Amazon is the symptom — not the cause — of growing pains that are causing angst in Seattle.
AMAZON is an easy target for Seattle residents upset about the tsunami of change reshaping their beloved city.
But the focus of their angst — detailed in a story Wednesday by Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro — should be two miles south of Amazon’s headquarters, at City Hall.
Recent growth isn’t a surprise. What’s shocking is how poorly it’s been planned for by city leaders, leaving residents fuming as they sit in traffic or stand cheek to jowl on overcrowded buses crawling past construction cranes.
Let’s step back — out of the shadows cast by those new town homes next door — and look at the bigger picture.
The phenomenal rise of Amazon over the last 20 years, its contributions to advancing technology and the variety of people it’s bringing to Seattle are all things to be celebrated.
Yes, there are quibbles.
Amazon should be more transparent about its footprint and financial details. Its philanthropy and civic engagement still pale in comparison to Microsoft and other first-tier tech companies. Perhaps it should run commuter shuttles, like Microsoft, to ease the strain it puts on Metro buses.
Amazon’s fierce tactics with publishers give pause, as does its adverse effect on offline retailers that are valued members of every community.
Still, don’t blame CEO Jeff Bezos for Seattle’s failure to adequately plan for today’s tech boom.
The last three mayors encouraged the full-throttle development that helped Amazon and others expand here over the last decade. They simultaneously eliminated street lanes across the city.
Facebook, Google, Apple and other major tech companies are now here, fishing from the talent pool seeded by Microsoft.
It helps that demographic trends are drawing companies into big cities versus suburbs, where the PC industry started. Seattle fares better than most because it offers both urban density and single-family neighborhoods in a compact area.
What’s troubling is how poorly Seattle prepared for the growth it enabled. Ideology and special interests appear to have trumped pragmatism and public interest. The city spent heavily on amenities benefiting a few instead of infrastructure, parks and services to absorb growth and make it a more positive experience for the whole city.
Perhaps things will even out when the thousands of homes now under construction are done and the tech industry and economy reach their next plateau. Already there are signs the real-estate market is cooling.
Seattle should have known that it’s not easy giving birth to a software giant.
Redmond-based Microsoft, the region’s firstborn, caused more angst when it surged in the 1990s. The sudden wealth its stock options created was jarring because it was a new phenomenon. Locals were outbid on houses, roads were jammed and tens of thousands of newcomers transformed the region — for the better.
Seattle should have learned how to cope from its Eastside neighbors. They put the state’s Growth Management Act to use, using impact fees — growth helped pay for investments it needed.
Redmond, Bellevue and the state cooperated on plans to handle the traffic that boom generated — instead of sadistically scheming to make driving worse, as Seattle has done during the current boom.
In the spirit of the growth act, Redmond moderated growth to ensure infrastructure and housing kept pace with job growth, balancing livability with economic activity.
Microsoft protested but stayed put because the area’s quality of life is essential to retain and hire employees.
Seattle is now at a similar crossroads. City officials are tinkering with zoning, updating growth plans and floating a huge transportation levy. The onus is on them to show they can preserve the city’s appeal and livability while accommodating the growth of Amazon and others in all the buildings they’ve permitted.
This is important, not just to ease today’s discomfort. It’s crucial to show that Seattle will be hospitable and capable of supporting the next tech giant that emerges. If the perception is that the city is broken, hopelessly congested and a place where you can no longer buy a house, the next Amazon might choose to grow somewhere else.
Then we’ll really feel angst.