You’d think the University District would be thriving.
It’s right next to the University of Washington, an institution that takes in around $250 million in state taxes each year and turns that into $12.5 billion in economic impact.
Yet businesses in the U-District have struggled for decades.
It’s a paradox in Seattle City Council District 4, where five people are vying in the Aug. 4 primary election to represent an area that stretches from Lake Union to Sand Point.
“How can we better collaborate and use the power of the creative minds here at the university, the students and faculty who are doing incredible work that feed the good things in the University District,” said Sally Clark, a former City Council member who now works for the university.
The university wants to turn the U-District into an “innovation district,” partly through a business incubator called Startup Hall.
The idea is for entrepreneurs to network with academics doing cutting edge research. The dream is that new businesses will set down roots here and hire lots of people.
The arrangement isn’t without risk. Each of those entrepreneurs has had to leave something behind.
“It’s a huge commitment and it’s really scary,” Amy Spinelli said. “Giving up all sorts of job security and a salary, benefits. But it’s exciting. And the energy here is really helpful.”
Khalid Siddiqui, another participant likened it to a roller coaster ride: “But it’s been a fun ride. I wake up in the morning, I want to come here and start working.”
They’ve discovered a sense of community at Startup Hall and help each other work through technical problems.
But there isn’t enough affordable office space in the U-District to accommodate them as they grow, and they’re competing with the UW for that space.
“When they’re ready to leave the nest, where do they go?” Clark asked.
A U-District comprehensive plan could include zoning changes and increased building heights to allow more growth.
But new office space and more workers could put more pressure on the availability of housing.
Some have invested their lives in one career, only to find that career has declined in value over the years.
“Makes me kind of mad, really. Kind of pissed off,” said Winfred Lucas, a 61-year-old marine electrician.
He was standing in line at the Family Works Food Bank, in Wallingford, near the Western edge of District 4.
He supplements his income by picking up garbage in sports stadiums.
And he keeps his rent low – around $550 per month – by renting a room in a house full of college students.
He’s old enough to be their grandfather.
“Sometimes that can be a little hectic,” he said. “Because a lot of them don’t want to clean up after themselves. But I don’t let it bother me no more. I just do what I do. And if it’s messy in the kitchen, I just leave it messy ’cause I was raised if you make a mess, you clean it up.”
Finding a way to absorb higher rent is an issue for many people in District 4.
“Sometimes you do what you gotta in order to make it,” Lucas said. “Sacrifice is a way of life.”
And it’s not just folks at the food bank who are making sacrifices. The squeeze extends well into the middle class.
At Magnuson beach’s dog park, on the district’s far eastern edge, Cathy Loerzel said she recently learned that family friends would move to Michigan because they couldn’t afford housing for their growing family.
“When we had our son, they were the ones who brought our meals and even helped me when I was going through things like post-partum depression. You know, they were the ones that were there,” said Loerzel.
That’s a big question in District 4: How do you maintain a sense of community when new growth pushes people out?
Loerzel doesn’t have the answer. But she has found a way to stay here.
“We bought a house with a mother-in-law” apartment, she said. “And my parents are actually going to be living there part time so that we can afford to stay in the city. And so all of us are having to make choices that we wouldn’t have made in the past – because we want to stay.”