Tired buildings like this SODO warehouse have been successfully repurposed, allowing the neighborhood to retain its character. Photo: Michael Luis

All over Seattle, there is a tension between the preservation of land and buildings for industrial and craft uses and the conversion of that land to housing and commercial uses that promise greater revenue. That tension has become quite visible in SODO, the industrial district south of Downtown, Seattle, where an investor wants to build a new basketball arena, and advocates for port and manufacturing activities want to hold the line on conversion of that area. The same fight was played out in South Lake Union where the old industrial users lost—and in the Ballard and Interbay neighborhoods, where industrial users have held on.

Seattle has a constrained supply of industrial land close to the city center at a time when exciting, new kinds of industry are rapidly developing: artisanal foods and beverages, custom clothing and furnishing and a general renaissance of “urban manufacturing.” While heavy industry has mostly moved to distant suburbs and small towns, these new manufacturers are closely tied to urban life and need to be near their customers and partners.

When compared to cities across the country, however, Seattle’s competition for industrial land is a nice problem to have. A look at aerial photos of cities in the Midwest and Northeast will reveal large tracts of vacant land close to older downtowns, where abandoned industrial operations have been demolished. Why does Seattle have so few of these vacant tracts? The answer goes back 150 years to the forces that shaped the economy of the city and the role that geography played in its growth.

To begin with, Seattle evolved more as a commercial than a manufacturing center. By actively recruiting businessmen, craftsmen and professionals, and by starting businesses of their own, pioneers like Doc Maynard and David Denny made sure that Seattle became more than just another timber and fishing town. They wanted to create a city of merchants and service providers who would meet the needs of growing communities around Puget Sound. At its height, the Mosquito Fleet served over 300 settlements from its base in Seattle, bringing people to town for shopping and services and sending goods to far flung communities.

These pioneers also wanted to create a place where families and middle class culture would thrive. Sure, all manner of entertainment took root south of Yesler Street, but to the north and on Capitol Hill, respectable citizens built fine homes and a territorial university. Seattle had some mills and canneries, but the economic action really took place in the substantial brick and terra cotta buildings that rose up in the downtown core after the fire and the Klondike Gold Rush.

The arrival of the railroads in 1893 and the development of Seattle into the largest West Coast port meant even more trade and commercial activity. By 1910 Seattle had 240,000 residents, but unlike most cities of that size elsewhere in the country, it had no dominant heavy industry. Seattle had grown into the business center of Puget Sound and, increasingly, the Northwest, and a major transportation hub. But aside from shipbuilding and other industries associated with timber, fishing and trade, not much was made in the city.

The fate of the Millworks Supply building, a typical SODO light industrial structure, will tell us a lot about the future direction of the neighborhood. Photo: Michael Luis

Seattle’s lack of heavy industry is simply a product of its location. It makes no sense at all to locate production facilities in the upper left-hand corner of the map. As the nation moved from shacks on farms to well-appointed homes in cities and suburbs, and from horses and oxen to railroads and automobiles, factories sprung up to make products for an increasingly affluent country. Seattle, however, had little share of this industrial action since it was too far from most of the nation’s consumers. Only when technology-laden products came along– first airplanes and then software and instruments – for which distance from the customer did not matter did Seattle break out of its 100-year-old pattern.

This industrial isolation did, however, have an upside. Because Seattle did not have many traditional industrial operations, it did not suffer as much when manufacturers across the country faced debilitating foreign competition in the 1970s and 1980s. On the contrary, Seattle’s unique industrial profile – aerospace, information technologies, life sciences, trade – has been consistent with the new global economic order.

While other cities saw factories shut down and faced acres of vacant land surrounded by chain link fence, Seattle’s industrial neighborhoods remained largely intact. And as land prices rise in the core, and areas like South Lake Union and Rainier Valley become less available, pressure mounts on districts like SODO.

This will be a challenging time for planners in Seattle as they try to balance the desires of sports fans, longshoremen, craft distillers, nightclub owners and all the other users competing for limited space. It is a challenge we are lucky to have, however, as anyone touring other great American cities will attest.