CityLab Daily: A New Chapter for Amazon and New York

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What We’re Following

Office space: Less than a year after Amazon backed out of its second headquarters deal with New York City, the mega-online retailer is signing a new lease for 335,000 square feet in Hudson Yards, the Wall Street Journal reported late Friday. With just over 1,500 jobs promised by 2021, the company will bring a much smaller workforce to Manhattan’s newest neighborhood instead of the 25,000 jobs promised for Amazon’s HQ2 in Long Island City. Facebook is also loading up on office space at the site.

For critics of the initial HQ2 deal, the news has been cause for a victory lap because the new offices are coming to the Big Apple without any special tax credits. But the Manhattan office will hardly bring the kind of jobs that an HQ2 had promised—jobs that many of the potential beneficiaries in Queens and the Bronx said they wanted. And take note: The Hudson Yards site that will host Amazon’s new office isn’t without its own publicly funded financial incentives, as CityLab’s Kriston Capps reported.

In other updates: Earlier this year, Capps reported on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of inclusionary zoning, Dartmond Cherk v. Marin County. Today, the Supreme Court today declined to hear the case on the powerful affordable housing tool.

Andrew Small

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Fix California’s Housing Crisis, Activists Say. But Which One?

As a controversy over vacancy in the Bay Area and Los Angeles reveals, advocates disagree about what kind of housing should be built, and where.

Benjamin Schneider

Why Are Kids Obsessed With Garbage Trucks? An Investigation

For some kids, the weekly trash pickup is a must-see spectacle. Parents, children, waste-management professionals, and experts on childhood all offer theories as to why.

Ashley Fetters

Are Cities Paying for Expensive Jails by Force-Filling Them?

While many cities are using incarceration alternatives, some smaller cities and rural areas are building—and filling—costly new jails, new research shows.  

Chris Mai and Jasmine Heiss

As Olympics Loom, Paris Frets About the ‘Amazon-Airbnb Effect’

The home-rental company inked a massive deal to sponsor the Olympics until 2028—over fierce objections from the host city for the 2024 Games.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Take a Bauhaus

Markus Schreiber/AP

As the Bauhaus centennial anniversary year comes to an end, Google Arts & Culture has an online exhibition about the pervasive influence of the German Modernist art school. From boxy buildings and sleek furniture, to typefaces and colorful shapes, the page explores how traces of the design school still show up in our everyday lives. You can even get advice on how to dress yourself and decorate your place like a Bauhaus student would. If you can never get enough Bauhaus, revisit CityLab’s Building Bauhaus series.

What We’re Reading

Cities are set to miss 80 percent of their 2020 emission reduction goals (Quartz)

San Francisco is one of the most expensive places in the world to build housing. Here’s why. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Drivers refuse to put down their phones. People keep dying. (Bloomberg)

Do homeless people have the right to sleep on the street? The Supreme Court may decide. (Curbed)

New York’s high-rise jails: What could go wrong? (The Guardian)

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CityLab Daily: Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Boxed in: It’s officially the holiday shopping season and that means more delivery trucks on city streets brought on by e-commerce. In the United States, millions of daily packages have not only brought about a delivery truck boom; they have inverted the dynamics for collecting the sales and property taxes that fund state and local governments. Globally, the convenience of the one-click e-commerce model has helped Amazon weave itself into the life of cities. And now, Paris wants to fight back.

Writing in an open letter in Le Monde, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo called Amazon a “creator of precarity, congestion and pollution” and “an ecological disaster.” To rein in the negative effects of urban shipping, she proposed a plan that would charge a fee to e-commerce vendors, and limit delivery times and volumes in certain neighborhoods. While Paris’s share of the global Amazon market is limited, the proposal could become a model for other jurisdictions. The question is: Would city leaders be able to handle it if companies decided to pass such taxes on to their customers? CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan takes a look: Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

Andrew Small

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This year saw a wave of backlash against cashless retail, but what about when cities want to move toward all-digital payments?

Linda Poon

The Baltimore Museum of Art Made a Pledge to Buy Art by Women. Is It Just a Stunt?

