Commentary: Tech apathy is killing Seattle’s soul

Sound Mind & Body gym recently close to make room for fast-growing Tableau Software.

Sound Mind & Body gym recently closed to make room for fast-growing Tableau

A bunch of friends and I recently converged on the Sound Mind and Body Gym in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood for a bittersweet final afternoon of full-court basketball. The gym closed its doors on March 31, converting what was arguably the most beautiful basketball venue in the Pacific Northwest into tech office space.

The gym was a community treasure, where people – including many geeks – came together to do something besides close biz dev deals or set product releases. On any given day, you could knock elbows with employees from Google, Hulu, Amazon, Microsoft and Getty Images, along with angel investors, earlier-stage companies and entrepreneurs. You could even meet people who (gasp!) weren’t in the tech community at all, whether teachers, musicians, or bus drivers.

And the setting was spectacular: an NBA-quality court flanked by the Fremont Ship Canal on one side and the bustle of a Sunday Market on the other, all visible through the gym’s vast banks of windows.

Photo via Piecoras

Photo via Piecoras

Simply put, this sucks.

Sound Mind and Body is among the latest in a line of Seattle treasures to be replaced by new tech offices or condominium projects. Anyone remember the Cloud Room, Sunset Bowl or numerous theaters and other neighborhood icons around town?

Piecora’s Pizza — a legendary Capitol Hill institution for 33 years — is biting the dust (or crust) today. Why? Yep, more apartments.

Fair or not, guess who’s getting the blame?

Seattle’s soul is made up of these treasures — gathering places that bring different parts of the community together. These institutions — bowling alleys, restaurants and gyms — are why many people want to live and work here in the first place. If we don’t at least try to preserve the places that make Seattle unique, we all lose.

In the case of Sound Mind and Body, the gym’s owners were looking to retire, so some of the outrage is muted. However, the loss is real. It hurts.

And I can’t help but think that tech-driven demand for primo office space in Fremont jacked property taxes and other core costs to where the gym just wasn’t economically possible. Worst part is, we didn’t speak up before it was too late. We saw the surveyors and heard the rumors, but did nothing.

sunsetbowl444

The old Sunset Bowl in Ballard. Photo Bradley Stemke.

The tech community can do more, turning this conversation on its head by proactively identifying and supporting community treasures before it’s too late. Whether a boutique theater, one of Seattle’s few remaining bowling alleys, an art gallery or a local restaurant, identify what’s important and really put a stake in the ground.

This means telling friends, co-workers, family, employers and even elected officials about our favorite places and encouraging them to care, too. It also means getting to know the employees or owners of the special places, as well as the issues they face. Offer to help. Volunteering what we do well can be hugely beneficial, whether on advisory boards, helping to build a better Web site, or devising ways for places to market more effectively. We can even support those community organizations dedicated to preserving neighborhood treasures (yes, I’ve rolled my eyes at them, too): they’re actually becoming more inclusive and relevant than before.

For example, there’s buzz in Fremont about a group looking to guide the neighborhood into its next phases of funky engagement. Rather than vilify the tech community — as too many groups have done before — this group recognizes that high tech businesses have, and very much still do, help shape Fremont’s culture.

Giving a damn can also help create new treasures, but the challenges are formidable.

piecoras44Some now call Capitol Hill — “Condo Hill” — as a zombie-like process of devouring old buildings (some junky, others borderline historic) is accelerating, with soul-less new structures taking their place.

For its part, South Lake Union is feeling a bit more like Silicon Valley than it should, with block upon block of stark new office buildings from Amazon.com and other tech companies.

However, there are pockets of hope in these areas and it stems from individuals caring. Diverse restaurants continue to wedge their way into South Lake Union, as new-to-the-neighborhood techies demand more and better choices. Good for them!

Graffiti on former Capitol HIll businesses shortly before demolition. Photo via e.Res

Graffiti on former Capitol HIll businesses shortly before demolition. Photo via e.Res

There seems to be a more vigorous debate taking place about the Pike/Pine corridor on Capitol Hill: concerned individuals and elected officials are pushing developers to better maintain the historic neighborhood character by preserving selected buildings and facades.

