Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Public HealthSeattleTechUrban Planning

Did Cities Ever Need Tech, Anyway? Seattle vs. the Post-COVID Economy

A glitzy, modern tower rises elegantly above a thoughtfully designed pollinator-friendly greenbelt, planted entirely with native species. Low-emissions public transit criss-crosses a thriving downtown core packed with boutique bakeries, high-end hotels, dealers of bespoke, reclaimed wood furniture, mom-and-pop Thai restaurants, and chic, yet understated speakeasies. Nestled between Puget Sound and the rugged Cascade range, with a tech-forward economy and a veritable cornucopia of natural riches, Seattle seems half a blink away from paradise. Indeed, the city has much to offer – there’s a reason the population has grown 22% in less than a decade, after all.

Crossing Lake Washington toward Seattle on Interstate 90.

That growth has fundamentally altered not just Seattle, but indeed the entire state of Washington. Once a sleepy gem of an overgrown fishing and mining port, it’s now a bustling tech hub, with more financial and political clout than would have been plausibly imaginable just ten years ago. And sleeping in the shadow of that glitzy tower, foraging in the alley behind that trendy kombucha cocktail bar, or riding laps on that low-emissions bus for hours just to stay out of the rain, there’s an entirely different story to be told about life in a tech star boom town

Tableau Software’s headquarters in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood features glassy curtain walls and wildgrass landscaping. July 2019 (N. Zorach).
New residential construction in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, July 2019 (N. Zorach).

The city’s geography naturally constrains its ability to expand outward; bounded by Lakes Union and Washington to the east and Puget Sound to the west, Seattle is a hilly town that stretches primarily north to south along the I-5 corridor. As any local knows, the tradeoff is living space against commute time; square footage in the city is limited and expensive, but equally limited road capacity with numerous bottlenecks guarantees protracted bumper-to-bumper traffic for suburban commuters. With rising tech salaries, rent and cost of living has skyrocketed, creating a housing – or, perhaps more accurately, a lack of housing – crisis.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct (1949-2019) was a major, elevated arterial route on Seattle’s waterfront. After suffering damage in a 2001 earthquake, inspections found that a serious earthquake could completely destroy the highway. The highway is being replaced with an underground tunnel, and plans for the surface portion include a revamped waterfront and a community green space. July 2019 (photo by N. Zorach).

This homelessness emergency is compounded because the city’s mild climate and socially progressive policies make it an attractive destination for those in need of social services. Unfortunately, coincident with rising income inequality and homelessness, Seattle has also experienced a dramatically rising crime rate. Once among the safest cities in America, it’s now far from it, boasting among the highest property crime rates in the country.

IMMEDIATE EFFECTS FROM COVID

Of course, all of this receded into the background over the past several months, as Americans (Seattleites included) found themselves suddenly preoccupied with a public health emergency that absolutely could not wait, and that was also simultaneously intertwined with so many of the city’s extant and chronic problems. With that viral wolf at the door, suddenly overnight the eternal and infamous Seattle traffic disappeared. Streets were quiet and eerie; homeless encampments quietly, visibly expanded. Businesses shuttered. Panhandlers vanished. In the twitch of a whisker, it appears most of Seattle’s population – indeed, mostly the ones who represent the largest drivers of local inequality – never needed to be there in the first place. At least, that’s how it seems for the moment, on the surface – but with unemployment steadily rising, that won’t last long. That $1,200 from the feds won’t go too far in this town, either, with the average rent for an apartment running a cool $2,169 a month.

TAX BASES AND REAL ESTATE BUBBLES

Is work-from-home a long-term sustainable shift for businesses? And if it is, what do we do with the fact that Amazon, Microsoft, and their ilk have become undeniable economic cornerstones in the region? The large tax bases and consumer spending from their employees fuel everything from real estate to hospitality, dining, and childcare. Their high salaries drive up living costs, but they also create many of the jobs others rely on in retail, entertainment, and other service roles. Though already struggling to make ends meet, and often being gradually pushed out as the city gentrifies, what will those citizens do if their jobs vanish for good? What will become of all that brand-new high-rise office space? How do cities dependent on jobs so readily distanced continue to thrive in an era of dramatic distancing? And what of all those shiny new condominiums and apartments, when nobody wants to share an elevator or doorknobs anymore?

CITIES: SURVIVING, BUT CHANGING 

No, cities aren’t dead. But what are we to make of all this? Seattle had plenty of problems prior to the pandemic, but that’s not news. Perhaps the question now, more than what was wrong already, becomes instead how does COVID-19 change the game? What are the specific challenges a newly tech-centric city faces during the outbreak of a novel, deadly, and highly contagious disease? What advantages does it have, when that disease demands rapid adaptation to a new reality? And what are the ripple effects, throughout the economic ecosystem, if the biggest employers in town (indeed, some have hinted at the place verging on being a “company town” of sorts) evaporate overnight? COVID-19 is an undeniable tragedy and horror. It has also revealed that our capacity for massive transformation is greater than we think.

Can we find meaning in the ashes, and build a better new normal from the chaos and loss of COVID? If so, how, and what does that look like? 

We’ll be breaking it down into a five-part series. Check back next week as we discuss the outlook for new and recent Seattle construction, particularly offices and communal living spaces in a COVID-19 world.

Seattle native Amanda K. Spiegel is a writer and EMT based in Seattle.

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