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Originally published Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8:00 PM

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Be smart, Seattle, so growth doesn’t become dirty word

Seattle is growing because its diverse economy, quality of life and the back-to-the-city movement by young people, empty-nest baby boomers and some companies is attracting population.


Special to The Seattle Times

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So you want to talk about growth — and almost everyone does since the news broke that Seattle was America’s fastest-growing major city in the year ending last July? Here are two stories.

My hometown of Phoenix barely entered the ranks of the nation’s 100 most populous cities in 1950, with 107,000 people in 17 square miles. (Seattle had a population of about 468,000.)

As of 2013, the city of Phoenix alone held more than 1.5 million in more than 500 square miles. It is America’s sixth most populous city and will likely overtake Philadelphia for the No. 5 spot.

Yet it has little to show for it beyond the miles of dreary tract houses, shopping strips, office complexes, tilt-up warehouses and freeways that Mariners’ fans gape at during spring training. By almost any measure of economic or social health, it ranks poorly. Yesterday’s American-dream subdivisions are today’s linear slums.

Phoenix has become a huge assemblage of real-estate ventures connected by wide speedways called streets. An Eden oasis was lost, but few remember because most residents are from someplace else.

Edward Abbey had Phoenix in mind when he famously said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.”

My second story concerns Seattle. When I moved into my Belltown condo six years ago, it had sweeping views up Capitol Hill and into South Lake Union. Those have been overtaken by five high-rises. The last sliver look up the hill will soon be covered by Amazon’s first skyscraper.

But with a few exceptions, Seattle has only gotten better. (Not all readers agreed on my Friday poll.) Oh, and so much for the meme, sent to me by some readers, that this liberal hotbed is turning itself into the next Detroit.

Like in many Sun Belt cities, Phoenix’s economic plan devolved into merely adding people, no matter the enormous long-term costs.

Seattle, by contrast, is growing because its diverse economy, quality of life and the back-to-the-city movement by young people, empty-nest baby boomers and some companies are attracting population. It is a manageable number: 18,000 in a year.

And except for me, nobody moves here for the weather. That’s a good thing. People who come to Seattle and stay really want to be here and they love it. It’s not a throwaway Sun Belt place.

Still, there’s no question that Seattle is changing and for more reasons than raw population. It is a major technology hot spot connected to Asia in the Asian Century, attracting talent from around the planet. It has only so much land. It has plenty of angst along with pride over these developments.

In a wider sense, people I hear from worry that population growth brings costs as well as benefits. That we’re on a planet with 7 billion people facing climate change and limited resources with all the destabilizing effects that will come as a result.

But the most pertinent questions for Seattle involve intelligent responses to growth.

First, city leaders, civic stewards and ordinary citizens must focus on more meaningful yardsticks than population.

Seattle must strive to be the fastest-growing city in wages, venture capital, foreign direct investment, exports, research funding, college graduates, startups and livability. We’re the nation’s second “most literate” city.

The sweet spot also includes being at or near the top of cities addressing affordability for working people, reducing class sizes, increasing teacher pay and quality, cutting the high-school dropout rate, creating pathways for low-skilled workers into the creative class and keeping crime low.

We face tough competition in all these areas. For example, in 2010 the city ranked 11th in college graduates, a strong showing (Phoenix was No. 66). But Austin, Denver and Minneapolis were ahead of us. No excuse.

Growth in quality can be more important than quantity. Amsterdam, population 811,000, is an alpha world city. Not every leading competitor for talent and capital needs to be New York or Tokyo.

Second, for all its good bones, prosperity, genius for reinvention and brainpower, Seattle often seems to be sleepwalking into the future.

I’m sure plenty of plans and guidelines exist on paper. But go around the city, and much development seems haphazard.

One egregious example was the skyscraper put up 18 feet across the alley from the pricey Cosmopolitan condos downtown. Is anyone at City Hall paying attention to how all these glass-sheeted towers are affecting each other and their neighborhoods?

Speaking of views, I’ve heard about “view corridors” being preserved for the iconic Space Needle. Forgive me if I am skeptical.

Large numbers of the city’s charming and affordable three-story brick apartments have been torn down just in the years I’ve been here. Architectural diversity and attention to human scale are important to livability, especially since we seem to only attract designs of look-alike new buildings.

Mobility will become more important as the city becomes denser, as it must.

Booming San Francisco had a density of 17,179 per square mile in 2010 compared with Seattle’s 7,251. Yet San Francisco has BART, the muni light rail, streetcars, cable cars, abundant buses and robust commuter rail.

Too bad we let our subway system from the late 1960s go to Atlanta. Now Seattle needs to have its hair on fire to build more options for getting around, and do it faster.

The quirky blue-collar city that looks especially good to many folks in the rearview mirror is mostly gone.

The “Lesser Seattle” advocated somewhat tongue-in-cheek by the late columnist Emmett Watson isn’t going to happen.

We’re not going to be Portland, and, truth be told, this on-the-make city never really wanted to be.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com



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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
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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