Amazon.com's decision to locate one of its two new East Coast headquarters in Arlington County prompted an outpouring of questions from residents to government officials, via email, phone calls, social media, virtual chats and face-to-face encounters.
Elected and appointed officials are almost giddy at the prospect of new tax revenue, jobs and the spinoff businesses that Amazon's arrival is expected to create. Residents are somewhat more skeptical.
What follows is a condensed version of questions raised and answers provided in Facebook chats hosted by leaders in Arlington and Alexandria, as well as other forums. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Q: Who came up with the name "National Landing" to refer to Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard?
A: Local economic development officials who were pitching three neighborhoods and two jurisdictions as a single location. While those folks and Amazon officials may use the new moniker, neither Arlington nor Alexandria are changing the names of the affected neighborhoods.
“Crystal City is still Crystal City,” said Arlington County manager Mark Schwartz.
Q: This area is already too crowded. How will we get anywhere?
A: Growth will start slowly, government officials say. Amazon estimates that 400 employees will start work in Crystal City in 2019, growing to perhaps 900 by 2020. The full 25,000 won’t arrive until the mid- to late 2020s, and some future Amazon hires may already live here.
Further, the influx of Amazon employees won’t completely fill the offices left vacant since 2005, when the Pentagon began relocating many of its workers. Crystal City’s 18.5 percent commercial vacancy rate should drop 3 to 4 percentage points with Amazon’s arrival, estimated Victor Hoskins, Arlington’s economic development chief.
Arlington will need between 8,000 and 9,000 additional housing units (mostly rentals) to house all the new employees, a report from the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University said last week.
Q: What about traffic? Route 1 is a mess already!
A: Amazon strongly urges its employees to use public transit, walk or bicycle and is expected to have just one parking space for every six workers, said Arlington transportation chief Dennis Leach.
Virginia is investing $195 million in transportation improvements, including Metro; some will go toward work on Route 1 (also known as Jefferson Davis Highway, a name Arlington County is seeking to change, if the Virginia General Assembly agrees).
New state money also will help expand the rapid, limited-stop bus transit way from Pentagon City through Potomac Yard, likely taking it right past Amazon’s headquarters, Leach said. The Virginia Railway Express station in Crystal City is slated for improvements separately from the Amazon bid.
Q: Metro is a mess. Did anyone notice what happened on Veterans Day weekend?
A: Few commuters can forget the epic Nov. 9 traffic snarl caused by the shutdown of the Crystal City and Reagan National Airport Metro stations, construction at the airport, and heavy rain. Looking ahead, there will be no Yellow Line trains from Nov. 26 to Dec. 9. Next summer, six Northern Virginia stations on the Blue and Yellow lines will be shut down from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
That said, both Crystal City and Pentagon City Metro stops are heavily used. The state will pay for a second entrance to the Crystal City Metro station and a south entrance to Alexandria’s future Potomac Yard station. The latter work needs approval from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has sought additional information from the city about the station’s impact on adjacent wetlands. Alexandria is attempting to accelerate the funding so the full station can open by 2022.
Q: Is there any way to limit rent increases? My rent is going up before Amazon even arrives.
A: Virginia, a strong property-rights state, does not have rent control. The Urban Institute said the median rent in Arlington rose 4 percent per year between 2011 and 2017, and Alexandria’s housing director Helen McIlvaine said rent hikes of 4 to 6 percent are typical this year.
The executive director of the Northern Virginia Apartment Association, Ludwig Gaines, said his organization did not see a significant number of rent increases in the first week after the Amazon announcement but is watching the issue closely. That group will participate in a Dec. 12 event at George Mason University that will look at Amazon’s effect on the local housing market. It’s free and open to the public.
“It’s certainly a period of opportunity and uncertainty. Affordability is going to be crucial,” Gaines said.
Q: Will new Amazon workers gentrify what little affordable housing is left?
A: “Amazon is not going to cause a housing crisis because we already have an affordable housing crisis,” said Katie Cristol (D), chair of the Arlington County Board. Economic development chief Victor Hoskins said Amazon’s arrival crystallized the issue into a “problem to be solved now — not five years from now.”
Officials say Amazon’s arrival will both boost housing prices and generate more money for housing subsidies.
Developers who build new residential projects in Arlington will likely contribute to the county’s affordable housing loan fund. In addition, Schwartz, the county manager, said Amazon should generate at least $160 million more in tax revenue each year through 2030. Some 46 percent will go to schools. The rest, he said, can be used to address “pain points” such as affordable housing and transportation.
Arlington is working on creating more housing options for the “missing middle” of the market — those who make too much to qualify for government-assisted affordable housing. It’s also trying to ease regulations to allow more accessible dwelling units (known as “granny flats”) and duplexes.
Alexandria earlier this year passed an increase in its meals tax to dedicate an additional $5 million to affordable housing, on top of the $2 million it already spends.
The Virginia Housing Development Authority, which already provides $300 million per year for rental housing and $600 million per year for homeownership financing in Northern Virginia, will provide an additional $15 million per year for the next 10 years for affordable and workforce housing in both Alexandria and Arlington.
On Tuesday, Bezos’s Day One foundation announced its first local donations to help the homeless — $2.5 million to the Northern Virginia Family Service, $5 million to Community of Hope in the District, and $2.5 million to the Alliance for Safe Housing, also in Washington.
Q: Arlington and Alexandria schools are already bulging at the seams. Will my child's school be even more crowded?
A: Arlington officials have calculated that Amazon employees will add an average of two or three new students to each public school per year by 2030. Of course, students are rarely evenly distributed across the county, but “this is not going to feel like a tsunami,” Cristol said.
Schwartz noted that as tax revenue rises, so will the amount of money available to K-12 schools.
Alexandria has identified a site for a new school in Potomac Yard, and there’s an ongoing study of high school needs. City manager Mark Jinks said $400 million has recently been allocated for school planning, repair and construction.
In addition, the state is putting more than $1 billion into higher education for technology study, including major investments at Arlington’s George Mason University campus and a new Virginia Tech innovation graduate school in an industrial area called Oakville Triangle. Both universities say they are eager to partner with public schools.
Q: What opportunities does the public have to weigh in on Amazon's plans?
A: Both Alexandria and Arlington officials say each new proposed building or land-use change in the National Landing area is subject to the normal planning and approval processes, with public hearings and opportunities for the public to object and comment. Project details that have been announced so far can be found on both Arlington County and Alexandria government websites.
Q: If my property value goes up, so will my property taxes. Can I get relief?
A: Virginia does not have property tax cap, but seniors and disabled property owners in Arlington and Alexandria can apply for special programs that give them a break on property taxes. In addition, Amazon’s arrival will improve the office vacancy rate, which has put a larger burden on residential taxpayers. Restoring that balance will help keep property tax rates in the long run from rising to make up for the shortage of commercial tax revenue, easing the pressure on homeowners, Cristol said.
Q: Does Amazon's arrival mean the end of those fun night bike races in Crystal City's empty garages in early spring?
A: The races will definitely still be held in March, said Cassie Hurley of the Crystal City Business Improvement District. The name and day of the week may change, but the oddball event has proved so popular that the BID would not think of ending it, Hurley said.