Congratulations to New York City, specifically the area of Queens known as Long Island City, New York. And congratulations to Arlington, Virginia, specifically the Crystal City neighborhood. They are co-winners in the competition to become Amazon’s HQ2, the second location to complement the company’s existing headquarters in Seattle. Amazon intends to locate a total of 50,000 new employees between the two locations, housed in 8 million square feet of office space. Some of that space will be created by new construction (always a boon at least temporarily to the local economy) and some will be created by repurposing and redeveloping buildings that had been vacant or underutilized — a chance to put property back on the tax rolls.
The winners stood out in a crowded field of 238 cities and regions initially vying for Amazon’s business, including our own Trenton, and 20 finalists, including nearby Newark and Philadelphia. For many of the 236 places that did not get chosen by Amazon, the application process itself was chance for cities to look at themselves in a new light. Attributes such as walkability and arts and cultural resources were identified by Amazon as important factors in its decision-making process. Other positives: buildings that could be repurposed — in fact in Seattle Amazon’s original HQ occupies 33 buildings, many of which have been redeveloped from prior uses.
As we saw in the cover story in U.S. 1’s October 10 issue, “How Trenton ‘Won’ Amazon’s HQ2,” the competition gave Trenton a chance to take stock of its walkability, with a concentrated downtown area; its stock of sturdy late 19th and early 20th century factory buildings, some of which have already been redeveloped; and its close proximity (20-minute walk or less) to a transit center that serves both Amtrak and NJ Transit on the main line of the Northeast Corridor and a light rail line that connects to towns along the Delaware River to Camden.
Long Island City and Arlington’s Crystal City created the winning combination of innovative and broad-based vision plans coupled with aggressive incentives to lure Amazon.
Long Island City had plenty to brag about and lots to offer. In recent years it has evolved from a gritty industrial sector into a mixed use neighborhood of residences and commercial space that includes corporate headquarters, arts centers, film studios, as well as a waterfront with spectacular views of Manhattan — not to mention increasingly expensive housing.
To get Amazon interested in Long Island City New York State offered Amazon a reported $1.5 billion (or $1.7 billion, according to another report) in performance-based tax incentives if the company meets stated hiring and building promises. Perhaps equally important, given the way land use procedures can work in a city such as New York, Amazon has also been offered a customized zoning review process. Instead of undergoing the “Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP),” the very name of which suggests some onerous planning agencies, Amazon will be able to move ahead with its developments as a General Project Plan (GPP), which doesn’t require the same state or city reviews.
The icing on top of the cake is a heliport, so Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will not be inconvenienced by New York traffic or mass transit.
Arlington and Crystal City are another matter. Amazon will be moving into a neighborhood that has been largely stagnant in the last 15 years or so and has been waiting for an outsider to help with redevelopment. Built just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Crystal City was conceived as a massive suburban office park, with parking and a shopping mall underneath the offices, all built on a former rail yard. Dating back to the 1960s, Crystal City (so named because a large crystal chandelier graces the lobby of one of the first buildings) attracted some deep-pocketed tenants, specifically federal agencies running out of room on the other side of the Potomac. An underground mall and a Metro station came along in the 1970s, and soon more than 20 office buildings dotted the landscape, some connected by dramatic concourses and skyways.
But, as Slate.com reported, “even in its heyday, Crystal City lacked for personality. The downturn came in the early 2000s, when the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission moved 17,000 workers out of the neighborhood.” Other federal agencies followed. “The underground mall hollowed out. Nowadays, it’s a lonely concourse lined with empty storefronts, aging civic art, and a few random shops that feel appropriate to the desolation, like the Washington area’s only puppet dealer.”
But thanks to its density and its transit line, Crystal City, which is being rebranded as National Landing because of its location just a few minutes by subway to National Airport, has the potential to become the kind of walkable, mixed use, urban and urbane community that Amazon envisions for its talented workforce. Virginia offered Amazon $573 million if it eventually hires 25,000 workers earning an average of $150,000. The state also promised several hundred million dollars in transportation improvements.
And, like Long Island City, the site came with some zoning provisions that will cut through a lot of red tape. In Crystal City, it turns out, the major zoning provisions are already in place, thanks to a new zoning code and master plan adopted in 2010. As reported in Public Square, the journal of the Congress for New Urbanism, “Crystal City can be thought of as a large suburban retrofit,” one that “put in place a framework to create a more walkable urban neighborhood over time.”
The area was originally built without a master plan, but that’s all changed. “It’s high-rise suburban. It wants to be higher density, with a more urban mentality — away from cars and with retail on the street that is accessible to people,” says John Torti of Torti Gallas, the Maryland-based architectural and planning firm that created the Crystal City plan. The code requires a ground-level walkable urbanism for new buildings, and, in some cases, new urban public spaces. “It has the potential of becoming a wonderful place,” says Torti.
So congratulations. And, oh yes, good luck.
