Fast Times and Tall Tales from Amazonia

South Lake Union transformed: welcome change or another stab at Seattle’s soul? By Ellis E. Conklin

On a flawless late-April afternoon, Amos Rollman is busy as usual in the Cascade Playfield pea patch, watering and tending to the vegetables. Much of the crop will go to the nearby food bank at Immanuel Lutheran Church, a historic landmark built in 1907, where these days the homeless and other displaced desperados come for a meal, shower, or cheap clothes wash. “This is completely organic. We do bio-intensive agriculture here,” boasts Rollman, the pea patch’s Gunga Din.

Dressed in brown shorts and a paint-stained purple T-shirt, Rollman points out his permaculture bed, brimming bright with irises and roses, blueberry bushes and daffodils. A sparrow splashes down in a bird bath, and the happy gardener, a longtime park volunteer, bids his feathered friend hello. Stroking his reddish-brown beard with rutty hands, he raves, “People from all over come here to see this. You are now in the heart of the neighborhood.

“So you see, not everything around here is about Amazon.”

For 20 years Rollman has called Cascade home, and as he can attest, the times they are a-changin’ in this scruffy slice of South Lake Union as billionaires and bureaucrats see their grand designs take flight: a virtually brand new city where the architecture reaches skyward and the denizens write code.

But like a patient gardener, the South Lake Union of old perseveres through the most jarring transformations, from the pea patch to the petty criminals—much to the alarm, Rollman says, of the newly arrived “badge people.”

“A lot of them, you know, have never seen anything like this. Drug dealers, junkies, a prostitute sometimes, and stuff like that. Like we got this one guy Maurice, he’s somewhere over there by the Mirabella. He’ll be out there selling meth, mostly, selling out of that old beat-up U-Haul that he parks near the old Seattle Times building. Go check him out.”

As a float plane throttles down upon the blue waters of Lake Union, Rollman goes on, “See that cedar tree over there? I’ve seen needles buried there. One day I counted them—22 of them there were. When the weather heats up, we’ll be seeing the homeless encampments here. That’s why the badge people always travel in packs. They’re afraid of all of this. A lot of them aren’t used to—”

Before Rollman can complete his sentence, a giant of a man in his 30s with dark, wild eyes suddenly appears in the park and commences to howl like a banshee. He must be 6-foot-8 if he’s an inch, and skinny as a scarecrow. He howls again, a piercing jungle cry. “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s harmless, for the most part,” says Rollman. “We call him Sasquatch. When the newcomers see him, they just stare down at their blue screens and keep on walking.”

South Lake Union’s massive reformation dates back to the first day of winter 2007, when Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, announced plans to move its headquarters, then scattered in five buildings in and around downtown, to the once-moribund neighborhood. Enticed by cheaper land and plenty of languishing space, Jeff Bezos agreed to lease up to 1.6 million square feet and build nearly a dozen buildings, many of them to be constructed by Paul Allen’s development arm Vulcan.

By late 2010, some 6,000 employees from Amazon alone had put down roots in South Lake Union—and thousands more are on the way. In late 2012, Amazon announced it would pay Vulcan nearly $1.6 billion to purchase the 11-building campus.

It was the convergence of two powerful titans and their collaboration with then-Mayor Greg Nickels and the city’s political establishment—seduced by a mistress called new property-tax revenues—that gave rise to one of the biggest urban-renewal projects the city has ever witnessed. (Since 2004, the economic activity associated with the South Lake Union boom has brought the city an average of $5 million per year in additional tax revenues.)

And like a child’s newest toy, no neighborhood in Seattle recently has received more attention, for good or for bad.

For many here, the so-called “upzone” of South Lake Union is a welcome change, a much-needed, long-overdue metamorphosis. Others, though, unwilling to embrace high-density spaces as some kind of urban nirvana, view the furious-paced development as the vanquishing of yet another neighborhood, rich in history and character, by the smack of a soulless wrecking ball. Some residents worry that the community will surrender to bland urban cheeriness via the fancy eateries on Terry Avenue: the happy-hour tinkle of martini glasses at Flying Fish, the nibbling of piping-hot vegetable pakoras at Shanik, or brisk games of darts at the Braveheart Tavern.

