Paul Allen was the city’s preeminent philanthropist and real estate developer up until his death earlier this week. His legacy reveals something broader about the twinned nature of Seattle and its native software son.
A Seattleite in 2018 may wake up in a swanky new urban apartment, board a streetcar, work at a brain research institute, eat lunch in an Amazon office building, check out Captain Kirk’s chair at a pop-culture museum, munch on chocolate popcorn in the restored Cinerama, and catch the Seahawks game all in a day. The common thread of this lifestyle? Paul Allen.
The Microsoft co-founder died on Monday at 65 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease he had battled since 1982. More than three decades after he made his fortune with private-school classmate Bill Gates, Allen became his hometown’s biggest philanthropist through charitable investments in arts and science, owner of two professional sports franchises, and the financial backer of a for-profit real estate firm that plays a leading role in Seattle’s staggering growth spurt.
On Tuesday, veteran local columnist Knute Berger wrote, “Seattle will always be a Paul Allen city.” Berger may have meant that turn of phrase sentimentally, but as the “accidental billionaire” became the city’s preeminent—if intensely private—philanthropist and real estate developer, his legacy also reveals something broader about the twinned nature of Seattle and its native software son, whose fortune inadvertently led to the creation of Amazon’s downtown campus: The rich white nerd helped beget a city of rich white nerds.
Allen’s post-Microsoft pursuits were as varied as the polymath’s passions: a brain-science research institute, a shipwreck-hunting submarine, African elephant conservation, space exploration, heritage airplanes, and cliché ultrarich pursuits like luxury yachts. But for the city where he made his fortune, that legacy manifests itself in the wholesale transformation of several neighborhoods, commissioning a starchitect-designed museum for his personal sci-fi and music memorabilia, and saving the Seattle Seahawks from leaving town in 1996.
“He was to Seattle what Carnegie was to Pittsburgh,” said land use attorney and author Charles Wolfe, who provided legal services to Vulcan, Allen’s real estate arm, for the Seahawks practice facility.
Where Carnegie built libraries, Seattle’s gifts reflect certain fin-de-millennium values. Allen’s bequest includes big-ticket civic infrastructure like a permanent home for the Seahawks and Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field and Frank Gehry’s curvy and colorful Museum of Popular Culture (formerly known as the Experience Music Project), which the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp described as “like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died.” (Allen also funded the more modest Living Computer Museum.)
Allen’s philanthropy tinkered with the city’s cultural life in ways that delighted for his largess and rankled for his peripatetic approach. He sprinkled money throughout the Northwest’s network of arts non-profits, only to simultaneously pull the plug on all his grantees in 2014 and then open an art gallery to showcase the masterworks in his private collection, only to then close that gallery a little over one year later. In 2015, he started the Seattle Art Fair, an event inspired by this West Coast Medici’s pilgrimages to the Venice Biennale. In 2017, he bankrolled Upstream, a music festival to showcase the contemporary Pacific Northwest sound—an upper left counterpart to SxSW—that left the local music scene conflicted about generous gig fees which came with a creeping sense of corporate welfare. It’s unclear if those recent pillars of the Seattle cultural calendar will go the way of the now-defunct art gallery.
Allen’s influence was most profound through Vulcan, the for-profit enterprise tasked with implementing his business and charitable interests. The company has gobbled up local real estate and spit out millions of square feet of tech company offices and apartments largely geared toward tech workers. Their presence is most significant in South Lake Union, where a former constellation of warehouses, parking lots, and cheap apartments has exploded into Amazon’s high-rise campus bejeweled with tropical gardens encased in glass spheres, a growth explosion without adequate infrastructure that has made Seattle into a cautionary tale for cities bidding to host Amazon HQ2.
Turning South Lake Union into Amazonia was not Paul Allen’s original intention. In fact, the saga began with a charitable act that could have been Allen’s biggest civic contribution, but was foiled by democracy. In the 1980s, local journalists proposed transforming a portion of down-on-its-heels South Lake Union into a marquee downtown park, a civic amenity Seattle lacked. As support for the idea grew, Allen put up $20 million to acquire land and offered to pay for maintenance in perpetuity, provided voters funded construction. The Seattle electorate turned down the proposal twice, convinced it was a public subsidy to a rich person’s park, as the surrounding real estate—which Allen also acquired—was likely going to become a high-end new neighborhood anchored by biotech companies.
