Walking toward the burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood along Westlake Avenue from downtown Seattle takes me across a mysteriously empty corner of the city, which is punctuated by parking lots, auto shops, an old motel, a few small cafes and an art gallery. On my right there is a small toy store where everything is wooden and handcrafted; on the left there is a sex shop and strip club. Only a few blocks back I traversed the retail corridor of downtown, near the flagship Nordstrom and the Pacific Place Mall – home to Barney’s New York, Barnes and Noble, Tiffany, Williams Sonoma, and an eleven-screen AMC multiplex, among other things – before crossing the “Times Square of Seattle,” which is defined by the cockeyed intersection of four streets that correspond to the property boundaries of early settlers’ claims. The landscape of this neighborhood – the Denny Triangle – is what Neil Smith would call “devalorized”: that is, it is marked by land uses that do not command much ground rent. However, it’s not a slum by any means; rather, it is an eerie concrete wasteland with pockets of various uses – Enterprise Rent-a-car has an outpost on my right – that is slowly being colonized by downtown to the South with residential and office construction. To my left, on the edge of the Toyota dealership lot, I see a sign informing the public of a proposed construction project:
DPD is conducting an environmental review of the following project: To construct one 38 story building and one 8 story building with 1,131,000 sq. ft. of administrative office with ground floor retail as part of a planned community development…Below grade parking for 1,131 vehicles to be provided. All existing structures to be demolished…
This sign refers to one of three parcels that will house the new corporate headquarters for Amazon.com, and reflects a new movement of capital into the Denny Triangle, but this time it’s coming from in front me – from South Lake Union – where Amazon’s operations already occupy eleven office buildings, rather than from downtown behind me. I can easily see Denny Way – the border between the two neighborhoods – from here and the number of pedestrians is notably increasing. Standing like a sentry on the right is 2200 Westlake, a three-tower mixed-use building with a Whole Foods at its base and restaurants, a hotel, and condominium units above. On the left is 2201 Westlake, which is home to PATH – a global health NGO – and the LEED–certified Enso condos on the upper stories, and Einstein Brothers bagels and the West Elm furniture store at ground level. In front of the little plaza where workers smoke cigarettes, send text messages and drink coffee is a sign showing what the corner looked like a decade ago and reading “See what happens when we work together.” There is a website address on the sign where many more similar images are available, for the South Lake Union neighborhood has indeed undergone – and continues to undergo – an incredible transformation.
I’m visiting South Lake Union (SLU) this afternoon to attend a panel entitled “Innovation in the Arts” at the annual Push Arts new media festival. As I cross traffic-clogged Denny Way into SLU proper, I pass another landmark building: the SLU Discovery Center. It is a single-story modular steel and glass building with a banner encouraging passersby to “Rethink Urban” hanging on its side. Inside, one can see a video produced by Vulcan Real Estate – the primary force behind the redevelopment of SLU and the real estate arm of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s investment holdings company, Vulcan, Inc. – as well as a scale model of the neighborhood, and a bookshelf filled with well-known books like Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, but also lesser known volumes like Networking is a Contact Sport, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be, and The Best Places to Kiss in Northwest, as well as a few slim primers on the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and Northwest cuisine and wine.
Across Westlake Avenue – the primary arterial bisecting SLU and the street along which the South Lake Union Streetcar carries passengers from the downtown terminus, through the neighborhood, and out to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on the banks of Lake Union – stands Rollin Street Flats, a neo-modernist residential building which kind of resembles an oversized mid-century Eastern Bloc housing development. Its color palette is undoubtedly warm and inviting though: dark red brick and orange paneling accompany glass walls and balconies on the upper levels. At the base I spy a wide selection of furniture at Ligne Roset – which, per their website “is synonymous with modern luxury and invites consumers to revel in a contemporary, design-forward lifestyle” – and an overfilled room at The Bar Method, an exercise studio whose proprietary workout
creates a uniquely lean, firm, sculpted body by combining the muscle-shaping principles of isometrics, the body-elongating practice of dance conditioning, the science of physical therapy and the intense pace of interval training into a powerful exercise format that quickly and safely reshapes and elongates muscles.
The density of well-toned and beautiful people in the studio greatly outweighs the density of business-casual clad pedestrians – most of whom wear electronic key cards on lanyards that opens doors at Amazon and currently flutter in the wind – who are walking down the sidewalk. I move along with the workers returning from late lunches and take note of a construction site that has replaced a modest single story brick building that I know formerly housed a small video rental store. Glancing to the right I notice another construction site behind Rollin Street flats. The last time I walked through here – maybe a month ago – there was an old warehouse still standing on this lot. I glance further into the distance and smile at the Bunge Foods warehouse and wonder what its fate will be.
Over the next few blocks I pass a wide variety of office and labs buildings – Seattle Bio-Med, Group Health Cooperative – new restaurants and cafes, as well as another – Flying Fish – that has relocated to SLU from the adjacent Belltown neighborhood, Capelli’s Gentleman’s Barber, a handful of banks and credit unions, a Tesla high performance electric sports car service facility, the nicest Goodwill outlet I’ve ever seen, and Tommy Bahamas’ corporate offices. Finally I arrive at the venue where the arts panel will take place and I see my companion for the evening standing by the front door and looking at a poster about the event. “This place is fucking weird,” she says as we walk into the lobby.