SEATTLE — Amazon opened its headquarters in a district known as the South Lake Union in 2010, foregoing what it says would have been the cheaper option of building in the suburbs, where its workers might have been less connected to the city.
For years, much of downtown Seattle has been a maze of broken streets and taped sidewalks. Housing prices have soared faster than anywhere else in America, driving some low and even middle-income residents beyond city limits. Traffic is frequently unmentionable.
And while Amazon is far from solely to blame — and while lawmakers, economists, and many residents say the benefits clearly outweigh any drawbacks — life in its hometown is indeed one more struggle the tech giant has disrupted.
Since the opening of Amazon in Seattle, it has expanded from a workforce of 5,000 to more than 40,000 in 33 buildings here. It surpassed the university as the city’s biggest employer, and it is still growing. Even as it announced plans for a second headquarters location, the company said it would lease the entirety of Seattle’s second-largest skyscraper, the Rainier Square tower, which is still under construction. It will have rooms for 3,500 workers.
Amazon estimates its direct spending boosted Seattle’s economy by $38 billion from 2010 to 2016. Hotels are developing thanks to visits by friends and family of Amazon workers. The Downtown Seattle Association estimates $5 billion in construction activity was ongoing during the summer, with more than 30,000 residential units.
Cities across the United States and Canada are clamoring at the prospect of landing Amazon’s second headquarters — and with it, investments climbing $5 billion. They have until Thursday to submit their proposals.
In Seattle, the company’s growth, surely, has improved life in different ways. Unemployment is extremely low. A large fraction of its workers walks to the office or rely on public transit. Its buildings have green roofs, recycled heat, and other sustainability features. It opened plazas where it hosts farmers markets, concerts and, yes, banana stands — Amazon has given away 2.7 million bananas and counting.
Terrific restaurants, cafes and food trucks have proliferated, with lines of Amazon workers — recognizable by their badges or by their dogs, welcome at work — outside.
That said, not everyone can afford such amenities. The Seattle Times reported in September that the median house price in the city was $730,000 — double what it was 5 years ago.
“Bringing a lot of new, good-paying jobs to town, you have to view that as being a positive development,” Robby Stern, president of Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action said. “But the changes that have happened have created Seattle as a less livable place for categories of people, and that’s not what I want for Seattle.”
After taking some criticism, Amazon has engaged more publicly, including supporting some beloved Seattle nonprofits. It announced this year that it will give the shelter organization Mary’s Place permanent room in its new building to house 200 homeless women, children and families. It has also given FareStart, which trains people struggling with homelessness or drug addiction to work in the restaurant industry, space and equipment to open five new eateries on its campus.
Last year, Amazon gave $10 million toward a new computer science building at the University of Washington, where it also enhanced two professorships. And this year, the family of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced a $35 million gift to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — the largest donation in the center’s 41-year history.
The company also donated to a successful political campaign last fall to expand light rail service and has paid for an additional streetcar to serve the South Lake Union.
Seattle had bad traffic and limited housing even before Amazon arrived — some of which delayed from decades of anti-growth policies and a failure to build more mass transit sooner.
With Amazon’s bidding process for “HQ2,” at least the places applying know what to expect.