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Jon Talton

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

Category: Urban issues
July 15, 2013 at 9:55 AM

The power and limitations of metro nation

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution lays out a compelling argument in the Financial Times (registration required) that the action in the Great Reset is coming from metropolitan areas, not paralyzed D.C.

These communities are not waiting for Washington, mired in partisan rancour, to get its act together. They are driving a “metropolitan revolution” – doing the work needed to increase jobs and restructure their economies. Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and Miami are using local resources to boost private investment in economy-shaping infrastructure such as transit systems, ports and airports. Boston, Cleveland and New York City are refocusing their development on innovative, productive and export-driven growth rather than the pre-recession mixture of stadium building, homebuilding and consumption. Chicago, Houston and San Antonio are working to integrate immigrants, make early education universally available and equip young workers with the skills they need to compete globally.

As I have argued before, the fundamental units of competitiveness now are metropolitan areas. The real game is not Bellevue vs. Seattle, but metro Seattle competing for world talent and capital against Singapore, Shanghai, Amsterdam and the Bay Area. In the United States, the 100 largest metro areas generate three-quarters of the nation’s gross domestic product and hold two-thirds of its population. Katz writes, “More importantly, they contribute upwards of 90 per cent of educated workers, advanced industry jobs, patent creation and trade-oriented freight flow – assets that the nation needs for growth.”


Comments | More in Urban issues | Topics: Brookings Institution, competitiveness, legislature

February 19, 2013 at 11:21 AM

Seattle’s downtown boom

Seattle has more residential units under construction downtown than any other U.S. metropolitan area other than Houston. This includes 6,000 apartments, one-third of all under construction in the Puget Sound region. Population is growing faster than the city as a whole, increasing 24 percent since 2000 vs. 10 percent for the city. Downtown also enjoyed the strongest improvement among employment centers in the region with a 7 percent year-over-year increase in jobs. These are among the findings presented at last week’s 2013 State of Downtown Economic Forum of the Downtown Seattle Association.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but we must continue to develop an environment which attracts and nurtures this growth,” said association President and CEO Kate Joncas. “We need to ensure that downtown is family friendly, which includes developing a downtown public school and rezoning South Lake Union to support the kind of density that will attract families… We have an obligation to ensure that we’re taking a smart approach to our advantages over suburban areas – steps like improving the pedestrian experience, preserving transit and making downtown Seattle the region’s preferred destination to live, work, shop and play.  These are top priorities.”

A prime mover of the activity is, which, along with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate, has created a trend-setting urban headquarters campus in South Lake Union and is set to build the first of three skyscrapers in the Denny Triangle. But corporate and developer interest goes deeper. For example, R.C. Hedreen is preparing a massive two-tower project on the site of the Greyhound bus station. The downturn-delayed Fifth and Columbia Tower is on again; it would be the tallest building erected here in 20 years. One wonders if the city is adequately protecting the views of the iconic Space Needle.


Comments | More in Sustainability, Urban issues | Topics: Downtown Seattle Association, R.C. Hedreen, Vulcan

June 24, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Charlotte and Seattle, tales of two cities

Some 100 business and civic leaders from Charlotte, host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, have been in Seattle this week as part of the Charlotte Chamber’s annual inter-city visit. The chamber there has been doing these gigs for more than 50 years to learn best practices from other cities. According to the Charlotte Business Journal, “Potential areas of interest for the Charlotte contingent include Seattle’s renowned library system (a particularly relevant topic, given the recent struggles here), signature downtown projects (the historic Pioneer Square District and the Pike Place Market), economic development, transportation and the arts.”

I was business editor and columnist at the Charlotte Observer for nearly five years, ending in 2000. When I got there, it seemed like Hooterville with a couple of giant skyscrapers. By the time I left, it was the nation’s second largest banking center with a gleaming, Oz-like skyline. It has been battered by the Great Recession, losing one of its two precious money center banks. Fiscal troubles have ravaged its schools and library system. Still, it can claim the only modern light-rail system in the South and an amazing amount of affluence thanks to being home to Bank of America and Duke Energy.

Two cities could not be more different. Although Charlotte is more populous (731,524 vs. 608,660), Seattle seems like the bigger city, partly because Seattle is denser and Charlotte is sprawled out and car-dependent. So lessons for Charlotte? Continuous reinvention and economic diversity (don’t be dependent on the banks), stewardship and non-profit strength, seek global business and love your downtown. The Queen City, as Charlotte styles itself (ironic, given our former monicker), is not going to get Bill Gates or Bill Boeing or world-class software, bio-tech and world health clusters. It won’t get a port. The suburban University of North Carolina at Charlotte is no UW.


Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing, Deficit, Downtown and urban issues, Eurozone, Federal debt/deficit, Labor unions, Microsoft, Urban issues

June 18, 2010 at 10:00 AM

America and big oil: We wish we knew how to quit you

On Tuesday, President Obama told the nation, “the tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” Today he’s in Columbus touting federal stimulus money going to…a road project.

Last year alone, the stim put more than $100 billion into highways and the auto industry. This as transit systems around the nation were suffering and cutting service, Amtrak remained a hostage to politics, and high-speed rail continued to be a dream to study — even as our competitors already have it and are building more. It’s been shown that road projects don’t ease unemployment. It’s not even true that “roads pay for themselves,” even without factoring in the unfunded externalities such as the cost of sprawl, pollution and environmental damage.

Most of all, the massive new highway projects planned around the country continue our dependence on fossil fuels — with major changes in ways to power most cars years away if ever — and deprive Americans of transportation choices.


