BMW expands into Chinatown/ID

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Photo by Han Bui/NWAW

Six months ago, BMW Seattle opened its doors in the International District after moving from their Capitol Hill location, where they have been for 25 years.  After years of successful business, BMW felt a need to expand but was unable to do so at their Capitol Hill location because they were landlocked. BMW had faced the problem of trying to find a space downtown that was big enough to accommodate their needs.

“With BMW, they want to be in the heart of things. They don’t want to be out in Lynnwood. They don’t want to be out in Tacoma or the parts of the city that don’t give them the business that they want,” said Steve Bates, general manager of BMW Seattle.

BMW Seattle’s new location sits between the International and SoDo Districts. The space is a whopping 300,000 square feet and houses two separate buildings. The dealership’s artful design uses large glass windows, swooping curves, and sharp angles — a dramatic building highly noticeable from the I-90 and I-5 freeways.

The dealership was designed around 2006 and 2007 when the healthy economy provided good opportunity for ambitious expansion. New and used cars once stored in warehouse locations across the city now fit comfortably in a two-level showroom. With the current recession, the new dealership started out with half the staff that the facility is able to house but, so far, in the first six months, business has been very good.

“Obviously, we believe our entire package will be attractive to car buyers and service customers alike,” said Bates on the BMW website. “But we also feel very fortunate to be an active participant in one of the nation’s most vibrant downtowns and neighborhoods. That bodes well for our future.”

Most of what is seen in the design of the dealership is what BMW wanted. They also added some personal touches to bring the dealership in line with what Seattle represents. The angles of the buildings are meant to resemble the sails of a boat. A wall of large glass windows overlooks the sports stadiums. The building is also Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified. It is built from recycled materials and offers energy efficient benefits.

BMW’s new location in the International District provides it with freeway presence. The size of the space allows the staff to operate within a well-contained facility. The ease of the I-90 freeway has opened up new groups of customers from Issaquah and Mercer Island, while allowing BMW to continue serving the traditional set of Eastlake customers.

“We had the community with the International District. We had the infrastructure for all that’s going on with the freeways, and we had the visibility because of all the sports stadiums. We saw this as a positive thing in all ways,” Bates said.

When BMW was still at its Capitol Hill location, the company tried to help out wherever it could. Staff members supported a street barbeque. BMW was a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, and it joined efforts with community leaders to tidy up parts of the city, particularly the Capitol Hill, Broadway/Pike Street areas. BMW aims to support causes beneficial to the community as a whole rather than those serving a select population.

“We did as much as we could for the community, which in turn, we hope is good for ourselves. We all have to live in the same environment. So if there is something that is upsetting here, that is upsetting to the International District or to any of the SoDo District, that’s going to affect our livelihood and our part in the community. We’ll be a part of it.”

Part of BMW’s settling process involved learning and understanding the community that they’re now a part of.

“As the winter gets out of the way and the summer is coming and all the galas, shows, and fundraising and cultural events — it’s surprising what the International District has evolved to. We’re obviously trying to keep ourselves with the sporting community that is around here and be a part of that as well. We [also] want to be involved in the local community, which includes the International District and local businesses.”

BMW currently has 116 people on staff with 10 to 12 people hired from the local Seattle area. The company is still growing. It is hoping to be able to support a staff of 150 to 170 in the near future. Unlike other dealerships, Bates notes, BMW resists the use of large banners and flashy balloons, intending instead to preserve the level of class that the building provides to the area.

“We are eager to be whatever we can be for the International District. We are, at the end of the day, a business. We have to make money. We didn’t build this to be pretty. We built this to bring something to Seattle.”

Though Bates must look out for the best interest of his company and team, he also believes that their best interest goes hand in hand with the best interest of the area. In recent years, more companies have considered setting up stores and work places in the International District and SoDo areas. Within the next few years, the city plans on refurnishing the roads around the area, which Bates believes could bring more people to the area.

“We’re hoping that in the coming years, way after my time, that this is going to be built up in a level that I know is going to be a big community. I think it’s going to go away from industrial. I think it’s going to be more retail, more residential. There is nowhere else to go to. There is nowhere. You’ve got to come this way,” Bates said.

If true, BMW may be bringing more to Seattle than it had once imagined. ♦

For more information, visit

Tiffany Ran can be reached at

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