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Municipalities across the country are furiously finishing their pitch — and tax breaks, no doubt — to become home to Amazon's second headquarters.
About a dozen cities in Massachusetts have told WBUR they plan to bid by Thursday's deadline. That includes Boston, Worcester, New Bedford, Revere, Weymouth and Somerville, as well as two regional bids from communities in the Merrimack Valley and Middlesex County.
But before communities go all in on the promised 50,000 jobs, we wanted to take a close look at how Amazon has affected its hometown, Seattle.
Lightly edited for clarity.
Meghna Chakrabarti: If you were to give Amazon a one through five star rating for what it's been like to have Amazon as the biggest company in town for Seattle, what rating would you give it?
Joni Balter: I'll go with like 3.5, to be friendly, warm, and one of those Seattleites that embraces big companies, and there aren't that many.
Chakrabarti: And Peter, you were going to give it 3.5 stars also?
Peter Robison: Yes, because I think you have to fight against NIMBYism, and the Seattle Freeze, and recognize all the good things, which starts with lots of jobs.
Chakrabarti: And the Seattle Freeze, for we Bostonians, meaning what?
Robison: Meaning, the fact that Seattleites need about five years to warm up to you before you can become friends with them.
Balter: And they're not going to do it during The Big Dark, which is about to start today, because they can't see you beyond their rain gear.
Chakrabarti: It takes Bostonians about that long, too, so maybe this is a match made in heaven. Who knows? So 3.5 stars, I have to say that I think that's a fair assessment. We've been talking already here in Boston a lot about the potential upside: the jobs, the six-figure salaries, the development, et cetera, et cetera. But what are some of the things that Seattle has struggled with? The company has exploded in the past seven years especially, so what's that done to things like housing, Joni?
Balter: 'Amageddon' is one word that we use for it. Seattle has changed dramatically. A lot of cities would do backflips to have Amazon come there, and that's what the genius of their nationwide search for HQ2 is. But there are some downsides. They've built more than 20 buildings. They occupy more than 38. Ten million or 12 million, depends on which day you ask them, square feet of office space. So what we're around here mourning, and the reason why there is a little freeze toward Amazon, is this sense that we're losing the Seattle that you described: the diners, the dive bars, the funky places giving way to soulless, overly-precious, foo foo places.
Chakrabarti: So South Lake Union, where Amazon's Seattle headquarters are, what was it like before the company moved in?
Balter: I worked in that neighborhood at the Seattle Times. And there were supposed to be a park there. [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen wanted to put a park there, but the voters turned it down twice. So what was there was car lots, parking lots. I used to park in one of them and run down the street late at night after one of those really short shifts at the Seattle Times. It's pretty empty. There was daycare there, trophy shops. It wasn't much, but now it is filled with buildings and apartment buildings and traffic and all the stuff that annoys people.
Chakrabarti: Peter, though, I'm hearing what Joni's describing and thinking there are definitely neighborhoods around Boston that feel exactly the same way today when you're describing the South Lake Union of pre-2010. But on the other hand, the shiny new one that you have there with all those millions of square foot of office space also have a lot of really well-paid employees, who I'm seeing a lot of them live within walking or biking distance. Hasn't that been been good for the Seattle core, Peter?
Robison: It has been good. And you shouldn't romanticize South Lake Union because it was kind of an in-between neighborhood. But the thing that's different about Seattle is that it now feels like you need a lot of money to live here. If you're asking what should Boston expect: I think if you have a good job, if you own your house, if you live not too far from work, then you'll be fine because you won't be hurt as much by rising prices. It'll be easier for you to get to work. Traffic is another big thing that's changed here a lot. It's much harder to get around to the city.
Chakrabarti: How much harder?
Balter: And that's partly because of the construction. We feel like we live in one big construction zone here at this northern part of downtown. You can't get around and the streets are blocked because we're building a new building. And not everyone is a winner in the Amazon economy.
Chakrabarti: So about traffic, how much harder is it especially for people who their destination isn't an Amazon HQ?
Balter: So I've doubled my estimates for all the travel times that I used to have.
Balter: And that works on some things, and it doesn't. Sometimes you're just really stuck, if it's peak time. It changed.
Robison: And a lot more people ride the bus. Amazon also gives free bus passes to their employees, so the buses are also more crowded.
Balter: But also the buses, as we've read recently, sometimes pass people waiting in the rain because they're just simply too full. They can't unload anybody else.
Chakrabarti: Wow. So, maybe there's a flip side here that we should be looking at. What kind of corporate citizen has Amazon been? As a big company, as a bigger and bigger footprint, are they supporting transportation infrastructure? Are they putting money into make the schools better? Has life in Seattle overall improved in these other ways?
