Amazon is knocking on Boston’s door. But will the next mayor let the massive retailer in?
For at least the last couple of years, the e-commerce giant has wanted to build a distribution center in Boston. So far, its efforts have fizzled amid concerns about traffic and lower-wage, non-union jobs. But Amazon’s not giving up, and has recently hired two top Walsh administration officials to help with its expansion efforts. Whoever wins the mayor’s race in November will need to grapple with Amazon before long.
None of the five major candidates say they would shut the company out entirely, but all expressed wariness about a new distribution facility — particularly about wages and working conditions.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise: In December, the four candidates who sit on the City Council all endorsed a petition urging the tech giant to confer with local labor leaders about its warehouse plans in Boston and ensure its drivers are employees, not independent contractors.
But Amazon’s presence in Boston runs far deeper than one warehouse. Amazon employs nearly 4,000 well-paid workers in Fort Point and Kendall Square, many of them working on the company’s tech offerings such as Alexa and Amazon Web Services, with plans to add at least 3,000 more over the next few years. Likely thousands more Boston residents work as drivers and warehouse workers around the region. The blue vans that crisscross the city are a visual reminder of Amazon’s popularity with consumers — and its impact on struggling brick-and-mortar retailers.
Under Mayor Martin J. Walsh, City Hall largely embraced Amazon’s growth here, permitting two new office buildings in the Seaport and unsuccessfully offering up Suffolk Downs for the company’s hotly contested “HQ2.” Still, Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker largely demurred on the big tax breaks several other cities offered to win that contest. Boston, too, has dodged some of the tensions Amazon faces in its hometown of Seattle, where critics say it’s fueling a housing crisis.
But any future mayor of Boston will have to reckon with this massive company that offers both high- and low-end jobs, fuels shiny new office buildings and street-snarling traffic, and is at time both loved and loathed by consumers.
“Amazon is getting so big it is touching every aspect of the country,” said Joseph Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s forcing elected officials, especially ‘blue city’ mayors, to confront some of the controversies and contradictions embedded in the company.”
And right now, that controversy centers on where to put its first big distribution station in Boston.
Those facilities — key to Amazon’s ambition to blanket big cities with same-day delivery — are popping up all over Eastern Massachusetts. But it has been a tough slog to build one in Boston.
JP Plunkett, an industrial real estate broker at Red Dome Realty, said he has tried to pitch two different properties to Amazon in the city over the past two-plus years, but both proposals didn’t get far amid neighborhood opposition and political concerns.
“I know they really want to have a footprint in Boston proper,” Plunkett said. “If [they] keep getting shunned ... it would be a lost opportunity to get tax revenue and put lots of good people to work who don’t have a fancy degree from Harvard or MIT.”
One effort to convert a warehouse for Amazon just north of Andrew Square fell apart last year after the Boston Planning & Development Agency said it would conflict with its vision for dense housing and offices in that part of South Boston. A proposal in Brighton, near the New Balance campus, ended swiftly in December after elected officials for that neighborhood weighed in. The developer of Widett Circle, a 25-plus acre industrial area just south of downtown, was pursuing a deal to build an Amazon warehouse there, but progress has been stalled since the Globe reported on the plan in March, prompting criticism from elected officials and union leaders.
At this point, Plunkett says, he expects Amazon will bide its time, and wait for any new proposals until there’s a new mayor.
When asked how she would view such a project, Acting Mayor Kim Janey issued a statement saying that any Amazon expansion in the city must come with a commitment to narrow the racial wealth gap, including fair treatment and wages for drivers and warehouse workers.
In interviews with the Globe, the other mayoral candidates expressed similar opinions — a sign that an Amazon warehouse could be a tough sell in the early days of any new administration.
Annissa Essaibi George said Amazon would need to demonstrate adequate plans to reduce workplace injuries, pay fair wages, and provide robust health care benefits. Andrea Campbell, meanwhile, said she would want the company to show it would not exacerbate existing inequities in the city.
