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On HQ2: A Predictable Let-Down

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It all started when…

A few weeks ago I woke up to a headline that made me immediately text the article to a fellow urban planner with the message “Seriously? After all that! That’s who they went with!”

The news? Amazon’s much (freely) publicized hunt for the illusive, at times mystical, HQ2 city.

Cities tossed their hat in the ring with such confidence, many developing specialized tax incentive schemes with just this one company in mind. One Georgia town went so far as to offer to make Jeff Bezos the Emperor, excuse me, Mayor for Life and rename the town Amazon.

But in the end, the trillion-dollar company didn’t pick a scrappy underdog, a rapidly expanding city, or a town doing all it can to recover from lost manufacturing jobs. They picked NYC and DC. Two of the most obvious choices on the map. They’re perfectly sensible places to put a new headquarters, there’s no arguing that. But if Amazon wasn’t going to take a chance on a city outside the norm, why did they put American cities through all this? They didn’t need to have any public ramp-up to this process if it weren’t a genuine open casting-call.

It has been embarrassing to watch small towns that are struggling but have a great location and a population ready to work hard, or big cities outside the shortlist of hot tech hubs, throw themselves in front of Amazon with publicly-funded ads, stunts, and sacrificed potential tax revenue. Some have compared it to The Bachelor, others compared it to the dancing marathons that radio stations put on to entice the desperate during the Great Depression, offering prize money to the last one who didn’t collapse of exhaustion.

A more generous comparison would be to Olympic bids. Cities make a case to the Olympic committee about why their city would be the best and point to all their existing and planned infrastructure. The difference there is that there aren’t many scrappy long-shot candidates for the Olympics. Generally its only the big players that take a crack at it.

But the hunt for HQ2 seemed different. It gave hope to small towns, those that are trying their very hardest to rebrand themselves from rust-belt to belt-that-just-needs-a-little-grease, from fly-over to fly-to.

There have been videos, articles, full-page newspaper ads, even an offer to rename the town, all coming just short of begging on their knees for Amazon to bless them and bestow this great gift upon them.

Philadelphia is one such city that was confident they would win the bid and counted their same-day shipped chickens before they hatched on the rowhouse stoop. There have been plans to redevelop the Schuylkill Yards, a megablock between Drexel University and the Schuylkill river which separates West Philadelphia from the rest of the city. It’s a train yard for Amtrak and the regional transit system SEPTA. There’s no reason it has to be open-air, so there’s long been the idea that the street-level be extended to cover the yards and add a whole new block to the historic city.

This has been especially attractive to Drexel as it is a rare opportunity for an urban campus to gain much-needed space. So what was largely seen as a pipe dream, suddenly became plausible. This would be the perfect place for Drexel to make its mark, partner with Amazon for the university’s famous co-op program and bring thousands of jobs to Philadelphia.

I’ve heard some offer the consolation prize to the cities that didn’t make the finalists list that at least they made themselves known and who knows, maybe some other company will want to expand or relocate there. Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenny said as much, but as far as I know Philadelphia isn’t exactly a plucky small town waiting for its time in the spotlight, its the third largest city in the eastern United States. “Exposure” isn’t the secret ingredient Philadelphia is lacking. Beating Amazon to the punch in the gut, one cheeky Arkansas town took out a full page ad to break up with the company before the relationship ever began.

From where I stand, this whole thing may as well have been Jeff Bezos himself looking down from a discounted-books-and-cardboard box throne shouting to the mayors of America “Dance! Dance for me little creatures! Amuse me and I just might toss you a treat!”

Scott Galloway, a NYU business professor, accurately predicted at the Recode conference in September that the winner would be DC. He described the whole thing as a ruse, one big publicity stunt. The reasons he offered were the proximity to Bezos’ house, and that its near to the lawmakers that limit the company’s growth. I’m not sure I find the former reason compelling, but the latter is almost certainly what sets DC apart from the other big east coast cities on the finalist list.

On the page posting updates on the hunt, the most sparsely populated section poses this question: “Why is Amazon choosing its second headquarters location via a public process?” and in return, this is the entire answer: “We want to find a city that is excited to work with us and where our customers, employees, and the community can all benefit.” Which doesn’t actually answer the question.

To be clear, I don’t hate Amazon. They’re the Sears-Roebuck catalog of the 21st century, and that’s quite special. They’ve made living in rural areas far from major retail much easier, and helped reduce the stress of errands for those who are home-bound or have limited transit access, and of course their media is phenomenal. But these good things don’t negate the humiliation the company put America’s struggling cities through, with their empty promise of reinvigorating some forgotten gem. As a judgmental parent might say, I’m not mad Amazon, just disappointed.

To DC and New York, I wish you the best and hope the promises are fulfilled. To the new employees, I hope amazon pays you enough to cover those soaring rents.

You can read this article on my Medium page at https://medium.com/s/story/a-predictable-let-down-879f89a96f49

Published December 10th, 2018.