September 8, 2017

Top ten sites for Amazon's East Coast Headquarters

Amazon just announced its intention to build a second corporate headquarters to mirror its giant west coast campus in Seattle. So now every economic development officer in the country is salivating. But Baltimore has the ideal Amazon campus site for every corporate taste. Here are the city's ten best (in no particular order).
A skyline for a Cherry Hill Amazon campus as seen across the Middle Branch from Under Armour's
Port Covington, with Harbor Hospital in the middle and the Hanover St. Bridge to the right.

Acreages are approximate, and include permanent open space, which in itself should be a vital tool in promoting adjacent urban development. All sites have been covered in previous blog posts, some of which are linked and noted. (No link to State Center - enough has already been said.)

Playing with Plank

Baltimore's wooing of Kevin Plank's Under Armour corporate campus to Port Covington was a mere dress rehearsal for Amazon. So is Amazon's Jeff Bezos willing to submit himself to a Kevin Plank marriage? How submissive is Plank willing to be in what would certainly be a marriage of unequal corporate titans? Is Port Covington big enough for the both of them? Answer: There's plenty of room for both campuses, but perhaps not as much room for both egos. Fortunately, there's a choice of two alternative marriage vows here:

1 - Port Covington: The grand Plank/Sagamore plan has been languishing lately, so Amazon could simply come in and take over possession of a lion's share of the already negotiated plans, subsides and TIF bond revenue, and then add its own imprimatur and even more massive subsidies. After all, major tweaks to the plans were inevitable over the years anyway. The recent closure of the vast Locke Insulator complex, the only Port Covington parcel that Plank does not control, is an opportunity to grow the pie to accommodate both of them, but Locke is in a far better bargaining position than Plank's previous suitors like the Baltimore Sun. (280 acres)

2 - WestportPlank and his Sagamore development company also own the major property on the other side of the Middle Branch, for which they currently have no apparent plans or motivation. Plank could sell it to Amazon and profit handsomely (perhaps more by association than by payment) while the companies coexist on opposite shores and stimulate their mutual growth. Westport already has light rail service to downtown, BWI Marshall Airport, Penn and Camden Stations and is attached to a real neighborhood which should welcome Amazon with open arms. (90 acres)

Competing with Plank

Since competition is the essence of capitalism, both companies should ideally have full leeway to flourish and forge their own identities to better serve the city's economy. Two additional major waterfront sites are available on the opposite shore of the Middle Branch from Port Covington which, like Westport, are also adjacent to working class neighborhoods. Amazon could lay claim to one site or both, creating a huge continuous waterfront campus. If Port Covington doesn't reap the benefits as well, Plank could surely sell out to someone who for whom it would.

3 - Cherry HillThis site surrounds Harbor Hospital and includes its sprawling parking lots and overdesigned Hanover Street which could be converted into a light rail corridor and development spine. It would then promote working class Cherry Hill as being Amazon's neighborhood. And Amazon would become Cherry Hill's company. (70 acres)

A skyline for a Brooklyn Masonville Amazon campus as seen from the Masonville Cove nature preserve.
The trestle in the upper left is the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895)

4 - Brooklyn MasonvilleJust across the mouth of the Patapsco River from Cherry Hill is the grossly underdeveloped waterfront of the Brooklyn neighborhood, which extends eastward along Frankfurst Street to the Masonville Cove nature preserve. All this is separated from most of the neighborhood by the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, but it's close enough to have a major impact. The already proposed Port Covington light rail spur could be extended to both the Amazon waterfront and the Brooklyn community via the Hanover/Potee corridor. (130 acres)

Suburban / Urban Splendor

Baltimore also has three major sites with a suburban atmosphere, but aside from all being located along commuter or light rail lines, they couldn't be more profoundly different from each other.

