In the Netflix Era, a Video Store Lives On as a Cultural Asset

Four years ago, the owners of Scarecrow Video brought all their staff members together to deliver some bad news. Like video stores across the country, the business was struggling. Its rentals and purchases had decreased dramatically as customers flocked to online streaming services. The owners were writing their own checks just to keep the business running, but they couldn’t do it anymore. It looked like they might have to part with their collection of over 130,000 videos—one of the largest publicly available video archives on earth.

For the staff, the news was devastating. The business had grown from a few hundred tapes in the back of a record store in 1988 into a Seattle icon, or a “movie Mecca,” as one customer called it. In fact, just in the last 15 years, its titles had doubled. “If this collection gets broken up or sold off, a lot of stuff’s going to vanish. It’s going to go into the pockets of collectors. It’s going to wind up in a library basement somewhere,” said Matt Lynch, Scarecrow Video’s marketing coordinator. “We wanted to make sure that it stayed available to people.”

So the staff came together to pitch their own proposal. The idea was simple: They would keep the collection together, in the same space and open to the public, but transform the business into a nonprofit. After some back and forth over details, the owners agreed to donate everything in the store—the films and the shelves they were stored on—to Scarecrow Video, the nonprofit.

The result is something like a museum mixed with a video store. A team of 20 volunteers devotes hours each week to collect movie returns and restock the shelves. Most evenings, they hold one of their many community outreach programs for the public, such as the Children’s Hour, an event with the public library across the street that features a series of stories, videos, and activities for kids that center on a specific theme.

(Hallie Golden/CityLab)

And Scarecrow’s work as a nonprofit has helped to highlight just what could be lost if movie stores were swept away in favor of more convenient technology. Its collection includes films dating back to 1893, representing 129 countries and more than 126 languages. “These are our cultural assets,” said Kate Barr, president of Scarecrow Video. To put in perspective just how many titles they have, consider the fact that the total number of titles available on Netflix and Amazon only total about one-fifth of Scarecrow’s collection.

“It’s a movie-lovers’ paradise,” said Alex Williams, 48, who worked at the store from 1998 to 2000, and said he has shopped there at least once a week ever since. “Pretty much anything you can think of, they have. And that’s not true online.”

It has become increasingly apparent over the past decade that movie businesses can’t compete with the offerings, instant gratification, and automated recommendations of online streaming services. “It would be an understatement to say brick-and-mortar stores are in a state of decline,” said Brett Danaher, assistant professor of Economics and Management Science at Chapman University. The shops that have survived tend to be in remote regions without reliable internet or mail (Blockbuster is still alive in Alaska), serve a community of aging or non-digitally savvy people, or be frequented by customers who patron the shops because of their novelty.

Scarecrow has taken a different path. It exchanged its for-profit business for 501(c)(3) status to keep its diverse collection together and available to the public, leaving it reliant on both rental revenue and support from people all over the world who—whether they’ve been to the store or not—want to see the collection preserved.

Four years later, Scarecrow Video hasn’t just survived, it’s done quite well. It took the staff less than a week to raise the $100,000 they needed to get the nonprofit off the ground, with donations coming from as far away as Australia, Japan, and Bulgaria. And each year when they ask for more money, they’ve been able to get it from a band of loyal patrons.

“People who love movies, whether they’re cinefiles on the one end or just regular old movie lovers, I think people had that feeling of, ‘I want this place to be there when I’m ready to come to it; when I need it,’” Barr said. In honor of the store’s 30th anniversary, the organization just launched a new fundraising campaign on GoFundMe. It’s working to raise $100,000 “to lay the foundation for our next 30 years,” according to its website.

(Hallie Golden/CityLab)

But while this format seems to be working for Scarecrow, the chances of it being some kind of business-saving blueprint for movie stores across the country is unlikely. “You don’t need nearly as many museums as you do stores selling the products when there was actually a lot of demand for them,” Danaher said.

There are other groups that have launched smaller nonprofit video stores in recent years in the U.S., including Facets, in Chicago, and a group in Baltimore plans to open Beyond Video in the spring. But some of these nonprofit ventures have already had to close shop, including Video Fan, in Virginia, and Vidiots, in Los Angeles, which is working to re-open in a new location with cheaper operation costs.