The museum will only purchase artwork made by women in 2020. That won’t do much, if anything, to change the balance of representation in its collection.

Kriston Capps

‘The Other Apartment’ Offers a Portal Between the U.S. and Iran

An artist’s apartment in Tehran was meticulously recreated in Pittsburgh, inviting Americans and Iranians to inhabit the same space, half a world apart.

Laura Feinstein

What the ‘Battle of Seattle’ Means 20 Years Later

The 1999 WTO protests shut down Seattle and brought new attention to the effects of global trade. The event looms large in the activist imagination today.

Gregory Scruggs

What We’re Reading

Watch four decades of inequality drive American cities apart (New York Times)

Why tech company headquarters are now tourist attractions (CNBC)

The “Amazon effect” is flooding a struggling recycling system with cardboard (The Verge)

Malls are dying. The thriving ones are spending millions to reinvent themselves. (Washington Post)

Why shade is a mark of privilege in Los Angeles (New York Times)

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Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

The French don’t celebrate American-style Thanksgiving. (Or the Canadian one, for that matter.) But that doesn’t mean they entirely miss out on the magic and hysteria of Black Friday sales: There is a huge spike in reduced-price deliveries at the end of the this month throughout France.

Which makes this a very good time for Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to open a new front in her ongoing campaign to mitigate the damaging effects of 21st century capitalism. In an open letter published in Le Monde, Hidalgo announcing proposals intended to make sure that e-commerce firms such as Amazon pay for the ills they are unleashing. Amazon, she wrote, was a “creator of precarity, congestion and pollution” and “an ecological disaster”; along with other services such as UberEats, the company should be charged a fee for its urban deliveries to offset the problems it causes.

Action was essential, the letter said, to avoid the kind of problems that New York City faces: Manhattan has “become a huge delivery area where anarchic shutdowns block all traffic,” and if nothing was done, then a situation like New York’s, where 1.5 million packages are delivered daily, would become “the nightmare that awaits us.”

The language used here is certainly strong, but Paris City Hall, which would likely re-propose the suggestions in more concrete form if Hidalgo and her administration are reinstated at March 2020’s municipal elections, is indeed picking up on a problem that’s rolling out globally. American cities are scrabbling to manage the sharp rise in retail freight that e-commerce has brought to its streets. In London, which since 2003 has employed a pioneering congestion pricing regime in the city center to control traffic, has seen its streets become even more congested than in the days before the charge, because private cars have been replaced by commercial vehicles, including delivery vans.

On average, Amazon now delivers around 250,000 packages a day in Paris, a number that rises tenfold in the days around Black Friday. Hidalgo’s proposal would limit deliveries to inner Paris neighborhoods to specific times, with a maximum number of deliveries capped for each area. Each of these deliveries would come with a surcharge payable by the company who sold the item delivered. If Amazon and other companies decide to pass this burden on to their customers—and it would be hard to prevent them from doing so—city leaders could be blamed for making shopping less affordable in what is already one of the worlds’ costliest cities.

The Paris City Hall proposals came out the day after the campaign group Attac, which lobbies for more stringent tax controls on multinational companies, released a report on the downsides of Amazon’s French operations. The report, supported by environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth and trade union Solidaire, details a litany of undesirable economic and environmental impacts associated with the company. The group claims, for example, that Amazon has made 57 percent of its French gross revenue untaxable, for example. Its overall global operations create more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire nation of Portugal, the report says, and the company’s ability to suppress competing businesses means that its American operations destroy two jobs for every one they create. The French report joins several new stories about Amazon’s labor practices and worker safety record in the U.S. that also focus on the price that we really pay for the convenience of online shopping.

Amazon has challenged the Attac report, saying that it is “contains many factual errors and [much] unfounded speculation.” Their own figures show that the company will have created 9,300 jobs in France by the end of 2019. While the company didn’t directly refute the report’s criticism of their emissions record, it nonetheless highlights its Climate Pledge, which aims for carbon neutral deliveries by 2030 and carbon neutral operations by 2040. Amazon also says that its current global order of 100,000 of electric delivery vehicles is the largest yet made by any company.

