An aerial view of Amazon's double helix building, part of design plans for the company's HQ2 in Arlington.

An aerial view of Amazon's double helix building, part of design plans for the company's HQ2 in Arlington.

Last week Amazon’s unveiling of plans for a “Helix” tower as part of their HQ2 drew nationwide attention. The company said the structure, which will form part of their PenPlace site, will feature more than 2.5 acres of open spaces, an amphitheater, retail shops and restaurants throughout, as well as a 1,500 person meeting space, among other features. By 2030, Amazon has said their HQ2 will have at least 25,000 employees.

Besides the latest news on HQ2, Amazon also announced last week that CEO Jeff Bezos would step down, to focus on other aspects of the company. But while these plans have been in the national spotlight, what do they mean for Arlington and the greater D.C. region? And how might the double helix structure change the Crystal City skyline as we know it? We’ll discuss HQ2’s progress so far, and what’s yet to come.

Produced by Inés Rénique

Guests

  • Philip Kennicott Senior Art and Architecture Critic, Washington Post
  • Jonathan Capriel Amazon Reporter, Washington Business Journal

Transcript

  • 12:00:16

    MIKAELA LEFRAKYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Mikaela Lefrak sitting in for Kojo. Later in the hour, finding humor in local politics, but first, Amazon just released plans for the second phase of their HQ2, their new headquarters in Arlington. Among other features, the company plans to build a large glass double helix tower, which will surely standout amid Crystal City's blocky office buildings.

  • 12:00:42

    MIKAELA LEFRAKThe tower has drawn a lot of attention in our region and beyond. And that wasn't the only Amazon news last week. The company's CEO Jeff Bezos announced he'll soon be stepping back from his role. So what's in store for Amazon's HQ2 project? And what effects could it have not only on the local economy here, but it's architecture too? Joining us to discuss is Jonathan Capriel, a staff Reporter at the Washington Business Journal. Hi, Jonathan.

  • 12:01:08

    JONATHAN CAPRIELHey, great to be here.

  • 12:01:09

    LEFRAKSo, Jonathan, let's start by getting our terminology correct here. Is there still a Crystal City or should we be saying National Landing when we talk about the name for this area around Amazon's HQ2?

  • 12:01:22

    CAPRIELAll right. Oh, my gosh, what a question. I still call them Crystal City and Pentagon City, but I did notice that I've been hearing a lot more National Landing as of lately, but I think that's a preference at this point.

  • 12:01:38

    LEFRAKOkay. So is National Landing within Crystal City? Is it just where HQ2 is located or kind of still waiting to see how this plays out?

  • 12:01:47

    CAPRIELIt's a bit -- I mean, I would say National Landing is still a bit, you know, anamorphous. It's borders aren't fully well defined. But for sure it encompasses, you know, Pentagon City, Crystal City. It technically should extend into, you know, Potomac Yard, the Alexandria section where Virginia Tech's innovation campus is going to be built. Where it kind of ends from there -- I mean, I guess it's anyone's guess. Of course, there's the National Landing BID and they are only focused in Arlington. So, yeah, the borders are I would say a little fuzzy.

  • 12:02:24

    LEFRAKAnd the BID is the Business Improvement District there. So lots of changes coming to that area, but first I want to start with why Amazon has been in the spotlight this past week. And I'd like to begin with CEO Jeff Bezos. He had some big news. What's happened?

  • 12:02:41

    CAPRIELWell, obviously, he has decided to step away as his role as CEO of the company. Something he's done for, you know, more than 25 years at this point. So that way he could focus on other -- his philanthropic ventures, his space company. Of course, he is the publisher of The Washington Post. He will still be, you know, heading the board of Amazon, but according to a statement he released and the company has released, he is only going to be focusing on what they call one-way door decisions, a decision you can make that can't be unmade, I guess.

