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Arlington approves Amazon’s plans for PenPlace, largest piece of HQ2

Amazon will bring more than 25,000 workers to the region as it opens its new headquarters. Experts weigh in on how this could impact gentrification and jobs. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

Amazon will begin transforming an undeveloped swath of Arlington County into the largest piece of its second corporate headquarters, capping off a year of negotiations in this Northern Virginia suburb among lawmakers, residents and developers over how exactly the complex should look, feel and operate — and how the company should engage with its new neighbors.

County lawmakers on Saturday unanimously endorsed the expansion of Amazon’s footprint at the 10.4 acre site in Pentagon City, known as PenPlace. Plans include three corporate office buildings, retail pavilions, a futuristic glass Helix, a child-care facility and about 2.75 acres of open space. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In an exhaustive, year-long series of reviews leading up to the vote, some residents voiced concerns that the site may assume the feel of a closed-off corporate campus. Others said the tech giant must provide additional community resources for its neighbors, such as greater support to preserve affordable housing, or space for a library or community center.

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All five county board members acknowledged these lingering issues, saying that they can and should be addressed in future meetings with Amazon executives. Ultimately, however, they agreed that PenPlace was an architecturally striking project that will raise the bar on sustainability practices and stimulate economic growth in the county.

The PenPlace “mega-block” is one of the largest undeveloped parcels in D.C.'s inner urban core, and economic development officials say its use by a major company will fulfill key goals for both Arlington and the company. Where the county will see greater tax revenue and more jobs in a largely underused business district, the site’s transit-rich, urban setting will allow the company to attract the young tech workers it depends on.

“We have already invested in systems and infrastructure [in the Pentagon City neighborhood] to ensure that level of activity was accounted for,” said Christian Dorsey (D), vice chair of the Arlington County Board. “This project is backfilling that hole, which is tremendously important from an existential standpoint.”

The company’s move to Arlington is playing out against a broader backdrop of concerns about gentrification and displacement in the D.C. region, as rents rise and wages fail to keep up with the increasingly high cost of living. That has prompted some critics to ask who will ultimately be served by the dramatic changes coming to the area.

But on Saturday, county board Chair Katie Cristol (D) offered a firm response: All Arlington residents, she said, will see benefits from Amazon’s plans for PenPlace — from small businesses that will have more clientele to construction workers who will be paid competitive wages to build the complex.

“We are one community and we will benefit from this all together,” she said. “The opportunity to not only provide something exciting for the nearby neighborhoods, but to lift up the entirety of Arlington County, makes this project a joy to support.”

Saturday’s vote marks the conclusion of a 14-month review process led by residents from neighborhoods near PenPlace, who pored over blueprints and sat through hours-long Zoom meetings to provide input on everything from the presence of bike lanes around the complex to the use of bird-safe glass.

Those involved in the review praised Amazon and its developer, JBG Smith, for engaging with neighbors and incorporating their feedback, particularly with sustainability measures like solar panels and a tree-lined “Green Ribbon” pathway that cuts across the complex. (JBG Smith is set to close its sale of PenPlace to Amazon for $198 million this year, and the company has said it will achieve LEED Platinum status for its buildings there.)

Still, some frustrations lingered: A few residents expressed concerns about the lack of bike lanes on 12th Street South, a major thoroughfare that abuts PenPlace. Some feared that the company’s surveillance practices might prevent the green space from serving as a truly public space. And others said Amazon could do more to repay the county for allowing buildings whose height and density exceed zoning rules.

Some proponents of the project have argued that Amazon’s presence is bound to spur additional development, adding housing stock to a white-hot real estate market that lacks enough homes at any price point. The company agreed to contribute $30 million to an Arlington fund used to subsidize preserving and building affordable housing as a part of the negotiations, on top of a previous $20 million commitment to the fund.

But Susan English, who lives in the nearby Arlington Ridge neighborhood, told lawmakers Saturday that the number of lower-paid workers needed to run the headquarters — from security guards and child-care providers to landscapers and maintenance staff — “argues for a far larger contribution.

“Amazon did not cause our housing crisis,” she said, “but I believe Amazon could do much more to mitigate it.”

Virginia’s deal to attract the company — as much as $750 million in direct cash subsidies to the company — rests on the condition that new hires in Arlington earn an average of $150,000 a year. That has spurred concerns that these high-paid tech workers may ramp up displacement. (Last week, company executives said they had hired 5,000 corporate employees who are now assigned to the Northern Virginia site.)

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Ben D’Avanzo, who represented the Aurora Highlands Civic Association on a PenPlace review panel, also expressed concerns before the board on Saturday about the green space that will be at the heart of the complex. If it’s in the heart of a corporate campus, he said, who will end up actually using this park?

“Residents may feel that it is primarily for the use of inside employees, particularly considering that it’s surrounded by the office buildings,” he said.

Others said that the other community benefits do not include enough resources to account for the greater density that may result from the region’s economic growth. Amazon has agreed to provide a 28,600 square-foot space at PenPlace to house Arlington Community High School, whose student body largely consists of working adults, and offer limited public use of its conference space.

Matt Mattauszek, a development planner for the county, said in an interview this month that negotiations with other developers in the area may end up generating additional benefits requested by neighbors, such as a larger library, elementary school and community center.

The vote involving MetPark in December 2019 had faced more organized opposition, largely from construction unions that had been calling on the company to adopt a “project labor agreement,” which would allow the unions to enforce wage protections and other labor standards. Amazon eventually adopted a set of labor standards that are enforced by a third-party group instead.

Labor issues stayed largely absent from discussions around PenPlace, although one speaker on Saturday, Raul Castro, an organizer with the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters, also called on the company to adopt similar standards at its warehouses and data centers. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted to unionize this month, a major victory for the U.S. labor movement.