Comments | More in Environment, Sustainability, Transportation, Urban issues

April 9, 2010 at 9:45 AM

McGinn is on the right track with light rail; the housing delusion continues

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is right to make the case for redesigning the 520 replacement bridge to include light rail. The world faces a future of higher energy costs, whether Americans want this or not. It doesn’t really matter what we want. We can want a pony. But the energy future is coming no matter how much we drill, baby. Electric cars? Maybe, but they’ll still be more expensive and require plenty of fossil-fuel “inputs.”

As a result, the metros that can offer the most transportation choices, especially retrofitting suburbia with trains and rail transit, will be the most sustainable and economically viable. China gets this, which is why it is in a crash program including subways and high-speed rail that America is still not building. The suburban retrofit has gotten little attention, but it’s vital, would also create new jobs, and is actually doable on portions of the East Side. We should be moving with a sense of urgency on I-90 and 520.

McGinn will probably lose. The process-is-everything ethos here can drag on for years until it can’t, and now “everybody” is ready to go, whatever the wisdom of continuing dependency on single-occupancy car trips. It’s funny that Seattle claims green cred yet always looks enviously at Portland, which continues to build light-rail, including a new bridge totally dedicated to transit. In reality, our metro area wants that pony — to be green, but still keep building a 1965 transportation system. But the 1965 energy world is not coming back, no matter what we want. No matter, even, what Microsoft wants.


Comments | More in Housing, Sustainability, Transportation, Urban issues

February 3, 2010 at 9:50 AM

Washington on Washington: Guess who’s getting shafted in infrastructure funding

Top of the News: Washington state is one of the biggest losers in federal infrastructure spending, according to the Business Insider. We get $167.96 per person, compared with Alaska at $1,100 per person.

Other big losers include Virginia, Colorado, California, Ohio, Tennessee, Arizona, Michigan, Florida and North Carolina. It’s telling that most of these states are urbanized with urban needs, many that have been left undone for years. Meanwhile, rural places such as Wyoming are making out.

If the numbers hold, Washington especially stands to lose, considering the need to replace the 520 bridge and drill the deep-bore tunnel. The Cascadia region could also have been a prime corridor for real high-speed rail, rather than the (welcome but hardly enough) improvements to standard rail that have been announced. Infrastructure money could also help with transportation to help Puget Sound ports, such as better connections with eastern Washington and refitting the Stampede Pass tunnels to accommodate double-stack trains.


Comments | More in Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Transportation, Urban issues

October 7, 2009 at 10:20 AM

Want to create real jobs? Get busy building high-speed rail in U.S.

Top of the News: Many smart people talked about “a lack of imagination” among American leaders in not foreseeing the 9/11 attacks. The same language was used to describe the sleepwalk into the financial crash. It could be applied now to efforts to restart job creation.

The other Washington is apparently mulling a tax credit for employers who will hire. This seems like a bad idea for at least two reasons. First, the jobs would not be related to real demand and would likely not have a future unless the economy rebounded strongly, an unlikely scenario. Second, every tax credit already increases the deficit.

American policymakers seem mired in the past. A federal effort to actually build high-speed train networks would create real jobs, many of them permanent for workers to operate and maintain the system. It would relieve congestion and enhance productivity, as well as better positioning the nation for a high-cost energy future (and helping with carbon emissions).

While America is only studying high-speed rail (and Amtrak still lacks predictable, adequate funding for regular trains), the world is racing ahead of us. Britain, continental Europe, China, India and Saudi Arabia are building and expanding their systems.

Here, another failure of imagination, with more costly consequences.


Comments | More in Jobs/Unemployment, Midweek Economic Briefing, Sustainability, Transportation, Urban issues

May 28, 2009 at 10:30 AM

Seattle’s ‘midlife crisis’? The flaw in a clever premise

Top of the News: The Wall Street Journal story was headlined, “Youth magnet cities hit midlife crisis.” The gist: cities such as Seattle, Portland and Austin continue to attract hip young college graduates although job prospects have dried up.

Although the story focused on Portland, it struck me as another swipe against the supposed latte-quaffing, creative-class places that are getting what they deserve. Unfortunately, the troubles in the labor market during this Great Disruption are falling almost everywhere. Nobody’s writing about how — to continue the stereotype — sprawl construction workers keep flocking to Phoenix, but there’s no work.

In reality, cities such as Seattle have not only drawn a disproportionate share of young talent, but have been able to benefit from it — starting new companies and regenerating such established firms as Microsoft. It’s not so much the “hipsters,” as the Journal terms them, as the “techsters” — along with the rich cultural players that make the city appealing to them.


Comments | More in Urban issues

May 1, 2009 at 10:19 AM

Phoenix crashing: Lessons for Seattle

Top of the News: My book tour brings me back to my homwtown of Phoenix. If Seattle is in a severe recession, Phoenix is in an outright depression. Housing values have fallen 50 percent from their peaks, the biggest decline in the nation — and this is the local economic indicator here.

Over the past several decades, Phoenix grew into the nation’s fifth most populous city by betting the ranch on population growth and housing. With a few small exceptions, such as tourism and a diminishing semiconductor sector, the economy is based on massive new construction of houses and retail. Now…nothing.

Comparisons with Seattle are difficult, because Phoenix lost its major headquarters companies long ago, and failed to build new ones or capitlize on the new economy. “Growth” seemed enough. In a few boom years, house-flipping and home equity loans propped up the middle class and development enriched the elite. Now the freeways and streets are eerily uncrowded. Whole subdivisions, especially on the fringes, are ghost towns.


Comments | More in Urban issues