The transition to becoming a nonprofit was not as simple as filing a collection of government paperwork, Barr said. They actually had to re-educate the public about what they were. “There is no precedent in our culture to say, ‘Well this type of video collection is a nonprofit, but this type is a for-profit business,’” she said.

That harsh reality set in when they submitted an application for a grant with Washington’s King County. When Scarecrow didn’t get it, they requested feedback from the peer panel that reviewed the application. They discovered an array of reviewers confused about how Scarecrow Video was able to apply when they’re a “video store.”

The re-education process is slow and cumbersome. And while they’ve made some progress, there’s still more to do. But many in the community are supporting them along the way. In fact, last year, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold and Director of the Office of Film and Music, Kate Becker wrote a guest editorial in a local paper about why Scarecrow Video is a Seattle icon.

“No other city in America can boast having such a unique and important collection fully accessible to their residents,” they wrote. “They are truly caretakers of our shared culture, history, and film arts, and undeniably a Seattle institution.”

Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Shifting Systems of Power

We recently released a report titled “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. In the third piece in this four-part series, we share the next three themes that emerged from our research. To read the previous post, click here

8. Addressing systemic racism requires talking about white supremacy and white institutional culture.

White supremacy is not just about Nazis marching with tiki torches. It is a force that is engrained in our culture and operating modes. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. Paying attention to how white supremacy manifests in our lives helps us to push against it.
The characteristics of white supremacist culture listed in this document are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.

Our Recommendations:

Engage in an honest, facilitated, conversation about how white supremacy culture currently manifests at Living Cities and potential antidotes.
Develop/refine/continuously revisit and lift up our working norms with a racial equity and inclusion lens.
Ensure that senior leadership receive coaching such that they can consider how to counter white supremacy culture in their work.

Tools and Resources:

9. To talk about race, we have to talk about inherent power dynamics.

In America, we often talk about racism in a hate vs. love frame, but if we are truly to address racial inequity, we must understand it in terms of power. This is necessary because racism is, at its core, a tool to establish and maintain power structures that are centered around whiteness. When we don’t talk about power and power dynamics at all levels (interpersonal, institutional, and systemic), we perpetuate inequity.

Our Recommendations:

Take truthful stock of power dynamics within our own institution: Start paying attention to who speaks at meetings, in conversations, etc. What are the racial and in some cases gender dynamics? How is the idea of “appropriateness” used; and when and by whom? How do people disengage from conversations about race? Who is disengaging? How does that disengagement relate to power?

Consider power dynamics in our work: Do community members and people of color have decision-making control in efforts we support? What are the narratives we use to explain why or why not? How are these narratives related to power?
Use a power analysis in our communications about racial equity and in our programmatic work.

Tools and Resources:

10. We cannot advance racial equity until we focus on anti-black racism and intersectionality.

“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates

It is important for those working on economic inequality and other social issues to focus on anti-Black racism because it is the root cause for the inequity we see today. Indeed, it is clear that we will not achieve economic equity for all people without addressing it. In other words, in America, Anti-Black racism is the foundational architecture for the strategies, tactics, tools, and cultural worldviews that created and maintain racial oppression, repression, and exclusion. It is also true that these same strategies, tactics, tools, and cultural worldviews are being used against other communities, including Latinx communities, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, LGBTQ communities, and women. So, it is important to start with an understanding of anti-Blackness, and to then apply an intersectional analysis and lens to ensure that the unique experiences of other communities, and of individuals all of us whom necessarily sit at the intersection of ,multiple identities, are not being erased.

Our Recommendations:

Include in its racial equity and inclusion learning curriculum, readings, speakers, and media about why considering anti-Black racism is fundamental to achieving racial equity and inclusion, and about intersectionality.
Engage in conversation with our sites, such as New Orleans, San Francisco and Baltimore, that are centering anti-Black racism in their work to understand what that looks like in local efforts.
Invest in Black-led social change efforts and partner with Black-led organizations.

Tools and Resources:

[[big-button “Read the Full Racial Equity & Inclusion Report” “”]]

All artwork from this series comes from CultureStrike’s”Until We Are All Free“ project.

