The tech workers who line up to rent kayaks and paddleboards on Seattle’s Lake Union in the summertime are rewarded for their patience with an incredible view. At the base of the Space Needle sits a colorful, eccentric museum dedicated to Seattle’s music legends. A glittering neighborhood of high-rises and cranes stretches east from there. It’s the land of Amazon, with Google hot on its heels to carve out its own campus in this vibrant tech center.
There is one man responsible for much of what you can see from Lake Union. In addition to helping to put Seattle on the map as a global center for technology innovation, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen built the South Lake Union neighborhood as we know it. Allen died Monday of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at 65. History will remember him for transforming the world, and his hometown.
“Paul was a true son of Seattle who made his beloved city – and our world – a better, more vibrant place,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in a statement. “For generations to come, Seattleites and people across our planet will benefit from his vision, innovation, and generosity. He quite literally helped invent the future.”
If Microsoft was the spark that ignited the Seattle region’s tech industry, Amazon is the fuel that truly made it go boom. Allen’s legacy spans both catalytic events in Seattle’s history.
Allen met Bill Gates when they were both students at Lakeside School in Seattle. They bonded over a love of computers, spending long hours at the University of Washington’s computer science lab, where Allen’s father was director of libraries. They founded Microsoft together in 1975, catalyzing the personal computer revolution.
“Paul wasn’t content with starting one company,” Gates said in a statement Monday. “He channeled his intellect and compassion into a second act focused on improving people’s lives and strengthening communities in Seattle and around the world.”
In the early 1990s, Allen invested $20 million in a project called the Commons. The plan was to turn South Lake Union, an industrial low-rise no man’s land, into a massive park. Voters rejected the plan in 1995, which left the proposed land in Allen’s control. He bought up more property in the area and then in 2012, he struck a deal with Amazon.
Amazon bought a complex of properties from Allen for $1.16 billion, one of the most lucrative commercial real estate deals in history. It changed Seattle’s urban core forever. Over the following years, Amazon voracious appetite for office space and investments in South Lake Union sparked a real estate development bonanza. The cost of housing and office space skyrocketed faster than the towers shooting up in Amazonia. Seattle became the crane capital of the country.
Amazon wasn’t the only tech giant that saw potential in South Lake Union and came to Allen to make dreams of an urban Seattle campus a reality. Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate is developing three blocks for Google in the neighborhood. The campus will be nearly 930,000 square feet with room for 4,500 to 6,200 employees.
“Paul had a vision before any other about what that area could be,” said Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf at a press conference Monday. “If you remember what that area was 20-plus years ago, it was very different, and Paul had a vision that it could be transformative and be a different part of the city. We’ve done tremendous work in that area and it’s blossomed over time. Those communities we are very proud of.”
Allen was passionate about conservation — from protecting endangered species to ensuring historic artifacts were preserved for posterity. He established some of Seattle’s most influential museums, including the Museum of Pop Culture, the polarizing rainbow-colored Frank Gehry building nestled in Seattle Center. Allen took up the guitar as a teenager, inspired by another Seattle icon, Jimi Hendrix. He wanted to preserve relics from local musicians that were formative in his early years.
“Paul Allen is best known as the co-founder of Microsoft but he has also spent many years playing a huge role in the reinvention of Seattle,” said Tom Alberg, managing director of Madrona Venture Group. “He was a visionary who saw the potential in everything from abandoned buildings and underutilized real estate to the ability of cultural, educational and sports institutions to energize a city.”
Allen also enshrined his collection of working computers in the Living Computer Museum in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. Nearby, he had a hand in the development of Seattle’s football stadium. As owner of the Seattle Seahawks, Allen invested $130 million in CenturyLink Field.
In 1998 Allen bought the financially troubled historic movie theater, Cinerama, in South Lake Union and spent millions of dollars renovating it. He launched two cutting-edge research institutions to accelerate Seattle as a hub for scientific discovery, the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
It’s hard to imagine exactly what comes next for such a wide-ranging legacy centered around one person. Allen’s influence spans major sports franchises, broad swaths of real estate, research facilities, cultural institutions, and more. What they all had in common was his vision, passion, and support. Allen is not survived by a spouse or children but by his sister, Jody. Many eyes are focused on her wondering if she will pick up the torch.
Vulcan says it plans to carry on Allen’s legacy and wide-ranging endeavors. Hilf said “there’s a clear plan of what he wants done for his legacy” and Vulcan is dedicated to helping realize it.
“That’s how we are rallying together today, this week, and the next weeks, to carry that banner into the future for him,” he said.