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It’s not just Amazon: Apple quietly explores Northern Virginia for 20,000 workers

Apple chief executive Tim Cook talks in 2016 about the firm’s new campus in Cupertino, Calif. Apple is looking for another site for about 20,000 workers. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Apple has quietly explored the idea of opening a campus for 20,000 employees in Northern Virginia, further advancing the possibility that the Washington area could evolve into an East Coast outpost for Silicon Valley.

Apple’s consideration of the region comes eight months after selected three local jurisdictions there as part of its high-profile search for a North American headquarters outside of Seattle.

Economic development officials under Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) proposed several sites for the project after Apple representatives said the company was seeking 4 million square feet of office space to accom­modate 20,000 jobs, according to officials and real estate executives familiar with the discussions. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because Apple asked people not to talk publicly about the search.

That amount of space is nearly two-thirds the size of the Pentagon and about half what Amazon is seeking for its second headquarters, potentially setting up a competition between the tech giants for locations where they can attract top workers.

The sites proposed by Northam’s staff for Apple include office buildings and development sites in Crystal City, privately owned Loudoun County land near the Center for Innovative Technology and the Scotts Run development in Tysons.

One official said that multiple sites in Alexandria had been proposed as well, including property along the Eisenhower Avenue corridor.

Three of those locations — Crystal City, Eisenhower Avenue and the Loudoun land — are part of sites Northam also pitched to Amazon. Both companies plan to select their sites this year.

Drone video reveals Apple's new campus in Cupertino, Calif., in 2016, showing the main building with its open, center courtyard and roof of solar panels. (Video: Reuters)

When Amazon narrowed its search to 20 finalist jurisdictions, it included the District, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, giving the Washington region more entrants than any other. The project attracted subsidy offers of as much as $7 billion from some states, a frenzy of national media attention, and protests from residents worried about the implications of tech’s growth on housing prices, traffic and inequality. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

By conducting its search in relative secrecy, Apple has taken a different tack in seeking its new space, something Apple chief executive Tim Cook highlighted in a recent interview when he said “we’re not doing a beauty contest kind of thing.”

Amazon posted its initial search materials online and asked any qualified jurisdictions to apply. It received 238 proposals from across North America and explained to locations that did not make the final list what about their proposals came up short.

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“From our point of view, we didn’t want to create this contest, because I think what comes out of that is you wind up putting people through a ton of work to select one, so that is a case where you have a winner and a lot of losers. I don’t like that,” Cook said.

In a subsequent conference call with investors, Cook said the company had begun to focus its search.

“We’ve narrowed the list a lot,” he said of potential locations. “We wanted to narrow it so we prevent this auction kind of process that we want to stay out of.”

Valued at $920 billion, Apple is the most profitable company in the world. It completed its new $5 billion headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., nicknamed “the spaceship” for its circular design, last spring. More than 12,000 employees work there; Apple has 84,000 employees in the United States, including at least one in every state and the District.

Apple said in January that it planned to spend $30 billion on new facilities and hire 20,000 employees in the United States over the next five years, and company officials said much of that growth would come at a new location outside California and Texas, home to its two largest hubs.

Apple spokesmen declined to comment on whether Northern Virginia was being considered as a location for the campus. Company representatives have provided scant information about the search to officials and developers beyond its basic criteria.

“They are much more secretive about their process,” one real estate executive said. Another executive said there was the chance for both research-and-development jobs as well as call center positions.

There are indications that Apple prefers a more suburban setting than Amazon. The newly completed Apple Park, in Cupertino, is built on 175 acres near San Jose. Amazon’s headquarters, by contrast, is integrated into downtown Seattle. “It’s safe to say they are more of a suburban company,” one official said of Apple.

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There are also connections to the company that could help Northern Virginia’s chances. The Loudoun land, consisting of 85 acres outside the Innovation Center Metro station under construction as part of the Silver Line extension, is owned by a partnership managed by Mark Masinter, a Dallas retail expert whom Steve Jobs hired in 2000 to help Apple open its first stores.

Masinter’s firm, Open Realty, owns the land in tandem with Dallas-based Rebees and envisions a 5.5 million-square-foot mixed-use development. Masinter did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s unknown whether Apple has engaged Maryland or D.C. officials in its search, but the District mostly lacks space for a large, suburban campus, and two city officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the project, said they weren’t aware of an effort by the District to pursue Apple.

Few other public officials have discussed the project. After ­Apple made its announcement, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) said that “we’re going to compete.” Economic development officials in Fairfax, ­Loudoun and Arlington counties declined to comment. Spokesmen for Northam also declined to comment.