Not a cure-all by any stretch, but it’s encouraging to see the prospect of a more open and involved discussion.

Members of Seattle’s tech community have made incredible impacts through contributions to arts, education, and heath care organizations, and the list goes on. What’s puzzling is the comparative apathy that seems to exist in simply watching as so many of Seattle’s favorite neighborhood places go away. Most of Seattle’s fast-growing tech employers (and by extension, developers charged with getting space for work and living) care about what their employees and neighbors think, but they cannot read minds.

The onus is on us to be proactive in caring and communicating. Otherwise, we can plan on saying goodbye to more of our community treasures.

Mark Peterson is principal of technology and media PR firm Pointer PR, and co-founder of Seattle Interactive Conference.

  • ben

    Fitness places like banks branches and nail salons are the last type of store that need protection in Seattle. These have sprung up all over the place and its a case of false equivalence to equate this gym to some of the other institutions that have been replaced. Furthermore Sound Mind and Body was something of a bad neighbor, clashing with the Sunday Market over parking spaces in the past.

  • Mike

    Honestly, calling Sound Mind and Body a treasure is a joke. As Ben mentioned they were a bad neighbor. Specifically, they fought hard to shut down the sunday market, cause it took away street parking… you know on Sunday… when the gym was “packed”.

    I think the tech community does a good job about fostering community.

    To me, this article just seems like a very high brow NIMBY… but still NIMBY… don’t you dare take away my gym, or pizza place, or bowling place, so people can have places to work, or live!

  • Guest

    Please tell us more about the soulful warehouses that dominated SLU before techies did.

    • Chris Middleman

      Well, they probably provided a higher amount of better-paying blue collar jobs than the few you can get in SLU now, cleaning restrooms & watching parked cars.

      More places to work & live, sure. Above a high income bar.

  • ssxsolstice

    Doesn’t this happen every time a “quirky” place closes? Someone writes a piece about the city in question losing its soul, or heart, after the fact? I understand the stifling of a community with office buildings and apartment complexes is insidious, and we can’t sit back and watch it happen (or write complaining comments online in response to articles), but I’d like to see something more proactive than this. Why is it that I never hear about these travesties until after they’ve happened? I see your call to action at the end, Mark, but I’d appreciate more articles calling attention to a cool, awesome place people might not know about, as opposed to bemoaning closed doors after the fact.

  • mjoecups

    Hilarious, I guess Seattle reputation for being a big bunch of whiners is well deserved.

  • Paul Uhlir

    Well said!

  • emanuensis

    i suppose a bit of history is good here. When SM&B became the keystone tenant for the redevelopment of the warehouses that had existed there for most of a century and housed a whole lot of artists, the first tenant to be evicted were a company of techies (RTime for which i worked). So in that sense i guess it is only fair… The artists however have never (and likely will never) recover from Fremont’s gentrification.

    Too bad i cannot sign in:)

  • Paul_Owen

    Seattle is a boom town. I was sad when the Dog House became Hurricane Cafe. I’m sure I’ll bemoan the loss of Von Trapps when it goes out of business some day. But this is the stuff that makes the place different. If you want stagnation try Portland.

    • toddwseattle

      Paul, if only they would bring back the medmix at the doomed corner of union and 23rd I’d be happy. The dog house was never any good anyway; and the pizza is much better at via tribinali than piecoras; even though I have many happy memories of that place as well as the SMB in freemont (where i was told my workout partner and I were too loud).

      Be thankful for the vibrancy of pike/pine, and the slu. I’m excited about elysian on 2nd ave. I’d welcome gentrification over my current fauna of drug dealers on 2nd b/t pike and pine.

      • boop

        Are we thinking of the same Med Mix place? That place was horrible.