5 - Patapsco HillBelieve it or not, there is a huge, totally free-standing waterfront site with direct light rail access to the airport, as well as frontage upon a huge two hundred acre park. Patapsco Hill could be the site's name, bounded by the widest section of the Patapsco River on the east, Southwest Park in Baltimore County on the south, light rail on the west and Patapsco Avenue on the north. (80 acres)

6 - BayviewPerhaps Amazon would like to have its own Amtrak station in the middle of a free-standing campus, for easy access to New York and Washington. Norfolk Southern's intermodal freight railroad yard across Lombard Street from the Hopkins Bayview Research Park is obsolete and ripe for relocation to the working harbor. A new MARC/Amtrak rail station is already planned there. (70 acres)

7 - Roland Park Cylburn PimlicoStraddling the Jones Falls Valley and Cold Spring Lane is a potentially gorgeous sylvan sprawling hilly campus that could respectfully embrace and encompass the Poly-Western High School campus and Baltimore Country Club in elite Roland Park to the east, the Loyola Athletic complex to the south, Cylburn Park Arboretum to the north and extend all the way to the Lifebridge Sinai Hospital Health campus to the west. At that point, it would create the impetus to reinvent the adjacent iconic Pimlico Racetrack, enabling Amazon to join Sagamore as sponsors of thoroughbred horses. (400 acres)

Inner City Embrace

Baltimore is perhaps the best place in the country to dive into the waters of social consciousness. Here are three major sites that would enable Amazon to locate in the heart of the inner city and create its own corporate identity and culture while being the catalyst to raise the surrounding struggling communities.

Jeff Bezos' Office? The stately Mitchell Courthouse on Calvert Street could be converted
 into the Downtown Gateway to Amazon's Old Town corporate campus 

8 - Old TownThe gateway to Amazon's campus could extend all the way into the heart of downtown on Calvert Street, announced by the 1812 Battle Monument flanked by the city's twin historic courthouses which could then be transformed into Amazon's top executive offices. Proceeding northward, the campus would encompass the recently sold Baltimore Sun site at the south end of the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The campus would then shift eastward with a transformation of the Jones Falls Expressway, which could be realigned, lowered into a boulevard or given a revitalized underside. (It's now a Farmer's Market.) Farther east, the campus would become the west anchor of the new Old Town corridor, now under development by Michael Beatty, which would be oriented eastward to the iconic historic Dome building of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Old Town has been waiting for this transformation since an ill-fated shopping mall was built in the wake of the riots of 1968. (130 acres).

9 - State CenterThis site, served by both of the city's rail transit lines, has been a development battleground for over a decade. Raising the ante with Amazon could break the impasse. The surrounding communities of Upton, Bolton Hill, Seton Hill and Mount Vernon have mainly wanted a supermarket, but what they'd get is the world's largest retailer, and no doubt a flagship outlet of their newly acquired Whole Foods brand. The University of Baltimore and Maryland Institute College of Art are also nearby. (60 acres)

Amazon's campus inside the "Highway to Nowhere" could resemble a "transit village",
here shown at the proposed Harlem Park Red Line Station (Marc Szarkowski)

10 - Highway to NowhereThe huge free-standing corridor of an aborted 1970s highway is anchored on its east-end downtown gateway by the empty million square foot former offices of the Social Security Administration, now owned by Caves Valley Partners, and on its west-end by a MARC railroad station to be completely rebuilt as part of Amtrak's new West Baltimore tunnel project. In the mile between, the Amazon campus would be completely free of traffic conflicts as the obsolete expressway is replaced by new development, pedestrian and bike paths and a reconceived light rail Red Line. The adjacent Harlem Park, Lafayette Square, Heritage Crossing, Poppleton and Franklin Square neighborhoods, catastrophically cut-off for the highway, could finally be reunited. And the University of Maryland Baltimore campus is also adjoining. (90 acres)

In sum, Amazon would have a profound impact wherever it goes: Jobs, jobs and more jobs. It would be especially profound for working class neighborhoods like Westport, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Old Town, Upton, Poppleton and Harlem Park. Some already suggested high-end site locations, such as in Harbor Point or Canton, are too small or are already being crowded out by recent development.

If Baltimore is prepared for this, as Mayor Pugh has already assured us that it is, then the entire city must embrace it. Having something truly bigger than each of us is the best way to make us "One Baltimore" again.


  1. Wait. Now you are for the red line? Would you still want that half and half light rail abomination you were suggesting, or would you be ok with the original plan if there were more white people in the West side of the line?

    1. My position on the Red Line hasn't changed. There has been a rail line in the US 40 West corridor in every rail transit plan ever. The $3 billion MTA Red Line plan (hardly "original") killed two years ago was simply an unworkable jumble of expensive engineering compromises.