“In a way, it really is old Seattle versus new Seattle,” says Chris Moore, field director for Washington Trust for Historical Preservation. “We saw it in Ballard and in Belltown, and now it has come to South Lake Union . . . Is it the end of the world? No. But to wipe South Lake Union clear simply for the sake of density, what have you lost?”

Since that winter of 2007, construction has ground ceaselessly in the neighborhood. Notices of proposed land use signs are more plentiful than Kim Jong Il banners in North Korea. The steady din of jackhammers, beeping backhoes, cement mixers, and swinging cranes the size of dinosaurs are the sounds of big-footed Amazon, the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson, and the Gates Foundation.

Much of the hard labor is being carried out by Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate, which, with other developers, is resculpting a landscape once devoted to print shops, auto dealerships, huge commercial laundries that figured prominently in the city’s labor movement, and shot-and-a-beer dive bars with peanut shells on the floor.

“There is a coldness about it now,” says Christine Lea, a fiery, blue-eyed activist and outspoken member of the Cascade Neighborhood Council. “The authentic, organic character of the neighborhood that is vital and robust is being compromised, reduced, and made vulnerable by all of this activity. It’s like a war zone out there.”

Or as Malaika Lafferty, who moved to the neighborhood 16 years ago and works as a teacher at the Northwest Center Child Development Program, puts it, “What the developers are doing is turning this into a boring, sterile, homogenous, rich ghetto. We need to hold on to the old Cascade that has more to do with the heart than the wallet. When all you are doing is constantly putting up high-density apartments, you lose everything that makes your city unique.”

Nostalgia aside, for many business owners and residents old and new, the incursion has brought its share of headaches and lingering suspicions of the new working class. Rollman says tech workers moving here to be closer to work are rude, having let their dogs poop on his vegetable plants among other slights.

Still, the prevailing attitude seems to be: This is a hell of a lot better than what it used to be.

“What was lost in this neighborhood was long lost, and I believe this is going to become a vital part of Seattle,” says Tom Douglas, who two years ago opened Cuoco, a popular northern-Italian restaurant, here.

Erin Maher—owner of the Row House, a cozy Republican Street joint featuring comfort food, including the best grilled cheese sandwich this side of the Mississippi—is more forward. “This neighborhood was defunct five years ago,” she says. “Something needed to be done. I am here for the grace of God, Buddha, and Paul Allen.”

Even Rollman has a grudging admiration for the new regime. “They are starting to assimilate. The neighborhood really is improving because of all of this.”

Cascade is the eastern portion of the South Lake Union neighborhood, which is bounded by Lake Union, I-5, Denny Way, and Dexter Avenue. One of Seattle’s oldest enclaves and its geographic center, it had earned a reputation—at least before the Badge People arrived—as a place with a hushed, emptied feeling, a nondescript, derelict-ridden area that one drove through to get somewhere else.

For decades, no one really knew quite what to make of South Lake Union, or what to do with it. Then, early in the 1990s, an intriguing idea made this doddering colony front-page news. It was the brainchild of Seattle architect Fred Bassetti and Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger, who presented a fanciful proposal to create a vast park, a 61-acre civic lawn running from downtown Seattle to Lake Union. The Seattle Commons, it would be called: grassy parkland framed by high-tech labs, upscale restaurants and street-level retail shops with opulent condos on top.

“What I wanted was to create something like the Boston Commons or Central Park,” recounts the 79-year-old Hinterberger, long retired from The Times.

Paul Allen loaned the Commons campaign $20 million to buy key properties before land values soared within the proposed park’s boundaries. But to make the park work, the city needed a $111 million property-tax levy to fund its development and construction, and there it faltered.

“The whole project was given a label as being elitist, that it would be a playground for the rich, which of course is the opposite of what I intended,” Hinterberger recalls.

Voters rejected the levy twice in 1995 and 1996, and the land already purchased reverted to Allen. In other words, by trying to save South Lake Union from the elites, voters ensured that would be its destiny.