  • MarkSPeterson

    Thanks for the comments! @ben and @mike, agree that SMB’s parking hang-ups were super off-putting: Broader point is that anyone could sign up to play (or workout) in spectacular local neighborhood setting, unlike cookie-cutter spots that have sprung up everywhere. As for high-brow NIMBY, don’t regularly bowl or eat of lot of Piecora’s pie, but feel a city is better place to live and work if it can keep beloved places alive. SLU: really ugly warehouses there before, but produced some amazing music, art, outdoor recreation equipment and numerous other things that ID with Seattle. Promising to see so many diverse new restaurants popping up there, thanks to techies. @emanuensis:disqus, great historical note. Also in mid-1990s, the gym was moved several blocks west from its original Fremont building to accommodate Adobe. @Paul_Owen:disqus, I miss Dog House, too:-) Don’t want stagnation, just not rushed, consequences-be-damned approach. When these places are gone, usually gone for good.

    • Guest

      Who does your paragraphs?

  • TJ3

    I think the point Mark is trying to make here is to be proactive in these causes so you’re not the one writing a NIMBY article/piece after it happens to you. SM&B happened to be his cause as it was his place to socialize, workout, & network… For others it may be a bar, pizza joint, record store, Sunday Market, etc.

  • Susan B Journey

    The soul of Seattle needs LESS input from geeks and MORE input from everyone else – but I don’t see this happening as long as people like Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Howard Shultz, etc. are so enthusiastic about “loving” us to death. People who see the construction along the canal to be an “improvement” are blind to what was there before they arrived: funky, authentic, spacious, over-grown, real – full of birds, wildflowers, grasses, rodents, butterflies, bugs, LIFE. What’s there now compares to what was there before the way perfect little plastic-wrapped rectangles of dyed-yellow American “cheeze” compare to a nice, funky, crumbly, farmer-made aged goat cheese. Sure the goat cheese isn’t “perfect”. It’s probably weird shades of cream and brown and gray and it probably smells funky. But guess what? Real Seattlites don’t LIKE “perfect” – we hate it, in fact. We like authentic. We like unique. We like funky. We like seat-of-your-pants mom-and-pop businesses. We like places and things that have been well-loved by people like us. We don’t like you-could-be-anywhere malls and food courts, we don’t like Walmart and we don’t like our long-standing, well-loved establishment being torn down to throw up ugly, soul-less, cookie-cutter, sky-blocking, sun-blocking BOXES. Enough with the freaking boxes!!!

    • Guest

      Sorry, Susan. “Real Seattleites” are as dead as the Coon Chicken Inn, the restrictive covenants at the Broadmoor, and that brothel on Beacon Hill. As you did to the racist whoremongers of generations past, so too must we the young unmake the mistakes of the mid-20th century.

      Thanks for keeping the town warm for us.

      • Idontthinkso

        Do us all a favor and move to Dallas, or some other armpit.

        • Guest

          Why? I’ve chosen to stay. You may go.

          • Idontthinkso

            I’m just saying, if bland, affluent homogeneity is your thing, there’s no need to remake Seattle. Plenty of cities have done the hard work already. Get going – your people await.

          • Guest

            My people are here. If you don’t want to live among them, you’re free to leave.

      • Karl

        I’m pretty sure there are still brothels on Beacon Hill.

  • bugzapper

    “He’s dead, Gym.” Seriously, dude? That’s what you’re lamenting?

    Yeah, I remember the Cloud Room, with the best sunset view in Seattle til the high-rise tech wall sealed it off. I remember Sunset Bowl and a lot of places that used to be interesting and fun before they were bulldozed to make room for an invasion of butt-ugly 21st Century insta-ghettos.

    I also remember having a great view of the Fremont Bridge, the Ship Canal and Lake Union before they were blotted out forever — except for the people who work there — by the likes of Adobe, Google, and Sound Mind and Body.

    This is the Seattle people apparently want now. The techies are only part of it. The real problem is the lack of true civic vision, and the willingness of Your City Council, with the complicity of DPD, to sell what little soul Seattle has left to the highest and densest bidder. A bowel of lentil soup to all of them. (That’s a pun, not a typo.)

    So here you go, updated last night by Seattle Displacement Coalition. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Welcome to Hell. Enjoy the show.”

