The newspapers, TV, and radio stations were all agog, as were several county and city elected leaders, downtown chamber types, and other assorted poobahs. Late last January, after some saccharine speeches and the prerequisite obsequious genuflection by our Mayor and County Executive to the God of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, the spheres finally were open to view in South Lake Union…well sort of….

In keeping with Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable and exclusive character, the city’s newest expression of postmodern architecture (and conspicuous consumption) is not “public” at all. It’s open only to Amazon’s employees except for guided tours conducted two Saturdays each month that you have to book a month in advance.

Like the hoopla that surrounded Rem Koolhaas’ “avant-garde” Downtown Public Library and Frank Gehry’s “MoPOP” mash-up on the edge of Seattle Center grounds, our city’s downtown cognoscenti showered praise on the spheres, insisting they proved once again and beyond doubt, we are a “world-class” city.  Their effulgence over what looks to us more like a glorified employee food court wound up only highlighting our city’s world-class inferiority complex.  Some even sought to compare these spheres to the Space Needle, Pike Market, and other true iconic Seattle landmarks, proving just how desperate our business leaders and electeds are to curry favor with Amazon.

From the sidewalk, the garish bulbs punctuate a streetscape increasingly crammed cheek by jowl with taller and taller buildings, uniform in their sameness. The spheres just remind us of how drab in general Seattle’s architecture has become. A lot of that has to do with city leaders too willing to adopt land use and zoning rules that pay little or no heed to the existing physical, social, and historic character of our communities.  Instead of encouraging creativity, the rules now are geared primarily to accommodating the developer’s profit and maxing out density. Try distinguishing our urban core or South Lake Union from downtown anywhere USA. Amazon’s supersized terrarium only serves to accentuate that reality.

It’s been done before and better in the United Kingdom. Belfast’s Victoria Square is a massive public space encapsulated in a giant glass sphere at night lit in cobalt blue. Cornwall’s Eden Project allows visitors to enter a series of large glass domes, each uniquely terraformed and temperature controlled to replicate other places and lands.  The space is always publicly accessible and especially tailored to families and kids.

And then there’s New York City’s Warner Center Mall. While not a sphere, its multi-story facade of glass allows and even entices shoppers to look outward towards historic Columbia Circle and Central Park.

Ironically, close to where Seattle’s Amazon spheres now are located, a little over one hundred years ago, a true public space was planned for Seattle but never realized.  Designed by Virgil Bogue, the plans look a lot like New York’s Columbia Circle. That’s no coincidence because Bogue knew and collaborated with Frederick Olmstead who designed Columbia Circle (and later was hired to design Seattle’s park system).

Amazon employees and Seattle’s fawning elite are welcome to enjoy their inflated “bauble”. Welcome to the new exclusive Seattle. We’ll look at it and think “gentrification and displacement”.  It really wasn’t that long ago that the land now occupied by the spheres and surrounding towers of steel and glass (perfectly ‘Soviet’ in their blandness) was home to about 10,000 low-income and working class households and over 400 small businesses, shops, laundries, and warehouses.  And the neighborhood was called “Cascade,” never South Lake Union.

We’ll look at the spheres and also think about all of Amazon’s state and local tax subsidies, easily over one billion last year for all their locations nationwide according to the research and advocacy group “Good Jobs First”. Here in Seattle alone, city leaders have given Amazon millions of dollars worth of street vacations and other slightly less direct subsidies such as the multi-million dollar benefit of upzones for sites they own or lease, and tens of millions for surrounding infrastructure like raod improvements and a new $400 million electrical substation.

Amazingly Seattle Times editors had the audacity recently to opine that local leaders have been hostile towards Amazon and big business in general and that the city’s office “head tax” was too onerous a burden to impose. Amazon earned last year over $5.6 billion but, according to recent news reports, paid absolutely nothing in federal taxes.

And lastly and perhaps most importantly, when we look at those spheres for us it will be a constant reminder of the continued erosion of anything and everything that makes Seattle affordable or unique.

As for us, we’ll take Mall of America any day….it’s public and there at least you can take a ride on their roller coaster!