By Jack Stubbs
At a time when so much is changing throughout the city of Seattle, companies’ decisions are increasingly impacted by the geographical location of where they opt to settle down.
“Technology companies like Big Fish Games and many others can’t afford ourselves the luxury of looking past what already exists. I think it’s important to look at the buildings and their history and think outside the norm of raise-and-build when there are options and opportunities to maintain Seattle’s history,” said Evan Cottingham, director of global real estate and facility services at Big Fish Games.
The company in mid-July finalized its decision to relocate to the eight-story, 190,000 square foot Maritime Building on Seattle’s Waterfront, where it occupies all 187,000 square feet of office space. The recent move on July 18th marked the gaming company’s most recent chapter in Seattle, where its headquarters were formerly the 133,467 square foot 333 Elliott West building in Lower Queen Anne just north of Belltown.
The company—which Churchhill Downs Inc. sold to Australia-based Aristocrat Technologies for $990 million in early 2018—has moved its 630-plus Seattle-based employees to the Maritime Building located at 906 Alaskan Way on the waterfront, which will allow the company to focus on a more employee-driven, collaborative approach to its operations.
“There are very few similarities between our old and new location; it was a long two-year process to design and develop the [Maritime Building] to what it is today. What surprised me [since our move] was that a lot of the design intent that we put into the process is actually coming to fruition; people are using it as intended,” Cottingham said. “At our old location we didn’t really have any collaborative spaces, [but] in the new space, we’ve made a lot of these collaboration and break-out spaces.”
Designed by NBBJ, the revamped building was originally developed in 1910 and recently underwent extensive renovations led by IA . As part of the renovations, three stories were added to the original 5-story structure and recycled natural materials and wood salvaged from the original Maritime Building were incorporated into the new design of the building.
The Maritime Building, which was acquired by Boston-based Beacon Capital Partners in June 2015 for $13.1 million or $70 per square foot, has a long-standing history in the city and was recently in the news. The State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio is in talks to purchase the property for $186 million, or $997 per square foot, according to a report by Seattle’s JLL office, which reported the sale in its first quarter 2018 market report. The deal has not closed, yet, but Beacon Capital has listed the property as sold on its website.
The property—which includes 25,000 square feet of first-floor retail space, 70 parking stalls, a dedicated art space for Big Fish Games employees and a rooftop amenities area that features a gym and game room—is one of the last heavy timber post and beam buildings in Seattle. Subsequently, one of the challenges of the adaptive reuse and renovation of the historic Maritime Building was how to both respect the history of the building while also create an effective space for Big Fish Games to occupy, according to Jami Howard, senior designer for the Maritime Building with IA Interior Architects. “The challenges of the historic building were definitely prominent, but they were [also] extremely positive opportunities. The five-story building was turned into an eight-story building and…the exterior window wall of the building was layered with a system of steel cross-bracing; we leveraged those locations in the building to provide programmatic functional elements and qualities,” she said.
The renovation and design process for the Maritime Building, a collaborative effort between IA and Big Fish, required a two-part approach to the new design, according to Cottingham. “We tried to pay homage to the history by using a lot of the same building materials; we tried to make a design that intentionally made the history [of the space] and the forward-thinking collide.” In making its decision about where to relocate from its old headquarters, Big Fish toured 16 properties throughout the South Lake Union, Eastlake, Westlake and Central Business District submarkets and evaluated the various pros and cons of each property—ultimately, the company’s decision was informed by a variety of factors, first and foremost of the optimal location of the Maritime building on Seattle’s waterfront, according to Howard. “The fact that [the Maritime Building] is of historic Seattle and the neighborhood revitalization is very important to Big Fish, given that it’s located along prominent transit hubs and is part of waterfront revitalization…that was all [in line] with the way BFG feels about the city and its employees.”