Such progress still lags behind that of some more-proactive companies currently working in France. The French postal service, for example, is already in the process of switching to electric and natural gas vehicles and bikes for the final mile of its deliveries, and by 2024, La Poste promises that its deliveries within Greater Paris will be entirely carbon neutral.

How important will political pressure from the city of Paris be when it comes to influencing the business practices of a retail goliath like Amazon? The company accounts for 17.3 percent of France’s e-commerce market and earned €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) in revenue in the country in 2018. That falls short of the market dominance the company enjoys in the somewhat less populous U.K., when its income for the same year reached £10.9 billion, or in larger Germany, where it earned €16.9 billion. When compared to the enormity of of Amazon’s global operations, Paris’ proposed taxes would be like a gnat bothering an elephant, especially when you consider that Mayor Hidalgo’s policies only cover the 2.2-million-person historic nucleus of greater Paris.

What makes Hidalgo’s proposal of greater potential concern for online retailers is the possibility that it serves as a model for other jurisdictions. Based on media coverage so far, that could happen. One can easily imagine a similar call to tax e-commerce deliveries in the U.S. sparking a flurry of objections; in France, however, the Paris pushback was generally reported with subtle but implicit favorability. The right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro for example, had its own report this week on the higher prevalence of accidents in Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. If the company has influential cheerleaders in France, they’re currently keeping pretty quiet.

Given Amazon’s global market share, Paris’ plans hardly pose an existential threat. But in a climate where the environmental and economic effects of e-commerce are coming under increasing scrutiny from both legislators and the public, the city could be a trailblazer in the movement to rein it in.

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CityLab Daily: A ‘Referendum on the Amazon Tax’

What We’re Following

Head-to-head: How much political power does $1.5 million buy in Seattle? Not as much as Amazon might have liked, according to election results from this year’s city council race. That’s how much the tech giant spent in its home city to back seven pro-business candidates through a political action committee.

And according to results over the weekend, just two of those candidates won. Among the most noteworthy losses for Amazon: The victory of Kshama Sawant, a pro-labor city council member in the Socialist Alternative Party who’s long been a thorn in the side of Amazon and other large corporations.

Sawant called her campaign a “referendum on the Amazon tax,” a reference to a per-employee head tax that would have gone toward funding homelessness initiatives in the city. That tax was successfully killed last year after a $25,000 Amazon campaign.

Now that she’s won, Sawant says passing a new tax on Amazon “and Seattle’s biggest businesses” is among her top agenda items. Read Sarah Holder’s story on what became the most expensive council race in the city’s history: How Seattle’s City Council Race Became the Amazon Election

Nicole Flatow

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As the District lagged on its Vision Zero goals, bike and pedestrian advocates in Washington turned traffic fatalities into a rallying cry, and got results.  

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Instead of the Big Apple, NYC Could Have Been La Grosse Pomme

If the first European explorer to reach New York Harbor had gotten the name “Nouvelle Angoulême” to stick, NYC might be NAC, according to a new documentary.

Feargus O’Sullivan

What an Old Map of Denver Can Teach a Newcomer

There’s more to the fast-changing Mile High City than beer, hiking, and skiing. An old map gave me a clue about where to look.

Andrew Kenney

To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story

Per Grankvist is “chief storyteller” for Sweden’s Viable Cities program. His job: communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.

Feargus O’Sullivan

What We’re Reading

How California became America’s housing market nightmare (Bloomberg)

A win for the prosecutor reform movement: Former public defender Chesa Boudin wins race for San Francisco DA (The Appeal)

Jeff Bezos asked Michael Bloomberg months ago if he’d consider running for president (Recode)

Copenhagen dispatch: The city that cycles with the young, the old, the busy, and the dead (New York Times)

Activists float “sinking house” along the River Thames (Evening Standard)  

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Amazon Will Share Corporate Space With a Homeless Shelter in Seattle

In the heart of downtown Seattle, just across the street from the Amazon Spheres (three spherical conservatories that are part of Amazon’s campus), a new state-of-the-art homeless shelter is almost complete. Its name is “Mary’s Place Family Center in The Regrade”; the plans are for it to fill eight floors and open in early 2020. The center is expected to be the largest family shelter in Washington State. But the facility stands apart from other shelters for another, more surprising reason. It is being built in an Amazon corporate building and funded by the tech giant.

