As Amazon’s Second HQ Opens in Virginia, Neighbors Brace for a Transformation

The opening of Amazon's massive new campus has left the tech giant's new neighbors with wildly divergent predictions about what might happen next.

The Washington Post

June 16, 2023

8 Min Read
Amazon HQ nearby restaurant in Virginia
A restaurant in Arlington, Va., near the site of Amazon's new East Coast headquarters outside Washington, D.C., on April 29, 2023.The Washington Post / Michael A. McCoy

When Tarsi Dunlop first moved into her Northern Virginia neighborhood more than a decade ago, the area was not exactly known for its character.

One "megablock" in Arlington's Crystal City area looked onto an open field. Her walk to the Metro went along a dirt path. This patch of half-filled concrete high-rises was largely seen as a dull no man's land - one that had little to offer beyond rents lower than in some D.C. neighborhoods across the river.

But as Amazon is set this week to formally open the first major part of its new East Coast headquarters - a set of shiny, custom-built towers just up the street from Dunlop's building - the 36-year-old nonprofit employee says she can already see the transformation taking place outside her window.

In Arlington, the arrival of the company - whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post and whose board member Patty Stonesifer is The Post's interim CEO - has brought in protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks and expanded bus routes. More than a dozen new restaurants are set to open this summer, with an Amtrak station and new condos on the way.

But it's not the only thing that has been going up: The rent on her one-bedroom nearly increased by $126 - more than double most of the increases she saw before the pandemic.

Related:Amazon Workers Walk Out Amid Layoffs, Citing Concerns for Climate

"They're here, and they're doing what they're doing," said Dunlop, who helps lead a civic association for residents of the neighborhood. "I have and had concerns . . . [but] I look at how the company is showing up in our community."

More than four years after Amazon announced it would be setting up a massive new campus in Northern Virginia, the ongoing facelift to the area has left the tech giant's new neighbors with wildly divergent predictions about what might happen next.

Local elected officials and many civic leaders have largely welcomed the company, praising its donations toward area nonprofits and billion-dollar efforts to preserve and create affordable housing.

"They have just really exceeded my expectations, which were pretty aspirational in the first place," said Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey (D). "They've embraced trying to be a partner with us."

Some local activists, though, warn that Amazon is bringing thousands of highly paid workers to a region already struggling with high housing costs and added office buildings amid a sharp turn to remote work - all to the tune of as much as $750 million in taxpayer subsidies from Virginia.

"Our community members recognize Amazon as harmful," said Danny Cendejas, of the activist group For Us, Not Amazon. "It's fueling gentrification and displacement."

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Holly Sullivan, Amazon's vice president of worldwide economic development, said in a statement that the company has tried to prioritize its new neighbors as it constructed the campus, which can house 14,000 of the 25,000 new employees it plans to bring on in Arlington.

"We made a commitment to be a trusted business and community partner in the region, and our work to become a part of the fabric of this community reflects that commitment daily," she said. "Community has been at the forefront of every decision."

What that transformation might ultimately look like, though, remains an open question.

Daniel Weir, a 41-year-old federal employee, spent a day earlier this month taking his 4-year-old to play at the new park tucked behind Amazon's new offices. Before the company moved in, he said, this was once an abandoned warehouse.

"It was amazing," Weir said. "That is an amazing park that would not be built out today but for Amazon's investment."

As an Arlington planning commissioner, Weir helped lead the process to negotiate with the company over its plans for the site formally opening next week - including the two 22-story office buildings and the 2.5-acre public park.

In turning the area into the kind of urban playground that might attract young, urbane software engineers, the company has launched plans that add more than a dozen new street-level retail options to the campus, from a cycling studio to a dog day-care facility and a taqueria.

But Weir emphasized the company's arrival alone has helped switch the lever on a host of wish-list projects for the neighborhood - from a second entrance to the Crystal City Metro station to a pedestrian bridge that would stretch over the highway to Reagan National Airport.

