The New Seattle
April 2, 2007
The amazing thing about Seattle and Vancouver is how different we are, considering our near-identical climates and bioregions, similar hybrid ethnicities and parallel histories. Look at a satellite photo of Puget Sound to Howe Sound, and it’s clear that there is now a border-straddling megalopolis from Lions Bay to Tacoma: seven million people in one virtual city, with the insufferable anomaly of an international border down the middle. With two heads but one conjoined body, Vancouver and Seattle are Siamese twins. Yet we are fused not at the head, but at the back—forever looking in different directions. We may share the same flesh, but our outlooks are, in many ways, starkly different.
Led by the colossus of Microsoft, Seattle has become one of the most important corporate hubs in the world—with Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks, Real Networks and countless other companies founded there, and now spreading their brands around the world. (Cont'd…)
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With its central city ringed with new condos, Seattle has a real downtown, with new office towers rising, and a workaday sense of bustle and purpose. Yes, polar fleece and Gore-Tex make their appearance on weekends, but downtown Seattle sidewalks have a higher ratio of suits (and more of them worn by women) than here. The largesse of Cold War military spending, which once jacked up Boeing and the local economy, also helped to establish the University of Washington as a major research hub—and to make Seattle a nexus of the high-tech universe.
Seattle’s private sector wealth has led to extravagant philanthropy, expressed in creations as various as the McCaw Opera House, the Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall, Paul Allen’s countless pet projects around Lake Union, architect Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, and the huge headquarters under construction for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s richest charitable organization. Within sight of the building where the Gates will dispense countless billions is the latest symbol of the new Seattle. This is the Seattle Art Museum’s $100 million Olympic Sculpture Park, its zigzag walkways and hillside plantings flanking a definitive collection of 3D art—an instant global pilgrimage point for the art world. Vancouver, on the other hand, has a grandly named but poorly curated Sculpture Biennale, a promotional event where a fire sale of third and fourth-rung works are temporarily installed in plazas and parks. Nice parks, though.
If the corporation-generated private wealth of Seattle manifests itself through philanthropy that Vancouverites can only dream about—watch the upcoming reality check when the VAG board tries to raise a hundred-million-plus for a starchitect-designed new gallery—then our sister’s downside has to do with the public domain, especially transportation infrastructure. Seattle has spent a decade approving then un-approving a monorail line extension, and now is caught up in an equally protracted debate about what to do with the waterfront-disfiguring raised roadway of Alaskan Way. Certainly, Seattleites have lots of time to consider this coupling of public squalor with private splendour—while sitting in their cars on such permanently plugged routes as I-5 or Lake Washington’s floating bridge.
The Vancouver equivalents to Seattle corporate gods such as Starbucks' Howard Schultz or Microsoft's
By contrast, Vancouver is arguably the least corporate major city on the continent, a place where Noam Chomsky and the Dalai Lama are rockstars, where the anti-big-business book/documentary The Corporation got produced, and where everybody would rather be sailing or selling kif at Wreck Beach. Our last city council devoted much of its time fighting Wal-Mart and issuing anti-capitalist screeds, and navigating a system where businesses pay six times what homeowners do in taxes—the highest such skew on the continent. We may be preternaturally beautiful, but we are also having the pants beat off us by dweeb-towns like Seattle and Calgary (Vancouver’s the only one of Canada’s six largest cities to lose head office jobs between 1999 and 2005, down a staggering 30 percent).
The Vancouver equivalents to Seattle corporate gods such as Starbucks’ Howard Schultz or Microsoft’s Paul Allen are, revealingly, our city planners. Las Vegas-raised-and-educated former planning chief Larry Beasley did not invent Vancouver-as-resort, but he did his best to take credit for it. Successor Brent Toderian is now scrambling to balance our downtown mondo-condo with job spaces, but such expectations larded upon mere civic bureaucrats divert attention from where blame and credit more properly reside, in our economic history and contemporary business culture. Vancouver’s core attitude—a sense of God-granted entitlement—twinned with a need for quick returns are our legacies from history, because wealth here was generated by scooping up minerals, knocking down forests and, since 1986, harvesting the last of our non-renewable natural resources: water-view real estate.
We’re settling into a Rio-like future as a resort attached to our festering favela, the Downtown Eastside. Vancouver is a wonderful place to visit, to play, to shoot up, to check out of a career, to retire, but it’s no longer a serious business centre.The first people I heard describe Vancouver as a “resort” were Hong Kong- and Taiwan-born businessmen as they re-aligned their investments towards China after briefly nesting here in the 1990s. The resortification of our downtown has been a quiet secret in Vancouver’s development and urban planning communities for a decade; real estate brokers long ago stopped listing land here as potential office sites—the returns from condos being so much higher. Only recently has the nine-to-one ratio of condo-to-office tower construction since 2000 on our land-limited downtown peninsula become a public issue.
Vancouver bought heavily into the postmodern notion of the city as solely a place to live, not to work, largely with our 1991 Central Area Plan that rezoned eight million square feet of potential office space in Downtown South as “housing optional.” It’s now almost completely developed-out as condos only. The net effect of this downtown forest of condo towers is a kind of reverse clear-cut: a single species monoculture plantation for the quick harvesting of profits by politically savvy developers. And with this development, ironically, we may have permanently compromised our most attractive feature—our spectacular natural setting—for future businesses and downtown workers both.
Next time you spend a weekend in Seattle, do what I call the “condo test.” About 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, just before you point the Toyota back at the border, pass through the epicentre of Seattle’s new downtown condo zone, Belltown, and estimate the ratio of apartments with lights on. A week later at the same time, stroll through our equivalent zone—Bayshore and Coal Harbour—and do the same thing. The difference is startling—where are all the Vancouverites’ lights? I would like to think we’re all making passionate love in the dark, or dining at our swankiest restaurants, but the stark reality is that nobody lives in those condos much of the time. Nearly half of Bayshore-Coal Harbour condos have been bought by speculators, split between fellow Canadians preparing for retirement here and a golden global class of investors whose real estate dalliances tend to dissolve as quickly as they form.
Seattle: look at Vancouver for our strength in shared infrastructure, especially its public transit. Vancouver has had a little too much lately of city planners-über alles, but Emerald City, maybe it’s time your city actually set up a planning department, rather than sprinkling those forward-thinking functions over three or four other civic agencies.
Vancouver: your parks, theatres, schools, community centres and transit lines are all wonderful, but sooner or later you will need to generate wealth in a renewable way to pay for them, and those earnest workaholics three hours south may have something to teach us. We have gazed away for too long, and it is high time our Siamese cities had a good hard look at one other.