December 13, 2018

“How Do You Get Amazon To Do Stuff?” Answers To Your Questions from Our Town Hall

By Margaret Barthel

This event was the second in a series marking Kojo's 20th year on air.

This event was the second in a series marking Kojo's 20th year on air.

After a lengthy bidding process, tech giant Amazon chose Northern Virginia as the site of one of two major new headquarters on the East Coast. Since the announcement last month, Northern Virginia has been buzzing with speculation about what it could all mean for life in the region.

We wanted to understand how residents — and their elected leaders — are feeling about the news. So Kojo and the team headed to Synetic Theater in Crystal City for a Kojo Roadshow event to hear from the community.

Here are some of the questions you asked. 

We’ve been told Amazon employees will ride public transit. But who’s to say they won’t just take Lyft and Uber, adding to congestion issues?

Supposedly the coming Amazon employees tend to favor public transit, bikes, and perhaps e-scooters over cars.  But not everyone in the room was convinced the coming boom won’t add to congestion.

Local officials, however, seem to think they can handle the influx, especially on public transit:

“I had to go back to 1986 [to find ridership as low as 2018] at the Crystal City Metro station. For Pentagon City [Metro station] I had to go back to 2003. On our bus services I had to go back to 2011. So we have infrastructure in place, that we pay for, that carried far more people than we’re carrying today.”  – Dennis Leach, Director of Transportation, Arlington County

“I do see [that] a significant number of them are going to use Metro rail. There’s significant capacity there, particularly on the blue line, which has suffered a severe erosion of ridership.” – Christian Dorsey, Vice Chair, Arlington County Board; Board of Directors, WMATA

Arlington County Board Vice Chair and WMATA Board Member Christian Dorsey expects ridership to expand on Metro. Tyrone Turner / WAMU.

The elementary school that’s closest to HQ2 is [said to be one of the most] overcrowded elementary school in the county… Are you asking Amazon to build us a new school?

With Arlington Public Schools in the throes of redrawing boundaries to try to address overcrowding, it was no surprise to hear a question about what a bunch of new workers might mean for the county’s schools. But the school district currently projects that student population growth over the next decade–including what comes from Amazon–will be less than the growth the system experienced over the previous decade.  

“About 15-20% of the Amazon employees over that 12-year period will probably become residents here in Arlington. And the influence on our enrollment will be about 73-98 additional students…when we project over that same time period, that [overall growth] average is looking like about 500 additional students.” – Patrick Murphy, Superintendent, Arlington Public Schools

An audience member asks a question about school overcrowding. Tyrone Turner / WAMU.

Small businesses are the ones who really create long-lasting jobs. 25,000 jobs? That’s wonderful. But what are the services that are going to be added to that?

What will the Amazon effect look like for existing local businesses? Mixed, if the discussion was any indicator. Some, like the restaurant owner who posed this question, were looking forward to the influx of new employees in an area where many office buildings have stood vacant.

“Since 2001, we’ve lost 24,000-federally-related jobs in the Crystal City-Pentagon City area. We will lose 3,000 more with the Transportation and Security Administration leaving Arlington in 2020. And we’ve lost a total of 34,000 federally-related jobs since 2001 in all of Arlington.” – Alex Iams, Assistant Director, Arlington Economic Development

But, even in the tech community, there were some qualms about what Amazon’s arrival could mean for rising business and talent costs. Our region’s biggest tech incubator, 1776, says it’s already hard to hire tech staff, especially tech developers.  

“We have over 300 entrepreneurs on campus. It is the cost of business [that’s on their minds]. What they are most worried about is the cost of [tech] developers. Those are the most expensive and often most sought-after workers.” – Penny Lee, Chief Strategy Officer, 1776

How will a small creative arts organization like Synetic Theater be able to find space with a gorilla like Amazon coming? 

This question about Amazon pushing out local arts organizations is clearly a concern, and it got applause in the room, especially because Synetic Theater, the venue for the town hall, is losing its lease in Crystal City for Amazon to create new offices.

“I do know that the property owner here is in conversations with Synetic. I’ll express my support and note that we have an ongoing effort with our arts commission to develop an arts strategic plan, and facilities has been a huge piece of that.” – Katie Cristol, Chair, Arlington County Board

The Synetic Theater, which has operated in Crystal City since 2010, is losing its lease. Tyrone Turner / WAMU.

How does the county plan to incentivize affordable housing and childcare to avoid pushing lower and middle income people out as the cost of living rises?

There are no silver-bullet solutions, county officials said, to tackling rising housing prices, gentrification and displacement, which have been a challenge for Arlington even before the Amazon deal.

“We’ve lost 85-95% of our market-rate affordable housing [over the last decade]. That’s housing affordable to someone making 60% of area median income.” – Carmen Romero, Vice President of Real Estate, Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing

Some officials expressed optimism that the Amazon deal’s high profile would give them new leverage in getting state help to add to existing local investments in affordable housing.

“This is an issue that Arlington and Alexandria have been banging our heads against the wall in Richmond for years, trying to get the state government to see this as an issue to be grappled with.” – Justin Wilson, Mayor-elect, City of Alexandria

Others were less optimistic. Several activists and audience members expressed support for creating a community land trust as a way to preserve affordability in the area.  

“I think it’s important to call a spade a spade. It is gentrification.”  – Danny Cendejas, Organizer, LaColectiVA

From left to right: Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol, Alexandria Mayor-elect Justin Wilson, Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing Vice President Carmen Romero, and Our Revolution Arlington organizer Roshan Abraham. Tyrone Turner/WAMU.

We’re living in a Dillon Rule state, where you [local governments] don’t have a lot of power…How are you guys going to hold Amazon accountable if they start doing things that we don’t like in this county?

Local leaders pointed to the proposal they put forward to Amazon, which did not give the company the significant tax breaks put forward by other localities, as evidence that they were keeping residents’ best interests at heart.

“The best thing I can say about making sure we’re not going to get pushed around is to judge this county board and our predecessors on our record… Despite the pressures and the national competition and the headlines, we did not put tax breaks or really very large grants on the table. We’ve committed to reinvesting in ourselves.” – Katie Cristol, Chair, Arlington County Board

“Are you all not concerned that this company that seems to constantly put dollars over people, over everything else–that they’re going to have an impact in this area?” Tyrone Turner / WAMU.

But officials also acknowledged that in some cases, their hands are tied by state-level division of power between local and state government.

Given that, community leaders raised a number of other ideas that might give residents more power over Amazon: a community benefits agreement, a community land trust, and a project-labor agreement for Amazon-related development.

“For a lot of things, we don’t have policy tools. That’s where something like a community benefits agreement would be very useful.” – Roshan Abraham, Steering Committee Member, Our Revolution Arlington

Do you have questions about Amazon’s arrival in Northern Virginia? We want to hear them. Comment below.