Supporting Affordable Residential Access to Community Solar in Minnesota

In April, ILSR submitted comments in support of affordable residential access to community solar for review by Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission. These comments concerned a proposed residential adder framework outlined as part of the state’s community solar program and Minnesota Department of Commerce Value of Solar calculation. We argue that, in a recent analysis submitted to the Commission by Xcel Energy, the utility exaggerated costs likely to be incurred under this new framework. Our comments support those made by allies such as Cooperative Energy Futures and advocate for adder calculations that ensure financeability and broad participation among residential subscribers to the state’s community solar program.… Read More

The post Supporting Affordable Residential Access to Community Solar in Minnesota appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Wakanda, New Davonhaime: The Yearning for a New Black City

A park blooms on the concrete floor: green carpets, a bench painted in warm hues, a wooden chair with a squat, vibrant pillow. Plush green cushions sit atop milk crates like inviting toadstools. The park is a part of New Davonhaime, the conceptual city created by artist Azikiwe Mohammed.

New Davonhaime’s moniker was stitched together using names of some of the American cities with the highest density of African-American residents: New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Savannah, Georgia. Different versions of the installation have popped up across the country, but from May 4 to 6, New Davonhaime will be in New York City as a representation of an outdoor space at the 154 Contemporary African Art Fair, a showcase of art from Africa and its diaspora.

“Two Ladies Taking a Beach Break” (Teresa Mathew)

“America is great for a lot of people,” said Mohammed. However, he continued, given his identity as a black man, “I just happen to not be one of them. So I made a different place.” He aimed to create a space where black Americans could feel both safe and acknowledged.

Five different cities give New Davonhaime its name, but don’t expect to find a miniature version of New Orleans’ French Quarter or Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge in sight. Mohammed purposely wanted to create a sense of spatial ambiguity, so visitors could settle in and project their own memories and needs onto the installation. The point, he said, was to “leave it open—make it just black enough that black people can be like yup, got it.”

As he developed the project, Mohammed distributed postcards across the country and asked people to mail them back to him, requesting that they write—in the form of a memory—about something they were not getting in their own cities and would like to get elsewhere. He sorted through the memories to decide the needs and feel of New Davonhaime, seeing it as a place that could stitch together what worked in other cities and fill the gaps that they left behind.  

“New Davonhaime is a town,” he said, “and towns aren’t defined by any one story. If I made a place that was just based on my own ideas and concerns, people would visit—but it wouldn’t turn a personal corner for them.”

One person mailed a postcard saying they wanted their dad back. That, Mohammed said, “points to me that he was taken by an entity—that you feel like you could retrieve [him], likely [from] some kind of governmental intervention. That speaks to you not having agency to prevent giant losses in your life. You don’t have the means, the opportunity, the time.” So he decided to create photo albums, where visitors could come in and leave photos of their relatives. “If your family isn’t as robust as you would wish it to be for a variety of reasons, we have black community family albums,” he said. “Here’s a loaner family.”

New Davonhaime’s emphasis on black community, safety, and belonging, might bring to mind Wakanda: Black Panther’s thriving African nation untouched by colonialism, which was created by weaving together different cultural threads from across the continent. But Mohammed shies away from calling New Davonhaime a utopia, and wants viewers to draw their comparisons to other, real-life examples.

“Wakanda is amazing—the idea of it, the way it was visualized. But it’s not realistic for a million reasons,” he said. “To find a self-sustaining black magic land you don’t have to look too far. Haiti has a lot of issues, but they won their slave rebellion and then made a country. That’s insane. The entire history of Egypt: there are examples of these things that have worked. A utopia is something that can’t exist and never really intended to exist. And, because of this lack of intention, you put all your hopes and wishes there—but not any of your goals. You don’t work towards making that happen. You just keep it as a mental safeguard against the horrible realities we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

One of those realities is the way black bodies are treated in public spaces, he said. Black boys cannot play with toys in parks; black men cannot sit patiently at a table in Starbucks; young black women cannot go to a neighborhood pool party, without the fear of violence.

So while previous versions of New Davonhaime have focused on interiors, this new iteration provided Mohammed the chance to play with public space. The installation at 154 doesn’t have many of the pieces previously seen in Mohammed’s other renditions of New Davonhaime: photo albums, painted mirrors, bright neon signs. Instead, it focuses on rest and relaxation rather than remembrance.

The park has allowances for the three different levels of what Mohammed termed “bodily activation”—walking, short-term resting, and longer-term leisure (like having a picnic). “If you can design a space that encourages those three options, then you’ve designed a good, functioning public space,” he said.

