Could Spokane land Amazon’s second headquarters?

Over the past decade, South Lake Union in Seattle has developed into essentially an entire neighborhood centered primarily around Amazon and its employees. With the announcement that the e-commerce firm would like to set up a second headquarters, could Spokane be a competitive option? (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday morning, Amazon announced that it would seek proposals from communities for a second headquarters, roughly equal in size to its South Lake Union campus, to be developed somewhere in North America. The e-commerce giant, which recently completed its purchase of natural grocer Whole Foods Market, intends to spend as much as $5 billion to develop a 50,000-employee campus outside of its Seattle base. In an unusual move, instead of searching privately for a suitable location, the company has opened a formal Request for Proposals from interested communities.

Naturally, communities from Los Angeles to Baltimore have already started throwing their hats into the ring for the massive investment. As is typical, this got us thinking. Could Spokane launch a credible bid?

First, let’s look at Amazon’s high-level requirements.

The firm is looking for collaborative bids from metro areas, and has a preference for areas with more than one million people, a stable business environment, strong talent attraction, and big thinking. While Spokane does not meet the first criteria (the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Combined Statistical Area has a population of about 700,000, and that stretches “metro area” to breaking point), arguments can be made that the other requirements can be met. The Spokane area certainly has a history of big thinking, having boldly pushed for and hosted a World’s Fair in 1974, against all odds. Its beautiful natural environment, strong quality of life and recreational opportunities, and low cost of living are certainly attractive assets. And observers say Spokane’s economy stays relatively stable even during recessions. Area leaders from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane cite business satisfaction as a major priority.

Next, let’s dig deeper. Amazon cites a number of priorities and key decision drivers in selecting a site location.

  • Site and Building Location. Amazon keeps it relatively vague, looking only for “the best buildings available”––whether redevelopment site, public-private partnership, or a greenfield area. In Spokane, while a decade ago Kendall Yards would have been a stellar choice, today we could focus on the South University District. With a new pedestrian bridge under construction, abundant vacant and redevelopable property, and a new Avista project in development, this area has the makings of a great urban neighborhood. If the property acquisition and consolidation can be properly managed, it has the potential and space––Amazon or not––to become our South Lake Union.
  • Capital and Operating Costs. Spokane has a leg up on the larger communities: comparatively, it’s quite cheap. Our energy costs are below the national average, and building costs are low compared to coastal cities. Washington State is generally more expensive than other states, so any bid would require a state-level partnership.
  • Incentives. Spokane has a basket of limited incentives it can offer, but localities are generally constrained in Washington State, and without a port district we have very few powerful options. Meanwhile, any successful bid would have to win out over incentive-rich states like Texas and Georgia. So for Spokane to have a competitive application, it would have to leverage state-level partnerships and potentially even legislative action.
  • Labor Force. 50,000 employees is a lot––especially somewhere like Spokane. Is our labor force workable for a high-tech firm like Amazon? At present, probably not, although our education system has strong points between WSU, EWU, Whitworth, Gonzaga, and UI. To balance out this broadly negative point, combined with Spokane’s relatively small size, Spokane could latch onto a statewide proposal in cooperation with cities like Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma and instantly gain access to a wider talent pool which craves Spokane’s lower cost of living and strong quality of life.
  • Logistics. Spokane has all the basics––easy access via I-90, a major rail hub, and abundant direct flights across the West Coast to Seattle, the Bay Area, and other locales. We’d lose points on lacking nonstop flights to the East Coast, including New York and Washington, D.C.
  • Time to Operations. Revamping the Avista Development proposal for the South Landing of the pedestrian bridge could be a way to expedite construction. Given that Amazon wants at least 500,000 square feet for Phase I, additional property would need to be assembled and entitled, which would take additional time.
  • Community Cultural Fit. We’d gain points on our universities and commitment to education, as well as our history of big thinking. We’d lose points on workforce and cultural diversity, and we’d probably lose a few points on business climate among elected officials. While most would be nominally on-board, some fringe elements (see: Matt Shea, Spokane Valley City Council) could raise questions.
  • Quality of Life. We’ve touched this already. It’s great!

So would Spokane be able to put together a competitive proposal on its own, with cities like San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore in the running? Probably not.

But a statewide proposal focused on expanding and retaining Amazon, potentially leveraging sites in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Vancouver (WA), and Spokane, could be difficult to beat. This would allow the Washington State government to assist in incentives and by utilizing tools not available to localities. It would also distribute the benefits of any such development across the state rather than concentrating them in already-prosperous areas, like Seattle. Anchored by strong transportation infrastructure, such as the expanded Seattle transit system, an expanded I-90, and potentially even statewide high speed rail, even residents outside of Amazon employees or Amazon-adjacent employees could see considerable benefits.

In Spokane, this could mean a smaller campus of 10,000 – 25,000 people in the South University District, with the remaining employees split among localities across the state. Bellevue (which recently received a major Amazon expansion), Everett, Tacoma, Vancouver (WA), and Seattle are all credible choices.

