Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wall to wall Amazon

A lot of brainpower is put into making Amazon look at Baltimore, a cause that has hardly any better chances of winning than the lottery. Today they signed off on the application. The media have fully engaged in the frenzy and officials are going outright crazy just like lottery players when the jackpot is especially large. ULI fellow and developer Chris Leinberger called the decision the maybe biggest deal in the first half of this century.
The Business Journal's illustration of the HQ2 process. One article was tiltled
The Amazon Effect: 
How taxpayers are funding the disruption of the U.S. economy (BBJ)

In casino and lottery gambling the house always wins. Is the tech giant who dared to play with cities as if it were the Olympic Committee guaranteed to win? The assumption that Amazon will surely remain the growing giant global powerhouse is maybe the biggest fallacy in this gamble. Just look at Uber how quick fortunes change, the darling of start-ups, Tesla could be next,  our local poster-child Under Armour and its recent losses should be a warning sign (Nike has similar losses).

Tuesday Fox 45 asked me what I think about Amazon. (A transcript of the interview can be seen here). I quoted from my national blog which closes with an adaptation of the Kennedy quote that Amazon shouldn't ask Baltimore what it can do for Amazon but Amazon what it can do for Baltimore. Richard Florida made a similar point in Tuesday's CityLab in an article titled "Big Tech Ought to Step Up for Cities". Florida, who recently discovered that his book about the creative class describes a period in which bifurcation between rich and poor had become worse. He now writes about the The New Urban Crisis. Of course, Florida didn't create the crisis but his gushing about how the "creatives" can solve every urban problem had been annoying for a long time. Ironically, his current article still suggests that Big Tech can be the solution.

By contrast, I wrote in my article:
What legacy city mayors should really learn, though, is that playing the lottery won't solve their problems. Mayors of disinvested and impoverished cities like Detroit, St Louis and Baltimore may dream about salvation via a white knight riding into town. Doing their day-job, however, they need to fix their cities for their existing residents so they become happy residents who become ambassadors of their cities. That is the only truly sustainable way to build those cities back. 
Of course, the mania is contagious and it is hard to avoid playing mentally through what would happen if. On some level I really think that Amazon needs a boost for its corporate image and that investing in an underdog city like Baltimore would do that. Americans love underdogs stories. Besides, the Port Covington Plan-Town isn't a shabby place to go, large enough, a waterfront and enough space for the entire program. So does Baltimore stand a chance and should anybody who cares about this city care? Probably yes to both.
The signing of the application at City Garage on Wednesday morning

As it is, to intentionally not play in order to stay "clean" is a denying how the economy works without having an alternative game plan. In Baltimore, with Port Covington basically approved anyway, Amazon would probably be a pretty good choice for filling the 11 million or so permitted gross building area there, with ample opportunity of creating nearby housing for the workforce. A half- built Port Covington struggling to fill its many building blocks would probably be a far worse outcome than a large corporation taking a lot of the space.

In most of the hightech places where Google or Apple reside, in the Silicon Valley, in Orange County or the Research Triangle traffic nightmares are created from the workforce being scattered all over the place. By contrast, Baltimore would represent a real smart growth opportunity.

Assuming that Baltimore doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell also perpetuates the low self esteem that has dogged this town for way too long. Looking at the earnest current Maryland effort to pull a good application together, one must applaud the collaborative can-do attitude that brought so many agencies and people together. In a ceremony on Wednesday at City Garage orchestrated by Bill Cole, the application was signed by the Mayor and a great number of stakeholders and dignitaries. A show of support that may be a lesson learned from having lost the Red Line.
Screenshot of me talking to Kelly Anderson about
Amazon and Baltimore

Fox news journalist Kelly Anderson interviewing me for their local news surprised me with the question whether there were any downsides if Baltimore would get Amazon. She probably thought that our transportation system wasn't good enough (which it isn't, but that could be fixed in due time). Well, I would think the downside would be more complicated than transportation. and have to do with the social fabric. Even in Seattle where,thanks to the city's explosive growth,  most everybody is a newcomer, some find Amazon overbearing. The SUN documents in a Wednesday editorial how inflated Seattle's home prices have become. Of course, they have also Microsoft and Boeing. The other downside: Banking on one big "savior" is an inherently non-resilient and non-sustainable approach. History has shown many times what happens to company towns when the big guy leaves or falters. Remember Bethlehem Steel?

Meanwhile, now after the local, regional and State promoters sent their application package in will be a good time to hit them with something more realistic to do. Their desks will be empty for a day. However, it will probably be hard to bring them down to earth.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA report about the Baltimore submittal

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