  • 12:03:25

    LEFRAKOh, interesting. So what exactly do you think Bezos stepping back from his role means in practice not just for the company, but for this region? I mean, he has a home here. He as you said owns The Washington Post.

  • 12:03:41

    CAPRIELYou know, it's kind of tricky. I mean, by all accounts of course, Jeff Bezos was probably the one to come up with the idea and launch the HQ2 hunt, which of course ended in Long Island and Arlington both being selected, but, you know, aside from that it's difficult to know like what exactly will happen after that. I mean, will he start living here? I don't know. Does it actually impact HQ2 employees? I mean, the ones I've spoken to have kind of said that they were more excited about the helix than they were about the Jeff Bezos news.

  • 12:04:18

    CAPRIELI think the thing that is still sort of lingering is, you know, who is going to replace Andy Jassy. Of course, he is moving up to Jeff Bezos position. But he was previously CEO of AWS. And of course, the cloud computing subsidiary has a giant presence here working on federal contracts. So there are a few contenders. Teresa Carlson is one of them. And it would be very interesting if she moved up to that role, because it would certainly be a local CEO who -- I mean, in theory would be in the HQ2 area. And that would be very interesting.

  • 12:04:54

    LEFRAKJonathan, the other big news for our region as I just mentioned is that Amazon released the design for this new HQ2 tower. And we'll get into the design itself in a moment. But first can you clarify, is this tower the actual headquarters?

  • 12:05:12

    CAPRIELThe actual -- well, I would say that this is probably the anchor or the flagship. It's the -- I think Metropolitan Park was sort of like the advertiser. This is the big development that was sort of like always hinted at that Penn Place, the 11 acre section that includes the hotel that Amazon purchased and is currently tearing down. This was supposed to be sort of like the major development. And Metropolitan Park is just supposed to be sort of like a -- yeah, like I said, an appetizer to that. When you mean it's the headquarters, I mean, in theory the headquarters is sort of like the -- all of the square footage in Crystal City and in Pentagon City that's currently being built. So I mean, does the CEO of the company sit at the very top of the helix, I don't think so. But that would be fun.

  • 12:06:08

    LEFRAKIn a glass throne.

  • 12:06:09

    CAPRIELYeah.

  • 12:06:10

    LEFRAKAnd I've seen what this Amazon Penn Place project that a lot is in store there, a public park, this helix, of course, retail stores, shops, an artist in residence, an outdoor hill climb. It seems like a lot is coming to the region.

  • 12:06:28

    CAPRIELYeah, no. There is at least 100,000 square feet alone of retail that's promised at the base of these buildings. Something like there's space for at least four shops at the bottom of the helix based on what I've seen. And Amazon has always promised that these retail spots would be reserved for sort of local sort of like interesting artisan kind of businesses not sort of like chains, right, like they want their employees to come down and shop local, which is of course interesting because Amazon has built itself on sort of being like a you don't have to shop local. You can just order it online and have it delivered directly to you.

  • 12:07:12

    CAPRIELBut I mean, that's what Amazon is saying. Obviously they are talking about a lot of different ways to activate this space including movies, concerts. Something else they always talk about is like farmer's markets. And of course in Seattle, Amazon loves to give away free bananas. They have something called the banana stand and they brag about the millions of bananas they give away. It's something that almost always comes up whenever John Schoettler is talking about HQ2, which of course is just very endearing.

  • 12:07:41

    LEFRAKAnd that will always make us Arrested Development fans out there chuckle. Now speaking of all these new developments I'd like to bring in Philip Kennicott to the conversation here. Philip is the Senior Art and Architecture Critic at The Washington Post, which as we mentioned is owned by Jeff Bezos. Welcome back to the program, Philip.

  • 12:07:59

    PHILIP KENNICOTTThanks for having me.

  • 12:08:02

    LEFRAKPhilip, the glass double helix structure Amazon is proposing has gotten a lot of attention since they announced it. Since we can't show our listener's on the radio what the structure will look like, can you describe it for us?