Is it bold? No doubt. It throws out the rules of the Amazon RFP process, creating a campus structure for Amazon more like a state university system (for example, WSU has locations in Pullman, Spokane, Everett, the Tri-Cities, and Vancouver) than a tech company. But it’s sufficiently creative and interesting that it wouldn’t be tossed out of hand.

Is it unthinkable? No, it isn’t.

If our area economic development officials are watching the hoopla over Amazon HQ #2 with envy, looking on as communities with more than a million people excitedly launch bids, they should hop on the phone with communities like Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma. They should call up the Washington Department of Commerce and our state legislators. Amazon is an important firm to our state, no matter how you feel about it, and the HQ #2 process puts all of that at risk. What better way to double down than to collaborate with communities across the state?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Should Spokane launch a bid for the new Amazon headquarters, either on its own or with partners from across the state? How important is Amazon to the statewide economy? Do you see it on the level of Boeing or Microsoft? In Spokane, where would you put a new Amazon campus? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you!

Spokane’s latest Comprehensive Plan punts on major land use issues, guts Complete Streets

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Last year, Seattle City Council voted to approve Seattle 2035, that city’s largest Comprehensive Plan update in decades. The document has been cited as a bold, visionary model for other regions. (PHOTO: City of Seattle via The Urbanist)
Last year, Seattle adopted a bold, transformative Comprehensive Plan they called Seattle 2035. In addition to recommitting to a growth strategy that places most new housing and jobs in mixed-use urban villages, Seattle’s new Comprehensive Plan makes transit-oriented development near future Link light rail stations a policy priority and begins a transition toward parking maximums and the use of new, more relevant, and transit- and pedestrian-focused metrics to evaluate new projects. In many ways, despite taking nearly two years to write and pass, the document expresses a strong, cohesive vision for Seattle’s future––one that recognizes its status as a city that will welcome 120,000 residents by 2035. It also adopts racial and social justice standards that have already become a national model.

Spokane is not Seattle, but it too has been revising its Comprehensive Plan through what it calls the Shaping Spokane process. In fact, the City is at the tail end of the process, and City Council is expected to vote on the update next week. Unlike Seattle 2035, however, despite four years of deliberations––almost twice the time it took Seattle to write a model Comprehensive Plan––the Spokane equivalent, Shaping Spokane, punts on most of the major development and planning issues facing our city. And in at least one case––that of our hard-won Complete Streets ordinance––it does critical damage.

THE GOOD

First, let’s acknowledge that the Shaping Spokane plan does some good things. For example, it adopts a housing policy which clarifies existing rules on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), encourages mixed-income housing opportunities where possible, and clarifies existing language on housing quality. The document even includes an “affordable housing requirement” policy which essentially encourages the City to develop a mandatory inclusionary zoning program. Many pieces of the Transportation chapter contain strong endorsements of public transit and frequent transit in particular.

THE BAD

First, let’s note that this is not a full-scale update; city staff call it a “mid-cycle revision,” and a more in-depth process will have to wait until the next update. But given that this revision took four years, I would have expected stronger progress from City Hall. As has been typical of recent Spokane history, the Shaping Spokane document does not set out many major steps toward implementation, preferring instead the passive route of “whatever happens, happens.”

Centers and Corridors, for example, have languished despite being Spokane’s attempt at pedestrian-oriented urban districts. Jim Frank of Greenstone, the developer of Kendall Yards, has famously said that the type of development underway in that urban district would not be possible without the Kendall Yards Planned Unit Development agreement. Indeed, some developments flout the zoning guidelines to such an astonishing degree that casual observers have to wonder whether developers think they’re getting away with some clever ruse. The Target in Southgate, the first implementation of Centers and Corridors on a greenfield development, is a sea of surface parking surrounding a single use––big-box retail. And another development on the KXLY site across Regal is set to get underway soon. Are our City’s planners considering these high-profile land use planning failures when writing Shaping Spokane?

Shaping Spokane doesn’t make a serious effort to place Spokane at the forefront of livable cities across the country. No major actionable objectives and metrics for success (i.e. 100,000 sq. ft. of new affordable housing development) on core issues. No real talk of parking maximums, of reductions of parking requirements which make projects exorbitantly more expensive for little real benefit. No changes that could make affordable rental housing easier and less costly to build. No discussion of municipal fiber, despite much of our city lacking access to affordable internet service due to the Comcast monopoly. No big push for policy aimed at the future of transporation technology (driverless vehicles). Nothing aimed at reducing setback requirements, no major updates to the development code. No bold pushes––they’ll have to wait until the mid-2020s(!), by which time we’ll be well behind our peer cities.

Perhaps most critically, under the guise of economic development, the Comprehensive Plan attempts to gut our hard-won Complete Streets ordinance. Under the Shaping Spokane plan, City staff would be allowed to essentially submit projects at their sole discretion to the 6-Year Street Program, where they would jump the list over other qualifying street projects and would not be subject to Complete Streets requirements. Under this Comprehensive Plan update, City staff vaguely assert that “[these projects] will typically address only the most pressing transportation elements first with other integrated elements added over time.” In other words, features like sidewalks, transit elements, and bike lanes would not be constructed as part of a “Roadway of Significance”––they’d be added at a later date.

