There’s no arguing that the most-attention grabbing aspect of Amazon’s shiny new campus in downtown Seattle are the plant-stuffed biodomes.

Dubbed The Spheres, this trio of gargantuan glass structures will eventually be home to a vast collection of flora to rival some of the world’s finest botanical gardens. (An inaugural Australian fern was planted in a horticultural groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month.) Also featured: Waterfalls, suspension bridges, “tree house meeting rooms" and an ample amount of lushly planted chill-out space or Amazon employees to unwind, relax, and hide from their supervisors in. Basically, it’s a staff break room re-imagined as a high-tech tropical conservatory plopped down in the middle of a major city. Or something like that.

Architectural flamboyant and abuzz with activity, The Spheres are poised to act as the social heart of Amazon’s 3.3-million-square-foot corporate campus — or corporate “neighborhood” as Amazon likens it — that’s all but swallowed the existing downtown Seattle neighborhood of Denny Triangle block-by-block over the past couple of years. Acting as town hall, rec center and visitors bureau for the new “neighborhood,” The Spheres serve a vital function. But many could argue — as cliché as it may be — that the true heart of the new campus, when completed, will be found across the street, spread across six floors of a yet-to-be-built office tower.

Sharing roughly half — about 47,000-square-feet — of a squat and otherwise unexceptional mid-rise building will be Mary’s Place, a 65-unit transitional housing complex for homeless women, children and families.

While noble, the fact that the e-commerce and cloud computing behemoth, which is frequently blamed for turning downtown Seattle into an eternal sea of construction cranes while spurring an affordable housing crisis of historic proportions, is including a transitional housing complex in its glitzy new urban campus does seem to come out of left-field. It’s certainly a first — no other tech giants have thought to incorporate homeless shelters into their corporate headquarters.

But then again, no other tech giants have needed to resettle existing homeless shelters while expanding their corporate headquarters as Amazon has.

Rendering of Mary's Place transitional housing facility, Amazon HQ, Seattle A transitional housing facility operated by Mary's Place will comprise roughly half of a new six-story office tower breaking ground at Amazon HQ this fall. (Rendering: Amazon.com)

Transitional housing finds permanence at Amazon HQ

Enter Mary’s Place, a Seattle nonprofit that specializes in transforming (temporarily) disused buildings into transitional housing facilities for women and families with no place else to go.

In April 2016, Mary’s Place, which also operates several day centers and rotating night shelters across Seattle, opened a facility in an old Travelodge motel on the fringes of Amazon’s quickly growing Denny Triangle campus. The arrangement, however, was a temporary one as Amazon owned the defunct motel and planned to demolish it and erect two mid-rise towers in its place during a later construction phase of the $4 billion campus.

Given that Amazon financed the building’s conversion from run-down motor lodge to transitional housing complex, there were expectations that the company would do the right thing when it finally came time to summon the bulldozers.

But few expected that the shelter would actually stay put and be integrated into the Amazon campus. “Too often, homelessness gets pushed to the other side of the tracks,” Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, tells the New York Times. “Keeping them as neighbors is nice.”

Exterior of old Travelodge, downtown Seattle Surrounded by Amazon's glistening new office towers, this defunct motor lodge-turned-homeless shelter for women will be replaced with more Amazon high-rises (with one key difference). (Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

And not only is Amazon bestowing Mary’s Place with new permanent space that’s roughly 10,000 square feet larger than the nonprofit’s current facility at the Travelodge, it’s also providing residents with a temporary home in another nearby vacant hotel, also owned by Amazon, once demolition work kicks off next fall. Once construction wraps up at 2213 8th Ave. in 2020, Mary’s Place residents and staffers will move into their spacious new digs at the same time as their Amazon building mates. (While located in the same building, the 200-ish person capacity facility will be separate from Amazon’s offices with its own entrance, elevators, etc.)

And like with the situation at the Travelodge, Amazon will not collect rent from Mary’s Place. Utilities will also be taken care of. Amazon HQ will be the nonprofit’s forever home … for free.

Referring to the unique arrangement as “permanent, until homelessness is solved,” John Schoettler, Amazon’s head of real estate, noted at a recent press conference that the partnership with Mary’s Place is the company’s largest philanthropic gesture to date, costing “tens and tens of millions of dollars.”

Staffing costs — the Seattle Times reports that the staff of Mary’s Place is expected to double next year thanks to Amazon’s largesse — will continue to be paid for by other donations. Amazon simply provides the real estate along with additional support in the form of a small army of eager volunteers. Like other Mary’s Place facilities, the nonprofit’s new downtown home will include a family resource center in which said volunteers, working alongside Mary’s Place staffers and representatives from a range of other nonprofits, help to pursue both job and permanent housing opportunities.

