Amazon HQ: The 800-Pound Gorilla in NoVa

The Washington Socialist – Weekly Update Friday, Dec. 7, 2018

 By Bob Guldin

A community forum held in Crystal City/Arlington Dec. 3 showed that lots of people in NoVa are worried about the impact Amazon will have on their home towns. But many important facts remain unclear, even though more than 20 local government officials were on hand to answer questions. No one from Amazon was visible.

The forum was put on by WAMU public radio, and MC’d by Kojo Nnamdi, a popular news commentator on the station. A large crowd attended, most from Arlington and Alexandria.

People had lots of questions, concerns and demands, from all sorts of viewpoints:

  • Why are we helping this huge business, when small business creates most of the jobs? Amazon is a monopoly, crushing competition.
  • What will the arrival of 25,000 Amazon jobs do to transportation, housing, rents, parking? If housing values go up as expected, can we afford the higher property taxes?
  • Will it drive poor, working class and people of color out through massive gentrification?
  • Will unions get a chance to organize in Amazon? What about construction unions?
  • Why was this deal negotiated in secret?
  • Most critical comments focused on how can we reduce the negative impacts and obtain some benefits from Amazon’s arrival. A small minority hope to stop Amazon from coming to NoVa at all.

The moderator, Kojo Nnamdi, pressed local officials to answer tough questions, but did not take a stand on the many issues raised at the forum.

Even if local government decides to play hardball with Amazon (which seems unlikely), do they have the economic power and political clout to make demands stick?

Katie Cristol, the Arlington County Board chair, said repeatedly that local governments are very limited  in what they can demand of Amazon because of pro-business laws passed by Republicans in the Virginia legislature.

Some speakers raised objections to Amazon’s arrival, including Roshan Abraham, an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington. He suggested a nonprofit community land trust be set aside for affordable housing. Carmen Romero, of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, said her group wants to be at the table when housing plans are negotiated.

It seems that a key decision-making time will be January and February 2019, when the state legislature in Richmond is expected to allocate funds, pass laws and approve plans for the giant development. For those who want to stop HQ2 or make demands about it, that’s the best opportunity to have an impact. It’s not at all clear that state and local governments are prepared to push hard for community benefits from Amazon, such as low-income housing or job training.

While Amazon’s arrival will affect the entire Metro area, including the DC and Maryland labor and housing markets, decision-making power is concentrated in Virginia.

In the Q&A with local officials, several points came out that were not obvious before (at least not to me).

  • The mega-project has two distinct parts: 1) Amazon’s HQ in Arlington, focused initially in Crystal City, and 2) A new Virginia Tech “innovation” campus in Alexandria.
  • Direct subsidies to Amazon include 550 million dollars from Virginia in performance based grants and 23 million from Arlington.  The bulk of the incentives come in the form of transportation projects and the creation of a state-funded tech pipeline via the VTech “Innovation Campus” in Alexandria and other education funding. 

  • Amazon is coming to NoVa not because it offered the biggest subsidies – Maryland’s $8.5 billion offer dwarfed Virginia’s – but because of amenities like a strong tech labor market and attractive urban living.
  • Crystal City was attractive to Amazon because the area lost about 24,000 federal jobs in the past 17 years, leaving much vacant office space. So no construction is needed immediately.
  • Blue and Yellow Metro lines that serve the area are now under capacity. 
  • In addition to the 25,000 Amazon employees expected, another 25,000 workers will probably come to the area, e.g., service and support jobs. 

For activists who want to stop Amazon, or who want to make it serve the community, the forum in Crystal City showed that there are an awful lot of people who are ready to join that fight. DSA members who want to follow this issue should check out and join the Slack channel #regionalAmazon.

More: here’s a link to the ArlNow coverage of the event

Here’s the WaPo article on the Memorandum of Understanding between the state and Amazon.

Want to get involved with MDC DSA’s ongoing activism on Amazon HQ2? Sign up here.

The Washington Socialist is the newsletter and editorial publication of Metro DC DSA. The views and opinions expressed here may not reflect those of the chapter, and publication of any information should not be considered an endorsement. For our chapter's official statements, please visit the Statements section of our main site.

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