I'm New Here

She's *Really* New Here

Meet Sasha Mehdi, face of Seattle’s future.

By Kathryn Robinson August 19, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Brandon Hill

Right about the time you’re reading this, a tiny Seattleite named Sasha Marie Mehdi will be squishing bits of her first birthday cake into her mouth. The little girl with the big cheeks and the iridescent moonstone eyes lives with her parents Rachel and Faris Mehdi in a blue and brick Tudor on a quiet lane in Montlake. Sasha is exceptionally expressive, with an untempered squeal and a sunburst smile showcasing all two of her teeth. If all goes according to her parents’ plans, she will spend her entire childhood in this home.

Some come to Seattle out of hope, some out of necessity. Sasha, by contrast, arrived via another kind of drama. In Rachel’s ninth month of pregnancy, little unborn Sasha was measured in the first percentile for size. She was breech. After labor started, complications set in; stillbirth was mentioned. Rachel’s labor was tortuous—36 hours of medicinally heightened contractions ending in a scary last-minute C-section—but when Sasha emerged, triumphantly screaming, it was clear she was tough. Asked for a word to describe her, Faris doesn’t miss a beat: “Determined.”

Since then Sasha has grown fast—she’s made it to the 50th percentile—making her, in a sense, not so unlike the city of her birth. In 2013 Seattle grew faster than any major city in America, with 115,000 more jobs and 120,000 more people expected in the next two decades. Sound Transit reports that by the year 2040, the population of the Puget Sound region as a whole will swell by roughly 40 percent—a number that doesn’t even account for the unknowable variable of “climate migrators” who are expected to gush in, fleeing drought and other grim upshots of global warming in the Great Plains and Southwest United States.

The document that will shape the next 20 years of Seattle’s growth—the Comprehensive Plan—will come fully of age the same year Sasha does, in 2035. Just as the Washington state legislature’s 1990 Growth Management Act hemmed in rural sprawl by funneling growth into urban areas like Seattle, the Comp Plan seeks to concentrate Seattle’s growth into six Urban Centers—Northgate, South Lake Union, Lower Queen Anne, Downtown, Capitol Hill/First Hill, and the U District.

In all the versions of the Comp Plan currently under review, those six urban centers will teem with people by the time Sasha turns 21: full of skyscrapers, bigger buildings, and most of the jobs. The bulk of residential development will be channeled into six other neighborhoods, or Hub Urban Villages—Ballard, Bitter Lake, West Seattle, Mount Baker, Fremont, and Lake City. Most of the new housing in these villages will be town houses and condos and other multifamily dwellings to accommodate Seattle’s shrinking household sizes, which have steadily declined (except for a blip upward during the Great Recession) since the ’70s. Household sizes will keep shrinking throughout Sasha’s childhood, declining from what was 2.06 individuals per household in 2010 to closer to two in 2035. Sasha’s Montlake, as a residential neighborhood, will likely remain as quiet and as single family as Seattle neighborhoods will get.

Of course predictions are a crapshoot—every expert consulted for this story emphasizes that—and especially so within competing Comprehensive Plans that are still under review, with those plans that envision density close to mass transit stops winning the most vocal support. This is not the slightest bit surprising to Faris Mehdi, whose commute across 520 to his job as sales and marketing director for ChemPoint chemical company in Bellevue is already a serious pain. 

Fortunately for him, Sound Transit’s light rail will likely glide commuters across the lake by 2023. Baby Sasha will likely take her first trips with her parents to Capitol Hill and downtown on light rail from the University of Washington Station, scheduled to open this winter. By the time Sasha’s seven years old, those downtown trips might include visits to the new waterfront green way, connecting Pioneer Square to the expanded Pike Place Market. By the time she’s 17, if Sound Transit has its way, Sasha and her friends will be connecting via light rail to Ballard. 

If Sasha enrolls in a King County school outside of Seattle, she’ll have more classmates of color every year, particularly Asians and mixed-race kids. Over the past 20 years King County’s people-of-color ratio has been growing faster than Seattle’s. But Seattle is catching up, and demographers agree that Seattle’s 34 percent people of color will grow to majority status by around 2035. By then, kids of color will also be the majority among kids. 