“To have a permanent downtown Seattle location within Amazon is a game-changer for Mary’s Place and the families we serve,” Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, says in a press statement. (She's also featured in the video about the project show above.) “We’ve loved being Amazon’s neighbor, and now the opportunity to move into their headquarters permanently is truly a dream come true. This unique, first-of-its-kind shelter will remind families that they matter and that their community wants to help them succeed.”

Per the Seattle Times, Schoettler says that the big boss, Jeff Bezos, was enthusiastic about the “inclusive” and “unusual” plan, which will require Amazon to perform some reconfiguring given that the entirety of the new six-floor building was originally meant for Amazon employees. Because of the big-hearted move, the company will need to acquire additional office space for 300-some workers.

Aerial rendering of new office towers at Amazon HQ, Seattle Due for completion in 2020, the office tower housing a 65-unit housing complex for homeless women and families will be flanked by a taller Amazon-owned high-rise. (Rendering: Amazon.com)

Amazon finally delivers on the philanthropic front

It would be a vast understatement to say that Amazon’s real estate-gobbling presence in downtown Seattle has been a contentious one.

The company, now Seattle’s largest private employer with 30,000 employees and growing, has been a fixture for 22 years — it was founded by Bezos during the Emerald City’s mid-1990s coffee ‘n’ grunge heyday as a humble online bookseller named “Cadabra.”

However, Amazon didn’t truly make itself known from a real estate perspective until 2010 when the company began growing out of its longtime digs within a former Art Deco marine hospital located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. Instead of relocating to the East Side suburbs where Seattle’s other tech behemoths have traditionally settled and built sprawling campuses, Amazon set its eyes on downtown.

Moving from its prominently positioned Beacon Hill HQ to the northern fringes of downtown in the once-sleepy South Lake Union neighborhood, it didn’t take long for Amazon to outgrow its new home. And so the expansion into the adjacent Denny Triangle — or Denny Regrade — neighborhood began as Amazon commenced building its very own mini-city from scratch.

And as Amazon began claiming a huge swath of Seattle's urban core as its own, thousands upon thousands of well-compensated employees started to descend on the city. As a result, the cost of living skyrocketed while the affordable housing stock took a sharp nosedive.

Groundbreaking at The Spheres, Seattle A block away from Amazon's future transitional housing complex, planting is underway at The Spheres, the rubberneck-inducing centerpiece of a corporate 'neighborhood' rising in Seattle. (Photo: Stephen Brashear/AP Images for Amazon)

Of course, it would be unfair to blame Amazon squarely for Seattle’s woeful dearth of affordable housing. (Google, which is increasing its presence in the city, is also a major culprit.)

It would also be unfair to blame Amazon for exacerbating the city’s homelessness crisis, which was declared a “civic emergency” by Mayor Ed Murray in November 2015. According to The New York Times, citing statistics released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Seattle and greater King County had the third highest rate of homeless people in the country in 2016 — roughly 10,730 individuals — following New York City and Los Angeles.

But no matter how you look at it, Amazon’s growth — and Seattle’s latest tech boom, in general — hasn’t helped.

Fortunately, Amazon and other Seattle-borne giants — Microsoft, Starbucks, Nordstrom and Expedia among them — are self-aware enough to acknowledge that their tremendous growth has resulted in hardships for those struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. These companies have also been smart enough to listen to their critics.

Case in point: In April, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen pledged that his family foundation will finance the construction of a $30 million transitional housing complex for homeless women and children that will also receive $5 million in funding for operational and maintenance costs from the city itself.

Homeless person in Seattle While Seattle has long struggled with homelessness, in 2016 the city had the third largest number of homeless people in the United States. (Photo: mitchell haindfield/flickr)

Not previously known for altruistic gestures of any sort, Amazon has ramped up its charitable giving as of late. As mentioned, the Mary’s Place project will be the largest philanthropic act, affordable housing-related or not, in the history of the company, which in 2012, was criticized by the Seattle Times for “cutting an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.”

Critics — and there are many — might dismiss Amazon’s unconventional on-campus transitional housing project as simply slapping a very expansive Band-Aid on a wound of the company’s own creation.

“Doing things like this may be in its enlightened self-interest, right on site for the world to see,” Alan Durning, executive director of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, tells the New York Times of Amazon’s big recent announcement with Mary's Place.

Still, it’s a hugely positive and unorthodox move that benefits an incredibly worthy cause while demonstrating Seattle’s most selfish native son is at long last ready to fully open its pocket book and give back to community that helped to raise it.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.