Michelle Wu said she’s concerned about safety at Amazon warehouses, and would prefer that the city’s dwindling supply of industrial land go to businesses with promising career tracks. John Barros, who dealt with Amazon as Walsh’s economic development chief, stressed that he wants to make sure workers are getting the right benefits and working conditions, and that any warehouse project has the support of neighbors.
Of the four candidates who spoke to the Globe, only Barros was open to an Amazon warehouse at Widett, but even that comes with a big caveat. Barros said any warehouse there would need to be part of a broader vision of Widett that includes a transit hub. “Amazon would have been the entry point to make something more happen,” Barros said.
The other three want Amazon to steer clear of Widett, a stretch of industrial land between the Southeast Expressway and South Boston often seen as an opportunity for big growth in a landlocked city.
Wu, for instance, has already slowed development there by stalling Walsh’s effort to sell a city public works yard next to Widett. It remains crucial, she said, to harness the area’s full potential. “We know this is a generational opportunity to get this right,” she said.
So if not Widett, where will Amazon look next?
Today, Amazon services Boston through delivery stations in Everett, Dedham, and Revere, spokeswoman Nikki Forman said. The company plans to keep adding distribution centers in Greater Boston, and while she declined to say where, she said it always aims to be a good neighbor.
“Customer obsession is at the heart of everything we do at Amazon,” Forman said in an e-mail. “We believe our neighbors are our customers and we want to ensure we have a positive impact on the communities in which we operate.”
Amazon already provides more than 20,000 full- and part-time jobs across the state, Forman said, with pay that starts at $15 an hour and a comprehensive benefits package. And she described on-the-job safety as Amazon’s “number one priority.”
Liz Breadon isn’t so sure about that. The city councilor from Brighton sounded the alarm last year when she heard an Amazon distribution center might open in her district. Traffic was a big concern. So was Amazon’s record on labor relations and worker treatment.
“There was no obvious benefit to having this facility in the neighborhood,” Breadon said.
Breadon, along with two state lawmakers from Brighton, sent Amazon a letter in December stating steadfast opposition. She also helped push that city council resolution urging Amazon to meet with Boston-area unions and to ensure its labor standards at least match those offered by other delivery companies, such as UPS and DHL.
Unions, too, have made life difficult for Amazon here, particularly the Teamsters Local 25, which has worked behind the scenes to get anti-Amazon statements endorsed by local officials in Boston and nearly a dozen other communities. Local 25 president Sean O’Brien said he pushed back after Amazon proposed using the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center during the pandemic.
“They just don’t treat their employees with dignity and respect,” said O’Brien, whose union has endorsed Wu in the mayoral race. “We were very diligent in making certain that we got our side of the story out and exposed the contradicting facts about Amazon.”
The Teamsters’ effort came amid a national campaign by labor groups to improve working conditions at Amazon warehouses, including a failed unionization vote in Alabama.
When word spread of the potential Amazon warehouse at Widett, the IBEW Local 103 jumped in as well, updating its digital billboard along the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester to warn drivers that Amazon is “Bad for Boston.”
“Boston doesn’t need Amazon,” said business manager Lou Antonellis. “Boston’s got everything going for it as far as a world-class city goes.”
But a few miles away, there’s a different opinion. In Revere, Amazon last year opened a distribution center in the old Necco candy factory, with more than 200 full-time employees. The company is planning a second one at a shuttered movie theater off Route 1, which could employ about 100 more when it opens late next year.
“From our perspective, they’re bringing jobs at a time when they’re really needed,” said Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, who described Amazon as an “active partner” in discussions about traffic, and noted that Amazon contributed to Revere’s famous sand-sculpting festival this summer.
“It’s sometimes a little scary when a company that big comes into your community,” Arrigo said. “What we’ve tried to do is see what we could draw out of it.”