WASHINGTON, D.C. — The stylish Italian restaurant Masseria is easy to miss, hidden between a construction site and an industrial lot in D.C.’s Union Market district. But if you were looking to impress someone — a first date, your in-laws, the tech giant evaluating your city for its $5 billion second headquarters — the classic ambiance, Michelin-rated cuisine and comfy heated patio would be a good way to start.
This is where Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and her staff entertained Amazon representatives when they visited in February to evaluate the nation’s capital for the tech giant’s second headquarters, aka “HQ2.”
And that is why I was there Friday night, at the bar, on a mission.
For two days last week, I did my best to experience Washington, D.C., as someone from Amazon would. I spent time in all four neighborhoods floated by the district as potential HQ2 sites — getting a sense for each place, understanding the potential, and assessing whether D.C. would make sense as Amazon’s second home.
No, I wasn’t wined and dined by the mayor, nor shuttled from place to place like a visiting dignitary. But I did talk with a key D.C. official to understand the district’s pitch. And in many ways, I got a more realistic sense for what it would be like to actually live in Washington, D.C., as an Amazon employee.
In addition to spending time at the district’s four potential HQ2 sites, I hung out in some of the neighborhoods that Amazon would call home, used up a $30 Metro card, rented bikes and scooters, and took Uber or Lyft when I was too tired to wait for the next train.
The prix fixe meal at Masseria was beyond my daily budget, but my time at the bar was informative. Turns out Amazon’s visit has added to the restaurant’s cachet, with more people checking it out since news of the company’s visit got out through a public records request. (D.C. officials confirmed they took Amazon there but declined to name the company representatives in attendance.)
Earlier in the day, I strolled by Jeff Bezos’ new $23 million home in Washington, D.C.’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood, enjoyed the beautiful park across the street, and got a sense for what the Amazon CEO’s commute to work could be like. (Jeff, I know you’ve been busy in Texas, so I can report that the renovations are coming along well.)
Forty-eight hours and more than 30,000 steps later, I walked away with a better understanding of why Washington, D.C., is considered a front-runner in the HQ2 competition. With the inclusion of nearby Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland, the D.C. region is the only area of the country with three contenders on Amazon’s list of 20 finalists.
In many ways, D.C. seems like a natural fit, based on our experience covering Amazon’s rapid growth in Seattle and my time in D.C. last week.
Proposed HQ2 sites
For starters, there are large development sites to work with in Washington, D.C. Some not only meet the tech giant’s requirements but also share characteristics with Seattle’s South Lake Union and Denny Triangle before Amazon transformed those areas into its current headquarters.
“With a lot of our sites today, it’s hard to picture massive influxes of office space there, but that’s exactly what they probably said about South Lake Union years ago,” said Washington, D.C., Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner, who oversees planning and economic development. “We’ve got four different places that showcase what we have in Washington D.C. We’re hopeful that Amazon finds one of them attractive.”
In terms of sheer potential, based on my visits, the two proposed HQ2 sites along the Anacostia River stood out most to me. How often does a company get a chance to build a unique waterfront campus in a major U.S. city, let alone the nation’s capital?
One of those waterfront locations, Capitol Hill East, near the aging RFK Stadium, stands out for another reason: it’s entirely owned by the Washington, D.C., government, avoiding the complexity of working with multiple property owners or developers. That’s similar to what the company encountered in Seattle, where Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. had spent years assembling the land and developing the neighborhood before Amazon decided to move in.
Yes, it takes a lot of imagination, but the Capitol Hill East location has the potential to become an 8 million square foot campus in five phases, almost perfectly matched to the timeline outlined in Amazon’s request for proposals.
To the south, the other potential waterfront campus, known as the Anacostia Riverfront area, has the potential for more than 16 million square feet of development. This location, around the Washington Nationals Park and Audi Field, is controlled by multiple developers and property owners, but with construction already underway on some key sites, it’s easy to envision how this could become Amazon’s second headquarters.
