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Seattle's Growing Pains

May 8, 2015

Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the country—the fifth fastest according to Forbes Magazine. Sounds good, but with any growth comes growing pains.

Producer Joni Balter goes in close on some of the challenges Seattle is facing because of rapid growth, beginning with a look at how Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is faring in the first part of his first term.  

Ed Murray: We are here not to celebrate political victories of individuals, but the persistent values of this city.

Joni Balter: Ed Murray got off to an impressive start in his first term as Seattle mayor. Of course, it helps to lead a city where the economy is booming.

Jon Talton: This city is going through the most amazing economic, let’s call it effervescence, that I have ever seen in 25 years of covering business all over the country.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

Ed Murray: I think mayors around the world look at Seattle and would do a jig on top of the Space Needle to have a company like Amazon build in the heart of the city. It is a great thing.

Joni Balter: While it may be a great time to be mayor in one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, the challenge is how to keep growth manageableand to ensure the city is accessible for all. 

Jon Talton: And suddenly it’s this hotbed of technology and all these Amazonians on the street but not just Amazon, lots of other companies too, it’s kind of a shocking change.

Ed Murray: I believe we can grow and preserve the Seattle that we lovea Seattle of open spaces, a Seattle that is in touch with nature, a Seattle that has those small neighborhood businesses that are vibrant and vital. We can grow all those aspects and make this work. 

Joni Balter: So far, the mayor's signature achievement is one that has put the city on the map of urban innovatorsthe $15 an hour minimum wage. And he did it by doing what he's good at: forming a task force, and letting it rip.

The result? A plan requiring businesses to increase wages to $15 an hour over several years, something even critics call a bona fide deal.  

Mayor Ed Murray's plan to increase minimum wages to $15 an hour over time is his signature achievement so far.

Ed Murray: It is important in a city that is growing as fast as Seattle where income inequality has grown in this city at a rapid rate. Of course, income inequality is really the issue of our time nationally as a country.

Joni Balter: Shortly after brokering the minimum wage deal, the new mayor also fixed a plan created by the city council on ridesharesthose companies like Uber and Lyft that provide an alternative to taxis with the press of a button.

Ed Murray: We had the taxi industry which was a highly regulated monopoly, and we started to deregulate them. So we give them more opportunities to grow as well as take the caps off the rideshares that allowed them to operate throughout the city at whatever level they want.

Joni Balter: Then came a series of successes at the ballot box. Voters agreed to a new metropolitan parks district, then a new bus plan, plus a new program for Pre-K. 

And more recently, the mayor proposed a nearly billion dollar transportation plan to help people get around the congested city. 

Ed Murray: So I am proposing a nine-year, $900 million levy that maintains our current system and modernizes our busiest corridors to accommodate the coming growth we will experience.

Joni Balter: And some of that growth is already here, and more is on the way.

Amazon already has about 20,000 employees in Seattle. Facebook is expanding its workforce here. Expedia is moving from Bellevue to the old Amgen property on the waterfront. And Weyerhauser is moving from Federal Way to Pioneer Square.

With so much so fast, some wonder if there will be a backlash.

Seattle Times Economics Columnist Jon Talton.

Jon Talton: Sure, there are people who are very unhappy. There are people who are nostalgic for a Seattle that never was.

Joni Balter: Jon Talton is the economics columnist for The Seattle Times.

Jon Talton: We have a lot of new people coming here. We have a lot of people who are benefitting from the growth. It’s different.

Joni Balter: But dark clouds may be on the horizon for the mayor. 

One is named Bertha, the on-again, off-again tunnel boring machine which has greatly slowed the building of the new Highway 99 tunnel.

Ed Murray: The folks who took the risk are building the tunnel, [who] have provided the machine, have got to get this right.

Complications with Bertha have greatly slowed the building of the new Highway 99 tunnel.

Joni Balter: And then there is concern about affordable housing. With some of the fastest rising rents in the nation, many people are being priced out. For that, the mayor has created yet another task force.

Ed Murray: And we are going to identify the number of units we have to build, not just for single individuals but units for families that we have to build in this city that will allow this to be a city, you know, if you work here you can also afford to live here, whether that’s rent or buy.

Joni Balter: Murray remains optimistic that pretty much every urban problem can be solved. While Congress and state legislatures may be stymied, Murray thinks cities not only can innovate, but have to.

Ed Murray: What we’re doing on the minimum wage, what we’re doing on Pre-K, what we’re doing on transit, just to name a few, our hope is those go to scale, in this state and across the country.

Joni Balter: Some detractors would say Murray is merely benefitting from good timing.

Jon Talton: Most of the forces that are causing this economy to boom are happening way above Ed Murray’s pay grade. Now he can take credit for it as mayor and he has done very little to harm it, which is good for a politician.

Joni Balter: Whether he deserves some credit for Seattle's boom or not, Murray clearly sees it as an opportunity he intends to make work.

Ed Murray: We are in an incredible situation compared to many cities in this country that are still dying, that are still economically challenged. I think it is an incredible opportunity to create the Seattle of tomorrow and still have those same values.

The iconic Space Needle stands along a group of Seattle's unofficial birds—the tower cranes.



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As a Seattle native I am saddened to see the affects of the "boom" in our economy.
There is an affordable housing crisis and middle class families are forced out.
Many have left due to this and the lack of rent control. Lack of infrastructure makes it some of the worst traffic in the country. Crowded parks, beaches, and hiking. Thanks Ed Murray, you may have helped big business, but at the cost of the average Seattleite.