Nearly a year after Amazon abruptly canceled plans to build its second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, new information has surfaced revealing that New York officials offered $800 million more in incentives and grants than initially disclosed to lure the tech giant to the state. Documents revealed from a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) by The Wall Street Journal showed that the $2.5 billion deal also included reimbursements for construction costs, additional tax credits and grants, and even the potential for the state to pay some Amazon employees' salaries. After the company's much-publicized courting process to find a (suspected) home for HQ2 in 2017, the decision to split the project and place one headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and the other in Queens was met with immediate pushback from New York residents and as local politicians. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district borders the potential HQ2 site, strongly opposed the deal to give away billions to the tech giant, while others worried that the influx of thousands of tech workers would raise housing prices and displace locals. Yet, New York’s deal still seem to pale in comparison to other offers—New Jersey topped the list at $7 billion in incentives. State officials defended the inflated offer, citing initial expectations of a larger HQ2 in Queens. “Throughout the negotiating process, we sharpened our incentive package and ultimately secured a better return on investment for the state and the biggest economic development opportunity in New York’s history,” Matthew Gorton, a spokesperson for Empire State Development, told the Journal. The new information reignites debate about the cost versus benefit of Amazon’s nixed plans. Supporters claim that the revenue and investments from the online retail giant—over $27 billion in 25 years by some estimates, as well as thousands of jobs—would have made the initial subsidies a small price to pay. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes, because it would be a great economic boost,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo jokingly told reporters during the bidding process. Criticisms over the state’s eagerness to appease Amazon at whatever cost, however, ultimately prevailed.
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As 2019 draws to a close, we’re looking back on some of the events that made it memorable. We’ve rounded up this year’s funniest, most important, and most controversial stories, as well as homages to some of the people we lost. Groundbreaking projects, heartbreaking disaster, and poignant progress toward social change made headlines this year. Take a look back at the highlights and lowlights, from the smoke above Notre Dame to the Pritzker Prize. Notre Dame burns After the Parisian cathedral caught fire this April, architects such as Foster + Partners proposed fanciful renovations and additions to the structure as France launched an international competition to rebuild the spire before the 2024 Summer Olympics. As other architects, engineers, and academics protested the hasty renovation of the building, eventually the French government announced the cathedral would be rebuilt as it was, squashing the speculation. Chief architect Villeneuve has since made his opposition to anything short of an identical reconstruction clear, “I will restore it identically and it will be me, or they will build a modern spire and it won’t be me.” The Pulse Memorial & Museum competition In October, French firm Coldefy & Associés won the design competition for a museum and memorial honoring the victims of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. The team, which includes RDAI and Orlando-based HHCP Architects, beat out MVRDV, MASS Design Group, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among other top competitors. The design is to feature an open-air museum that spirals up to the memorial site and will slice the existing club in half, making room for a pathway through the building. Rikers replacement towers After pushback, New York City decided this fall to cut in half the borough-based jail towers replacing the notorious facilities on Rikers Island, but activists are still outraged; some demand the jails be built elsewhere, while others say the city should close and not replace the existing prisons. This month, the City Planning Commission certified an application that would rezone the island as a public space, a huge step forward in the Mayor's borough-based jail plan. Studio Gang will lead the O’Hare expansion The studio of Chicago’s own Jeanne Gang won a leading role in the expansion of O’Hare International Airport, which includes updating the nearly 60-year-old Terminal 2. Skidmore, Owings, & Merill were later added onto the project to design two new 1.4 billion concourses. Amazon cancels plans for Queens HQ2 Cheers rang out around New York last winter when Amazon relinquished its plans to set up an HQ2 in Queens after substantial local opposition, but—as an April AN article detailed—the company still has a massive footprint in the city and around the country. Plans for the site are still moving forward in a different form, however, as a coalition of community members and organizations have joined together to rethink development that would benefit the neighborhood. Arata Isozaki wins the 2019 Pritzker Prize In March, the great architect, planner, and theorist Arata Isozaki won the top prize in the architecture world, making him one of the eight winners hailing from Japan.
