Seattle mayor explains strategy behind tech blitz after visiting Apple, Expedia, Amazon in one week

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Amazon real estate chief John Schoettler and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan tour the company’s new Re:Invent building. Behind them, a sign reads “Welcome to Amazon Mayor Durkan!!!” (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Giant tech companies have dramatically reshaped Seattle — in some cases creating entire neighborhoods — and they’re just getting started. While many Seattleites are wary of more growth in an already congested city, Mayor Jenny Durkan is welcoming the next wave of development with open arms.

In the past four days, Durkan has paid a visit to three campuses under construction that will house some of the biggest names in tech: Apple, Expedia, and Amazon. Her enthusiasm for rubbing elbows with tech execs strikes a sharp contrast with other branches of the Seattle government, which are often at odds with the industry.

On Thursday Durkan visited Amazon’s new Re:Invent building, a 1.2 million-square-foot tower located across from the signature Amazon Spheres. Amazon’s real estate chief John Schoettler guided Durkan on a tour of the new building before an appreciation barbeque for the construction workers who worked on the project. The building is designed to house 5,000 Amazon Web Services employees, about half of the open positions Amazon is currently hiring for in Seattle. It’s also just down the street from a big new Google Cloud building set to open this summer.

GeekWire caught up with Durkan during the tour and asked whether the tech campus blitz was by design.

Durkan peers out at the Amazon Spheres from the company’s new AWS facility. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“There’s always a strategy,” she said. “The strategy is we’ve got to keep our economy booming with different kinds of companies but we also then have to make sure … we preserve our industrial lands, those manufacturing jobs, the port jobs, and have a balance of both tech companies and other hard hat workers,” she said.

Durkan may be trying to strike a balance but this week the scales felt weighted toward tech. The day before her Amazon tour, Durkan visited Expedia’s future waterfront campus in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. When it’s completed, the facility will have room for 4,500 Expedia employees relocating from nearby Bellevue.

Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom walks Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan through the plans for the companys new campus. GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy

“I don’t think there’s an urban campus like this in America that I’ve seen,” Durkan said during the tour. “I also think it shows the amazing vitality of Seattle. You’ve got Amazon that has a very urban campus building base and Expedia, which is going to have this amazing campus that pulls in the environment around it, and then you see everything in between.”

Just two days before the Expedia tour, the mayor helped unveil Apple’s new 2,000-person campus that’s under construction a few blocks from Amazon.

Durkan takes questions from reporters following the Apple event. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“We have room to grow and we are thriving,” Durkan said at the news conference. “Apple’s expansion in Seattle is another example of the growing opportunity that our region and our city shows.”

Related: Amazon quietly works to reshape politics in its hometown after going to battle with Seattle officials

When the new Amazon, Apple, and Expedia buildings are completed, there will be new office space for at least 11,500 tech workers. That’s a big jump, even by fast-growing Seattle’s standards. Between 2017-2018, Seattle added 15,000 newcomers.

There have been growing pains, as anyone driving in Seattle at rush hour can confirm. Beyond congestion, Seattle’s tech-driven boom has bid up housing costs amid a years-long homelessness crisis. In 2017, the City Council passed a “head tax” on Seattle’s top-grossing businesses to raise money for affordable housing. Amazon bristled and threatened to slow its growth in the city. In the eleventh hour, Durkan stepped in to negotiate a compromise between Amazon and the City Council.

The compromise tax passed but was repealed shortly after because the Council didn’t think it could survive a lengthy referendum campaign funded by the business community.

Though the dust from that battle has settled, Durkan’s tech tour this week shows she still sees herself as a bridge between the industry and its critics in city government.

“We’ve been working really hard … to have a good relationship,” she said. “And while there’s always some bumps in the road … we have a lot of great endeavors that are happening. I’m super optimistic.”

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