The shelter is nearing completion at a critical time for both Seattle and Amazon. For years, city leaders have struggled with finding large-scale solutions to the homelessness crisis, and more immediately, with offering enough emergency and transitional shelter each night for everyone who needs it.

The Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count (made during a annual tally of the number of unsheltered Americans living on the street in various location on a single night in January) found about 6,000 people sleeping in emergency and transitional housing. But there were still around 2,800 people sleeping outside or in a tent. The new facility will certainly offer more shelter for those in need, but it will specifically help to bring some of the most vulnerable members of the homeless population—families with children—inside.

Amazon has been under fire for several years in Seattle for what many contend is its role in fueling the homelessness crisis: Critics attribute Seattle’s rising cost of living and growing inequality, in part, to Amazon’s effect on the area. The trillion-dollar company is known for paying relatively little in income taxes, and last year, when the city council passed the “head tax,” a per-employee tax on large corporations, planning to use the proceeds for additional housing and services for the homeless, Amazon teamed up with other corporations and succeeded in getting it repealed. The corporation has also contributed an unprecedented $1.45 million to this year’s Seattle City Council election in an effort to support more business-friendly candidates.

In other words, as of late, Amazon hasn’t had very good public relations in Seattle. While she commended Amazon for working with Mary’s Place to build the family center, Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said, “[A]t the same time in no way does such a contribution offset Amazon’s obligation to contribute to this community and this region through paying taxes that create well-being and lasting benefits well beyond 200 people.”

Eisinger believes that Amazon has a deep-rooted credibility problem in the community: “Not only are they remarkably willing to throw their financial might around in influencing local politics but they’re contributing to the boom and they’re not doing what they and all other major corporations really have to be required to do, which is to contribute a portion of their profits through taxes back to the common good.”

The seeds of Amazon’s project with the nonprofit organization Mary’s Place, were sown about four years ago when Seattle’s homeless crisis reached such concerning levels that then-Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency. Mary’s Place had become adept at opening shelters in underutilized buildings slated for demolition, offering people in the community a temporary place to stay and then moving on to a new location once the owners were ready to build. When Amazon purchased an old, two-story hotel that would be vacant prior to construction, the company offered the space to the nonprofit on a temporary basis. Months later, when it bought another hotel across the street, it did the same thing.

Before long, said Mary’s Place executive director, Marty Hartman, they started developing a relationship with Amazon. But, she said, it was still a surprise when in the summer of 2017, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, John Schoettler, let Hartman know of the company’s decision by presenting her with an Amazon shipping box containing a golden key (strategically captured on video by a Amazon team). Hartman said that Amazon offered Mary’s Place half of one of the new office buildings it would be starting construction on in the fall.

“It was a shock; I think I was just in tears,” said Hartman. “I felt an overwhelming sense of love and deep gratitude that they loved our families so much that they wanted to make sure that they could bring them all in.”

A washroom under construction at the new center for unsheltered families in an Amazon corporate building in Seattle. (Mitch Pittman/Amazon)

Mary’s Place will run the facility, which will be open 24/7 and, with over 63,000 square feet of usable space, able to house at least 275 people each night. (On extreme weather nights, there will be 75 mats available for any additional families that need a warm place to sleep.) The shelter is specifically for families, which covers a range of family constructions. As Hartman described it: “Whatever your family looks like outside, we want to make sure we can serve you inside.” Children in particular are very vulnerable outside, and when they experience trauma at a very young age, it can have life-changing effects, Hartman said. “It’s critically important for us to make sure that children’s needs are met, that they know that they have a stable place to go, that they have a bed, that they have food, that they have a bathroom.”

