Greetings from Seattle, Washington!
For the past two days I’ve been attending the semiannual meeting of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), who held their spring meeting here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The Urban Land Institute is a large, not for profit organization whose membership consists primarily of urban planners, developers, architects and related government officials who are responsible for civic and regional planning and development. Founded in 1936, the Institute sponsors conferences, think tanks, educational programs and lobbying efforts in pursuit of more vibrant cities and development around the world.
ULI also has a number of “specialty” councils, who focus on specific aspects of design and development. Membership on the councils is by invitation only and requires active participation by members. For several years, I’ve been a member of the Entertainment Development Council, which focuses on entertainment and experiential projects and development within the larger context of urban development. Several architects and economic consultants we know well are also members of the 49-member council.
Since some of you seemed to enjoy my TED blog, I thought I would share a little bit about this conference as well. I PROMISE that this one won’t go on as long as the last one!
WEDNESDAY, MAY 3
While I usually restrict my participation in ULI conferences to the activities of the Entertainment Development Council (EDC), I arrived in Seattle in time to attend a couple of the general sessions.
GENERAL SESSION - THE AMAZON HEADQUARTERS STORY
At these conferences, there’s always significant focus given to the host city… in this case Seattle. The first session I attended was a panel discussion/case study of the significant footprint of Amazon’s headquarters and offices in the city. This session, moderated by LEONARD GARFIELD of the Seattle museum of History and Industry, included DEVELOPER ALFRED CLISE, ADA HEALEY, head of Real Estate Development for Vulcan, which is former Microsoft founder (and billionaire) Paul Allen’s company, and JOHN SCHOETTLER, head of Global Real Estate for Amazon.
Most of the discussion focused around the district of Seattle known as South Lake Union. This has become an impressive urban renewal (of a previously depressed area of run down warehouses and parking lots) into a significant and vibrant neighborhood and urban center. Kicked off when Paul Allen agreed to contribute to an initiative of the city to create a very large urban park which would connect the lake with downtown Seattle. When Seattle subsequently rejected the park plan twice, the land went back to Paul Allen / Vulcan, who came up with their own plan for several large development projects, including a lovely (but much smaller) lakeside park.
After all of this development was already under way, AMAZON came calling. They were seeking office space to serve their rapidly growing employee base in the Seattle area. Ultimately, Amazon will inhabit more than 6 million square feet of offices in the area, which in partnership with the developers also includes a highly curated assortment of retail, services and restaurants.
Just a few blocks away, Amazon has built an additional 2-3 million sq. ft. complex, which adjoin a remarkable icon, the Amazon “Spheres” or Biodomes. These three bubble shaped pods in the center of the Amazon HQ complex will house over 300 species of plants. The environments are specifically reserved for Amazon employees as a kind of “Chill out Zone” but it seems certain that they will become a new icon which everyone will want to visit if they can wrangle an entry pass.
GENERAL SESSION, KEYNOTE ADDRESS
The featured speaker at this conference was former VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN. It was fascinating to hear him speak live. (Full Disclosure: I’m a big fan of VP Biden, but I’ll try to keep this non partisan). In an interview format, which was a pretty “softball” forum without any tough questions, he initially came across very much as the elder statesman/ Eminence grise looking back at his career. I was truly impressed with the clarity of his communication and his ability to talk with the manner of an “everyday Joe” but also express complex and detailed policy concepts with great clarity.
On the whole, while his opinions were unabashedly liberal, he avoided commenting on specific current events and on the present administration. He spoke at length about his despair at the change of discourse in Washington, and recounted how in years past politicians on both sides of the aisle knew each other, shared social time together and had personal relationships, even if they disagreed about policy. A memorable quote…” You can disagree with someone’s positions, but you can never question their motives… because when you do, you stop communicating and can never get to 'yes'.” Certainly quite different from where we are today, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on.
He talked about increasing globalization, and a general attitude toward free trade as a mechanism not just for growth but also for democratic and social progress. But he did say that globalization has definitely created winners and losers in all corners, and that the challenge ahead of us is to find a way to avoid having the losers (whether it be through job loss or economic stratification) behind as everyone else moves forward.
He was passionate in defense of the need for progress in our education system, and as example his passionately held belief that making Community College free for anyone who wants it would reap huge rewards in economic productivity as well as multiple social and health benefits that come with that economic progress.
As the session continued, he got more and more emphatic and passionate in his presentation. By the end of the session, he left his interviewer sitting alone on his chair and was on his feet delivering his message with fervor. Although he’s categorically rejected the idea of running for future public office, it sure didn’t seem like this was an individual who is imagining himself out of the public eye for long. I guess we’ll see….
WEDNESDAY EVENING COUNCIL DINNER
At each council meeting there’s a private dinner for the council at some trendy restaurant in whatever town we’re meeting in. The food is usually really good, and the service (because they’re usually boutique restaurants not used to handling 50 people) is usually really abominable. This dinner was no exception.
