The grand reveal of the city where Amazon will build its second headquarters is expected any day, and some prognosticators are betting Northern Virginia will take home the massive economic development prize. But if Amazon were to select that Washington D.C. suburb, it would contradict what the company’s founder and chief executive has been saying for years.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos often makes the case for building a big tech company in a major urban center. Over the years, he’s argued that an urban campus is better for employees, more environmentally friendly, and gives Amazon a recruiting edge.
There are 20 cities in the running for Amazon HQ2, the nickname for the company’s $5 billion second headquarters. The shortlist includes large cities like Washington D.C., New York, and Chicago as well as mid-sized metros like Austin, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. The winning city, to be revealed by the end of the year, will host an Amazon campus with room for up to 50,000 employees.
That would make HQ2 the “full equal” to Amazon’s first headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. At Amazon’s 2013 annual shareholders meeting, Bezos explained why he chose to grow the company in the heart of Seattle.
“What’s really great about an urban campus is that it’s inherently environmentally friendly,” he said, noting that Amazon workers can live close to the office. He called it “a very attractive feature for some of our employees.”
During the following year’s shareholders meeting, Bezos took the sentiment further. “We could have built a suburban campus,” he said, noting that a location outside of the city might have saved the company money. “I think it would have been the wrong decision.”
Bezos expanded his case for the urban campus in the 2014 letter to Amazon shareholders:
In 2013, we added 420,000 square feet of new headquarters space in Seattle and broke ground on what will become four city blocks and several million square feet of new construction. It is a fact that we could have saved money by instead building in the suburbs, but for us, it was important to stay in the city. Urban campuses are much greener. Our employees are able to take advantage of existing communities and public transit infrastructure, with less dependence on cars. We’re investing in dedicated bike lanes to provide safe, pollution-free, easy access to our offices. Many of our employees can live nearby, skip the commute altogether, and walk to work. Though I can’t prove it, I also believe an urban headquarters will help keep Amazon vibrant, attract the right talent, and be great for the health and wellbeing of our employees and the city of Seattle.
Those comments have convinced leading urbanist scholar Richard Florida that Amazon won’t choose a suburban location for HQ2.
“I think D.C. is the front-runner,” Florida said in an interview with GeekWire. “I still don’t think it’s going to go to a suburb. I think it will go to a place like the Anacostia waterfront. It’ll go to a really interesting urban area served by transit.”
Although there’s no guarantee that Amazon HQ2 will be in the heart of a city, Bezos’ past comments at least show that picking a suburb would diverge from the company’s ethos.