On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In February, Amazon unveiled designs for a “Helix” tower as part of the company’s HQ2 plans. The construction drew nationwide attention, and we talked about it on a show last month.
Now, we’re doing a deeper dive into Amazon HQ2. We’ll discuss what locals can expect from the construction, as well as Amazon’s community outreach efforts in the region. Including the company’s Housing Equity Fund and most recent $9 million donation to regional organizations.
At the end of the month, Amazon will begin the public review process of its “Helix” design and the area around it named PenPlace. At this first “Community Kick-off Meeting” locals will get the opportunity to share their thoughts on these development plans. Ahead of that, Amazon’s Vice President of Public Policy joins us to answer questions on what PenPlace and the rest of Amazon HQ2 will mean for locals.
Produced by Inés Rénique
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo For Kids with Graphic Novelist Judd Winick. But first, a couple of weeks ago on this show we talked about Amazon's recently released design plans for HQ2 in Arlington including a striking glass helix building. Today we're doing a deeper dive into the company's plans. Joining us now to discuss this is Brian Huseman, who is Amazon's Vice President of Public Policy. Brian Huseman, thank you for joining us.
BRIAN HUSEMANThank you, Kojo, for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Jonathan Capriel, Washington Business Journal's Amazon Reporter. Jonathan, thank you for joining us.
JONATHAN CAPRIELThank you for having me.
NNAMDIStart with you, Jonathan. Can you give us a quick overview as to what's happening with Amazon's HQ2?
CAPRIELSure. I think -- I mean, obviously on the 25th there's going to be an open house where Amazon and Arlington will sort of like talk about the PenPlace development. At this point we know that Amazon probably has about 1,500 employees that are specifically HQ2. This year they plan to add at least another 2,000. Amazon is on track to, of course, get its incentive deals from the state. The county incentive deals are a little bit probably in limbo at this point as a result of COVID. Beyond that, I would just like to also bring up that Amazon, of course, is also setting up a AWS East Coast Campus in Herndon, and they are supposed to have about 600 employees over there.
CAPRIELAmazon Web Services, which is their highly profitable cloud computing arm that is -- and there's, of course, a lot of that in this area, you know, that deals with federal contracting and stuff like that. So yeah, and they've got about 600 employees or they should at least this year. And they should be getting about $5 million from the state for that development.
NNAMDIBrian Huseman, it sounds like you've been busy over at Amazon HQ2. Tell us about your work as Amazon's VP for Public Policy. What exactly does it entail?
HUSEMANWell, first of all, Kojo, I just have to tell you kind of thank you for having me on. I'm a big fan. Really excited here and thank you for, you know, all you've done for your listeners over the years.
HUSEMANYes. And so as Vice President of Public Policy I oversee our interactions with government officials. And that's across both North and South America. And specifically about HQ2 I oversee the team that led the search for the headquarters. And I've been in involved in many aspects of HQ2 from the very beginning.
NNAMDIJonathan Capriel, can you talk a little more about the incentives that were offered to Amazon. Remind us of what Virginia and Arlington offered Amazon and with what requirements.
CAPRIELSo Virginia was, of course, the larger one. It was I believe $500 million for about 25,000 employees. There's actually an additional incentive is Amazon reaches something close to 39,000 employees. So the total incentive there would be $750 million. For Arlington, it was about $23 million for square footage. And I think Amazon was supposed to reach about six million square footage and, you know, hit certain targeted goals every year to get that money. That incentive I think, though, is probably -- I mean, for year one Amazon didn't get anything from that because of COVID, because the actual incentive was tied to hotel stay nights, a tax related to that. The idea being that, you know, more people would be traveling to Arlington for business and therefore there would be more hotel nights. Of course, COVID derailed that.
CAPRIELAnd I would actually be very skeptical if Amazon gets any money from that even this year because the actual wording of the incentive kind of goes into like that it has to be excessive. You know, the averages of year 2019, 2018, 2017 and, you know, because of COVID there's just no chance that that's going to happen or at least highly unlikely.
HUSEMANHey, Kojo, I think if I can, the important thing to remember is that Amazon only gets those incentives if we create jobs. And we're, you know, on track to create 25,000 jobs and invest over $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. And also an important part of those agreements were the community benefits and the transportation infrastructure improvements. And also we're excited to work, you know, with Virginia Tech as they build their innovation center. So I think that's an important thing to remember as well.