Amazon is building a homeless shelter inside its downtown Seattle headquarters. Eight floors of an upcoming office building will be home to the Mary’s Place Family Center early next year and will be able to house up to 275 guests per night. The Seattle Times reported that the tech giant has been working on the homeless housing project with its longtime community partner, Mary’s Place, for two years. Over 63,000 square feet of space within one of Amazon’s new corporate office buildings at Seventh Avenue and Blanchard Street is being built out for the local nonprofit. Not only will it house sleeping spaces for homeless families, the facility will also include an industrial kitchen where meals will be prepared for guests and 10 other Mary’s Place shelters in Kings County. The new shelter will also feature a health and legal clinic, a rec room, a rooftop terrace, and a diversion shelter to help homeless families in transition. Two of its floors will house 30 rooms for unhoused families with children under treatment for serious medical illnesses. On the seventh floor of the building, there will be space for Amazon employees to continue their volunteer work through Mary’s Place by offering coding courses, resume workshops, and reading lessons to kids. Amazon has said it’s committed to paying for the family center’s rent, as well as all maintenance, utilities, and security costs over the next 10 years. In an interview with the Seattle Times, an Amazon real estate executive said the space will belong to Mary’s Place for as long as needed, but the nonprofit will be responsible for all operations, programming, and staff salaries. Yearly costs are estimated to be about $2 million. Since it began construction on its massive campus in Seattle nearly a decade ago, Amazon has had to repeatedly battle with the local government for more space. Advocating on behalf of community organizations like Mary’s Place is one way the company has tried to smooth things over with Seattle locals (other than pouring $1.5 million into last week's City Council race on behalf of pro-business candidates). In 2017, Mary’s Place moved into the former Travelodge hotel building that Amazon bought for its future downtown expansion and in June, Amazon pledged to annually donate $8 million to fight homelessness and provide low-cost housing surrounding its campuses in both Seattle and Arlington, Virginia. The building that houses Mary’s Place Family Center is on track to receive LEED Gold certification. An opening date for the facility has not been announced.
In early September of this year, I was at a conference at an aviation museum in Seattle, to lend some architectural context to ideas about long-term living in space. The folks at the Space Studies Institute (SSI) had invited me to talk about some of the research on NASA’s 1970s proposals to build huge rotating cities in orbit from my book, Space Settlements, as part of a panel on habitat design. This conference was commemorating two anniversaries; it had been 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, and 50 years since Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton physics professor—and the leader of the 1970s NASA work—had asked a question of his freshman intro students: “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” The answer they arrived at, after much study, was “no,” and they started to imagine the technical details of living elsewhere. My interest in this question has as much to do with history and culture as it does with getting down to the details of execution. “Why do we make space and live in it?” is a question worth asking, whether on Earth or off of it. But, while the conference itself was a fascinating two days of discussion, I was surprised to find that almost everyone there considered O’Neill’s (and my) questions to have been settled long ago. Why, the other panelists seemed to wonder, would anyone even ask “why” humans should go and live in outer space, when we can instead talk about “how?” And so that was the subject of the next two day’s conversation. 50 years on from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic flight—the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of work and about $150 billion in 2019 dollars—that “how?” seems easier than ever to answer. As of writing, it costs Elon Musk’s company SpaceX about $1,500 to launch 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). That’s down from about $43,000 for the same kilogram on the Space Shuttle in 1995. With new vehicles about to come online from SpaceX, NASA, and Jeff Bezos’s spaceflight company Blue Origin, these costs will only continue to go down. Two other factors are driving a new renaissance of plans for living and working in space: The discovery of new resources, and the confirmation, in the United States at least, that those resources can be put to use. The discovery of long-suspected ice in craters at the Moon’s poles was announced in 2018 by an international team of researchers using data from an Indian Lunar satellite. Water in space is useful, not least because living things require it to stay alive. But, once it’s been cracked apart with the cheap and plentiful solar electricity available there, it can become rocket fuel. “Water is the oil of space,” said one panelist at the SSI conference, George Sowers, formerly chief scientist with Lockheed Martin and the United Launch Alliance, now a professor of practice in space mining at the Colorado School of Mines. In 2015, the lobbying efforts of two asteroid mining startups were vindicated when Congress passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act into law. This new interpretation of the 1967 international Outer Space Treaty allowed private individuals and companies to engage in “exploration and exploitation” of water and other resources on the Moon, in the asteroids, and on other planets. These same two startups, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, later failed and were acquired by other companies. But the former CEO and cofounder of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki, was onstage at the SSI conference to talk about future successes. “If we make money in space, space settlement will happen,” said Lewicki, “it’s just us continuing to do the things we’ve always done.” This trifecta: low launch costs, a supply chain of matter and energy that’s already there, and a legal framework that can guarantee ownership of those resources, is the backend behind a new wave of proposals for architecture in space. These forces will keep that space wave going long after this post-Apollo nostalgia dies down. Earlier this year NASA awarded $500,000 to AI SpaceFactory, “a