RENTON, Wash. ― Manly Grinolds isn’t a fan of change. After all, the retired aerospace contractor has been coming to Rubattino’s for breakfast since he was 7 years old.
“This apartment, the one over here on Second and Main, that’s out of place,” Grinolds says, pointing in the direction of a new six-story complex in downtown Renton. “And it took away some of our view.”
Across the red counter at Renton’s oldest restaurant, Carl the Cook, as he prefers to be known, joins the conversation about this city’s future. Carl sees the proverbial writing — or dollar signs — on the wall. A growing economy, driven by a population that spiked 30 percent to more than 100,000 in the past decade, has created opportunity for investors.
“If you have money to play the Monopoly game,” says Carl, “you might really love Renton.”
Twelve miles south of downtown Seattle, on the southeastern shore of Lake Washington, bordered by a giant regional mall on one side and a popular wildland park on the other, Renton has long been the butt of its larger neighbor’s jokes ― a city mostly disregarded with the exception of its Boeing assembly plant and the dreaded “S-curves” along Interstate 405. In a 1991 airing of the beloved Seattle TV show Almost Live, comedian John Keister called Renton a “pit.”
But times are changing. Momentum is building. Renton could be on the verge of becoming the newest Pacific Northwest tech hub.
Along the way, this city is emerging as a case study in both the promise of the new economy and the difficult challenges that come with it. Just how far can the tech boom extend beyond Seattle? Can Renton stay true to its longtime residents and their values? And if the transformation takes hold, can this city avoid problems such as housing affordability, gridlock and other challenges that have accompanied similar transformations elsewhere in the region and the country?
Blake Diers, a senior account manager at Amazon, is one of many tech employees who are migrating south from nearby neighbors such as Seattle or Bellevue, where the tech boom has caused housing prices to skyrocket. Diers believes that Renton could become not only a place where he and his girlfriend can afford a house with a yard, but also a major employment hub.
“Bringing in high-paying technology jobs is the only way Renton will be able to get out of the persona that has developed over the years and fix a lot of the problems that the city of Seattle has not been able to fix,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for economic development, better schools, decreased crime, and a tangible vision for a walkable neighborhood district.”
Renton is home to a handful of small tech startups and Wizards of the Coast, the geeky company behind Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. Boeing is the city’s largest employer with more than 16,000 people helping assemble 737 aircraft, the best-selling jetliner in history, on a 229-acre site with 4.3 million square feet of building space. Paccar has a sizable manufacturing campus, and a flurry of aerospace suppliers call Renton home.
There are nearly 62,000 jobs in Renton, with an average salary of $54,315, according to Payscale. But the city, located just six miles from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is nowhere near the scale of the global tech and engineering hubs that have formed up north.
That could change if one real estate developer has its way.
Perhaps the most visible sign of Renton’s growth is the new Southport project, a triumvirate of office towers designed for tech companies totaling approximately 730,000 square-feet, right next door to Boeing’s factory on the shores of Lake Washington, adjacent to a 57-acre park, and just off Interstate 405. It also includes a completed apartment project and hotel.
Seco Development, the real estate company behind the site, has plans to operate a water taxi between Southport and Seattle/Bellevue. It built Southport specifically with the growing tech industry in mind. [Editor’s Note: Seco is the underwriting sponsor of this kickoff of the GeekWire on the Road series.]
“Tech companies that are household names will all be present [in Renton] because this is the most logical place to grow in this region,” said Seco Development CEO Michael Christ. “I don’t see it happening further out. I don’t see any other place that has the availability and scalability of land.”
There’s also a push from City Hall to help encourage development, make Renton more business friendly, and not rely so heavily on one industry or company such as Boeing. It issued more than 5,700 business permits in 2017 and private investment in the city eclipsed $500 million last year.
Denis Law, the city’s mayor since 2008, wants to attract tech companies of all types to Renton.
“I would love to see that,” the mayor told GeekWire last week in an interview at his office. “I would love to see a young workforce and young families coming into the area.”
Even with that enthusiasm, most large tech companies that have planted roots in the region in recent years — including Salesforce, Facebook, Google, Apple and dozens of others — have chosen the high-tech clusters of Seattle or Bellevue.
But Renton has room. There is 4.3 million square feet of office space, according to Colliers International, the most of any market in South King County, and that doesn’t include the new Southport office buildings. Triton Towers, a 3-building complex on a 19-acre lot just off I-405 and SR-167, has more than 230,000 square feet available. New hotels including the Hyatt Regency and Hampton Inn have also recently opened.
