The Amazon model: 4 reasons your company should move to the heart of the city

Scott Wyatt of NBBJ speaks with Kevin Delaney of Quartz Tuesday in Seattle. (Courtesy NBBJ)

Scott Wyatt of NBBJ speaks with Kevin Delaney of Quartz Tuesday in Seattle. (Courtesy NBBJ)

The Weyerhauser Corporate Headquarters in Federal Way has earned awards for its architecture, interior design and energy conservation.

It’s a “gorgeous, gorgeous” building, Scott Wyatt tells me. There’s just one problem.

“There’s nothing happening there.”

Wyatt, chairman of Seattle-based architecture firm NBBJ, far prefers the scene around Amazon’s offices in South Lake Union, where hotspots like the Brave Horse Tavern keep the streets buzzing day and night.

As well he should. He’s designing the next stage.

Wyatt made a case for the company as “urban neighbor” at the Seattle Quartz Conference Tuesday. That got my attention.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at the company’s recent shareholder meeting that building a suburban headquarters would have been “the wrong decision.” And Amazon’s new home in the heart of Seattle — if not always its workhorse culture or enemy-of-beloved-bookstores rap — is already the envy of city lovers shuttling to that sprawling tech campus out east or other suburban tech hubs.

Cities are sexy enough. But will plugging a tech company into the urban core actually improve its work?

Wyatt thinks so. Here are four reasons why:

1. We’re back downtown

In the fifties young workers left the cities. Today, we’re coming back. And we want to stick around this time.

“They want to live, work and play in cities,” Wyatt said. “People are proud of the fact they don’t own a car!”

I can barely park in South Lake Union with all the car2go’s squeezed beside stuffed bike racks at lunchtime. Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs for the first time in 100 years. And apartment rental prices are skyrocketing.

The suburbs aren’t what they used to be.

2. Work is more social

(Photo via Kevin Lisota)

(Photo via Kevin Lisota)

Wyatt draws a distinction between the individual work of the past and the collaborative work of a powerfully connected present.

Wyatt is influenced by MIT management professor Tom Malone’s influential work on teams. You don’t want employees — or their ideas — to fester in isolation, he said. You want them bumping into each other.

Better yet, you want them bumping into people and ideas from other companies.

“When I went to school, any discussion of homework was considered cheating,” Wyatt said. “I see my kid on the phone — ‘Why aren’t you doing your homework?’ I ask. He says, ‘I am.’”

So you open your company up to the street, letting its spaces flow into public ones without a fuss.

When I first pulled in to the garage by Brave Horse Tavern on Terry Avenue, Amazon wall decals made me wonder where I was: Is this an Amazon employee garage or a public one?

“‘Do I belong? Should I be in here?’ If we get it right with Amazon,” Wyatt said, “that thought will never cross your mind.”

Scott Wyatt (Courtesy NBBJ)

Scott Wyatt (Courtesy NBBJ)

3. People need to move

It’s not just the number of people you see in a workday that boosts you. It’s the number of calories you burn.

Workers know it, science backs it up and workplace features like standing desks and ping-pong tables bear it out: Your best work day won’t be spent sitting in an office.

“Millennials don’t see the ping-pong table as a distraction or an invitation to goof off,” Wyatt said. “They see it as part of being productive.”

Wyatt doesn’t like the term “campus” to describe Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union. To plug into the urban core you have to blend into it, he said, not crowd it out. The company’s buildings sit between restaurants, shops and food truck lots.

So when employees take their meeting outside, they have places to go.

4. Employers chase employees

Tech companies are in the fight of their lives for talented people. But that’s gotten complicated. Talented people aren’t necessarily going where the companies are, but where their preferred lifestyle is.

Amazon's planned biodomes in the Denny-Triangle area of Seattle.

Amazon’s planned biodomes in the Denny-Triangle area of Seattle.

“Employees chased employers,” Wyatt said. “Now employers chase employees.”

That means following a new generation of workers not just to a metropolitan area, but to those urban cores where many of the most talented people want to live, work and play.

Amazon and South Lake Union seem to have a good relationship — so far.

Seattle’s hundreds of Starbucks brought more business to the city’s independent coffee shops. In a similar way, Amazon’s made the neighborhood a hotter spot for all tech startups — filling bars, supporting the taco trucks and adding to the same urban energy everyone is there to tap.

The “urban neighbor” model doesn’t just make for better work, Wyatt argues. Done right, it makes for better neighborhoods. And better neighborhoods make for better cities.

“Watch Georgetown. Watch SODO. Watch, even, downtown. It’s going to reinvent itself,” Wyatt said. “Seattle has been a city of neighborhoods, and that’s going to continue. That’s going to be its strength.”

Update: This post has changed to correct what designs NBBJ is responsible for with regard to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. NBBJ is designing the new 3.3 million square foot project currently under construction, not the current offices in South Lake Union.

Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • Salty_Swede

    If you want young, often inexperienced people with no family life, locate in the city. If you want stable, often more experienced people who value low crime, lots of parks and great schools locate in the suburbs.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      That’s one of Wyatt’s most interesting theories, which didn’t quite fit in this post: He bets that several years down the road, we’re going to start to see things like great schools take root in cities rather than suburbs, as a new generation of parents refuses to move too far out of the core. It’s a fascinating thought…

      • zzone

        Its less a matter of where people want to live but rather where you get a better standard of life for your buck. As a young mid-20s guy when I moved to Seattle, I loved living in the city and still do. However after 6 years, as I am getting married and looking for house, there just isn’t enough housing supply in the city for the price that we are willing to pay. All you get is a box (townhouse) for half a million which is ridiculous. Finally we recently bought a house in the suburbs.

      • JF

        The public schools improvements in the city are already here. The NW Seattle public schools are great and we have no reason to flee to the burbs.