      The racists who criticize my opposition usually say it was due to there being too many white people in the east-side portion of the line, not too few on the west side. There definitely need to be more people and new development on the west side portion, of whatever color. More people means more transit oriented development. Lack of transit oriented development is one of the many ongoing failures of transit in Baltimore that the MTA plan would not have dealt with.

      Baltimore definitely has a "people problem" - 300,000 fewer people of all races than it had back when there was no rail transit. It's amazing that people like you actually think that letting the MTA spend $3-4 billion of our money on their Red Line plan was the right way to solve it.

    2. Those that you aligned with definitely were rolling out the 'they will steal my tv!' argument. You might not have used that, but then again, the RightRail movement seemed to say anything and everything to get it killed.

      And yes, Baltimore has lost a lot of people. But many of those people still work in the city, and now need to drive through it. And so now we have ideas like the ones they were proposing on Boston St to get people through.

      The biggest problem with your idea (and your rail value menu) is that its just too segmented. Transfers are a huge time sink in mass transit, and your plan has unnecessary line breaks.

    3. Thanks, Brian, those are good points, and I appreciate that you brought them up here on my blog. When I got involved, I really tried to steer the Right Rail Coalition away from so-called "NIMBY issues" and I think we succeeded. The Red Line needed to be judged on merits, not motives. You can't spend $3 billion just to piss off your enemies.

      And yes, transfers are a pain and segmentation is a problem. But the Red Line plan made it even worse. Over 20% of its total projected riders were supposed to transfer at that awful "segmented" Charles Center station with its two block pedestrian tunnel. And the central light rail line transfer was about as bad and many of the bus transfers were downright terrible.

      Worst of all, the east Red Line made it virtually impossible to ever build a decent extension of the Metro beyond Hopkins Hospital, segmenting things even more. Back when the plan was first devised in 2002, all that was considered just as high a priority as the Red Line. The Metro is and will virtually always be the city's #1 most important transit line. The Red Line failed to recognize that.

    4. Perfect is the enemy of good.

      Instead, we have nothing. Was this your preference?

    5. No - absolutely not! The MTA and the politicians always treated the Red Line plan as "all or nothing" so they got nothing. To this day, the politicians treat the Red Line as more of a political posture than an actual project. Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she would work for an alternate plan but then changed her mind and didn't. There were MANY viable alternatives in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and elsewhere, but once they chose their "preferred" plan with the downtown tunnel, they ignored all the others.

      Well, at least you're admitting that more "perfect" plans could exist out there, and the most serious flaw of the chosen plan might have been that it was unbuildable, with the biggest lie being that there was a $3 Billion wad of money just laying around waiting to be spent on it.

  2. Thats not what I was saying. Everyone has slightly different criteria for what 'perfect' is, so everyone will work toward different goals. Thats what made RightRail so terrible... it wasn't working toward any one goal, it was just trying to poke holes in any plan that would put in a plan that wasn't their idea.

    In the end, if there was a perfect solution, then it probably would not have taken 50 years to get to where we are with rail. At some point, you have to pick a lane and move forward. Instead, we are sitting here, playing with ourselves, and leaving ourselves painfully out of position for real projects like Amazon, or even being able to get people to existing projects like Harbor East/Harbor Point.

    1. Wrong. Harbor Point developer Michael Beatty had no problem when his Harbor East partner John Paterakis forced the Red Line Station away from both developments when it was already in design. Amazon at Westport/Port Covington can be better served by a Red Line that actually connects to the rest of the system. And the Right Rail Coalition would be supportive of any plan without the disconnected unbuildable downtown tunnel. Even Gov. O'Malley was more obstructionist because he kept delaying the project until it was most politically expedient to push his gas tax increase that everyone felt was inevitable anyway.

      The Red Line was originally supposed to be completed by 2014. It was simply victim to a multitude of major planning blunders - too many to mention here. After all, it was planned by the MTA.

  3. Exactly. When you have groups like Right Rail that sow discord, then any little obstacle can be something that kills the project. You may say that you wanted this project in the right form, but in the end, your efforts combined with the anti-red line, combined with these little obstacles (such as moving a station) combined to kill it.

  4. I think people give Right Rail too much credit. A Democratic Governor would have built the Red Line even if there were a hundred Right Rail coalitions protesting its alignment.