If Amazon chooses Washington, D.C., or its Virginia or Maryland suburbs for its second headquarters, Amazon employees transferring to the new site would face a life-changing experience.
As someone who has lived and worked both in Seattle and — for more than 10 years — in Washington, D.C., I can say that some of those changes could well be for the better.
But HQ2 in the D.C. area would force painful adjustments on Amazon employees, especially those accustomed to living in Seattle.
Let’s consider the good stuff first …
Art and history
When I lived in Washington, D.C., I loved being able to regularly visit the National Gallery, a 10-minute walk from my apartment. If HQ2 is in D.C., you could bicycle over on your lunch hour, or go for a Saturday brunch, and gaze on Jan van Eyck’s “The Annunciation” and hundreds of other soul-lifting works of art. This is one of the world’s premier art collections.
If you’re an American history buff, there’s nothing like walking the battlefields at Antietam or Monocacy (each of them a reasonable non-rush hour drive from downtown D.C.) to bring home in a visceral way the bloodletting of the Civil War and the small size of the battlefields where the fate of the republic was decided.
Another plus for D.C.: it’s full of unusual people who have the kinds of jobs few people in Seattle have. At your neighbors’ dinner party, you may well meet the man or woman who is a big wheel in submarine procurement at the Pentagon, or a Foreign Service officer who can give you chapter and verse on Burundi’s sovereign debt and Bolivia’s lithium deposits. Your kids’ school carpool driving buddy might be the man or woman who ran U.S. Senate campaigns in Nevada and Iowa and has a trove of political war stories.
The Washington area also has some of the best schools in the country. For instance, in the past two years, science powerhouse Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., has seen 20 of its students win the Regeneron Science Talent Search (formerly the Westinghouse Science Talent Search), the most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. Montgomery Blair had more Regeneron scholars than all but two other high schools in the country.
Now, the not-so-good stuff …
You’d be living in the tropics. The average high temperature in the month of August in D.C. is 86 degrees (the average high temperature in August in Seattle is 75.)
Some of us who live in Seattle like hot weather. But D.C. heat isn’t heat like Seattle’s, or even like Yakima, Wash., on a July day. D.C.’s humidity has astounding power. A stroll from your apartment to the office will leave you marinating in perspiration. And the outdoor Bikram swelter box can begin in April and last until October.
The Metro subway system
As Todd Bishop noted in his tour of the D.C. area, Washington does have a far-flung subway system, the Metro.
If you look at the system map, the Metro does go pretty much everywhere you’d need to go — with one big exception, Dulles Airport in northern Virginia. (You can get part of the way to Dulles by Metro and then transfer to a bus to finish the trip.)
Although extensive in its geographic reach, the subway system is plagued by delays, equipment breakdowns, construction projects, and crushing crowds.
When I was working in D.C. last year, I could in theory take a Metro bus or either of two subway lines to my office and arrive on time. But once a week or more frequently, I could count on Metro trains running late or being so packed that I’d need to wait for two or three overcrowded trains to pass by at Union Station before I could get on a train.
The @unsuckdcmetro Twitter feed will give you a sense of what you might be up against as a daily commuter: full trains, station escalators not working, and stations with no air conditioning in D.C.’s swampy summer.
Perhaps as a result of Metro’s unreliable service, the system’s ridership was down in 2017, with average weekday passenger boardings at 612,652, 18 percent below the peak they reached in 2008.
Metro announced last week that it will entirely shut down six of the stations on its Blue and Yellow lines in northern Virginia between Memorial Day and Labor Day next summer so that it can rebuild the station platforms. It will rebuild the platforms at 13 other stations in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. in 2020-2021. All of this means “you’re entering a world of pain” if you ride Metro over the next few years. An optimist might say that all of this Metro construction work will be done by the time the HQ2 campus opens.
To be fair, Paul J. Wiedefeld, the general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, has done a pretty good job of making the rail system safer since he took command three years ago. He needed to move quickly after a January 2015 fire at Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station resulted in the death of one passenger and injuries to several others on a smoke-filled car.
It’s bad, in fact, worse than Seattle, according to traffic data analytics company INRIX. In its traffic congestion rankings for 2017, INRIX ranked Washington, D.C. sixth worst out of 297 U.S. cities, with Seattle placing ninth.
