Is Amazon leaving Seattle?
That’s been the nagging question of the year in business, with Seattle’s nerves only more frazzled than ever after the announcement that the company plans to put 10,000 more jobs, for a total of 25,000, in office towers across the lake in Bellevue.
“That sucking sound you hear in Seattle is Amazon planning to hire 10,000 people … in Bellevue,” one investment analyst tweeted Friday. “Money is mobile and will flow, like water, to where it is treated best.”
For its part, Amazon did not portray Bellevue’s gain as Seattle’s loss, but rather as a regional growth strategy in which the entire area, including Redmond and maybe other places, is now HQ1 for the tech titan, perhaps three times the size of its eventual HQ2 out in Virginia.
Interestingly this is exactly what King County and Seattle leaders pitched to Amazon three years ago, when it was first looking for a new headquarters. Put your new growth here, they pleaded. Not in Seattle, where the company has maxed out, but in Bellevue as well as other areas around the Puget Sound.
People kind of mocked this idea, said we had no chance. But after the New York location fell through, that’s kind of what’s ended up happening. Bellevue got an HQ2 without having to give up a dime in subsidies for it.
All of this is fantastic news for the area’s economy at a hard time — provided that it’s an expansion plan, and not a “get out of Seattle” plan. If Amazon is planning to just shift 25,000 jobs out of South Lake Union to Bellevue, then the whole thing will be at best net neutral for the region and a big blow to Seattle’s new downtown, which is right now largely empty anyway due to the coronavirus.
So here’s a tell, a sign of what the inside players think might be going to happen. One of the more influential developers in the nation just placed a bet on Seattle, buying up a property right next to Amazon’s headquarters campus in Seattle’s Denny Triangle.
This hasn’t gotten much attention with all the doom and gloom about the city. But about a month ago, Silverstein Properties, the developer that rebuilt and owns most of the World Trade Center project in Manhattan, paid $17.5 million for an historic triangle-shaped brick structure that currently houses a steak restaurant and offices.
The firm last week filed site plans with the City of Seattle to build a complicated 40-story high rise there, with the new skyscraper cantilevered over the brick wedge building below. It’ll rise at 801 Blanchard, immediately adjacent to Amazon’s new re:Invent tower, which houses 5,000 employees in normal times.
The New York project “is a great sign” for the health of the Denny Triangle area, said Craig Kinzer, of Kinzer Partners, one of Seattle’s leading development deal makers.
It’s a wager that there’s going to be, eventually, “a move back to ‘normal,'” he wrote in an email. Despite all the upheaval, people perceive that “Seattle will continue to be one of the top 10, maybe even top 5, urban areas that will thrive over the next 10 to 20 years. So yes, the purchase is a sign that we are still a very good bet.”
It’s funny, I’m old enough to remember when the prospect of powerhouse New Yorkers buying up part of downtown would have sent provincial Seattleites into a spiral about the coming Manhattanization of the Emerald City. Now it’s a source of wry comfort: “We’re not dead yet!”
Personally I think Amazon expanding in Bellevue is a perfect solution for the region. It keeps the company here while easing somewhat the “prosperity bomb” of wealth and growth that has transformed Seattle for both good and ill (warning to Bellevue, which already has stratospheric home prices: Get ready as you’re up next). It also may cool somewhat the super-heated politics surrounding the company in the city.
Jobs in Bellevue are hardly jobs lost — they’re right across the bridge, in the same economy.
But I have no doubt this will touch off more rounds of civic angst about the always impending death of Seattle, so it was revealing to hear what the New Yorkers had to say about it. Their notions of the future of the Denny Regrade and downtown are hardly the bleak “anarchist jurisdiction” you hear about our city from the usual suspects.
“The Seattle site offers a host of attractive features including proximity to mass transit, parks, vibrant retail and world-class companies with growing footprints,” said Larry Silverstein, who, remember, is the guy who runs the World Trade Center.
“Downtown Seattle is extremely appealing to us with its incredible growth and livability,” gushed another Silverstein executive. “We view the whole Seattle region as an opportunity.”
It’s so like us, Seattle, to have the out-of-towners believe in us more than we do ourselves.