To Attract Tech Workers, Developer Envisions the City in the Suburbs

2/6/14Follow @bromano

Can a real estate developer create the feeling of an urban neighborhood, complete with its grit and culture, in the suburbs? Assuming it’s possible would such a place attract the kind of employees that technology companies today are competing to hire?

That’s the challenge venerable Seattle real estate developer Wright Runstad & Company has set out for itself and its partners with the Spring District, a multi-phase redevelopment project now under construction in suburban Bellevue, WA.

The company developed parts of Microsoft’s Redmond campus as far back as the ‘80s. It has catered to the evolving demands of technology tenants and their workers in the Pacific Northwest for 40 years, observing the transition from private offices in suburban campuses to the open, flexible spaces close to city life desired today. Now it’s embarking on an ambitious, 10-year, $2.3 billion project to transform a 36-acre warehouse district situated between Bellevue and Redmond into a modern, pedestrian-friendly enclave of apartments, offices, stores, and parks that might resemble Seattle’s much-sought-after—and pricey—South Lake Union neighborhood, home to Amazon’s headquarters, or the Pearl District in Portland, OR.

Wright Runstad President Greg Johnson says the development represents a long-term bet on the region as an international technology hub that will continue to attract people and companies. It’s a view he shares with many other real estate developers and economists, who gave a generally sunny outlook at last month’s Economic Development Council (EDC) of Seattle and King County annual forecast event.

The company is developing the project with partners including Shorenstein Properties, a San Francisco-based group including international investors who also see the strength of this market, he says.

“The companies that will be interested in being there aren’t necessarily from Seattle today,” Johnson says. “There’s a migration of firms from Silicon Valley and other places that are establishing outposts up here, mainly to tap into the talent pool.”

Those firms and their employees are looking for something specific, Johnson says.

“It’s no longer about how efficient can you be in your office space,” he says. “Today, it’s the human resources person saying, ‘Deliver me some office space that’s going to help me snag the most talented people and keep them.’”

Johnson

Johnson

That means cool buildings, sustainable designs, and urban amenities that can be easily reached on foot. Witness the tight market for commercial real estate in Seattle neighborhoods such as South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill, and Fremont.

If people are your company’s greatest asset—and that’s how many tech companies operate—the focus of real estate necessarily becomes how to create a great work place that fosters creativity and innovation, said Lisa Picard, executive vice president and regional manager with developer Skanska. “A lot of that has to do with why you see people moving into an urban environment, or why you see the suburbs trying to create urban environments where people can connect,” she said, speaking at the EDC event. “This is so important, and I think that’s the strongest amenity [real estate developers] can provide to the market.”

Maybe Wright Runstad could have been fine just building a few million more square feet of high-end offices at the Spring District. The location between two major employment centers and near the intersection of State Route 520 and Interstate 405 has a lot going for it. It’s part of the Bel-Red Corridor, an area targeted by the city of Bellevue for redevelopment over the next two decades.

But in an attempt to meet that tech industry demand, the company is taking what could be viewed as a riskier approach in designing an urban neighborhood literally where the sidewalk ends—at least on 120th and 124th avenues Northeast, which form the western and eastern borders of the Spring District, respectively.

Plans call for shorter blocks—16 in total—and narrow streets with wider sidewalks. Contrast that to the “superblocks” of the downtown Bellevue core cut through with four- and six-lane streets a mile away to the west or the forested, suburban neighborhoods off to the east.

The first two office buildings to be developed will still be car-friendly in one important way: They will have plenty of parking. Plans are to create 3.5 spaces per 1,000 square feet—all underground—compared with two spaces per 1,000 in downtown Bellevue, and four or five spaces per 1,000 in suburban Redmond and Bellevue.

That’s an acknowledgement that it’s going to take quite some time for … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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