On November 13, Amazon announced that it had selected two cities for its sought-after second headquarters: Long Island City, situated on the far west side of New York City’s borough of Queens; and three suburban districts just across the Potomac River from Washington. These locations beat 236 other entrants in an open competition the company launched with much fanfare in September 2017.
Amazon has promised to locate as many as 50,000 highly paid employees and invest $5 billion in buildings in the two cities. In both places, the company plans to occupy up to 4 million square feet of offices, with the possibility to grow to 8 million in each, which would double the space promised in the competition brief—a testament to just how rapidly Amazon sees itself growing. No architect or development team has yet been announced for either site.
In Virginia, Amazon will redevelop parts of three areas dominated by suburban-style office buildings: Crystal City, Pentagon City, and Potomac Yards in Arlington and Alexandria. The area, just collectively renamed National Landing, sits in a narrow 2.5-mile strip behind Reagan National Airport. Amazon’s presence will restore luster to an enclave isolated by rail lines and highways, which had been deemed obsolete despite its transit and commuter-rail connections to the nation’s capital.
In its Virginia location, Amazon will work with Maryland-based real-estate firm JBG Smith, which owns 6.2 million square feet of existing office space and controls additional space where Amazon or others could grow. The developer plans to add street-level retail and other pedestrian amenities to bring urban vibrancy to broad streets designed for auto throughput. Virginia Tech will develop what’s described as a “revolutionary Innovation Campus” in the district, focused on developing high-tech talent.
By contrast, the Queens site is tiny, less than 20 acres, but rich in urban vibrancy and potential amenities. Amazon has selected a waterfront assemblage north of the high-rise Hunters Point residential development, according to a Memorandum of Understanding between Amazon and New York’s city and state economic development corporations. The development will merge parcels that the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) had planned to develop as the Long Island City Innovation Center with several properties held by the Plaxall company (a manufacturer of plastics) that line the perimeter of an inlet called the Anable basin.
Today, the location is occupied by crumbling East River wharves and well-worn low-rise metal and brick industrial structures. The EDC had planned to build two housing towers and include 500,000 square feet of space for light-industrial users and incubators. Redevelopment plans had also been announced for the Plaxall sites, including 5,000 units of housing and 335,000 square feet of light industrial uses. Both plans will be considerably altered to meet Amazon’s needs, but the company has agreed to dedicate space for a school and include the light-industrial and incubator space the EDC had promised. Amazon is not obligated to provide any housing.
The Innovation Center’s development team analyzed the EDC and Plaxall holdings to assure Amazon that their requirements could be met. The team includes TF Cornerstone, which has developed several adjacent residential towers, Handel Architects whose principal in charge, Michael Arad, designed the September 11 Memorial, and Nielsen Matthews, a landscape architect experienced in designing for flood-prone sites, as this one is. Amazon has not announced whether it will proceed with the team and did not respond to requests for further information.
Amazonians will enjoy waterfront access and jaw-dropping views of Manhattan and Cornell Tech, the acropolis of data-driven learning on Roosevelt Island that includes buildings by Handel, Morphosis, and Weiss/Manfredi. There are also inland views of a residential tower skyline that has risen in just a few years in the neighborhood’s core.
However, the Long Island City development is likely to be very dense. Once the approvals are secured, Amazon would build a 1.5-million square foot mixed-use building on a site where planning permission was being sought for two towers, 40- and 50-stories tall, totaling 1.75-million square feet.
New York Governor Cuomo hopes to expedite New York City’s complex approval processes for this project. However, the high degree of density the city and state have agreed to may result in a thick wall of tall towers along the waterfront, as well as additional strain on already overburdened streets and transit. Locals have also pushed back against the prospect of as many as 40,000 Amazonians earning on average $150,000 annually, raising concerns about the effect that could have on rent.
In Seattle, Amazon is frequently blamed for gridlocked traffic, rapidly rising house prices, and exploding homelessness, although thriving tech, aerospace, and retail giants there also drive population expansion. Concentrating wealth in New York City and Washington already has brought similar woes. The prize many cities were willing to do almost anything to get now may face a rough road ahead.