As construction begins today on the first step of NBBJ's new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle, concerns are growing over how this massive development will impact the city's already gridlocked streets.
Officially known as 500 Fifth Avenue North, the foundation's campus encompasses 12 acres adjacent to the Seattle Center, once home to the 1962 World's Fair. Work begins today on a 1,010-car parking garage, which will make up for a public lot that the rest of the campus will displace. The 420,000-square-foot structure contains a learning center—the campus's only indoor public space—and features a green roof. Although the foundation is also paying the city $1.68 million for traffic improvements, many observers believe more is needed.
Peter Steinbrueck, who heads the Seattle City Council's urban development and planning committee, describes the neighborhood's street conditions as "blighted"—and fears that with new hotels and restaurants already in the works, the infrastructure could be pushed beyond its limit. Seattle has plans to build a $5 billion tunnel just south of the campus, but this structure only replaces an existing viaduct. Planners say another $500 million of improvements are necessary to create a functioning street grid for cars and pedestrians. But funding sources for additional projects are unclear, particularly in light of a fierce political battle over the tunnel.
Many observers contend that the city will lose its chance to improve the long-neglected neighborhood if it cannot fund changes before the Gates Foundation enters its final stages. When private development takes over, planners worry, the city could lose crucial rights of way.
Last November, the city approved NBBJ's full campus design, which calls for 1 million square feet of office space, distributed in three L-shaped buildings around a central courtyard. Construction is planned in phases over 15 years, with the first and largest phase expected to finish in 2010.