The University of Washington this year expects to break ground on a new building that will anchor an ambitious, innovation-focused redevelopment called Portage Bay Crossing. The project will cover 69 acres of the southwest portion of the Seattle campus, revitalizing and unifying an area of buildings that officials called old and underutilized.
UW leaders recently shared the name of the inaugural structure, which they’re calling Brightwork — a nautical term for the varnished wood and exterior metal on boats, as well as an allusion to the quality of research and entrepreneurship that hopefully takes place in the facility.
“The intellectual work that will occur inside these buildings, and inside this space, we hope will solve some of the nation’s and the world’s biggest problems,” said Randy Hodgins, UW vice president for external affairs.
The university’s vision is to transform the area into a walkable urban hub that incorporates buildings for academic research across disciplines; is home to startups and companies; provides housing; and attracts retail shops and restaurants that include diverse owners. The project will have features acknowledging the Coast Salish people and cultures, as well as other Pacific Northwest tribes.
The effort has been more than a decade in the works, and aspires for something different than the largely commercial neighborhood occupied by Amazon and other tech and biotech ventures in the South Lake Union area, just across the lake from the UW.
“We’re a public university. We’re not a private, profit-making company,” Hodgins said. And while there’s nothing wrong with commercial ventures, he added, “we have an obligation to embrace a lot of different kinds of partners.”
The UW is working with Wexford Science + Technology on the project. Baltimore-based Wexford has partnered with academic and research institutions across the U.S. to develop what it calls “knowledge communities.” The UW project is its 17th such effort over two decades.
An artist’s rendering of Brightwork, a new building planned for the UW’s Portage Bay Crossing development. (Wexford Science + Technology Image)
The development would be a welcome improvement to the University District neighborhood, which includes the UW. Despite the opening of a second light rail station near the university in 2021 and a return of students and professors to classrooms, the area has struggled to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Its main thoroughfare still has numerous empty storefronts and the area struggles with the homelessness that is pervasive in Seattle.
Portage Bay Crossing will complement growth initiatives already underway in the area, said Don Blakeney, executive director of The U District Partnership, a nonprofit group promoting the neighborhood. “It’s exciting to see these different parts coming together,” he said.
There are 19 building sites within Portage Bay Crossing, which is roughly bordered by Lake Union, 15th Ave. N.E., N.E. 41st St., and Eastlake Ave. N.E., with a narrower band extending west past Eastlake. The project could ultimately include 3 million square feet of new buildings.
CoMotion, the UW’s innovation arm, earlier this year relocated to a building within Portage Bay Crossing. The move bolstered a hub of entrepreneurship known as Startup Hall, which was already home to CoMotion Labs incubator, Techstars Seattle and Seattle venture capital firm Founders’ Co-op.
“Transforming cities and neighborhoods for livability and economic vitality takes decades of sustained commitment from many players,” said Chris DeVore, founding managing partner of Founders’ Co-op, in a LinkedIn post cheering the move.
The overall project includes a plan to expand a lakeside green space, adding to an existing shoreline park on Portage Bay, razing at least two research buildings and a parking lot, and constructing a waterfront trail. The development would create a bike-and-pedestrian friendly corridor between the lake and the popular Burke-Gilman Trail to its north.
This year the UW is doing a needs assessment and strategic planning to develop a clearer blueprint for the effort, but leaders caution that the plans won’t be set in stone, allowing the university to respond to evolving priorities, partnership opportunities, and shifting budgets. They didn’t share a price tag for the initiative and don’t have a planned capital campaign to fund the project.
But the future is clearer for Brightwork, which was called W27 in earlier plans. Here are some details:
- Brightwork will be an 11-story structure with 345,000 square feet of leasable space located at Brooklyn Ave. N.E. and N.E. 40th St.
- Wexford is paying to build Brightwork. The company declined to provide updated figures, but a 2022 UW document put the sum at $252 million, with the UW spending about $71.8 million to pay for tenant improvements to address its specific needs for the space.
- The UW is providing Wexford an 80-year lease for the property, after which the building reverts to UW ownership.
- The UW will rent up to 130,000 square feet in Brightwork for research efforts including the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds, the Institute for Protein Design and the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine. That rent is estimated to be $130 million for an initial 15.5-year term, according to the UW document.
- The building will include conference and event spaces, and room for a restaurant and cafe.
Illustration of the future lobby of the Brightwork building. (Wexford Science + Technology Image)
The project is aiming for LEED gold certification and its sustainability attributes include photovoltaic solar panels on the roof; an environmentally friendly “chilled beam” system for heating and cooling; a crenelated exterior that will help capture solar heat; and onsite stormwater treatment for rainwater runoff.
The site also features landscaping to create a park space and will separate the Burke-Gilman cycling trail from pedestrian walkways.
The project’s progress has been slowed by a legal challenge from another developer who lost its bid for the building. Alexandria Real Estate Equities (ARE) first filed suit against the UW in 2021, alleging that the university’s process for selecting a developer was unfair. A judge ruled in favor of the UW in March, and an appeals court upheld the decision last month, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, which reported that ARE plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Despite the ongoing legal issues, the UW and Wexford remain hopeful they will be able to start construction in early 2024. Brightwork is expected to take roughly two years to build.
Wexford hopes to be selected to develop additional Portage Bay Crossing sites. The company had been looking for a project in the Seattle area for about the past seven years, said Thomas Osha, executive vice president for Wexford. The UW’s lauded research capabilities, the region’s tech expertise and strengths in clean energy and biotech, and the nearby mass transit made the partnership a great match, Osha said.
An illustration of the interior of a lab space in the planned Brightwork building. (Wexford Science + Technology Image)
It’s an opportunity to bring the university into greater proximity with companies that can amplify its research and attracts new talent to the institution, he said. “It’s really a model that’s worked very well across our platform.”
Seattle, however, lags behind many metro areas in attracting businesses, workers and consumers back to its downtown core following the pandemic. Osha doesn’t expect a problem with finding tenants for the new development. The sort of research that Brightwork will house typically requires people to work in person and the design includes communal spaces to foster in-person collaboration and events, he said.
UW and Wexford aren’t sharing names of potential tenants for Brightwork. Rocale Timmons, UW’s executive director of economic development, emphasized the university’s commitment to making sure the building and broader project include colleges in the arts and humanities, reaching beyond STEM programs.
Bringing together those diverse academic disciplines as well as individuals from companies, government agencies and nonprofits will be essential, UW officials said, to tackling the planet’s biggest challenges.
“We’re hoping that these spaces,” Hodgins said, “will take that creativity and that knowledge generation to a whole different level.”