If it’s built on the urban fringe, HQ2 doesn’t have to be an inward-looking campus marooned in sprawl. It could be the mother of all suburban retrofits.
Last week, we learned which 20 cities made the not-exactly-short list to host Amazon’s second headquarters. These cities rose to the top of the 238 that submitted bids last fall in hopes of winning the economic jackpot: up to 50,000 highly paid Amazon employees contributing to their tax base, plus billions of dollars in local investment by the online giant.
Analysts and bookmakers have already sized up the finalists’ odds. Meanwhile, with the field of contenders narrowed, speculation has turned to what type of headquarters Amazon might choose to build, and where, within the short-listed metropolitan areas.
In the project RFP, issued back in September, Amazon stipulated that it was looking for a metro area of at least 1 million people and “urban or suburban locations” that could attract and retain talented tech workers. The company wants to be within 30 miles of a population center and no more than 45 minutes from an international airport, and it wants mass transit “at site.” The RFP also noted that HQ2 “could be, but does not have to be” a downtown campus.
As its priorities for site selection, Amazon listed, “in no particular order,” these physical features:
- Existing buildings of at least 500,000 square feet “that are expandable or have additional options for development nearby.”
- A development-ready greenfield site of about 100 acres, or a number of smaller sites that are close enough together “to foster a sense of place and be pedestrian-friendly.”
- “Other infill ... including opportunities for renovation/redevelopment and greenfield sites … This can also be a combination of the above.”
In other words, the company doesn’t seem to have a fixed idea about where and how it will create HQ2. It could convert old warehouses in a city neighborhood, or it could build a new Amazonia from scratch on the urban fringe. The tabula rasa suburban campus is the model that predominates, of course, in Silicon Valley, where hermetic office buildings spread amid parking lots form a landscape of high-end sprawl.
Many of the Amazon finalists have kept mum on the specific locations they’ve proposed. (Some bids were offered by individual cities, while others were submitted jointly by neighboring jurisdictions, or by states.) But the short list includes two suburban areas near Washington, D.C.—Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland—as well as the District proper.
We also know that Chicago offered up two suburban sites, one in Schaumburg and another in Oak Brook (the current headquarters of McDonald’s, which that company will soon leave to move to Chicago’s Near West Side). Denver’s heavily redacted bid is thought to propose sites at a distance from the central city. Atlanta’s pitch “includes details for dozens of development sites around metro Atlanta,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And it wasn’t Raleigh, North Carolina, itself that made the cut, but the Research Triangle region, which encompasses Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and their suburbs.
Despite having stayed in the City of Seattle through years of runaway corporate growth, Amazon may consider following Apple and Facebook to the ‘burbs this time around. To Yonah Freemark, a transit expert and Ph.D. candidate in city planning at MIT, this would be a blow to urbanism:
Frankly, if Amazon sends 50,000 workers to suburban Virginia, it would be doing a huge disservice to American urbanism. Access to Metro or not, it would be an isolated corporate campus without connection to an existing urban environment, with most workers dependent on cars. https://t.co/oC1hV0PlQd— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) January 19, 2018
It’s true that a Silicon Valley-style campus would be a regrettable outcome, and an urban HQ2 could bring many benefits to its host city. But we shouldn’t assume that a suburban site would be a disaster in urban terms, because there is a third path that Amazon could take. Not only would this path not be anti-urban, it might advance urbanist principles better than revitalizing yet another close-in district in a booming city.
Amazon could turn a vast swath of suburbia into a walkable, transit-connected, mixed-use, and architecturally interesting satellite city. Such a project would prove transformational for whatever region it’s in. But it would also become a template—and an impetus—for many more such projects around the country. As the mother of all suburban retrofits, HQ2 could help rewrite land-use patterns that are environmentally wasteful and experientially banal. It could model a new kind of suburbia—one that younger Americans will actively want to live in, rather than just settle for.
Consider the short-listed suburbs near Washington, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. Both are very affluent, with a highly-educated workforce; both are proximate to D.C. and have transit links to downtown Washington and the rest of the region via the Metro. Another thing they share is less obvious: Both have once-desirable commercial and office zones that are falling behind in the urban revival.
In Northern Virginia, that place is Tysons Corner, a mess of office buildings, retail strips, and an upscale mall lapped by car-choked roads on every side. Traffic is so bad in Tysons that it has a third rush hour, at midday—when local workers drive to lunch. In Montgomery County (where I have lived since 2006), it’s Rockville Pike, a six-to-eight-lane canyon of cars that pedestrians wade across at their peril. A regional mall on the pike, White Flint, closed back in 2015, and office parks nearby in North Bethesda have been emptying out as tenants seek more urban premises.
To their credit, the governments of Fairfax County (home to Tysons) and Montgomery County both recognize that these places are at a competitive disadvantage, and they’re taking steps to improve them. Several years ago, Fairfax adopted a sweeping plan to rationalize Tysons’ jumble of sprawl into a dense urban grid, with three-quarters of future growth assigned to stops on Metro’s new Silver Line.
Likewise, Montgomery has big ambitions for Rockville Pike. Its White Flint Sector Plan aims to turn a stretch of the pike into a mixed-use hub centered on the White Flint Metro station by 2030. The pike itself would become a boulevard with trees and wider sidewalks, and a new public street grid would replace disconnected strip-mall service roads.
