Amazon…It Ain’t Just a River in South America

It seems like half of America’s cities are competing for Amazon’s 2nd headquarters project and why shouldn’t they – big projects, mega projects matter. The potential of 50,000 employees and billions of investment is a game changer.  Yes mega projects are expensive, yes they are risky – but if you are going to take a big risk it would strike me as smart to wager on the e-commerce giant.

Last week, Ross Douthat writing in the New York Times, called upon Amazon to select a site on the basis of “what’s good for America.” He opined on Amazon’s opportunity to revitalize a desolate place in America – downtown St Louis, Detroit, Chicago or Baltimore – and a chance to be “seen as a company that renews cities and doesn’t just put brick and mortar out of business.”  If these communities were just impoverished, I might be more sympathetic – but the elected officials in those cities have dramatically failed to uphold the most basic responsibility of government – ensuring security.  Whether it’s Iran or the streets of Chicago, safety and security are precursors of economic opportunity not the other way around. 

But following Douthat’s rationale, if Amazon wants to make a difference and be successful – Upstate New York, makes a lot more sense.

According to news reports and stuff I happen to hear – the Albany-Schenectady-Troy / Saratoga MSA is a bidder, the Buffalo-Rochester / Toronto region is a bidder as well as Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and possibly some yet to be determined area of Westchester.  They all have some obvious merits and they all have their obvious challenges. Among the rumors I’ve heard from around the state, only Buffalo-Toronto and Manhattan will get a real listen from Amazon – but like the lottery, you have to be in it to win it – so as a grandson of the Pastures in Albany, and a cheerleader for upstate I’m rooting for the Capital Region.  

But where? The obvious choice is the Harriman campus – long a site waiting for meaningful redevelopment. My guess is that Harriman could someday make sense for a less brand conscious tenant – but my gut is Bezos and Amazon will want to make a statement. Office parks, corporate parks, tech parks seem soooo 1990’s. Harriman, in my personal view, lacks the sass to stand out in an uber crowded field and ultimately doesn’t tell a story worthy of Amazon’s gravitas.

The big play – the out of the box option for Albany – is to check the gift wrap box, put a bow on it & deliver the Empire State Plaza to Amazon.

And why not?

It will definitely get some attention –  I can pretty much guarantee you no other state will do it.

The assets are all already under control.

It reeks of crazy serious commitment – from the State and local leaders.

It would dramatically re-imagine downtown Albany – giving downtown Albany back to the City.

In short, it has sass.

The Corning Tower alone has almost 1 million sq feet of office space – twice Amazon’s initial need.

The proposal could be to rehabilitate the interior of the (Corning) Bezos Tower (since we are renaming things these days), update the exterior with a state of the art wrap or edifice, add a Winter Garden on the plaza level to house retail / amenities and radically modernize the lobby. Finally, create an off site energy plant to provide 100% GREEN power to the site and yes build the much ballyhooed gondola from the Albany-Rensselaer train station to the Plaza (it would actually make sense)

The kicker – displaced state workers could be relocated in downtowns across the Capital Region. Everybody wins.

Why Albany?  

#1 Albany, the Capital Region and Upstate is a bastion of higher education:

Access to talent is a key driver for technology behemoths such as Amazon and there are few parts of America that can rival the number of students that attend colleges and universities in Upstate New York and the Capital Region. In the Capital Region alone there are 21 traditional higher education, degree-awarding institutions. Our state’s public universities, most of them located upstate, graduate more than 40,000 undergraduates each year, and another 17,000 with master’s degrees or above.

#2 Albany is and always has been affordable:

Historian John McMaster wrote,“…Albany was a place where a man with a modest competence could, in time, acquire riches; where a man with money could, in a short space of time, amass a fortune.” Affordability is a key factor in attracting and retaining talent and in particular the relatively low-cost of housing in the region is a big plus.

#3 Albany is and always has been at the epicenter of transportation:

As the site of one of the 1st commercial airports in America, Albany is an important transportation gateway to millions of people in the Northeast, New England and eastern Canada.

#4 Albany’s skyline is iconic:

The Empire State Plaza, while iconic, is overdue for reinvention. The Corning Tower is the tallest structure between Montreal and New York City.   I’d like to believe the Plaza’s architect, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who loved to build big things – important things, would be thrilled by a modern adaptation of his work.

#5 Albany is just a “drones throw away” from Griffiss Airport in Rome:

In late 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that Griffiss International Airport, a former Air Force base in Rome, N.Y., would be one of ONLY SIX sites nationwide with authorization to test commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones.  The Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International predicts growth to approach $82 billion by 2025 – Amazon’s, Prime Air, is a leader in this rapidly growing industry.

Judging by recent announcements in Staten Island and Manhattan, New York state economic development officials already boast a strong relationship with Amazon- here is a chance to take it to the next level.