Carpets, milkcrate chairs, and other parts of the New Davonhaime park (Teresa Mathew)

There is a neon cooler in the corner to symbolize picnicking, and the way food goes hand in hand with leisure and outdoor space. A floral tapestry hangs on a wall to be used later in the show as a photo backdrop where Mohammed will photograph visitors. This, he said, is “a way to have yourself seen—to include yourself in the circumstances at a ground level.” He plans to subtly alter the show throughout the weekend, observing visitors’ traffic patterns and seeing how best to arrange the environment he has created.

“If you’re comfortable and physically relaxed, you can take in the ideas that are around the place and spend more time with it,” Mohammed said. “If I could make the space comfortable enough for you to spend the time you want to spend, it starts to become yours. And if something is yours, you’re safe there.”

CityLab Daily: A Gentle Revolution for ‘Solar City’

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An aerial view of Babcock Ranch near Fort Myers, which is projected to have 50,000 residents by the time it’s completed. (Babcock Ranch)

Sunshine state of mind: On first glance, Babcock Ranch doesn’t look much different from other planned communities in Florida, but the suburban development has high hopes. As the first solar-powered city in the United States, solar panels on public and commercial buildings power all the downtown amenities you could dream of, from gastropubs to swimming pools. Self-driving shuttles roam the streets. “Solar trees” provide phone-charging spots in public spaces.

The first 20 residents moved in this January, and the 440 acres of solar panels provide more than enough power for all their utilities. But the sustainable community is still in its infancy. Over the next 20 years, its developer hopes to offer 19,500 homes outfitted with high-tech and environmentally friendly features to draw in 50,000 residents.

Read the full story on CityLab: Can a New ‘Solar City’ Make Suburbia Green?

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Will Seattle’s Plan for a Progressive Tax Scare Amazon Away?

Seattle wants big businesses to fund affordable housing and reduce homelessness. Amazon isn’t happy.

Sarah Holder

The Great Housing Reset

The rise of renting in the U.S. isn’t just about high housing prices, or preferences for city living, but about the flexibility to compete in today’s economy.

Richard Florida

The War on Cars, Norwegian Edition

Oslo is still planning to go car-free by 2019, thanks to an ambitious network of bike lanes. But old habits do die hard.

Laura Bliss

America, Land of the Young and Lonely

A survey suggests young adults belong to the loneliness generation—but experts say it’s too early to call it an epidemic.

Linda Poon

A Witness to the Desegregation—and Resegregation—of America’s Schools

Rebecca Palacios began teaching soon after a landmark court case mandated integration of Latino schools—and watched the case’s effects weaken over decades.

Kristina Rizga

The Hunger Belt

(Feeding America)

This map from Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief organization, shows U.S. food insecurity in 2016. About 12 percent of households meet the USDA’s definition of food insecure, meaning they have experienced a lack of access to enough healthy food for all members of a household. That includes 41 million individuals, about 12 million of whom are children.

The interactive map zooms to the state and county level, showing how many food-insecure people qualify for nutritional assistance programs like SNAP. It also points out the average meal costs, food budget shortfalls, and the locations of nearby Feeding America network food banks. How does your hometown compare, and are there any interesting initiatives we should know about there? Drop us a line:

CityLab context: Why Can’t America Solve the Hunger Problem?

What We’re Reading

America is more diverse than ever—but still segregated (Washington Post)

These are the best cities for biking in the United States (Fast Company)

How new transit options are affecting rents (Curbed)

New York City street parking is preposterously corrupt (Slate)

As Durham changes, black residents ask: Is there still room for us? (New York Times)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

Critics Take Aim at Mexico City’s Wild New Airport

It’s not just an airport. It’s Mexico’s largest, most expensive endeavor in a century, a megaproject fit for a megacity. And along with those superlatives has come great controversy.

Mexico City’s new international airport will be the biggest in the Americas and the third-largest in the world. The distinctive X-shaped, six-million-square-foot main terminal will top LAX, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson by handling more than 125 million passengers annually.

Flying high on then-rising approval ratings and a controversial Time magazine cover, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto greenlit the project back in 2014. The cost: $14 billion dollars––more expensive even than Beijing’s new mega-airport, Daixing, which is expected to become the world’s largest in 2019. But Peña Nieto will leave office after the upcoming July 1 elections, and his likely successor, front-runner candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is an outspoken foe of the project. That has left the fate of the enormous facility dangling in thin air.

