News that Amgen plans to shutter its 40-acre campus along Elliott Bay marks yet another setback for Seattle’s biotech industry, which has struggled to take root over the years. Amgen plans to close the waterfront facility and a manufacturing operation in Bothell, laying off more than 600 people as part of a larger corporate restructuring at the Thousand Oaks, Calif-based biotech giant.
The waterfront property is a prized chunk of real estate, tucked in an isolated pocket of the city just west of heavily-traveled Elliott Avenue and just east of Smith Cove where cruise ships often dock. About 750,000 square feet of office space is available in the buildings, which are connected to Elliott Avenue by a pedestrian bridge designed in the shape of the double helix structure of DNA.
So, what’s next for the 10-year-old campus? Here are five possible uses, based in part on our conversations with real estate watchers and industry insiders.
1. Keep it in the biotech family
The Amgen facility is built with drug research in mind, complete with specialized laboratory equipment. Tearing that out would come at an enormous expense. So, why not just keep it intact? One challenge is that Seattle’s biotech industry doesn’t have an anchor tenant on the scale of Amazon in online retail/cloud computing or Microsoft in software. That makes it especially challenging for one biotech company to gobble up the space. Perhaps the campus could be turned into a massive biotech zone or incubator, one where startups and mid-sized life science companies could thrive. The University of Washington is another possible candidate, though it seems to be satisfied with its medical and life science holdings in South Lake Union and the U. District. “In a perfect world, another large biotech company would be preferred,” said longtime real estate expert Kip Spencer. “I think the most likely scenario is a multi-tenant campus, aimed at biotech.” But who would fund such a project? That leads to our second idea.
2. Paul Allen should buy the property
Almost immediately after posting the article on Amgen’s Seattle closure, longtime GeekWire reader Patrick Husting noted: “I wonder if Paul Allen would step up and purchase that location.” It’s not out of the question, and Allen’s real estate lieutenants certainly have the wherewithal to pull off something of this scale. The billionaire Microsoft co-founder has already reshaped much of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, where Amazon.com is now headquartered as well as a number of biotech companies. He’s also bankrolling the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into those research organizations. Maybe he can consolidate those efforts along Elliott Bay, and toss in a few biotech companies too.
3. Amazon’s stealthy R&D shop
One of the odd things about the Amgen campus is its geographic isolation, tucked in a difficult to reach pocket of the city. Sounds like the perfect location for Seattle’s quietest tech giant: Amazon.com. The company recently expanded in the Elliott Avenue neighborhood with a lease for four floors at 635 Elliott Ave. W., a surprise to us given the distance to its South Lake Union hub. But the company’s growth is insane, taking over huge tracts of downtown Seattle. It now employs more than 130,000 people worldwide, more than Microsoft. Could it put some people in the old Amgen campus working on a high-profile and stealthy project? Maybe the company’s drone unit can operate there. After all, wouldn’t it be cool to see drones buzzing the nearby grain terminal? Or perhaps, given Amazon’s ambitions, it will decide it wants to get into the pharmaceutical business. With Amazon, you never really know. “Given Amazon’s insatiable appetite for space, I wouldn’t rule them out as a candidate,” says Spencer.
4. A tech giant from outside the region moves in
Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Oracle, Salesforce.com and several other tech giants already have growing engineering centers in the region. Maybe it’s time Apple plants its roots in Seattle. The Amgen property could serve as an enticing location for a large technology or biotechnology company, but its size would intimidate even the biggest players. I’d bet against this one.
5. An emerging tech player from Seattle gobbles it up
It’s far more likely that a Seattle-based technology company takes root at the Amgen property than an outsider, perhaps F5 Networks (which is located nearby on Elliott Avenue) or Tableau (which is bursting at the seams in Fremont). Having a self-contained campus in Seattle along the water could be pretty special. However, Tableau is currently expanding in Fremont, opening new offices in the former Sound Mind & Body gym in August. Plus, the Tableau executives love Fremont, the quirky old hippie enclave that claims to be “The Center of the Universe.”
F5 renewed a lease for three corporate buildings along Elliott Avenue in 2010, with the leases running through 2022. The company is adding headcount, but probably not at the pace to warrant a new 750,000 square foot campus. Zulily would have been a top contender for the space had it not just moved in down the street at the former RealNetworks headquarters. Meanwhile, Concur, Expedia and T-Mobile are firmly rooted in Bellevue, and the isolated location of the Amgen property would make it a nightmare commute for any Eastside workers. I don’t suspect they’ll be making the cross-lake voyage, especially Concur which moved into new space in Bellevue last summer and T-Mobile whose future in the region is uncertain given merger talks.
Ok, those are my ideas for the Amgen property. What are yours?
A privately-run tech university? A new arena for the Sonics? Steve Ballmer’s retirement pad? The Fred Hutch west campus?
Let us know in the comments what you’d like to see happen to this spectacular piece of real estate.