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.”
David, there’s hope. Look at the growing Seattle Waterfront, the Pike Place Market to the Aquarium connection, Seattle Center, and progress is being made Downtown on the Third Avenue Project thanks to a broad coalition. And politically, Mayor Harrell is doing well restoring pride to City workers. Don’t despair!
Yes, there is still hope. Sawant on her way out, spoken-word artist Oliver has left town, abolishionist city attorney defeated, Dones stepping down. Ed Murray and Jenny Durkan are out of office.
Mayor Harrell is on the job, huge city council elections coming up, tourism and Amazon workers are back. Murray and Cantwell in position of enormous power. All- Star game, World Cup, Kraken! There is some justification for optimism.
No, I’m with David on this one…the hubris of young Seattle back then~ I remember the Commons initiative so so well…I was astonished at the progressives who opposed it, based on nothing more than their suspicion that, if so many people were for it, it must be bad.
Seattle has a history of short sighted.
Around the same time, in 1998, The International Olympics Committee expressed a very very strong interest in having Seattle put in a bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. And the Seattle City Council said no.
From a website, The Deseret News:
“Eight of the City Council’s nine members have written to the committee working on a bid to host the 2012 summer Olympics, saying ‘no thanks.’ So even before Kshama Sawant, the City Council has made some very bad and shortsighted decisions.
Then, Salt Lake City went on to host the 2012 Olympics. They probably couldn’t believe their astounding good luck.
Seattle has always been Boomorbustville. Tacoma got the transcontinental rail terminus. We got the Ton of Gold and the Gold Rush business.
Boeing gave us the 707 and 747, and then the Boeing Bust. We got Marshawn Lynch but we also got Brian Bosworth.
The USA lost the Viet Nam war but Seattle got Pho. Sam Schulman brought us the Sonics and Howard Schultz sent them to Oklahoma.
The Cinerama closed but now it’s coming back. Let’s take it easy and see what’s next.
Maybe the illusion of control is a waste of time.
Agree with Gordon here. Also, we lost Rainier beer but helped kickstart the craft beer movement starting with Redhook.
David, your reflections on “the good old days” is helpful context for new strategies/priorities going forward. I agreed with Sally, let’s not despair.
I think there is hope if we can move past the radical Seattle city council of recent years. Housing costs seem like the most intractable issue.
Also – Denver and Dallas are smaller cities???
David, I agree with your general sentiment, especially about the cancer that Sawant spread around the city, not unlike how Trump infected the Republican Party.
I’ll disagree with you about two things, though:
1) The Commons was simply a bad proposal. The last thing Seattle needed was a huge, inappropriate park. I know it’s not PC to oppose parks, but what South Lake Union needed most was density, mixed uses, and yes, scattered pocket parks—in the spirit of Jane Jacobs. Although Amazon overwhelmed the area, the end result was density, mixed uses, and pocket parks. The major downside was that the apartments that went up didn’t reflect mixed incomes.
2) Moderate Republicans like Rob McKenna—and I’d argue that he wasn’t moderate, given his wishy washy abortion stand—wouldn’t have made a difference given the macro tidal wave of Trumpism and extremism. Paul Ryan and John Boehner weren’t able to resist it, and McKenna and his ilk wouldn’t have either. In 2023, there are NO moderate Republicans. There are a few with integrity—Liz Cheney, Herrera Beutler, etc.—but they’re not moderate under any definition of moderation.
What we need to do is to keep electing reality-based Democrats—Sara Nelson, Anne Davidson, etc.
And yes, I realize Ann Davison (correct spelling) isn’t a real Democrat, but she’s not really a Repub lican, either. (This is what happens when you edit yourself.)
I’m with Don Glickstein’s two points above, but I’d go farther to discount most of the rest. Sawant’s influence? or are we blaming the council on McGinn? If only we had more Republicans?
It’s much simpler. The problems really picked up, when growth really picked up.
Housing couldn’t possibly have kept up with the demand. Urban growth area boundaries include vast stretches of vacant or lightly used land, and huge new developments in what used to be sleepy King County towns. Neighborhood activists have lost every round when they go up against real estate development industry deregulation in recent decades. Makes no difference. Record pace of development, but the way people have been pouring in to the Seattle area, demand wins. Growth at that rate is a way to make massive amounts of money for some, but soak many more for everything they have – or don’t have. So there’s financial distress, and homelessness, and general discontent.
What happens when we have problems of the kind where no public official wants to even acknowledge the source of the problem? More victim oriented politics, more promises, more expensive solutions that don’t solve anything. Seattle.
Don’t overlook the change of the City Council from at-large elections to neighborhood specific council seats. The issues Seattle faces are to large for small politics. Time to go back to electing council members who are responsible to the whole city. The experiment has not worked out IMO.
Excellent point. Those of us who live on First Hill, for example, are disenfranchised because we’re represented by Kshama Trump Sawant who only plays to her base.
Another issue: The disaggregation of news and the rise of social media. Sawant got all those young Amazonians to vote for her and against their best self-interest because they’re clueless about anything that’s not on their Facebook feed. Once the Times, P-I, and the three major TV stations united us with a foundation of core information. Nothing has replaced them. Even Post Alley is just one of multiple social media that only reaches a sliver of the city as a whole.
How have the city wide seats worked out? Position 8 and 9?
Lorena Gonzalez, two terms, and Teresa Mosqueda, two terms and counting, have done considerably more to make the city what it is today, than Kshama Sawant could do if she stayed on the council permanently. They were elected city wide. Sure, now we have Sara Nelson – who won vs Nikkita Oliver in the general, and while certainly an improvement over Gonzalez, represents the Downtown Business Association. Pedersen – District 4 – is still the only reliable voice for residents.
The problem has been the voters, who in general seem to give the city hall representation rather scant attention, leaving the city to be driven by special interests. Who supposedly represents who, is irrelevant if the represented don’t really care to understand what’s going on.
Seattle’s declines primarily are downtown. Those seem to me to be less about politics and more about capital flight. When tech (and other businesses) needed office space downtown Seattle made itself increasingly attractive to the young, rich and educated by allowing development of more and more towers. Now office buildings are being abandoned. If Seattle’s multitude of office towers don’t start getting leased up an existential threat looms for downtown: irrelevance, and even more of the social deteriorations we see there now.
“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.” To which I’ll add the state’s largest (by far) wine conglomerate – Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. After surviving decades of tobacco-company ownership thanks to inspired leadership by Allen Shoup, SMWE is now owned by an east coast investment group with no expertise or interest in the country’s second largest wine region. Assets are being sold off and grape contracts abandoned. The Washington Wine Commission, largely funded by Ste. Michelle, has been leaderless for the past 9 months. The Seattle Times hasn’t had any consistent local wine coverage since they fired me in 2012.
I suspect that for many people the attitude is “people are leaving? Awesome!”
When cities grow to quickly especially, they become subject to the ‘too many rats in a cage’ problem. (AKA the Behavioral Sink.)
A minor aside on the article: Denver’s population is roughly the same as Seattle, Charlotte has a bigger population than Seattle and Dallas has a much bigger population than Seattle. I suspect that David Brewster was thinking of a different city but accidently put ‘Dallas.’