South Lake Union Success: The Numbers Don't Lie

By Josh Feit August 22, 2011

I got to South Lake Union about 9:30 on Sunday morning for breakfast and 1) We had to circle around to find parking and 2) There was a line out the door at the restaurant, Portage Bay Café. I guess I wasn't the only one who wanted to be in/see/test out South Lake Union. Who knew?

I guess the numbers knew. A recent report (by former Mayor Greg Nickels policy staffer Mike Mann and Seattle University) shows that: Development has exceeded initial 2004-2010 projections dating from 2002, when Nickels and Vulcan were pushing the new South Lake Union, by 600,000 square feet; exceeded job creation by 3,200 jobs; exceeded property tax revenue predictions by $2.5 million; exceeded B&O tax revenue predictions by $1.1 million; exceeded sales tax predictions by $300,000; and exceeded utility tax predictions by $1.7 million, for a total of about $5.5 million more in tax revenues than expected.

The report concludes:
Between 2004 and 2010, the real estate development activities in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood have exceeded the projections incorporated in Paul Sommers’ The Potential Economic and Fiscal Impacts of South Lake Union Development report.   Since 2004, the assessed value of newly constructed building exceeds $1.1 billion. In this time frame, the neighborhood has attracted over 13,000 permanent jobs, achieving over 72% of the City’s 2024 Comprehensive Plan goal for the South Lake Union Urban Center.  This magnitude of construction and economic activity has resulted in an average of $5 million per year in additional tax revenues
to the City of Seattle.

There were a lot of naysayers about the predictions. And certainly the main critique—that investing in other neighborhoods, such as the south end, might have been better for the city—isn't disproved by these numbers. You can't really disprove a negative.

Seattle City Council members such as Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata were hypercritical of the investment. For example, in 2004, Steinbrueck said: "It is fine for us to support it (biotechnology development), but I am afraid it has gone too far, and there are too many false promises. We need to sober up."

It's hard not to revisit those debates (Vulcan bad/dissident council members good) and acknowledge that the investment has paid off. (For the record, I was skeptical—particularly about biotech jobs—back then too. It turns out the biotech industry has created 350 more jobs than predicted; and overall, including office and retail, the number beat predictions by more than 3,000 jobs.)

And for Licata's part (from the same Seattle Times piece quoted above): "I think they know they are on flimsy ground. Is it quixotic? Is it reality? Are we giving up opportunities in other parts of the city?"

Vulcan, the main property owner in South Lake Union (with 60 acres, including the new Amazon digs), held its 10-year anniversary party during the South Lake Union block party the weekend before last. The company showed off graphs and charts up on easels hyping the numbers. However: Paul Allen, who's invested about $1.7 billion in all the redevelopment (including $9 million for the streetcar), was a no show.
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