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'People have tried to point the finger at Amazon,' says expert on Seattle's transformation

Photo: Sigma Sreedharan Photography

SEATTLE – With classic Italian dishes lining the tables and an array of familiar patrons spanning 30 years, Ristorante Machiavelli stands as a remnant of old Seattle in a city that’s towering with construction cranes.

“I hope we can all coexist, that would be the dream,” said Suzette Jarding, owner of Ristorante Machiavelli in Capitol Hill. “Seattle has always been such a collective city, and it would be really unfortunate if it all went corporate.”

In the last 10 years alone, Seattle has added over 100,000 people, raised the median gross rent nearly 50 percent more than the national average, and has become the crane capital of America, with nearly three times more cranes than New York City. It’s become a symbol of growth, stretching from Sodo to South Lake Union and Ballard.

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And the culprit, well, that’s debatable.

“People have tried to point the finger at Amazon and I think it’s inappropriate,” said Chris Mefford, CEO of Community Attributes, an economic consulting firm in Seattle. “The Seattle area was coming of age to be more cosmopolitan and was responding to high demands to keep up with the evolution of cities across North America. A regional economy is either growing or dying, there’s no staying put.”

The Emerald City’s story of economic growth is not a new one. A city that was once rooted in manufacturing and spawned countless of blue-collar professions, has transformed into a service-based economy with e-commerce giants lining the city skylines.

Yet, if it wasn’t for Microsoft setting up shop in the 1990s, the Amazon that has cultivated Seattle into an economic powerhouse might not have existed. The current tech boom has been a long-term development, built on groundwork laid by previous industries and institutions, Mefford said.

“The tech community that Jeff Bezos wanted to be a part of was there only because of Microsoft,” Mefford said. “And if you go back it’s rooted in Boeing and the University of Washington. Other companies will want to benefit from that, whether it’s Google, Apple or Facebook.”

As Seattle flourishes with tech talent, the real challenge has become keeping up with population growth.

From 2016 to 2017 alone, Seattle gained 26,900 residents, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, Regional Labor Economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department. And the number of occupied rental units has gone up by 20,353 since the start of the decade. But with Seattle gaining about 517 residents per week, this puts the jobs-to-housing ratio at an uneven mark.

For local restaurants like Ristorante Machiavelli, location is everything to keep a steady customer base and stay in business. But as more apartment buildings in Seattle are built or remodeled, the retail space below goes with it.

“When they do a buildout you must relocate or close for a certain period, which makes it hard for people to have an income coming in,” Jarding said. “Luckily, we’re safe, but I do see these changes happening around us. A lot of businesses have closed since we first opened.”

And that’s not the half of it. If a restaurant does manage to relocate or wait it out, there’s still a set of other struggles Jarding’s staff deals with.

“I see the challenges that staff has with affordability and housing," she said. “With being able to work in a restaurant, it cost more money to get here and find parking. I had one worker not take a job just because of high parking costs.”

Seattle’s growth won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Based on City of Seattle’s Comprehensive 20-year plan, the area will need to accommodate 70,000 additional housing units, 120,000 more residents, and 115,000 additional jobs by 2035, said Diana Canzoneri, Demographer and Strategic Advisor for the City of Seattle.

And all this begs the question: Who will be the next Amazon?

"The more we’re on the global stage, the more other parts of the world will realize Seattle is a good place to invest in,” Mefford said. “But we can’t take it for granted either. Seattle's ability to compete for talent will be a big part of whether we can sustain our economy.”

Regardless of the change, Seattle still feels like home to some.

“At the core things are changing all the time, but it still feels like home to me,” said City of Seattle Archivist Anne Frantilla. “Seattle hasn’t lost its history. It hasn’t lost its soul, I wouldn’t go that far.”

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