South Lake Union anxious as Amazon changes work plans

SEATTLE — Just a few months ago, Amazon announced a plan to bring most employees back to the office a minimum of three days a week; but a combination of employee reluctance and COVID uncertainty has led to a change in plans.

Amazon’s office towers dominate South Lake Union. Approximately 50,000 employees work at the e-commerce giant’s Seattle headquarters.

Those numbers used to swell the sidewalks during weekday lunch hours — but not since the company sent workers home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Just a lot less traffic, and there’s a lot less people around in general,” said Sarah Bland, who worked in South Lake Union for years.

Emily Chan came to Seattle after the pandemic cleared out the neighborhood

“My friends who lived here say usually it’s always, like ,super-crowded, and there’s, like, a line and lunch and everything. I haven’t had to deal with that,” she said.

That pre-pandemic bustle won’t likely return anytime soon.

Amazon just announced a new remote work policy that will have many employees working mostly remotely. Other employees will split their time in a remote/office hybrid, and some employees will work routinely in their offices. Team directors will decide what works best for their groups.

For nine years, Kakáo Coffee on Westlake Avenue relied on the Amazon employees who work and live in South Lake Union.

“We make coffee for the neighborhood that wants to drink it, but we truly want to be a space for the neighborhood,” said Operations Director Jeanette Harney.

The café closed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, almost 20 long months ago.

The staff here was thrilled to reopen just last Monday. Then Amazon’s announcement came a week later.

“It hit us a little hard yesterday because we kept hoping that they were going to have their employees back in their offices. It’s unfortunate for us because they are a significant part of our clientele,” Harney said.

Amazon has helped Kakáo Coffee and many other small businesses during the pandemic. The company says it has offered rent relief and grants totaling $16 million, and that it has helped more than 900 small businesses in the Puget Sound region.

Many in South Lake Union are counting on the Amazon crowds to eventually come back.

“I miss running into folks outside, and just going to grab a coffee and being able to see people’s faces and smiling,” Bland said.

The continuing construction boom is why the New York Times is calling the Seattle area the nation’s top market for commercial real estate.