- Experts predict that Amazon will locate its second headquarters somewhere in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
- As cities await the company’s announcement, DC residents are bracing for the potential negative impacts on their communities.
- Many neighbourhoods are up in arms over Amazon’s lack of transparency and questionable labour practices.
- Others are fearful that the new headquarters will exacerbate congestion and the lack of affordable housing in DC.
Whether the company locates in Montgomery County, Maryland, DC proper, or – as many speculate – the neighbourhoods of Northern Virginia, its impact could be widespread throughout the region.
With its new headquarters, Amazon expects to introduce 50,000 employees and tens of thousands of additional jobs in construction and operations. That could amount to up to 1 million new residents over the span of ten to 15 years, depending on how many employees already live in the area.
Many worry that the region won’t be able to handle a major uptick in population size. Already, DC suffers from a crumbling metro system, rampant gentrification, and some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.
While local startups are touting the new talent and opportunity Amazon may bring to their ecosystem, some residents are singing a different tune – one of fear and frustration.
HQ2 is already affecting residents
If Amazon wants to locate in the heart of DC, the city has offered up a few possible locations. As the advisory neighbourhood commissioner for Hill East, an area on the edge of Capitol Hill, Denise Krepp lives directly across from Reservation 13, one of the proposed Amazon sites.
The impact of an Amazon headquarters in the area, she said, would be disastrous.
“I’ve been in this community now for 20 years,” said Krepp. “Our infrastructure is failing. We have roads that are collapsing on themselves. We have water coming out of the streets in the middle of winter because the pipes are bursting. … We have a metro system that doesn’t work.”
Adding a new crop of workers to the area could put increased pressure on an already-waning transit system, she believes.
Residents are also concerned about the potential for a more acute shortage of affordable housing, similar to what has happened with Amazon’s first headquarters in Seattle.
Three days before the Amazon bid was announced in September 2017, Krepp attended a community meeting with the DC mayor’s office. At the time, she said, the office claimed there was no plans to further develop the parcels of land in her neighbourhood. Days later, the city offered up the land to Amazon. Now, Krepp suspects that land is being held vacant in anticipation of the company’s arrival – a claim the city’s Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development has strongly denied.
If Amazon were to take over the land, the company would occupy valuable space for affordable housing, Krepp said.
Some say rotten, others say ripe
Not all residents agree with this assessment.
“DC is like any city,” said John Coplen, a real estate professional who lives in Eckington and works in Logan Circle. “It’s dealing with its own challenges … but I think DC is really trying.”
What Coplen finds exciting about the Amazon headquarters is its potential to rebrand the city as more than a politics town. While he acknowledges that “a lot of people are really concerned” about the company’s arrival, he sees it as an opportunity for the region to grow and diversify its industry makeup.
As a member of the real estate community, he’s also not worried about soaring housing costs. Compared to other capital cities, he said, DC is “way behind” in terms of property values.
Other experts tend to agree. “Politics may not always be stable here, but property values are,” Nela Richardson, the chief economist of Redfin, told the Washington Post in April.
Even after Amazon’s arrival, Coplen anticipates that residents and commuters won’t concentrate in a single area.
“No matter where [Amazon goes], there’s going to be this cross-stream of commuters that want to live somewhere else,” said Coplen. “If they locate in Montgomery County or Virginia, they will have a whole mass of people who want to live in DC.”
But Krepp sees a lack of available land as a main contributor to the city’s affordability issues.
“It’s not like ‘poof,’ there’s a lot of space,” she said. “We have a finite amount of space that can’t be doubled overnight simply because Amazon wishes it.”
‘Treat them like any other business’
Still others are worried about an increase in local taxes. In April, DC ranked at the bottom of a list of cities that said they’d pay higher taxes to lure Amazon, with only 14% of residents saying they’d be willing to endure a tax hike.
Though DC and Northern Virginia have yet to reveal their incentives packages, Montgomery County, Maryland has already offered the biggest known package of any HQ2 city: $US8.5 billion in tax breaks and infrastructure incentives.
For Justin McCarthy, a Glover Park resident and advisory neighbourhood commissioner, that’s a major concern.
“I don’t think the district should be in the business of handing out massive corporate tax breaks,” he said. “I don’t really want to see my tax dollars going to subsidise the richest corporation in the history of mankind.”
Krepp agrees: “Why would neighbours support giving property and tax incentives to an entity, when we could we be using that money to shore up our schools?”
But kowtowing to major corporations is typical of both the DC Council and mayor’s office, McCarthy said. While he finds that people in his neighbourhood aren’t vehemently opposed to Amazon’s arrival, they do have one request of the city: Treat the company like any other business.
“When we make these mega-businesses pay their fair share, it makes it easier for us to actively accommodate smaller businesses in the district,” said McCarthy. That’s a key priority in Glover Park, which – like many DC neighbourhoods – is witnessing the closure of beloved mum-and-pop stores.
A secretive bid process
While residents are aware that Amazon is being wined and dined by the mayor’s office, they’re not quite sure what to expect. Amazon has requested that all 20 of the finalist cities sign a nondisclosure agreement that protects the company’s proprietary information, including their future plans.
In 2017, dozens of civic groups from across the country wrote an open letter outlining three positive changes that Amazon could make in its new host city. At the top of the list was transparency, including ongoing reports on the impact of potential projects.
It’s a request echoed by citizens across the DC metro. But in Glover Park and East Hill, residents are frustrated by a lack of communication.
“There hasn’t been any sort of public engagement,” said McCarthy.
Even council members are blind to what their city is offering. In Montgomery County, officials responded to a request for information by sending an entire document of redacted material.
Though Amazon hasn’t commented on the secrecy surrounding its RFP process, the Seattle Times reports that employees at its current headquarters are surprised by the degree of silence.
According to Krepp, the lack of communication is causing local residents to “lose their minds.”
Fuelling this frustration are reports of Amazon’s questionable labour practices.
In September, Business Insider spoke with more than 30 current or recently employed Amazon drivers about their experience delivering packages. Several of them said they had endured unfavorable, and at times abusive, conditions, including a lack of overtime pay, missing wages, intimidation, and favoritism.
McCarthy cites Amazon’s “reputation for poor working conditions” as one of his reasons not to embrace HQ2. “From a moral perspective, I have significant objections,” he said.
At the very least, Glover Park residents are insisting that Amazon hire local construction workers and ensure robust labour agreements prior to rolling out new development. These demands are reflected in the open letter signed by DC Jobs with Justice, Common Cause Maryland, and the Washington Interfaith Network, which calls for “safe, family-sustaining jobs” that respect workers’ rights.
Is there anything the city can do?
With Amazon staying mum on its final decision, DC may still have time to address concerns.
Some residents suspect that HQ2 is already motivating the city to make necessary improvements to transit and infrastructure. According to Coplen, the city has indicated both a “desire and demand” for new investment.
But McCarthy doesn’t expect the city to be much help.
“Are there things they could be doing? Yes. [But] realistically, I don’t even know if that’s a worthwhile question to ask, given the current state of politics,” he said.
When posed with the same inquiry, Krepp laughed. “That’s a pipe dream,'” she said. “The city knows our core is rotten.”
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