A top Amazon executive on Thursday night praised Bellevue for laying the groundwork and making the hard choices long ago that positioned the city’s downtown to attract a major expansion of the company’s workforce.
“You made these investments years and years ago to get the city in a place to be able to absorb the kind of growth that’s coming to downtown,” including extending light rail through the city center and creating a walkable, livable, vibrant atmosphere, Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations for Amazon, told a crowd of about 700 people gathered for the Bellevue Downtown Association’s (BDA) 46th Annual Celebration at the Meydenbauer Center.
Clark was a timely featured speaker: Amazon that morning confirmed it will create more than 15,000 new jobs in downtown Bellevue in the next few years. It has 2,000-plus in the city now and opened its first office there in 2017. It has expanded its real estate holdings since then, including plans to move into the former Expedia building and to build a 43-story office tower.
Bellevue’s difficult decision-making strikes a chord with Amazon, Clark said, speaking in a casual Q & A format on stage with questioner Patrick Bannon, BDA’s president.
“This resonates with us — this idea that you’re willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time and make investments that are hard and may not pay off for a long period … those things feel a lot like home to us,” Clark said, part of his answer to Bannon asking why Amazon picked Bellevue to expand. Amazon looks forward to filling in behind that work with an addition to the city that will prove the merits of the city’s past decisions.
“Bellevue feels alive today, but I think when you see tens of thousands of young people sort of dumping out on the sidewalks and into the community to go have lunch and dinner … and to shop in the little shops and do those things, I think it’s going to bring another level of vibrancy to downtown,” Clark said.
Amazon’s worldwide operations staff of about 10,000 is relocating from Seattle and comprises people who write the software, operate the air and ground networks, build the fulfillment technology and the robots, and manage the people that take care of all orders, he said. Bellevue employees will hold a mix of roles, from “really high-end technology jobs,” program management jobs, supporting roles in legal, finance, office staff, “everything that comes along with making the machinery that operates the magic of Amazon happen,” Clark said. The move will occur in phases, with a couple large groups in the fall, another batch in mid-2021, followed by more later.
When Amazon is looking for places to operate, it’s looking for great sources of talent and people to serve customers, plus great communities for young professionals and families, Clark said. Places that lure great people help build great communities, which draw great jobs, creating a “bit of a flywheel effect” of community and business development, he said. “Where we see that kind of opportunity and the opportunity to participate in that flywheel, I think creates sort of the best opportunities for us, and I think Bellevue is exactly that kind of place.”
In a brief interview after his talk, Clark said the Bellevue expansion is not a reflection on Seattle.
“This is an ‘and’ not an ‘or,’ and the Puget Sound region in total has been great to Amazon and we think we’ve been a great part of the community in the Puget Sound area,” he said. “Bellevue is just an extension of what we’ve already been doing in Seattle. It has nothing to do with Seattle and everything to do with Bellevue.”
Asked by Bannon during the event what advice or charge he would give leaders in the audience about creating a healthy future for downtown Bellevue, Clark said: “I think much of what needs to be done to make a future of great downtown Bellevue are investments that have been made over the last couple of decades, and that fruit’s just coming to bear.”
Added Clark: “The key is now … what are the right investments we need to make for the next 20 years — whether it’s the bond issues for new schools, are there other things … that we need to support … so that 20 years from now there’s two other people sitting here talking about the next big move into Bellevue. I think right now we’re in a capturing-the-value-that’s-been-created-in-the-past mode, and how do we think about what we’re going to do for the next 20 years?”
Beyond Bellevue, Clark, who joined the company in 1999, answered Bannon’s questions about his past, what the company looks for in employees, its green initiatives, leadership principles, and his embrace of social media. Clark said social media allows him to get outside the bubble, hear different viewpoints, address misunderstandings, and stand up for his team and its work.
Other BDA celebration highlights:
Office space: 9.7 million square feet existing, 1.6 million under construction, and 6.2 million under review/in the pipeline.
Retail space: 2.9 million square feet existing, 38,587 under construction, and 560,446 under review/in pipeline.
Residential units: 9,700 existing, 1,024 under construction, and 5,304 under review/in pipeline.
Hotel rooms: 3,876 existing, 376 under construction, and 1,447 under review/in pipeline.
About 14,200 residents downtown, a 487 percent increase since 2000.
About 55,000 workers downtown, a 65 percent increase since 2000.
Other downtown data:
In fourth quarter 2019, there was 3.6 percent office vacancy; 44 percent speakers of languages other than English; 79 percent of residents have bachelor’s degrees; $111,635 median household income; 1,150 weekday buses arriving at transit center; 34.1 residential median age; Bellevue growth corridor of downtown, Wilburton, and Bel-Red includes 20 development projects under construction, five light rail stations in 2023.
Mary Kipp, president and CEO of Puget Sound Energy, presented the Placemaking Award to the City of Bellevue for completion last March of Phase 1 of Meydenbauer Bay Park.
The park was a longtime coming, said Mayor Lynne Robinson, recalling a time when someone told her “nothing great in Bellevue ever happens without a little bit of pushback.” Robinson recalled, “This park had a little bit of pushback and there were times where I wasn’t sure it was really going to happen.”
A chain-link fence and hedge once separated the downtown from Lake Washington, obstructing the water view, she said.
“When you look at the difference now, you can see how important this park was to the city,” Robinson said, recognizing former city Parks Director Patrick Foran for pushing to make the park a reality before retiring last May.
Said Foran: “Bellevue as a community has a track record of being able to be visionary, to do the tough things, to take the long view, and always be thinking about what’s best for the future.”
It’s the kind of tough work that appeals to Amazon.