amazon books seattleMatt Weinberger/Business
Insider

  • Amazon has brought economic growth to Seattle over the
    past 20 years, but it hasn’t figured out how to create a
    thriving neighborhood.
  • Businesses are booming during lunch hours and happy
    hours but are dead at night.
  • The company’s new headquarters, HQ2, could bring
    similar challenges to a new city.

Thanks to Amazon, Seattle may very well be
America’s largest company town
. But as the nation’s largest
retailer
seeks to expand
to a yet-undecided US city, one shortcoming
of Amazon’s growth stands out.

The company has proved only that it can create a bustling office
park — not a thriving neighborhood.

The best case study for Amazon’s attempt — and struggle — to
revitalize a run-down portion of Seattle is South Lake Union, an
old warehouse district through most of the 20th century. A slew
of local businesses tried to breathe new life into the
neighborhood in the 1990s.
Many failed
.

It wasn’t until Amazon
began consolidating
its buildings there in 2010, joining a
small cluster of biotech companies, that South Lake Union began
to see an economic boom. Amazon has since purchased numerous
buildings in the neighborhood that it rents out to some 32 local
businesses, 24 of which are restaurants or cafés,
The Seattle Times reports
.

In total, Amazon owns 20% of Seattle’s prime office space. Most
of its 8.1 million square feet of property are located in South
Lake Union.

Loyal only during the daytime

These days, the businesses that rent space from Amazon in South
Lake Union have no problem putting people in seats during
lunchtime and happy hour. Some 40,000 Seattleites (and counting)
work for Amazon; many venture beyond the office for food.

Then comes the dinner rush, or lack thereof. South Lake Union’s
businesses have struggled to convert daytime patrons into loyal
evening crowds. Many restaurants have had to revamp their menus
or change their focus entirely in an ongoing battle to stay
relevant to customers, according to The Seattle Times. This is a
challenge for Amazon, not just the city, since the company leases
out so much property that it has a vested interest in those
businesses’ success.

This challenge — energizing a neighborhood to make it enticing
for the larger population beyond the Amazon employees who show up
midday — is one the online retail giant is likely to face again
depending on where it builds its second headquarters.

Early plans for HQ2, as the company is calling it, include
bringing 50,000 high-paying jobs to a new city at a cost of $5
billion. Amazon has said the office space will be “a
full equal
“ to the existing HQ in Seattle. The company’s
requirements for its new location: a population of at least 1
million people, an international airport, and a stable business
environment.
Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Denver
are all in the
running, among many other cities.

A sign of things to come

Urban-planning experts
have voiced concerns
— and in some cases
direct criticisms
— related to the possibility that Amazon’s
influx of high-wage earners will cause housing prices to rise
dramatically, exacerbate congestion on roadways, and hurt local
businesses.

“While a new Amazon headquarters could be a boon for many
communities,” Brooks Rainwater, the director of the City
Solutions and Applied Research Center at the National League of
Cities,
told Business Insider
, “city officials will have to weigh the
impact it could have on the broader economy and ensure that the
economic growth it brings would be both equitable and
sustainable.”

Neighborhoods tend to function best when people from many
socioeconomic groups have a chance to interact with one another,

research suggests
.

The wisdom from urban planners is that HQ2 could go either way.
Depending on how a city government works to shape Amazon’s
inevitable growth, businesses could stay buzzing during peak
hours or fall flat. No matter what happens, however, Amazon will
change the face of the city it chooses.