It was a great chance to catch up with old friends like Martin Zarauskas of Nassal, Ray Braun of E&CA and Marty Borko from Gensler, and to meet some new friends and some of the speakers as well.
THURSDAY, MAY 4 COUNCIL MEETING DAY
The council meets away from the convention center... this time we met in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle in an event space which was half restaurant/ half loft/ half barn. The session starts EARLY in the morning (8:30 AM Sharp) with the morning session focusing on case studies from the Seattle area, and the afternoon session looking at broader industry trends.
The first speaker, MARIA ROYER of REAL Retail, a major retail broker and leasing agent, reviewed the development scene throughout the Seattle area. It’s very dynamic right now, with incredible growth in many neighborhoods. The unique geography of the city makes its retail districts somewhat constrained in their growth (water and/or highways bounding at least one side of practically every district) particularly in the downtown area.
The same theme of development was picked up by the next speaker, BRIAN SURRAT, Director of Economic Development for the City of Seattle. In his presentation, it became clear that Seattle is facing unparalleled growth, but it is driven in significant measure by the presence of a handful of large and powerful tech or lifestyle companies…. Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, as well as Google and Facebook who are establishing tech centers second only to their Silicon Valley facilities. As such, it’s a bit of anomaly, and it will be interesting to see how it will sustain itself in the long term. He explained that vital urban planning requires the balancing of multiple factors and stakeholders, including employment, housing, transportation, wages, schools and development. All of those things have to be in balance for effective urban growth.
Next, LORI MASON CURRAN, Director of Real Estate Development for Vulcan, Inc. (Again, Microsoft Founder Paul Allen’s company) presented material similar to that described in the Amazon general session presentation described above. She laid out three criteria of “Inclusive Development” they use as guiding principles in all of their development projects:
- Respect and Engagement will all Stakeholders involved.
- Develop and Facilitate Human Interaction in the process and in the product
- Preserve and protect existing natural and man-made assets.
After a LUNCH BREAK, a guest Yoga Instructor amazingly managed to get all of us to spend 15 minutes doing standing stretching and breathing exercises before we got back to the afternoons presentation. It probably wasn’t a pretty sight to watch, but at least we were all a little more awake when we sat down again!
The afternoon session began with three speakers, all focusing on new trends in food and experience.
First up was DENNIS MCGRATH, VP of Global Operations Innovation for STARBUCKS. Most of his very interesting talk focused on the way Starbuck’s tries to continually innovate to keep their product relevant and appealing to consumers. He talked about the recently opened “Roastery” in Seattle, a high end artisanal barista experience which has opened in Seattle, and which they anticipate rolling out in 5 additional cities worldwide. Its intended to keep them focused on the subtleties of gourmet coffee and beverage consumption, and to appeal to a consumer who wants a higher profile product than the traditional “green dot” Starbucks product. Developments form the Roastery project will be included in a larger series of higher end “reserve” stores. Starbucks has 29,000 stores worldwide and expects that number to grow to 38,000 within the next 10 years.
Next was YUVAL CHIPRUT, development director of EREWHON natural food stores, who talked about their careful expansion and curation of the natural food market experience. He shared a story of success in reinventing or innovating within a genre that has stalled with some of the other big players in the field. Be interesting to see where they are in 5 years.
JONATHAN BUTLER is the founder of SMORGASBURG, a weekly food market/festival that originated in Brooklyn, NY and has now expanded to Los Angeles. A fairly simple flea market formula, applied to approx. 50-80 carefully selected and somewhat curated food vendors (ranging from Hot food to confections and preserved foods.) The concept has been extremely popular, has become functionally self-promoting, thanks to social media and hipster press. The L.A. version of this happens every Sunday in DTLA. I intend to be there this week!
Finally, ALAN COOKE, VP of Design for SoulCycle, a boutique fitness concept which has been experiencing significantly rapid growth across the U.S and Canada. He talked about SoulCycle more as a lifestyle product than as a fitness club, which almost fits better in the retail category than as a fitness service provider. The SoulCycle brand centers around a young, dynamic and social class structure where subtle competition and peer pressure in a hyper experiential studio setting. Not only have they been successful in rolling out more than 70 studios in the past 6-8 years, they’ve also mounted several seasonal Pop up Soulcycle activities at festivals and cities like Aspen, Colorado.
THAT’S IT FOR ULI, Spring 2017. Lots of fascinating info to digest, and a lot of good networking as well. My biggest takeaway is to wonder what Seattle, which is obviously experiencing dynamic urban growth and renewal, would be like were it NOT for the influence of Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Facebook, Google, etc. Probably not the vibrant urban center that it’s currently becoming. Which would be a pity, if for no other reason than all this growth has driven an astounding expansion of restaurants in every category… It’s a real foodie town now. You could eat here for a month and still just be getting a feel for the current dining scene. I guess I’ll need to find an excuse to come back soon!