A disturbing, Seattle-relevant story in the New York Times traces the exodus of highly educated employees from “superstar cities.” Seattle and other expensive coastal cities are definitely on the list, and the story notes the loss of magnetism for the highly educated by Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Seattle is dismissed with this sentence: “Seattle’s edge vanished during the pandemic.”
On the other hand, Seattle is the fastest-growing big city in the nation, according to new Census figures for the year ending July 2022. King County is losing population, and last year Seattle shed 4,300 people. So maybe that “edge” has not vanished, at least yet. (Other fast-growing cities are almost all in the sunbelt.)
There are many causes for urban flight: high costs of housing, the lure of remote work (particularly in tech), crime, stymied politics, poor schools, declining downtowns, traffic congestion. Related causes are the increasing urban attractions in smaller cities such as Charlotte, Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Nashville, and once-lowly Louisville. The story notes, “The whole state of California has now become a net domestic loser of college graduates.”
The big question for Seattle is whether it is too late to reverse this tidal outflow, and whether Seattle’s diverse economy, gentle climate, unified-liberal politics, and outdoorsy attractions will create a northland exception to the sunbelt. Our region has historically benefitted by good luck, as when railroads, Asian trade, Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon decided almost by random to settle here. Sitting back and waiting for the next gold-laden ship to steam into the harbor has worked in the past, but luck is hardly a policy.
As a warning of how steep a recovery hill we have to climb, and how long has been the erosion of Seattle magnetism, here is a list of other factors, only a few of which might be correctable.
Kshama Sawant. She and her socialist activists intimidated the Seattle City Council into a series of foolish, extreme votes, including writing off downtown safety. That pulled the council away from the progressive business establishment and the mayor, resulting in political impasse.
Republicans Abandon Seattle. First GOP step to get elected was a suburban strategy, which failed as the Far Right alienated King County. Next came a statewide tactic of running against Seattle (strange people, extreme politics, high taxes, “socialism”) that also failed. One result is a non-urban GOP in Olympia, set on punishing Seattle, the University of Washington, and Seattle politicians who seek statewide office.
Defeat of the Commons. The plans for a 60-acre park in South Lake Union were narrowly defeated in two mid-1990s votes. It turned out to be a last hurrah for the Seattle Establishment (architects, parks advocates, housing activists, urbanists, developers), and it greatly discouraged the progressive forces and money. In retrospect, the proposed park was too large, and Paul Allen’s donation of land turned him into the Amazon of the campaign. The Central Waterfront Park is something of a consolation, but not with voter approval.
Defeat of Rob McKenna, 2012. Attorney General McKenna seemed the one hope of creating a modern, moderate Republican Party, recalling the Dan Evans era (governor, 1965-77). McKenna, who tried to get to the Democrats’ left on higher education and to wedge off some Democratic votes, instead lost to Jay Insleein 2012, and an entrenched special-interest lock on state government (since 1974) marginalized the GOP and drove it to rural extremes. As with Seattle, there is no effective statewide competition to hold one-party politics accountable. Seattle’s progressive business establishment was left with no place to go, so most gave up or became “Obama independents.”
Too Much Money Chasing Too Little Land. The combination of high-tech salaries and the restraint on land (Urban Growth Boundary and well-lawyered NIMBYs) drove up the price of housing, first in Seattle and then in the near-suburbs. We started late with transit, so it couldn’t keep up with suburban cities or with high costs of transit construction. Developers with their lock on local politics coped with high land costs by building to the affluent market. We created a city where young people cannot afford to dwell.
The Stranger. As the Post-Intelligencer shrank, the counterpoint to the Seattle Times became The Stranger. Its snark and alienation severed the generational continuity of Seattle politics. That divorce was amplified when Mayor Mike McGinn (Mayor, 2010-13) stiffed consensus liberalism and drove the city council into permanent opposition.
Depleted Farm Teams. Seattle used to be rich in training organizations where young people learned the ropes, met mentors, and got into effective civic life. Among those who did this well: the PTA, community councils (done in by Mayor Ed Murray), the League of Women Voters, Allied Arts, the Municipal League. Just look at the relatively unknown candidates for office, almost all self-starters, and few with broad appeal or pragmatic chops.
Lost Local Focus. The venture capital side of Seattle, dominant since the 1990s, is addicted to scaling up companies to national and international size, and those who work for such companies lose economic ties to the region. Many local companies (law firms, media, insurance, banks, downtown office towers) now have non-local owners, who do not feel a stake in the city and make harsh, bottom-line decisions. Local philanthropy is sometimes (as with Boeing) decided in other cities. The tech wealth, preferring to have “a large canvas,” thinks more about Africa problems than Renton problems and has brushed aside the civic agenda.
Complacency. We recovered before, as a new Amazon suddenly takes root. The mayor and the city council and the city attorney have awakened from the woke agenda. Times are good and jobs are plentiful. We still have no state income tax, a strong pull. Relax! Go Kraken!
In short, Seattle faces a long climb back. Seattle grabbed for some gold rings and having surprisingly caught many of them now must deal with the unforeseen consequences of what Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times calls “the prosperity bomb.”