Paul Allen made Seattle -- and the world -- a better place

The billionaire, who died on Monday, used his money and power for the good of humanity in ways big and small

October 16, 2018
Paul Allen

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When Paul Allen died on Monday of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the Pacific Northwest lost an incredibly powerful force for good. No matter what you care about -- sports, technology, space exploration, music, urban planning, art, the environment, education, communications, politics -- Paul Allen probably used some portion of his $20 billion fortune to nurture and improve it.

We all know that he made his fortune as a co-founder of Microsoft with his childhood pal and fellow computer geek Bill Gates. That accomplishment alone changed the landscape of the Seattle area forever. But he was just getting started. 

I moved to Seattle in 1992 and, coming from Chicago (one of America's great cities, if you ask me) I wondered why Seattle didn't quite have its downtown all dialed in. There were some great things going on, but there were some sadly underused areas. South Lake Union, for example -- aka the Cascade neighborhood -- was a collection of warehouses, car dealers, and industrial buildings nestled between the downtown core and the south shore of Lake Union. It seemed like a lot of potential was being ignored there. Paul Allen thought so, and he started snapping up acres of property there in hopes of giving it to the city and creating "Seattle's Central Park" -- a massive urban green space called the Seattle Commons. It seemed like a pretty great idea to me, but it required a lot of public money to create, and the voters turned the project down, twice. People thought it was elitist, that it would displace homeless people, that rich people would build townhouses and outdoor cafes around the park and exclude everybody else. Paul Allen was undeterred; he just kept buying land, eventually amassing 60 acres. And then his company, Vulcan, started building: Amazon headquarters, Google, Facebook, the Allen Institute . . . and South Lake Union's transformation had begun. Anybody who'd been to the Pearl District in Portland or Yaletown in Vancouver, B.C. could envision what was to come, and now, 20 years later, everything north of Downtown is different. Personally, I think it's great when people actually live in or near the downtown areas of cities, and that's totally what's happened here, thanks in great part to Paul Allen's vision.

I'm also grateful that he was a music fan to the extent that he bought the guitar that Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock for more than a million bucks, and then decided to build a museum to house all his musical collectibles. He commissioned one of the most renowned architects in the world, Frank Gehry, to design the Experience Music Project. It was a controversial building which was hard on the eyes of many Seattleites, but Allen bankrolled it and built it and tourists still flock there under its new name, MoPop.

And don't forget Cinerama, in downtown Seattle -- I'm pretty sure he rescued that gem purely so he could watch Star Trek and Star Wars movies on that giant screen.

Oh yeah, and he saved the Seahawks when then-owner Ken Behring tried to literally sneak the team to Los Angeles in the middle of the night. For that alone, we owe Paul Allen a huge thank you. 

Longtime Seattle writer Knute Berger wrote a great tribute over at Crosscut titled "Seattle Will Always Be A Paul Allen City.". He summed it up, I think:

[Paul Allen's] life and values embodied so much of what we like to think Seattle is: a tech town that values high purpose, innovation, education. The legacy of people of Allen’s ambition and scale are always open to debate, and will be for years. But I don’t think anyone would argue that his impact has been anything short of profound, especially here.

He was the good kind of billionaire, and his legacy will live on around the Sound forever.