By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Amazon.com moved its offices from the International District (ID) above Union Station to a building in Lake Union, Tom Dang felt the sting of empty chairs.<!–more–>
“It was really down, for maybe, I would say, three months. Business was down about 40 percent.”
Dang owns Sub Sand, a restaurant that has been serving up Asian-style sub sandwiches with a Vietnamese influence for almost three years. During lunchtime, throngs of people pack into his small restaurant and eat his West-meets-East food items. These days, during lunchtime, two in five customers are employees from companies based at 605 Union Station, which is adjacent to the International District. The other customers come from fellow ID businesses and organizations.
In its heyday, Sub Sand had Amazon customers lining up out the door, spilling over onto the sidewalk.
With the departure of Amazon, Sub Sand struggled for a time.
With nearly 3,000 employees, Amazon departed the ID in phases, the first starting in April 2010.
“When Amazon left, we were afraid there would be this void,” said Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA). “They were customers of our businesses who, for years, were coming across the street to Maynard, Seventh Avenue, and beyond, and really enjoying the neighborhood.”
Many businesses in the ID reported experiencing a drop in business of 30 to 40 percent during weekdays.
“I did talk to a few businesses, and they said they did see a decrease in business during lunch,” said Blakeney. “But I think that just called on us to push harder to others that this is a good destination. And once you get those lunchtime employees back, it will sustain itself.”
Things started to look up in December 2010, when the Cobalt Group, Inc., a company that provides digital marketing solutions to U.S. automotive dealers and manufacturers, moved its headquarters to the Union Station building.
Cobalt is smaller than Amazon, though, and didn’t quite fully make up the deficit Amazon left.
“You know, when Amazon was here, that company was 3,000 people,” said Dang.
“When Cobalt moved in, that was about 800 people. When they came in, it did pick up a bit, but it’s still not quite what it used to be.”
New kid on the block
By the end of this year, global stock photo agency Getty Images will be moving into the same building, helping Cobalt fill the void that Amazon left behind. Blakeney speculates that Getty will bring between 400 and 600 employees.
According to CB Richard Ellis, a full-service real estate services company, which marketed the Union Station building to Getty, the building would be more than 80 percent occupied by Getty. Getty is the second largest lease in the building, after Cobalt.
“It’s a long-term lease [that Getty signed],” said CB Richard Ellis broker Jesse Ottele, who represented the building. “I can’t get into lease specifics, though. … I would say [the number of years on the lease is around] double digits.”
Blakeney sees the move as a positive sign of things to come.
“It takes people a while to learn where everything is, but we’re going to work with the property managers to get the word out. I really think it’s an opportunity to drive more business to the neighborhood.”
“We will help employees explore the neighborhood by giving them information about various restaurants and businesses,” Blakeney added. “There are online tools, such as the new seattlechinatownid.com, where people can search by food or services. There’s MSG150.com and other food blogs that we can point them to. We are also working on different welcome packets, with discounts and stuff like that. The goal is to have it where a bunch of employees move in and there’s something on their desk waiting for them that says, ‘Here’s where you can go. Here’s where you can explore.’ Because I think these people are adventurous, and they want to learn, so we’re just helping them with that.”
It takes a village
ID businesses are also getting help from the employees in the Union Station building, both current and former. Dang said it greatly touched him when Amazon employees pasted flyers and restaurant menus on the walls as they moved out. It was their subtle way of urging the Cobalt employees to venture out into the ID and explore.
“You know, those guys are really great,” said Dang. “Sometimes, [Amazon employees] still make a special trip here. They say, ‘We gotta come back and help you out a little bit.’ They call and they order, perhaps 10 sandwiches, and they send a person to come pick it up and bring it back to the office.”
Ottele could not say for sure what attracted Getty to the Union Station location, but he did speculate that the nearby businesses in the ID and South Downtown were strong draws.
“Just from what I took of it, [the selling points were] the access to the transportation hub, from I-90 to the light rail to the bus tunnel, the amenities, with all the food and restaurants in the International District, the proximity to the stadiums and the sports atmosphere,” said Ottele.
Getty’s move to the ID is an interesting factor in the area’s changing face. Once an ethnic enclave where Asian immigrants were sequestered and segregated, the neighborhood has since evolved into a district with many identities. It still exerts its strong ethnic influences, but it’s also a business district, an art district, Seattle’s Asian food mecca, and a hub for social services and programs.
For the CIDBIA and many ID restaurants and businesses, change, in this instance, is a good thing.
“[Nearby] Pioneer Square has a huge tech industry on the above floor,” said Blakeney.
“Their office space is almost 100 percent leased with gamers, software developers, and e-traders. Getty Images is kind of seen as one in that category of the creative/digital professions. So you have this kind of concentration of those folks in the area. Couple that with the local arts community, and it’s a really unique opportunity for South Downtown. … It’s really cool, and I think it’s a niche that we should be talking about.”
For Dang, the arrival of Getty means he gets to keep doing what he loves doing, making sandwiches and making new friends.
“When everyone comes in here, we treat them like friends, you know. We talk and chat. We sit and watch football games together. So it builds up really well, that relationship.”
Getty could not be reached for comment before publication time. ♦
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.