The only thing most Mexican leaders agree on is that there’s a real need for a new facility. Benito Juárez International, Mexico City’s current main aviation facility and the busiest one in Latin America, is operating at 50 percent over capacity. In 2017, more than 46 million passengers traveled through a facility designed to only handle 32 million, after its expansion completed in 2007.

To replace the old airport,  Mexico City turned to Pritzker-winning architect Norman Foster, who also designed new terminals at  Beijing’s Capital International and Hong Kong’s Chep Lak Kok. Foster’s firm teamed with Mexican architect Fernando Romero, who is responsible for Mexico City’s spectacular Soumaya Museum. Romero also happens to be the son-in-law of Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, whose fortune of close to $80 billion makes him one of the richest people in the world; Slim’s companies hold 8 percent of the total investments related to the airport’s construction.

That construction is already well underway: The first phase of the airport, now known as NAICM (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México), is expected to begin operations by 2020, increasing the city’s passenger-handling by almost a 100 percent. This initial stage will handle 75 million passengers annually through its main terminal, 96 gates and three runways. Once the airport’s master plan is fully completed in 2022, the whole complex will feature two more terminals, two other satellite buildings, and six runways capable to operate simultaneous landings and take-offs serving 125 million people each year.

A mock-up of the new international airport after a ceremony in Mexico City. (Tomás Bravo/Reuters)

That’s assuming, of course, that the airport gets finished. López Obrador, who has accused authorities of corruption and giving away contracts to collect political favors, is backing an alternative airport project, which would transform Santa Lucía Base––an Air Force facility north of the capital––into a much less expensive new terminal while using its infrastructure to increase the city’s current passenger capacity.

If López Obrador wins on July 1, his to-be communications and transportation secretary promised to demand the suspension of the new airport project “on July 3 or 4.”

López Obrador is hardly the only critic questioning the project. The new airport has been the focus of intense controversy since the site was selected. The airport is being built on a vast plain called Texcoco, 14 miles northeast of Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square. It’s a humid, marshy wetland; like the city itself, this was once an enormous lake drained by the Spaniards after they colonized Mexico five centuries ago.

And, like many parts of the city, it’s sinking. According to several reports, the construction site is subsiding between 8 and 16 inches every year as the city drains water from underground aquifers––the fastest ratio when compared to all other locations in the city.

To support the structures it must bear, the muddy, unstable land had to be covered by a thick layer of tezontle––a type of red volcanic rock often used in construction projects in Mexico. An elaborate drainage system composed of gigantic pipes, tunnels, and canals is being simultaneously built, so the terminal and its runways can handle the severe rainfall and floods during the city’s wet season, between May and November. On top of everything, Texcoco is also where Mexico City’s stormwater naturally flows.

Employees work on the terminal foundations at the construction site of the new Mexico City International Airport in Texcoco. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

“In terms of feasibility, it’s just the worst terrain,” said Fernando Córdova, environmental impact specialist and a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico to Alto Nivel. “There’s a reason why this part of the city hasn’t ever been urbanized.”

Others have pointed out the severe environmental impact the project could have on the nearly 130 bird species found on the wetlands of Texcoco, and that it will worsen the ongoing water shortage crisis faced by the Mexican capital. NAICM, along with the adjacent industrial and commercial zone known as Aerotrópolis, is estimated to consume more than 23 million cubic meters of water each year. Authorities have warned that Mexico City will only have water for the next 50 years if the capital doesn’t lower its current consumption rates.

The new airport is also extremely close to densely populated Ecatepec––a city of 1.6 million that’s part of the capital’s enormous 21-million-strong metro area. Its residents will soon suffer from intense noise pollution and real estate price increases, without even being involved in the decision-making process. Richard De Pirro, co-founder of the Mexican Institute of Urbanism, is particularly concerned about the informal sprawl that could be triggered once the airport opens.

“Adjacent municipalities do not have any urban development plans that acknowledge the fact that there will be a massive airport there,” he said. “The land surrounding the airport isn’t zoned, and it does not have a defined use. I’m worried that there could be a new sprawl through informal settlements, as is often the case in Latin America. In 30 or 40 years, the new airport will be phagocytized by the urban sprawl. And now, honestly, there is no plan for that perimeter that will surround that new airport.”

