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Amazon’s HQ2 decision highlights broader interest in urban, transit

Amazon hasn’t disclosed why it rejected Atlanta.

But, when choosing where to put its highly sought second headquarters, the tech giant emphasized what it liked about the two locations it eventually decided would share the prize and 50,000 combined jobs.

Beyond the top draw of scads of talented workers, the tech giant cited the urban feel of the spots in New York City and metro Washington D.C.  and their quick access to subways, trains, buses, airports, ferries, bike-sharing and walking.

What it didn’t mention in its official statement: highways.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It pointed out plans to improve the pedestrian experience crossing one.

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Amazon’s nationwide search for an ideal spot magnifies an issue metro Atlanta and other cities are increasingly wrestling with: growing corporate and community demand for appealing urban locations that offer a plethora of nearby amenities plus easy ways to get around without getting in a car.

The push is predicated in part on the idea that top workers — particularly young, tech-brilliant people who are in high demand — expect workplaces that fit in with their lifestyle. That can mean places with a mix of everything from cool restaurants to recreation, bars, public spaces, vibrant cultural venues, groceries, transit stations and more, all within a charming stroll of the office or a quick ride from home.

The work to set the stage for that atmosphere in Atlanta is not just being left to developers.

What could have been: A rendering of a proposed Amazon complex in the shadows of Ponce City Market.

Earlier this month, Atlanta’s city council approved $1.9 billion in subsidies for the Gulch, a proposed $5 billion private project of office towers, homes, hotels and retail in a barren downtown area near CNN Center.

The city continues to add to the Atlanta Beltline, the partially built and fantastically popular loop that will connect neighborhoods And last month MARTA’s board approved a $2.7 billion plan to expand transit in the city over the next 40 years. It is slated to be funded with a half-penny sales tax increase Atlanta voters approved in 2016.

Downtown boosters also have proposed creating intriguing public spaces and a re-created street grid to be built on a platform covering 14 acres of the Downtown Connector. And Georgia Tech, already a magnet for companies that want to be near students and recent graduates, will be a major tenant in the new 21-story Coda building that was designed to expand the school’s successful Tech Square area.

Amazon isn’t alone in its desires for cool and connected locations. In recent years, a string of other big employers — Kaiser Permanente, Athenahealth, NCR, PulteGroup, State Farm and Mercedes-Benz — have sought out either urban or dense suburban Atlanta sites close to transit and, often, walking-distance amenities.

Still, “Amazon was the 800-pound gorilla that made everybody who hadn’t been paying attention to that trend pay attention to it,” said Robbie Ashe, an Atlanta attorney who is chairman of the MARTA board.

Toughest competition

Amazon’s unusually public search for an HQ2 campus lasted more than a year.

“It was probably the toughest competition in the history of site selection,” said Andy Levine, the chairman of Development Counsellors International, which helps cities and states with economic development marketing.

Georgia and city officials offered Seattle-based Amazon nearly $2 billion in incentives and perks.

But, as enticing as Amazon’s project was, officials caution communities not to reset overall strategies for transportation and land-use planning based on hopes of landing another such employer.

“You can get too caught up in the mania about a project like this and take things too far and try to learn lessons from an opportunity that might be once in a decade or even longer than that,” said Bert Brantley, the chief operating officer at the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Still, he said, “a lot of the things Amazon was looking for are things other companies are looking for.”

Amazon was just more direct about what it was seeking.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal spoke in August at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Jefferson, Ga. State officials tried to convince Amazon to create a much bigger presence in the state, including locating a proposed second headquarters in metro Atlanta. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, is wary of growing pressure to expand expensive traditional transit in Cobb County and other suburbs where many residents want less dense development.

Plenty of businesses still seek suburban locations, and they attract employees who would find it easier to drive rather than ride to work, he said.

Some, though, are tired of long drives. Andy Powell was a committed suburbanite who said he loved living south of Atlanta, in Fayetteville.

But the Georgia Tech grad started his small tech business, CallRail, intown. His office is near downtown’s Woodruff Park, where concerts, events and food trucks are a regular part of life.

The intown location is crucial to attract the kind of workers his marketing analytics software business demands, he said.

Atlanta’s urban offerings and transit options should expand, Powell said, but not to woo out-of-state companies like Amazon.

“For Atlanta to continue to grow, we have to become a more dense city. That’s how we are going to accommodate more business, more people, more culture. We can’t continue to put more cars on the road.”

What Amazon wanted

Amazon was open to suburban as well as urban locations, according to its initial request for proposals.

But when Amazon officials toured Georgia sites earlier this year, they chose to skip the suburbs and see only intown options relatively close to MARTA. They visited booming Midtown, the Old Fourth Ward and a project called the Quarry Yards near the Bankhead rail station.

They also looked at the Gulch site and the gritty southside of downtown Atlanta, an area that recently has attracted intense interest from developers.

The last time a major corporation with a really big batch of jobs relocated its headquarters to even the cleaned-up side of downtown Atlanta?

Maybe more than three decades ago, when Georgia-Pacific came to town, according to A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown organization.

He said he’s convinced Midtown and downtown Atlanta stacked up well on what Amazon said it was looking for.

And he said Amazon’s HQ2 search was one of the crucial events that created statewide support for Atlanta mass transit.

“All of a sudden everybody is ready to do something,” Robinson said.

Amazon decided to put massive new operations in New York City and metro Washington D.C. The company had earlier considered Atlanta, particularly looking at urban areas relatively close to mass transit. One of them is the proposed Gulch project in south downtown that would stretch across this area near the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Five Points MARTA station. (Photo by Phil Skinner) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

But building some transit takes years.

House Speaker David Ralston suggested that Amazon’s decision to pass on Atlanta as a headquarters might have been tied to infrastructure limits.

“We got to the transit game, but we couldn’t go back and catch up for all of those years before some of us came into leadership positions,” Ralston said. “I think we are now aggressively moving forward to build a state growing into transit. And I think that will pay dividends in the future.”

State officials talked to Amazon leaders about the HQ2 decision. “They could not have been more complimentary and, frankly, be more excited about future growth of what they have here now,” said Brantley.

While the company officials didn’t cite any local flaws, they stressed that the decision was based on where leaders thought they had the best chance of getting the workers they need, Brantley said.

Brantley said Amazon also disclosed that Atlanta wasn’t considered for a 5,000-person eastern regional logistics hub announced for downtown Nashville, a city where voters shot down a transit referendum earlier this year.

Brantley said Georgia officials were told the project wasn’t necessarily related to the HQ2 decision, though it was announced at the same time.

Meanwhile, Atlanta boosters point to an array of other announcements about jobs coming to the city, particularly in Midtown.

“I think we have grown tremendously as a city,” said Christa Huffstickler, the chief executive of residential real estate firm Engel & Volkers Atlanta. She cited everything from jobs, to the Beltline to restaurants and festivals. “There are a lot of draws bringing people into Atlanta. Simultaneously, you have had this urban workforce that built up.”

— James Salzer and Michael Kanell contributed to this report.

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