        • Jeremy Irish

          Not true. The school system underestimated families returning to the city and sold many of their schools or shuttered them. We’re now dealing with class sizes that are way too large and no places to put the growing population of children.

          If you have the money you can find a variety of private schools and co-ops, but if you want a positive public school system you still need to leave Seattle.

      • boop

        Maybe people will stop having kids. I mean really, does the planet need more people? Dogs seemed to have replaced kids for the folks I encounter in my downtown neighborhood.

    • richensf

      If you want young, ambitious, and creative people looking to make a name for themselves, locate to cities. If you want the opposite, locate to suburbs. There is a very good reason why the hottest companies with the highest year over year growth pay a premium to be in city centers. True talent has no desire to wither and die in some suburb surrounded by sprawling tract homes, strip malls, and business parks. Urban life is challenging and adventurous people are inspired by and thrive in those environments. Suburbanites have given up on that challenge and prefer the comfort of predictability and homogeneity that suburbs offer.

      • Salty_Swede

        Is that why the Apple is in Cupertino?
        Why Facebook is in Menlo Park?
        Why Google is in Mtn View and opened an office here in Kirkland?

        http://www.siliconvalley.com/sv150/ci_25548370/sv-150-searchable-database-silicon-valleys-top-150

        Only 13 of the silicon valley top 150 are in SF proper, with the rest in “the burbs”…

        • JF

          It’s a balance. Google had to open a large office in SF to retain talent who can’t deal with the SV commute from the city. In Seattle they have urban (Fremont) and suburban (Kirkland) offices.

          • zzone

            I found out when I interviewed with Google that their Seattle office is vastly smaller than their Kirkland office and they also decided last year to double down on their Kirkland campus. Again, its not that people don’t want to live in the city but there just isn’t sufficient supply of reasonable housing in the city to accommodate the growth.

            I think that its not a matter of either-or. Seattle will continue to grow and will be Manhattan-West but will be unaffordable for the majority of the population except the super-wealthy and the hip, young kids. But at the same time, the suburbs will continue to grow as well at the same rate and attract the older and more stable folks.

        • richensf

          Correlation does not suggest causation. Apple’s location is a legacy result of its origins and the history of semiconductor manufacturing. It is located in the historical heartland of chip manufacturing. It is building its new campus in the same city because it does not want to displace or burden its thousands of workers who have put roots down in that community over the years. Google and Facebook likely chose their headquarters based on the fact that commercial real estate in SF had been largely fragmented during their growth periods since at the time large vacant towers in the city were being converted into condos and apartments. There are also several compelling tax benefits in those cities compared to SF. These companies are certainly not where they are today because top talent demands they be there. As JF said, they have offices in SF and fleets of shuttles busing others down the peninsula specifically to retain that talent.

          • Salty_Swede

            Right, but they started where they started for a reason and attracted + retained talent anyway. I will await the 2015 top 150 and see if more than 13 are in the city proper.

            Speaking of the city, I hear those google shuttles are super popular in SF

          • richensf

            Yes they did start where they started for a reason. Can you tell me what that reason was?

          • Salty_Swede

            Because the talent, “jobs and woz”, wanted to start there.

          • richensf

            Wrong. You don’t seem to know much about anything when it comes to the history and economics of this sector. Tech started in the south bay because it was cheap farmland surrounding several sprawling edge cities with relatively good growth infrastructure supported by defense and aerospace research campuses that located within close proximity to active military (Cold War) test installations and basic research (academic) facilities. In the nascent years of microprocessing there was a ton more risk and uncertainty than hindsight would lead you to believe and back then before there were venture capital giants to keep your garage company afloat, cheap land was good way to make sure you survived long enough to make it to market, and then be able to scale out your manufacturing facilities down the street.

          • Salty_Swede

            So Woz and Jobs didn’t choose their original location because they wanted to?

            Who knew.

          • richensf

            You’ve just changed the premise of your argument from “they chose Cupertino over SF because of the talent” to “they chose their location”. I accept your concession that your argument has no footing.

          • Salty_Swede

            Who was the original talent? Who made the choice for the location? In this case, they were one and the same.

            That said, at least when Jobs and Woz hit it big, they could buy swanky digs in the city… Is that what they did?

    • boop

      Why do people always associate crime with urban living? No, I wouldn’t want to raise a kid amongst the homeless drug addicts that crowd the streets of downtown Seattle but wouldn’t worry more about the child’s personal safety here more than anywhere else. There’s the general, gritty scene versus hazards that are inescapable.

      • Salty_Swede

        Statistics are your friend. Just as some neighborhoods are safer than others.its easy to see that once you cross i-90 or 520 the crime rate drops significantly. Which is probably true of most urban to suburban divides.

        What is interesting about Bellevue and Redmond, however, is that they are both more diverse than Seattle proper. So lower crime and more diversity. Who knew?

  • Pete

    The only people I know with kids living near downtown Seattle are close to being part of the 1% or earning 200k a year or more without investments. Average house hold income is just under 100k total which means most of us live in the burbs if we want safe neighbor hoods. The express bus is 20 min to downtown from the burbs

  • Dave

    I posted a comment, it was here and then gone. A later comment I posted on another page here appears so I don’t think it was my issue. My comment didn’t have anything offensive in it. Monica, is there a glitch in your systems?

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Hm. Nothing I know of. Maybe a temporary bug? Sorry about that!

      • johnhcook

        Apologies for that Dave. Looks like it got caught in our spam filter in Disqus. It should now be appearing. Thanks.

  • Mark MacKay

    I was here before Amazon. They’ve introduced traffic jams, huge rent increases and overcrowding to my neighborhood. Oh and morons jaywalking while texting.