Paul Allen

What city is this that rises like the River Nile

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I just visited Seattle for the first time in about a year, and I came away disoriented by the massive developments underway on the south end of Lake Union.

If you are not familiar with this location, Amazon.com has its world headquarters located here, without any identifiable corporate identifier telling you that you are in the center of its global and growing empire. Multi-billionaire, real-estate mogul, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen was the big bucks developer who brought his personal vision of a techie, corporate Seattle to this once under-developed area of warehouses and retail.

My alma mater, the University of Washington, itself a corporate institution that is focused on real-estate acquisition and business partnerships, has developed the UW at South Lake Union complex here to promote biotechnology and medical research, with a vision of developing profitable revenue streams. One of its new buildings is well under construction too, as seen in the photo essay.

Good, Bad, or Unknown?

I left Seattle in 2014. Since that time, construction has taken off even more intensely in this area. The success of Amazon has also fueled the city’s runaway and skyrocketing housing costs. These also have driven many lower-income and now middle-income residents outside of the city, which some say is a larger reflection of growing income inequality. That is one reason I left.

The Stranger, the city’s alternative weekly, noted in April 2017 that the tech bubble is not the only driver—out-of-state and out-of-country investors, including hedge fund dollars and Chinese-source foreign capital, are helping to fuel real-estate speculation. “We do know that 38 [percent] of purchases in Seattle real estate are done with cash, which is a red flag suggesting something is out of whack,” reports The Stranger.

However, Amazon is having an outsized role in the rapid changes underway. In its Aug. 23, 2017 piece, “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s biggest company town,” the Seattle Times described Amazon’s role in Seattle this way: “Amazon so dominates Seattle that it has as much office space as the city’s next 40 biggest employers combined. And the growth continues: Amazon’s Seattle footprint of 8.1 million square feet is expected to soar to more than 12 million square feet within five years.”

Fisher Auto Body Plant

The once state of the art Fisher Auto Body Plant in Detroit is now a crumbling ruin.

Historic Parallels? 

Seeing the multiple building cranes and stacks of bland, new office towers in the South Lake Union area reminded me of the golden age of Detroit, my home city. Motown is now the poster child for urban failure in the minds of many planners in the United States and even internationally. From a peak population of nearly 1.8 million in 1950 and once the epicenter of the nation’s manufacturing sector, it entered into a long downward spiral in the 1960s and never recovered. It is now a shell of its former greatness, struggling to reinvent itself in a post-industrial, post-NAFTA world.

So, Seattle, plan well and know the party cannot last forever. All great things reach an apogee. Some great beacons of power and commerce collapse quickly, and others slowly. Rome or Beijing or Istanbul may be eternal cities, but their mighty and powerful empires came and went.

(Note from Author: Yes, the title of this article is a play on words from the Bible, from Jeremiah; I could not resist, and I am not a member of any religious denomination.)

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Two multi-billionaires’ visions in concrete, stone, and steel

The two principal co-founders of Microsoft Corp., Paul Allen and Bill Gates, have both left a huge mark on the region and the world because of the concentration of personal massive wealth and their willingness to use that wealth to express their passions, quirks, and visions. Allen is reportedly just the 26th richest man in America at 61 years of age. He has spread his cash, and a lot of it, in things beyond his mega-yacht, two professional sports franchises (the Blazers and Seahawks), University of Washington buildings, spaceships, foundations, and lots of prime real-estate in the Seattle area. A guitar enthusiast, he helped to fund and build the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum. Located next to the Seattle Center, this wildly shaped interactive museum, designed by Frank Gehry, pays homage in its name to Seattle’s favorite native-son guitar legend, Jimi Hendrix, as well as Allen’s love of all things science and science fiction.

Gates, at 58, has a net worth of about $76 billion, according to press reports. He remains atop the list of the United States’ mega-billionaires. As many know from countless sponsorship promos, he launched his vaunted and sometimes criticized Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1997, in no small part due to his very savvy wife’s influence. The Foundation reportedly has assets now valued at nearly $39 billion. It remains focussed on global health initiatives, technological innovations to improve global and maternal health, poverty reduction, information technology access, and education. The Foundation’s world headquarters literally sits across the street from the EMP.

For us normal and not-so-wealthy folks in Seattle, we are in the shadow of these very rich and influential super-rich billionaires many times over. I recommend any Seattle visitor check out both facilities. In a short walk, you can gaze upon the manifestations of these two mens’ very large egos that continue to shape not only Seattle, but in the Foundation’s case, quite literally direct the global health agenda. Now that is true power beyond the software running on my desktop and laptops.