One of the primary features of the newly-renovated Maritime Building is the employee-driven design, which was informed in large part by Big Fish Games’ employee base, who responded that their top two concerns with the old headquarters on Elliott West were around traffic, transportation and access to amenities. “The traffic and commuting [in the city] is getting more and more congested…at our old location, we had three bus lines that served our building, and even those were sporadic. We [also] didn’t have many amenities to our space at [the old] location,” Cottingham said. Following the move to the Maritime Building, most Big Fish employees can now take one bus directly to and from work, which is a marked improvement from the previous average of 2.7 bus trips per person. Additionally, the company estimates that only 27 percent of employees will choose to drive to the new office, a figure down from 40 percent at the previous location.
In the wider neighborhood context, the gaming company’s move to the Maritime Building not only represents the continued commitment to its employee base, but also to the city of Seattle.
“The fact that there’s a local, homegrown Seattle-based technology company investing in the neighborhood and bringing in the people to enliven the neighborhood is a statement about the company’s dedication to the city,” Howard said.
While Big Fish’s decision to move was driven in part by the transportation- and amenity-related needs of its employees, the company also wanted to participate in activity occurring on the waterfront, according to Cottingham. “We wanted to see what the building would mean [both] for our company and for the neighborhood. The viaduct is coming down, so [the building] gave us a glimpse into the future and we wanted to be a part of that,” he said.
The waterfront along Elliott Bay is set for large-scale changes in the coming months as a result of Waterfront Seattle’s redevelopment project, which spans from Pioneer Square to Belltown, following the imminent removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in early 2019.
The waterfront Seattle redevelopment—which includes a number of different projects—comprises 20 acres of new and improved public space, improved pedestrian and vehicular connections between Elliott Bay and surrounding neighborhoods; renovated utility infrastructure and new surface streets along Alaskan Way and Elliott Way.
The program, with a potential completion date around first quarter of 2023, also includes the rebuild of the Marion Street Bridge; the construction of Overlook Walk, a public pathway connecting the waterfront to Pike Place market; an expansion of the Seattle Aquarium; the Pike/Pine Renaissance Project, which is a revamping of the prominent Pike/Pine corridor in downtown Seattle; the restoration and reinstallation of the historic Washington Street Boat Landing (WSBL) Pergola; and the Seawall Project, a replacement and renovation of the aging seawall along the waterfront.
And in recent months, the multi-stage transformation of the waterfront received a push forward in its trajectory: in early April 2018, Waterfront Seattle released the Local Improvement District (LID), which is a key component of the funding plan for the revitalization of the waterfront along with city and state funding and private philanthropy.
For the waterfront LID, property owners would contribute to a portion of the improvement costs, because they receive a “special benefit” from the waterfront revitalization project—the amount individual property owners will contribute to the funding is based on the anticipated increase in their property value as a result of the park and streetscape improvements that Waterfront Seattle’s project will provide. Ultimately intended to be a community asset, funding for the $688 million waterfront revitalization project will be a collaborative effort between public and private agencies. In April, Waterfront Seattle estimated that the city and state would be responsible for $388 million, public philanthropy for $100 million and LID accounting for the remaining $200 million.
As the continual transformation of the waterfront—and the renovation of Maritime Building located in close proximity—demonstrates, changes are afoot for the city, and Big Fish Games hopes that it, along with other local technology companies, can continue contributing to the evolution occurring along the waterfront and throughout the city. “We’ve always been a Seattle-based company and are proud of being part of the Maritime Building’s heritage as well as part of the waterfront’s revitalized future,” he said.
At a time of increased development activity, however, efforts to preserve Seattle’s character are heightened, especially as the continues to be driven in large part by the movements of technology companies. “For a lot of tech companies, it’s easy to say ‘let’s build a brand new shiny glass tower,’ which is beautiful and changes the Seattle skyline in a wonderful way,” Cottingham said. “[But] I think we’re positioned as a beacon on the waterfront to show other companies that there are benefits to giving new life to these older historic buildings and that it’s doable.”