Probably not since the days of the Klondike has part of Seattle felt as boomy as South Lake Union right now.
The sidewalks are crammed with blue-badged programmers, working the great tech gold rush. It’s one of the hottest real-estate markets in the country, as 12-story office or biotech complexes are rising on nearly every block.
Coming soon, say the signs, is a 15-story hotel. Tommy Bahama. “Enlightened urban experience.”
A recent news tidbit charted the change: The lunch rush of hungry Amazonians has made the prepared-foods section at the Westlake Whole Foods the busiest of any Whole Foods in the country.
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But the boom has an off-key echo. At abandoned and fenced-off relics of the old neighborhood, all awaiting their dates with the next available crane, there’s a different sort of rush going on. The homeless are moving in.
One defunct loading dock has become temporary shelter for two to six people, depending on the night. Another empty building, with signs that read “this property reserved for the use of our patrons and customers only,” is instead now home, in its garden areas and a courtyard, to shifting camps of people looking for a place to sleep.
On one fenced-in lot, I met Ron, the only name he’d give. He said he was 29 years old. He was camped with his backpack behind a boarded-up building, in the shadow of a crane putting up a seven-story live/work/play residential complex.
He wouldn’t say how he ended up homeless — “It’s complicated, man” — but said he was there, as opposed to some other neighborhood, for one reason: security.
“You get behind this fence at night and nobody bothers you,” he said. “Except maybe other homeless.”
Last week police arrested one man living at a different site. He was alleged to have started up a chop shop, disassembling stolen bikes to sell off the parts. After the police visited, the area was empty for a day or two. But it had been partially resettled by the weekend.
That there are such active homeless camps even in Seattle’s boomtown, one block from Amazon headquarters (and this newspaper), came as zero surprise to Alison Eisinger. She’s director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
“It’s a bitter juxtaposition,” she said. “But anytime you have displacement going on, with transition and construction and empty buildings, you will find people tucking in wherever they can.”
On Thursday night, Eisinger led the annual “One Night Count,” in which 800 volunteers do a spot survey of people living outside in cars, alleys and under bridges. The team tallied 3,117 homeless in King County, with 2,392 of those in Seattle — both by far the highest numbers in the survey’s 34-year history. Those numbers do not include the thousands in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
Some groups are trying to tackle the problem amid South Lake Union’s transformation. Only a few blocks from where I met Ron sits Canaday House, 83 units for the street mentally ill and disabled veterans that opened a few years ago. But for whatever reasons, the efforts, at this time, aren’t enough.
“The reality is the land where ‘undesirable people’ have lived in the past is becoming highly, highly prized in this city,” Eisinger said. “So you get enormous wealth right on top of visible misery. You get these clashes.”
Ron went back to his camp behind some plywood. On the sidewalk outside the fence, a line of Amazon workers and hard-hatted construction types ordered from a Thai food truck. A land-use signboard said the fenced site would be a 13-story office tower. But that’s dated already. After a recent rezoning, the developer is coming back with a tech office high-rise that could shoot to 24 stories or more.
Boomtown’s growth is dizzying, and obviously a positive in so many ways for Seattle. But in its wake is another ripple of the city. Unfortunately, that one is growing, too.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org