I admit it. I suffer Amazon Anxiety Syndrome.
This seems silly considering a worry list for the local economy that includes the Dreamliner, Microsoft, competing ports and Washington’s high unemployment outside of metropolitan Seattle.
And, yes, it is stoked by the click-bait headlines on the Web, especially on Business Insider. Example: “Fury at Amazon over fee hikes.” And, ”Amazon downgraded over margin fears.” The latter was one analyst, shifting from ”overweight” to “neutral.”
Still, Seattle would be in a far worse place today without one company: Amazon.com.
The corporate headquarters has transformed South Lake Union into an urban technology campus that’s attracted wide acclaim as a model. Better for us, it has drawn big investment and thousands of well-paid employees.
The neighborhood has become a magnet for many other endeavors, but this wouldn’t have happened as fast or successfully without Amazon — and Paul Allen as lead developer.
The benefit has been obvious for Seattle’s core. We wouldn’t be having a debate over raising the limits on building heights in South Lake Union if the Great Recession had sidelined Amazon. Nor would the apartment boom there and in Belltown be as vigorous, or even happening. The three blocks owned by the Clise family would likely still be on the market, instead of slated for Amazon headquarters towers.
Amazon hit the wave for a massive headquarters expansion at just the right time for Seattle. Washington Mutual had collapsed, costing thousands of jobs, emptying vast office space and damaging or killing many other businesses that depended on it.
Land-use economist Matthew Gardner examined the space Amazon has absorbed over the past six-plus quarters. “We continue to see an improvement being juiced by one company,” he said. In at least one quarter, the absorption would have been negative without Amazon.
To be sure, downtown Seattle is not a one-trick pony. Gardner told me, “The market, even without them, is still improving. But it’s been bolstered by their expansion.”
Just how much bolstering is difficult to assess. In addition to space Amazon itself gobbles at a voracious rate, it draws business partners that want to be nearby. It also projects international confidence in Seattle that is noticed by corporate decision-makers elsewhere.
Seattle is a place to be.
Developer R.C. Hedreen has announced plans for one of downtown’s largest developments ever, with a hotel, apartments and office space, on the site of the Greyhound bus station. Its two towers would be up to 50 stories tall.
And a 660-foot skyscraper is to break ground at Fifth and Columbia in the fall, including a hotel and office space. This was one of the projects poleaxed by the financial collapse in 2008.
No wonder the Urban Land Institute’s Emerging Trends report last fall named Seattle the seventh most attractive real-estate market in the nation.
So Seattle is hot for many reasons, chief among them its technology base and ability to keep luring talent and investment.
The city itself offers the walkable, convenient density, served by abundant transit, that is seen as a key to competitiveness in the future. Places such as South Lake Union encourage innovation as smart people can easily collaborate and generate ideas in a stimulating urban environment.
And while the late 20th-century office park may be past its prime, the Eastside is seeing an expansion by Google at its Kirkland campus, as well as Microsoft’s strength in Redmond. Downtown Bellevue offers a competitive alternative to downtown Seattle.
Indeed, as I go around the city and Eastside hot spots, one would never know the national economy continues to struggle and some cities and exurbs may never come back. One might never know a Great Recession happened so recently.
I see this and fight off superstition about good luck amid bad times. But history offers many examples of how hubris and complacency did in many a great city.
Which brings me back to Amazon.
And Amazon Anxiety Syndrome.
This is a different kind of company, with much to admire, some things that merit disapproval and a multitude of question marks.
(The reader should know that Amazon sells my novels; but so do the independent bookshops fighting for their lives because of Amazon).
It has morphed from a cute little dot-com to a giant, from an online bookseller to an e-commerce company to a prodigious technology octopus.
Can Amazon keep making this evolution without major missteps, especially ones that alienate Wall Street?
Also, Amazon’s appetite has made it powerful enemies, such as Wal-Mart and Google. Ebay recently rolled out a simplified fee structure directly aimed at snatching third-party sellers that are disgruntled with the Smile from Seattle.
Some of those small merchants have filed a class-action suit against Amazon, alleging the company violates the law by holding sellers’ money for more than 90 days.
So what becomes the Amazon equivalent of the antitrust crusade against Microsoft? Or the SST cancellation? Maybe it never happens. But size and ambition bring vulnerability.
I fret about this not to be an apologist for any company, but because I care about Seattle.
City and regional leaders shouldn’t for a second confuse good fortune in the Amazon boom with a sound economic strategy. That includes addressing higher education funding, infrastructure needs, building more international ties and thinking in multiple dimensions about competitiveness.
In the meantime, get building in the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. We never know when our luck might at least take a pause.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest