Several weeks ago I wrote an article about the significance of Weyerhaeuser moving out of and selling its iconic, 40-year-old home in Federal Way. So what can we expect at the company's new site in the heart of Pioneer Square? Another visually dramatic building? A state-of- the-art symbol of new corporate America? A structure that nestles into the neighborhood's collection of late 19th Century Romanesque architecture?
The answer to each question is yes, no and perhaps.
When I first visited Seattle in the early 1970’s the City was a depressing disappointment. Still mired in its post- Boeing downturn, I found the place to be a rather boring, backwater town filled with many decrepit buildings, a cheesy waterfront and virtually no restaurants that stayed open after 9:00 p.m. The only bright spot was Occidental Square.
Its European-style park seemed utterly charming with its classic proportions and aging patina. Only later did I discover that it was virtually new, a park designed by landscape architect Ilze Jones, whose office still overlooks the place today. Although its paving materials, details and tree canopy have since been altered, back then Occidental Square was a beacon of hope in an otherwise aesthetically uninteresting downtown. Indeed, it marked an early turnaround for a city that is now, four decades later, considered one of the most dynamic and livable in North America.
Recently I’ve been spending time in Occidental Square, eating breakfast or lunch at the tables outside the venerable Grand Central Bakery, watching the tourists frequently walk backwards in order to snap a picture of its ivy-covered, arch-windowed, brick façade. (Forty years ago I did that same staggering backwalk, oblivious to what was behind me, to find just the right angle for the shot.) The square is almost literally a stage set, with a perfect composition of architecture, trees, people and plants.
The other side of the square has been a polar opposite for decades. The backside of several Second Avenue buildings provides a backdrop for a parking lot that could have been designed by Tim Burton. The lot's pavement is so lumpy and and its aspect so forlorn that it threatens to swallow you up and send you straight to the hellish waiting room in Beetlejuice.
Public squares work well when they are contained on all four sides. Occidental Square has, in this sense, been waiting for a fourth wall for 40 years. Its been a very long wait.
The new Weyerhaeuser headquarters will provide that missing fourth side and line it with shops and restaurants. Pioneer Square has been making such a rapid comeback in the last year that by the time the new building opens in 2016, it will be almost anticlimactic. But even unbuilt, its impact on the neighborhood is palpable.
After a continuing wave of fine new restaurants, the neighborhood's current renaissance is being shaped by unique, locally-owned shops which are arriving lock, stock and barrel from other parts of the city. These business owners grasp the potential of hordes of new residents and start-ups. In some ways, Weyerhaeuser is late to the party. But it winds up being the centerpiece.
The new building will fill the entire half-block between Occidental and Second Ave. South and serve as a solid anchor to the east side of the Occidental Park. That side has been a ragged edge with no storefronts to provide “eyes on the street.” Consequently, the area has attracted an unsavory mix of drug dealers and boisterous clientele from nearby bars. Thanks to the mayor and new police chief, a recently enhanced police presence has removed many of the drug dealers and misbehavers.
The presence of Weyerhaeuser and its 800 hundred employees will have a profound impact. Property values will increase, likely raising rents and elbowing out the bars. With more people milling around the area, it will be much more difficult to get away with antisocial or illegal activities. The company’s investment will undoubtedly attract more real estate investment from others.
My prediction: Within a year, every parking lot in a three-block radius of Weyerhaeuser will be sold to a developer and have a building proposed for it. Which is what's already happening elsewhere in the district.
The Weyerhaeuser building itself is being designed by Mithun Architects, a firm well-known for its emphasis on sustainability. Mithun's design will be unabashedly contemporary, rather than an attempt to match the type of architecture in the district. In fact, the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for new development in historic areas specifically discourages “faux historicism.” Instead new structures should reflect current building practices, technologies and materials. The Weyerhaeuser building will do just that.
According to Bill LaPatra, a partner at Mithun, the building had been designed to meet the needs of general office tenants. Now that Weyerhaeuser is committed to fill it, the designers are looking to embody a wide range of state-of-the-art technologies and systems that reflect principles of sustainability. The building will incorporate natural ventilation, highly energy-efficient mechanical systems and a green roof. The designers are also exploring the use of photovoltaics and aiming for a LEED Gold rating.
The location, size and form of the building will result in a contemporary landmark. The structure’s taut exterior, energy-saving systems and proximity to transit reflect current values of urban design. Just this past week a Pronto! bike station went in immediately adjacent to the property, right outside the future entrance to Weyerhaeuser’s future headquarters, a vivid contrast to the company's car-dependent current building in Federal Way. Indeed, there will be very little parking at the new site.
Credit: Bethany Weeks/Flickr
The old home of Weyerhaeuser (above) embodied early thinking about environmentally-efficient building methods, with its spatial layout and natural ventilation. But its hefty carbon footprint — thousands of employees driving to and from work every day and an immense amount of land — likely cancelled out those benefits.
The new building will bring together principles of site-specific sustainability with larger societal objectives of more efficient transportation choices and compact urban development. In that way, the new building will reflect a broader set of values than the old one, which merely nestled a one-of-a-kind building into a bucolic landscape.
A nice irony is that the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters might sit on sawdust from Henry Yesler’s old Sawmill. The sawdust was allegedly dumped there after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Weyerhaeuser may be simply returning to its metaphorical roots.