Nevertheless, aviation authorities insist that––given the circumstances––the chosen site was still the best option available. “I would not have chosen another place. The city’s sinking condition is just inevitable,” said Gregorio García, president of the Mexican College of Aeronautical Engineers. “Given the circumstances, it is the best place and the best solution from a technical point of view.”

According to García, abandoning the project now and using Santa Lucía as a secondary airport along with Benito Juárez International––as López Obrador may demand after the election––would be a disaster on many levels, on top of the enormous costs involved in halting construction on NAICM. Santa Lucía is 30 miles north of Benito Juárez, and their flight paths intersect. “Of course, pilots and air traffic controllers would do their job so that no accident happens,” García said. “But having two airports would significantly increase operational risks.”

Meanwhile, the fate of Benito Juárez, is equally uncertain. The old airport is set to stop operating once NAICM’s first terminal opens. After that, the old airport could become a university. A gigantic park. A major thoroughfare. A new industrial zone. No one knows.

But hold on: Carlos Slim has a plan, which he presented on April 16 during a press conference orchestrated in defense of Mexico’s new airport.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim speaks about the new international airport during a news conference in Mexico City. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Slim wants to transform Benito Juárez Airport into a wider and longer Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main avenue. According to the image below, Slim proposed a district of hotels and dense real estate development colored in yellow, a much smaller portion for lower density housing in orange, an enormous medical center in burgundy, a university in purple, and a commercial zone in red. Green areas would be limited to two thin lines next to the main avenue.

De Pirro, from the Mexican Institute of Urbanism, isn’t as enthusiastic about Slim’s scheme. “You have to be careful,” he said. “That really isn’t good urbanism. All the proposals seek to make these big projects. We want to see an intelligent subdivision of the territory that allows opportunities for all.”

De Pirro would prefer dividing the area into smaller parcels that might be available to individual developers. He points out that the re-urbanization of Mexico City neighborhoods like Condesa and Roma––now among the ones with higher living standards in Mexico City––did not involve large real estate developments nor changes in its road or grid structure. Also, businesses were encouraged to stay at a neighborhood-level scale. “It was organic. You didn’t see any big, outrageous developing projects as part of their own urban transformation.”

But authorities––both at the federal and local levels––do not appear to have a firm idea about exactly happens next, De Pirro said. “There is a lot of misinformation. The truth is that there is no clear deadline or timeframe to follow, and the future of that site still remains uncertain.”

Depending on the results of the presidential election, an even bigger uncertainty may be looming: What happens if López Obrador wins and follows through on his pledge to suspend NAICM?

Abandoning construction of a half-built mega-airport at this stage of the process might appear utterly unfeasible. But, then, so have many other things about the project. Wait until July, and we’ll see what happens next.

Will Seattle’s Plan for a Progressive Tax Scare Amazon Away?

A Seattle proposal to levy an extra “progressive tax” on the city’s biggest businesses has provoked Amazon to halt construction on a new downtown office building. It’s the latest indication that, as cities compete to host Amazon’s second headquarters, the relationship between the company and the home of its first HQ is growing more fraught.

When it comes to Amazon and Seattle, it’s been complicated from the beginning. After the tech giant opened its first headquarters in the city in 2011 (and other companies followed), home prices climbed, driving displacement and increasing rates of homelessness. By implementing this new tax, nicknamed the “Progressive Tax on Business,” the city would theoretically be able to hold companies themselves more accountable for mitigating these effects: The top three percent of the highest grossing businesses would be charged an annual tax of $500 per local employee, and their cash would exclusively fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives—about $50 million would go to low-income housing (enough to build 750 new units a year), and $20 million to emergency shelter and services. Between 500 and 600 business would be eligible for the tax, including Amazon.

On Wednesday, Amazon Vice President Drew Herdener told the Seattle Times that the company would be pausing all construction on Block 18, a 17-story office building they had planned to open in downtown Seattle, and wouldn’t resume until after the outcome of the city council’s May 14 vote on the bill. And instead of following through on plans to occupy space in another skyscraper, he said the company might sublease the floors to other companies. Amazon confirmed the construction pause to CityLab but declined to add further comment.

