By the turn of the 20th century, Lake Union cemented its identity as a light industrial neighborhood with docks, marinas, machine shops and factories — though every now and then, prominent citizens would try and propose converting the area’s south shore into a small park, an endeavor that was repeatedly voted down.
South Lake Union even maintained its reputation as a sleepy and low-key neighborhood into the 1990s. At that time, Mike McQuaid was a fresh college graduate who worked in an office in South Lake Union. By and large, he says, it felt like an afterthought compared to the downtown core, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill.
“It was second to other areas of the city that were still thriving,” says McQuaid. “You might walk down Westlake Avenue back then and see only three to four people on your walk.”
In the mid-2000s, Stacy Segal and her husband moved to Seattle from Chicago, initially renting in Belltown for a while before they bit the bullet and decided to buy a home. They looked around and found that they loved the new condo building in South Lake Union, but weren’t sure about the neighborhood. It was quiet — too quiet. The Group Health building was there, as well as a few restaurants.
“But not the most interesting restaurants,” Segal says. “There were a lot of banks, but the mix of retail wasn’t desirable. Also — the landscape of the neighborhood — everything was dying. Things weren’t maintained. Public spaces weren’t used.”
Segal really wanted to live in an urban community, like the one she was familiar with in Chicago.
“We really stalled on buying our place for that reason,” she says. “I thought, ‘This condo development looks really cool, but I don’t think the neighborhood will work for us.’ ”
An economic boom
Today, McQuaid is the transportation chair of the South Lake Union Community Council and also its former president. In his role, he has seen the area evolve from a light industrial neighborhood to a “very international, thriving heartbeat of the city.”
“South Lake Union is the most significant urban revitalization in America today, on a lot of levels,” says McQuaid. “Not just in pure square footage, not just in the fact that we have 50,000 people, most not from Seattle, who weren’t here 15 years ago, and not just from the economic impact of industry — but also the social services sector that takes part here. South Lake Union is now about all of these things working together. It’s about the transformative nature of this community in this economy. That’s something we’ve never quite had in Seattle.”
McQuaid used to work at Amazon, headquartered in South Lake Union, and he attributes South Lake Union’s rapid growth in the past decade to businesses and organizations like Amazon, University of Washington Medicine, Facebook, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Google, PEMCO, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Museum of History & Industry, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and more — whose presence and local investment into the community served as a catalyst for growth.
“These companies and organizations are bringing not just a workforce but a young and highly educated, skilled, and brilliant workforce to Seattle. And with that comes all of the exciting streetside amenities. Everything from mobility options in the city to move people around — to retail — restaurants, shops, coffee shops — they all make the community a vibrant place.”
The growth that’s centered in South Lake Union has ripple effects that reach across the city and beyond, creating opportunities not only for the company’s workforce, which numbers more than 50,000, but for non-Amazon workers as well. An additional 244,000 jobs have been created in the Seattle area as a result of Amazon’s direct investments either in the construction, health care or hospitality industries, according to an economic impact study commissioned by the company. Amazon has contributed more than $7 million in funding for public transit in the Seattle MSA, for additional bus capacity and the SLU streetcar and paid $79 million into the regional public transportation system by offering free public transport to all its Seattle-based employees. The company has also committed in-kind and cash donations of more than $135 million to Seattle nonprofits fighting homelessness and hunger. As other companies have joined in this vibrant growth, the ripples have gained momentum.
“It’s been stunning to watch the evolution of the South Lake Union neighborhood over the last 10 years or so,” says James Sido, senior manager of media relations and issues management at Downtown Seattle Association. “This decade alone, the residential population has more than doubled and the number of jobs located in South Lake Union has risen by 125 percent.” Sido also points out that South Lake Union is more family-friendly than ever. It has the highest growth of kids living in a downtown neighborhood since 2010 — a staggering 373 percent increase.
“Along with the influx of people, jobs and kids, more restaurants and retail are coming online and there’s been more investment in parks and public spaces, improvements at Denny Park are an example,” says Sido.
Segal, who is executive director of the Seattle Architecture Foundation, echoes McQuaid’s sentiments. She has seen huge growth in transportation options in the time that she’s lived in South Lake Union. The walk is more scenic now. The restaurant and retail options she craved just 10 years ago are now thriving near her home. There are so many options to get around, such as different bus routes, rideshare pickup spots, the streetcar, and micromobility options such as bikes and scooters.
In her role at SAF, Segal has seen their architecture tours of South Lake Union constantly update and change because the area keeps changing.
“Our architecture walking tours in the neighborhood used to cover the Cascade neighborhood where REI is — but then as it developed, we started covering the other side, more of South Lake Union. Now, we do so many versions, and we feel like we are changing it every other year because so many things are changing. There’s the Denny Triangle Tour, which starts by the Westin and goes through the Amazon campus — the tour showcases both the old buildings and the newer ones. There’s a lot of history, but also new development. We want Seattle residents to understand the past, present, and future — to learn how the new buildings are also creating better spaces for all.”
Amazon’s urban campus has been a catalyst for growth in South Lake Union, and the company’s investments have created more than 240,000 indirect jobs in the region thanks to its investments.