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Seattle’s Business Climate Predicts Economic Optimism

Mar 1, 2013
2013 / March 2013

Given Seattle’s reputation for rainfall, its economic development might be the only area of the city to dry up in recent years. But the city’s business climate has proven to provide fertile ground for the high-tech sector — outpacing Silicon Valley with 12 percent growth in the past two years alone — and a number of development projects are now sprouting up to accommodate Seattle’s high-tech workers.

With Fortune 500 behemoths like Amazon.com and the Microsoft Corp. headquartered in the region, it’s no surprise more than 200,000 people are currently working in the city’s high-tech sector. In addition, Bay Area companies like Facebook and Google are expanding offices in the area (Facebook’s largest workplace outside of California is located in Seattle), while Twitter recently opened a new office near Pike Place Market.

Last fall, Amazon announced it would be buying its headquarters — which it had been renting from billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. — in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. The online retailer paid more than $1 billion for the 1.7 million-square-foot campus, more than double the current average rate for office space (and the highest price ever for an office building larger than 100,000 square feet) in the city.

Only 10 years ago, South Lake Union was a forgotten industrial area north of Seattle’s Central Business District. But after voters rejected plans for a Central Park-like green space in the area (to which Allen planned to donate 11 acres), Vulcan began buying more and more space until it owned nearly a third of the neighborhood’s privately held land.

Now the neighborhood is home not only to Amazon’s headquarters but also is a hub for life science organizations like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, ZymoGenetics and the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. City officials have thrown their support behind the area’s development with a new streetcar line, two renovated parks and zoning allowing taller buildings.

According to Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, “Over 35,000 new apartments are being created in the downtown core area, allowing employees to live close to their work. With this comes investment in new parks and possibly even new downtown schools.” Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn hailed the area as an “engine for job growth and new housing, helping Seattle recover from the recession.”

South Lake Union isn’t the only neighborhood that’s changing. In addition to its headquarters, Amazon recently announced it is building a new campus in the Denny Triangle neighborhood, a triangular area sandwiched between South Lake Union and the Central Business District. The new 3.3 million-square-foot campus will bring an estimated 13,000 workers to the neighborhood — and development that could eclipse even South Lake Union’s.

Because the city restricted office development on downtown’s southern edge, expansion is all but certain toward the Denny Triangle. Already hundreds of apartments and condos are under construction, with more in the works. A number of high-rise apartment projects — including Via6, The Martin and Insignia — have either broken ground or will soon, as will a new 1,200-room convention hotel.

View of downtown Seattle through the Washington State Convention Center arch © Vismax | Dreamstime.com

View of downtown Seattle through the Washington State Convention Center arch © Vismax | Dreamstime.com

The Washington State Convention Center sits just two blocks from the edge of the Triangle, offering a total of 414,722 square feet of meeting and exhibit space. In 2010, it expanded with The Conference Center, a 71,000-square-foot space next door which can be used as a self-contained facility or combined with the convention center. The Conference Center numbers among the city’s many LEED-certified facilities, and the convention center has been named Best Green Event Venue in Washington for its recycling, composting and energy-efficiency efforts.

Altogether, more than 20 million square feet of office space are in the pipeline for Seattle — a number that could increase to keep pace with the 16,000 office jobs added to the region in 2012. Amazon alone is hiring more than 1,000 new workers for its Seattle offices, competing heavily with Microsoft for the city’s best high-tech talent (Microsoft is looking for more than 1,500 new employees).

“Seattle is a place filled with innovation and vibrancy,” says Daudon. “We have an inclusive and well-educated workforce, are focused on international trade and connections, and are surrounded by natural beauty and a love of the great outdoors. People like to live here, and companies like to locate where they can attract great talent.”

In fact, it’s consistently one of the most highly educated regions in the nation, with 53.6 percent of adults holding a college degree. Not only is the city’s high-tech sector ranked the second-most influential in the country, its universities are important centers for health and science research. In 2010, the University of Washington received $1.4 billion in research funds and was ranked first in the nation for National Institutes of Health funding.

Considering the fierce competition for gifted geeks, there’s more reason than ever for young software designers, developers and engineers to move to Seattle. On top of hiring bonuses and gourmet cafeterias, working in the city affords easy access to recreation along its 200 miles of shoreline. (In November, the city’s voters overwhelmingly approved a $290 million bond measure to fund the replacement of Seattle’s 100-year-old seawall, the first step in a larger plan to restore the city’s aging waterfront.)

Among other reasons, the Wall Street Journal ranked it the No. 1 Youth-Magnet City for its cache of culture, offering more arts organizations per capita than any other city. The city’s music scene, which spawned such stars as Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, has proven its staying power with contemporary indie bands like Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes and Modest Mouse.

According to Kiplinger, Seattle will be one of the 10 Best Cities for the Next Decade, and indeed the city’s forecast is looking sunnier than ever. “I am very optimistic that Seattle can get it right,” says the Chamber’s Daudon. “[It can] be economically prosperous, be a good environmental steward, and not leave people behind in the process.”

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