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'Won't be as big a bow on the package' | Arlington business owners weigh the pandemic's impact on Amazon HQ2

Between remote work culture and project uncertainty post-pandemic, Amazon building a second headquarters in NoVA may not have as big an impact as once thought.

ARLINGTON, Va. — The 2018 announcement of Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington was celebrated as a game changer for the Northern Virginia region. But as many continue remote work post-pandemic, there are changing views on just how transformative the projected $2.5 billion project will really be.

Crystal City Wine Shop Owner Thad Parsons has a front row seat for the transformation. His business is in the shadow of a huge residential tower being erected across the street, one of dozens of new buildings going up around the HQ2 campus. Parsons says all the construction and loss of parking has been bad for business. Now, he’s skeptical the Amazon Effect will bring the payoff everyone expected.

“There won’t be as big a bow on the package,” Parsons said.

That bow was supposed to mean billions in new revenue for the Greater Washington region, according to this 2018 George Mason University study. The projections were based on Amazon’s promises to bring between 25,000 and 50,000 new jobs to the area.

But like many companies post-pandemic, Amazon is cutting back, laying off a combined 18,000 workers since November, totaling 6% of its global workforce. While Phase 1 of HQ2 -- two office towers and 2.5 acres of green space known as “Met Park” -- is set to open this summer, Phase 2, including the distinctive new Helix tower, has yet to break ground.

“But overall, if their timeline changes, or if the scope of it changes, that's normal,” said Christian Dorsey, chair of the Arlington County Board. "We adjust to those things all the time. And it's no more or less disappointing because it's Amazon, than if it would be for anyone. Real life conditions impact decision making. If it should happen for [Amazon] we'll adjust.”

But Dorsey said he has not had any indication the company is changing its plan.

In an email to WUSA9, Rachael Lighty, an Amazon spokesperson, said 5,000 employees have already been assigned to HQ2, although it’s up to individual teams whether they want to bring employees into the office. Lighty added the opening of Met Park will bring new, local and minority-owned small business retailers to Arlington.

“Regarding the future of HQ2, our long-term intention and commitment to the communities where we have a presence, like Arlington, remains unchanged,” Lighty wrote.

But Lighty did not answer WUSA9’s specific questions about when it plans to move forward with HQ2 phase 2 and the Helix.

“It’s a critical time,” said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, Director of the Virginia Tech Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center.

Piedmont-Palladino said with Arlington already facing record office vacancies amid that nationwide post-pandemic trend of remote work, Amazon should be figuring out what they’re going to do with all that office space.

“So, I'm hoping, and I don't know, because they keep kind of a closed shop, that the architects ... are thinking about, alright, maybe this isn't a bunch of people sitting in here staring at their computers,  what could it be," she said. 

Lighty also did not address a question about whether it was reconsidering the use of its office tower space in its statement to WUSA9.

“Coming up with Plan B is easier said than done,” said Eric Cassel, President of the Crystal City Civic Association.

Cassel says as neighbors wait for what’s next, many are dealing with what’s now-- the noise and dust of development which has led to extreme construction fatigue. WUSA9 obtained records showing at least 16 noise complaints from residents last year for after-hours construction, although it’s not clear if those complaints targeted HQ2 construction or neighboring projects.

Cassel said many are frustrated the parks amenities Amazon promised haven’t developed yet, but are hoping Amazon still delivers.

“You look at this gorgeous picture of the future,” Cassel said standing next to an artist rendering in front of an active, unfinished construction project. "You don’t want to know the kind of words coming out of neighbor’s mouths." 

Lighty told WUSA9 Amazon has invested more than $800 million in affordable housing through the Housing Equity Fund and over $37 million to nonprofits, community groups, public schools, and businesses as part of its ongoing community commitment in our region.

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