“The whole Commons thing is ironic, isn’t it?” muses UW history professor Margaret O’Mara, who recently assigned her urban-history students to visit, closely observe, and create a micro-history of South Lake Union. “It was turned down in part because of the feeling that it would simply enrich Paul Allen, but now those properties that he reclaimed, and that he sat on all these years, [are] going to be an even greater cash cow.”

A walking tour of South Lake Union is a must for anyone who wonders just how much of Seattle’s past has been or may be bulldozed away as the last vestiges of a once-blue-collar neighborhood yield to explosive new development. Everywhere one looks is “a little pastiche of what once was,” as Washington Trust’s Moore puts it. The neighborhood is steeped in a maze of varying architectural styles: row houses from the early 1900s; Deco and Brutalist structures; mid-century commercial buildings, like the old brick Supply Laundry and Troy Laundry buildings of the 1920s; the ornate St. Spiridon Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which hosted an estimated 6,000 Russian emigrants who poured into South Lake Union during the Russian Revolution; the Grandview Apartments, one of Cascade’s first apartment buildings.

Lea, though not pleased with the overall plans to make the neighborhood denser, says Vulcan has been “very sensitive to historical preservation, and we’ve built a good relationship with them. They know that Cascade is a brand.”

But some degree of loss in inevitable.

Standing near the old Boren Investment Company Warehouse at 334 Boren Ave.—one of South Lake Union’s 14 city landmarks (another 34 structures are considered landmark-eligible)—Moore says developers plan to keep the brick façade, which he applauds. “But look inside. We also consider that part of the historic character of the building.”

Moore realizes that not everything old should necessarily be preserved and given landmark status. “But we do think that just keeping the brick façade is not enough as far as preserving the history of this neighborhood.”

On May 6, after eight years of planning and dozens of public hearings, the Seattle City Council gave its final blessing, in a unanimous 9-0 vote, to a plan to radically reshape the 340 acres between Lake Union and Denny Way, about one-third of it owned by Vulcan. As part of the city’s 2004 Comprehensive Plan, this massive parcel of land was designated an “urban center.” Before long, three 400-foot residential towers will crowd the sky along Denny. Two dozen 24-story towers will rise along Fairview and Dexter, and three 160-foot complexes will sprout like steel beanstalks on Mercer—adding to the already monstrous Mercer Mess.

Over the next 20 years, says city planner Jim Holmes, 12,000 new living spaces will be added to the neighborhood, plus some 22,000 jobs. “It’s the most substantial level of growth of any neighborhood in Seattle,” he says.

Or, as councilmember Jean Godden, whose husband worked in South Lake Union writing advertisements during the Mad Men 1960s, marvels, “This will be one of the most startling developments this city has ever seen.”

Retired UW professor Robert Morrill, a nationally renowned demographer, says it was inevitable that our notion of “downtown,” which began at Pioneer Square, would steadily migrate northward. “It was inescapable, but if you are going to have density, it might as well be near the center of the city, which puts less pressure on outlying areas,” he says. “There’s no doubt that when you have gentrification, some businesses will not survive. But you can’t tell the tide not to come in.”

As architect David Yuan said in 2007 when Amazon announced plans to move to the neighborhood: “South Lake Union is now a legitimate business address.”

The terms locals employ for the new breed of worker bees who’ve buzzed into Amazonia, as many have come to refer to South Lake Union’s unrelenting facelift, are as varied as the fruits and vegetables that Amos Rollman lovingly nurtures. Along with Badge People, the Nerd Herd is popular at the moment—that, and the more derisive Am-Holes. And for those not partial to Amazonia, Allen Town or Vulcan Land works just fine to convey the feeling of culture clash and nagging resentment over the invasion that has brought an estimated 6,500 new residents—almost all of them employed at Amazon, the Gates Foundation, or UW’s research facilities—to South Lake Union’s gritty environs over the past year alone.

“There’s a cloistered campus feeling here, and it fosters a campus-style behavior,” posits activist Lea, who has lived in South Lake Union for 25 years. “What it breeds is exclusivity that this is my domain and I don’t have to look out for cars, and I don’t have to interact with the community.” With a sigh, she adds, “The diversity we used to have is yielding to this monolithic high-tech feeling.”

