and Interstate 5 as having 36 projects; by comparison, there are 26 construction projects in all of Ballard.

The growth led to Seattle City Light’s Denny Substation project, located near Denny Way and Stewart Street, which is the city’s first substation project done in more than 30 years. The project’s budget is $173.6 million, according to City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen.

Thomsen said SLU was picked as the location because of the “rather intense energy use” in the area and that it’s geographically positioned to “help us create redundant paths of electricity delivery throughout our system.”


‘Expansion of economy’

Money allocation isn’t as cut-and-dry as dollars placed in a bucket and equally split among the neighborhoods. What one area needs and wants in the short and long term is different than what another needs and wants.

Mayor Ed Murray’s press secretary, Jason Kelly, did not specifically answer questions about how money is allocated among neighborhoods or whether SLU is a model for the rest of the city, but he said growth in SLU is a result of the “dramatic expansion of our local economy.” He said Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs for the first time in a century and that the city is reworking its Comprehensive Plan with a “renewed focus on equity to adequately plan for an additional 120,000 additional residents in the next 20 years.

“As the city grows, we must be sure to develop open space, transit and other infrastructure that help denser communities function well,” he wrote. “The transit and parks ballot measures adopted last year will allow for new investments that will serve the entire city.”

While city leaders see major benefits in SLU investing, not everyone is as thrilled. John Fox, a member of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and a columnist for Pacific Publishing Co., has called out city leaders on multiple occasions for continued bailouts in funding of the South Lake Union Streetcar, despite ridership and revenue numbers that consistently fall short of expectations.

Fox calls SLU development “an enormous cost to taxpayers” and a “waste” put into one neighborhood that represents such a little portion of the city.

Fox said infrastructure projects over the last decade, in conjunction with the city’s 2015-20 Capitol Improvement Project, will result in more than $1 billion being poured into the neighborhood. He said there are declining job numbers across the board, save for the roughly 33,000 brought by Amazon, which he said are unrelated to the taxpayer dollars that went into SLU the decade before.

“The return that we have gotten falls far short of offsetting the enormous expense that we’ve poured there in public dollars,” he said.

Fox called the development “a classic example of urban land grab and public policy gone awry,” with one corporate influence (Vulcan) influencing public policy. Vulcan declined to comment for this story.

Fox believes SLU receives an inordinate amount of attention at the expense of basic needs, such as bridge and sidewalk repairs, in other neighborhoods. That includes the $300 million spent to transform the Mercer Street corridor. He added that the character of the neighborhood has been “irrevocably altered.

“The physically, socially diverse neighborhood has turned into an upscale, suburban office park with uniformly built office buildings, Soviet-style,” he said. “The net effect is negative.”


‘Not a neighborhood’

Then there is Jamal Ginsberg, who moved to South Lake Union two years ago but works in West Seattle. He spent a Monday afternoon going through basketball drills with his daughter, Sadie. 

He said he loves the growth in SLU but sees it primarily as “cement and work” — that means if you’re not working in SLU, you’re at one of the coffee shops or sitting at a computer in your apartment.

“If you want to have fun, you’re going to different neighborhood,” he said.

Ginsberg said he has no desire to see the other neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Ballard and Madison Park replicate what has been done in South Lake Union: “This is not what you’d like to see your city be, community-wise. This is not a neighborhood. This is business.”

Mike O’Brien, the current chair of the Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, said he views SLU’s development as a benefit, to the city at-large. He doesn’t see the private development as benefitting surrounding neighborhoods, including Ballard and Capitol Hill. But he understands those who question the significant public investment into the neighborhood and whether that money be better spent elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s totally fungible dollar-for-dollar,” he said. “It’s possible some are leveraging federal dollars that couldn’t happen elsewhere. It’s hard to track all the dollars, but I’d say it has had a net positive effect on the whole.”

Queen Anne Community council president Ellen Monrad agrees that SLU is “obviously a net gain to Seattle,” even if she feels it’s had a neutral impact on Queen Anne. On one hand, the city spent $300 million renovating the Mercer Street corridor, which wouldn’t have happened without SLU’s private investments, the result of which is ultimately better for Queen Anne. Then there’s the rent increases in Queen Anne attributed to SLU’s growth and the additional traffic problems that come with it.

Monrad said SLU receives preferential treatment from city leaders, while Queen Anne and Magnolia are largely forgotten. But she doesn’t believe funding that went toward SLU development would have come Queen Anne or Magnolia’s way.

“I don’t blame them, particularly on South Lake Union,” she said. “Queen Anne and Magnolia are on the bottom of everybody’s list. We’re perceived as well-to-do neighborhoods that don’t need city services…. I think it’s just a perception of who and what Queen Anne and Magnolia are.”


‘It has to start somewhere’

McQuaid, a Seattle native with generations of ties to the city, knows that each neighborhood has its own characteristics, histories and perspectives. But he also sees a common thread of pushing for a Seattle and Northwest way of life. That means additional jobs, new restaurants and more customers for longstanding community businesses.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter thing,” he said. “What happens here does not necessarily apply to other areas of the city or downtown. It’s up to us as community leaders — be it at the grassroots level, where we are with the community council, or the mayor’s office — to look at that and say this is a great opportunity for our city and the people who live here. Now, how do we keep up with it? And not just keep up but stay ahead and make this an extraordinary experience.”

McQuaid said Seattle’s is currently undergoing “arguably the most significant urban revitalization in America today.” That means popularity and prestige — a spotlight on everything everybody is doing in Seattle. McQuaid sees the job of civic leaders as finding ways to preserve a way of life but create opportunities for success. 

He said he’s pleased that South Lake Union can be Seattle’s public laboratory for what works and what doesn’t: “It does have to start somewhere. And we’re very, very fortunate that this community, being South Lake Union, can demonstrate that it works.”

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