multi-planetary architectural and technology design agency, building for Earth and space,” for their MARSHA project. MARSHA successfully demonstrated an ability to use in-situ resources—Martian soil (or regolith)—to 3D print the outer shell of a habitat for four humans. The European Space Agency (ESA) Moon Village concept has been in development for most of this decade. Norman Foster, who has also designed for Mars, contributed design work to the Moon Village project in 2016, and SOM released information about its own Moon Village work earlier this spring. And of course, Bjarke Ingels is in on it, too. His firm, BIG, is making plans for a Mars simulator complex outside Dubai, and Ingels told the online design journal SSENSE that this work is a case study for a future Mars city. There’s beginning to be a long history to the notion that designing space for humans in space is a task that requires not just engineering, but architecture as well. At the inception of the Soviet Soyuz project in 1957, chief designer Sergei Korolev was unhappy with the capsule interiors that his engineers were drawing. The only architect working for the Soviet space program at that time was a woman named Galina Balashova, who was designing their office spaces. Korolev hired Balashova to redesign the habitable spaces of Soyuz, and later the space stations Salyut and Mir. Her work is still orbiting today as part of the International Space Station. On the other side of the Space Race, the Americans hired industrial designer Raymond Loewy to do the interior fit-out for Skylab. Famously, he was the one who talked them into adding a window and suggested that the best place for it would be next to the zero-gee “dining table” on the station. Back on Earth, the Space Architecture Studio and Research Lab, founded by the late Yoshiko Sato at Columbia GSAPP, now continues at Pratt under the guidance of Michael Morris, Sato’s husband. For over 30 years, the University of Houston has hosted the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture. The chief space architect for AI SpaceFactory’s award-winning MARSHA design was Jeffrey Montes, an alum of the GSAPP studio. And Suzana Bianco, a graduate of the Houston program, was a copanelist at the Space Studies Institute conference in Seattle, presenting her New Venice habitat design. In technical circles within space science, the design of a total system—with launch capability, flight modules, crew or cargo space, and recovery—is known as an “architecture.” But in most of the presentations about various technical architectures for space travel and space settlement in Seattle last month—Bianco’s presentation being a welcome exception—there was little talk about the value that architects bring to those systems. No one knows space like architects do, and these threads that connect the (still largely speculative) work taking place in outer space today with the history of architectural space on Earth are too often neglected by those working in the field. Alongside all of this talk about “how?” the other question haunting the space settlement work being discussed at this conference and elsewhere was “who?”—as in “who will pay for all of this?” Even as the costs and barriers to entry drop, there is still uncertainty about the ways in which value might be designed into the projects that will help people live in space. Whether the users of the systems under design by these space architects are tourists, miners, hotelkeepers, or simple explorers, the question of “who?” is intimately tied up in the “why?” The architect Cedric Price famously asked, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” Maybe architects are the designers best positioned to ask, and even answer, these questions about space.
Shortly after Amazon backed out of building a new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, (LIC) on February 14, developers and city officials began revisiting earlier plans for a mixed-use development on the 28-acre waterfront site. Due to the controversy of the failed Amazon proposal, all plans for the site will now have to face New York City’s public review process, meaning the community board, borough president, and city council would all have a say in the plans moving forward. According to the Licpost, a coalition of community organizations have been calling on the developers since April to produce one comprehensive plan for the area as opposed to rezoning separate sites with different goals. Back in 2017, Plaxall’s residential redevelopment proposal was centered around rezoning the former industrial shipping port, Anable Basin, through the creation of the “Anable Basin Special District” which would include eight mixed-use buildings, light manufacturing, and retail space. Out of the group of property owners who recently spoke with the de Blasio administration and City Council, one landowner was noticeably absent: Plaxall, who had proposed the original conversion on the site before Amazon moved to claim it and commissioned WXY to create a master plan. However, Plaxall’s managing director, Paula Kirby, told POLITICO earlier this week that they “remain committed to pursuing a vision that builds on LIC’s history as a center of innovation and creativity, and to working with our neighbors and the city on a plan to make Anable Basin an integral part of the future LIC waterfront." While their scheme would require rezoning, the general idea seems to be guiding the future of the site. Throughout the Amazon debacle, it seems all participants have learned that the swath of land has a great untapped potential for bringing in jobs, but that community needs must be addressed first. Rather than building more condos, developers are now welcoming the idea of multifamily buildings that would have some income-restricted units, per city mandate. Other priorities discussed with the community organizations include several new schools, an arts center, a contiguous bike lane, and open parks. According to one consultant, the number of new jobs doesn't have to be sacrificed to achieve those things. “Just based on the scale, the scope and breadth of the district, including the Plaxall site…in its full build-out, it approximately comes out to about 50,000 jobs,” MaryAnne Gilmartin of L&L MAG told POLITICO. Brent O’Leary of the Hunters Point Civic Association told the Licpost that, “Instead of developers telling us their plans for our neighborhood, the community should express their vision and needs and the developers work within that vision so that the neighborhood develops properly.” He has helped organize meetings with TF Cornerstone and L&L MAG which are expected to take place in October at a currently undecided date.
