Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By Christian Dorsey
Amazon’s embrace of Arlington as one of two sites for its corporate headquarters expansion stands as one of the more significant events in the history of our county. Already, camps have emerged that are unabashedly for or against welcoming the world’s largest online retailer. Yet for many, there are significant questions when assessing whether Amazon in Arlington stands as a positive development.
Implicit in some of these questions is a concern: “Can embracing Amazon be consistent with my progressive values?” It is a concern that I have wrestled with, and I believe that the presence of Amazon in Arlington can be consistent with my progressive values and even accelerate our moving toward a more equitable and inclusive community. Here are a few ways in which this could happen, if the County Board and our community hold firm to a path of equitable growth and inclusive opportunities.
A Better Deal for Residential Taxpayers
Arlington faces a near-term budget deficit where the costs of delivering fundamental government services are growing faster than our revenues. My County Board colleagues and I will work with the county manager to find efficiencies in service delivery and raise revenues as necessary. The high commercial vacancy rate — around 18 percent — means that residential taxpayers shoulder more of the load for delivering government services than when the tax base was evenly split between the commercial and residential sectors.
Amazon alone does not solve that, but its planned absorption of 4-6 million square feet of office space in Pentagon City and Crystal City, along with the yet-unknown investment Amazon will spark, means that Arlington will be on the path toward the commercial sector paying for a larger share of our community’s needs in housing, infrastructure, schools, parks and sustainability programs.
Increasing Our Housing Supply to Encourage Affordability
Many are concerned that Amazon in Arlington will have the same deleterious effects on housing affordability and homelessness that have occurred in Seattle. Without effective intervention, those concerns could be realized. However, leaders across our metropolitan region have committed to increasing the region’s housing supply so that we accommodate projected employment growth, while stabilizing prices overall.
In 2019, the jurisdictions that compose the Washington Council of Governments are looking to develop a regional plan for housing, and here in Arlington, the Board expects to consider proposals to permit exterior accessory dwellings and to encourage preservation of market-rate affordable housing through Housing Conservation Districts. We will also begin exploring zoning ordinance flexibility to permit housing types that are more affordable by design, and our investments in committed affordable units will be enhanced by $15 million each year for the next 10 years that the commonwealth of Virginia will devote to Arlington and Alexandria.
Jobs and Opportunities
Amazon is planning on investing $2.5 billion to construct the Arlington headquarters and to accommodate at least 25,000 permanent jobs. My goal is to work with Amazon to implement a competitive Project Labor Agreement (PLA) so that jobs needed to construct, renovate and equip their buildings are quality jobs where workers will earn livable wages with robust labor standards. These temporary jobs — along with half of the permanent jobs that are expected to be entry-level, support and junior positions — provide a significant opportunity to expand job opportunities. I am committed to seeing that Arlingtonians who are underserved and underemployed have a chance to compete for those jobs.
I have engaged many in the community on concerns about offering incentives to a company as big as Amazon headed by the wealthiest man in the world. I don’t like it either. Yet as an elected leader, I must deal with the world as it is while trying to shape it into the world most of us want it to be. The County Board stood firm that any direct incentive offered to Amazon would not divert existing revenues. Our staff has proposed granting them an increment of the transit occupancy tax growth (mostly paid by non-Arlingtonians) that occurs after they establish here. The other incentives that staff proposed are investments already identified in our capital improvement program, envisioned in our Crystal City Sector Plan or are current policy priorities.
Furthermore, the commonwealth of Virginia will fund hundreds of millions of dollars in projects devoted to transportation such as improvements to Route 1, a bicycle pedestrian connection to the airport and a second entrance to the Crystal City Metro station, and affordable housing. On top of that, a graduate campus for Virginia Tech will be constructed just across our border in the City of Alexandria along with as yet undefined contributions to K-12 education and other local universities. These state investments would not be realized without Amazon coming to Arlington. They serve to catalyze job growth, housing investment and a transformation of the built environment in both Pentagon City and Crystal City.
With the opportunities comes the responsibility to ensure that we realize the benefits of Amazon while avoiding and mitigating adverse consequences. The path Arlington must pursue is one of equitable growth, where Amazon builds in a manner consistent with our approved plans and community benefits are secured commensurate with their impact, and inclusive opportunities, whereby Arlingtonians seeking stable employment or better jobs are given priority consideration by Amazon’s recruiters. I am confident this can become a shared vision with Amazon and I personally welcome our community demanding that this vision become our reality.
Christian Dorsey is Vice-Chair of the Arlington County Board, a principal director of the WMATA Board of Directors, a commissioner on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a member of the Transportation Planning Board, and member of the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.