Seattle Weekly spoke with more than a dozen Amazon employees one morning earlier this month. Almost every one said they’d joined the world’s largest online retail company within the past three months—and few wanted their last name in print. As one worker replied when asked a benign question about what she thought of the neighborhood: “We’re really not supposed to be talking with reporters.” Then, after a quick final drag on her Marlboro Light, she says, “I have a meeting. I’m really sorry.”

One Amazon copywriter did, however, agree to meet for a not-for-attribution interview. Jack, as we’ll call him, has been with the company several years, having once worked in an altogether different enterprise: in a bustling city newsroom at a newspaper that no longer exists, at least as a print product. The change has been dramatic, the transition difficult, and the employees Jack works with a very different species.

Over a coffee at Zoka inside the Amazon’s Dawson Building—where entire floors never go dark and the sign in the lobby reads “Please Do NOT Feed the Robots”—Jack unloads. “These are people who think they should be able to text and walk through an intersection and make no eye contact with anyone. The world revolves around them. This is the Nerd Herd mentality.” Jack takes a sip of his tall drip, black with no sugar, and keeps rolling. “They have very limited social skills. They see things in ones and zeroes. They’re high-functioning in some areas, but something is missing.”

Asked about the frequent observation that workers seem to move in groups, he confirms, “Yes, it’s funny, really. But they do travel in packs with their laptops and badges. You’ll see them together, but they’re always plugged in and there’s no social interaction.”

And then there’s this funny thing with the elevators. It seems Bezos, Amazonia’s ruler, thought it would be a super idea to line the elevators in the Dawson, Ruby, Arizona, and Van Vorst buildings—which have made Minor Avenue as bustling as Grand Central Station—with white drawing paper and an ample supply of markers. With Bezos’ encouragement, workers have written life-affirming slogans like “Bloom where you’re planted” or scrawled silly cartoons, jokes, and pithy quotes.

Asked about the elevator scene, a jeans-clad 20-something employee named Frank smiled as he moved through a bright, airy place called Warehouse 345, where the buffet table is as long as a cruise ship’s. Adjusting his badge—which “will be worn at or above the waist,” according to the ubiquitous Badge Use Basics instructions—Frank says quietly, “Well, I think they did that so we could express our creativity, because sometimes the work might not be as creative as we’d like. Are you going to write that?”

Dan Munro will never forget that summer day in 1974 when he met John Wayne. There he was, The Duke, big as life, filming the crime drama McQ, which featured a long, thrilling car chase which ends with McQ in his Trans-Am forcing the bad guy’s van off Harrison Street onto what is now Terry Avenue in South Lake Union.

Seated in Nollie’s Café, his Harrison Street restaurant, Munro, a happy-go-lucky 51-year-old with a shaggy white mane, revels in the memory. “It was summer. I’d just finished sixth grade, and I saw him on Republican Street near where Amazon is now. He goes, ‘How ya doing, young fella?’ I was dumbfounded. I stayed around watching him for two hours, and he noticed I was watching him, and he said, ‘Yeah, young fella, there’s a lot of waiting in the movie business.’ ”

His face full of pleasure, Munro adds, “I saw that movie at the Crest in Shoreline. I must have seen it 15 times. You know, I can still see John Wayne’s Trans-Am sitting down there on Republican.”

Munro’s father, a Scot whose grandmother nicknamed him Nollie, bought the squat two-story building that now houses the cafe in 1973 for $39,000. He proceeded to open a business, Munro Communications, that sold expensive two-way radios for police cars, logging trucks, and, as Munro puts it, “rich people who wanted a car telephone and didn’t mind spending $2,200 for it, $400 to install it, and a $75 monthly charge.”

As he looks around the cafe he opened more than three years ago, at the wooden tables and the lime-green walls on the lower level where a remote-controlled sailboat is hung, Munro reflects on his childhood in this fast-changing ’hood. “It’s always been a mess. In the ’70s, you saw doors shuttered. No one walked the streets, not at night. You couldn’t go to the park then. There really wasn’t much here. You had men in trench coats, passing a bottle in paper bags.

“Most of the people who lived here then were rough men of ill purpose. What I remember well is the smell of chlorine in the air from the laundry next door. My eyes were always watering.”