A little luck will come in handy because, as we can tell from the history of cities giving out incentives and benefits to businesses, there will inevitably be some unintended consequences. We are already seeing stirrings of skepticism in Long Island City. Here’s a headline from the New Yorker magazine website less than a week after the Amazon announcement: “The New York Hustle of Amazon’s Second Headquarters: The game-show quality of the cities’ bidding war, with its spectre of cash-starved governments begging to give money to a billionaire, left some critics fuming.”
And Arlington? “Frankly, I’m mortified,” Lee Carter, a Virginia legislator, told a reporter. “We’re paying for the privilege of making our own lives worse.” Or, as a writer for Slate.com put it, noting the promise of several hundred million dollars in transportation improvements, “Which is frustrating: Did the fast-growing D.C. area really need to wait for one of Jeff Bezos’ golden tickets in order to embark on a new big infrastructure project?”
The HQ2 competition spawned concerns about “corporate welfare” that includes tax breaks, real estate deals, and other incentives governments are willing to offer Amazon. A former governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, was quoted as saying that “Amazon has proved it, probably on steroids, that when businesses like that say jump, the states will say, how high.” The fact the offers were made secretly, with cities signing non-disclosure agreements with Amazon, generated more criticism.
Some critics wonder if the process of states vying against each other violates the United States Constitution’s commerce clause. “One of the things that has been clear pretty much [since the Constitution’s inception] was that states can’t use regulatory powers to discriminate in favor of in-state economic activity and against out-of-state economic activity,” said Northeastern law professor and attorney Peter Enrich.
Richard Florida, an urban studies professor at the University of Toronto and a noted urbanist, had a more cynical view. “This was about crowd-sourcing data. This was never about an individual HQ2.”
If the “winners” of the HQ2 competition turn out to be losers in the end, it will be no surprise to economists like the Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler, whose 1996 Princeton University Press book, “The Winner’s Curse: Paradoxes and Anomalies of Economic Life,” showed the paradoxes that exist in carefully constructed economic interactions, including auctions where the actual winners end up the real losers by paying too much.
The Amazon bidding was a reverse auction, in which many sellers (the competing cities) were trying to make deal with a single buyer (Amazon). But the winner’s curse can apply to that process, as well. The trick for the bidders is to carefully weigh the common value of the item (such as the economic benefit of new jobs, which would be fairly equal from one city to the next), as well as the private value (for one city those new employees might create the critical mass it needed to add a transit line that would benefit other residents, as well). The even greater trick is to project those values over time, particularly when the new company in town is a fast moving, information age enterprise that finds new solutions for existing problems. Right now robots are doing some grunt work at Amazon’s distribution centers. Will they eventually take on a role at HQ2?
If all this sounds like looking a gift horse in the mouth, it is just that. Sometimes the close inspection of the “gift” proves valuable. New York City in 1961 instituted incentive zoning that rewarded developers of high rise buildings with extra floors at the top of the building if an amenity such as a public plaza or shopping arcade were added at the street level. It was a huge success: In the next decade more new open space — some 1.1 million square feet — was created in the center of Manhattan than in all other cities in the nation combined.
But had the city essentially given away the store? Years later Jerold S. Kayden of the city’s Planning Department (and now professor of urban planning at Harvard) computed the construction costs of the new open space from 1961 to 1973 and compared that with the capitalized value of the additional commercial space the developers were able to create. It turned out that for every $1 invested in a public space, a developer reaped $48 worth of extra space.
But, a developer would argue, the public received wonderful space in return. Really? No one knew for sure. Enter William H. Whyte, who was neither a builder nor an architect nor a city planner. He was a skeptical journalist who began his career with Fortune magazine, where his reporting led to his 1956 best seller, “The Organization Man,” which documented the way in which large corporations had become social safety nets for their workers and their families. In 1968 Whyte published “The Last Landscape,” a cautionary tale of the countryside being devoured by the organization families’ suburban sprawl.
By the time public plazas were popping up across midtown Manhattan, Whyte was helping the New York City Planning Commission create its master plan for the city. Working on that plan he realized that no one had evaluated the effectiveness of these open spaces, nor did anyone have any criteria by which to judge them. So Whyte, in conjunction with Hunter College, set up the Street Life Project. He and teams of researchers studied the movements of people using the new plazas. “It was obvious a lot of the places were awful,” Whyte concluded, “but a few were excellent.”
Whyte’s recommendations led to new guidelines approved by the city in 1975. And his Street Life Project morphed into the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit that continues to this day, advocating for vibrant public spaces that are part of walkable, sustainable communities. The Project for Public Spaces and dozens of other advocacy groups are leading a wave of new urbanism that is in reaction to and in correction of the suburban wave that spread across the country in the second half of the 20th century. They and others will be watching the developments in Long Island City and Crystal City very closely.