Four of the centers floors will be filled with individual rooms for families, with 30 rooms specifically designated for those with children who have life-threatening illnesses. There will also be a large dining space with an industrial kitchen; health and legal clinics; and a large playground. With expansive windows covering its hallways and panoramic views of the city’s corporate nerve center, it’s clear this will be far from the typical homeless shelter.

Amazon has said that in addition to providing space, it will cover utilities, maintenance, and security. “The shelter is for Mary’s Place to use (with our support) as long as they need it,” said Amazon spokeswoman Stacey Keller in an emailed statement. Altogether, the company has agreed to contribute more than $100 million to Mary’s Place over the next decade.

Eisinger said, it’s important to remember that this shelter, like all shelters, will not operate in a vacuum: “On any given night, those families need healthcare providers, those families need schools, those families need childcare systems, those families need mental health providers and employers and job trainers, and those things don’t come about because of charitable contributions. Those things come about because of government investments, and the government is funded by taxes.”

Amazon will not be covering all costs associated with the facility. Mary’s Place will still be responsible for programming, staffing, and operations costs. The organization estimated these will cost about $2 million a year.

Hartman said in addition to simply providing shelter, the facility will also offer early childhood learning, homework space for school-aged children, music and coding classes, and extensive help to get families into permanent housing. The shelter’s central location will be an added benefit, as it could make residents’ commute to work or school simpler, and the facility will act as a hub for volunteers, Hartman said. Amazon’s legal team is already slated to offer pro bono legal support at the shelter.

But the fact that it is in the middle of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters could also help to break down barriers, Eisinger believes. “It has the potential to really drive home the message that there is no they and us, that we are all in this together,” she said. “I think that’s actually potentially one of the most significant pieces of this project.”

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#BensTake: What Can We Learn from Amazon HQ2?

Amazon recently announced the cities still in the running for the company’s second headquarters, setting off a new wave of frenzied speculation. Over 200 cities applied, and the list is down to 20. Only one will win. What then happens for the prospective cities still grappling with slow job creation and wage stagnation? Do they wait for the next RFP?

Cities are waiting for a knight in shining armor to solve their economic woes. This strategy is based on a popular “urban myth”: that a local economy can sustain itself and grow in the long-run by attracting established businesses away from other regions. On the contrary, research from the Kauffman Foundation has shown that recruiting companies—even providing incentives like tax breaks—doesn’t correlate with creation increasingly shows the importance and power of fully leveraging your existing assets–keeping “place” in the forefront as a tool for change.

We see the same dynamic with other gargantuan, subsidized investments like sports stadiums. Most economists agree that, in the long-run, these projects don’t translate into sustained economic growth. And they can worsen a city’s existing challenges, such as affordable housing. Mega projects like these can actually drive financial instability for many and massive displacement for low-income families and families of color, in particular.

And the opportunity costs are staggering. Most cities in the HQ2 running are offering Amazon economic incentives valued in the billions of dollars (offsetting a huge portion of the $5 billion investment). Those billions of dollars could be going to health initiatives, infrastructure investment, education and more—long-term investments that we know sustain the economic security of residents and can even help reverse long-standing racial disparities. Richard Florida and Amy Liu, among others, have already made this case convincingly.

That’s why, if HQ2 is to be a net positive wherever it lands, equity must be front and center. Without efforts to ensure that job creation is inclusive, such growth will undoubtedly replicate patterns of racial inequities, and widen income and wealth gaps. Amazon could lead the charge by putting pressure on cities to consider strategies for inclusivity in their pitches. As Brookings Fellows Andre Perry and Martha Ross aptly point out, “by targeting the factors of diversity and inclusion, Bezos can create a model for companies to follow that maximizes the talent that our changing racial demographics present.”

But if Bezos won’t, then it’s on the cities to take both historical inequities and today’s rapidly changing demographics into consideration as they prepare for HQ2. Rather than touting massive incentives, they should be competing to demonstrate that they are the best stewards of their residents’ tax dollars, and that means using all the resources in their own back yards to generate sustainable, inclusive economic growth.

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