Point Austin: The Amazon Invasion

We could handle another giant, but let’s let ’em open their own wallets

Point Austin: The Amazon Invasion

By the time you read this, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce will have submitted its confidential initial pitch for the Amazon Corp.'s second headquarters ("HQ2") to locate in the Austin area. Amazon's deadline for proposals was Thursday, Oct. 19, and it's safe to presume the corporate honchos consider punctuality a virtue. Although the initial process is shadowy, Amazon will reportedly be evaluating offers from a couple dozen metroplexes (including Dallas and Austin, among other Texas locations), although San Antonio officially took itself out of the running earlier this month.

SA Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff cited a potential economic incentive package north of $3 billion – and their suspicion that the company has already picked a winner – but the bulk of their letter reads like a promotional PR pitch for Amazon to in fact consider their "city of the future." The buzz emanating from Austin's City Hall is that this initial phase of the bidding war is entirely in the hands of the state and the Chamber, which would presumably celebrate if the company chose a location anywhere in the metro area.

Amazon's Request for Pro­posals describes the project's physical requirements at length, everything from building sites to quality of life, but the most detailed item of its "Information Requested" is for "a summary of total incentives offered for the Project by the state/province and local community." In Austin's persisting boom years, City Council has been skeptical of incentives, although these deals generally subordinate cities to state priorities: That is, Texas officials (already expressly eager) proffer big packages that require "local sponsorship" – not much cash outlay, but acquiescence – and it would be relatively easy for a deal of this purported size ($5 billion, 50,000 jobs) to show a considerable local economic return on investment.

Let's hope Council resists any urge to genuflect – for all the usual reasons, but also because the current priorities of the state leadership are completely bonkers. When they start redirecting the money they're blowing on militarizing the border to public education or health care, we can start listening.

Join the Queue

For what it's worth, the "Upshot" analytical team at The New York Times had some fun last month winnowing several dozen contenders for HQ2, based on Amazon's stated criteria (strong job growth, stable business climate, labor pool, quality of life ...) and Austin survived down to the final nine, failing (no surprise) on transportation (i.e., a site where "workers can easily get around – and out of – town"). You can stop your worrying: "So Denver it is." ("Dear Amazon, We Picked Your New Headquarters for You," Sept. 9)

Many of us might be more eager for the deal if it somehow actually triggered an effective local mass transit system. But Amazon ain't gonna pay for that, and Austin voters have repeatedly made it clear we prefer single-occupancy-vehicle gridlock. My email has buzzed with folks lamenting that landing Amazon and its upmarket personnel would "kill affordability" (already on life support), but I find it difficult to get the vapors over the Amazonians when already in residence are Samsung, Facebook, Google, Dell, AMD, Freescale ... and for that matter, Amazon, both directly and now via Whole Foods.

Deal With It

I suspect that come next year, when Amazon says it will announce its choice, Austin's lack of a serious mass transit system – if not our malevolent state politics – will have kicked us to the curb, with few local tears. We can cheerfully return to arguing about CodeNEXT, and the vile specter of increased residential density – that would, incidentally, have the salubrious side effect of making mass transit more viable. The Austin Neighborhoods Council's Chief NIMBYist, Mary Ingle, reportedly told the Zoning and Platting Commissioners' "listening session" last Saturday that "Austin is not Calcutta."

Presumably Ingle was referring to what is now more politely called Kolkata, India, with a population density of 63,000 per square mile. She might instead have cited Manhattan (64,000/sqm), but that wouldn't have carried the dire implication the word "Calcutta" has conjured for so many generations of Westerners, imagining so many brown people living so close together in one place.

All right, let's not become, via the dreaded CodeNEXT, "Calcutta." Austin's current population density is 3,358 per square mile. I guess we barely have room to breathe, unlike the folks in the big wide open spaces of Dallas (3,644/sqm), or those in that sprawling, car-bound metropolis of Hous­ton (3,372/sqm). If not Calcutta or Man­hat­tan, can we manage to endure the residential density of our supposed Texas peer cities, that have even managed somehow to accommodate mass transit?

The truth is, we could absorb 50,000 new jobs and people (and their corollaries) with barely a ripple, even if they make us less weird. If Amazon eventually chooses Aus­tin or its suburbs, let's give 'em a welcoming Texas handshake, with the proviso that they can certainly afford to pay their own way. If that's a deal-killer, no deal.

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