Most of us can imagine the revitalization of an old inner city neighborhood, set up on the classic street grid such as the one in Long Island City. Some old factory building gets converted to lofts, first occupied by artists and crafts people who live, work, and exhibit their creations there. Young professionals follow. An old bank building is turned into a brew pub. It’s what is just beginning to happen — very slowly — in downtown Trenton. And it’s happening lots of other places across the country. Call it new urbanism, or bringing back the old downtown.
Crystal City, as it is transformed to National Landing, is a different challenge. To appreciate Crystal City think back to that mall that sprang up in the 1970s out by the interstate, the mall that just lost its Sears, and JC Penny, and Macy’s, and who knows what else? What happens to that concrete, steel, and sheetrock island floating in a sea of asphalt? “Holly” Whyte, as he was known to friends and family, foresaw that dilemma in his 1988 book, “City: Rediscovering the Center.” He argued that such development was not sustainable, and that the economy, scale, and livability of urban centers would eventually prevail even as companies and their workers were fleeing downtowns for suburban enclaves.
Whyte called those suburban monuments “mega-centers, mini-downtowns, growth corridors, urban villages, technoburbs: no one has yet come up with a satisfactory euphemism, or epithet. Partly, this is because the development is something of a bastard form, without a unifying ideology,” he wrote.
One that he singled out in 1988 was Crystal City, with its elaborate system of second story skyways and concourses and underground mall — but not much at street level, except sanctuaries for the sacred cars. “Mixed-use developments that spring up around interchanges are begetters of second-level systems,” Whyte wrote. “A case in point is the Crystal City complex in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. As in most such complexes, there is an enormous amount of superstructure used by not very many people. The problem is not that it kills off the street. There is no street to kill off. The problem is superfluity. In these complexes people do not walk much, whatever the level.”
Whyte’s book presents an image of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City,” the never realized dream of the famous French architect. On the next page is a photograph of the towers of Crystal City, a dream that became a reality, but one not destined to survive in its original form.
Fortunately for Crystal City, a master plan is in place that calls for an emphasis on the values of the new urbanism, or the old downtown vibe. The plan for the new National Landing calls for three new neighborhoods, one of which would be developed around an expanded Metro station, with office space and ground-floor retail. And National Landing’s one-mile segment of Route 1 will be downsized into an urban boulevard, creating more street-level building sites for Amazon and the developers. “We have diligent traffic studies that say we don’t need wider roads,” Torti, the architect, says.
The circumstances of the plan’s realization have never been better, Torti says. “That kind of positive energy for the future allows the county, the developers, and society to get it in their heads to do it right.”
As the development of the new twin HQ2s unfold, it’s unlikely that its neighbors will ooh and aah and fail to critically analyze the results (as many Manhattan residents did in the building boom of the 1960s). Nowadays hordes of Holly Whyte disciples are on the streets, in the planning offices, and working with a multitude of urban advocacy groups. If anyone needs a blueprint for how such an area can be retrofit, Whyte offers a blueprint for success, also in his 1988 book, “City.”
Whyte saw a hopeful example in “a growth area in the United States that is going the other way. It is Bellevue, Washington, twenty miles east of Seattle. Only ten years ago it seemed the epitome of the car suburb, with a smattering of office towers and parking lots for a downtown. But then, starting about 1978, the leaders were jolted into taking stock, one reason being the threat of a huge shopping mall beyond the city limits. They had to decide, and sooner than later, what kind of place they wanted to be.
“They decided that Bellevue should be a city. The activity shouldn’t be off by some interchange, they asserted as they killed off the mall. It should be in the center: a very walkable one, with many shops and restaurants and pleasant outdoor spaces.
“That is what is coming to pass. The central business district . . . has a tight pattern of development with well-defined edges.” Zoning laws were changed to encourage high-density development within the central business district but low-density buildings outside of it. “Thanks to the rules of the game, developers are not leapfrogging over empty spaces but are filling them in.”
Bellevue inserted a central pedestrian corridor in the middle of the downtown. Even bolder, Whyte wrote, “the car is being tamed. Instead of more parking, the city is mandating less. New buildings used to have to provide a standard five spaces per thousand feet of office space. This has been cut to three spaces. To pinch matters further, commercial parking lots and garages are forbidden in the CBD. About half of all new employees working in downtown will have to join car pools or take a bus to get there.”
Thirty decades after Whyte’s favorable notice, how is Bellevue working out? In 2018 Bellevue came in No. 10 on www.Livability.com’s list of top 100 cities, praised for its “small-town vibe and a large assortment of entertainment options” and public schools recognized “as being among the best in the country.” (Seattle did not make the list.)
Will Long Island City and Arlington be as livable as Bellevue? Here’s a tweet from @spekulation that was circulated on the day of the Amazon announcement:
Dear New York and DC,
Amazon isn’t bringing you 50,000 high paying jobs. They’re bringing 50,000 people with high paying jobs to where you currently live. This won’t help your community, it will replace your community.
Richard K. Rein, founding editor of U.S. 1, is writing a biography of William H. Whyte.