    ++++++++
    Nineteen neighborhoods across Seattle have already exceeded 100 percent of their 2024 growth targets. Neighborhoods where notable increases have occurred since December 2013 – in terms of increased amounts above their 2024 growth targets:

    Ballard: 329 % of their 2024 assigned target (Up 12% since Dec report)
    Pike/Pine: 397% (Up by 50% since Dec report)
    Capitol Hill: 182% (Up 5% since Dec report)
    Uptown 260% (Up 21% since Dec report)
    Fremont 169% (Up 27% since Dec report)

  • Idontthinkso

    The larger point that’s being missed in arguments about what existed in SLU before, and SMB’s parking “issues,” and so on, is that the tech community has an outsized share of the power to shape what this city looks like now, and many years into the future. If we’re content with being Silicon North, then so be it – let development happen solely in service of profit – but we shouldn’t be surprised or offended when people criticize those in power (us) for building an exclusive place that only makes room for a certain narrow aesthetic that drowns out real and participatory community. Rich Barton pointed out the other day that he loves Seattle because he’s not stuck having to interact solely with people like himself. That’s awesome, and it gets at the heart of what this city has always been about. Hell, it gets at what any city has to be about if it wants to continue calling itself a city. If we’re so freaking good at solving problems, then how about tackling the problem of just where the hell will a bus driver and a teacher be able to rub elbows with a venture capitalist or an entrepreneur in a couple more years?

  • DeeDee55

    HA! HA! You just wasted your breath. Making money, building cheap, crappy buildings, or unaffordable spaces is here to stay. And using the word or concept of “communicating” with the I-generation is the biggest joke of all. I have never met a more delusional generation. With all your technologies, you are the WORST communicators EVER! You all text, post to Facebook and Youtube, etc. etc. ad nauseum but understand very little, rarely engage with or observe your surroundings, and can barely handle a simple Hello. Therapy will be a great field in the near future.

  • Ken

    SMB was as overpriced as it was underwhelming. If you want a gym with character, charm, and community spirit, consider Olympic in Ballard.

  • Emily

    I love this! <a href="http://randcpestcontrol.com&quot; title="pest control las vegas”>pest control las vegas

  • http://www.elevatus.com elevatus

    Word on the street is that the owners of this lease and/or this building
    felt it was MORE THAN WORTH THEIR FINANCIAL WHILE to “sell” to
    accommodate Tableau’s growing office space needs. One could make that
    argument that if Tableau is growing so quickly and successfully that it
    needs the space, these tech jobs are more important to cater to than the
    out of shape geeks it used to house – who were likely only re-enacting
    Micheal Jordan v Dominique Wilkins v Spud Webb v Kareem v Magic anyway.

  • foulkeyu

    So a basketball court used by a group of people is inherently preferable to office space used by a group of people (and, arguably, for a better and more productive use)?

    A lot of people like nice, new, clean things.

    If you like your old, dumpy, “quirky” stuff, great. You don’t speak for everyone, and just like (you assert) some people choose to live in Seattle because of it, many other people do not. Some, in fact, avoid quirky, old, dumpy stuff.

    More generally, who are you to say what should stay and what should go? Look around at one of those pictures of Seattle in the 1920s — 90% of that stuff is gone, replaced by things that often are newer and better, including such wonderful Seattle destinations as an old for-profit gym with a basketball court. Who are you to say that whatever was destroyed to build that wonderful gym shouldn’t have stayed instead? If so, we’d never have the architectural masterpiece known as the Sound Mind and Body Gym.

  • http://about.me/rubenalanis Ruben Alanis

    The closing of Sunset Bowl was a major downturn in my life, from which I feel I may never recover. *Sheds a single tear*

  • Burrito Sauce

    Considering that Seattle is one of the youngest cities in the word, reading an article bemoaning the loss of a gym that was less than 20 years old is pretty funny.

    A hundred years ago there were cabins and pig farms in this area. 200 years ago, there were Indians.

    • balls187

      No, we only came recently, thanks to Microsoft’s owning the H1B program.

    • Benjamin Lukoff

      The Duwamish are still here.