Amazon on the Anacostia: A River Runs Through It

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Amazon Rendering of Riverfront Campus

This past September and October, the Capitol Riverfront BID had the opportunity to participate in the preparation of a development proposal for an RFP issued for a new Amazon corporate headquarters of approximately eight million square feet of office space. The District’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development (DMPED) coordinated the government’s proposal, which included four different sites in DC, three of which are in Ward 6.

The Amazon RFP set off a conversation across the North American continent, almost ensuring there would be hundreds of responses from cities, counties, and states. There have been many bids from the DMV region, and numerous articles have speculated that the District will be in the top 5-10 cities to be considered. This is a transformative economic development project that will have many positive and some negative consequences.

The District is a compelling site for a new Amazon headquarters, as it meets many if not all of the RFP requirements:

  • A city/region of over a million in population
  • A site or sites able to accommodate eight million square feet of new office space and 50,000 employees
  • A first phase that can deliver 500,000 square feet of office by the end of 2019
  • A highly educated workforce and business-friendly environment
  • Access to international airports
  • Regional accessibility and access to mass transit
  • A compatible cultural and community environment
  • A variety of housing options, recreational opportunities, and educational opportunities, and an overall high quality of life
  • Tax and other monetary incentives

The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID) worked with several property owners in a collaborative effort to combine resources for a more competitive proposal – the Anacostia Riverfront Campus. Three groups of property owners, representing various parcels in Buzzard Point, the Yards West, and Poplar Point, worked with the BID to prepare a proposal highlighting the advantages and development capacity of an Anacostia Riverfront Campus.

The Anacostia Riverfront campus concept is a compelling one in that the unifying element is a riverfront campus tied to the Anacostia. With development sites on both sides of the river, Amazon has a unique opportunity to create a campus-like setting for its employees in an urban neighborhood that is still growing and has a baseline of amenities in place. It provides access to a river that is being cleaned up, and is anchored by an outdoor ethos and high-quality parks with access to over 1,200 acres of public open space. The Anacostia Riverfront Campus can exhibit the highest quality of design and LEED certified buildings. Its stormwater management contributes to the cleanup of the Anacostia and reinforces its importance as a river corridor that is lifting other neighborhoods.

The campus can be integrated into Capitol Riverfront, a mixed-use neighborhood undergoing rapid transformation with a large concentration of housing lifestyles for Amazon employees to choose from. It is a walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood with a variety of transportation options to connect Amazon to other activity centers in the District and the region. It offers restaurants, grocery stores, health clubs and outdoor recreation options, as well as two professional sports venues. Over 14 million square feet of future development rights is available in the three areas of Yards West, Poplar Point, and Buzzard Point.

The connectivity of the campus can be enhanced by the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail system, the Capital Bikeshare system, a fleet of Amazon bicycles for employees to use, water taxis, high-quality pedestrian connections, and the Green Line Metro with a station on each side of the Anacostia. The campus will be connected to a larger waterfront development effort that is occurring south of the SE/SW freeway as the District is rediscovering its riverfront assets.

With the Anacostia Riverfront Campus, Amazon can be part of one of the largest waterfront redevelopment projects in the nation, located in the heart of the nation’s capital. It can also be a catalyst for additional neighborhood revitalization in the communities adjacent to the Poplar Point site on the south side of the river. Amazon’s investment in Poplar Point would bring economic development to the communities and neighborhoods of Ward 8. The campus could be a commitment to environmental sustainability and to innovation.

Often in human history, rivers have helped create and define civilizations and cities. Such is the case in Capitol Riverfront, a neighborhood that has emerged on the Anacostia River as a high-density, mixed-use community that is connected by transit to the rest of the city and region. The river defines our outdoor ethos and recreation-based amenities. It provides a constant reminder of nature and the value it creates for neighborhoods. It reminds us that cities are also a part of the larger natural ecosystem, and it is an ongoing story of recapturing and embracing a once forgotten resource.

The upside of an Amazon headquarters locating in DC and the Anacostia Riverfront Campus is compelling:

  • 50,000 new employees, many of whom have salaries over $100,000 – this is a net new gain in employment and jobs creation.
  • Stimulation of the local office market through the provision of eight million square feet of new or renovated office space.
  • An accelerated buildout of the Capitol Riverfront and Poplar Point neighborhoods, encouraging new economic development in Ward 8.
  • Employees new to the region, helping to drive absorption of apartment product and for-sale product.
  • The realization of future taxes – real property, sales, and income tax – that can be in the tens of millions of dollars annually.
  • Amplification of the District’s appeal as a high-tech city, boosting DC’s business attraction reputation and overall marketing/branding efforts.

Conversely, such a large development project could put new demands on transportation systems, the housing market, and school systems, and could have environmental consequences if not properly designed. Local governments will be conceding large incentive packages, which always cost money and often delay the collection of the aforementioned taxes.

Growth usually comes at a cost, but it seems the Amazon campus benefits can outweigh the negatives. To accommodate such a project will require planning and investment in existing and new transportation modes, such as new east/west and north/south bus rapid transit systems and local and regional water taxis. It will also require new thinking regarding the protection of and provision of affordable housing. Many new employees will live throughout the region, but the District will capture its fair share and this will increase housing values.

Imagine an Amazon campus through which a river flows, one that anchors and is distinctively a part of the Anacostia corridor, where urban living meets the water. The Anacostia Riverfront Campus would grow as the river is renewed – an ongoing relationship between the urban and natural environments.