“I’m looking for skeptics here,” said Kojo Nnamdi, a radio personality, drawing audience laughter as he moderated a town hall on Monday, Dec. 3 about Amazon coming to Crystal City.
He found many in attendance, expressing concerns across a broad array of issue areas. But he found little skepticism among local public officials and staffers, including Alexandria Mayor-elect Justin Wilson and Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol. Regarding the most heavily discussed topics, they reassured the Amazon deal would help, or at least not unduly hinder, citing promised new state investments.
HOUSING AFFORDABILITY AND DISPLACEMENT
“It’s important to call a spade a spade: it is gentrification,” said an audience member from La ColectiVA, a community organization, citing racial disparities in homeownership rates. “There’s a banner that’s outside of the [Arlington] County board room that says, ‘Growth through immigration and diversity builds a strong community.’ Which immigrants …, only wealthy white ones from other states or something?”
Homeowners are “thrilled … that their values are going to go up,” but renters are “panicked,” said Wilson. Yet what “I take optimistically is that, for the first time, we saw the Commonwealth actually recognize and show some beginnings of actions related to affordable housing.”
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has promised “an additional $15 million per year for affordable and workforce housing,” according to a press release. That’s “almost unprecedented, in terms of partnership, for the state,” said Cristol in a previous interview on Nnamdi’s show.
Panelist Carmen Romero of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing said she’s had “reservations.” Nevertheless she’s “supportive” because she thinks more corporate and state partners are bringing new “energy” to addressing housing affordability.
In addition to greater subsidization, Cristol and Wilson both advocate building more housing in order align supply more closely with demand.
“Increasing supply, at nearly any affordability level, helps ease that challenge. … We need an additional 100,000 housing units in the region beyond what is already planned,” Wilson said after the town hall. “The obstacles are the potential, real, and feared impacts on quality of life (density, traffic, parking, etc.).”
He says Alexandria will consider expanding the use of accessory dwelling units, also called granny flats. Asked if he’d support broader “up-zoning” — the allowance of larger buildings in contrast to single-family housing, as recently proposed in Minneapolis — he said he doesn’t “want to pre-judge that process by endorsing specific solutions.” But he thinks Alexandria should “undertake a zoning modernization, and expansion/preservation of affordability should be an important component ….”
“More density doesn’t necessarily mean skyscrapers, but could mean a duplex or triplex or stacked flats where single family housing one was,” said Cristol in a later interview.
An Arlington homeowner disagreed that the increase in home values is all good news.
“My home is my home, it’s not an investment,” he said. “My taxes will rise appreciably. By the way, I pay high taxes already. You guys need to look at the ways you can normalize taxes that we who live in this area don’t carry the burden of Amazon.”
Roshan Abraham of Arlington’s chapter of Our Revolution, an advocacy organization inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, wants to extract more from Amazon. Abraham was the lone dissenter amongst Nnamdi’s panelists.
“Personally I’d like to see a $500 million investment made into a community land trust,” he said. “We could do things like a shared equity model, where the equity is jointly owned by the county and the people living there. That way you have an opportunity for people in affordable housing to build wealth.” Eventually they could “afford actual homeownership, which is the biggest way of creating intergenerational wealth that there is,” he said.
Such trusts “have been operating (or are being established) in a number of high-cost regions, such as Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Boston,” said Michael Spotts of Neighborhood Fundamentals, LLC, who also spoke at the town hall.
“I would like us to take all this energy we [used] to bring in one single, giant company … and instead … support startups … and small businesses,” said an audience member. He cited the Brookings Institution’s Amy Liu, an Alexandria resident, who has written articles about Amazon’s move, ranging in tone from cautious to critical.
“HQ2 could bring a tremendous boost to Greater D.C. — if Amazon and local leaders work together to pioneer a new model of inclusive growth,” she wrote in one. In another, she preferred “empowering existing people and businesses in a community to grow, innovate, and start new ventures” over against “attracting Amazon and other [major] companies.”
“At this point, rather than debate the merits of HQ2 being here, I would rather state and local leaders, with community leaders, work together to make sure that existing workers, neighborhoods, and businesses benefit from the opportunity, rather than have the benefits accrue primarily to the highly skilled or newcomers,” Liu said later.
Cristol and Wilson both cautioned about applying macro level scholarship to specific contexts. Wilson reckoned that the Amazon deal specifically, since it entails public “infrastructure investments,” should be “the kind of deal that most of these folks [scholars] find attractive.”