In May 2019, Jeff Bezos made his case for why and how humans will occupy space, in a presentation titled “Going to Space to Benefit Earth.” The original presentation was made to a relatively small audience but is also viewable on the website of Blue Origin, the Bezos-owned spaceflight and rocketry company. In little less than an hour, he made the argument that for humans to continue to evolve and improve their living standards, we will need access to more resources and environments than the earth has to offer us. As part of the presentation, Bezos described his vision for what the off-planet colonies will look like and the short-term goals required to make them a reality. While most of the emphasis was placed on those short-term goals, which are to colonize and extract resources from the moon, the more compelling section of the presentation focused his long term goal for off-planet environments. Using a series of illustrative animations, Bezos explained how humans could inhabit space using O’Neil cylinders. This is technology initially imagined in the 1970s by Princeton University physics professor Gerard O’Neil. There are plenty of other people, such as Fred Scharmen, who have already written about the history behind extraterrestrial colonies and their cultural impacts, so instead, I would like to focus on the even older representational techniques that influenced Blue Origin's vision of the future. Bezos used four images to illustrate and emphasize a set of important points that he makes to re-enforce his vision. The first of these points is that Blue Origin's space habitats would not be made up of larger versions of the international space stations but of manmade environments capable of supporting populations that are the equivalent of small to medium-sized cities. The second is that these orbital landscapes could vary in use (and simulated gravity through the adjustment of their rotational speeds), including recreational, farming, and technical purposes. The third is, that despite being removed from the surface of the Earth, the architecture could be made to be both visionary and familiar, allowing colonizers to maintain their cultural and spatial references while experimenting with novel landscapes. Despite being new natures, the landscapes and ecologies presented by Blue Origin were highly familiar places. This was an important part of the presentation because it allowed the audience to imagine themselves as potentially occupying these places. The representational devices used in the renderings are part of a long tradition of landscape painting: most notably, passive cues that make the occupation of unfamiliar landscapes imaginable and palatable. For comparison, Thomas Cole and other artists of the Hudson River School created paintings that normalized the 19th-century expansion into the Northeastern United States. They celebrated agriculture and other methods of organizing nature to the benefit of European colonizers, "taming" what they saw as a wild place. Nature has been historically used as an adversary to be conquered in the form of weather and difficult-to-traverse topography. An example of this can be seen in the painting View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow by Thomas Cole. The painting illustrates an artist on a hill facing storm clouds and farmland in the distance. The use of perspective and distance used in the Blu Origin images echo the rules used by Cole, with the only significant difference being the threat that the environment poses. One of the animations places a stag on a mountain in the center foreground of the rendering. In the background, there is an expanse of artificial wilderness with a city in the distance. To the right of the stag, an eagle or other large bird of prey flies effortlessly through the cylinder. Adjacent to the settlement in the image, the earth slowly rotates into view from behind the wilderness section. Instead of the thunder clouds seen in Cole's work, the sky has been replaced with the dark void beyond the structure's enclosure and stars, with the explicit understanding that this is an off-planet landscape surrounded by a vacuum. In another animation, a city is present in the background and passenger cars moved along a light rail. The presence of rain seen in Thomas Cole's painting has been replaced with a drone watering crops as it drifts over land designated for agricultural use. Weather in these spaceborne enclosures, specifically rain events, would be fabricated and controlled by necessity. However, using drones to create rain events also speaks towards a need to experience weather to simulate “nature” to the highest degree possible. The drones provide a service, but they also normalize an extremely artificial landscape. The final two animations illustrated two forms of off-world urbanism. In one of the images, the "city" was created by collaging together a series of important architectural constructions and streetscape seen across the world. From one vantage point, a resident would see a blend of Swiss, Italian, and Chinese architecture. Architecture would work as a comforting set of references for the residents, tying them back to the Earth-bound cultural environments perceived as being valuable. This vision was a more densely populated habitat of tall buildings, parks, and athletic fields. As is the case with the landscapes, the city animations sampled a narrow segment of the Earth, and were meant to attract interest from a narrow segment of people. The primary audience is the people that were present in the auditorium, sharing privileged worldviews and experiences, who would recognize the imagery being referenced. The animations shared by Blue Origin represent a complex set of ideas and allowances. They presented a chance to revisit the romantic mythologies that the adults in the audience saw in their college art history courses. At the same time, those renderings validate their commitment to a future where technology is the best means to advance humanity. Like the Cole painting, they justify the presence of people in space habitats through the use of positive pastoral imagery. This leads to what is arguably the real goal of the presentation—building enthusiasm for resource extraction on the moon. Jeff Bezos makes it clear that the moon would need to be mined for the resources that would make these space habitats economically viable. He also stated that space would provide a limitless amount of resources for expansion. This is an argument of expansion and capitalism, one that edges out conservation on Earth. There is an implicit assumption that increased exploration will make the materials cheaper. This is an argument that has been made many times before, including in 1492 when Columbus lobbied for the investments that would allow him to reach the Bahamas. Marc Miller is currently an assistant professor at the Penn State Landscape Architecture Stuckeman School.
