Amid dramatic progress driven by Amazon, a row of once-grand houses falls in Seattle’s South Lake Union

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I stood next to a construction worker on a recent rainy October day watching the bucket of an excavator chew apart an old, three-story house on Fairview Avenue in Seattle. The old home had become expendable to make room for a new office building near Amazon’s sprawling global corporate campus. Across the street, construction on a giant bio-lab building also was underway.

The demolition serves as a small, but dramatic anecdote to the larger story of the rapid transformation of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, once an underdeveloped swath of rundown housing, tired warehouses, car lots and a spaghetti tangle of clogged streets just north of downtown Seattle. 

Thanks to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s development company and retail giant Amazon’s insatiable hunger for space, South Lake Union’s low-rise streets have become urban canyons lined with new office and condo towers. Brightly colored streetcars roll along tracks, and new shops and restaurants cater to thousands of new workers and residents.

In 2001, Amazon had 640,000 square feet of corporate office space. By 2018, Amazon’s new global corporate campus will top 9 million square feet, comprising a cluster of 34 buildings, including a four-block section of South Lake Union that Amazon is currently developing.

Over the next 20 years, development in South Lake Union is expected to provide 12,000 new apartments and condos and office space for 22,000 workers, with most of them carrying Amazon employee ID badges.

I recently interviewed John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate, for an article in Delta Sky Magazine about Seattle’s economy. Schoetter said Amazon made a conscious decision to build its headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood to help the company attract the young, tech-savvy workers who want big-city amenities such as mass transit and rental bikes.

“We thought the area had a lot of soul,” said Schoettler, who lives in South Lake Union and walks to work. “We thought the area was cool and could become even cooler.”

Opinions differ over whether all the change driven by Amazon has allowed South Lake Union to keep its coolness. Back on Fairview Avenue, the construction worker told me his crew was demolishing four old houses in the name of progress. The once-grand homes had become flophouses for squatters, and the worker said he had to do a sweep to make sure no one was holed up inside before the demolition crew started ripping them down.

Still, the worker said it was sad to see a part of history being erased from the cityscape, with little or no afterthought even.

Once the rubble is removed, work will begin on a sleek 12-story glass-box office building called Urban Union that the developer says will cater to the needs of the millennial-generation worker. Urban Union will have a fitness center, concierge services and a rooftop hospitality center with a view of the lake.

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