Renton also has the priciest office rent across South King County, but the square-foot rate ($35.16) is cheaper than in Seattle or Bellevue.
While Renton proper isn’t chock-full of tech talent, it’s still in close proximity to the surrounding cities. Chris Cocks, president of Wizards of the Coast, said the company — founded by a former systems analyst at Boeing — uses the location of its 500-person Renton office as a recruiting advantage.
“It’s a fairly easy location for a lot of people to get to,” he said.
Gavin Fysh, founder at Bloqs, a Renton-based website developer, said his employees come from all around the region.
“If your startup is heavily-funded, go to Bellevue. You can afford heavy rents; you can afford the excess; you’re going to be poaching people from the large tech companies,” he said. “But if you do it like we did, building a more traditional business, I would suggest coming to Renton. It’s less expensive rent and you can get cool space that’s available.”
But is Renton cool enough to attract young tech workers and up-and-coming companies that might grow into the next Microsoft or Amazon?
While it may not be quite as hip as Seattle or as fancy as Bellevue, the vibe in Renton might appeal to those looking for something different.
“In the long run, I think Renton will never be Seattle or Bellevue, but its own unique city with a different lifestyle and characteristics that I am personally learning to love,” said Alysha Perisho, another Amazonian who recently moved to Renton.
Added Sean Greenlee, a Starbucks executive and former U.S. Navy officer who arrived in Renton five years ago: “It’s not as overly pretentious as Bellevue and the money communities. There’s a lot of balance.”
People in Renton are “fun, kind, and caring,” said Mary Hudspeth, who helped open Four Generals Brewing in downtown Renton two years ago with her husband and son. It has been easy to make friends, she said. People look after each other here.
“It’s a funky place,” Hudspeth added. “But it’s really cool.”
A flurry of new bars and restaurants have opened up around Renton, both at The Landing, an 11-year-old 600,000 square-foot shopping center, and downtown, where a series of revitalization projects are set to begin.
Marley Shain Rall owns The Brewmaster’s Taproom, another craft beer hotspot that has quickly turned into a popular local watering hole. Rall previously worked at non-profit organizations and helps organize monthly fundraisers at her bar.
She said Renton has a good mix of both new residents and longtime locals that get along with one another.
“Renton is really resilient,” she said. “It hasn’t had the turmoil you find in a lot of places where you have different economic zones mixing.”
Grinolds, the Renton native who has lived through the ups and downs in this city, knows that change is inevitable. And after all these years, he’s still eating at his favorite spot, volunteering for the high school basketball team, walking around the 29 parks, and enjoying life up the hill with his dogs and wife.
“If you move here, you’ll like it,” he tells me at the Rubattino’s bar over brunch last week. “I wouldn’t stay if I didn’t like it.”
Roots of Renton
Renton’s manufacturing history started decades before Boeing. The Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Company and The Seattle Car Manufacturing Company — known today as Paccar — both had Renton plants that opened in the early 1900s, a result of booming business up in Seattle. The city was named after Captain William Renton, a lumber and shipping entrepreneur whose investments helped lead to coal production in the region.
World War II sparked an economic surge for Renton. Paccar built B-17 wing spars and Sherman Tanks. Boeing arrived in 1941, opening its first production facility that pumped out B-29 heavy bombers.
“Population exploded overnight and we did not have the infrastructure,” said Sarah Samson, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Renton History Museum.
Could history repeat itself in Renton, with another boom in Seattle spilling south? Add a potential major tech company landing at Southport, as politicians and developers so desire, along with a budding healthcare industry (Providence and Kaiser Permanente, which has a 29-acre campus in Renton, already employ thousands), and Renton will be dealing with some serious growing pains.
“The city will change radically as it has in the last 15 years,” said Vicky Baxter, CEO of the Renton Chamber of Commerce, who relocated from Newport Beach, Calif. five years ago. “Some people will embrace the change and others will not. My hope is millennials who are attracted to Renton for all the attributes found here will engage in public service, continuing to build on the legacy of successes.”
Transportation and affordable housing challenges are top of mind for Mayor Law, who called traffic around Renton “horrendous.”
While Renton’s central location makes it well-positioned, it also causes major highway backups in and out of the city. The evening commute from Seattle to Renton and Bellevue to Renton exceeds 20 minutes, according to INRIX data, but that can oftentimes go longer with the current traffic conditions.
