A Walk Through Seattle’s Amazonia Neighborhood

Amazon’s corporate buildings in South Lake Union, Seattle, Washington.
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The race for cities wanting to host Amazon’s new $5 billion headquarters — and the 50,000 high-paying jobs the company says it’ll come with — is on.

The global e-commerce giant received 238 bids for the second headquarters, dubbed HQ2.

For those wondering what their city may look like should Amazon choose it, the company’s current home in Seattle is a cautionary tale. Locals point to snarled traffic, soaring housing prices, never-ending construction, and accelerated gentrification.

I recently spent a day in the Seattle neighborhood locals call Amazonia to see whether the “Ama-geddon” is as bad as everyone thinks.

In the ’90s, Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood was a mess of parking lots, warehouses, and industrial buildings. Amazon has transformed the neighborhood and its surrounding areas, Belltown and Denny Triangle. Each of those pins on the map is an Amazon office.

Amazon’s offices are spread across more than 33 buildings throughout the area, though some say the number is closer to 40. The company leases 100,000 square feet of office space in this building, nicknamed Otter.

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It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly Amazon dominates downtown. The company is up to occupying 8.1 million square feet of office space in Seattle, reports say. Day 1 Tower, opened in 2016, is one of two towers that form the heart of Amazon’s campus.

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Amazon employees are literally everywhere. They’re easily spotted by the ubiquitous blue badges hanging from their belts or around their necks.

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Amazon has about 20% of Seattle’s prime office real estate, more than any other employer in a major US city. It occupies more square feet than the next 40 largest employers in the city combined.

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Construction on Amazon’s third and fourth towers is underway. The biggest employer in a city usually occupies less than 5% of office real estate — but having just one take up so much space has its consequences.

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For example, when the headquarters of Washington Mutual, the previous major officeholder in Seattle, was dispersed by its new owner, JPMorgan Chase, it took years for downtown to recover.

The most iconic part of the campus is the Spheres, glass domes that will be filled with diverse and exotic plants, a waterfall, and 45-foot-tall rusty-leaf fig tree. The interior will be kept at a pleasant 72 degrees, and employees will be able to work there.

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Amazon’s real-estate director, John Schoettler, told The Seattle Times that Amazon built the domes not just for employees, but “for the city.” They will not be open to the public, but Amazon has said it is looking for ways to bring in visitors.

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The dog park, however, is open to the public. Amazon is a famously dog-friendly workplace.

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Amazon has commissioned several sculptures that dot public spaces, like “Petros” by the artist Julie Speidel. But they tend to conform to Amazon’s sleek aesthetic, which many say lacks the colorful character of the rest of Seattle.

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There is a strange vibe that Amazon controls everything. Amazon security guards questioned this photojournalist about what she was doing — on public property. Shortly after, the guard began filming me, saying Amazon documents all media personnel. I hadn’t identified myself as a reporter.

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It’s possible this is a case of security guards on a power-trip.

“This is not our policy,” Amazon spokesman Adam Sedo told Business Insider in a statement Wednesday. “We’re investigating why this happened and taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Amazon is “almost juicing” the office market, Matthew Gardner of Windmere Real Estate told The Times. Office space for non-Amazon employers has at times shrunk, but because Amazon keeps growing, its demand keeps increasing. Amazon has leased this entire building on Westlake, the main thoroughfare, since it was built.

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Developers are capitalizing on the demand to build a host of new skyscrapers. In May, the city was home to 58 construction cranes, by far the most in the US.

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The Times reported in July that 74 projects were under construction in downtown Seattle. Two-thirds of the buildings will be residential towers, with most being apartments for rent, not condos.

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Seattle has gone from one of the most affordable West Coast cities to one of the least, Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist at Zillow, told CNN Money. The city and developers have tried to alleviate that by building tons of apartments. Downtown has added 20,000 units in the past decade, with another 27,000 on the way.

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But nearly all the buildings are considered luxury real estate, with rents 40% higher than in older buildings. The dueling 41-story Insignia towers include amenities like a “sky retreat,” an indoor lap pool and sauna, and a screening room.

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From 2005 to 2015, Seattle’s median rent jumped by three times as much as the national figure did. In downtown Seattle, average rent has climbed to $2,400 a month, meaning you’d need to make about $96,000 to afford it.

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SOURCE: Business Insider, Harrison Jacobs