1. “Amazon’s selection criteria, as described in the company’s request for proposal, sets out a compelling list of the attributes cities must have if they aspire to be a serious part of the America’s growing digital economy.” — Amy Liu and Mark Muro, The Brookings Institution.
Unless you have been sleeping under a rock, you have probably heard about Amazon’s decision create a “second corporate headquarters” in a metro region in North America. This decision by Amazon is likely to have long-lasting implications, even for cities that are not selected, since the process will encourage communities to continue to take actions to attract high-tech businesses. Since there are over 100 cities competing in this RFP process, I will focus on Seattle’s situation as an example to make my points. But my points can be generalized to apply to most any large city. Seattle has announced that it will not respond to the RFP directly, but will do so in partnership with King County and other municipal and city governments in the region. Even if Seattle does not propose a second campus in the city limits for Amazon, the city must to accommodate future growth for other businesses.
2. “A highly educated labor pool is critical and a strong university system is required.” “Please include programs/partnerships currently available and potential creative programs with higher education institutions in the region in your response. Please also include a list of universities and community colleges with relevant degrees and the number of students graduating with those degrees over the last three years. Additionally, include information on your local/regional K-12 education programs related to computer science.” — Amazon RFP.
As I explained in another essay entitled 12 things Seattle can teach others about jobs, economic development and building a better city, the University of Washington is by far the most important contributor to the economic vitality of the region that surrounds it. Seattle is not the state capital, does not have the best port location, has as many hills as Rome, did not get access to a railroad first, etc. And yet Seattle is the largest and most economically powerful city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I am not aware of any major cities thriving economically today that do not have a major research university in the city or very close nearby.
3. “We must ensure we have the best real estate options available whether this be a redevelopment opportunity, a partnership with the state, province, local government, or new buildings.” — Amazon RFP.
Seattle has an obvious location which more than meets Amazon’s requirements. A visitor to Seattle or even many residents would be excused for not knowing this since they would likely hear people say things like “Seattle has run out of places to grow.” Anyone looking out a south-facing window of a relatively tall office building can see where the growth must happen. The reality is that within walking distance from downtown is the SODO area. It is already served by mass transit in the form of light rail with stations at 4th and Lander and 5th and Royal Brougham, with more stations coming as the ST3 mass transit system is built. Voldemort placed a taboo curse on anyone saying his name in Harry Potter and certain vested interests have done the same thing with any mention of downtown being extended to SODO.
If SODO were rezoned even to a “floor to area ratio” (FAR) of 6, that change would create about 100 million square feet of new commercial office and residential space that is more than twice as big as all of downtown Seattle today. This SODO real estate footprint is significantly more than what Amazon needs. The city of Seattle is already benefitting from fees and taxes associated with the Amazon headquarters area in the South Lake Union area. The same benefits or more could accrue to the city if SODO is rezoned and the growth of the downtown area allowed to continue. The money that could be raised from this up-zone would enable the city to address other societal concerns like housing affordability, homelessness and drug addiction that plague Seattle like any other major city. There is also more than enough land in SODO to create the urban park that was originally planned for South Lake Union. A grand bargain in which everyone in the city benefits is very possible.
4. “The Project must be sufficiently close to a significant population center, such that it can fill the 50,000 estimated jobs that will be required over multiple years.” —Amazon RFP.
Tom Alberg, who is an Amazon board member and was a seed investor in the company, recently pointed out that the main issue for Seattle’s continued success as a tech hub is the need to import talent. Alberg also said recently: “Seattle is a net importer of people from the Bay Area and other places. People are attracted by the jobs and the excitement and openness of Seattle. I think the pressure on single-family housing will increase as many of these young people who are living in apartments will want to live in single-family housing.” To attract these people to Seattle, the city needs affordable housing and an attractive, livable environment. The best way to create this housing is for the city to build it in SODO alongside commercial buildings where people can walk and ride bicycles to work.
5. “Please provide highway, airport, and related travel and logistics information for all proposed sites. Please also include transit and transportation options for commuting employees living in the region.” — Amazon RFP.
Like any big city, Seattle has traffic issues. About 65 percent of the city is zoned for single family residences. The city is largely built out with few empty lots available for new single-family homes. If you combine that fact with the huge tracts of the city that are reserved for light industrial space, there isn’t enough room for the downtown to grow. Denser cities are greener cities, and to get people out of cars and walking and biking means the zoning in SODO must change. Some people will argue that SODO should retain its original zoning to protect light industrial uses. Anyone who drives through this area knows that in addition to light industrial users there are also businesses like strip clubs, national donut chains and carpet warehouses that populate the area now. These are not what will drive economic development in the city going forward. As I said, there are light industrial uses that should be accommodated in city planning and new infrastructure should be part of any plan to rezone the areas. Many businesses are moving out of SODO anyway since their workers can’t afford to live in the city. The Amazon warehouse is in the city of Kent and not SODO for a very good reason.
6. “The Project requires local government structure and elected officials eager and willing to work with the company, among other attributes. A stable and consistent business climate is important to Amazon.” — Amazon RFP.
Seattle has been able to coast for a long time on decisions made by an amazing set of community leaders. For example, Arthur Denny not only used his position in the legislature to locate the Territorial University in Seattle, but donated land for the establishment of the university. In more modern times, Jim Ellis was the leader of campaigns to clean up Lake Washington in the 1950s; to finance mass transit, parks, pools, and other public facilities through “Forward Thrust” bonds in the 1960s; to preserve farmlands in the 1970s; to build and later expand the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in the 1980s, and to establish the Mountains to Sound Greenway along the I-90 corridor in the 1990s.
Seattle would benefit if a new generation of leaders steps up who realize that denser cities, where people walk and bike to work, represent a greener way to live than alternatives that involve greater sprawl, and that the best way to make housing more affordable is to build more housing, including housing that is specifically allocated for people who would not otherwise be able to live in the city. The right to build commercial and residential buildings in SODO is like invisible money. It is possible to take those development rights and translate them into more housing, more jobs, a more walkable and bike friendly city without raising taxes if development fees, affordable housing set asides and offsets are included in the plan. A “lesser Seattle” movement has existed in the past but the foundation of that is the premise that “we have what we want and the rest of you should go away.”
My prediction is that something like a citizen’s initiative will be put on the ballot to take this rezone out of the hands of politicians who are unable to confront this reality due to a small number of people with a vested interested in the status quo. Seattle is like a toothpaste tube and yet must grow. The only realistic direction to do so is to the south since water blocks any moves east or west, and the north is too residential to be a realistic option. It is not a question of whether Seattle starts growing its downtown to the south, but when and how.