It looks like Amazon is really digging into the whole returning-to-its-roots-thing by adding scores of new jobs to the city Jeff Bezos started the company in 25 years ago. With an incoming 600-foot-tall skyscraper slated to host thousands of employees in Bellevue, Washington, the Seattle-adjacent city will soon become home to one of the largest offices towers in the company's history. The Seattle Times reported that the giant online retailer and its main architect, NBBJ, recently filed a pre-application for Bellevue 600, a 43-story, one-million-square-foot office tower that could house up to 4,200 employees. Located just 10 miles east from its downtown Seattle headquarters—a mere hop across Lake Washington, the proposed project seems to cement Amazon’s expanding footprint in Bellevue. It already owns a 354,000-square-foot building called Centre 425, which it bought in 2017 and now accommodates 500 positions. It’s also currently renting space from WeWork in another downtown location. Last summer, Amazon signed a lease for offices in the former Expedia headquarters, which will begin next year. It also just secured square footage in a planned 17-story story building designed by LMN Architects, according to GeekWire. It’s been said that Bellevue 600, the largest of all these office spaces, would be built atop a future transit and light rail station that could easily connect employees with the Seattle home base. While Seattle is practically synonymous now with Amazon, Bezos actually began the company out of his garage in Bellevue in 1994. It’s a little-recognized fact that, when put in the context of the company’s current clashes with Seattle city government, makes sense for Amazon’s next big move. Belleuve is already emerging as a major tech hub—Google, Facebook, T-Mobile, and even Expedia have leased space in and around downtown Bellevue, according to Geekwire. And local politicians are welcoming them in. But just because it’s gobbling up leases in the Eastside city doesn’t mean Bellevue is the site of HQ2, or that it’s halting expansion in Seattle. Regardless of the intention behind it, Amazon’s real estate portfolio is rapidly growing. Set for completion in 2024, Bellevue 600 would provide room for the entirety of Amazon’s Worldwide Operations division, according to The Seattle Times. This includes all of the personnel that handle the delivery and logistics of each package that a customer orders, and the operations of the company’s 175 global fulfillment centers. Details on the design or development of the structure have not been released, but it’s been reported that, based on NBBJ’s proposal, the tower would include 885,000 square feet of office space atop a podium with room for retail, “office amenity” space, and a meeting center. Several pedestrian plazas would envelop the outdoor space as well. There’s even speculation of another tower planned for the site, which Amazon has yet to fully confirm.
Amazon has released the first visual for its upcoming second home, or HQ2, in "National Landing," featuring a design by ZGF Architects. Located in Arlington, Virginia, HQ2 will include two new energy-efficient office buildings with room for community space and neighborhood retail. Spanning 2.1 million square feet, the ground-up construction is being developed by JBG Smith and will mark phase one of the online retail giant’s plan to construct a large campus fit for its 25,000 incoming employees. The entire project will be placed within Crystal City’s new mixed-use redevelopment zone, Metropolitan Park, which encompasses 16 acres of unused warehouses and empty parking lots. Not much information on the design has been released so far but, according to Amazon, the first pair of buildings at HQ2 will be LEED Gold certified and will include 50,000 square feet of shops, restaurants, and an eventual daycare center, as well as green outdoor terraces. Phase one will also feature the transformation of the Metropolitan Park area with 1.1 acres of new public open space—think a recreational park, room for farmers markets, a dog park, and more. Additionally, HQ2 will house an on-site facility for 600 bikes and an underground parking garage. Amazon says it also has future plans to construct a bike path that would connect to Arlington’s existing bike cycling infrastructure. Located in downtown Cyrstal City, an urban subset of southeast Arlington, the tech hub will also be close to existing public transportation including the D.C. Metro, Virginia’s commuter rail line, and bus lines. Over the next decade, Amazon plans to complete upwards of 6 million square feet of office space for its new Northern Virginia home. Amazon's Crystal City design comes after last year's competition in which hundreds of cities across the U.S. and Canada vied to house the tech giant's second headquarters. After Amazon decided to bring the project to both Arlington and New York City, residents and politicians in the Big Apple protested against the negotiated arrangement between the city and the corporation, leading Amazon to back out of New York and focus on its Virginia plans.
