Friday, January 19, 2018

Amazon's HQ2 Pageant

When Amazon released the "short list" for its second headquarters, I was expecting a list that was, well, short. Instead, Amazon released something that looks more like a BuzzFeed listicle of America's twenty most popular cities. And that's probably exactly what it was.

Whether Amazon knew it going into this campaign, it's clearly become a lucrative contest, one that has every major newspaper in North America singing praise of the trillion dollar beast. Of course it's not a decision to be made lightly, but considering Amazon's reputable speed of service, it's one that certainly could have been made by now, and maybe already has. Yet by drawing it out for another year, memberships will continue to surge out of cities that hope to be chosen, the press will continue to freely advertise Amazon with puff pieces careful not to damage their cities' odds, and maybe Bezos can squeeze a few more incentives out of the few cities unaware that they're already top contenders. 

Whatever is going on in downtown Seattle's hive mind, I think that Philadelphia is a top choice for Amazon's HQ2. I say that with no bias, because personally I don't want them here. Philadelphia's place in the race is evident to anyone who lives here, but not so much beyond the northeast corridor. Our public transportation is as expansive as any city between D.C., New York, and Chicago, in many cases more so. 30th Street Station's access to other cities is second only to Manhattan. Our universities are keeping more and more graduates in town, which will only grow with Amazon's career opportunities and internships. And above all, our housing stock is considerably cheap.

Sure, statisticians loves to run means and averages that show property values are on the rise, and that's great, But with Detroit out of the race, few cities of our size, if any, can offer a habitable home for $50,000 or a decent one for $150,000. Normally slums aren't an upside, and that was the fallible conclusion for much of the 20th Century. But when adventurous Gen Xers began working their way back into our cities, paving the way for Millennials to return in hoards, slums have merely become opportunity. To developers, neighborhoods like Kensington and Harrowgate are only as bad as the people who live there. To 50,000 new Amazon employees who know nothing of the city's baggage, or simply don't care, these places are real estate goldmines along the trendy Market-Frankford line. 

Many have speculated that the D.C. suburbs, namely Northern Virginia, will likely emerge as the ultimate winner of Miss Amazon's crown. The Dulles Corridor has been tech heavy since the early days of AOL and MCI, and Metro's new Silver Line connects it to downtown D.C. through the semi-urban enclaves of Arlington and Tysons Corner's growing skyline. While that might sell a location to a tech company like Oracle, Amazon isn't one of many. When AOL moved into an old Boeing office at the end of the Dulles toll road, it was surrounded by farmland. At the time, it ruled the tech sector like Google and Amazon do today, and it defined the region the way Microsoft defined Redmond, WA.

Amazon undoubtedly wants a location with talent, but short of technology vacuums like West Virginia or Northern Alaska, today's tech talent isn't hard to find. What Northern Virginia provides are established applicants with lengthy resumes, and if I know one thing as a fifteen year veteran of the industry, it's that tech companies are willing to pay threefold for inexperienced college graduates that can be groomed into a company's unique corporate culture. 

Considering we're talking about an industry that boomed a short twenty years ago, what's an established technology region even mean to a company like Amazon anyway? They could plop HQ2 down in the worst part of Camden, NJ or the middle of the Ozarks, and they're going to define that place exactly how they want.

In that regard, Philadelphia has what all cities easy access to an ocean that's warm enough to swim in. Compared to other areas on the list - costly Northern Virginia, New York, and Boston, isolated southern cities, and Denver's redundancy - Philadelphia has more pros than cons. Our only real cons are our unions and historic reputation for fucking things up. If Amazon is willing to weather our notoriously frustrating unions throughout construction, the only thing it has to look past is what few ever do: recognizing that "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Considering Amazon decided to set up shop in an iffy part of downtown Seattle instead of taking the traditional route out to Redmond, I think they're savvy, and unique, enough to see Philadelphia for what it actually has to offer.

All that said, I'd rather Amazon go anywhere but Philadelphia. Sure, it would be exciting to see what they build and how the city evolves. But the incentives Amazon receives will set a precedent for kickbacks that is already painfully apparent to corporations dancing around Philadelphia. I wonder how many developers have shelved plans for Philadelphia, waiting to see how Amazon's decision plays out, waiting to see how many more handouts they'll be able to demand in its wake. 

This city has been a whore in Colonial drag for the last forty years, and by handing out a few million here and there to developers who do nothing but demolish landmarks under the pretense that they might someday build something better than a parking lot, the pimps in City Hall aren't even trying to be discreet. What's the next developer or corporation going to want knowing Amazon got, say, $1B or more? 50,000 new jobs sounds great, and maybe the investment seems sound, but not if we're paying for those jobs and one company's tax breaks for the next ten or twenty years. Hell, by the time the first ordinary Philadelphian reaps the benefits of Amazon's theoretical HQ2, the Technological Revolution may have collapsed and it could be 1929 all over again.

But that's where things get really icky, not just in Philadelphia, but in all cities competing for a prize that could be as laboriously fruitless as winning the Olympics. Philadelphia hasn't even disclosed its offer to Amazon, and though it will likely come out at some point, it's being kept under wraps for one or two reasons: It's unrealistically expensive, and in the likely event that we aren't chosen, residents will begin questioning why even a fraction of such a bloated amount can't be put towards our existing infrastructure. How greedy we are to expect our elected officials take care of their own citizens' needs with found money apparently available to a trillion dollar conglomerate three thousand miles away? Speaking even more broadly, Amazon's corporate pageant has driven a rift in a once united country, pitting American cities against one another as if we are embroiled in an economic war. 

Historically, we're bribing a 19th Century robber baron to build a train station or a port, something that will never be appreciated by the masses until it's an architectural relic seventy years later, and a civics lesson in economic ethics. But that's exactly what this contest signals, and why it should be more disconcerting than it is. Whether Amazon winds up here or Northern Virginia, history is repeating itself. And between Amazon, Google, Tesla, Comcast, etc., etc., etc., we are all doomed to repeat it. But we're so caught up in the pageantry of it all, we can't see what awaits us.

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