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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

Seattle skyline and Rainier at sunset
(Photo by 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.

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