An army of black clouds amasses above the steel cranes and glassy new office towers of Seattle’s South Lake Union (SLU) neighbourhood. It’s lunchtime and workers in hard hats have taken shelter inside a coffee shop alongside latte-clasping techies.
Fringed by the teal waters of Lake Union and situated just one kilometre north of the clustered skyscrapers of Seattle’s downtown, SLU is the Emerald City’s fastest growing and most dynamic neighbourhood, a cleverly compressed zip-file of everything Seattle does best. It is a rapidly evolving enclave of Internet geniuses and creative business people that, despite its growing population density, keeps one foot stuck in the “emerald” outdoors. No wonder Seattleites sometimes refer to it as “the ’hood that could.”
It wasn’t always thus. Back in the predigital age, SLU lay unloved and semi-abandoned, a no-man’s-land of concrete overpasses and ugly postwar architecture that struggled to forge a collective personality.
The neighbourhood’s rebirth began in the mid-1990s when city authorities, community groups and wealthy local business people led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen got together to chart and finance one of the biggest urban regeneration projects in modern U.S. history. The plan hinged upon switching SLU’s flagging economy from a light industrial base to one focused on technology. As a result, scruffy warehouses and traffic snarls have been replaced by biotech companies, a cancer research facility and – more recently – the $1-billion global headquarters of Amazon.com, completed in 2013.
Not surprisingly, where Amazon goes, thousands follow. Buoyed by the lucrative presence of the world’s largest online retailer, SLU has metamorphosed into a hive of boldly experimental restaurants and trendy gastro-pubs built to serve the abundance of affluent and tech-savvy workers, many of whom live on the neighbourhood’s doorstep.
The crux of SLU’s vision is its development not just as a hi-tech office zone, but as an attractive residential district of mixed-income housing. Amazon and other companies actively encourage their employees to live close to their offices. Foresighted urban planning – boosted by a $2.84-billion joint public-private investment fund – has created an impressive infrastructure of apartments, green spaces and shops, as well as a practical public transportation system: reconfigured streets have been traffic-calmed and an 11-stop streetcar, inaugurated in 2007, links the lakeshore directly with downtown.
Although cranes still dot the SLU skyline, workers in hard hats are quickly filling in the gaps. To lure in non-residents, Seattle’s 62-year-old Museum of History and Industry was relocated from the peripheral Montlake neighbourhood to a former naval armoury building in recently landscaped Lake Union Park. Overlooked by seaplanes, sailboats and early morning rowers, it sits at the crossroads of the reincarnated SLU, rugged “outdoor” culture on one side, white-hot technological wizardry on the other.
IF YOU GO
Where to Eat
Serious Biscuit: This venture from Iron Chef winner Tom Douglas is an extension of his Serious Pie pizza restaurant in nearby Belltown. Here, American-style biscuits as well as pizzas provide the starch. 401 Westlake Ave. N.; seriouspiewestlake.com
Shanik: This creative Indian restaurant is run by Meeru Dhalwala, wife of Canadian chef Vikram Vij, whose Vancouver restaurant once inspired spice-craving Seattleites to drive more than 200 kilometres north. 500 Terry Ave. N.; shanikrestaurant.com
What to See
Museum of History and Industry: Housed in art deco digs on the south shore of Lake Union, this museum tells about the inventions Seattle has exported around the world. Boeing airplane geeks, Starbucks sippers, craft-beer snobs, grunge merchants and Grey’s Anatomy lovers are all affectionately catered to. 860 Terry Ave. N.; mohai.org
Center for Wooden Boats: Abutting Lake Union Park is one of SLU’s few survivors from the 1970s, an outdoor museum of sailboats. On Sundays, start queuing at 10 a.m. for free 45-minute sailboat rides on the lake. cwb.org
Where to Stay
Hotel Five: Technically in the adjacent neighbourhood of Belltown, Hotel Five’s 116 arty rooms have slick, modern SLU credentials. Bonuses include a gym, complimentary bikes and free pineapple cupcakes each afternoon. Rooms from $116 (U.S.). 2200 Fifth Ave.; hotelfiveseattle.com
Where to Shop
REI: The flagship store of the quintessential U.S. chain for outdoor enthusiasts is a day out in its own right, with an on-site 20-metre-high climbing wall and a bicycle test track. 222 Yale Ave. N.; rei.com/seattle