Amazon recently selected 20 cities and metro areas as possible sites for its second headquarters, all in or close to college towns. Few of these finalists have the land and infrastructure to accommodate an eventual 50,000 new jobs with a single firm, though all of them are likely to submit proposals. With the exception of Washington DC, home to the Federal Government, Amazon would become the largest employer in its chosen locale.
The competition was interesting, not only because I was educated in city and regional planning, but also because several of the finalists are cities where students in New Jersey, my home state, flock to attend college.
Amazon’s finalists include college towns such as New York (two locations, if you count Newark) and Washington DC (three locations if you count Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland). It would be no surprise to anyone who has sent a child to college in one of those cities that those who move there for an education often decide to stay there. The same might also be true for students who pursue a college education in Los Angeles, also among Amazon’s finalists.
When students choose to pursue an education in college towns such as Los Angeles, New York or Washington DC, they are also likely to be going there to “become something” after college, with the hope of building a resume as they pursue their degree. Quite often these people want to work in industries such as the arts, communications, entertainment or politics that do not pay well at the start. They compromise a great deal on housing and transportation as well as day-to-day expenses to stay. Their entry-level wages are closer to what Amazon pays a capable employee who handles customer service in a fulfillment center than the salaries of business, computer science and engineering graduates.
Other cities on Amazon’s list such as Austin, Denver and Raleigh are popular with the technology sector. But they developed more on their outskirts, and less so near downtowns or college campuses. The addition of Amazon would make them look more like Silicon Valley, and less like a destination city for young people who are not already there.
If I was involved in Amazon’s search for a headquarters site as a city planner, I would have to consider:
Of course costs are important. But I have to consider what the company has had to do to accommodate employees in Seattle, the original headquarters city. According to this page, In Seattle, about 15% of Amazon employees live in our zip code and about 20%, nearly 4,000 of 20,000 downtown employees, walk to work. Amazon has also made significant investments in infrastructure in downtown Seattle including an outdoor dog park and a dedicated two-way cycle track. Although Amazon is located in one of America’s nicer college towns, it still had to invest considerable sums to accommodate employees and the neighborhood. It has probably spent more than Apple or Google have ever invested to offer similar amenities in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Somehow, I cannot picture Amazon’s management being able to accomplish similar things within New York City, either in Manhattan or Brooklyn, or Los Angeles. New York is too built up, though it has the subway system and commuter rail connections most other large cities don’t have. Compared to New York, Los Angeles has taken baby steps when it comes to mobility. Washington DC has the METRO and many other assets. But I cannot picture Amazon having pleasant dealings with Congress, since Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post through a holding company that he created to buy the paper in 2014. I see the case for Boston and Chicago, both among America’s best college towns. But they, like New York, have their share of difficult infrastructure and housing issues. Detroit might be the most affordable and rebuildable city on Amazon’s list. But the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are not in the city. They’re almost an hour’s drive away.
There are many other nice college towns on Amazon’s list of finalists.
Personally, I like Pittsburgh.
It’s got many colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh, one of the better urban public universities and Carnegie Mellon, one of the best private schools, a good mass transit system, a really nice international airport, many technology firms, three major league sports teams, a strong arts community and a more affordable housing mix than at least 14 of the 20 finalists. It’s also possible to assemble parcels downtown to build the first buildings for the headquarters complex.
I doubt that college-bound high school seniors choose to attend college in Seattle, especially the University of Washington, with the intention of going to work for Amazon. However, it is easy to picture why those intentions might change towards graduation. Among the major college towns in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, Pittsburgh is the most comparable to Seattle.
Want to know more about colleges and college towns? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest,com, or call me at 609-406-0062.
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