  • 12:08:14

    KENNICOTTRight. So there have been some fairly colorful descriptions of it. I'll choose a relatively neutral one. It's meant to look maybe a bit like a shell. Think of a cerith snail or a conch shell. It has two pathways that snake up not quite in parallel, but in a double helix form. And it rises up to almost a point at the very top. It's a glass structure and these pathways that snake around its edges are going to be filled with trees and plantings that are meant to be like the natural landscape of the mountains to the west of here.

  • 12:08:50

    LEFRAKNow, I understand you recently interviewed the architect behind the helix idea. Is that correct, and if so what did you learn from the conversation?

  • 12:08:59

    KENNICOTTRight. So I spoke with both John Schoettler who is the Vice President Global Real Estate at Amazon and Dale Alberda who is one of the architects with NBBJ, which has been tasked with designing this. I learned a couple of interesting things. When I first looked at this building, I had a number of just really kind of basic practical questions. How does this thing stand up? Well, we know now that it's going to have a central core and they'll be kind of thin like structures, beams, that come off of it that will then support the exterior glass and also anchor the floor plates as they come out. There will be about 14 floor plates. They'll be higher floors than you would normally find in an office building. And the idea is to create a variety of fairly open green spaces that mimic emersion into the actual environment.

  • 12:09:50

    LEFRAKNow when we think of Crystal City, green spaces, these open spaces that you're talking about and this very creative architecture perhaps isn't the first thing that pops to mind. Of course, there's a lot of big square, concrete and glass office buildings. And then I'm also thinking of the brutalist architecture that's very common in D.C. So I'm curious from your perspective how does this Amazon building differ from those more traditional styles that we see around the region?

  • 12:10:20

    KENNICOTTWell, probably the most significant difference is that this is not meant to be an office building. If you're building an office building in D.C., because of the price of the real estate market you try and jam as much square footage as you can into the lot that you have allowed. This is really meant as a kind of meeting place, a decompression zone, a place to go and chill out, answer emails, read a book, whatever. And for that reason it doesn't have to conform to the fairly rigid dynamics that governs the rest of architecture in and around D.C. And that has led almost uniformly to box-like architecture that isn't very interesting.

  • 12:10:56

    KENNICOTTThis is certainly very different. I don't know that it's going to be universally acclaimed by architecture critics, because there's some strange things going on here. But it's certainly going to be very distinctive from what already exists in the region.

  • 12:11:08

    LEFRAKWell, we're getting a number of tweets and emails from folks who are weighing in with their opinions on the building ranging from Michael who emails and says that he likes the design. Says it's a refreshing change. Another Twitter user, nothing clever, tweeted that it looks, frankly like a glass turd. So a real spectrum there. Philip, are there any buildings in our region that might be reminiscent of the designs for Amazon's HQ2 and we have about a minute here.

  • 12:11:35

    KENNICOTTRight. So in terms of structurally or in terms of form, no. But there are buildings that try to do what this building does, which is to provide a more kind of natural work environment, and so one place would be the public health school at George Washington University. From the surface it does not look anything like this, but inside you're going to see some of the same things that are aimed at creating an environment that is a little more healthy, a little more natural involves plants and air and space.

  • 12:12:02

    LEFRAKPlants and air and space, well, that is something that I think the region might be looking for or quite the change to the Arlington skyline. We'll continue our conversation about Amazon after just a short break. Stay tuned.

  • 12:12:52

    LEFRAKWelcome back. I'm Mikaela Lefrak sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're discussing Amazon's new HQ2 with Washington Post's Senior Art and Architecture Critic, Philip Kennicott, and Washington Business Reporter Journal Reporter Jonathan Capriel. Now, Philip, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the tower's design. Generally speaking, do you think a helix is an efficient use of space? And what can you tell us about the offices inside? What will it be like for people who are working there?