For many of the people opposed to Amazon establishing a second headquarters (HQ2) in Queens, New York, casting the company into total exile was never the point. At its heart, opposition lay with the terms of the deal that wooed the company—its massive tax incentives, the process that had created the deal (without input or oversight from the New York City Council or local communities), and the dramatic impact such a real estate development project would have on the city's working class, especially by aggravating its gentrification and displacement crises. Facing a groundswell of local opposition, Amazon announced that it had canceled its plans for a new Queens campus on February 14, just three months after announcing its selection. While HQ2's optics and scale made it a legible enemy to rally against, Amazon's less splashy development projects have already become part of the fabric of many cities, including New York. Taking inventory of Amazon’s existing physical footprint in the city, one begins to perceive a shadow infrastructure at work which reshapes urban environments more through privatized logistics and information systems than through campus construction. In Manhattan, Amazon’s physical presence might best be recognized in retail. It was at the company’s 34th Street bookstore that protestors demonstrated on Cyber Monday following the HQ2 announcement. Indeed, like HQ2, the company’s retail stores serve as useful rallying points. But inside the same Midtown Manhattan building that hosts the bookstore sits a more explicit locus of Amazon’s presence: a 50,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center for the company’s Prime Now delivery service. It might be helpful to state here what Amazon actually is: a logistics company misrepresented as a retail company misrepresented as a tech company. Over time, the types of products the company sells have expanded beyond books and bassinets into less obviously tangible commodities like data (via Amazon Web Services), labor (via Amazon Mechanical Turk), and “content” (via Twitch and Amazon Studios productions). Ultimately the company’s appeal isn’t so much in the stuff it provides but the efficiency with which it provides stuff. Computation is obviously an important part of running a logistics operation, but Amazon’s logistical ends are frequently obscured by the hype around its technical prowess. And while Amazon is increasingly in the game of making actual things, a lot of them are commodities that, in the long run, enable the movement of other commodities: Amazon Echos aren’t just nice speakers, they’re a means of streamlining the online shopping experience into verbal commands and gathering hundreds of thousands of data points. Producing award-winning films and TV shows gives the company a patina of cultural respectability, but streaming them on Amazon Prime gets more people on Amazon and, in theory, buying things using Amazon Prime accounts. Amazon’s logistical foundation is most blatantly visible in the company's nearly 900 warehouses located around the world. Currently, the company has one fulfillment center (FC) in New York City. The 855,000-square-foot site in Staten Island opened in fall 2018 and had already earned Amazon $18 million in tax credits from the state of New York before the HQ2 deal was announced. Additionally, a month before the HQ2 announcement, Amazon had also signed a ten-year lease for a new fulfillment center in Woodside, Queens. The same day that Amazon vice president Brian Huseman testified before the New York City Council about HQ2, Staten Island warehouse employees and organizers from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced a plan to form a union at the Staten Island FC, citing exhausting and unsafe working conditions better optimized for warehouse robots than employees. These conditions are far from unique to Staten Island—stories about the grueling pace, unhealthy environment, and precarity of contract workers at fulfillment centers have been reported regularly as far back as 2011. And yet, when the Staten Island FC was first announced in 2017, a small handful of media outlets made note of this record. Unions and community leaders weren’t galvanized against the Staten island FC the way they were by HQ2 or the way they had been when Wal-Mart attempted to come to New York in 2011. In some ways, the HQ2 debacle gave new life and momentum to an organized labor challenge previously hidden in plain sight (or at least in the outer boroughs). Of course, Amazon’s logistics spaces aren’t solely confined to far-flung corners of the New York metro area: There are two Prime Now distribution hubs in New York, one in Brooklyn and the other at the previously mentioned Midtown Manhattan location. Same-day delivery service Prime Now originated from that Midtown warehouse in 2014 and spawned Amazon Flex, an app-based platform for freelance delivery drivers to distribute Prime Now packages. (Ironically, one of the reasons Amazon has been able to become so effectively entrenched in the city is because of this kind of contingent labor force—any car in New York City can become an Amazon Flex delivery vehicle, any apartment a Mechanical Turker workplace.) The art of logistics also depends in part on the art of marketing. To support that marketing endeavor, Amazon has a 40,000-square-foot photo studio in a former glass manufacturing plant in Williamsburg that produces tens of thousands of images for Amazon Fashion, the company's online apparel venture. The company's forays into fashion, while less publicized, may also position it to become one of the largest retailers of clothing in the world. New York is also home to 260 Amazon Lockers: pickup and package return sites for select products typically located in 7-Elevens and other bodega-like environments. Like Prime Now, the Lockers streamline and automate a process that would normally involve lines at the post office. First appearing in New York in 2011, the 6-foot-tall locker units can range between 6 and 15 feet wide, with the individual lockers in each unit capable of holding packages no larger than 19 x 12 x 14 inches (roughly larger than a shoebox). While early reports indicated that store owners received a small monthly stipend for hosting the lockers, the main sell for store owners is the possibility of luring in more foot traffic. But a 2013 Bloomberg article noted that smaller businesses were frustrated by the limited returns from installing the lockers and increased power bills (lockers use a digital passcode system, requiring electricity and connectivity). There is an irony in the fact that for almost a decade before the HQ2 debacle, small businesses have been ceding physical space to Amazon only to be stuck with monolithic storage spaces serving little direct benefit. Following its acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017, Amazon installed Lockers in all of the supermarket’s locations in the city. Whole Foods was already associated with gentrification and had an anti-union CEO before the Amazon acquisition; if