From the living room of her Seattle apartment, Melissa Anne McClain has a window on the rapidly changing city that she calls home.
For three years, McClain has lived on the third floor of Via6, a 24-story, 654-unit high rise which sits just across Sixth Avenue from the corporate campus that Amazon is building in the Denny Triangle, north of downtown Seattle.
The campus is home to Amazon’s 36-story Doppler building, which opened in December 2015; the 36-story Day One building, which opened on Nov. 7; the biospheres, which are under construction and will house an assortment of exotic trees and plants; and a future third tower.
Via6 opened in 2013, and McClain, as a transplant from New York City, was drawn to the new building’s downtown location.
“When I first moved in, there was nothing here … I had no idea what was coming and I don’t think I knew that Amazon was going to be there,” McClain said. “There’s five tall buildings that have been built in the last three years looking out my window. The light coming over Capitol Hill was just gorgeous. I felt like my living room was my photo studio because it was just so bright and brilliant. It’s changed a little bit — it’s a different pretty view, but definitely the light has changed.”
McClain, 46, grew up outside Dallas, and had a long career in crisis management — helping businesses and organizations deal with emergency situations. She lived in New York City for almost nine years before moving to Seattle five years ago to take a job with Expedia. She left in September 2015 after four years, saying that the stress of crisis management was taking its toll.
“Fifteen years is a long time to work in that kind of industry and I just was at a place where I needed a break,” McClain said.
She’s spent the past year focusing more on her photographic artwork, and hopes to do something more creative in her next line of work. It was her creative eye that had her standing on her balcony in the cold with her camera on the night of Dec. 8, as the biospheres took on an other-worldly appearance during a rare Seattle snowfall.
McClain had previously emailed images to a contact with Sellen Construction, the general contractor on the Amazon project. Figuring they would appreciate the snow view from her apartment, she sent along her shot from that night. Her Sellen contact wrote back and told her it was great and that he had shared it with his client.
That Friday after the storm, on her birthday, McClain got a call from Amazon. A company rep said folks had seen her picture and loved it and they were interested in using the image for some “social promotion.” McClain gave them the OK.
Her next email was one alerting her to the fact that she had just been mentioned in a tweet by Jeff Bezos, in which the Amazon CEO shared her picture of the biospheres with snow on them.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 9, 2016
“It was really cool,” McClain said. “I was going to put [the photo] on my social feed and do an Instagram thing, and they actually put it out before I did.”
McClain said her artwork doesn’t normally tend toward urban-style photography. She does more abstract, nature and water-centric art. But she’s taken lots and lots of pictures of the 3.3 million-square-foot campus developing outside her window, watching the big cranes go up and constantly wondering, “What the heck is that?”
McClain has been fascinated by the evolution of the biospheres, from the earliest days when steel rods were sticking out of the ground, to the installation of the exoskeleton, to when the three structures were painted white, and most recently the installation of the glass.
“It’s really been quite fun,” McClain said. “Watching the glass go in was amazing — seeing the cranes lift these huge sheets of glass and place them on the domes.” And she hopes to one day get inside the domes and photograph the plant life.
She said in the beginning she paid more attention to all the construction on a daily basis, sitting in a chair in her front window. She laughed as she remembered watching construction workers go through a morning stretching and exercise routine. “It was adorable standing up above watching them do their morning workout!”
She admits that over time she’s gotten to a place where it’s all just “common” and “everyday normal.”
“But every now and then I travel and I go do photography and I come back, and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow! How did that happen in the three days that I was gone or the two weeks that I was away?'”
McClain admits that, from a photography perspective, it’s going to be sad when the campus is complete, because it’s been fun to watch the evolution.
“It’s an ever-changing landscape out my window, and when they finish, it’s done,” McClain said. “It’s not really going to change, and that’s going to be kind of sad for me.”
But living at the foot of a major development project for three years has come with more than just the opportunity to take interesting photographs.
“It’s been a tough three years in terms of construction, with the lights and the sounds.” McClain said, adding that during one particularly large concrete pour (video below), trucks were coming and going throughout the night. “It’s been fun to watch, but there have been moments where it’s a little intrusive on our day-to-day lives.”
McClain credits Sellen Construction with being “great and respectful” of the neighbors and putting on presentations and providing constant updates about what to expect in terms of any disruptions to daily life. She said she can reach out with questions or concerns — like if a light is left on and shining into her apartment — and the company is always quick to respond.
“They’ve been great neighbors,” McClain said. “You can’t get around it — you’re building something, there’s going to be noise, there’s going to be lights, there’s going to be traffic issues. I come from the world of crisis management, and one of the things we always told our customers is ‘information, information, information.’ That’s what people want because it helps.”
Amazon’s towers come with many thousands of people and the impact on the neighborhood translates to more restaurants and shops and overall energy. McClain calls herself a huge foodie and she’s excited about what that the tech giant brings to the streets around her building.
“When I first moved in it was kind of dead around here,” McClain said. “And now, you go out at any hour of the day or night and there’s people, there’s activity, there’s life down here. As an urban dweller, somebody from New York City, I love that, because Seattle is kind of a hard transition. I lived downtown, but it wasn’t like living in a vibrant New York City-type environment.”
Looking across the street at the windows of Doppler and Day One and the floors full of workers creating the modern-day retail experience, I ask McClain if she shops on Amazon.com. She said she does, for things such as tech gadgets and books. But she prefers to shop in stores for clothing and groceries.
“I like to see things, touch things, try things on, so I don’t really do any of that online with anybody,” McClain said. “I’m a people person. I like to have that interaction with people as I’m checking out of a store or sitting in a restaurant meeting my servers.”
In TanakaSan, the Tom Douglas restaurant in the ground level of Via6, McClain greets workers by name and gives them a hug. She likes that familiarity.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the brand new Amazon Go, the checkout-free convenience market that is in its testing phase just around the corner from Via6 at the base of Day One.
“The convenience factor of being able to run in and run out has its perks,” McClain said. “But it’s kind of one of those balance things — I want to make sure we still have human connections in our world.”
McClain recently re-signed her lease and is in Via6 for another year at least. After that, she said, “We’ll see what happens.”
Even though she’s only been in Seattle for five years, she said she has mixed feelings about watching her new city change so rapidly.
“Everywhere you look it’s building after building after building,” McClain said. “There’s positive in that. Seattle’s making its mark and it’s becoming what it’s becoming. Sometimes I just wonder, ‘Are they thinking about this?’ as they’re building this quickly and the views are going away, building by building. And what does that mean for the city?”
In the end, it could be a story that’s best told by the photographs she captured along the way.