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To attract HQ2, D.C. pitched Amazon a taxpayer-funded ‘ambassador,’ one-day permit approvals

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The incentives may have totaled more than $1 billion in value, Mayor Bowser’s administration told the company

Alyssa Nassner

Part of the District’s pitch to Amazon for the corporate expansion that the tech giant billed as “HQ2” was the idea that “DC influences the world,” a pithy phrase that appears on the official website for the pitch. Yet, new disclosures about the bid suggest that it is Amazon that would have directly influenced D.C. had the the company elected to put HQ2 in the nation’s capital.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration offered to devise for the Seattle-based business a full-time “ambassador” position within the mayor’s office, “to ensure seamless project approvals and reviews, and to shepherd any Amazon project throughout the government and the DC community,” the disclosures show. The position would have been fully funded by taxpayers.

“[T]he Amazon Ambassador will know the ins and outs of government implicated by any of Amazon’s big ideas,” states the unredacted version of the District’s pitch that the Bowser administration released on Monday. “The Ambassador will ensure that DC’s executive, legislative, and regulatory arms are thinking as big as Amazon is, and swiftly enabling Amazon to create and innovate in DC.” The role also would have involved community outreach before Amazon set up shop and throughout the company’s tenure in the city.

Moreover, the new disclosures show that the District promised Amazon one-day permitting for major construction projects. The process typically takes months for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to complete, and residents have griped that officials give preference to businesses that pay for expediting approvals (the D.C. Inspector General has said he will investigate this practice). According to the District’s HQ2 bid, Amazon’s design specialists would have worked side-by-side with regulators “to obtain all approvals at once.”

“This streamlined process allows for Amazon’s team to resolve complex design changes through face to face interaction, eliminating lengthy back and forth,” D.C.’s pitch reads.

Other previously unknown elements of the bid include significant investments in mobility, infrastructure, and housing. The Bowser administration proposed to help develop a fleet of self-driving vehicles “within the Amazon campus and beyond,” to be financed by taxpayers, and an upgraded “fiber network” for internet connections, “installed to meet any Amazon schedule.” In addition, the administration offered to facilitate an “Amazon Village” concept where “smart” technologies like Amazon’s Alexa software would be integrated with others.

Bowser officials also said they would double D.C.’s main annual affordable housing funding by using tax revenue generated from HQ2, to $200 million from $100 million, as a bulwark against gentrification and displacement pressures. “This would produce affordable housing options for an additional 20,000 households” based on the blueprint for HQ2, the bid notes.

D.C.’s Amazon HQ2 bid
D.C. government

All told, the administration estimated that the value of the incentives package was between $488 million and $1.05 billion, from Amazon’s selection of an HQ2 location “through 2034.” That is less than other jurisdictions’ packages were worth. D.C. included four sites in its bid: the Anacostia Riverfront area, Hill East, NoMa-Union Station, and Shaw-Howard University.

The full release of the District’s pitch follows Amazon’s declaration last Tuesday that it plans to divide HQ2 between Northern Virginia and New York City, and bring 25,000 jobs to each location. Amazon is set to invest $5 billion across both sites, creating billions in tax revenue over the next few decades. When proclaiming its site selection, the company said “economic incentives were one factor in our decision—but attracting top talent was the leading driver.”

D.C.’s unveiling of the rest of its Amazon incentives comes after an earlier release of certain pieces in January, thanks to a public-records request and legal appeal by WAMU. The initial disclosures showed that the District had offered the company various tax breaks through an existing program for qualified tech companies, credits for new hires and reimbursements for relocated employees, and a “customized” workforce center to be called “Amazon University.”

D.C.’s Amazon HQ2 bid
D.C. government

Back-of-the-envelope guesses at the time indicated that D.C. had pitched Amazon hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives at a minimum. This was months before the company said it would split HQ2, so the incentives package may have changed had the District ultimately been selected for one-half of the corporate expansion. Attorneys for Bowser’s office claimed that they could not disclose all the offerings, as the package appeared “to contain incentives offered to Amazon by private entities who have partnered with the District” on the proposal.

But much of the formerly redacted information in the bid pertains to government programs and actions, not private ones. Asked why the Bowser administration waited until Monday to disclose the entire incentives package, a spokeswoman for Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner notes in a statement that “the competitive process is over and Mayor Bowser wanted to share the final piece of our proposal with the community.”

Virginia’s incentives were not revealed until Amazon’s HQ2 announcement last week. They amount to more than $800 million in infrastructure investments and tax breaks, plus a $1.1 billion plan for higher education focused on science, tech, engineering, and math, or STEM fields. Amazon’s new offices will be located in Crystal City in Arlington County, stretches of which are being unofficially rebranded along with parts of Alexandria as “National Landing.”