anything, Amazon upped the ante by attempting to bring Whole Foods more in line with Amazon’s logistics-first approach. Reports that Amazon has plans to open a new grocery chain suggest that early speculation about the Whole Foods acquisition was correct: Amazon wasn’t interested in Whole Foods in order to sell produce so much as to gain access to the grocery company’s rich trove of retail data, which Amazon could use to jump-start its own grocery operations. A data-driven approach has been at the core of Amazon’s logistics empire: The company was one of the first to use recommendation algorithms to show consumers other products they might also like, and Prime Now relies extensively on purchasing data to determine what items to stock in hub warehouses. It’s unsurprising, then, that the most profitable wing of Amazon’s empire is Amazon Web Services (AWS), its cloud computing platform. AWS’s physical footprint in New York City is relatively small, with a handful of data centers within city limits. Its most visible presence may be the AWS Loft in Soho, which opened in 2015, part of a small network of similar spots in San Francisco, Tokyo, Johannesburg, and Tel Aviv. Part coworking space for startups that use AWS and part training center for AWS products and services, the Loft inhabits a kind of in-between space between data services and marketing. The space is free for AWS users and is full of comfy seating and amenities like free coffee and snacks—ironic considering Amazon's reputation for being absent of the kinds of perks expected at tech companies. Belying its small spatial footprint, AWS is a major part of the city’s networked operations. The New York City Department of Transportation and the New York Public Library are both presented as model case studies of successful AWS customers, and AWS has signed contracts with multiple city agencies, including the Departments of Education and Sanitation and the City Council as far back as 2014. AWS is also a major vendor to municipal, state, and federal agencies—and, increasingly, has come under scrutiny for its multimillion-dollar contracts with data mining company Palantir Technologies, which works with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track and deport migrants, and for peddling its face recognition technology to police departments across the country. Some of the criticism of Amazon's campus deal with NYC came from New York City Council members, apparently unaware their office was paying Amazon for hosting web support. To be fair, New York City’s AWS contracts (including the City Council’s) are a fraction of the kind of revenue Amazon is vying for in federal defense contracts. And at this point, AWS is the industry standard upon which most of the internet runs. The situation reflects the depth to which Amazon has insinuated itself as a fundamental infrastructure provider. New York may have dodged a gentrification bullet with HQ2, but as with so much of Big Tech, Amazon’s impact on cities might look more like death by a thousand paper cuts. A new campus might be more visible than the hidden machinery of a city increasingly reliant on delivery-based services, but both impact local economies, residents, and living conditions. Amazon’s long-standing logistics regime also inspires an infinitude of Amazon-inspired niche delivery startups familiar to New Yorkers as a pastel monoscape of subway ads hawking mattresses, house cleaning services, and roommates, to name just a few, along with the precarious jobs that are their defining characteristic. There have been continued efforts in New York to challenge Amazon’s frictionless logistics regime since the HQ2 withdrawal. Pending City Council legislation banning cashless retail would affect far more businesses than just Amazon’s brick-and-mortar operations (which have automatic app-based checkout), but it would certainly stymie any expansion of its physical retail footprint. State Senator Jessica Ramos has joined labor leaders in calling for a fair union vote at the future Woodside fulfillment center. These sorts of initiatives are often more drawn out and less galvanizing than those to halt a major campus development. But they’re crucial to a larger strategy for making the tech-enabled systems of inequality in cities visible. In 2019, the premise that the digital and physical worlds are mysteriously separate realms has been effectively killed by the tech industry’s measurable impact on urban life, from real estate prices to energy consumption. Comprehending the full impact of companies like Amazon on cities and seeing beyond their efforts to obscure or embellish their presence (glamour shots of data centers, anyone?) requires a full examination of these infrastructures outside of the companies' preferred terms. By demanding public accountability, New York's elected officials and community groups may have demonstrated the beginnings of just how to do that.
Long Island City isn’t the only place that Amazon is pulling out of. The tech giant made waves when it threatened to withdraw from its 722,000-square-foot lease in Seattle’s under-construction Rainier Square Tower over a possible $500-per-employee “head tax” last May that applies only to massive businesses like Amazon. The Seattle City Council ultimately passed a scaled-down version of the measure at $275-per-employee—with the proceeds destined for the construction of affordable housing—but even that measure was ultimately rolled back due in part to pressure from the business community. Now, even with its conditions met, Amazon has announced that it would be subleasing its space in Rainier square and looking elsewhere to meet its needs. The lease was enormous by Seattle’s standards and would have provided space for 3,500 to 5,000 Amazon employees and would have cemented the tech company as the tower’s anchor tenant. “We are currently building two million square feet of office space in our South Lake Union campus in Seattle,” said Amazon in a statement released to Geekwire. “We are always evaluating our space requirements and intend to sublease Rainer Square based on current plans. We have more than 9,000 open roles in Seattle and will continue to evaluate future growth.” The NBBJ-designed tower is notable both for its size and novel construction methodology. The 850-foot-tall, 58-story office building will be the second tallest in the Pacific Northwest once complete next year, and will use a core of modular steel plates and concrete “sandwiches” instead of the traditional rebar. A distinctive high-heeled-boot shape massing was used to preserve views of the adjacent Minoru Yamasaki–designed Rainier Tower (affectionately nicknamed “The Beaver” for its gnawed log-like appearance). A shorter glass-clad hotel will also be wedged between the two buildings as part of the Rainier Square Tower project. Despite the setback, Amazon is still on track to grow to 50,000 total employees in Seattle, and construction on the Graphite Design Group–designed Block 18, a 17-story, 388,000-square-foot office building solely for Amazon, is still on track.
