Dispatches from Seattle, the original Amazonland, about what might lie on the horizon

When Amazon announced the finalists for its second headquarters in January, Columbus was something of a surprise contender. The Columbus Dispatch reported last December that the city's bid to host so-called HQ2 included offering 21 acres on the Scioto Peninsula controlled by the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., along with plots in nearby Franklinton, around OSU's Campus area and at Easton. When CDDC's development deal with Buckingham Cos. disintegrated in June and the peninsula parcel opened up, it seemed like, just maybe, the stars were aligning.

So how would the Scioto Peninsula and Franklinton, which already have tectonic shifts underway, look if Columbus wins HQ2's estimated 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in capital expenditures? Look to the Pacific Northwest, to Amazonland.

In 2011, I worked for Firmani + Associates, a public relations agency that had just moved to Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. Amazon's headquarters were under construction down the street, seeming to grow by mitosis. Mark Firmani, the agency's founder, is a proponent of Amazon's presence. It has rendered a more diverse population, a better dining scene and ever-greater property values, he says. He touts the company's ripple effect on employment for non-tech jobs: landscapers, construction workers, interior designers and an industry of dog-walkers catering to Amazon's pet-friendly campus. He's also noticed Amazonians breaking away to start new ventures.

Alex Bandar, whose Idea Foundry is a hub of tech and entrepreneurship in Franklinton, believes Amazon would serve as an anchor for the area's homegrown startups. “They work surprisingly well together,” Bandar says, “so that is what I would expect to see happen if Amazon were to move into the neighborhood.”

Like Franklinton, South Lake Union was once in decline. SLU was semi-industrial, with a dwindling population and houses slipping into disrepair, says Jon Osterberg, who began working there for PEMCO Mutual Insurance Co. in 1984. Today, SLU is an economic powerhouse; more than 40,000 Amazon employees work in the neighborhood and across downtown, and the company estimates it added $38 billion to Seattle's economy between 2010 and 2016.

That rapid growth has led to nightmarish traffic, which soured Osterberg on Amazon's presence, though he acknowledges it's not only one company's fault. The most pernicious problem is the skyrocketing cost of housing. Keri Barker, F+A's office administrator, writes in an email that many residents are being priced out of the city. She lauds Amazon's support of FareStart—a nonprofit that teaches food-service skills to people struggling with homelessness, addiction and criminal convictions—but also notes its irony. She says some workers helped by FareStart are the same people being displaced by the booming growth and widening income inequality.

Housing concerns are paramount for Jack Storey, executive director of the Franklinton Urban Empowerment Lab, which works on affordable housing and skills-based programming for residents. He's worried that an influx of people with six-figure salaries will snatch up all available housing while new units are being built. He is excited for new jobs but hopes that some will be open to Franklinton residents, many of whom never went to college.

All of this speculation assumes that Columbus still has a shot at HQ2. In late July, CDDC issued another request for proposals for development of a portion of the 21-acre Scioto Peninsula parcel, and it gave no indication that Amazon would factor into that development. (The city, CDDC and Columbus 2020—the economic development group leading the Amazon bid—all declined to comment.) Storey doesn't think it's likely the city will get HQ2, but he points out that he didn't think Columbus would win the Smart Cities grant either.

Amazon, which also declined an interview, claims a decision will be made in 2018, but the timing is uncertain. What is clear: HQ2 will profoundly change the chosen city. Firmani's support for Amazon is unflagging, but F+A isn't immune to the growing pains or the lure of real estate dollars. Firmani recently sold the office, he says, due in part to the unrelenting transit mess. The agency is leasing space from the building's new owner and looking to move farther north.

It doesn't seem like long ago that my co-workers and I celebrated our new SLU office with drinks at Paddy Coyne's Irish Pub around the corner. The pub is gone too, Barker reports, as is the quirky statue of a dog that greeted customers outside the door. It was torn out when a “cute, expensive” Thai restaurant took over the space, but the workers couldn't remove the sculpture's imprint from the sidewalk, she says. “So those little paw prints remain as a daily reminder of things lost and gained.”

***

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine, as well as our weekly newsletter so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.