Amazon’s real estate chief: ‘What we’re trying to do the most is be good neighbors’

Amazon’s John Schoettler faced tough questions during an interview with writer and columnist Joni Balter, host of Civic Cocktail, in Seattle Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Between the thousands of jobs Amazon adds each year and its insatiable appetite for office space in Seattle’s urban core, the company has come to symbolize the city’s radical and rapid growth and transformation.

Whether Amazon is the cause, a scapegoat, or a little of both is up for debate. But one thing was clear during an interview with one of Amazon’s executives at last night’s Civic Cocktail event in Seattle — residents are looking to the tech giant giant for answers.

Seattleites and journalists peppered John Schoettler, Amazon VP of Global Real Estate and Facilities, with tough questions during a fireside chat in the Belltown neighborhood, just blocks from the company’s  campus. A recurring theme emerged — how is Amazon taking responsibility for the impact it has on the Emerald City?

“There’s lots of things that we’re doing in being involved in the community and what we’re trying to do the most is be good neighbors and be involved with our neighborhood,” Schoettler said.

He cited the company’s recent efforts to be a better corporate citizen. GeekWire detailed Amazon’s philanthropic and community work here.

“I think we have a lot of people that are working really hard to make sure that we are very good neighbors and doing our very best,” Schoettler said. “We’re never going to please everybody. That’s an impossible thing. We’ll die trying to do that … but we want to be a good neighbor, a good contributor.”

Schoettler highlighted the work Amazon is doing to finance public parks, fund low-income housing (as part of the mayor’s agenda), and train people living in poverty for higher-paying restaurant jobs through FareStart.

A rendering shows a new restaurant that will open in Seattle with an Amazon, FareStart partnership. (FareStart Image)

But despite these efforts, Amazon’s reputation as a corporate scrooge is persistent. It’s been almost two years since The New York Times published a scathing exposé about Amazon’s culture, and execs are still more likely than not to get questions about it during interviews. Such was Schoettler’s luck Wednesday.

“If Amazon was the place that was described in The New York Times, I wouldn’t be there, because I truly believe that that which you touch becomes a part of you and for me, it’s the best company I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “It’ll be the last company I ever work for. Is it a tough place to work? We have a very high standard. And I’ve said before, not everybody gets to be a Marine. Not everyone gets to go to Harvard, and we wouldn’t be where we are today through having mediocrity. I’ve never seen anybody cry at their desks.”

Amazon is the largest private employer in Seattle, with more than 25,000 people working at its headquarters. It is the city’s biggest land-owner and last year Schoettler said Amazon could take up close to 12 million square feet across 40 buildings in Seattle by 2022.

This aerial photo shows how far Amazon’s new Seattle campus has come in recent years. The highlighted site is a 17-story office building planned for Amazon, and the company is also developing the adjacent Block 21 and Block 20, in addition to the existing Day One and Doppler towers and its massive South Lake Union campus. (Graphite Design Group Photo)

That hyper growth has huge implications for South Lake Union and downtown — and Seattle knows it. The audience erupted in applause during Schoettler’s talk when a reporter asked how Amazon plans to address the impacts its having on its neighborhood.

“I believe we’re trying to change,” Schoettler said later. “We’re a very bashful company in many respects. I think that starts at the top. We don’t necessarily go around and pound our chests and try to get a lot of notoriety. We’ve focused on our customer and we’ve done our business. As a result of that, we’ve been successful and then I think we get faulted for that. As we started to develop here in the South Lake Union neighborhood, and then the Denny Triangle — realizing that we’re such a big employer, the largest private employer now in the City of Seattle, the largest landowner in the City of Seattle — that there are responsibilities that come along with that.”