NNAMDIThat you are in fact, on track to create 25,000 jobs and on track to invest $2.5 billion over the next decade. Amazon began HQ2 construction in January of 2020, Brian. Little did we know what the year would have in store for us. But are you still on track to finish construction on time?
HUSEMANWe are. So the first phase of development, which is the Med Par development is well under construction. And we will deliver that in 2023. And then the second phase, which is the PenPlace, which is the subject of the upcoming meeting will hopefully get started next year, but, Kojo, we are on track. We have 1600 employees already at HQ2. We have over 500 open roles. And we're excited by the progress we're making in Arlington.
NNAMDIHas the pandemic affected any of your timelines at all?
HUSEMANWell, it's definitely changed the way that we've approached things. We had to go to virtual community meetings, which actually were I think successful from our perspective and from the communities perspective. We were able to get a wide range of participation and viewpoints, and we've also switched to virtual hiring. You know, we've been working from home for the past year and all of our interviews and employee onboarding is done virtually. But we still are on track.
NNAMDIBrian Huseman, Amazon has given to a number of local organizations and causes. Can you talk about what Amazon has been doing to support the local community and in particular during this past year amid the pandemic?
HUSEMANYeah, Kojo, from the very beginning we've wanted to be a good neighbor and have a positive impact on the DMV region. And, you know, we have received such a warm welcome from the community. We've actually engaged with over 100 non-profit groups and since 2019 we've donated over $19 million to dozens of organizations, and that's just, you know, the beginning of it.
HUSEMANWhen it came to COVID specifically we wanted to step in and help out how we could. Just a couple of examples, we worked with Freddy's, which is a great restaurant in Crystal City and donated over 10,000 meals to first responders, and we worked with Arlington County Public Schools to purchase some Wi-Fi hotspots for students, and worked with food banks and groups providing emergency financial assistance. It's definitely been a challenging time, and we want to be a good neighbor and to help out others as best as we can.
NNAMDIHere is -- go ahead, please, Jonathan.
CAPRIELYeah, I would just like to ask a little bit about that. I mean, I remember I think back in the early days of the pandemic, Amazon was also helping businesses in Seattle. Actually, cover their rent in some cases and offer them money, but Amazon didn't actually start a program like that to help Arlington businesses. I was just kind of wondering like, you know, what was the decision making behind like that program in Seattle versus the one in Arlington.
HUSEMANYeah. Absolutely. You know, it's not a one size fits all solution. And we listen to the needs in Seattle and that's definitely a need there, but here in Arlington we listened to what the community needed. And we responded to that with things like the meals and food banks and emergency financial services.
NNAMDIYou want to follow-up on that, Jonathan?
CAPRIELYeah, I mean, I guess my question would be -- I mean, are you kind of suggesting that like the businesses here weren't hurting the same way the ones in Seattle were?
HUSEMANNo. I'm not saying that. I think the team is constantly looking for new approaches and looking for new ways to help out and we responded with what we heard from the community, and we're very proud of that. And of course, as the pandemic continues we look forward to doing more.
NNAMDIHere now is ...
CAPRIELAnd I'm not suggesting at all that you shouldn't be proud of it just to be clear. It just also that, you know, like there were of course, Arlington Economic Development started their own sort of like program to help businesses were they were actually giving I think $10,000 to businesses that were in need. And I understand that there was limited amount of funds to that. And I remember talking to the director of the program. And I asked, hey, have you guys spoken to Amazon about giving? And they said to me, No, but, of course, we're open to getting money from anyone. I was just wondering if -- had you guys talked about contributing to that program?
HUSEMANYou know, I don't have the specifics of that, but happy to follow-up on that.
NNAMDIHere now is Leslie in Tillman, Maryland. Leslie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LESLIEHi, Kojo. I want to say, thank you so much. I'm a huge fan of yours. I actually live in Washington D.C. I'm just out in the country right now. I wanted to say first I work for an affordable housing non-profit regional group. And I'm very, very concerned about the impact that Amazon is going to have on the affordability of housing. I want to applaud what Amazon has done so far. Leslie Housing, who I work for has been a recipient of funds that Amazon has made available and in particular I like the program where they are buying down the rents.