These visions of urbanized suburbs are starting to take shape. Development is going gangbusters around Tysons, with a one-acre public plaza and several slick high-rises completed near the Tysons Corner Center mall and cranes hovering over other Silver Line stops. On Rockville Pike, a new development called Pike & Rose has brought stores, restaurants, and hundreds of apartments and condos to what used to be a strip mall anchored by Toys “R” Us.
HQ2 would, unquestionably, put either retrofit over the top. The 45-acre site of the demolished White Flint Mall was reportedly offered in Montgomery’s bid; a 26-acre site near Dulles International Airport—the eventual terminus of the Silver Line—is what Fairfax and Loudoun Counties jointly put forward.
Why would Amazon choose to move to the suburbs? For the same reason so many Americans do: It needs more space (8 million square feet, to be precise). Land is usually cheaper on the outskirts, and the very looseness of sprawl makes large-scale infill pragmatic. Oversized parking lots and strip malls built for obsolescence are a dime a dozen: Few people would be sorry to see them replaced with buildings, streets, and parks designed to last. Many suburbs also have lower housing costs than the cities they border, and they’re resistant to the sudden spikes in “hotness” that lead to gentrification. HQ2 would push up rents in Fairfax County, no doubt. But I’d bet that Herndon, Virginia, is not going to become the next Williamsburg (Brooklyn), RiNo (Denver), or Shaw (D.C.) anytime soon.
Instead of exacerbating an affordable-housing crisis in a pricey urban center, Amazon could help build a model of an inclusive urban suburb. The company has the means to make sure the transit serving its new home is frequent, reliable, and convenient. That includes addressing the “first/last mile” problem: The local government could run more buses, upgrade crosswalks and sidewalks, and build protected bike lanes in a radius around HQ2. Mobility improvements that had languished for lack of funding or been dropped after NIMBY complaints might finally gain traction.
For its part, Amazon could offer generous commuter benefits to transit riders, walkers, and cyclists while disincentivizing driving by limiting on-site parking. It could design HQ2 as an open, rather than closed, campus, integrated with non-Amazon buildings and people on public streets, much the same way that HQ1 relates to its South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.
If the campus is going to be active after 5 p.m. and on weekends, it will need lots of multifamily housing, stores, and restaurants nearby—in other words, the kind of mixed-use district that forward-thinking suburbs are clamoring to build (and that many already have). A suburb, like a city, could require that developers seeking to capitalize on Amazon’s arrival meet a high minimum of affordable and workforce housing. (Montgomery County, for example, has the country’s oldest inclusionary zoning policy.)
Yes, the traffic impacts would be serious: We’re talking about 50,000 people here. But that would be the case within city limits, too, albeit to a lesser extent. In Northern Virginia, ridership on Metro’s Silver Line has been lower than projected, which means that it has capacity for thousands of Amazon workers—and reverse commuters from D.C. to Fairfax County would fill otherwise empty seats, effectively adding capacity to the system. Even better, HQ2 might finally force regional leaders to commit to the long-term funding solution that Metro needs.
Opportunities for Amazon to kickstart suburbia’s next phase aren’t limited to greater Washington, either. In Doraville, Georgia, northeast of Atlanta, a plan is already under way to build a “mini-city” called Assembly on the 165-acre site of a defunct General Motors plant near a MARTA stop. An urban-style HQ2 here could significantly boost daily ridership on MARTA—lending momentum to that system’s hopes of expansion—and would promote transit-oriented development in a region that’s not known for it. In Raleigh-Durham, a proposal to turn some of the 7,000 acres of Research Triangle Park, the country’s biggest high-tech office park, into a real place has sputtered along for a few years now; Amazon would be the shot in the arm it needs, and would hurry up the long-discussed construction of mass transit in the region.
One argument against a suburban HQ2 site is that it would fuel sprawl. But infill isn’t sprawl, and a locality could prevent the creep of subdivisions around HQ2 if it abided by smart land-use rules. Despite the recent comeback of cities, the suburbanization of homes and jobs is pretty much a fait accompli in the United States; the urban renaissance is making only a small dent in it. So polycentric urbanism ought to be the goal in the 21st century.
The truth is, there could hardly be more at stake. In their book Retrofitting Suburbia, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson note that “the sheer quantity of construction in sprawling environments exacerbates the urgent challenges our society faces from climate change … water shortages, and declining public health.”
As has been widely documented, conventional suburban land use sets us up to walk less, which increases our chances of obesity-related health problems, and to drive more. All that driving produces more carbon emissions and accelerates climate change. Tracts of large houses present an architectural mismatch for the singles, empty nesters, and one-parent families who make up the bulk of the population. And as poverty ripples out from cities and Baby Boomers decide to age in place, it’s crucial that suburbanites are able to reach jobs and services without cars.
“The systematic development of suburban sprawl was the big architectural project for the last fifty years,” Dunham-Jones and Williamson write. “[W]e believe that the redevelopment of sprawl into more urban, more connected, more sustainable places is the big project for this century.”
Amazon has changed how millions of Americans shop for all sorts of goods: It ate chain bookstores for lunch and is devouring department stores for dinner. The company has already disrupted suburbia in myriad indirect ways. So why not make it explicit, and do it right?