Planting the flag
As a new decade dawns, Amazon scales up for HQ2
• Amazon’s twin towers coming in 2023
• HQ2 “base camp” office opened in September
• 400+ workers hired; 24,500+ to go
In November 2018, Virginia won big — really big — when Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc. chose Arlington County as one of two locations where it would build operations for its planned East Coast headquarters.
Virginia and New York’s Long Island City neighborhood beat out more than 230 other hopeful localities across North America that vied for the project, sending out proposals packed with economic development incentives.
A few months later, though, the news got even sweeter for Virginia after Amazon dropped plans for the New York branch, leaving Arlington as the sole locale for Amazon’s $2.5 billion second headquarters, which promises to create 25,000 high-paying jobs and add more than 8 million square feet of development to be centered in Arlington’s Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard areas.
Marian Marquez, director of Arlington Business Investment Group, doesn’t mince words when she describes what that means for Arlington — and the commonwealth.
“It’s the single biggest economic deal in history,” she says, “period.”
HQ2, as the Arlington headquarters is commonly known, will not be realized overnight, of course. Amazon expects that it will take about a decade for the nascent headquarters to reach full capacity. In 2019, however, it already had established a foothold in the heart of Crystal City for what will be a steep climb ahead.
That outpost, three floors of leased space at 241 18th St. S., has been nicknamed “base camp” by Amazon in honor of it being the first location where the e-tailer planted the flag for its East Coast operational center, and its simple decor suits that moniker.
In a techie take on industrial chic, Amazon HQ2 base camp has largely unadorned walls and a monochromatic palette. Identical work stations stretch row upon row in a disorienting sameness, and meeting spaces are mostly open and austere — a cluster of stools, a simple table, a whiteboard. Privacy in this setting, so attuned to the collaborative mindset of the millennial, is provided by stepping into one of a number of soundproof booths where employees can go when they need to make private phone calls or conduct other sensitive business. The booths further provide a factor of cool in the otherwise stripped-down environment.
This minimalist design also reflects “frugality,” one of Amazon’s 14 core principles, says Amazon spokesperson Erin Mulhall. Frugality and other Amazon aphorisms — such as “It Is Always Day One” and “Invent and Simplify” — are prominently displayed in three rows of colorful circles on the wall of the base camp reception area. However, it’s the one on the bottom row, second from the left — “Think Big”— that obviously has Northern Virginia, especially Arlington County, giddy with excitement.
“Think Big” actually is quite an understatement. “Think Super Colossal” might be more on the mark.
The two towers
One of the few artistic touches at Amazon’s Crystal City base camp is a whimsical mural depicting an Amazon delivery truck climbing an Everest-like mountain. An obvious nod to the outpost’s nickname, the mural is also an apt metaphor for Amazon’s unprecedented trajectory for HQ2’s development.
As noted above, Amazon initially announced its selection of Arlington and Long Island City as dual sites for its new headquarters. But Amazon pulled out of New York a few months later after encountering stiff backlash from local politicians and residents concerning — among other issues — the plan to grant Amazon nearly $3 billion in state and local tax breaks.
However, Amazon has encountered little such blowback in Virginia, where the commonwealth has promised the company more than $750 million in cash incentives in exchange for the long-range possibility of as many as 37,850 high-paying jobs at HQ2, although the e-tailer has committed only to filling 25,000 positions during the 2020s. Virginia also has pledged to invest $1 billion in a tech-talent pipeline to boost the number of in-demand computer science graduates from state universities.
In 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam said that, altogether, the commonwealth would be spending up to $2.5 billion on Amazon-linked investments in education, transportation and affordable housing. Arlington County has added to the pot by proffering a $23 million pay-for-performance grant (paid in annual installments over 15 years), plus $28 million in tax-increment financing (paid over 10 years).
One final impediment to Amazon’s HQ2 plans remained, however: A change in zoning was required to allow construction of Amazon’s proposed twin, 22-story office towers in Crystal City. The proposed 2.1 million square feet of space represented a 600,000-square-foot increase over the previously allowed density. The matter was resolved in December, after the Arlington County Board voted to allow HQ2 to move forward in exchange for Amazon’s promise to contribute a record-setting $20 million for affordable housing. (Arlington residents have raised concerns about the e-tailer’s arrival pushing local real estate prices out of reach for working families.)
At that same board meeting, Amazon also moved quickly to settle a kerfuffle that had arisen involving construction workers who were alleging payroll fraud and misclassification of jobs. Amazon fired the contractors involved in the dispute. Amazon’s global vice president of real estate and facilities, John Schoettler, told the board members, “I will tolerate absolutely none of this going forward, and people on my team will be held accountable.”
Staging at base camp
With that final hurdle overcome, Amazon now is gearing up to make its steep ascent in Arlington.
The 88,000-square-foot base camp office opened barely more than six months ago, and by the end of December Amazon had more than 400 employees in Arlington.
HQ2 hires will include programmers, software developers and specialists for the company’s Amazon Web Services cloud computing subsidiary as well as consumer-focused initiatives such as its Alexa virtual assistant. But the online Leviathan also will be needing many employees in fields across the business spectrum, including consumer affairs, advertising, law, finance and public relations, says Brian Riley, head of Amazon’s recruiting programs and strategies for HQ2.
Riley anticipates making 1,500 to 3,000 hires annually from now through the foreseeable future. With eye-popping figures like that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 6,000 people attended an Amazon HQ2 job-information day the company held back in September.
