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Seattle should make a pitch to be Amazon’s 2nd headquarters

Coastal cities need growth and ambition.

Federal Air Marshals To Begin Land And Sea Patrols Photo by Robert Sumner/Getty Images

Amazon’s announcement that it wants to essentially duplicate its massive home office presence by constructing a second corporate headquarters in North America set off an irresistible frenzy of speculation. And from the company’s point of view, the best part is that it will also set off an irresistible race to the bottom as cities compete to shower subsidies on the company in hopes of luring the proposed 50,000 jobs spread across 8 million square feet of offices at an average compensation of $100,000 a piece.

But one city is weirdly missing from the speculation: Seattle.

Seattle checks all the boxes. It’s a large, amenity-rich city whose metro area population is well over 1 million. It’s also an unusually well-educated city, with plentiful college graduates and a local business culture rich with experience in both engineering and retail with companies like Microsoft, Starbucks, and (historically) Boeing headquartered there. Its airport, though modest in size, serves all the major international business destinations — places like London, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Frankfurt, Seoul, Dubai, Taipei, Paris, Toronto, and Shenzhen.

There’s a thriving cultural scene, Washington State’s public schools are relatively high performing, and the kind of young, affluent, educated workers Amazon is looking to attract will appreciate the opportunity to live in a culturally progressive state that also doesn’t levy an income tax.

Seattle isn’t thought of as one of America’s great mass transit cities, but it is investing heavily in expansion of its offerings and the situation is set to continue improving.

Perhaps best of all, Seattle is where Amazon’s headquarters is already located. That will spare executives the need to fly to some satellite headquarters in another city, facilitate collaboration between rank-and-file colleagues across the company, and avoid the linguistic absurdity of a company claiming to have two different HQs.

Seattle can grow

This, of course, is exactly the problem.

Seattleites, reflecting a paucity of ambition that has become endemic to coastal American cities, have convinced themselves that their city is somehow tapped out of potential growth. It’s choking on dastardly Amazon’s determination to lease office space and employ people who, in turn, demand houses and other local services. This thinking has, apparently, penetrated into the upper ranks of the company itself which is now seeking a second home in which to grow and expand.

But this sense that Seattle is already experiencing run-amok growth and bursting at the seams deserves some scrutiny and historical perspective.

In 1980, Seattle had about 493,846 residents. By 2016 it had added about 210,00 people and reached an estimated population of 704,352. That’s a reasonably fast-growing city, but consider that back in 1980 there were only 385,164 people in Fort Worth and today there are 854,113. Back when Detroit was an up-and-coming high tech city it went from 465,766 residents to 993,678 in just 10 years and then added 750,000 more people in the next 20 years after that.

Amazon could keep growing with Seattle if Seattle grew faster, and Seattle could grow faster if it wanted to. And it ought to want to.

Let them build it and they will come

The fundamental problem Seattle is facing is that the city, county, and state governments are trying to funnel demand for growth into a comparatively tiny patch of the city. Downtown and select other areas zoned for high rises are, in fact, seeing a huge boom in high rise construction.

But (depending on exactly how you count) somewhere between 57 and 65 percent of the city’s land area is zoned exclusively for single-family homes. The recent devastating flooding in the famously zoning-free city of Houston has sparked a mini-renaissance of enthusiasm for restrictive land use planning. But as Richard Kahlenberg wrote in August, the actual history of single-family zoning in the United States has nothing to do with flood control and everything to do with racial segregation. Houston itself, meanwhile, through parking requirements, largely manages to recreate many of the pathologies of single-family zoning.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with owning a single-family home if you have the means and desire to do so. The United States is a relatively land-rich country in the scheme of things, so there’s no reason the majority of people shouldn’t live in single-family homes. But land is almost by definition not plentiful in urban cores, and it’s absurd for the majority of the land in a central city to be set aside exclusively for suburban-style housing.

To accommodate growth, Seattle needs what growing cities have traditionally had — not just luxury high-rises on a narrow swathe of land, but the ability to sprinkle duplexes, triplexes, garden apartments, and rowhouses throughout the city and for strip malls and low-rise retail corridors to grow and evolve into secondary business districts. Right now, the number three city of the West Coast has considerably less population density than Boston, Philadelphia, DC, or even Providence, Rhode Island.

But nor should all the weight be put on the city proper. In Seattle, like in all American cities, the majority of the population and the vast majority of the land is in the suburbs. But King County, which contains the city itself, has only about a quarter the population density of Nassau County in the New York suburbs. Some of this stems from a laudable desire to preserve unspoiled natural landscapes. But much of it is simply large-lot zoning, a desperately underbaked commuter rail system, and a lack of ambition. Mercer Island, for example, isn’t a wilderness preserve — it’s a rich snob-zoning enclave where most of the land is set aside for lots of at least 8,000 square feet.

Make Greater Seattle even Greater

The solution to Amazon’s problem of wanting, over the years, to hire a bunch more people to work at its headquarters is obvious — keep expanding its Seattle headquarters.

And the solution to the Seattle area’s “problem” of being home to too many successful companies that are adding high-paid employees too quickly is almost comically simple — take advantage of the situation.

The City of Seattle has already moved aggressively to take advantage of the booming economy by establishing a nation-leading minimum wage to try to ensure that prosperity is broadly spread. The next step is for the city, state, and county government to come together and present an ambition plan for growth. Instead of the lavish tax subsidies other cities will offer, they should pitch the basic convenience of staying put and promise the investments and policy changes that Greater Seattle needs to grow alongside Amazon. That means even bolder investments in the city’s bus and light rail network, upgrading Sounder Commuter Rail to something resembling a viable rail link to Tacoma, and rezoning for growth.

The city should accept its own expert committee’s 2015 proposal to end single-family zoning, and the state and county should step up with measures to increase housing density throughout the area’s already-developed stretches of suburb.

Amazon might, of course, end up saying no anyway. Perhaps the lure of tax credits offered by Chicago, Philadelphia, or Atlanta will be too much to turn down. Perhaps Jeff Bezos just wants to prove he can make it in the Big Apple or exercise political influence in Washington. Maybe America’s anti-immigrant turn makes the idea of a Toronto-based pipeline to international talent irresistible. In life, you win some and you lose some.

But it would be absurd for Seattle to simply give up and accept the premise that one of the country’s most forward-thinking and dynamic cities is fated to play second-fiddle to Fort Worth in population growth and force its most successful company to seek its fortunes elsewhere. The whole point of the headquarters is that you only have one, and Seattle should pitch to keep it that way.

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