Arlington County Board Votes to Approve Amazon Incentive Package Amid Adversarial Hearing

by Nena Perry-Brown

A rendering of the pedestrian bridge planned at National Landing.

Last week, the public got its first glimpse at the benchmarks Amazon is required to meet when it brings its second headquarters to Arlington, and the accompanying incentives proposed by Arlington County for meeting those benchmarks.

On Saturday, the Arlington County Board held an oft-contentious public hearing on the incentive package which the Board ultimately approved. 

Over 100 members of the public signed up to offer testimony on the bill regarding the county's incentive payouts to Amazon "for the purpose of inducing the company to locate and occupy at least 6,056,000 square feet of commercial space in Arlington". After over three hours of testimony and more than one recess for the Board to deliberate, the Board voted unanimously to approve the package.

The incentive package is a blueprint of sorts addressing the timeline and increments attached to the $23 million Arlington County expects to remit to Amazon, via a Transit Occupancy Tax grant, contingent upon the company meeting various benchmarks over the next 15 years. 

Shortly after the hearing began, the Board's staff presented a report which seemingly attempted to preempt many of the objections or questions the public has regarding calculation of the expected revenues, the size of the incentives, and the level of transparency throughout the bidding and approval process. Ultimately, however, fewer than half of those who testified were in favor of passing the incentive package.

One of those in favor was Crystal City Business Improvement District president Tracy Gabriel, who testified that the public would have additional opportunities to engage with Amazon and JBG Smith during the approval process for individual developments. The Washington Business Journal recently reported that anyone who wants to view Amazon-related planning documents will now have to submit Freedom of Information Act requests to the county.

Nearly a quarter of those who testified were critical of the incentive package, with most stating that it should only be passed after additional binding written agreements are signed by the County and by Amazon and/or JBG Smith. The content of those desired agreements would cover such issues as additional commitments to affordable housing; concrete requirements for sustainable building and energy consumption practices; and local and trade administration hiring preferences for construction work.

Those who testified urging the Board not to approve the package were not united in wanting Amazon not to come to the County, but many felt that the company didn't need the money or cited larger issues with the company, such as its questionable labor practices for lower-wage workers, cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and development of facial-recognition technology.

Board chair Christian Dorsey's request that members of the public use "silent applause" to avoid slowing down speakers went unheeded, with testimonies against the incentives or against Amazon garnering loud affirmations from many in the crowd. 

Boardmembers asked representatives from Amazon very pointed questions inspired by the criticism offered by witnesses earlier in the afternoon. Holly Sullivan and other Amazon representatives gave very neat responses, devoid of details, and another disruption from the audience spurred an additional 10-minute recess, at which point the Amazon representatives left the room and did not return.

After the board returned and discussed the package with county staff, Boardmember Libby Garvey made a motion in agreement with the staff report regarding the incentive package and the requirements in place. Shortly thereafter, activist Chris Otten stormed up to the public podium and vehemently admonished the boardmembers; he was detained shortly thereafter, but not before the interruption impelled the board to leave the dais for a 10-minute recess. The board then returned with individual statements justifying why each boardmember planned to vote, unanimously, in favor.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/arlington-county-board-votes-to-approve-amazon-incentive-package/15140

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