“The richness of the talent pool here helps us build something from the ground up,” Riley says. The company already employs 10,000 workers in Virginia across its various distribution centers and offices, he adds, “and we are engaged very heavily in having fewer barriers to bringing in local talent.”
Right now, Riley says, about half of the company’s new hires have been from the Northern Virginia region, but that could increase as Amazon builds more bridges to the region’s educational institutions.
To facilitate that, Amazon is seeing ways to help cultivate the workforce talent it needs across a broad group of Virginia schools, nurturing interest not only among college students but at the middle school and high school levels, too.
In addition to meeting with state education officials and higher education leaders, Amazon’s head of workforce development for HQ2, Ardine Williams, has also been working on outreach efforts with local public schools’ superintendents and has hosted children’s education events at Amazon’s Washington, D.C., office to promote teaching computer coding skills to kids. (See interview with Williams.)
After all, Williams points out, kids who are in fifth or sixth grade now are the future college graduates Amazon will be seeking to hire for HQ2 by the end of the decade. “Making sure that there are adequate numbers of teachers, and teachers who are digitally literate and providing technology in an integrated way in the classroom, is incredibly important to us,” she says.
Ascending to new heights
In a touch of kismet, the number of employees Amazon ultimately will bring to Crystal City is roughly equivalent to the number of jobs lost in the area due to the federal Base Realignment and Closure of 15 years ago.
Of course, all these new employees will need someplace to hang their hats and, in late December 2019, Amazon began its physical expansion beyond base camp, moving into 191,000 square feet of renovated leased space at nearby 1800 S. Bell St. That building is owned by developer and property manager JBG Smith Properties, which is leasing multiple spaces to Amazon as well as constructing HQ2’s twin office towers.
In its news releases, JBG Smith, which owns a whopping 6.2 million square feet of space in Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard, has been rebranding the HQ2 area as “National Landing.” It’s even launched a website, nationallanding.com, which describes it as a “newly defined interconnected and walkable neighborhood.” Perhaps out of sensitivity to local feelings, Amazon is staying agnostic on the National Landing moniker, though. Spokesperson Mulhall says only that “the name is being championed by other groups.”
Meanwhile, Amazon additionally is slated to occupy JBG Smith’s extensively renovated, reskinned 14-story building at 1770 Crystal Drive by the end of this year. “We’re taking the whole building,” Mulhall says. Lease space is part of Amazon’s overall plan for its East Coast campus in addition to the two towers, which it will own.
Work is scheduled to begin this year on the centerpiece of HQ2, the 6.2-acre Metropolitan Park site where the towers will be raised. It’s now mostly occupied by defunct warehouses and parking lots — some surrounded by white painted fences emblazoned with cheery Amazon admonishments such as “Judge Less” and “Breathe.” Brightly colored bicycles with fake flowers woven into their spokes hang from the fences, adding an artsy touch.
The e-tailer’s plans for the Metropolitan Park site emphasize its commitment to community outreach. It will invest $14 million to double the size of a one-acre swath of green space already in place there, adding amenities such as wide sidewalks and public artwork. (Amazon is contributing $225,000 to the Arlington County Public Art Fund.) HQ2 also will include a 700-person meeting center and a 160-slot daycare facility, both open for public use, and an underground parking facility of nearly 2,000 spaces.
Bus shelters, bike lanes with protective curbing and 600 parking spaces for cyclists are also in the mix, as well as space for a farmers market and a dog park. All Amazon offices are dog-friendly, Mulhall says, adding that “up to 7,000 dogs come to work at Amazon every day.”
To further facilitate interaction with its neighborhood, the street-level floors of both HQ2 towers will be given over to 69,545 square feet of retail space, with HQ2 lobbies relegated to the second floors. The towers, which together eventually will house 12,500 employees, are set to open in 2023.
For a company with one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable logos on Planet Earth, it’s notable that the HQ2 towers will have a conspicuous lack of external Amazon branding. It’s an approach the company also follows at its Seattle headquarters, known for its distinctive trio of spheres.
The HQ2 towers will be LEED Platinum-certified and 100% powered by energy produced on-site or through credits obtained from external renewable energy sources. The towers will feature 13 green roofs and terraces, with one building trimmed in blue and the other in red in a stepped-back design intended to minimize the shadows cast over the streetscape.
Plans for 4.2 million square feet of additional Amazon office space at the 10-acre Pen Place site in Pentagon City are expected to be fleshed out this year and come to fruition in 2025.
Buoyed by Amazon’s massive commitment to HQ2, JBG Smith intends to redevelop about 2.6 million square feet in the area, including erecting five residential buildings and an office tower. A new entertainment and shopping complex anchored by a 49,000-square-foot Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is one of the developer’s priorities. Although Crystal City was once an entertainment wasteland, one of the main thoroughfares in the area, Crystal Drive, now is lined with eateries ranging from fine dining establishments such as chef José Andrés’ Spanish restaurant, Jaleo, to fast-casual emporiums such as Sweetgreen and Chick-fil-A.
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Virginia Economic Development Alliance forecast that all the development attendant to HQ2 will create more than 47,000 direct and indirect jobs.
As one might easily surmise, Arlington County is loving all of this.
Since the Amazon announcement, Marquez says, the county has been getting cold calls from companies around the globe that hadn’t previously considered Arlington. The county’s small-business program has been “slammed” with inquiries too, she says, from companies eager to partner with Amazon.
“People don’t realize the work that Amazon does with small businesses,” she says.
As to the future, Marquez expects “more and more momentum to come.”
“This,” she says in an understatement, “is pretty exciting for everybody.”