Law also said the city needs to get creative with its housing mix, “so people who aren’t necessarily living on two six-figure incomes can afford to live and work here.”
Policy leaders will need to balance creation of affordable housing with an increasing amount of mid-century homes being torn down and turned into multi-million dollar properties.
Renton had the fastest population increase of any Washington city between 2000 and 2010. That has led to higher housing prices: the median home value last month was $467,000, up from $338,000 in 2008, according to Zillow data. But the spike isn’t as pronounced as Seattle, where the median home value went from $427,600 to $739,600.
“Renton’s advantage is rooted in being a more affordable city with access to Seattle jobs,” said Skylar Olsen, Zillow’s director of economic research and outreach.
Median rent values are more similar — $2,236 for Renton in September, compared to $2,479 in Seattle. Still, rents have increased 34 percent over the past five years in Renton.
That means people may not be able to afford Renton any longer, just like how some long-time Seattleites have been pushed out.
Will Renton keep its funk?
Renton’s population is 49 percent white; 19 percent Asian; 17 percent Hispanic; and 8 percent black. More than 100 languages are spoken inside its school district, which is the eighth-most diverse in the nation, according to Niche. It’s home to top-rated cuisine from around the world, from Thai to Mexican to Indian. (One of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s favorite restaurants is in the city.)
Popular attractions cover a wide spectrum. There’s the Jimi Hendrix Memorial; the Northwest’s first IKEA; and the Seattle Seahawks headquarters, which is packed with football fans who flock to the VMAC during training camp.
Even Renton’s library has a funky twist: it’s the only one in the U.S. built over a river.
And for the geeks, there’s a giant Fry’s Electronics, an impressive comic book shop, and the 8-Bit Arcade Bar, another a local favorite. That’s where you’ll find Randall Olson, a manager at 8-Bit who has the best beard in Renton.
“It’s a fun place to be,” said Olson, 32, a life-long Renton resident. “Everyone thinks they have to go to downtown Seattle to go have fun. They don’t know what Renton is like.”
But not all of the geeks feel welcome. Renton City Comicon, known as RenCon, moved its geekfest to nearby Tukwila this year after what organizers claimed was a lack of political support for the festival, which was seeking $30,000 in supporting funds from the City of Renton.
“Renton is a blue collar town. It’s the Boeing guys. And it’s a World War II coal mining town…. Right now, Renton is really struggling to find its next identity,” RenCon’s Ben Andrews told MyNorthwest.com last month.
That raises the question: Can Renton maintain its unique culture and small town feel as more tech companies and money and newcomers possibly start to change the dynamic of the city, much like what happened to Seattle and Bellevue?
A lot is riding on the 2019 election, said Marcie Palmer, a former Renton City Councilmember. Next August, residents will vote for mayor and three city council positions.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘battle’ but there is a growing influx of new ideas and younger energy which views Renton differently than long-time participants,” she said. “With new ideas and energy, there is definitely resistance to change from some who have been the decision-makers for many years. The 2019 elections will be the most interesting in over a decade and could likely change the future of Renton.”
James Williamson credits younger leaders at City Hall for helping make Renton a better place to live and work compared to when he first moved to the city from Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood 15 years ago.
“It used to be where you couldn’t walk downtown Renton without being picked on by teenagers at the transit center or a drug user or having needles everywhere,” said Williamson, who works at St. Charles Place Antiques. “You can’t find that here as much anymore.”‘
Williamson knows Renton has a bad reputation. But he feels strongly that Renton is changing in a positive way.
“Get out of the damn vehicle and walk around, because Renton is not what it used to be,” he said. “It’s changed for the better and will continue to change for the better.”
Renton seems to be getting more popular, said Steve Morales, owner of the Dpad Retro Gaming & Collectables video game store that opened last year. Morales welcomes the idea of more businesses setting up shop in the city and believes it will help grow the local economy.
Alex Castillo, a manager at the store, agreed. He knows housing costs and property rents may rise if a big tech company lands in Renton — and he’s fine with that.
“There will be more population because of that company,” Castillo said. “They will be exploring the city and ideally it brings in more customers. Yes, it could mean our rents increase. But for us, we might be able to survive because of that constant flow of traffic.”
GeekWire reporters Nat Levy and Kurt Schlosser contributed to this story.
Know an interesting tech angle, personality, startup, great scoop or anything else we should be covering during our week in Renton? We’d love to hear from you. Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.