WASHINGTON – Stephanie Landrum, a leader of Alexandria’s quest to lure Amazon.com’s second headquarters to the city, promises that a proposed site in Potomac Yard could handle an influx of up to 50,000 jobs.
“We only offer them stuff where they could fit,” said Landrum, who calls herself the “salesperson for the city” as president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership in Virginia. “The scale of what has already been approved there [for development] is dense.”
Many residents of the nearby Del Ray neighborhood are skeptical. They already suffer daily rush-hour backups that slow traffic to a crawl. They fear the extra congestion from Amazon would erode the quality of life in their community of mostly single-family homes.
“I can’t imagine a serious proposal to do this,” resident David Halwig said. “The Potomac Yard area is already challenged by traffic.”
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Verenda Camire, who has lived in Del Ray for 30 years, said: “The upside: Those of us with good family homes nearby might enjoy a price hike. The downside: We would be prisoners in those homes for hours each day.”
The divergent views of booster and homeowner illustrate a broader debate about whether and how the Washington region could absorb the growth that Amazon would bring. Even enthusiasts acknowledge that success in the contest to host the company’s second headquarters – HQ2 – would have positive and negative effects.
Elected officials and other civic leaders are giddy at the prospect of securing the jobs and an estimated $5 billion investment that the Seattle-based online retail giant says it will make. Victory would yield an estimated $763 million a year in additional tax revenue, according to a Maryland study. It would diversify the region’s economy and bring the prestige of landing the biggest development prize in a generation.
Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and Montgomery County (Maryland) are among the 20 finalists. Amazon may narrow the list further in coming months and is expected to decide by the end of the year.
But many residents fear that winning the prize would actually exacerbate all the things they hate about living in the region: horrendous traffic, expensive housing, crowded schools and gentrification. The area consistently ranks near the top in surveys of the nation’s worst traffic congestion. It has failed to keep up with demand for low- and moderate-priced housing – a challenge that also concerns Amazon, according to local development officials who have spoken with the company’s representatives.
The company’s arrival is projected to add between 300,000 and 1 million residents to the region over 10 to 15 years, officials said. The range is so large partly because of uncertainties about how many Amazon jobs would be filled by people already living here, the size of families of employees who would relocate, and how many companies would move here to be close to Amazon in a positive “contagion effect.”
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) conservatively project a gain of 390,000 residents, even without any “contagion” impact.
Fewer than half – about 130,000 – would be Amazon employees and their family members. The remaining 260,000 would be households of people filling jobs generated by fresh economic activity spun off by Amazon, according to COG. They would include outside contractors hired by the retailer, construction workers who build Amazon workers’ homes, and hotel staffers who serve visitors to the headquarters.
By 2040, the new arrivals would add an estimated 87,000 K-12 students to the approximately 800,000 students now enrolled in the region’s schools, according to the COG planners.
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Supporters of the Amazon bid say the region as a whole can handle the impact. They note that the Washington metropolitan area’s population of 6.1 million is considerably larger than Seattle’s 3.7 million, so the additional people here would be a comparatively smaller burden. Amazon employs more than 40,000 at its Seattle headquarters.
But the impact on any individual site chosen within the region could be staggering. Locating HQ2 at the site proposed in Montgomery, for example, would increase the county’s workforce by 10 percent.
“You can’t overhype the impact of 50,000 jobs landing in one jurisdiction – it’s completely unprecedented,” said former Montgomery County Council member Steven Silverman, a consultant who also served as the county’s economic development director.
Amazon’s assertion that its jobs would pay an average salary of $100,000 a year, while alluring to promoters, raises concerns among District politicians and activists worried about widening the disparity between the city’s haves and have-nots.
“I see a lot of potential negatives, of which the biggest is exacerbating gentrification and displacement, which is already overwhelming the District,” said District Council member Robert White Jr., D. “If we put that on steroids, I’m not sure what that means for lower- and lower-middle-class Washingtonians.”
The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, a founder of the Washington Interfaith Network, warned against creating “a millennials’ oasis, a little Amazon island of these folks making $100,000 a year, surrounded by people making less than half of that, or even a third of that.”
An announcement that Amazon had picked the region for HQ2 would trigger speculation that would drive up home prices and rents, analysts said.
“We’re already seeing high rents and high home prices, and we don’t have enough housing for the number of people we expect in the next five to 10 years, even without Amazon,” said Yolanda Cole, who owns a District architectural firm and chairs ULI Washington, part of the Urban Land Institute. “We’re talking about a lot of housing that would need to happen.”
The region will need 491,000 new housing units by 2032 to match job growth, according to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Local governments say they would have more money to address traffic, housing and other challenges arising from HQ2, because of the revenue generated by Amazon employees’ expansion of the local tax base. But state and local governments are expected to give back billions of dollars of that prospective windfall in incentives to attract the company.
To woo Amazon, Maryland and Montgomery County, for example, are offering income, property and new-jobs tax credits and other financial incentives, plus transportation improvements totaling up to $8.5 billion.
It’s worth it, officials say, because a state-commissioned study by the analytics firm Sage Policy Group says the eventual net impact would be an increase in state tax revenue of $483 million a year and county receipts of $280 million a year.