LESLIEI'm very concerned about the sort of holistic environment where you pump money into the system and it can actually raise the rents, the acquisition prices and things like that. So the idea of putting -- buying down rents after all the government programs and various financing tools have been used, if you buy the rents down afterwards, it won't accelerate the increase in rents if you can understand what I'm trying to say.
NNAMDII am not sure I do and we only have about a minute left in this segment, but I'm sure Brian Huseman understands it better than I do. Brian?
HUSEMANYeah. Thank you, Leslie so much. Amazon recently announced an investment of $2 billion in a housing equity fund. We know that affordable housing is an issue in this area and across the country. And I think what Leslie was referring to was a recent investment in Crystal House, which is an affordable housing complex just a block away from HQ2 and through a combination of grants and below market rate loans we invested over $380 billion to preserve that affordable housing. And it is a long term 99 a year project. So, Leslie, we definitely look forward to working with groups like yours and with governments to help be part of the solution for -- because affordable housing is definitely an issue.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Brian Huseman and Jonathan Capriel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing Amazon HQ2's impact on Arlington and beyond. Our last caller Leslie mentioned a project that she works with that Amazon has been giving some funding to. Brian Huseman, Amazon has given to a number of local organizations and causes. Can you tell us about what Amazon has been doing to support the local community and in particular this past year amid the pandemic?
HUSEMANYes, Kojo. Our goal has been to a good neighbor and really stitch ourselves into the fabric of the community. And we're doing that by listening to community groups and figuring out what their needs are and what their interests are. And, you know, as I mentioned, we've engaged with over 100 groups, given over $19 million to local groups since 2019. And what we're hearing is that there is a strong community interest in issues like sustainability and racial equity and as we talked about affordable housing and the arts. And that's what -- where we're focused our investments on as well as helping those in need, of course, during the pandemic.
NNAMDIAt the end of the month Arlington County will begin its public review of the latest HQ2 construction PenPlace. That's the one that includes the glass helix structure. For those who haven't seen the plans, Brian, can you describe what is planned for PenPlace?
HUSEMANYeah. So PenPlace is going to be a three 22 story buildings and as you mentioned, the signature building, which is the helix and, you know, you should look online to see some renderings of it. They can describe it better than I can. But, Kojo, I think importantly in addition to those buildings we're going to have a two and a half acre park that will be open to the public and space for local ground floor retail and amphitheaters and dog parks. We really want PenPlace to be an amenity for the entire neighborhood and for the community. And we're looking forward to starting off that community input process with the first meeting on March the 25th.
NNAMDIBrian Huseman is Amazon's Vice President of Public Policy. Jonathan Capriel is Washington Business Journal's Amazon Reporter. Jonathan, the public review period that I just mentioned starts with a community kickoff meeting on March 25th. What will the public review process entail?
CAPRIELWell, I mean, it's definitely months of meetings and sort of like a -- I think some critiquing. I mean, if it's anything like the Metropolitan Park review process it will be some mild critiquing of Amazon's designs and their plans. This go around, my understanding is that they are actually going to do the park planning process first because from what I've been the green space in the center like is very critical to what the rest of the sort of layout is going to be. And there's also been like a very large number of people in the community, who are concerned by what they say is a lack of like open green space in the neighborhood.
NNAMDIHere now is Michelle in Silver Spring, Maryland. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELLEHi. I was just wondering -- I live in Montgomery County and I'm sure many of the 25,000 employees will also be coming Maryland, but I was wondering if Amazon is also supporting non-profits and other community organizations in Maryland.
NNAMDIYou mean outside of Virginia.
MICHELLEYeah, outside of Virginia.
HUSEMANYeah, Michelle, we absolutely are. And although our buildings are in Arlington we view this headquarters as being in the entire DMV region. And as you said many of our employees are going to live in Maryland. They're going to live in the District as well as in Virginia. And we've done outreach to groups in Maryland and we look forward to continuing that and being a partner to non-profits there as well.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Jonathan, this public review period will be an opportunity for local residents to voice their support or concerns around Amazon's latest construction plans. You've been covering similar meetings since HQ2 was first announced. Has anything surprised you about the response to Amazon's HQ2 in this region?