Munro has another memory of South Lake Union, a harsh one he’s never fully relinquished. “There was this man named Willard,” he begins. “He came to my father looking for work. I remember he was such a gentle man, small, with snow-white hair and blue eyes. He planted a little garden out front. It’s still there. Then one day we didn’t see him. He didn’t come to work, and we went looking for him. And we flagged down a cop, and we described him. And the cop says, ‘Oh, yeah, I know him. He’s been murdered.’ Someone bashed in his head, this gentle man, probably for the $180 Social Security check he had with him.”

Just then, lo and behold, the tall man from the park near the pea patch comes into view. “Yes, that’s right, we call him Sasquatch,” says Munro. “He wanders the street looking for money and pretends to be homeless, which he isn’t. He lives in transitional housing, which we have a lot of around here, and a lot of low-income housing. He scares people. Sometimes he’s calm, other times he gets frenetic.”

Munro continues, “We still got a lot of problems here. It’s not uncommon to find human excrement in the bushes, or a prostitute promising a blow job for five dollars. And we got some characters, all right. We have one woman who comes by singing ‘Goddamn.’ She sings the word ‘Goddamn.’ And then there’s Gary, the blind guy with this dog, a crazy Rottweiler named Pete, and he won’t use a cane, and so he’s always walking into poles and stuff. I’ve had to bandage up his head.”

As for the battalions of new workers moving in, Munro smiles broadly, looks out onto Fairview Avenue, and with a chuckle says, “I call that the River Fairview, and after you cross the River Fairview, you enter Amazonia.”

Are you OK with that? “Oh, yeah—they are a funny bunch, some of them, anyway, but I think it’s all going to work out fine. It already has.”

For nine years, Sgt. Paul Gracy has been walking and patrolling the streets of South Lake Union as the head of Seattle’s West Precinct community police team. The recent arrival of thousands of newcomers, says Gracy, has completely altered the neighborhood’s dynamic. “I get a lot more complaints now about the homeless, about people urinating, sleeping in doorways, defecating. The businesspeople come to me and say, ‘I want these people out of here,’ and I say, ‘Where do you want me to put them?’ ”

Before the Amazonian invasion, the vagrants could hide, says Gracy, a police officer for 33 years. “They could live in their cars or sleep in the park or vacant lots or whatever. They weren’t noticed as much, but now you have thousands of eyeballs seeing them. It’s not that the crime rate has gone up, because it hasn’t. It’s the civility issues more than anything, that go along with the concerns about drugs and alcohol and the ones with mental problems. It’s like up on the Sammamish—when more people move in, they start seeing more bears and coyotes encroaching. It’s not a great analogy, but you know what I mean.

“What I’m seeing now is that a number of them are scattering, moving to the other areas, to the south slope of Queen Anne and to Discovery Park and under the freeway at Eastlake—you should see what that looks like—and to Commodore Way in Magnolia. So you see, what you got here in South Lake Union now is that they can’t just go the vacant lot anymore. They can’t hide.”

Last December, The New York Times’ Edward Rothstein wrote glowingly about the reopening of the Museum of History and Industry on the banks of Lake Union. In the lengthy piece, he discussed the many “internal tensions of Seattle’s history, the almost opposing forces that tumultuously run though it” and the “currents of unpredictable change” that we’ve long endured.

Monumental transformation is deeply embedded in Seattle’s DNA. It’s an indelible part of the history of a city that literally moved mountains by washing down high hills to improve building sites; that sewed together Lake Washington and Puget Sound with locks and a canal; and that built the world’s largest man-made island at the mouth of the Duwamish River. Few cities are as man-made as Seattle.

From Yesler’s mill to the first commercial Boeing aircraft of 1919 that hangs from MOHAI’s ceiling; from a 1920s Model T reconfigured to look like an early United Parcel Service truck to galleries devoted to the medical marvels of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the technological powerhouses of Microsoft and Amazon—“Seattle is a place,” Rothstein concludes, “that seems to have been deliberately manufactured for the sake of manufacturing.”

How fitting, then, that this economic confluence’s juncture point is South Lake Union. And neither can we hide from it.

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