The District and Virginia have kept secret the scale and type of incentives they are offering Amazon.
Some officials and residents say the common interest in attracting Amazon would galvanize the region to overcome any challenges. For example, a desire to satisfy Amazon helped rally Virginia, Maryland and the District to agree this year on a dedicated funding plan for Metro that had been sought without success for more than 40 years.
“It doesn’t do Amazon any good just from a practical standpoint to locate in a place where traffic gets significantly worse or schools get worse or no one can get on a Metro train because it’s so crowded,” said Heather Arnold, research director for Streetsense, a Washington-area consulting firm that assisted with several Amazon bids. “While we’ve been wrestling with these issues, I think we’ve lacked the impetus to deal with them in a comprehensive way. It might just give us the kick in the pants that we need.”
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The three Washington area jurisdictions on Amazon’s shortlist are offering a total of nine different sites for HQ2: four each in northern Virginia and the District, and one in Montgomery.
In Virginia, three are in the District suburbs of Alexandria and Arlington: Potomac Yard-Crystal City, a joint bid by Alexandria and Arlington; Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria; and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington.
The fourth, a joint bid by Fairfax and Loudoun counties, is outside the Capital Beltway, in Herndon, at the site of the Center for Innovative Technology near Dulles International Airport.
The District’s sites include Navy Yard-Anacostia, near Nationals Park; Hill East, near RFK Stadium; the NoMa neighborhood, near Union Station; and U Street near Howard University.
Montgomery’s site is at White Flint, just outside the Beltway, between downtown Bethesda and Rockville.
Some residents would be happy to have Amazon as a neighbor, but only if certain conditions are met.
Mandi Mader, a social worker who lives in Montgomery, said she would welcome new office buildings to replace the “giant open pit” left by the demolished White Flint Mall, as long as they were “community friendly” with green space, restaurants, shops and other amenities that the public could use.
But she’s also a bit leery.
“Is the idea that if they choose the [White Flint] site, we’d have to just welcome them in?” Mader said. “Would Amazon be a good neighbor and help the community?”
Lindsay McGarity, who lives behind the White Flint site, hopes clinching the corporate giant would speed up public investments to expand schools, make Metro more reliable, build a new rapid bus line on Rockville Pike and make the area more walkable.
“If Amazon coming here would get those problems addressed sooner, then great,” said McGarity, who chairs the residential representatives of the Friends of White Flint. “I think everyone is aware it would bring some challenges and growing pains, but I think the net-net would be absolutely positive.”
In Alexandria, IT consultant Patrick McNabb hopes Amazon will come and improve the quality of the region’s technology community.
Most of the government technology jobs here now are “fairly pedantic”and “not very exciting or fulfilling for young people,” McNabb said. By contrast, Amazon is “kind of leading the charge into cloud computing,” he said. “The kinds of jobs they would provide would be a shot in the arm for the whole region.”
The Rev. Frankey Grayton lives seven blocks from the Hill East site in the District. He could support Amazon’s arrival as long as the company hired workers from the neighborhood and took steps to ensure that higher rents did not force residents out.
“People want to see the city develop, but we do not want to be displaced,” said Grayton, pastor of Edgewood Baptist Church.
He noted that many residents or their relatives have years of experience with official buildings located at Hill East, which has been the site of a prison, a hospital and now the District’s General homeless shelter.
“The citizens who have used those facilities over the years . . . don’t want to be left out of the redevelopment,” Grayton said.
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With or without Amazon, the Washington region is expected to grow in coming years. According to recently updated projections by the Urban Institute, the region is forecast to gain 843,000 residents from 2020 to 2030.
That’s based on current trends, the area’s attractiveness to potential investors and the fact that Washington’s core industry – the federal government – won’t become obsolete, according to Rolf Pendall, a fellow and researcher at the institute.
Officials emphasize that they are already preparing to accommodate more residents, even if Amazon’s arrival greatly accelerated the trend.
“There’s a narrative that Amazon is going to cause all of this Sturm und Drang around things, and I have to remind myself and other people that we are a growing city, so our priorities are on growth,” said Brian Kenner, the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “This isn’t new to us. . . . We’re going to experience that growth no matter what,”
Kenner sought to reassure residents that whatever incentives the city offered Amazon to locate in the District, the return to the city would be many times greater.
“When we think about incentives, we think that if we’re going to provide you with something, we need at least four to five times that back in either tax revenue or some other quantifiable value,” Kenner said.
The latter benefits could include small-business opportunities, mentorships and summer youth jobs, he said.
Silverman, the former Montgomery economic development chief, and others said any local government would do a detailed analysis of the financial impact to support benefits offered to woo the company.
“No politician would propose these kinds of numbers unless their internal numbers showed a net positive,” Silverman said. “They tend to be pretty accurate. . . . Nobody gets in the game unless it pencils out.”
But Camire, the Del Ray resident eyeing the Alexandria traffic jams, is not convinced.
“Perhaps planners have found a solution to the choke points,” she said. “But the only solution I can see calls for the widespread use of individual jet packs.”
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The Washington Post’s Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.