Many of the projects that "are things that have been planned for a long time, if not necessarily funded," he added. "These are major on their own, Amazon or no Amazon."

Perhaps most notably, Virginia Tech is building a $1 billion graduate campus in Alexandria's Potomac Yard neighborhood that is meant to train students who might then go on to software engineering jobs at Amazon or other tech companies. Raytheon and Boeing last year announced they would also be moving their respective headquarters to Arlington.

Not everyone has expressed excitement about these changes. Longtime residents opposed to rapid development worry the coming influx of software engineers will further strain their more suburban neighborhoods. Others fear the company's decision to halt further construction in Arlington could slow down the ongoing transformation.

(While Amazon executives recently told the Washington Business Journal the company plans to break ground sometime next year, company spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said no official date has been set.)

Peter Rousselot, president of the slow-growth group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, said the rapid transformation of the neighborhood has not accounted for the thousands of people it will bring into the county, which is already struggling to keep up with an influx of new residents.

And the pause on construction could slow attempts to address the county's record-high office vacancy rate, which is likely to impact a major stream of county tax revenue.

Amazon is "an enormous, 900-pound gorilla, in their influence on decisions relating to all kinds of things in Arlington," he said. "That is coming at a price of moving other infrastructure that's necessary to the back of the line."

Yet ahead of a formal opening Thursday, Arlington County Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey (D) took to local public radio last month to lather praise on the company. "Amazon's headquarters is absolutely right for Arlington," she said. "It's still a very good deal."

While Virginia is on track to hand the company nearly $153 million in taxpayer subsidies by fall 2026, Garvey noted that the county has yet to pay Amazon a penny.

After legislators approved the company's arrival in 2019, company executives stressed that they would be able to steadily expand and shape their Arlington neighborhood in a way they had not been able to before.

In Seattle, where the company grew rapidly in the 2010s, an ensuing tech boom caused rents and homelessness to soar. Residents and activist groups in Arlington and Queens - where the company planned a similar expansion before changing plans - expressed concerns that Amazon would bring similar consequences to their areas.

"In Virginia, we're not going to have the same experience . . . because we know where we're headed," Jay Carney, then a senior vice president at Amazon, said in a 2019 interview with The Post. "We hopefully have the kind of stability and confidence in our projected growth that we can plan in a way we couldn't in the past."

Leaders like Dorsey and Weir noted separately the company has also rolled out a voluntary, billion-dollar effort to fund affordable housing developments around the region - including a $160 million loan to maintain low rents at the largest market-rate housing complexes in Arlington.

"Checks have already been cut and hundreds of million dollars has already been invested," Weir said, "and that has engendered a lot of institutional trust in Amazon as a corporation."

Yet Ingris Moran, a lead organizer at the community activist group Tenants & Workers United, said that she hoped to see the company do more - particularly to protect lower-income renters like the ones she works with in nearby Alexandria.

Her organization had lobbied against the company's deal with Arlington County and testified at a raucous meeting in March 2019, in which protesters shouted, "Shame!" The board nonetheless voted to approve the deal unanimously, though not before pressuring Amazon to agree to some labor protections.

Since then, Moran's group has tried to push leaders of the company's affordable housing efforts to shift their focus on supporting the poorest people in the D.C. area. But politicians, she said, have not seen eye to eye.

"For local officials, it's 'Oh well, it's there and they're doing something,'" she said. "Whereas for us, they're not doing enough."

Dunlop, the Crystal City resident, said that for now she is ultimately "cautiously optimistic" about Amazon coming in, even though many of the most visible consequences may still take years to make themselves clear. While the company has hired more than 8,000 employees in Arlington, it eventually plans to have as many as 25,000 employees at the new campus.

For now, she said, she plans to visit a new farmers market, which will kick off on Saturday within sight of her front door, and bounce between various new restaurants to pick her favorite.

But, she said, she hopes her rent stays low enough that she can stick around to keep going.

--Teo Armus, The Washington Post

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