A Crosscut.com collaboration with Seattle Magazine.
Strolling around Blanchard and Seventh in Seattle’s Denny Triangle, I’m taking in the last days of a forgettable block. It’s an easy spot to ignore as one passes by. Nondescript mid-rises commiserate with a Budget Rent A Car, a strip club and a fenced-off dirt lot. Having passed through the area for years, it’s hard for me to believe that by 2016, this block will resemble the set of a sci-fi movie and serve as an epicenter of global retail. But the wheels are already turning, and change is on its way.
Last December, Amazon received the green light to build a 3.3 million-square-foot campus encompassing this entire city block. Even for a city that prides itself on forward-thinking design, the retail giant’s plans are striking.
The headquarters will not only include a 38-story skyscraper, but also a series of interlocking, five-story domes made of glass and steel (which Amazon has dubbed ‘The Spheres”), positioned in the middle of a park-like area. The biosphere-style orbs will be filled with trees and plant life, various retail stores and eateries, and workspaces for Amazon staff.
Initial public response has been mostly positive. The Spheres have been cast as another futuristic addition to the city’s architecture, following the library downtown and EMP Museum, and some of its ground-floor retail will be open to the public.
But as the glow wears off, The Spheres could come to represent other things. Fair or not, some Seattleites may pass the ultramodern facility years from now, consider the workers among their climate-controlled greenery and see a symbol of progress only for the few, disconnected from the rest of the city.
'The Spheres', Amazon's future Denny Triangle campus. Image: NBBJ
In San Francisco, resentment against tech-fueled growth has boiled over into regular protests. John Cook, editor of Seattle-based tech publication GeekWire and serious booster of the local tech economy, worries that a San Fran–style clash may be brewing in Seattle as well, with Amazon’s rapid growth serving as catalyst.
There are gentrification concerns, but also the potential for cultural clashes. For example, Amazon is a company with established anti-union bona fides, a spotty environmental record, and one of the world’s fiercest capitalists — Jeff Bezos — as CEO. It’s creating a massive footprint in a labor and environmentalist stronghold, a city that just elected a socialist to its city council, who campaigned on taking Amazon and Microsoft into “democratic public ownership to be run for public good, not private profit.”
It’s safe to anticipate some friction on the horizon.
Tech has been in the region’s DNA for decades — Microsoft, RealNetworks and Expedia are just a few other companies with local roots. But as the Puget Sound region weathered the recession, tech’s place in its economy grew. The area is consistently ranked as one of the best places to launch a startup, and hundreds of these companies, as well as titans like Google and Facebook, have outposts here.
Early tech companies located themselves on the periphery of cities, where there was more room to grow inexpensively. Microsoft put down roots in Redmond, for example. Apple and Google are located just outside of San Francisco.
For the young and well paid, however, city life is increasingly preferred over suburbia. Thus, some tech companies are now adopting more urban milieus to attract talent. Twitter and Dropbox recently moved to San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. In Seattle, Tableau, Adobe and Google have set up in Fremont’s urban hub, while Zillow and Facebook camp out downtown.
When it comes to staffing, though, none of these new companies holds a candle to Amazon. While the company would not confirm workforce stats, The New York Times estimated that Amazon had about 15,000 Seattle employees in 2013, most of them high-salaried programmers and managers. When its current expansion is complete, the company will be able to support roughly 30,000 workers in the city.
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