Elsewhere in Washington, D.C., another proposed HQ2 area is anchored by Howard University, in the midst of the city’s unofficial tech corridor, a bustling location that would require redeveloping existing sites and integrating with an established neighborhood rather than creating a standalone campus from scratch.
This area would offer a variety of development sites that could provide as much as 6 million square feet of potential development. That doesn’t quite meet Amazon’s long-term projection for up to 8 million square feet of space at HQ2, but it could easily be combined with sites elsewhere in D.C. or the region to work for the tech giant.
And then there’s the NoMa-Union Station area, which offers proximity to Union Station, the U.S. Capitol and Union Market, in a former warehouse district. (Masseria is in this area, which is one reason D.C. officials took Amazon representatives to the restaurant.) This area offers more than 12 million square feet of potential development. It’s also owned by multiple property owners, but several office and residential projects are already in the works in the area.
D.C. pros and cons
For all of these locations, the proximity to public transit would be a big perk for employees at Amazon HQ2. For someone coming from Seattle, the D.C. transit system is incredible, thanks to the Metrorail lines that criss-cross the district and region. Amazon likes to tout how many of its employees walk to work in Seattle, about 20 percent. But just imagine the number who would use public transit and walk if they had access to these kinds of transportation options.
Car traffic can still be a nightmare — several times I found myself amazed at the congestion on some of the arterial roadways. It almost made me feel like I was back in Seattle on Mercer Street, on the edge of the Amazon campus.
And the Metro — like most public transit systems — is not exactly user-friendly. More than on past visits to D.C., for some reason, I struggled this time with unannounced schedule changes and incomprehensible ticket machines. (Maybe the Amazon Go and logistics teams could help to solve these problems.)
Setting aside those issues, transportation remains a huge selling point for the proposed HQ2 sites in D.C. Using the Metro, I was able to easily get to each of the four areas that D.C. officials included in their HQ2 proposal. I’m no urban planner or transportation expert, but based purely on my experience, Amazon employees would have little problem accessing a campus in any of the four proposed locations from pretty much anywhere across the region.
Likewise, for someone coming from Seattle’s crazy housing market, where the median home price just surpassed $800,000, D.C.’s $560,000 median price seems almost reasonable.
As noted, one reason the Washington, D.C., area is considered a front-runner for HQ2 is because the region is home to three of the 20 finalists in Amazon’s search. That isn’t true in any of the other regions remaining in the selection process.
On this trip, I did not get to any of the rumored Montgomery County and Northern Virginia locations, but it’s worth noting that some of them are also accessible via the regional Metrorail system. Evaluating the Washington, D.C., proposals was also more feasible because district officials have taken the unusual step of publicly disclosing the locations included in their HQ2 proposal. Officials from D.C., Maryland and Virginia sent a joint letter to Amazon as part of what’s reported to be an effort to present a “unified front” to the tech giant.
For what it’s worth, Bezos has stated a preference for an urban campus in the past. In 2014, long before the HQ2 search, he said it would have been the “wrong decision” to build Amazon’s current campus in the suburbs. He said the types of people Amazon employs and wants to attract in the future “appreciate the energy and dynamism of an urban environment.”
His ownership of the Washington Post also makes D.C. an attractive option. The only question is whether he would want to put Amazon in the middle of the political maelstrom. The company is already a target of President Trump, and while administrations come and go, there will be both costs and benefits associated with having an actual headquarters in the nation’s capital.
To be sure, there are many other criteria in Amazon’s RFP. For example, one factor not disclosed by D.C. is the financial incentives offered as part of its package.
Other HQ2 contenders also have unique pitches to make. Pittsburgh, where GeekWire spent a month earlier this year, is the hometown of Jeff Wilke, the CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer business, who is considered a possible successor to Bezos as Amazon CEO.
Austin is the home of Amazon’s Whole Foods grocery chain, Atlanta is a major transportation hub, and Toronto offers the unique selling point of not being in the United States.
But after experiencing D.C. like an Amazonian, it’s not difficult to imagine the company ending up here.
Amazon is expected to decide on its HQ2 location sometime this year.