Amazon’s six-year effort to build a second global headquarters, also known as HQ2, finally culminated Thursday with the grand opening of the new Metropolitan Park in Arlington, Virginia.
In a show of community, the e-tailer enlisted the Alexandria City High School marching band for the event, which also featured local VIPs from Arlington County Board members to Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“We celebrate this partnership as it is building a better and brighter future right here in Virginia,” Youngkin said in remarks at the ceremony. “The Amazon team is truly engaged fully, not just in their business, but in Virginia. So thank you.” The ribbon-cutting took place at Amazon’s newly built Pentagon City auditorium. The festivities will extend into the weekend with a community day for the public on Saturday.
Reaching this stage was no easy feat. Despite the disruptions and complications presented by the pandemic, construction managed to progress, at least until March when the company paused the work amid a new round of layoffs. Amazon, which had already decreased its workforce by more than 18,000, released another 9,000-plus workers, amounting to the largest layoffs in its history.
The company also needed to assess its workforce needs and expectations amid the reality of remote work. In May, a new three-day in-office policy apparently elicited mixed reactions from workers at its HQ1 in Seattle. Arlington employees are expected to hew to the same standards.
While the ribbon-cutting marked a milestone for HQ2, it doesn’t signal the project’s completion, only the grand opening for phase one in Amazon’s plans.
The scope of this first phase includes two towers, dubbed “Merlin” and “Jasper,” a taqueria, cycling studio, doggie day care operation and other shops. The grounds will also feature a preschool, sculpture garden, dog park and other public spaces across the site’s 2.1 million square feet. One development firm estimated that, when it comes to street-level stores, HQ2 will triple the amount of retail in the area.
There’s still more construction to finish before phase one is complete, primarily to the upper levels of the structure, but no further disruptions are anticipated, at least for that. Phase two is another matter.
In announcing the pause of phase one in March, Amazon real estate chief John Schoettler also revealed that the company was delaying the start of the second phase. This part of the build includes office buildings like PenPlace, a high-concept glass structure designed to look like a double helix. The timing of that construction remains to be seen, though current rumors peg 2024.
That hasn’t stopped Amazon from staffing Met Park, however. More than 8,000 employees have been hired — out of an eventual total of 25,000 by 2030 — and the staffers have already begun flowing in. That’s a meaningful figure for a county with a population of some 239,000 people.
It makes sense then that Amazon would go out of its way to cast itself as a good neighbor, especially for HQ2’s grand opening. The festivities continue on Saturday and residents are invited to visit, eat, shop the farmer’s market onsite, pick up a banana at Amazon’s signature Banana Stand, check out its Rivian electric delivery vehicles, enjoy local art and more. People are even encouraged to bring their kids and dogs. It can’t get more wholesome.
It’s a stark contrast to the early days in 2017, when Amazon first announced its intention to build HQ2. Corporate expansion had rarely ever seemed so dramatic — or cutthroat — as cities and towns across the country, even the continent, vied to win the development deal. More than 230 municipalities, from New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Columbus, Ohio, to Toronto, as well as smaller towns, competed against each other in a corporate battle royale.
After 20 finalists were narrowed down, New York’s Long Island City made the cut alongside Arlington. But the tech giant scrapped its Big Apple plans in 2019 after a public backlash bubbled up. Community leaders, elected officials, local organizers and others worried about HQ2’s impact on the local culture and cost of living, or the “Amazon Effect.”
Arlington may be seeing that in play already. According to a WUSA 9 report, data from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors shows that residential real estate prices in the county went from $666,802 in May 2018 to $829,491 in May 2023. Rental rates appear to be jumping as well.
It’s difficult to gauge how much of that to attribute to Amazon given the circumstances, with a global pandemic looming large, swings in interest and mortgage rates, inflation, the rise of remote work and many other considerations. Nonetheless, Arlington appears to be bracing for the Amazon Effect and opinions vary. Some see it as growth, opportunity and a higher quality of life, while others envision gentrification, displacement and a higher cost of living for everyone.
The company is well aware of that environment. Its response is to double down on the community theme and amp up the neighborly appeal.
“We made a commitment to be a trusted business and community partner in the region, and our work to become a part of the fabric of this community reflects that commitment daily,” Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide economic development, said in prepared remarks. “Community has been at the forefront of every decision.”
Sullivan added that the company kept the community in mind throughout the design and construction, as it looked for ways to minimize its impact. One part of that is housing: Amazon plans to house as many as 14,000 local employees, and it invested millions into affordable housing. Arlington County Board chair Christian Dorsey said the effort boosted Arlington’s inventory of affordable homes by as much as 20 percent. The part focuses on sustainability. The first HQ2 building was designed to be carbon neutral, said Dorsey, and its power is fed from a Virginia solar farm that Amazon helped fund.
That may or may not sway everyone, but politicians and Arlington officials at least look convinced that the tech company’s arrival is a boon.
“I want to thank everyone from the broad Amazon family for believing in Virginia, for investing in Virginia, for partnering with Virginia and for delivering,” Youngkin said. “There are lots of times when there are promises made, but the most important thing is when promises are kept.”