Two weeks ago, the National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas took us to Seattle, Washington to see the city’s marriage of economic development and livability. Joined by Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims, Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for the U.S. Department of Commerce John Fernandez, and NIH Director for the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Dr. Robert Croyle, we toured the South Lake Union neighborhood.
In the past five years, over 2.7 million square feet of space has been constructed at South Lake Union for the biotech and life science industry, placing Seattle at the forefront of medical innovation. This neighborhood, combined with mixed-use and affordable-housing development and public transportation solutions, showed us how regional economic development initiatives can include and foster smart growth.
Our day began with an overview of the South Lake Union neighborhood at the Vulcan, Inc. Discovery Center. There we learned of Mayor Greg Nickels’ successful efforts since 2002 to recruit biotech and life science organizations. Why? Good jobs. These businesses provide high-wage jobs and like to locate close to one another to foster collaboration. In short, biotech businesses make good “regional innovation clusters.” In Seattle’s case, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington (UW) were early biotech anchors that helped to attract other biotech businesses.
I especially enjoyed our stop at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), a leader in infectious disease research. There we received presentations on the work of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and the Washington Global Health Alliance. All of these “heavyweight” research and global health institutions are housed in a 60-block radius, sharing ideas, students, facilities and often clientele.
The reason the visit to SBRI was special is because we got to talk to high school students who are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. The aim of Bioquest is to inspire the next generation of scientists by allowing teenagers to get hands-on experience in a lab and meet working scientists and researchers. Dr. Robert Croyle found it particularly rewarding to see kids benefiting from the over $86,000 in Recovery Funding that was awarded to SBRI to expand the Bioquest program, offering college credit to high school seniors.
But South Lake Union is not just about science, collaboration and commercialization. It is about community. During our walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Bart Harvey residence for low-income seniors. The six-story building has an enviable array of amenities—a library room with a computer lab, community meeting space, offices for case management and support services, and a green roof that provides a panoramic view of the Seattle skyline – my favorite though, a rooftop herb garden. We spoke to one resident who expressed her love for her new home. She said, “I am comfortable here. We have everything at our fingertips. Maybe it’s just me, but I love to go up to the garden on the roof and watch the planes touch down.”
Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute explained, “We need to make sure low-income people can live in middle-class neighborhoods not only in distressed communities.We have changed the look of low-income housing. Not only is it well designed, it’s green.”
We topped off the day with an important policy discussion about the qualities that define a successful regional innovation cluster, the role of the federal government in supporting that type of development, and lessons learned from the South Lake Union experience. Ada Healy, Vice President of Real Estate for Vulcan, Inc., the key local private sector partner noted, “This group came together because of extraordinary leadership, coordination, and cooperation from the Mayor’s Office, the Gates Foundation, the non-profit community, government, and business. There was an atmosphere of trust and a commitment to not just create offices where people work from 9-to-5, but real communities.”
Assistant Secretary John Fernandez explained that the Economic Development Administration is looking to “create a bridge” to encourage innovations that reach beyond the center and positively affect the whole region.”
Our trip to Seattle showed us that smart, coordinated planning can attract a cluster of businesses to a neighborhood and spur regional economic development, and train the next generation of scientists, provide housing for seniors, and create a more livable community. Thanks, Seattle!!
Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President