The City of Phoenix has smartly engaged Mary Jo Waits to help craft an innovation district plan for downtown. For newcomers, Waits was the driving force behind the Morrison Institute's most consequential reports in the late 1990s and 2000s, especially 2001's Five Shoes Waiting to Drop. It was prophetic. So was her warning that Arizona would become the "Appalachia of the 21st century" if it didn't change course. I collaborated with her in the "meds and eds" strategy to build off TGen, and later did some work for her when she was at the Pew Center on the States. The city could not have chosen a better, more knowledgeable and visionary person.
She asked me to write a case study on the innovation district in South Lake Union, adjacent to downtown Seattle. So this is what follows, with some parting observations for Phoenix.
When I first started coming to Seattle in the early 1990s, the South Lake Union neighborhood was a run-down collection of low-rise commercial buildings and the remnants of industrial structures from when it was laced with railroad tracks. This was once a gritty maritime district — logging, ship repair, canneries — around the south edge of the lake, which was connected to Puget Sound by the ship canal.
Aside from having the headquarters of the Seattle Times, SLU as it became known, had little to recommend it. The area had been wounded in the 1960s when Interstate 5 was rammed through, tearing it apart from Capitol Hill. And blocks of car dealerships, parking lots, and the occasional seedy bar separated it from the downtown core.
In the early 1990s, Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger suggested turning part of SLU into a large central park, something the city's core lacked since voters had rejected a visionary 1911 civic plan. The 60-acre "civic lawn" would be framed by high-tech companies, condos, and restaurants. The Seattle Commons attracted widespread business support, including from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who was accumulating property there. But the famous "Seattle Process" intervened. Many feared it was a giveaway to Allen. Voters rejected the Commons in 1995 and 1996.