CAPRIELI mean, I will say that I think the response at least in Arlington has been, of course, overwhelmingly positive compared to the response in New York. And I mean, I don't want to go over ancient history there, but I do think that there is sort of a smaller contingency of people who are concerned by sort of like the national image of Amazon. You know, whether its concerns about worker treatment and racial equity.
CAPRIELAnd, you know, that's actually something that I would love to talk -- if Brian could talk a little bit about. I remember back in June he was speaking a little about when Amazon reached 1,000 employees about how, you know, they were working towards making sure HQ2 was racially diverse. And I would just love to know like what is the situation with that. Like, you know, if you guys have numbers for the equity and racial diversity of the HQ2 offices.
HUSEMANYeah, so having a diverse and inclusive work environment incredibly important to us. And, you know, as we've mentioned the diversity of the talent here in the D.C. area was one of the reasons that we chose it. Amazon has -- we have more work to do, of course, but we have aggressive hiring goals companywide. We've committed to doubling the number of Black directors and vice presidents in 2020 and doubling it again in 2021. And we've done a number of meetings and outreach to local diversity groups. It's important to us and, of course, look forward to continuing this important conversation.
NNAMDIDo you have numbers that you can share with reporters like Jonathan?
HUSEMANYou know, I don't have those numbers in front of me, but we have made companywide commitments. And we include -- we post our diversity numbers on our website and those numbers are publically available.
CAPRIELI mean, I would say that those numbers are, of course, national, which is great. I mean, it looks like compared to other companies Amazon is more diverse. But also I think sometimes those numbers can be a little bit clouded by the fact that Amazon is largely a distributor. It's logistics. So a lot of times that minority count can appear larger company to other tech companies because of that. I mean, it would be great if Amazon were to, you know, release more detailed information about like, you know, how many computer science degree employees you have of different, you know, backgrounds.
NNAMDIBrian, Amazon employees in Alabama are voting on whether to unionize right now and across the country. Amazon has faced lawsuits and protests around its labor practices. Here is Anthony in Arlington. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYHey, how are you doing? My name is Anthony from Arlington. Recently we have collective bargaining and it's going to be going through in legislation in Richmond. I was wondering what Amazon's stance is. Also I'd like to -- I don't know if you're aware that the employees in (unintelligible) and others are not getting any raises obviously through the pandemic. I was wondering if you guys had any idea or a plan to maybe help us out a little bit.
HUSEMANYeah, Anthony, thank you for that comment. Amazon respects an employee's right to join or not to join a union. We think that the direct connection between the employee and employer is the best method to resolve any concerns. And of course, you know, Amazon's starting wage nationally is $15 an hour. It's double the federal minimum wage and we adopted that in 2018. And our employees also have world class benefits from the day one from their first day of employment. And, Anthony, I'm not familiar with the specifics of the situation about kind of the employees in Arlington, but I'd be happy to look in that further.
NNAMDIWhen will your PenPlace campus be ready? What can locals expect from their first visit?
HUSEMANYeah, well, we'll going through the community input process this year, which we're very excited about. Hopefully the county board will approve it later this year and then we'll start construction next year with a delivery in 2025. And I hope that the community can have a great open space, a gathering point for the neighborhood with lots of amenities, and also a chance to interact with nature both in the open park as well as in the design of the helix. We're very excited by PenPlace.
NNAMDIWe just have a little more than a minute left. I'll give that to Carol in Arlington, Virginia. Carol, your turn.
CAROLYes. Hello, I'm Carol Wade. I'm a member of the Arlington Artist Alliance, a local group of artists. And Jamie J. Smith has been a wonderful sponsor for us. We have a gallery in a Crystal City underground. We would appreciate the opportunity to work with Amazon.
NNAMDIWell, let me give Brian a chance to respond. Brian, we only have about 30 seconds.
HUSEMANWell, Carol, please follow-up with me. You can kind of like find me on Twitter, but I would love learn more about your organization. And we're also looking -- we're always looking for great partners, and the arts, of course, is a very important part of the community. So happy to talk with you more.
NNAMDIBrian Huseman is Amazon's Vice President of Public Policy. Thank you for joining us.
HUSEMANThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIJonathan Capriel is Washington Business Journal's Amazon Reporter. Jonathan, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, it's Kojo For Kids with Graphic Novelist Judd Winick. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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