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Brian Miller
Real Estate Editor

September 8, 2016

On the Block: Weyerhaeuser may be downsizing but it'll soon have a big impact on Pioneer Square

On Saturday, the 126-year-old forest products company Weyerhaeuser will begin moving from its Federal Way campus to the heart of downtown Seattle.

Over the following two weeks, about 700 employees will march into the new company headquarters at 200 Occidental Ave. S. That eight-story building was purpose-built, with great fanfare, by Greg Smith's Urban Visions. A variety of plans for the site, which faces Occidental Park and was a parking lot since the 1960s, had been circulating for decades.

But time, like tree rings, goes further back than that. Though founded in Tacoma, Weyerhaeuser's corporate history runs in parallel to that of Seattle's oldest neighborhood. The fortunes of both cities were based in part on the export of old-growth timber — including the massive beams above me as I write in the Journal Building.

The Klondike Gold Rush brought Northern Pacific Railroad and much prosperity to Seattle, eclipsing Tacoma in the process. But Pioneer Square began fading during the Great Depression — left behind as the city advanced north. Sam Israel and others bought buildings on the cheap; other buildings were razed for parking lots often owned by Diamond Parking (including the site of 200 Occidental).

Image by Mithun/Urban Visions [enlarge]
This rendering shows 200 Occidental from the southwest.

Meanwhile, Weyerhaeuser expanded and diversified. The company went public in 1963, started a real estate arm in 1969, and moved from Tacoma to its award-winning Federal Way campus in 1971.

Sitting on 430 acres, the sprawling, terraced, ivy-covered edifice was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — an exemplar of the suburban office park. Admiringly called “a skyscraper on its side,” the five-story building contains 358,000 square feet, facing a reflecting pool. It also had lots and lots of parking, a necessity for a workforce that mostly lived in Pierce County.

Weyerhaeuser sold the building in February for $70.5 million to Los Angeles-based Industrial Realty Group, which now faces the challenge of what to do with all that freeway-centric space and parking.

By contrast, befitting Urban Visions' mantra of “build up, not out,” 200 Occidental only has parking for 68 vehicles. The total office square footage is a much-diminished 165,000 square feet on seven floors (including a roof deck). And the location is transit-friendly, a few blocks from the Third Avenue bus/light rail tunnel and Union Station (the latter connecting to Tacoma via Sounder train). It's also an easy walk to the ferry terminal, Capitol Hill streetcar and the planned City Connector streetcar that will link to South Lake Union. (For those keeping track, the building's Walk Score is 97 and Transit Score 100.)

Weyerhaeuser VP of communications Jack Evans says of the move, “I think there were two primary reasons. One was the space where we're at now is too big for us now. We've gone through a fairly big transformation in recent years. The second reason was for us to better attract and retain the next generation of employees for this company.”

That next generation will likely mean tech-savvy millennial workers who eschew driving, love cities and will patronize Pioneer Square's growing number of bars and restaurants (plus those stadiums to the south).

Says Evans, “The Seattle area was a natural place for us … to move into the core area” of Puget Sound. Surprisingly, he says, Weyerhaeuser's workforce isn't all from the South Sound, particularly after its 2016 merger with Seattle's Plum Creek Timber. So how will that combined workforce get to Pioneer Square?

“One of the reasons why this location was so attractive to us was the location by the transit hub, which makes it incredibly appealing — not just for the South Sound, but throughout King County,” Evans says.

Given the limited supply of parking at 200 Occidental, will transit be the default mode for commuters? “It sounds like it,” laughs Evans, who lives on the Eastside. “I believe I'll be carpooling with my daughter.”

But what will Weyerhaeuser do for Pioneer Square?

“200 Occidental has been a long time coming,” says Lisa Dixon of the Alliance for Pioneer Square. Citing the new workers and more eyes on the street, she adds with considerable understatement, “It'll be better than a parking lot.” Using city figures, the Alliance estimates there are currently a little over 10,000 daytime workers in Pioneer Square, so Weyerhaeuser will add about seven percent to that number. (In a separate conversation, Greg Smith told me that 200 Occidental could accommodate up to 1,000 Weyerhaeuser staff.)

Ali Ghambari will open Cherry Street Public House later this fall at 200 Occidental. “Long term, it's the greatest thing ever for Pioneer Square.” Smith has signed a second, undisclosed eatery that will also benefit from in-house traffic — and serve the neighbors.

Just to the south, restaurateur Matt Dillon has two London Plane locations — his Bar Sajor closed in July — that should see an uptick in traffic.

When I recently spoke to Ben Rainbow of Back Alley Bike Repair (in Nord Alley between South Main and South Jackson streets), he wasn't sure how Weyerhaeuser workers would find his shop — or if any of them ride bicycles. (There's also a city-run Pronto bike-share stand in Occidental Park.) Maybe Weyerhaeuser's workforce will eventually shift younger and local, or maybe it won't.

Over at specialty bookseller Arundel Books, directly across the park from 200 Occidental, owner Phil Bevis said of the Weyerhaeuser throng, “I'm fascinated to see what their taste in books is gonna be.” Though, he adds, “We're different than a restaurant or a store that sells a more generic product.”

In the latter category, a 7-Eleven recently sprouted up at the intersection of First Avenue and Cherry Street (right where a future streetcar stop is planned). Coming soon to Jackson and Fourth Avenue South will be a CVS Pharmacy — a mixed blessing for the ID and Pioneer Square, since everyone needs late-night prescriptions filled (plus that quart of Ben & Jerry's or bottle of cabernet). After all, an economically vibrant neighborhood can't depend entirely on historic character and the artisanal-organic charm of its local retail base. There has to be a midpoint between Capitol Hill and SLU.

The city of Seattle currently estimates a Pioneer Square residential population of about 2,500 (excluding shelters), making it one of the city's smallest neighborhoods. That could change. Near 200 Occidental are several notable new residential projects that might eventually serve Weyerhaeuser employees inclined to walk to work. Close by Union Station, there's the renovated/expanded Publix, developed by the Uwajimaya-owning Moriguchi family. Kevin Daniels is now selling his Gridiron condos on Occidental (opposite CenturyLink Field) and expects to open next August. Daniels' Nolo and Wave apartments, just north on Occidental, offer some 490 apartments, though now mostly leased.

Eventually, Greg Smith will relaunch residential plans for 316 Alaskan Way S., a site where Gerding Edlen ran afoul of the Pioneer Square Preservation Board. Even on a tiny, triangular lot at Main and Third Avenue South, where the crumbling old single-story cannery building now stands, Ron Amundson and Maria Barrientos are planning a nine-story, mixed-use tower with up to 60 apartments. Next door, Salumi will be a huge draw for hungry Weyerhaeuser lunchgoers.

Weyerhaeuser's Evans says down in Federal Way lunch options are more limited: “Either eat in the building [cafeteria], or you have to get in your car to get lunch off campus.”

There won't be a corporate cafeteria at 200 Occidental. “I definitely think the mix of eating options and other amenities in the area is a major draw for us,” he says. “I've been to a couple places around there — Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar and London Plane and Caffe Umbria.”

And in some kind of irony, Weyerhaeuser workers will walk to lunch across the red bricks of Occidental Square, now covering an old interurban railroad line that once led — where else? — to Tacoma.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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