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Arlington Officials Not Satisfied with Amazon’s Plans for Going Green

Arlington officials are asking Amazon to go back to the drawing board for its proposed headquarters in Pentagon City to put a greater emphasis on sustainability.

The 2.1 million-square-foot proposed office complex at the corner of 15th Street S. and S. Eads Street, is currently pending review by Arlington’s Planning Commission and County Board. If plans are finalized on schedule by the end of 2019, demolition is due to start early next year, according to JBG Smith’s Vice President of Development Matt Ginivan, with excavation then lasting through the end of the year.

In early 2021, the developer expects to start constructing the 22-story-tall building, with the goal of being ready to house Amazon’s growing workforce by early 2023.

It’s not easy being green 

As part of the construction, Amazon Vice President of Global Real Estate John Schoettler announced during a Site Plan Review Committee (SPRC) meeting last night (Monday) that HQ2 would seek a LEED Platinum energy certification instead of its lower, original Gold goal.

“We are working to secure renewable energy for the campus which means our Arlington buildings will operate on 100% renewable energy by 2030,” said Schoettler.

SPRC members commended Amazon for the new goal but pressed the company for more details on how it would meet the carbon emissions reduction targets. Previously, the company’s designs were scored on the lower end of LEED’s Gold efficiency ranking.

SPRC members also asked how Amazon would avoid use of fossil fuels, particularly in its restaurant spaces.

Brian Earle, a principal at ZGF Architects, said Amazon was committed to forgoing natural gas in its kitchens and cafeterias, but admitted they didn’t “see a path towards having a life safety [electric] generator that meets the county’s requirements that does not use fossil fuels.”

Schoettler added that Amazon was planning to build off-site renewable energy facilities like solar or wind farms elsewhere in Virginia to power the buildings with renewable energy and off-set the impact of fossil fuels.

One SPRC member, however, cited the case of how Georgetown University’s off-site solar energy production plan was blocked after concerns that it required clear-cutting 240 acres of trees in Maryland.

“That might make us feel very virtuous, but we have to be very cautious about how we produce that off-site energy,” she said of off-site renewables.

Another part of the HQ2 plan involves the landscaping of the site itself, which is slated to include gardens, a dog park, and terraces on the multi-step grooves.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently pledged his company would achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and that Amazon was “going to work very hard with the community [in Arlington] to make sure our presence there ends up being a net positive, rather than a net negative.”

Arlington officials also recently passed a new energy policy committing the county to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Another protected bike lane, what about electric vehicle parking?

SPRC member and Transportation Commission Chair Chris Slatt urged Amazon to nix some of its parking spaces, saying: “I think your parking is a far greater blemish on your sustainability than whether there’s a wood-burning fireplace in the staff lounge.”

Other members of the SPRC focused on the nexus of sustainability and transit asked Amazon to expand the percentage of parking spaces reserved for electric vehicles. The recommendation follows the county’s new energy plan predicting more people will drive electric cars in the next thirty years — a trend backed by Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent investment to expand the number of charging stations available statewide.

Amazon’s current designs set aside about 2% — or about 40 spaces — of its 1,968 total parking spaces for electric vehicles.

“Why not push for 10%?” asked one SPRC member.

There was at least one big win for non-car transportation last night. Following repeated calls from activists, Amazon announced it would build a protected bike lane on 15th Street S. along the length of the Metropolitan Park development, of which its headquarters is the final phase. That follow’s Amazon’s previous pledge to build a protected lane along S. Eads Street.

Amazon could subsidizing retail tenants

One Site Plan Review Committee member asked if the company had any plans to help sustain the small businesses that will occupy 56,000 square feet of retail space in the new complex.

Schoettler said the company did have a plan, adding, “That’s what we do in Seattle, and that’s our intention here as well.”

Schoettler, who noted he dined at Mexican restaurant Tacos y Tortas on Columbia Pike before the meeting, said Amazon is not a typical landlord of retail spaces in its buildings.

“We’re not doing this to collect rent and earn money. Many of our retailers in Seattle only pay utilities,” he said. “Oftentimes retail is meant to be a draw for the area and meant to serve the people in the area above. It’s not meant to be something you get rich [from].”

JBG Smith’s Senior Vice President of Retail Leasing Amy Rice reiterated plans to find a balance of tenants like restaurants, cafes, and service-oriented businesses.

With the exception of the planned daycare, the average size of retail spaces will be smaller, 2,200 square feet spaces designed “for local retailers” instead of “big box, national chains,” according to Rice.

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