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The Ava Capitol Hill apartment complex. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Construction has restarted inside a prime Seattle retail space that has for years been connected to Amazon, according to city records and GeekWire’s observations of the site this week.

The sudden flurry of activity follows a report that the tech giant is preparing to expand its grocery store footprint in new ways. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Amazon is preparing to launch dozens of grocery stores across multiple large U.S. cities, separate from its Whole Foods Market chain, with talks underway in several cities, including its hometown of Seattle.

Permits for the site, at East Pike Street and Belmont Avenue in the trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood, indicate that the project will be a 10,400-square-foot grocery store, about three to four times the size of the company’s existing Amazon Go convenience stores, but with a similar layout.

One filing calls the project “AGO.” A convenient code for Amazon Go?

The plans show an “optical speed lane” entry system from Orion Entrance Control, configured for customers to swipe in to enter but exit freely, without going through a manual checkout process.  The dedicated entrance and exit turnstyles depicted in the plans look similar to those use in Amazon Go stores for the same purpose.

Plans for the store show gates will be at entries and exits. (Screenshot via Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections)

No traditional checkout areas are shown in the drawings. There is a large general sales area, with a sections for alcohol, and employee break room and storage behind the scenes.

Although Amazon’s name isn’t mentioned in the latest filings, the project team remains largely the same as the one that worked on the site back in 2015, when rumors first started circulating about the company’s plans for the site, and it includes the architect Pepin Associates Architect, which reportedly worked on the second-ever Amazon Go store in downtown Seattle.

Permitting activity for the site restarted in late January, records show. On a visit this week, the retail site in the Ava Capitol Hill apartment building looked at first glance to be the same as when GeekWire visited it more than two years ago, with cardboard in the windows blocking the view of the inside. However, this time, construction workers were on the scene, walking in and out of the space. They didn’t want to talk about what was happening, saying they were just there to put in some scaffolding.

If Amazon is indeed building something there, it’s keeping the details close to the vest. In addition to the absence of its name on the plans, the company declined to talk about the site.

However, Amazon has been tied to the site through past permits that have been kept alive for approximately four years.

Back in 2015, years before Amazon bought Whole Foods or opened the first cashier-less Amazon Go store, permitting documents listed Frank Coe, an Amazon senior project manager at the time, on plans for a 10,000-square-foot store on the ground floor of the complex at East Pike Street and Belmont in the trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. Coe, who worked on the first Amazon Books location in Seattle and the development of Amazon Go, has since left the company, per his LinkedIn, but the building developer has steadily renewed permits for the site.

A look at the layout of the store. Click for larger version. (Image via Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections)

Workers at nearby businesses are still under the impression that Amazon is planning to open a store in the space, generating a new round of buzz in the neighborhood.

The developer, Avalon Bay Communities, and the architect did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The space is much bigger than other Amazon Go stores, with a total of 10,400 square feet, approximately 7,600 square feet of which will be shoppable front-of-house space, according to permit documents. The typical Amazon Go store ranges between 1,750 and 2,500 square feet of front-of-house space. Amazon has opened its first compact version of Amazon Go, and reports say the company is also testing the technology in larger format stores.

It’s not clear if this activity could lead to a new, larger Amazon Go store, or an entirely different concept.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the first outlet in Amazon’s new grocery initiative could open as early as the end of this year in Los Angeles, and leases have reportedly been signed for at least two other stores to open in 2020. Amazon is also in talks to open stores in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Amazon might expand the new supermarket brand by acquiring regional grocery store chains, the Journal reported. But the e-commerce giant won’t be splashing the Whole Foods brand on these stores, and it’s not clear if Amazon’s name will be on them either. Rather than compete directly with the upscale Whole Foods experience, the new stores are meant to attract less affluent shoppers with different products at a lower price point.

Is this Seattle location the first tangible sign of the company’s new initiative? We’ll keep an eye on the filings and keep you posted.

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