What would happen if Amazon brought 50000 workers to your city? Ask Seattle. – Chicago Tribune
Bezos, though, saw promise in the urban locale. He had started Amazon in his garage in nearby Bellevue, then opened an early office in a former military hospital now called Pacific Tower. Before long, he was searching for more space to accommodate his fast-growing company.
Schoettler initially secured about 1.7 million square feet in 10 buildings. It was enough, he thought, to contain the company through 2016, when it was projected to have 9,300 employees.
Instead, Amazon grew five times as fast. It now has more than 40,000 employees in 33 Seattle buildings totaling 8.1 million square feet. It occupies 19 percent of the high-end office space in the city, according to an analysis by the Seattle Times, as many square feet as the city’s next 40 biggest employers combined.
Next year, Amazon will complete its most prominent addition – three glass biospheres featuring about 40,000 plants, “a unique environment for employees to come and collaborate and innovate,” Schoettler said.
Seattle officials have raced to keep up, approving $480.5 million in improvements over more than a decade for South Lake Union. Amazon and Vulcan, in need of approval to take over city alleys for its development, chipped in funding.
A $190.5 million road-realignment program included $31.4 million from property owners led by Vulcan. A new, 1.3-mile streetcar line cost $56.4 million and benefited from $5.5 million from Amazon, including the donation of a fourth car. Now the city has embarked on a $201.5 million electrical substation, work that includes burying electrical wires.
On weekdays, South Lake Union teems with young workers sporting Amazon name tags and eating bananas that the company offers free to passersby. Many are walking their dogs – 4,000 employee-owned pups are registered with headquarters access, helping Seattle earn notoriety recently for having more dogs than children.
The campus has produced spillover benefits for the city. Amazon’s buildings are home to 34 restaurants, including a culinary job-training program called FareStart. More than 20 percent of employees walk to work, and fewer than half drive.
The company’s longtime support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights – including a $2.5 million donation that Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, made in support of same-sex marriage – dovetail with the city’s progressive politics. In June, the company flew a rainbow flag above its headquarters for LGBT Pride Month. It has more than 40 “GLAmazon” chapters for LGBT affinity around the world.
“We could have gone to the suburbs, and we could have built a campus, and we would have had an entry gate where everybody would come and go so you would be very inward- looking and very exclusive,” Schoettler said, “as opposed to being in a very urban environment where you have to look outward, so you’re very inclusive, and everyone is your neighbor – and everyone is welcome.”
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Maybe no city could have built housing fast enough to keep prices from spiraling upward during Amazon’s growth, but Seattle – despite nearly leading the nation in new apartment construction – hasn’t come close.
On the sidewalks, alongside rentable neon bikes, people subsist in tents and sleeping bags in places locals say they did not congregate at 10 years ago – a warning sign for cities nationwide trying to capture a version of Seattle’s glory.
“We don’t have enough housing for low-income people especially, but we also just don’t have enough housing,” said Myers, a longtime Seattle housing advocate. “And Amazon obviously impacts both of those things.”
Officials at Bellwether Housing, the city’s largest nonprofit manager of affordable housing, at 2,000 units, report a vacancy rate of 1 percent. “It’s very rare that someone moves out, because they have nowhere else to go,” said chief executive Susan Boyd.
A state analysis of evictions found they were driven not by social problems but by economics. As Amazon’s boom has continued, the city approved a rule this year requiring landlords to accept the first viable renter who applies – rather than cherry-picking a tech worker. The government also adopted an inclusionary zoning policy requiring developers to set aside some new units at below-market rates or pay into a fund to develop other affordable units.
Myers suggested other jurisdictions pay heed: “If you’re going to get an Amazon that’s going to create a ton of high-paying jobs and a ton of pressure on the housing market, what are the things you can do before rents really skyrocket?”
Ask 10 experts where the company will put its next headquarters, and you may get 10 different answers. The company prides itself on zigging when others zag, making it more difficult to read the tea leaves. Still, many in Seattle say the company probably has a good idea of its options. “I suspect they have a shortlist,” said Healey, the Vulcan executive.
Landing the second headquarters would be a legacy-defining achievement for nearly any governor or mayor, but lessons from Seattle’s Amazon experience have bidders scrambling to show how they can meet Amazon’s insistence on speed, low costs, transportation and inclusion – particularly if they didn’t focus on them ahead of time.
East Coast cities such as Boston, New York and Washington may need to answer for their own runaway real estate and housing prices. Governors, including Republicans Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Larry Hogan of Maryland, may have to explain why they canceled major transit projects. Charlotte and Indianapolis are bidding, but Amazon may want to know the effect of state laws there affecting the rights of gay or transgender employees.
Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution said the Amazon competition will hopefully serve as a chance for elected leaders to take the temperature of how prepared their neighborhoods and infrastructure are to drive growth, whether from Amazon or elsewhere.
“These are things every city should be doing anyway,” she said.
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