In the early 1970s, when Weyerhaeuser was one of America’s mightiest corporations, it could have built a landmark downtown skyscraper in its hometown of Tacoma. But downtowns were on the outs. Gasoline was cheap. Traffic was relatively light. Outlying land was inexpensive. The externalities — hidden costs — of sprawl were not even considered. So it built a massive campus beside I-5 in Federal Way. It was the golden age of the suburban office “park.”
With the announcement of a move to a new headquarters in downtown Seattle’s Pioneer Square, Weyerhaeuser is part of a new trend. Talent and jobs are returning to America’s downtowns. Urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt has called this switch, with well-paid workers moving into cities while the working class shifts to suburbia, “the great inversion.” A few American cities such as Seattle are starting to resemble their European counterparts.
The “back to the city” movement is taking advantage of cool downtowns with abundant transit options, walkability, shops and restaurants, nearby condos and apartments, and creative friction, where workers of all kinds can interact in an energetic environment, gaining and sharing ideas. It is especially pronounced with smaller tech and creative firms. Jeff Bezos has shown the way for large outfits with Amazon’s pioneering urban tech campus in Seattle’s South Lake Union. Great downtowns are essential recruiting tools for worldwide talent.
For Seattle, the important lesson is not Weyerhaeuser, even with 900 well-paid employees. Given Wall Street’s community wrecking appetites, it could be sold off tomorrow. The trick is to continue to build the assets that make downtown attractive. And focus on deficiencies. We still don’t have enough transit for where this city and metro are headed. Warehousing the homeless downtown is unfair to that neighborhood. And “street civility” in some areas, needs to be improved.
Unfortunately for Tacoma, its downtown is not quite there — yet. And the suburban campus totally dependent on driving is not dead, so Federal Way should find new tenants for Weyerhaeuser’s old digs. Washington doesn’t have Texas’ recruitment largesse, so don’t expect a major company from out of state to move there.
To be sure, this is not old Weyerhaeuser. It shed much of its pulp and paper operations and became a real estate investment trust (REIT), where most profits are passed directly to shareholders (another perfectly legal all-American tax dodge). Still, as my colleague Coral Garnick reported, Weyerhaeuser is the seventh most valuable public company in Washington state. Moving to downtown, it joins Plum Creek Timber.
So history has come full circle. We’re not sending logs down “skid row” to Henry Yesler’s sawmill, but timber, at least from the corporate side, remains a pillar of the city.
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