How Cincinnati could land Amazon’s HQ2

Cincinnati needs to work together with Covington, Kentucky to assemble an urban campus for Amazon by the banks of the Ohio River.

In a move that set cities across the nation buzzing, Amazon recently put out a Request for Proposal to build a second corporate headquarters in North America.  The numbers being thrown about are astounding- 50,000 new full time employees averaging over $100k a year in compensation, over $5 billion in capital investment, potential demand for up to 8 million square feet of office space.  This project would promise to turn around any city struggling from lackluster demand in a hurry, and send plans for growth into fast forward.

Though not at the top of the list of many pundits discussing the matter, Cincinnati can put together an appealing bid for Amazon.  Here’s how.

We have the urban space

Amazon Campus concept
How Amazon HQ2 could fit on both sides of the Ohio River. The Banks project needs a catalyst to drive it to completion; the Fort Washington Way highway caps remain an item on Hamilton County’s wish list; Covington’s IRS site will be an enormous plot of land in need of redevelopment in coming years.

The Banks neighborhood of downtown Cincinnati, located in between two professional sports stadiums and home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, has been gradually filling in since 2007.  It scored some major wins with the opening of the gorgeous Smale Riverfront Park in 2015 and the opening of the GE Global Operations Center in 2016.  Development on each block of the Banks requires the build out of a parking garage podium up to street level to keep buildings out of the flood plain.  The resulting garage, when completed, will have 8,000 spaces and be one of the largest contiguous parking facilities in the nation.

The Banks has space remaining to accommodate Amazon’s Phase 1 requirements of 500,000 to 1,000,000 square feet.  Additionally, Amazon is precisely the type of high-value end user the Banks needs in order to justify the costs of building out the remaining parking garages.

Just to the north of the Banks lies Fort Washington Way, a highway cutting across downtown that was wisely routed into a trench as part of a major construction project that finished in the year 2000.  Since then, it has been the dream of many to cap the highway in order to bridge the gap between the Banks and the rest of downtown.  The costs involved have kept this just a dream; the cost of a single deck could be $25 million.

Building office buildings upon the highway decks could make sense for Amazon, however, even if it would not for another user.  It would provide Amazon with the ability to expand their square footage incrementally, and in close proximity to the other potential buildings at the Banks.  The decks, along with other buildings at the Banks, could very nearly provide the required space to meet Amazon’s Phase 2 needs of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 square feet.

South of the river in Covington, just over the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge, lies a huge redevelopment opportunity.  Many years ago in a different era, the IRS constructed a squat, sprawling 1 story office building that takes up about as much land as Paul Brown Stadium.  The IRS now plans to vacate this site by 2019; the closure represents a huge number of jobs lost for Covington, but also provides the opportunity to redevelop and densify a huge expanse of prime downtown land, as well as reconnect the street grid through the site.

The IRS site could provide the square footage required for Amazon’s enormous Phase 3 requirements of 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 square feet.   Amazon’s project phasing, with the final phase requiring the most space, works out well because this site, the largest we have to offer, will not be available until 2019 or later.  Landing Amazon would soften the blow to Covington of losing the IRS jobs.

Only an urban core location will do

Images from Amazon’s South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle, March of 2015.  Construction cranes were everywhere as a walkable urban district was taking shape, served by streetcar.

The RFP says that both urban or suburban options will be considered, but also asks for a proposal that is a good cultural fit for Amazon.  In Seattle, Amazon occupies many buildings in the South Lake Union neighborhood, in between downtown Seattle and the shores of Lake Union.  There are plenty of urban amenities like parks and restaurants, all within walking distance of the front doors of their office buildings.  South Lake Union is also well connected with nearby neighborhoods and other parts of the city via transit.  In our region, only a location in the urban core can provide a comparable experience at the necessary scale for Amazon.

A development in Amazon’s South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle touts its Walk Score.

In fact, the RFP specifically asks for transit, walking, and biking amenities that are only available in our core:

Be sure to include opportunities to cultivate local culture and creativity into the Amazon HQ2 site. Also, include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.

A location in the urban core supplies the most items on this list.  Downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s river cities are eminently walkable. The Metro and TANK bus systems offer their highest level of service in this area.  The streetcar connects the Banks to the exciting cultural and dining destinations of Over the Rhine.  Redbike stations are plentiful on both sides of the river.

It’s also useful to think of future connectivity options for a campus at the Banks/along the Covington riverfront as well.  Bike trails spanning the East and West Sides are planned along the Ohio River that will converge at the Banks (and also connect to larger trail network.) A cycletrack could be built downtown that connects to the Central Parkway bike lanes which could then be extended all the way to Northside.  The Cincinnati streetcar may someday be expanded to Covington and Newport.  The Riverfront Transit Center underneath Second Street may someday house light rail to our international airport CVG, and/or have a larger role in our bus system. The urban core will always naturally have the most connectivity in our region.

Two states are better than one 

Amazon didn’t mince words in their RFP: they are looking for incentives.  In this realm, having the HQ2 campus span two states is a decided advantage.  Two states can offer more incentives than one state can, while at the same time mitigating their cost and risk.

Beyond incentives, let’s take a look at what Amazon is seeking to accomplish.  Creating a second corporate headquarters is an unconventional move.  One goal may be to curry more favor in the political realm by expanding their footprint and providing jobs in a wider variety of states and localities.  If Amazon established a campus spanning the Ohio River (with all buildings still within a walkable and bikeable distance,) they would be firmly establishing their interests in two states with one action.

It could happen

Banks pic
Blocks available for development at the Banks (as seen from Paul Brown Stadium)

And so, Cincinnati’s long shot bid may not be such a long shot after all.  At the very least, this experience should be a drill to get our officials to act cooperatively and make an in-depth evaluation of our region’s assets and potential.  It should also be a wake-up call that makes them realize that tech companies seeking top talent do not only value, but expect, a strong transit system, walkability, and bike infrastructure.

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