February 8, 2018

Shovels "ready" - but Amazon says Baltimore isn't

Not ready. That's how Susan Yum of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the quasi-public arm of city government, described why Amazon rejected Baltimore for its new headquarters (according to the January 27th Baltimore Sun): "Amazon didn't think Baltimore was ready to host its new office complex..."
This shovel is ready for Amazon, poised on the large front lawn of the Baltimore Sun Printing Plant in Port Covington.
Interstate 95 is in the background to the right..

In a twist of irony, "ready" is also exactly the word that Mayor Pugh used to tout Baltimore's unique advantage over the other 237 proposals from other cities. But the mayor was referring to shovels, as in "shovel ready", not to cities.

Yes, those inanimate shovels are ready. They're poised at Port Covington, behind the new Under Armour sportswear campus and next to the Baltimore Sun's printing plant, bastion of the pre-internet  world that Amazon has been efficiently demolishing ever since it was founded by Jeff Bezos.

Baltimore has been acting as if Amazon would be incapable of getting any shovels ready on its own. As if Amazon was thus going to evaluate all the cities' proposals on the basis of their shovels, not their cities.

It's deja-vu to the 2008-9 "Great Recession", when being "shovel ready" was the top criterion for spending the federal trillion dollar stimulus package, rather than best preparing for the future. As a result, that was the last time that Baltimore had a strong road paving program ("Operation Orange Cone"), but now the roads are crumbling again as the big infrastructure expenditures have now turned to the city's obsolete sewer system and deteriorating schools.

In the interim, the city's big infrastructure project was supposed to be the three billion dollar light rail Red Line. When that imploded or was exploded (take your pick), instead of finding a way to actually make it work, it has just become a weapon for various "I told you so's."

City apologists practically prodded Amazon to say that the lack of the Red Line (which wouldn't have gone anywhere near their site) was the smoking gun that killed Baltimore's proposal.

Of course, Amazon didn't bite. Amazon wasn't even critical of the city's murder rate or school system, much less its transit system. Nashville, Raleigh, Austin, Columbus and Indianapolis all made Amazon's candidate list with clearly meager mass transit systems, while the State of Maryland did promise to build a light rail line to the proposed Port Covington Amazon site.

Baltimore's basic problem is that is always fixated on one project, issue or development site at a time. The shovels should be construed as the last step, not the first.

Baltimore has plenty of great sites for a major new corporate headquarters. Port Covington is only one. Here are ten of them that I quickly identified right after Amazon announced they were looking.

Six Chicago sites for Amazon's new headquarters within several miles of the city center. (City of Chicago)

Other cities did not limit their proposals to one site. For example, Chicago also identified ten sites. Here's a map of six of Chicago's sites within just over two mile of the city center: https://chicago.curbed.com/2017/10/23/16512138/chicago-amazon-hq2-bid

Any proposal can also include phantasmagorical architectural images. Below is an image of one of Chicago's sites rendered by a consultant working for architectural giant Skidmore Owings and Merrill. This site has been dubbed "The 78" because it is not part of any of the city's 77 official neighborhoods. Not being part of the city's neighborhood fabric is thus being sold as an advantage.

These kinds of images may impress the Baltimore City Council and the Sun Editorial Board, but Amazon has probably seen so many of them in the past few months that their eyes have glazed over. Getting out the shovels to build it is the least of their issues.

Image of a proposed Chicago site for Amazon, but it could just as easily be Baltimore (ICON)

So "Amazon didn't think Baltimore was ready..." That's such a succinct, all encompassing way to describe the city's rejection.

What it says is: Yes, Baltimore is definitely moving on down the road. What it doesn't say is where the city as a whole is actually going.

So at the same time, Amazon will be moving down a different road.

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