The Old Industrial Heart

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Bill VirginIf there’s one constant in the story of SoDo—and its history
would suggest there haven’t been many—it’s that people have never been quite
sure of what it is, what it will become or what it ought to be.

For much of its life, people weren’t even sure what to call
the four square miles or so of filled-in tidal flats-turned-industrial heart of
Seattle. For years, until a marketing campaign promoted the name SoDo (as in
“south of the dome”), the area made do with the generic descriptor of “the
industrial area.” Even though the Kingdome was blown up, some still call this
neighborhood SoDo, as in “south of downtown.”

But uncertainty over what to call the area, and why, is a
trivial matter next to the long-running and unresolved debate of what to do
with the place.

It’s a debate whose resolution, if there is one, is of
considerable interest not just to those who work or own businesses or property
in SoDo. It’s also of growing importance to other industrial zones around
Seattle such as Interbay, Georgetown, North Lake Union and similar areas all
over the Puget Sound region where traditional industry—often noisy and
grimy—bumps up against competing interests and uses including offices as well
as retail and residential space.

SoDo’s complex past and uncertain future are laid out in a
new book by Dan Raley, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter who is now an editor at the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution
.

As Raley notes in Tideflats to Tomorrow: The History of
Seattle’s SoDo
, the area has been a
mishmash ever since someone got the idea of filling in those tidal lands: rail
yards and sawmills, meat packers and metal shops, a seaport, warehouses, a huge
Hooverville during the Depression, the first Costco store, a giant Sears store
and distribution center that later became Starbucks’ headquarters, and sports
stadiums.

Change has been a given. The sawmills and shipyards gave way
to warehouses for the port, which were done in by containerized cargo. Home
improvement wholesale and retail outlets moved in. “With each passing decade,
the industrial presence has moved farther south,” Raley writes.

In some cases, “farther south” meant Renton or the Kent
Valley. Owners of manufacturing and other heavy-industry businesses, tiring of
the hassles of operating in SoDo (traffic snarls, potholes on some cross
streets that could swallow small buildings) and sensing growing competition for
property from other uses, relocated.

To local property owners such as Henry Liebman (who also
co-owns the book’s publisher, Fairgreens Publishing), SoDo’s evolution is
natural. Raley writes that Lieb-man’s vision is for “sleek and airy business
space … in the form of five-to-seven-story buildings, creating corporate
campuses close to the downtown core of Seattle.”

To others, losing the industrial flavor of SoDo would be a
mistake. “This is still an industrial area,” Dave Gering, executive director of
the Manufacturing and Industrial Council of Seattle, says in Raley’s book.
“People were trying to get it rezoned 10 years ago and said industry is dead.
Instead, industry has grown.”

Raley also notes that opinion is not unanimous in the
industrial community about resisting the incursions into SoDo or stopping its
morphing, and that some have proposed even more sweeping changes to the SoDo
landscape than Liebman’s vision.

This issue isn’t just for business and property owners in
SoDo, or in other traditionally industrial areas. It’s an issue for government
officials, economic development planners and others charged with thinking about
what keeps this region operating over the next few decades.

The questions they face are important, obvious and blunt:
Does Seattle need an industrial base? Does Seattle want an industrial base? If
so, where? Should the city try to fence off an industrial area from other,
incompatible uses when no matter how much people say they want the real flavor
of a city, it’s unlikely they want to buy a condo next to a clanging scrap
metal yard? Can the city legitimately tell property owners they have to keep
their land in industrial use if someone is offering more money to do something
else with it?

The answers are important and likely to be blunt, but much
less obvious, especially if, as often happens around here, the approach to
dealing with them involves a lot of procrastination and avoidance.

But as the saying goes, not choosing is making a choice. If
the area’s history is any indicator (and it’s usually quite reliable), SoDo is
going to change into something else whether anyone wants it to or even notices
that it’s happening.