Tuesday, August 27, 2013

As Amazon Stretches, Seattle’s Downtown Is Reshaped

When Amazon executives showed up last year for the first meetings about their proposal to build a new headquarters here — three towers that would draw thousands of workers downtown — city officials were taken aback. Not by the scope of the plan, but by the simplicity of the discussion. The executives said they were ready to break ground immediately on what would be one of the biggest development projects in city history.

“It was not a hard-boiled negotiation,” said Marshall Foster, the director of city planning. “They basically walked in and said, ‘We think this is the site.’ ” A shovel-ready company that clear and confident, and with the cash to back it up, “doesn’t happen very often,” Mr. Foster added.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, has a reputation for the grand gesture, a knack for seizing an opportunity that can remake a landscape. His purchase of The Washington Post this month for $250 million cash, a bet that others might have shied away from, is a case in point.

Here, in his company’s hometown, Mr. Bezos has put his chips on the idea of Seattle and urban America itself. The first headquarters tower is already under construction, and the company currently occupies 14 smaller buildings nearby.

The result in South Lake Union, previously a low-rise, low-rent warehouse district with ties to the city’s gritty maritime past, is a flood of cash, construction detours and dust. Increases to the city’s tax base aside, some people are apprehensive about whether the growth could outstrip the city’s ability to keep up.

“South Lake Union was a place that people drove through, not to,” John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities, said in an interview. “Once we started development there, everything started to spring up around us.”

The once-empty streets are flooded at lunchtime with Amazon workers, easily identified by their blue employee badges. Fleets of food trucks have arrived, offering Thai, tacos and other fare. On a nice day, workers take their lunches to a park next to the Museum of History and Industry, which was recently renovated with a $10 million contribution from Mr. Bezos.

The company already has about 15,000 employees in Seattle, mostly highly paid engineers, managers and programmers, out of a global work force of about 97,000, according to people familiar with its head count who were not authorized to discuss a figure that the company does not share publicly. The new towers have a capacity for 12,000, giving the company room for nearly 30,000 workers in Seattle, which has a population of 635,000.

“Nobody else in the downtown area has ever had this kind of impact,” said Matt Griffin, a 35-year veteran of the Seattle economic scene and the managing partner at the Pine Street Group, a real estate marketing and development company.

But the Amazon effect only starts with its own big numbers. The thousands of new employees, recently hired or anticipated, have also caught the attention of apartment developers. Last year, Seattle issued more new residential building permits than in any year since at least 1984, when the current system of record-keeping began.

Many of those new apartments are within walking or biking distance of Amazon. Service businesses and start-up technology companies, meanwhile, have sought nearby addresses. Northeastern University, based in Boston, set up a remote campus last year across the street from Amazon’s current buildings.

“I think they’ve single-handedly defined a whole region,” said Bryan Trussel, the chief executive of Glympse, an Internet start-up with offices next to Amazon. “Now everyone wants to be there.”

The setting is significant. In casting its lot in the center of a congested, bustling city, Amazon has rejected the old model of the suburban company campus that is typical of Silicon Valley and the technology ring road around Boston. The old way is perhaps most vividly exemplified by Microsoft. Its offices, and most of its 42,000 local employees, are about 18 miles from downtown Seattle, in the suburb of Redmond.

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