South Lake Union: Paul Allen does it sideways

Want to glimpse the future of South Lake Union, Seattle's evolving rust belt that stands between downtown and the water?

You can check it out at Vulcan's South Lake Union Discovery Center at Westlake and Denny. I did last week, along with more than 100 other curious folks who showed up for a Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce tour. In case you'd forgotten, two Seattle Commons votes in the 1990s spared the district from becoming a condo-lined, Champs Elysées of yuppiedom.

It's happening anyway, without the green acres. Money will overcome. And the language of money - "lifestyle" - would colonize our minds as well as our streets. Treasure your own, private thoughts and your own way of being at your own risk.

As we took in the Brave New World of South Lake Union according to Paul Allen and Vulcan, I kept hearing Bob Dylan's nasal warning in the back of my head: "And admit that the waters/Around you have grown ... Then you better start swimmin'/or you'll sink like a stone."

A nice irony for an aging Boomer. It's obviously time to swim or get out of the way.

We'll all swim better if we only acquiesce to the Vulcan marketing team whispering wetly in our ear.

"Life is full of needs.... Give wants equal billing," reads one display panel.

In the center of the main showroom stands a 200-square-foot scale model of South Lake Union. It's pretty cool. You can push a button and strings of lights will show you the various phases of construction.

Or, for virtual reality, you can look out the window where a mixed-use, Don Milliken project - two condo towers and a hotel - is underway. Milliken brought the Larry's Market and the Safeway/Tribeca complexes to Lower Queen Anne. Whole Foods will do business in the new Westlake site. A high-end grocer on Westlake - now that's real change.

Vulcan, according to a spokesperson, owns about 60 acres, or 18 percent of the neighborhood land. Most of the development is scheduled to be completed by 2020. Milliken told the Seattle P-I he believes the neighborhood is setting the "gold standard for urban Seattle."

A redeveloped South Lake Union, already a burgeoning biotech center, means more than 20,000 jobs and 8,000 additional living units. A streetcar will run between the lake and downtown.

If the city serves up $500 million on infrastructure improvements and tax breaks it's still one of those win-win things for everybody, right?

Especially if you have arrived.

"South Lake Union: A new model for urban living defining the best of the Northwest Lifestyle," reads another panel.

Lifestyle. A great word, that. It came into vogue in the early '70s, about the time "Open Marriage" was a big seller. It's all about appearances, superficiality, getting and spending - consumption as deity and demography as self-image. Anything to avoid what is irreplaceable within us.

Another panel celebrates South Lake Union's direct connection, by air, with the San Juans. Of course: The poor San Juans have been lifestyled to death.

But cheer up. Another panel tells the future, in case you won't be there to catch it: "Westlake Avenue is studded with eclectic restaurants and unique shops, such as Blue Moon Burger...."

"Eclectic" is one of those omnipresent buzzwords meaning different, but not too. Like "diversity," it's been appropriated into the lingua franca of real estate-marketing speak.

Feeling more artistic than eclectic? Help is on the march: "South Lake Union revels in artistic sensibilities."

I sidled over to a much-revered Queen Anne service provider and asked her what she thought. I noticed the familiar, dismissive roll of the eyes, the set of the jaw.

"What frosts me," she murmured ... and started talking about tax dollars. Then we were interrupted. We reverted to being polite guests.

I wandered over to the bookshelves fastened to a far wall. I checked out the titles: "Best Places to Kiss," "Northwest Wine Country," "Seattle: The Best of the Emerald City," "Quick Escapes" (see San Juans), "Kayaking," "Chihuly."


And then on to another panel: "Terry Avenue's South Lake Union campus where PROGRESSIVE Companies and research organizations are centered. Researchers meet at the Rosette outdoor Ping-Pong Plaza to clear their minds and engage in a competitive game."

Progressive and Ping-Pong. What a brave, ultimately losing struggle it must be to beat back smugness.

The young, Vulcan woman explaining the South Lake Union scale model to the assembled chamber crowd noted, "There are three Nobel Prize winners working in this neighborhood today."

Feel the flow.

On one panel there is a color photograph of a handsome, black-garbed couple on a high balcony grasping their glowing glasses of white wine while laughing at some sweet nothing. They're obviously expert swimmers.

In Vulcanville they represent the heroic ideal. These people would never roll over for, say, official, lethal lies about taking their country to war. They would never shrug and go along just to get along. Not these people of the coming South Lake Union lifestyle.

No way.

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