Who is that peering from the tower of the old Sears building south of the Kingdome? It's Starbucks' star-crowned siren, the mythical half woman, half twin-tailed fish that graces the company's green and white logo.
The specialty coffee retailer is hoisting a 20-foot-tall icon to the top of the building this weekend as it announces it has selected the former Sears tower building at First Avenue South at South Lander Street as its world headquarters.
The mammoth complex, which also houses a Sears store and two other retail tenants, is being renamed the Starbucks Center. Starbucks, which is leasing space there, and Nitze-Stagen & Co., the building owner, have pumped $30 million in improvements into one of the SODO district's most enduring landmarks.
In doing so, Starbucks, with 1,200 stores in the United States, Canada and the Far East, has committed to remain in Seattle, a move that heralds a coming renaissance for one of the city's long overlooked neighborhoods.
Howard Wollner, Starbucks' vice president for administration, said the company was growing so fast that at one point it considered moving all its operations to a suburban campus. Too big for its roasting plant on Airport Way South in Seattle, it opened a new coffee-roasting facility in Kent in 1992 and moved its support offices on an interim basis to the former Sears building in 1993, by then called the SODO Center.
With rent, parking and other occupancy costs at only $12 to $13 a square foot and with a potential 1.8 million square feet of space, Starbucks decided to stay at the center, Wollner said.
"This to me shows that Starbucks is making a strong commitment to the city of Seattle and to its urban heritage," said Craig Kinzer, the Seattle real-estate adviser who worked with Starbucks and Nitze-Stagen.
The 1,000-plus Starbucks employees who occupy 325,000 square feet in the building represent the kind of jobs the city wants to keep and attract, said Frank Stagen, Nitze-Stagen's principal partner.
Construction crews are building a tree-lined grand promenade from the center's parking lot along First Avenue to the building's lobby. They've restored a huge archway leading into the tower.
Inside, the NBBJ architectural firm has turned former warehouse space on the top three floors of the nine-story building into modern offices. Starbucks has signed a lease until 2015.
The old Sears building has mirrored the ups and downs of its neighborhood.
Milwaukee St. Paul Road built the original wood structure on the block in 1912 to entice Sears to locate in Seattle. Sears added the main tower in 1915 and used it as a western regional headquarters and Northwest catalog distribution center. But in 1987, Sears closed its catalog distribution business, throwing the building's future into doubt.
Nitze-Stagen bought the property in 1990 and set about turning the 17 1/2-acre site into an urban campus. Stagen and partner Kevin Daniels developed a Home Depot and Sears Auto Center on adjacent property.
Stagen also came up with the name SODO for the district South of the Dome. In 1991 he replaced the Sears sign atop the tower with a new SODO sign. It was taken down last month, to be replaced with the Starbucks siren, created by Seattle artist Terry Heckler.
Shown from the nose up, she will appear to be peeking out over the city, toward the Pike Place Market, where the first Starbucks store was established 26 years ago; toward the docks of the Port of Seattle, where coffee beans come in; and at the SODO neighborhood.