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.
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.
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.
Some 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!
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.