Prime Real Estate: Amazon Has Swallowed Downtown Seattle
Having colonized the South Lake Union neighborhood, Seattle's largest private employer is building three giant spheres filled with trees—the better to connect employees with nature.
Walk down Seventh Avenue in downtown Seattle and you can't miss them: three gigantic spheres resembling melted-together Milk Duds rising in the shadow of Amazon’s new 500-foot-tall office tower. The architectural oddity has already become a tourist attraction and social media phenomenon. Passersby snap photographs and watch construction crews attach glass panes to the steel frames. Images stream through Instagram and Twitter.
When they open in 2018, the 100-foot-tall orbs—Amazon calls them Biospheres—will host more than 300 plant species from around the world, creating what the company sees as the workplace of the future. Amazonians will be able to break from their daily labors to walk amid the greenery along suspension bridges and climb into meeting spaces resembling bird nests perched in mature trees, where the company expects them to brainstorm—and perhaps even invent the next billion-dollar opportunity.
Amazon's new headquarters was designed to project a forward-thinking company eager to help employees be more productive, creative and happy by providing a connection to nature. But the most trend-setting and appealing feature of the new complex is most likely its location: plopped between glass and steel high-rises on a busy street in downtown Seattle where food trucks are abundant, apartments are within walking distance and Happy Hour greets employees at quitting time.
Over the years, founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos has made clear his disdain for the free lunches, massages and other perks commonplace in the suburban enclaves of Google, Apple and Facebook. His big advantage in the amenities arms race is a commitment to preserving an urban campus, no matter how big his company gets.
Other tech companies are following his lead by squeezing new offices into cities where millennials prefer to live. LinkedIn consolidated staff scattered around San Francisco into a 26-story tower in March. Salesforce.com will be the anchor tenant in a 61-story skyscraper a few miles away that will be the city's tallest upon completion in 2018. Uber has plans for a new headquarters in San Francisco's Mission Bay. Industrial-age leviathans are doing it, too. General Electric is shifting from suburban Connecticut to Boston, while McDonald's is moving from Oak Brook, Illinois, to Chicago.
Amazon's is the most ambitious gambit of them all. When its spheres and three surrounding towers are completed, the company will have 10 million square feet of office space in Seattle, more than 15 percent of the city's inventory, on a campus that occupies more than 10 square blocks. That will provide space for Amazon to more than double in size, to 50,000 Seattle workers in the next decade. "How big can Amazon get and stay in Seattle—that’s what they’re trying to find out," says Glenn Kelman, the CEO of online real estate company Redfin. "Can you create a massive company in the middle of a city?"
Amazon's commitment to Seattle began long before the spheres were conceived. In 2010, the company moved to South Lake Union from leased space it was outgrowing in an old medical building. Amazon leased retail space on the ground floor of its office buildings to hand-picked bars, restaurants and coffee shops, speeding the neighborhood's transformation from a hodgepodge of car dealerships and second-hand stores into a vibrant business district where people could work, live and hang out.
Veteran fine-dining restaurateur Tom Douglas was among the businesses lured by a growing concentration of well-paid tech workers. His survey of Amazon workers indicated they wanted cheap burgers and beer, which encouraged him to break from his traditional model and open the Brave Horse Tavern with a wide assortment of local brews, pub fare and long tables for family-style seating. "I'm sure glad we did that survey, because we might not have gone with this concept otherwise," Douglas said. "At the time, none of us realized how big and fast Amazon would grow." The economic ripples from Amazon have since pushed beyond burger joints and cafes. Yellow cranes mark the skyline where new office towers, hotels and luxury apartments are rising.
Just six years after relocating, Amazon has outgrown South Lake Union and is marching toward the city's urban core. The spheres, designed by architecture firm NBBJ, are Amazon's boldest statement yet in the first project it's building from the ground up.
They were inspired by Amazon research indicating that a key thing missing from typical work environments is a link to the natural world, said John Schoettler, the company's global real estate director. The challenge was creating an environment conducive to plants without being hot and muggy like a greenhouse; the spheres had to be comfortable for humans.
A staff horticulturist scoured the globe for species that can thrive in a cool, dry environment. Many of the plants are endangered species, meaning that the spheres double as a conservation project. Schoettler said the design was chosen to be an architectural focal point in the city, similar to the iconic Space Needle. "We wanted to create a place employees would be proud of and proud to bring their families," he said.
Inevitably, the company's growing presence is making it a scapegoat for common urban woes such as traffic jams and rising rents. New, luxury, one-bedroom apartments packed with amenities that appeal to young urban tech workers fetch upwards of $4,000 a month, putting them out of reach of the Starbucks barista.
To some long-time Seattleites, the new South Lake Union feels sterile, like an open-air mall. Wide sidewalks are devoid of cigarette butts and shattered beer bottles. Street people banging bongos and strumming acoustic guitars with mangy dogs in tow, a common sight in Seattle’s retail and financial districts, are conspicuously absent. South Lake Union has become "a dormitory for Amazon and now Facebook and Google," said Jeff Reifman, a tech consultant.
Meanwhile, the Space Needle's owners have complained that all the towers being thrown up by Amazon and developers hoping to house its workers are crowding out views of the aging tourist attraction.
For now, Amazon's growth seems unstoppable, and it will continue to redefine Seattle, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. Nathan Wilhite, 36, helped fuel that growth when he moved from Chicago to Seattle four years ago. He rides his bike to work, parks it in an Amazon bike locker and showers before starting at about 8 a.m. He'll break for a spinach, avocado and almond milk smoothie while catching some sun in a courtyard where other Amazonians congregate to eat lunch.
Wilhite is glad he picked the Amazon job over opportunities he considered in Silicon Valley that would have required long commutes by car. The way he sees it, "one of the best recruiting tools Amazon has is if people come interview on a nice day, and people are sitting outside having lunch from a food truck."