  • 12:13:21

    KENNICOTTRight. So it's not going to have traditional offices. So that makes the question is it an efficient use of space a slightly complex one.

  • 12:13:28

    LEFRAKSure.

  • 12:13:29

    KENNICOTTThis is meant as an iconic space. It's meant as a gathering space. It's meant as a place you can go and apparently climb a mountain literally going up these paths and get out into nature. So it's not to be judged necessarily by the same standards as office space. So I think that probably the way you judge the efficiency of this is does it communicate the message that Amazon wants to send.

  • 12:13:55

    KENNICOTTYou know, there's a term in architecture criticism called the duck. And the duck is a 20th century building that is shaped like a duck and it sells ducks. So it's a building that announces through its form the symbolic purpose of what it does. And I think this is kind of a classic duck. What is it based on? It's based on the double helix, which is the DNA. And what does Amazon do? It sells everything just like DNA is the basis of all lifeform.

  • 12:14:21

    KENNICOTTSo there's a way in which I think this building is meant to be a flag announcing the Amazon campus, which isn't really going to be a campus. So they needed something to kind of center our attention. It does an efficient job of that.

  • 12:14:35

    LEFRAKAnd we got a tweet from Annie who said she'd like to know more about the accessibility of the design. She said it seems like Amazon has a real opportunity here to incorporate universal design to make sure that the building is accessible for all people. Can you speak to that, Philip?

  • 12:14:53

    KENNICOTTI asked explicitly about that, because when you look at the renderings, it sure seems like these external walkways are going to be way too steep for anybody but a very abled bodied people to climb. And the answer is that there will be access for disabled people through the floor plates that come out from the elevator core. So the building will be accessible in that sense. I think it's early days to say how much of this space will be accessible. And I think it will be interesting to see how they develop this idea of a kind of taking a climb up the mountain in a way that maximizes the number of people who are able to do that.

  • 12:15:30

    LEFRAKNow I'm curious for both of your opinions here. We'll start with Philip. Do you think that the design of this building, this very unique architecture rendering, could potentially be distracting as from other questions that we should be asking about Amazon's HQ2 plans?

  • 12:15:49

    KENNICOTTI think so. You know, I think that this is a really glitzy drawing and it's very interesting. It was announced very early in the process. So it's going to go through a lot of changes, but there's a lot of stuff happening right now in Arlington that we need to pay attention to. Among them, consider the fact that Metropolitan Park will be basically transferred to Amazon as part of the arrangements that they have with Arlington. Who's going to control these spaces? Who is going to police them?

  • 12:16:15

    KENNICOTTWe've seen that there issues in places like City Center where you have a large private development in the middle of a public street grid or what was once a public street grid. And the question becomes what are the first amendment issues there? What is access for the homeless? What is the street life like if this is a campus, but not really a campus for a large corporate entity?

  • 12:16:36

    LEFRAKAnd, Jonathan, what do you think?

  • 12:16:39

    CAPRIELWell, when it comes to Metropolitan Park, of course, most of that park that they are funding is public. But there is actually a significant amount of space that's near their buildings that won't be. So Amazon, of course, has promised that there will be a semi or quasi-public space that people can use. But, of course, if Amazon wants they can stop people from entering. And in all of the green space in theory Penn Place belongs to them. You know, Amazon is very careful when it comes to kind of like -- they're very mindful of the kind of like activity that happens on their properties.

  • 12:17:15

    CAPRIELYou know, they're concerned about protests. Obviously in Seattle there's a large sort of movement that wants to tax the company a lot more. We haven't really seen that as much here. But that is something that exists. And some of the architects that I spoke to at least one of them was somewhat critical of this idea that this helix would be considered public especially if it, you know, operates in the similar fashion as the spheres did in Seattle, which is that you have to get a reservation to enter them.

