Thirteen months into the international derby that is the Amazon HQ2 selection process, it seems the end of the sweepstakes is near. What’s happened? What have we learned? What’s next?
It’s been a dizzying year-plus for the giant online retailer. Amazon received 238 proposals last November from cities across North America, each wanting a crack at attracting upwards of 50,000 high-paying tech jobs that could send a local economy on an entirely different trajectory. Twenty finalists were announced last January, and Amazon began its due diligence in earnest.
With limited information reaching the general public, speculation on the selected metro area has been rampant. A visit by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos to Washington, D.C., last month sparked discussion about the nation’s capital being the possible winner. A second visit to Chicago by Amazon officials prompted a similar speculative reaction in the Windy City. Observers across the country are trying to read the tea leaves: a New York Times article last month noted that a visit to a Miami nightclub by Bezos was seen as a positive sign by the Miami Herald, and that the resignation of the dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh was viewed as a first step toward Amazon’s move there. Expectations, and anxieties, have been sufficiently raised.
What is becoming clearer, however, is that most observers are building toward a consensus that the likely winner will be Washington, D.C. Statistically the capital has the greatest chance of winning; it was the only metro area that had three proposals reach the final round (Washington, Montgomery County, Maryland and Northern Virginia). But observers are also looking at the actions and investments of Amazon and its founder, and the assets of the D.C. region, to make an educated guess:
Those factors, as well as a spot on the Acela Corridor, near the nation’s political power brokers, media centers and elite universities, and proximity to a major international airport (critical aspects of the NoVa and MoCo proposals) push many observers toward the D.C. region.
From an urbanism perspective, what could a D.C. Amazon HQ2 mean – specifically for the suburban (NoVa and MoCo) locations?
It might be a stretch to say that a Northern Virginia or Montgomery County selection violates the principles Amazon set for itself for HQ2, but going to suburban D.C. does move away from the urban setting many people thought was Amazon’s preference. The initial request for proposals indicated that Amazon would want an “urban or downtown campus”, with a layout “similar to Amazon’s Seattle campus.” Less well known was Amazon’s desire to gain access to up to 100 acres of greenfield space for development. Most of the other finalists relied heavily on the urban factor; NoVa and MoCo may have relied much more on greenfield availability.
This may also indicate a subtle shift on the part of Amazon. The retailer may have decided that the investment it wanted to make was physically too big for any city to accommodate; it would be too disruptive no matter the size of the city. Indeed, providing space for 50,000 new workers through 8 million square feet of office space — equivalent to two Willis Towers, the tallest building in North America — within ten years would be a feat for any city.
In doing so, Amazon may be moving toward creating an urban environment for the company, rather than inhabiting an existing one. Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, while certainly not undeveloped, offer much more of that potential than some of the other finalists. Furthermore, NoVa in particular has extensive experience with the kind of urban-style but suburban-located mixed-use development that Amazon might be leaning toward with its Reston Town Center.
If this is the case, the question will then turn to whether NoVa and MoCo would be willing to accept the kind of urban pattern Amazon might prefer, within their current suburban setting. How will county governments and local municipalities deal with a different set of demands than they’ve typically seen? How will residents react to dramatic changes in development scale? Done right, NoVa and MoCo could develop town centers that could accommodate Amazon. If not done right, NoVa and MoCo could develop much more like today’s Silicon Valley — office parks at the end of clogged arterials and cul de sacs, without enough housing to support the needs of the rapidly growing workforce.
Of course, no final selection by Amazon has been made. No timetable has been announced for a selection at this time. But if Amazon is leaning in the NoVa and MoCo direction, I’d be surprised if these kinds of considerations weren’t being made already.