Amazon announced today that it will not be building a new headquarters in New York City after all. The company blames political opposition for the decision, in a statement contrasting the enthusiasm of Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio with the attitudes of "state and local politicians" who have vocally opposed the terms of the project. Many of the opposing politicians argued that the company received benefits from the state and city that the company did not need and the government could not afford. In public hearings, politicians objected to the use of a state process that allowed the company to circumvent the typical land-use review process and the secrecy and lack of public involvement in the deal that brought Amazon's new headquarters to the city. Amazon ran a spectacular public competition for the new headquarters that saw U.S. cities volunteering data and offering special deals to attract the company. This latest step displays the sort of public relations brinkmanship that won the company a favorable deal in New York City last year. Mayor de Blasio responded to the news with a statement:
You have to be tough to make it in New York City. We gave Amazon the opportunity to be a good neighbor and do business in the greatest city in the world. Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity. We have the best talent in the world and every day we are growing a stronger and fairer economy for everyone. If Amazon can’t recognize what that’s worth, its competitors will.Amazon's full, original announcement is as follows:
After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens. For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City. We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion—we love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture—and particularly the community of Long Island City, where we have gotten to know so many optimistic, forward-leaning community leaders, small business owners, and residents. There are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and we plan to continue growing these teams. We are deeply grateful to Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and their staffs, who so enthusiastically and graciously invited us to build in New York City and supported us during the process. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have worked tirelessly on behalf of New Yorkers to encourage local investment and job creation, and we can’t speak positively enough about all their efforts. The steadfast commitment and dedication that these leaders have demonstrated to the communities they represent inspired us from the very beginning and is one of the big reasons our decision was so difficult. We do not intend to reopen the HQ2 search at this time. We will proceed as planned in Northern Virginia and Nashville, and we will continue to hire and grow across our 17 corporate offices and tech hubs in the U.S. and Canada. Thank you again to Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and the many other community leaders and residents who welcomed our plans and supported us along the way. We hope to have future chances to collaborate as we continue to build our presence in New York over time.
After perennially sitting as a top contender for Amazon’s HQ2 bid, Chicago received the news that it would not be the site of the company's second headquarters like everyone else did, via stories from The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Amazon itself on November 13. Amazon’s decision to build its second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, New York, and Arlington, Virginia, laid out the national assumption that Chicago was crestfallen, particularly after being narrowed down to one of the top twenty contenders in January 2018. Despite the rejection of Chicago’s massive corporate recruitment efforts, the city continues to carry on as it did before Amazon began courting the 238 cities it originally targeted for HQ2 in September 2017, building new, preserving old and eagerly anticipating what a new mayor will mean for upcoming and ongoing projects like the restoration of the Uptown Theatre, the construction of The Paseo, and The 78. According to responses to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests obtained by Crain’s Chicago Business on December 14, the city laid out an impressive set of perks to entice Amazon to build its HQ2 headquarters. Some communications show Chicago offering Amazon naming rights to airports. With the bid still active, an Illinois judge ruled in August that the City of Chicago could keep the details of the offer under wraps. Chicago, Illinois, and Cook County collectively offered Amazon $2.253 billion in tax breaks, extensions, and incentives, as well as five possible sites in varying stages of planning and development. Ultimately Amazon only wanted to look at The 78. The company liked the location of the still-developing 62-acre mixed-use site, near the Loop as well as the University of Illinois at Chicago, as an educational incubator for computer science and technology. Despite the rumor that Amazon visited three times to check out the city's offer, Amazon actually only made only two trips to Chicago, reviewing neighborhoods and amenities, and bringing together both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner for a series of bipartisan lunches. In order to expedite Amazon’s architectural and spatial needs, Chicago also offered a specialized lien to allow Amazon to obtain building permits for the $5 billion construction of HQ2, as well as homes for the associated 50,000 workers and executives. In March, Chicago sank money into a slick bid video released on Rahm Emanuel’s Twitter account. The video took poetic aim at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, comparing Amazon’s humble beginnings in a garage in 1994 to Chicago’s triumphant reconstruction after the Great Fire of 1871, with narration provided by Star Trek alumnus William Shatner. Bezos is a known Star Trek fan.