Microsoft announced last week a major investment in their Redmond campus, expanding their footprint to accommodate up to 8,000 more workers, but also renovating and reinventing their campus. 12 older buildings will give way to 18 taller ones with a net addition of 2.5 million square feet.
Urbanists, and other observers, were quick to notice an apparent contrast with Amazon which has built its headquarters in Seattle and avoided suburban offices. Many Bay area tech companies, after having started in the suburbs, are putting down roots in cities too. Several regional companies like Weyerhaeuser and Expedia have decamped to Seattle. Microsoft doesn’t appear to have ever considered such a move, and is confident that it can create an urban vibe within its historic footprint.
Microsoft’s 2005 master plan foresees a gradually densifying campus. The latest announcement will come close to exhausting the capacity in that master plan, but the likely next step will be another master plan for further development within the 500-acre footprint. Microsoft’s leasing of office space in Bellevue and Issaquah was viewed as responsive to urgent needs for space rather than a strategy to develop outside the core campus. Microsoft in 2015 negotiated zoning changes that allow up to 10 story offices on the eastern part of the Redmond campus though this expansion won’t be that tall.
The campus vision already goes well beyond the stereotypical auto-oriented suburban office park. It’s aligned to the nearby rail station opening in 2023, with straightened pedestrian connections to offices and retail. Buildings are closer together. Cars are removed from the interior of campus and all parking is underground. The office expansion fits with transportation improvements from the master plan including a pedestrian bridge across SR 520. The bridge connects the east and west sides of campus across SR 520 to each other and to the future light rail station.
The excellent transit connections with Link after 2023 also distinguish Microsoft from the far less accessible Bay Area tech company offices. It’s simply not very far from the region’s urban core.
The large suburban campus does permit amenities that would be difficult to provide in a more physically constrained urban setting. A large outdoor plaza will have room for up to 12,000 people. There are running and walking trails and several soccer and cricket fields.
Bellevue and Redmond are, after Seattle, the most urban and fastest growing cities in the region. Downtown Bellevue is more second city than suburb, and the immediate neighborhood south of Microsoft is urbanizing and densifying. Just one development nearby, Esterra Park, is expected to eventually count over 3,000 homes. The longer-term evolution to a contiguous urban area from downtown Bellevue to Overlake and (with some suburban interruption) to Redmond is visibly beginning to take form.
Microsoft won’t entirely escape the limitations of surrounding suburbia. North-south transit, and auto traffic, are mired in congestion on 148th and 156th. Active transportation is limited by distance and auto-oriented infrastructure. Single family neighborhoods that are not amenable to redevelopment closely surround urban areas of Bellevue and Redmond. One test of how the wider neighborhood urbanizes will be how many workers are locked into car commutes from distant suburbs as nearby residential neighborhoods experience comparatively little change.
Nevertheless, this appears a future urban campus and urban neighborhood, as much as the restrictions of historic suburban development patterns allow.