In addition to “restoring a tax base” lost to Base Realignment and Closure over the past decade or so, Amazon could reinvigorate local enterprises, said Cristol. “Think about what 20 percent [office vacancy rates] mean: One in five buildings, or floors in buildings, that used to be filled with employees who bought sandwiches at lunchtime, who went shopping on their breaks, who stopped at a grocery store on their way home, has disappeared from our Crystal City sector. The connection to make to our small business community is such an important one.”
Whereas Amazon will pay taxes in Arlington, Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus — Alexandria’s part of the deal — will not pay taxes in Alexandria. However, “With 25,000 direct jobs, there are also 25,000 indirect jobs that come along,” said the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership’s Stephanie Landrum. “That includes … follow-on technology jobs and companies that will support the main catalyst project. It’s that entire growth and the variety of that growth that makes projects like this so important ….”
Local officials were asked whether the influx of new employees would exacerbate existing school overcrowding.
Dr. Patrick Murphy, superintendent of Arlington’s school division, expects that 15-20 percent of Amazon employees will end up residing in Arlington. As a result, the division forecasts 73-98 additional students per year for 10 years, which it’s already factored into its total enrollment growth model. That translates to growth in the next decade of only 3-4 percent over current enrollment that’d be directly attributable to Amazon.
Asked if it’s made similar forecasts, Alexandria’s schools administration didn’t respond.
The Amazon deal includes efforts to expand the local “technology talent pipeline,” from primary to graduate school. Virginia Tech’s new campus, which will focus on tech-related fields and act as a kind of feeder for Amazon and other tech companies, represents a $1 billion investment.
“The potential ripple effect of such an advanced ecosystem cannot be overstated, as similar global tech giants have historically spurred the advancement of entire regions,” according to a Virginia Tech press release.
The state also plans to invest 375 million over 20 years in tech-related master’s level programming; $25 million in tech-related bachelor’s level “work-based learning,” including internships and apprenticeships; and $25 million in K-12 STEM programs.
“Amazon coming, and Alexandria being a partner … in helping to deliver the workforce for the future generations in this area, is just such an exciting opportunity for us,” said Mignon Anthony, COO of Alexandria’s schools.
Higher education curricula will “be developed in close collaboration with industry leaders, including but not limited to Amazon,” according to Northern Virginia’s winning proposal to Amazon.
“For me as an educator, that [Amazon would influence curriculum] is kind of an odd idea,” said Abraham.
Wilson disagreed, saying: “As someone who has two kids at home and would like them to one day leave, I should hope universities are coordinating with employers in developing a curriculum to make folks career-ready.”
An audience member expressed concern about the underrepresentation of non-whites in tech fields. Wilson responded that the Amazon deal gives Virginia Tech “the opportunity to fulfill their obligation as a land grant university to diversify the tech workforce. … That is in their core mission. … We have a school system in Alexandria with 60 percent free and reduced lunch, 30 percent English language learners. We are uniquely able to help them diversify that workforce.”
“We have the infrastructure … to absorb 25,000 employees over 10 years,” said Cristol.
But “what indicators … lead us to believe that Amazon employees would be public transit riders,” asked an audience member. Parking’s already a problem, said another.
“We can’t say exactly what the mode splits will be with Amazon employees,” said Arlington and Metro board member Christian Dorsey. But “it stands to reason,” based on employees’ transit use in Seattle, that they’ll choose to live around “where the [transit] investments are.”
Crystal City “has been intensively planned for more development than we actually have here, even with Amazon,” said Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director. “We have two Metrorail lines; we have VRE; every bus service in Northern Virginia comes here. … We have infrastructure in place — that we pay for — that carried far more people [in the past] than we’re carrying today. It’s in everyone’s interest for us to get good use out of that infrastructure.”
Metrorail, Metrobus and Arlington’s local bus system “could accommodate an additional 50,000 to 70,000 weekday trips in Arlington, with most of this capacity in the Metro corridors,” according to an intergovernmental report.
The new Potomac Yard Metro station will “accommodate up to 11,000 daily riders,” said Yon Lambert, Alexandria transportation director. “We think [that will] actually remove cars off of Route 1 and get people using Metro.” Also, “we are excited to be able to build out the whole BRT [bus rapid transit]” with new incentive money.
The state has committed “a maximum of $295 million in non-General Funds to fund” certain projects, according to a memorandum of understanding between Virginia and Amazon. Those projects include new Metro station entrances, Route 1 improvements, an airport connector bridge, and transit expansion in Pentagon City, Crystal City and Potomac Yard. The maximum state investment is contingent upon Amazon creating nearly 38,000 new jobs. If new jobs only hit the advertised 25,000 target, state investment would weigh in at $195 million.
Listen to the town hall at www.thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2018-12-06.