Follow us:

Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

August 27, 2014 at 10:08 AM

Weyerhaeuser rides the waves

Weyerhaeuser's Federal Way headquarters. (Photo by Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)

Weyerhaeuser’s Federal Way headquarters. (Photo by Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)

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.


 

Thursday Reading: Deflation fears | The Big Picture


 

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Deadbeat royalty

Supported by taxpayers

All hail Burger King


 

Comments | More in | Topics: Downtown Seattle, Pioneer Square

COMMENTS

No personal attacks or insults, no hate speech, no profanity. Please keep the conversation civil and help us moderate this thread by reporting any abuse. See our Commenting FAQ.



The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited seattletimes.com access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►