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Boston is a city of two tales with its Amazon bid

The state of the MBTA, as well as auto commuting times, could be an issue for Amazon.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Boston is a vibrant technology hub, rich in culture, brimming with smart ideas, and home to prestigious universities that pump out an endless supply of top talent. Sounds like the perfect place for the East Coast headquarters of one of the world’s most innovative companies, right?

But Boston also is costly and congested, with decaying roads and rail lines and — at times — a cranky disposition toward bold changes. That sounds more like the kind of place that could send West Coast technology types running for the exits.

Which version of the city top Amazon executives see might determine Boston’s odds of landing the e-commerce titan’s “second headquarters,” a massive complex that eventually could generate 50,000 well-paying jobs.


With Amazon’s Oct. 19 deadline for proposals drawing near, the region’s power players — including political, business, and higher-education leaders — are lining up to support a pitch that the company should build its second home in Greater Boston.

So far, the opposition has been muted, centered on the size of potential tax breaks for Amazon that have yet to be spelled out. A poll released Thursday by WBUR found 66 percent of Boston voters support the bid to land Amazon, with just 20 percent against it.

Still, there’s been a steady buzz of questions about whether crowded Boston can — or should — try to absorb all of what Amazon would deliver.

Similar questions were posed three years ago as Boston readied — and then abandoned — a bid for the 2024 Olympics. But far smaller development projects also routinely prompt complaints from community groups and civic activists concerned about traffic, housing costs, and other neighborhood issues.

In some ways, such doubts reflect an outdated view of Boston as a parochial backwater that can’t tackle tough challenges, said local historian Jim Vrabel.


“If Boston isn’t confident, what city in the country should be?” Vrabel said. “We’re a world-class city today. It’s time we appreciate that.”

Which is not to say there wouldn’t be major hurdles should Amazon pick Boston from a list of contending sites nationwide.

Pumping 50,000 more workers who average six-figure salaries into a market where the average rent already tops $2,100 a month is a daunting prospect, said Mark Melnik, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.

That high rent reflects high demand and tight supply. If the region can’t add enough housing to meet even higher demand from Amazon workers, rents are likely to climb for everyone, including those already struggling to afford to live here.

“Housing is the elephant in the room,” Melnik said. “The costs are just so high.”

Then there’s transportation. The average Greater Boston resident spends 31 minutes commuting to work, one of the longer trips in the country. Jammed highways and surface roads have become the daily norm for many. There’s also the overcrowded, delay-plagued MBTA.

“Unless everybody’s going to live on top of the Amazon building, we’re going to have a serious transportation problem,” said Barry Bluestone, a professor of public policy at Northeastern University. “We’re going to have to redouble or quadruple our efforts.”

Of course, such struggles aren’t unique to Boston. Rents in Minneapolis, for instance, have climbed more than three times as fast as Boston’s over the last year, according to Zillow. And many commuters in Washington, D.C., would gladly take the MBTA over their Metro, where track fires occur with frightening frequency. Other Amazon contenders, such as Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, hardly have rail systems at all.


In talking about the bid, city officials have tried to strike a balance between acknowledging Boston’s challenges and touting its strengths.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh acknowledges high rents could be a drawback but quickly adds that his plan to combat them by adding 53,000 units of housing by 2030 is ahead of schedule. Walsh recently raised hackles, though, when he said he didn’t think the T’s struggles would hurt Boston in the Amazon competition.

“Every city in America has the same issue,” he said, in an interview posted by MassLive. “Most days the MBTA is reliable here.”

That riled critics, who quickly took to social media to point out how rarely Walsh takes public transit. The next day, he said Amazon ought to invest in the T if it comes here, and rode the Red Line home from City Hall to Dorchester.

Flareups aside, some worry the focus on wooing Amazon is drawing attention away from mundane but important matters facing the city.

“It’s a stunning distraction,” said former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk. “We have Boston Public Schools underperforming. There are challenges with our mass transit heading into winter. There are all kinds of issues that need to be dealt with but it’s all being pushed aside because Amazon wants something.”

If that complaint sounds familiar it’s because Falchuk and others made it often when Boston was readying its proposal for the 2024 Olympics. There are parallels between the Amazon and Olympics bids, from the all-hands-on-deck civic campaign to taxpayer-supported subsidies that would probably surpass anything Boston has seen before, said Dan O’Connell, head of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a business group. But Amazon, O’Connell noted, is promising a lot more than a two-week party.


“This is 40,000 or 50,000 permanent jobs,” he said.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from the Olympics experience, said Corey Dinopolous, an originator of the scuttled bid for the 2024 Games.

Olympics organizers could have been more upfront about their plans, he said, by better explaining to skeptical Bostonians what the international gathering would have meant for development and neighborhoods. Instead, they met behind closed doors to avoid tipping off competing cities. That fueled suspicion.

Walsh has said he plans to release Boston’s Amazon’s bid after it’s submitted, but not before. Dinopolous said city officials would be wise to run a transparent process.

“It was that secrecy from the get-go that prevented people from ever having trust in the bid at all,” Dinopolous said. “We need to make sure people feel like they’re being heard on this one.”

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.