Seattle is experiencing some serious growing pains, and many longtime residents blame Amazon for forcing their town to grow up too fast. The company has become emblematic of the challenges associated with boom times, from an unforgiving housing market to skyrocketing cost of living to hellish traffic.
But beyond the borders of its hometown, the Amazon ire dissipates. Among many people who don’t deal with the daily consequences of hosting such an insatiable company in their backyard, Amazon has a positive reputation. The contrast is particularly acute this time of year, as holiday shoppers everywhere depend on Amazon to reliably deliver their gifts on time and help sort out returns and other customer service issues.
The disconnect reflects Amazon’s two sides: one Seattleites see every day, and another that’s visible to the rest of the world.
Amazon at home
In Seattle, much of the Amazon bashing has to do with the rate at which the company has grown. Until 2007, Amazon workers were scattered across five buildings, mostly south of Seattle’s downtown core and in 2011, Amazon had a mere 30,000 full-time employees across the entire United States.
Today, the company employs 40,000 in Seattle alone (part of a global workforce of more than 540,000 people) and takes up 8 million square feet of office space across 33 buildings, in the heart of the city. It was just 10 years ago when Amazon moved into South Lake Union and at the time, city planners estimated the company would grow by just 6,000 employees over five years.
This database of Amazon office buildings shows the company’s full Seattle footprint. The image below shows Amazon’s growing presence over the past decade, with leased properties indicated in blue and owned in orange.
Over the past seven years, as Amazon and other tech companies have expanded in the city, Seattle’s median home price has risen from $399,000 to $688,000, according to Zillow data. The population climbed from 609,000 people in 2010 to an estimated 704,000 people as of last year, making it the fastest-growing city in the country.
The growth happened so quickly that Seattle’s government didn’t have time to plan for the consequences. At an event this month, Mayor Tim Burgess reflected on policies, like the Mandatory Affordable Housing program, that Seattle has enacted to try to catch up to the tech-driven boom.
“I wish we had done that sooner in Seattle but no one expected that Amazon was going to explode this fast,” he said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by incoming Mayor Jenny Durkan, who said “there’s no question Seattle has grown too fast,” during an October debate.
In those early years, Amazon was zealously focused on growing the business and didn’t prioritize public-facing philanthropy and corporate citizenship in the same way some of its counterparts did. In 2012, the Seattle Times ran a story titled “Amazon a virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy” highlighting Amazon’s low civic engagement compared to other big companies in the Northwest, like Microsoft and Boeing.
In recent years, Amazon has stepped more boldly into the philanthropic limelight. Executives claim nothing has changed but the company has started putting dollars behind transportation initiatives, homeless services, education, and job training.
Still, there are longtime Seattleites who say it’s too little, too late. Take John Burbank, founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank.
“While it has led to an economic boom in Seattle, that boom has primarily benefitted tech workers at the top and left everyone else with higher rents, higher property taxes, traffic congestion and a bitter taste in our mouths,” Burbank wrote in a blog post in September. “Amazon has been a sociopathic roommate, sucking up our resources and refusing to participate in daily upkeep.”
Advocates for urban density applaud Amazon’s decision to settle and expand in the city’s urban core, a move that supports more environmentally-sustainable development. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touted that viewpoint in 2013 when he noted that an urban campus is “inherently environmentally friendly.” But Amazon’s location. The company is not the sole cause of Seattle’s congested roads and high rents, but it is an easy target when its growth happens where everyone can see it.
That perspective is just one example of this phenomenon: It’s easier to appreciate Amazon’s positive qualities when its unprecedented growth isn’t happening in your backyard.
Amazon at large
For the past two years, Amazon has ranked first in the Harris Corporate Reputation Poll, based on feedback from more than 23,000 people across the country. The poll is based on criteria like social responsibility, vision and leadership, products and services, and emotional appeal. The company has been in the top 10 for nine consecutive years.
Amazon also topped the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s report on the nation’s favorite retailers in 2016. A survey conducted by The Verge last month revealed that Americans trust Amazon almost as much as their own bank, and they were most likely to recommend the e-commerce giant’s products over those from the other big tech companies.
Then there’s Amazon HQ2, the massive corporate headquarters competition and media circus that revealed just how badly other cities around the continent want to be Amazon’s second home. Amazon received proposals from 238 cities across North America eager to land the $5 billion second headquarters and the 50,000 high-paid employees Amazon promises it will bring.
During the month and a half Amazon was accepting proposals for the project, cities bent over backward to get the company’s attention. New York City lit up in “Amazon orange,” Birmingham, Ala. placed three giant Amazon delivery boxes around town, and Stonecrest, Ga. pledged to create the “City of Amazon.”
Even Amazon’s hometown, Seattle, made a hail mary attempt to get the tech titan to keep HQ2 close to home.
Amazon HQ2 is an experiment unlike any other. Will the chosen ultimately struggle with the same issues Seattle faces, creating the same Amazon hostility? Will having some lead time to prepare for the tech giant’s arrival make a difference? Will Amazon grow more slowly in Seattle and therefore repair its relationship with the city?
The answers to those questions remain to be seen but one thing is certain: the next several years will be fascinating to watch as this one-of-a-kind company shapes not one but two North American landscapes.