  • 12:17:45

    CAPRIELSo I can imagine this would be a very popular thing to do. And if Amazon is putting out reservations, you know, I mean, like I guess you have to kind of like ask yourself, is that sort of a -- is that a public space or is it just a corporate space that looks nice?

  • 12:17:59

    LEFRAKRight. Jonathan, you've written about the potential consequences of letting a mega corporation have a major architectural influence on the local landscape. And, of course, this is no public building like a museum or a library. Philip, I'm curious what your thoughts are on that on the difference between this public space and the private.

  • 12:18:21

    KENNICOTTWell, we're going to have to see how it plays out, right? Does this become a center for activities that Amazon is not interested in which case you'll see a fairly robust reaction to it. Amazon is stressing in everything it's saying and doing right now a philosophy that is sometimes known as place making. It's the idea that they want this to be an addition to the cityscape. They want to be good neighbors. They want to integrated into the landscape. They don't want to be seen as sort of set apart with big gates. That's great. And I hope it plays out that way.

  • 12:18:56

    KENNICOTTBut on the other hand, you know, Amazon will always be a lightning rod. There's a certain irony in the idea of kind of street level retail here for a company that has played such a big role in the decimation of a lot of retail in this country. These ironies will be worked out in the way people decide how they want to use these places.

  • 12:19:18

    LEFRAKP from Washington D.C. emails us and says, "There has been quite a stir over the interesting shape and the use of trees and plants on the outside of this building. Yet we are shamefully behind other cities in the world in both architectural interest and environmental integration. Philip, I'm curious what your opinion on this is. I think, you know, some might say that D.C. does have a wide scope of--of, you know, public parks and architectural buildings of architectural interest. Others disagree. What do you think?

  • 12:19:50

    KENNICOTTI think D.C. is somewhere in the middle when it comes to these things. Architects here are aware of it. And the good ones fight to get those included and they're fighting against the usual issues of, you know, how much floor space can they make available. And it's always a payoff. We can go a lot farther on those things. In terms of the urban design, I think D.C. does pretty well in terms of access to green space. Certainly better than a lot cities. I think it will be interesting to see how Amazon is able to maintain this.

  • 12:20:19

    KENNICOTTAnd as Jonathan mentioned, how actually accessible will it be to ordinary people? Is the reservation system something that people feel is easy and available to them and so there are a lot of people, who are not Amazon employees using it? That will be the question I'm following.

  • 12:20:33

    LEFRAKYou know, Jonathan, is this design for Amazon's glass tower and the surrounding development final? Do the county and its residents get to weigh in at this stage or in future stages again?

  • 12:20:45

    CAPRIELYou know, of course, nothing is 100 percent final until it gets final approval from the county board. We have months of, you know, site plan committees, citizen hearings before we know exactly what this is going to look like. I will say that Metropolitan Park was an eight month process with several citizens like weighing in. But overall I would say that there was not too many changes that were made to the overall design. I think ultimately that -- I've spoken to people who are on some of these citizen boards. And some of them are, you know, very happy with the process. And others feel like that this is kind of a rubber stamp for whatever Amazon wants. So I mean, it's a place for them to let their voices be heard, but how much influence it will have on the design, I think that's kind of an open question.

  • 12:21:40

    LEFRAKMm-hmm, and if Arlington does approve this proposal, do you have a sense of when construction will get underway? What's the general timeline here?

  • 12:21:50

    KENNICOTTI believe Amazon is shooting for the beginning of 2022. And, you know, they want to have this finished by 2025. I was speaking to some architects who wondered out loud if Amazon would build all three office buildings at one time. There's been no indication that that wouldn't be the case, but, you know, Amazon says that they want this done by 2025.

  • 12:22:14

    LEFRAKRight. We're going to take a short break here. Thank you so much to Washington Post's Senior Art and Architecture Critic Philip Kennicott and Washington Business Journal Reporter Jonathan Capriel. When we come back we'll be switching gears a bit and talking comedy, local political comedy that is. Stay with us.

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