The only problem? Shaping Spokane sets out no metrics or guidelines for this provision’s use. The wording is so vague that nearly any project with some form of economic benefit (the provision does not set a dollar amount or number of jobs such investment would support) could be named a Roadway of Significance, and there would be no timetable for full build-out of Complete Streets elements. Even if current City staff may care about sidewalks and bike lanes, and fully intend to construct them at later dates for these projects, we don’t know what future City staff would do. The Comprehensive Plan is meant to transcend staffing changes and personnel moves. That means that effectively, this provision could eliminate Complete Streets––and all the sidewalks, bike lanes, transit stops, and ADA curb cut-outs it requires––entirely. It is so poorly written that the only solution that would completely eliminate the risk of abuse on the part of City staff would be to strike it entirely.

MOVING FORWARD

So here’s what you can you do to voice your concerns with this process, express a desire for a bolder, more comprehensive strategy in the next Plan Update, and support Complete Streets/oppose “Roadways of Significance.”

  1. Attend the next City Council meeting. The Comprehensive Plan update hearing will take place Monday, June 19th at 6:00pm PT in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. Attend the meeting, voice your concerns, and speak your mind with Council.
  2. Email City Council with your thoughts. Locate your City Councilmember here. Share your thoughts on this Comprehensive Plan update––in particular consider the gutting of Complete Streets in this draft.

Shaping Spokane will pass in its current form if there is no major opposition from the public. But we hope that you will consider attending the Council meeting or emailing your Councilmember––at the very minimum to eliminate the absurd “Roadways of Significance” provisions in this Comprehensive Plan update.

At the end of the day, most of Shaping Spokane is status quo for Spokane, which isn’t a tragedy. But it is a major abdication of regional leadership and a significant missed opportunity to lead the way into a more urban, walkable, and mixed-use future. If we don’t step up soon, and lead the way on sustainable planning, affordable housing, walkable urban districts, and convenient transportation, we will continue to watch other cities pass us by––and sadly, we will fall further and further behind.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think? Is this Comprehensive Plan a step backward or forward for Spokane? Do you think we should be thinking more boldly about the future of our city? Do you think we need updates to Centers and Corridors or to Complete Streets? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you!

Idea #17: Stronger ties to Seattle

The Bank of America Financial Center, formerly known as the Seafirst Financial Center, represents a bygone era of strong Spokane ties to Seattle in name as well as in action. (PHOTO: Jesse Tinsley/Spokesman-Review)

In 1980, the Spokane skyline welcomed its first newcomer in many, many years. The sleek, shiny Seafirst Financial Center was a modern new look for downtown, perhaps the most architecturally contemporary building currently in operation. But the building also represented something else entirely for Spokane: the strong ties that the city had built over many years with its western, metropolitan neighbor. By recommitting to a major operation in Spokane, SeaFirst (which merged with Bank of America in 1998) showed a high level of confidence in the inland Northwest, even at a time when the area’s downtown was starting to show signs of weakness.

Today, the Bank of America Financial Center, as it is now known, operates in relative obscurity, a simple Class A office building; nothing more, nothing less. But more broadly, Spokane’s ties to Seattle, which have always been significant, have been downplayed, downgraded, and similarly obscured. No longer does a major downtown building illuminate an obvious tie to our larger, older brother. No longer is Spokane’s economy so tied to Seattle’s.

And believe it or not, I think that that’s a bad thing.

Seattle could be an incredible marketing point for Spokane. We certainly have incredible access. Business travelers can choose between one of twenty daily flights on Alaska/Horizon or Delta, which offer best-in-class mileage programs, or a pretty simple four-hour drive. We offer a much lower cost of doing business, a lower cost of living, and an amazing quality of life, with easy access to outdoor recreation on local lakes, mountains, and trails. We have four universities, best-in-class medical facilities and doctors, and real resources and opportunities for expansion in the biomedical and technology industries. We could be an excellent complement to Seattle.

We should be trying to attract Washington companies. We’ve already attracted McKinstry. Imagine Amazon or Microsoft opening a research and development facility here, away from the lights, distractions, and spotlight of metro Seattle. Imagine Stryker (medical devices) or Genzyme (rare disease therapies) opening engineering facilities, with the benefit of world-class doctors and hospitals right down the street. We should be using Seattle to our benefit.

And yet, instead, Greater Spokane Incorporated markets the city to “stable” companies with “innovative” and “promising” long-term “growth potential.” Companies like Vivint.

What do you think? Should Spokane adopt closer ties to Seattle? Would our economy be better off tied to a strong one like Seattle’s? Would there be a benefit in marketing the way our city complements Seattle? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, on Facebook, and in person. We love to hear from you.