The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will build its $500 million headquarters across from the Seattle Center.

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The global aims of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took shape Tuesday in the heart of Seattle, where what was once a Native American ceremonial camp is becoming the $500 million headquarters of the world’s largest charitable foundation.

The foundation broke ground on its 900,000-square-foot campus, a symbol of interest in philanthropy and global health in the region.

Seattle has made its mark through aviation and information technology, and the Gates Foundation aspires to make global health the next world-changing industry with roots in the Pacific Northwest, foundation co-chairwoman Melinda Gates said. As she spoke, construction workers began tearing up pavement on Fifth Avenue across from the Space Needle.

The 1962 World’s Fair brought a new global identity to Seattle, she said, and since then, “a global outlook is really at the core of what Seattle stands for.”

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With more than $1.5 billion a year from Warren Buffett’s gift now pouring into the Gates Foundation, and the foundation pouring money into local nonprofits, the expansion is defying the economic downturn.

The Gates Foundation made about $2 billion in grants last year in global health, global development and education. It has granted about $1 billion to organizations in Washington state helping vulnerable children and families.

The foundation is spending about $556 per square foot on the campus, which includes two six-story office buildings, an entrance pavillion and visitors center on 12 acres it acquired from the city for $50 million in 2006. It’s scheduled to open in 2010, consolidating the group’s 540 employees, now working in five different buildings.

For comparison, the cost of the proposed Fifth and Columbia Tower, which at 660 feet would be the tallest building built in Seattle in two decades, was estimated at $300 million. At about 760,000 square feet, that’s $395 per square foot.

The Marketplace I and II buildings near Pike Place Market sold a year ago for $665 per square foot, setting a record.

Since David and Louisa Denny donated the land to the city in 1889, it has been used as a hotel and a streetcar barn. It was formerly a potlatch meadow, which served tribes moving between Duwamish villages on Lake Union and fishing sites on Elliott Bay.

Seattle-based PATH, one of the Gates Foundation’s largest grantees, is also looking for a new home for its own burgeoning organization, now housed in a building near the Ballard Bridge.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” said PATH marketing director Ellen Cole. PATH has grown to 265 Seattle employees this year from 189 in 2003. Worldwide, PATH employs 719 people, up from 434 five years ago.

The Global State of Washington recently published a directory of 200 nonprofit organizations, businesses and university centers engaged in activities to improve the economic, social or environmental conditions of poor people in developing countries.

And the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce is focusing a year of programs on global health starting in September.

Gates said she hopes the campus and visitor center will educate and inspire people. “Part of our job is to help them learn about problems people face outside of Seattle and around the globe,” she said.

Others also foresee an economic benefit to the investment, which is spurring new local companies developing tools for global health, said Jack Faris, president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

“We’re going to be a more cosmopolitan city because of this,” he said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or

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