A Very 99 Percent Holiday
Malls in the Seattle area tend to be owned by exactly the type of people you'd expect.
Westlake Center, in downtown Seattle, is owned by a massive mall empire called General Growth Properties, which controls about 200 million square feet of retail space around the United States and presently sits in the fat investment portfolio of one of Canada's wealthiest men, Bruce Flatt. Southcenter Mall, in Tukwila, is part of another mall empire, this one controlled by the Australia-based Westfield Group (estimated value: $59 billion). Northgate Mall? Similar story: It's owned by the Indiana-based Simon Property Group, which calls itself "the largest real- estate company in the United States."
As a result, when you shop at Westlake and Southcenter and Northgate, whether you're buying from chain stores or local stores within the mall, some of your money, in the form of rents paid to mall owners, flies out of Seattle and off to these guys—off to Canada, Australia, or Indiana.
Would you like for more of your mall dollars to end up in progressive, local hands? There's no perfect answer out there—no one is pure, mall owners absolutely included—but one locally owned Seattle-area mall comes closer to liberal dreams than the rest: Pacific Place.
While Bellevue Square is locally owned by Republican sugar daddy and light-rail-enemy Kemper Freeman (and his family), and University Village is locally owned by George W. Bush–backer and education philanthropist Stuart Sloan, downtown Seattle's Pacific Place is controlled by union pension funds (managed locally) and progressives (who live locally).
Pacific Place's progressive owners, who have a minority stake in the property, are part of the Pine Street Group. Its managing partner, Matt Griffin, is from Seattle originally, lives downtown, loves to bike, doesn't own a car, and is a generous and consistent donor to progressive politicians and causes; he recently gave $12,500 to help pass the public-school-funding Families and Education Levy in November. Griffin describes himself as generally a progressive Democrat (though he's donated to Republicans, too, on occasion), and he likes sharing ownership of the downtown property with union pension funds. "I bump into guys in Seattle who are union guys and they're pleased to say they own part of Pacific Place," Griffin said in a recent phone interview. "And I'm pleased to say that I'm able to support their retirement."
Pacific Place isn't all union kisses and lefty dreams. It's probably best known in political circles for its controversial parking garage, which was subsidized to the tune of $73 million by the City of Seattle in the late 1990s as part of an effort to revitalize downtown. Last year, the Seattle Times reported that the city has been losing $500,000 a year on the project, which won't be paid off until 2028. In addition, Griffin, who owns a small minority share in the Sloan-controlled University Village as well, points out that he's simply the managing partner of the Pine Street Group—the group has a lot of other members, none of whom are required to pass any sort of ideological purity test.
"There are folks from both sides of the aisle," Griffin said of the Pine Street Group's members. But, he added: "If you went through all the names of the locals who are owners in Pacific Place, there are a lot of really good contributors for causes in Seattle, whether it be the Families and Ed Levy, or the Seattle Art Museum, or United Way." (The Pine Street Group's other major development projects include the Seaboard Building and the WaMu/SAM tower.)
Though Griffin donated $1,000 to last year's campaign against Initiative 1098, which would have levied an income tax on high earners like himself in Washington State, he said he's actually for higher taxes on the wealthy at both the federal and the state level. "It wasn't that I'm opposed to an income tax in general," he said. "I just thought that particular income tax was a bad plan... It was a real unstable type of income stream. In the boom times you get a lot of money, in the bad years you couldn't. I'm not sure the state legislature could handle that kind of revenue stream." He would like to see a graduated income tax that applies to all Washingtonians, not just the rich, but added that in general: "I'm one of these people, like Warren Buffett, who believes that high wage earners don't pay enough tax."
In that same vein, he supports the general critique of the Occupy movement. "Set aside the issues about their means and whether they're correct to block a bridge or some of those things," Griffin said. "I happen to be a believer that we do have social inequities in this country, and it's unfair."
There needs to be greater investment in encouraging social mobility, Griffin said: "I think if we don't allow for that kind of mobility in our society, we have a horrible place."
He also supports the idea of shopping at locally owned merchants. "In a place like Pacific Place, we try hard to find local tenants," Griffin said. "We really work at it." Though, at mall rents, he admitted, "They're hard to find."
Pacific Place management would not disclose how much it charges in rent or how much the mall brings in annually. It's definitely on the fancier end, with marquee tenants like Tiffany & Co., Barneys New York, and Coach. But it also has smaller, locally owned tenants such as Pike Place Chowder, Thai Ginger, Top Ten Toys, Sixth Avenue Wine Seller, Seven Salon, and pnk Ultra Lounge. (There's also Twist, which is based in Portland, plus local giants Starbucks and Eddie Bauer.)
"It's good when the money stays in the local economy," Griffin said. "I don't disagree with that at all." But, he quickly added, he's not a "protectionist." He wants money and commerce to be able to flow around freely, wherever it needs to flow.
For a further sense of where money flows once it enters Griffin's pockets, consider some more of his political contributions, to people like Democratic senator Maria Cantwell ($2,250 in the last two years), Bill Bradley ($500 for his failed presidential run), John Kerry ($4,000 for his failed attempt at the presidency), Democratic governor Chris Gregoire ($2,200 during her 2004 campaign), and to causes like 2002's failed Referendum 51, which would have raised gas taxes to fund road and transit improvements ($100).