Architects describe Amazon’s proposed Seattle campus as an ‘urban room’ with ‘sun pockets’

A model of downtown Seattle with the three proposed Amazon.com office towers in brown

Amazon.com’s ambitious plans to erect three massive 37-story office towers in the Denny Triangle area of downtown Seattle isn’t about building a corporate campus, it’s about building a neighborhood. At least that’s the view of NBBJ’s John Savo, the architect for Amazon.com.

In front of standing room only crowd Tuesday night at City Hall, Savo addressed members of Seattle’s Design Review Board about a project that has the possibility to transform the city by connecting the South Lake Union neighborhood to the downtown retail core around Westlake Park.

Throughout his remarks, Savo stressed the importance of making the space accessible to the public, highlighting the importance of pocket parks, artwork, retail storefronts and green spaces that “emphasize the pedestrian.” In that regard, Savo described the overall project as an “urban room.”

“It is very important if we are going to treat this truly as open space that people feel invited into the spaces,” Savo said. If all goes as planned, the entire project could take up to eight years to build in three phases.

A rendering of Amazon's proposed campus, bordered by Westlake Avenue, Blanchard St. and 6th Avenue. The site is now the location of a Toyota dealership, the King Cat Theater and other businesses.

Savo and NBBJ’s Dale Alberda described four different plans during the course of the meeting, spending most of the time explaining the benefits of the “hybrid” or “preferred” scheme which includes a large amount of public space wrapped around the buildings and “sun pockets” where individuals can gather when the gray skies disappear.

The plan also calls for redesigned transit stop on Westlake Avenue and a 2,000-person auditorium, more in the style of a hotel ballroom than a concert venue. (Savo said it has not yet been determined whether that facility would be open to the public).

In addition, Alberda said Amazon.com is excited about “incubator buildings” — smaller buildings that are 75-feet wide and six or seven stories tall — that would connect the towers via skybridges. The whole idea behind the building layout would be to maintain the flow of the downtown grid, but make at “least one gesture to South Lake Union,” Alberda said.

South Lake Union is the location of Amazon’s new headquarters, a spread of new office buildings that it is already outgrowing. The company now employs more than 56,000 people, adding 4,900 workers during the fourth quarter of last year.

Here’s Alberda describing the “hybrid” plan at Tuesday night’s meeting:


As anticipated, the meeting did come with a few fireworks. Members of the pro-labor group Working Washington posed questions and offered statements that were phrased in a way to draw attention to Amazon.com’s alleged mistreatment of workers and its controversial stance on taxes.

Architect John Savo at the Planning Commission meeting describing the proposed Amazon.com project

No representatives from Amazon.com spoke publicly at the meeting. But Savo stressed the company’s desire to be a good neighbor, noting that the project is designed to be “porous” so that pedestrians can easily pass through it.

“As we have been reminded again and again by our client, we are building a neighborhood, not a campus,” said Savo. “And so that is part of what we are trying to do, so it is inviting to the employees to get out of the buildings. (Amazon) would actually like to see that happen. I mean how many high-tech companies do you know that want to be in a downtown? I don’t know any that have anything near this scale. We are doing a number of campuses out in the suburbs and on greenfield sites and old abandoned sites in other places, that you have a lot of freedom about what you do. But people are not engaging in the city life. I think this is a very smart move to be downtown, with the recruiting and the retention, because they want the people to get out of the building. They want people to walk their dog, eat outside, to invite their family in to come meet them here.”

Jevon Barlas might be one of those folks to use the new urban space. A nearby resident who described the project as in his “front yard,” Barlas was largely supportive of the “hybrid” plan.

He suggested Amazon design buildings that varied in height so it didn’t look like a box from a distance, whether from a ferry in Elliott Bay or from a car along I-5. And he suggested buildings with some color that were a bit different, noting that most of the buildings going up in the neighborhood are black and gray.

“Something that is a little bit brighter would be welcome in this neighborhood … and would go well with what seems like a lot of park space and the vibrancy they are trying to add to this area,” he said.

Here are some documents previously filed with the city about the project.

Amazon Campus

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/UXEUUNXR5UFOTY3YAVCVH5673Q Eric

    The video was so informative, Amazon.com announced it would be consolidating its Seattle offices in South Lake Union,thanks for sharing it. 

  • Billg

    but make at “least one gesture to South Lake Union,”  We can all but wonder what that gesture will be..

    But seriously, these are a a group of tall buildings. While I’m not crazy about the sunlight blocking effect, I’d rather that Amazon.com remained in downtown Seattle than move to the burbs or out to Freemont. As it is, Amazon.com employees can ride the transit system we’ve already built, rather than like Microsoft which now has to hire it’s own fleet of buses to get everybody to work.

    But Sky bridges? Seriously?

    • Anonymous

      It’s the other way around. Taller, skinnier buildings actually let in more sunlight that shorter, squatter buildings. The wider and squatter the building, the more it blocks sunlight to the street. Besides, what you call sunlight-blocking, others call shade. And the project description clearly states there will be sunlight pockets.

  • Coece99

    Amazon should take some real risks architecturally and create icon -like buildings with world class architects, ornamentation and landscaping. Forget the boxes in space, create something beautiful and long lasting.

    • Anonymous

      I totally agree! We should keep in mind though that the above plans are only massing studies, and are far from the final design stage. They might even get an exemption to the height limit and build taller, skinnier structures in order to let in more sunlight. (Shorter, squatter buildings actually tend to block out sunlight. Look at Russell Investments Centre in downtown Seattle for an example of how height limits can block out sunlight.)

  • http://twitter.com/tunewithinus Daniel Pasos

    I understand following downtown’s grid and feel but I think it should be something memorable, have you seen the campus Apple will start building? With something like that it truly becomes more than just office buildings.

    • johnhcook

      Several of the citizens who commented on Amazon’s new HQ plan last night also said they wanted something bold and colorful. Guess the gray skies and buildings downtown have folks a bit depressed. I was thinking about the Apple HQ too. That looks amazing, but not sure downtown Seattle could handle something of that scale and complexity.

      • http://twitter.com/tunewithinus Daniel Pasos

        Some color would be definitely a good change. I’d love to see something that works around Seattle’s natural beauty, something with more organic forms. Although it might not blend well with the rest of the buildings, right? 

        • johnhcook

          You mean like EMP? :) 

          Sorry, couldn’t resist…

      • http://twitter.com/gerwitz hans.gerwitz

        Seattle shouldn’t want something of that “scale”: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/03/why-apples-new-campus-anti-urban/1473/

        I’m a huge fan of Apple and longstanding acolyte of Steve, but the UFO is the worst product of that company in history, viewed from “effect on culture”.

    • Anonymous

      The above plans are just massing studies. They are far, far from the final design stage.

  • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

    Really exciting. The project is likely to tie South Lake Union to downtown, make those in each “half” behave more like the stretch from the central library to the south edge of Lake Union is contiguous. Absolutely fantastic fortune for Seattle.

  • Barb W

    Pardon me.  I must correct you here.  This presentation was not made to the Seattle Planning Commission.  I suspect it was either the Design Commission or the design Review Board.  Please correct your story. 

    • johnhcook

      Thanks for letting me know Barb. I’ve made the change above, and included a link to the Design Review Board. Thanks again.