Oddsmakers and analysts are betting on Northern Virginia to take home the much-ballyhooed prize of Amazon HQ2. But Richard Florida, one of the world’s foremost urbanist scholars, thinks they may be backing the wrong horse.
Florida is Director of Cities at the University of Toronto and also works with New York University and Florida International University. He’s written two books and countless articles on urbanism in the modern era and serves as editor-at-large for CityLab. Florida has tracked Amazon’s search for a second headquarters city closely since the company announced its HQ2 plans in September 2017. Like many analysts, he too believes the Washington, D.C., metro area has the best chances for HQ2 — he just doesn’t think it will be Northern Virginia.
“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.”
However, Florida wants you to take that prediction with a grain of salt. “Look, I predicted that Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide,” he said.
Caveats aside, Florida’s prediction is based on a core part of Amazon’s DNA. The company wants to be in a place that attracts young, creative talent. While other Seattle-area tech giants like Microsoft and Expedia built traditional corporate campuses in the suburbs, Amazon chose to grow in the city’s urban core.
“We could have built a suburban campus. I think it would have been the wrong decision,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a 2014 shareholders meeting. He said the types of people Amazon employs and tries to recruit “appreciate the energy and dynamism of an urban environment.”
Amazon says its second headquarters will result in a $5 billion investment in the city where it is built. The facility will have room for up to 50,000 high-paid tech workers, mirroring Amazon’s original Seattle headquarters.
That promised economic vitality has cities competing fiercely with one another to land HQ2. Many of those contenders are offering economic incentives, which Amazon included in its request for proposals for the project. Florida has been one of the most vocal critics of Amazon’s preference for incentives since the company published its RFP. He thinks that seeking taxpayer dollars is counterproductive because the factors that make a city a talent magnet come from “public investment in great universities and transit systems, and density, and parks, and school systems.”
“Why would you go to a new city and take those incentives and, in effect, help to bankrupt it? It makes no sense,” he said. “So why don’t you say, ‘keep the incentives. We’ll pay our fair share of taxes. We want to work together to tackle these problems of transit, congestion and traffic, and housing affordability and homelessness. We’re going to be partners in this.’ I think that plays. It helps Amazon’s brand. It’s rounding error on their earnings evaluation and it makes the world a better place.”
There are 20 cities in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters, three of which are in the Washington, D.C., metro area. The district proper is on the list as well as one suburb in Maryland and another in Virginia. The rest of the list includes a mix of big cities, like New York and Chicago, and smaller metros, like Pittsburgh and Austin. Amazon plans to reveal the city chosen for HQ2 by the end of this year.
Florida, for his part, is optimistic that Amazon will be a good corporate citizen in the next phase of its evolution as a company. He sees recent announcements, like Amazon’s new $15 per hour minimum wage and Bezos’ $2 billion charitable fund, as heartening.
“I do think Amazon has long been a progressive company in many respects,” he said. “It’s long respected gay rights, women’s rights. It’s long been an urban company. It’s the kind of company I’m inclined to like. I’d like to see them do the right thing.”
To Florida, that means turning down the incentives cities are offering. “That would change the game,” he said.