The company, founded in Seattle in 1938 under a co-op model as Recreational Equipment, Inc., has just announced that it intends to sell its just-completed 8-acre corporate home in Bellevue, Washington, without ever using it. In lieu of its new home, REI is “shifting to a less centralized approach to its headquarters” and will develop a corporate hub that will span “multiple locations across the region,” per a statement issued by the company, which is one of the country’s largest—and most slavishly adored, at least in the Pacific Northwest—purveyors of outdoor recreational gear.
Furthermore, REI intends to “lean into remote working as an engrained, supported, and normalized model for headquarters employees, offering flexibility for more employees to live and work outside of the Puget Sound region and shrinking the co-op’s carbon footprint.”
Construction on the campus within a new, transit-oriented development dubbed the Spring District in Bellevue—a sort of Washingtonian version of San Jose or Palo Alto located across Lake Washington from Seattle—kicked off in 2018 with a projected move-in date of summer 2020. Declared as the “most outdoorsy HQ ever” by the Wall Street Journal and as like “summer camp for grown-ups” by Fast Company, the campus features fire pits, sliding glass doors, rooftop terraces, exterior staircases and passageways, skylights and operable windows aplenty, and native landscaping including blueberry bogs that reference the site’s agricultural past. Seattle-based Wright Runstad & Co., developer of the 36-acre Spring District, also served as a development partner for REI’s new campus, a project first announced in 2016.
“You can’t really be in the building anywhere without having a visual connection to the outdoors,” Mindy Levine-Archer, a partner at NBBJ, told the Journal earlier this year.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the company’s corporate staff, most of them based in offices located south of Seattle and Bellevue in the city of Kent, has been in full remote work mode since March. (Three-hundred corporate staffers were laid off in April, and 400 retail workers were let go last month after being furloughed in March.) The company was one of the first major retailers to close the doors of its 160 brick-and-mortar stores to customers during the early stages of the pandemic and has also been slow to reopen out of an abundance of caution.
“The dramatic events of 2020 have challenged us to reexamine and rethink every aspect of our business and many of the assumptions of the past. That includes where and how we work,” said REI president and CEO Eric Artz in a video call with employees. “As a result, our new experience of ‘headquarters’ will be very different than the one we imagined more than four years ago.”
Although the shift is nothing short of dramatic, Artz relayed to employees that the sale of the new corporate campus will ultimately provide more workplace flexibility and also financially benefit the company, allowing it to make other investments as it navigates, along with retailers of all stripes and sizes, an uncertain future. “This year has shown us our home is not a building. Our home is wherever we find ourselves doing our best work, pursuing our outdoor passions, serving our communities. Serving each other,” he said. “That is what we will build around as we move forward—and as we accelerate into what’s next.”
Speaking to the Journal, REI chief customer officer Ben Steele noted that although the Bellevue campus offered employees an “attractive work environment” a different, more spread-out scenario with an emphasis on remote working further drives home the progressive company’s mission to provide consumers with gear to better commune with Mother Nature. “I’d love to have time in the outdoors even more than I’d love to have an office that’s connected to the outdoors,” he said.
It hasn’t been disclosed how much REI paid for the land at the Spring District or for the offices that now populate it. Also unclear is how much it will ask for the property. An REI spokeswoman told the Journal that the company hopes to make a profit from an eventual sale despite it being a strange time to offload a massive office property, particularly one with campfires pits and blueberry bogs.