Will Sasha be one of them? It’s not as odd a question as it sounds. In recent years a national debate has erupted in anticipation of the 2020 census, over whether to expand the “race/ethnicity” choices to include categories like Middle Eastern. Sasha—whose dad Faris is half Iraqi—may one day be able to formally declare herself mixed race. 

Economist and forecaster Dick Conway says the Puget Sound region will continue to grow faster than the U.S. as a whole, yielding per capita personal incomes 24 percent above the national average (as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis). That number will be just as high when Sasha is 21 and looking for a job of her own—a sunny forecast Conway puts down to Seattle’s proximity to China, its trifecta of powerhouse economic engines (Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon), and a strong complement of natural and cultural amenities that sound like feel-good intangibles—but in fact tangibly draw and hold a labor force. 

(One of those cultural amenities, Conway predicts quietly, may be professional basketball—the return of which his crystal ball regards likely given Seattle’s growing population base and its relative surplus of billionaires to support it. Whether or not a hoops team comes back during Sasha’s childhood…the idea sure makes her dad smile.)

If Sasha follows her parents into marketing and sales—Rachel manages sales of organic produce to large food retailers—she’ll be in the sector projected to become the largest occupational cluster nationally by 2020. The source for that, the Georgetown Public Policy Report, also projects that by then secondary education will be necessary for 65 percent of all jobs. Faris and Rachel acquired Guaranteed Education Tuition accounts early for their kids’ college educations, but Sasha may be on her own after graduation, in a demographically competitive local environment.

That is: Sasha will have plenty of peers, and plenty of rivals. Seattle is and will remain a twentysomething city, its share of young adults 20 to 34—at 30 percent already well above the nation’s 21 percent—diminishing only slightly by 2035, projects City of Seattle demographer Diana Canzoneri. Thanks to the UW and Seattle’s startup culture, Seattle will remain younger than its surrounding county.

Seattle will also be loaded with old folks. When Faris turns 65 right around Sasha’s 21st birthday he’ll be in good company, as the last of the baby boomers pass through the demographic bulge and, says Canzoneri, will account for one-fifth of the total population in both King County and the nation as a whole; a little less in Seattle. Seniors made up 10 percent of the Puget Sound region in 2000, says the Puget Sound Regional Council, and will grow nearly 150 percent by 2040.

Sasha’s family gene pool is strong—one of Rachel’s grandpas lived to see 100—so she will remain healthy; something her mother the organic produce professional makes sure of by grinding fresh organic fruits and leafy greens to make Sasha’s baby food. Such attention to healthfulness is emblematic of economic privilege, Seattle–King County Public Health staff say, with poorer zip codes than the Mehdis’ affluent 98112 ranking higher in environmental and social causes of ill health. The good news says Dr. Jeff Duchin, a county health officer, is that our region is on the leading edge of changing that paradigm, with its progressive emphasis on preventive interventions for chronic conditions. 

In the coming decades, Duchin predicts, “Seattle will shine as a beacon of decreased health disparities.” Of course, in the next breath he describes our region’s vulnerability during the same time period to health effects of climate change no one yet can foresee. “With more heat, less snowpack, increased pathogens from warm water on shellfish and mosquitos—it’s all unpredictable.” Not to mention, of course, that inevitable earthquake nobody can stop talking about. 

Cue Sasha Marie Mehdi’s “surprise face”: eyes wide, brows up, mouth in an O. It’s her parents’ adoring name for the expression she makes when Faris playfully hoists her by her ankles or comes in for a tickle. Sasha is a kid secure in her layers of loving family, safe neighborhood, and thriving community; here is a child with every reason to know that the Seattle she’s growing up in—a progressive, well meaning, highly successful, increasingly affluent, mostly adult enclave—will be not so very different from the Seattle she’ll hit adulthood in. 

Still, Sasha makes that surprise face a lot.

How we got that shot...


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