Opponents’ belief that a “no” vote would freeze South Lake Union in time proved woefully inaccurate. The affluence came anyway in a Vulcan building frenzy, and without a flagship public space for the city. While some critics believe Allen should have financed the entire endeavor and not left it up to the voters, University of Washington urban historian Margaret O’Mara disagrees. “If he had bankrolled the whole thing just the same as if Bezos bankrolled some massive project today, you can’t win for losing,” she told CityLab. “There’s always some worry that a deep pocketed billionaire is controlling the built environment.” Peter Steinbrueck, who served on Seattle City Council from 1997-2007 during the South Lake Union gestation and watched the billionaire and his real estate arm hold the upper hand, told CityLab that “Vulcan and Allen were a very dominant force for a decade when I was in city hall and chair of the Planning, Land Use, and Development committee.”
Vulcan espouses a triple-bottom-line ethos and Steinbrueck credits the company for being a “New Age developer” willing to spend extra especially on environmental standards, where it bills itself as the world’s first salmon-safe developer, but for an enterprise with Allen’s financial backing, Steinbrueck is left unimpressed. “Vulcan’s investments have not been world-changing,” he said. “I wish [South Lake Union] could have been the most sustainable, green urban district in North America.”
Allen’s deep pockets made Vulcan the city’s most prominent developer at a time of deep civic angst over runaway growth. The company was instrumental in negotiating the so-called “grand bargain” to upzone certain neighborhoods in exchange for inclusionary zoning. It also donated to defeat the short-lived “head tax” to pay for affordable housing and homelessness services, a social crisis that many pin on the outsized footprint of companies like Amazon—a presence that Vulcan built, albeit responding to Amazon’s insatiable demand for real estate.
Vulcan’s social bona fides have come under scrutiny for their investment in the historically black Central District.
Last year, a coalition of artists and activists issued an open letter to Vulcan and Paul Allen on the eve of Upstream, which the company produced, calling on the company and its financier to live up to the festival’s mission to “give emerging local artists the resources they need to navigate and thrive in the new music economy,” by investment in local community land trusts and committing to affordable housing above legally required minimums. (Vulcan did not respond to a request for an interview, referring CityLab to a public statement on their founder’s passing.)
Vulcan’s size makes it a prime target for anti-displacement activists, but blaming the Allen-spawned company for all of Seattle’s ongoing gentrification fingers a prominent boogeyman rather than the region’s failure to build a regional mass-transit system, widespread single-family zoning within city limits, and city government’s unwillingness to charge developer impact fees beyond inclusionary zoning.
Central District community leaders, who have already seen the neighborhood decline from over 70 percent black to less than 20 percent black, are particularly wary about Vulcan’s redevelopment of a suburban-style shopping center (home to a beloved local grocery store that catered to African-American customers) into a new mixed-use block with 500 units. Donald King, an architect who lives in the neighborhood, served on the project’s community advisory board. (His firm also worked on CenturyLink Field and he later consulted with Vulcan for a fee on how it could incorporate Afrocentric designs into the new project.)
“If there was a scale, I would say Vulcan is 80 percent business and 20 percent social consciousness,” he said—a proportion that makes them more responsive than most local real estate developers. King credited Vulcan for adopting nearly every feasible proposal from the community advisory group, including a 24-hour promenade through the heart of the project and affordable micro-businesses for minority entrepreneurs. The company also pursued tax credits to keep 20 percent of the development’s rental housing affordable, higher than the percentage required by the “grand bargain” that Vulcan helped negotiate. Even as the head tax debate raged in May, Vulcan employees helped build a “tiny house village”—a popular stopgap measure for Seattle’s homelessness crisis.
Nevertheless, King sees Allen’s investment in Seattle as constrained by the demands of for-profit real estate, as opposed to a more altruistic approach like seeding a land trust. “A gift of the land would be the most positive and effective way to engage the community in actual ownership and development,” he said.
Instead, much of what Vulcan—and by extension Allen —have built in Seattle consists of market-rate housing, which under current market conditions has helped create a city more like Paul Allen, mostly male, mostly white software developers.
“[Vulcan’s] end product ultimately serves the well-to-do white nerd demographic because that’s the demand,” King said. “[Allen’s] legacy and who continues that is going to be an important factor for Seattle.”