In a statement, four members of the city council said “this was never a proposal targeting one company.” They listed McDonalds and Home Depot as other businesses that fit the bill: Big, prosperous Seattle employers whose tax dollars could, in their eyes, contribute more to city services.

“The lack of affordable housing is a crisis for our entire community,”  the council members’ statement continued. “Amazon made the conversation about them.”

But Amazon would bear more than a quarter of the total tax burden, according to estimates, and other proponents have been more overt that the company is indeed a target.

“We are not being coy about naming Amazon as one of the culprits,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party and a backer of the bill. “It’s the largest corporation and its footprint of wealth consolidation sort of defies imagination… That’s pocket change for them, and what we can do with it publicly is huge.”

For a corporation that paid no federal income taxes in 2017 (and made $5.6 billion), the tax would be a pretty big blow in the opposite direction. If passed, it’s projected to cost Amazon more than $20 million per year for the next two years; and, based on the high salaries of Amazon’s Seattle workers, their fees would continue to grow if the city switched over to a payroll tax of .7 percent in 2021, as the plan outlines. That all may be pocket change to a company worth over $600 billion, or to a CEO worth more than $100 billion himself. But with other cities scrambling to give away free money for the chance to host Amazon jobs (see: Maryland’s $8.5 billion in tax incentives promised if they win HQ2), it’s not all that surprising the company would balk at handing over extra.

Amazon is not the only business opposing this tax proposal. Already, other business leaders in the community have taken to town halls to protest: “If spending more money was the only answer, we would’ve solved this problem a long time ago,” said Jon Scholes, a representative from the Downtown Seattle Association. The grocery company Safeway and Albertsons said it might need to raise prices, or shut down stores.

When a similar tax was proposed last year it failed early, Sawant says, because of that fear of corporate retaliation, fanned by business interests in the city. “What ends up happening in terms of whether something will get passed or not, it really depends on the balance of forces between ordinary people and big business,” she said. In Seattle, that balance had long been skewed towards the latter. “It’s political blackmail,” she said.

This time, however, the tax, dubbed a “head tax” because it is imposed equally on the cost of every employee, has picked up more steam. Five out of the nine council members back the bill, and the newly elected mayor Jenny Durkan has expressed tepid support.

At a press conference after Amazon’s announcement, Durkan acknowledged that Seattle “must urgently address our homelessness and affordability crisis and lift up those who have been left behind.” But she also noted the very real possibility that angering Amazon would inflict long-term damage on their working relationship, and reduce Seattle’s employment opportunities. The company already employs 45,000 Seattle residents; the halted headquarters addition was predicted to bump that number up, creating 7,000 to 8,000 new jobs. And while Amazon has been credited with jacking up housing prices, it has also offered philanthropic support to homeless shelters in the form of space in their buildings and cash donations. Fighting with Bezos this way has real consequences on a lot of facets of city life, and Seattle knows that.

Seattle and Amazon’s intrinsic, mixed-bag relationship has started inspiring preemptive action for cities competing to host HQ2. There’s been talk among labor organizers in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago about tying economic development contracts to community benefit agreements; of mandating affordable housing construction near developments; and of setting floors on the number of permanent jobs that have to come from within the city itself. But Amazon’s aggressive response to a progressive tax proposal that hasn’t yet been brought to a vote serves as a palpable threat to those other organizers, and another warning for the city that might end up hosting HQ2: Charging Amazon extra to fund city services won’t be easy, whenever you do it. And if you do it too soon, it might break a deal.

That Amazon seems so cowed by a proposal that was once dead on arrival could also be read as a different sort of sign. Anti-Amazon and pro-worker momentum are building, says Sawant. And as more coalitions form, there’s a greater chance big businesses will listen.

“The working people of any one city cannot really win better conditions, better standards of living, or win victory over the might of big business alone,” she said. “Our power lies in linking ourselves with working people in other cities. It’s not only about raising political confidence—it’s about working class victories being contagious.”

Amazon could be bluffing, and resume construction next week. It could use this stand-off as a negotiating tactic, driving down the value of the progressive tax and either ultimately footing a smaller bill or a non-existent one. (Though Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a sponsor of the measure, told the Seattle Times that Amazon hadn’t suggested any specific changes to the bill as of Wednesday, and a spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment on whether they would in the future.) Or, if on May 14 both parties stand their ground, a fight for affordable housing could turn into a longer-lasting struggle between Amazon and its host.