An INRIX analysis of traffic hotspots in the 25 most congested cities in America, found that I-95 which runs north and south around and near Washington D.C. was the nation’s worst overall traffic hotspot, which “caused 1,384 traffic jams, stretched 6.4 miles and lasted 33 minutes on average.”
In addition to I-95, the Washington area has other nightmare highways on which you can waste hours of your life, such as I-270, as you try to get to or from the northeastern suburbs. Last fall, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposed a mammoth building project to add four new lanes to I-270, the Capital Beltway (I-495), and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. His plan calls for express toll lanes on each of those highways.
Tolling is already a point of controversy in the region: if you live or work in northern Virginia, you can pay up to $40 per trip in tolls to drive on I-66 at peak periods.
People and open spaces
At 6.2 million people, the Washington metro area is simply much more populated — about 60 percent more — than the Seattle metro area.
There are quiet neighborhoods in the D.C. area, places such as Takoma Park, Md., which are comparable to Madrona where I live in Seattle.
But when you live in D.C. or the suburbs, you feel much more like you’re in an urban area than when you live in Seattle. As The Seattle Times recently reported, in Seattle 69 percent of residential plots of land are occupied by single-family houses; that compares to only 29 percent in Washington, D.C.
Some people in the D.C. area drive long distances to get some small-town ambience. I chatted last fall with a coffee shop owner in the unassuming and quite lovely town of Strasburg, Va. (population: 6,583). She had just retired from working at the Defense Department. Her regular daily commute to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., had been 80 miles each way on I-66.
The lack of proximity to nature, or to a view of a mountain peak on the horizon, was something I felt keenly when I lived in D.C. If you seek mountains and wilderness, you’ll need to drive much further to get to them than you do when you’re in Seattle.
Amazon transferees to the D.C. area would be moving to jurisdictions with personal income taxes.
In D.C., the top personal income tax rate is 8.95 percent. Maryland and Virginia each have a top personal income tax rate of 5.75 percent.
According to calculations by the Tax Foundation, Maryland ranks seventh among the 50 states in its state and local tax burden, with Virginia at 27th and Washington state at 28th. If D.C. were a state, it would rank tenth.
We’re accustomed to pretty clean government in Seattle. By contrast, D.C. city government has a sad record of officials stealing from the public or otherwise enriching themselves through fraud.
In the past several years, three D.C. city council members have pled guilty to federal charges.
Harry L. Thomas Jr., for example, took funds intended for arts and recreation programs to buy himself vacations, a pickup truck and a motorcycle. He was “driven by greed to steal from the very children he claimed to champion,” said federal prosecutor Ron Machen.
In a more recent embarrassment, in March, current city council member Trayon White got national attention when he reacted to a snow squall in D.C. by blaming the Rothschild banking dynasty “controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man.” White later apologized for his conspiracy musings.
In February, the head of the D.C. public school system, Antwan Wilson, was forced to resign after it was reported that he had asked a top city official to place his daughter in one of the city’s best public high schools, circumventing the city’s lottery system for placing students.
A chilly welcome?
The new HQ2 is bound to be disruptive to whatever city and neighborhood it moves to. Some resistance or NIMBY-ism is inevitable.
If Amazon were to choose the East Capitol Hill D.C. site near RFK Stadium, for example, many of the neighbors would be unhappy.
Denise Krepp, a Washington lawyer who lives in neighborhood just down the block from RFK Stadium and who serves as the elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area, said Amazon moving in would be a terrible idea. Residents “hate it. I’m saying ‘You’re not welcome here,’” she told me.
She said there’s already rush-hour traffic spillover in her neighborhood from commuters who use local streets to take short cuts. “We’re a quiet, sleepy neighborhood — except for the Maryland commuters,” Krepp said, adding, “Why would I want more cars? It’s unfathomable.”
A new Amazon campus at the RFK would mean added traffic to a chokepoint near where the Baltimore-Washington Parkway meets I-695 and I-295. “Right now it’s a traffic nightmare,” she said.
For those Amazon employees who might end up moving from Seattle to the nation’s capital, my educated guess is that you’ll learn a lot, your life will take some very different directions from what you might have known in the Northwest, and, yes, there will be days when you will yearn for a view of the Cascades, or a relaxing ramble through Fremont.