Thursday, October 5, 2017

What does Amazon's search for a new HQ mean for downtown?

Larisa Ortiz is Founder and Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates

People are talking alot about Amazon today. If Wikipedia is to be believed, at least 118 cities in both Canada and the United States have expressed an interest in being the place where Amazon ends up putting its headquarters. The company's search, and more specifically their search criterion, has broader implications for what the next wave of business growth will require from our cities.

According to Citylab, the Amazon search is creating a "transit reckoning" for our cities. This is because Amazon has mentioned access to "rail, train, subway and bus routes" as among a few key site selection criterion. For many cities with limited mass transit options, this one requirement really puts a damper on their bid to bring Amazon to town. Atlanta, for example, seems to check all the boxes except for the unified transit system. When Atlanta officials took a look at the criterion, there was an call among many stakeholders for "real" solutions to the traffic congestion that plagues the City. Yet those solutions, as we all know, can only involve alternatives to the automobile. More cars and more roads won't help congestion, only transit of the "mass" kind can do that. Furthermore, mass transit without masses don't work - so density will be required. Cities looking to attract the businesses of the future would do well to heed this clarion call. Density and mass transit don't occur by happenstance. We need a few things to make this happen, including:

  • zoning codes that allow for higher densities as-of-right 
  • sufficient SF for the growth of commercial and/or industrial uses
  • meaningful funding for alternative modes of transit that get residents to and from their jobs easily and efficiently
  • investments walkable pedestrian environments and quality open space

In fact, some communities are already ahead of the curve on these issues, including the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, a planning effort led by three major stakeholders in downtown Brooklyn, New York: The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the DUMBO Improvement District. The plan sought to corral city investment towards improvements that would position downtown Brooklyn as a tech destination and ensure that the district included many of the amenities required by industry businesses. The plan included recommendations with significant emphasis on transportation (which is already the envy of many communities), improved waterfront connections (the City recently invested in an entire fleet of new ferry's and started a frequent and very popular ferry service), enhanced bike share, as well as connections to other growing tech destinations (such as Industry City in Sunset Park). The plan is a great starting point for other communities looking to pursue similar initiatives. In the end, this is all good news for transit connected, dense downtown environments.