Balter: Well so one thing, I wrote a piece for Bloomberg about this, about are they a good corporate citizen? Are they philanthropic, like some of the other folks here like the Gates' and all those kind of folks? I think the fair answer is that they are getting the better end of the deal at the moment in terms of philanthropy. Former Mayor Norm Rice said, 'I don't see Amazon's aspirational goal for being a philanthropic leader for the region. It's still forming.'
Although to be fair to Amazon, and I really do want to be fair to Amazon, they have stepped that up a bunch. So their global real estate guy [John Schoettler] recently joined the [Seattle Metropolitan] Chamber [of Commerce] to just finally connect with this city. Because some of this angst, I guess is the right word, had to do with: they were here, they were big, and they wouldn't talk to anybody. But this real estate guy joined the Chamber. They invested in something called Mary's Place, a shelter for the homeless. They give away bananas on the street corner just to make you smile and eat your banana. And they now announced that in one of their many buildings, that Mary's Place, this homeless place for families, will have a permanent residence there. They are trying to step it up.
Chakrabarti: Peter, your thoughts?
Robison: I think that's right. They have made, especially in last two years, great strides in their outreach. But they have been behind in traditional philanthropy. Something that I noticed recently, I went to the ballet and I turned to the corporate donor page. And there at the top is the benefactors you'd expect: Boeing and Microsoft. And then if you look really hard, and you go to the $2,500 to $9,999 section, there's Amazon next to Ben Bridge Jeweler. So they're still, I think, developing what their philanthropic contribution to the community is going to be.
Chakrabarti: Right. Now you know, of course, Boeing is still there but it doesn't have the giant footprint that it used to have in terms of its impact on the Seattle economy. Microsoft, still there next door in Redmond. It sounds like in comparison, Amazon as a corporate citizen is doing OK. So, does that mean that we here in Boston ought to be feeling pretty good about that, if for some reason we're lucky enough to get Amazon to come here?
Balter: They're sort of slow to adapt. As was Microsoft, by the way. Microsoft for a long time had the same playbook. They were distant, aloof, and uninvolved, but then they became completely connected to this to the city and the region and completely involved. So it takes a little time, like we said earlier. I wanted to add one other thing. One of the things that people really, really lament about this 'prosperity bomb' as somebody called it, is the decline in diversity in our city — in our central city. We have a neighborhood, maybe you're familiar with it, the Central District. African-Americans are being pushed out of the central city and its once affordable neighborhood.
Chakrabarti: And do we know if it's correlated to Amazon being there and its 40,000-plus employees?
Balter: Yes. They have 40,000 employees, but think about the multiplier effect of that. It's not just 40,000. It's families that are coming. It's delis, dry cleaners, and the rest of it. And yes, it's the total. It's not fair to blame all of this on Amazon, because many other companies have come here — tech companies — and collectively they are driving up prices so much. I mean housing's doubled almost, and the prices are too high and people are not able to afford it, so longtime Seattleites are being forced out, priced out.
Chakrabarti: You know, I'm thinking back to both your 3.5 stars here, because I think do think it's very fair. It's like not either all good or all bad. Because looking at some other numbers here, again the Seattle Times has done some terrific research on this, that Amazon itself estimates that it's brought what some $38 billion to Seattle's economy over time. It's a huge number. But then the Seattle Times also says that South Lake Union, where Amazon is located, has seen $668 million dollars in infrastructure improvements, but only about one sixth of the cost has come from private investment and the rest from ratepayers and public funds. So overall, even that little mix there, is it a net good because the growth is still happening?
Balter: This is such a balancing act as far as I'm concerned. Amazon is the largest private employer, the largest property tax payer. City coffers are full, state coffers full. So that's one side of it, right? But on the other side, is this Seattle, this city that worked. We used to say it's a city that works, and now it's more of a city that kind of used to work. You're balancing all of that.
Chakrabarti: It used to work, because why?
Balter: Because you could get around. You could get from Point A to Point B without having an anxiety attack. Now it's completely different. All of that.
Chakrabarti: I see, certain fundamentals have really changed.
Robison: It just feels like a much bigger city. I moved here 18 years ago and I'm sure it's the city you remember: it's the funky, craftsman houses and the Bohemian neighborhoods. And now it's much higher rise buildings and the restaurants all feel like they could be in Dallas.
Balter: You told me before we started taping: what's being built right next door to you?
Robison: A concrete box, three stories tall. These neighborhoods that were these these sort of hippie neighborhoods, we have a lot of prayer flags in our in our neighborhood. And there's a house that has a new dictionary word every week. I noticed last week the word was pelf which means pilfered, ill-gotten gains. So that may be someone who is not part of the Amazon 'prosperity bomb.'
Chakrabarti: So there's complexity to this story here, and that's why I really wanted to talk with both you. I really appreciate it. If there's one thing one question you think Boston should be asking Seattle about wanting to come here, what what do you think it should be? Joni?
Balter: What do you wish for? And be careful what you wish for.
This segment aired on October 17, 2017.
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