Ten years ago on Dec. 21, Amazon announced it would move to South Lake Union, consolidating the company’s growing footprint into an 11-building campus and abandoning the former hospital building on Beacon Hill that the company had called home.
City planners estimated Amazon might have 6,000 employees there by the time the campus would be finished in 2011.
That prediction would fall short by a third, and it wouldn’t be the last time people underestimated the scale of Amazon’s ambitions.
Today, the company has come to dominate the neighborhood and much of the face of the city itself, employing more than 40,000 people in Seattle, spread over 37 offices. The company is planning to add at least that many people to a second headquarters city after selecting a separate and “equal” home next year.
But before Amazon moved into South Lake Union, Paul Allen’s Vulcan had to bag an increase in the neighborhood’s height limits.
It was an open secret that Amazon was shopping for a new home, and that Vulcan’s megaproject for its South Lake Union real estate holdings had a very specific tenant in mind.
One area of debate was how much in affordable housing and other impact fees to tack onto the development. Then-city councilmember Peter Steinbrueck warned that the city planned to offer Vulcan a discount to standard rates, and said the plan was inappropriate given an ongoing housing crisis.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial board raised concerns about carving out exceptions to city code for a single company or project, a warning that could seem out of fashion today as some municipalities offer Amazon billions of dollars to lure its second headquarters.
“The city’s unseemly questions seem to have been: How high should we jump?” the editorial read, weeks before Amazon’s announcement. “And how soon?”
Deputy mayor Tim Ceis warned that the big target tenant “could move out of Seattle to a suburban alternative” if the city’s demands were too high.
Jeff Bezos, whether the city knew it or not, had no such plans. The Amazon founder and chief executive had committed to Seattle, deputizing his real estate group to find a new, long-term home within the city.
The deal announced on Dec. 21, 2007, to bring Amazon to South Lake Union included $6.4 million in affordable housing and other fees, or about $1.2 million less than Steinbrueck estimated would have been owed if Vulcan had built the same development downtown.
City officials and the real estate industry heralded the news as a milestone in the redevelopment of the district of low-slung, light industrial and commercial concerns.
“I think it’s a statement about the coming of age of South Lake Union,” David Yuan of architectural firm NBBJ told the Seattle Times. “South Lake Union is now a legitimate business address.”
And, lest we think gridlock is a modern phenomenon, even a decade ago some worried about getting around.
“I think it’s probably a good thing,” a citizen told KING 5 news. Still, “I don’t know what it will do to the traffic.”
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