fb-pixel

Is Amazon’s Boston expansion a sign of something bigger to come?

Globe staff photo illustration

Tuesday’s news that Amazon is set to lease space for thousands of new workers in the Seaport makes one thing clear:

The e-commerce giant loves Boston.

But does it love Boston enough to make the city a second home?

If you were counting on a definitive answer to that question, you might as well move on to the next story. Amazon is as mysterious as it is powerful, and while its Boston expansion plans are impressive, there’s really no telling what they mean for the “big picture.”

Which leaves us with speculation, and plenty of it.

First, here’s what we do know: Boston, along with Somerville, is one of 20 finalists in the running for Amazon’s “second headquarters” — HQ2, for short — an $8 billion, 50,000-job campus that will rival the size and scope of the company’s longtime base in Seattle.

Advertisement



It’s the kind of project that will transform whatever city Amazon chooses, and Boston is widely considered a top contender, along with metropolitan Washington, D.C., New York, and Atlanta.

That’s chiefly because of Boston’s brainpower and booming tech economy — the same attributes that have driven Amazon to expand rapidly here over the past few years.

Since it opened a small engineering office in Kendall Square in 2011, the company has hired about 1,200 workers in Boston and Cambridge, mostly high-tech types who work on cloud computing and the voice-activated Alexa technology. It has also bought the North Reading robotics maker Kiva Systems and expanded operations there, as well. Later this year, Amazon will open a new office in the Fort Point section of Boston, with room for 900 employees. Now it’s positioned to add up to 4,000 more people in the Seaport, with one building set to break ground this summer (and a second one as an option, should Amazon want it).

Advertisement



All of which has business-watchers wondering: Is all this growth a sign Boston will take gold in the race for HQ2? Or is it more likely that the company is preparing to award the city a silver medal?

No one — at least no one outside of the secretive company — knows.

Amazon insists the Seaport expansion is “independent of” any HQ2 decision, driven solely by its need for growth now. And there’s some reason to believe that’s true.

The company’s search for more space in Boston began before it launched the second-headquarters process in September, and it’s being handled by a different team, city and real estate sources say.

Indeed, even the public relations team dispatched to deal with pesky reporters is different for HQ2 than it is for the company’s regular real estate moves.

And Amazon has recently expanded tech offices in other cities that are HQ2 contenders, such as Austin, Texas, Pittsburgh, and New York.

Then again, what company — even one as unconventional as Amazon — would add nearly 5,000 jobs in one neighborhood while actively considering a 50,000-job campus in another neighborhood — in the same city?

After all, Boston’s Amazon bid — at least as submitted — is built around Suffolk Downs, not the Seaport, and Somerville proposes using a string of sites along the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Orange Line.

Even more puzzling: Why announce a major expansion now if you’re mulling an even bigger one in a few months?

Advertisement



Those questions could signal that Amazon plans to make Boston a major tech hub for its business but send the HQ2 enchilada somewhere else. That outcome wouldn’t be all bad.

At the least, Boston stands to gain several thousand tech jobs with six-figure paychecks — without most of the housing and transportation headaches that a second headquarters would probably bring.

Of course, it’s also possible that Amazon already knows it wants HQ2 to be in Boston — specifically, in the Seaport — and this is just the start of a huge campus there.

That’s doable, but complicated.

It would mean negotiating with an array of landowners to cobble together a campus stretching from Fort Point Channel to the far edge of Boston Harbor. Those properties would fetch some of the steepest land prices on the East Coast.

Then there’s the not-so-minor challenge of moving 50,000 workers in and out of the crowded neighborhood every day. Maybe a separate proposal for an aerial gondola system would help with that.

Lots of questions. Not so many answers.

But be patient. Eventually, Amazon’s plans for Boston — not to mention its scheme to achieve world domination — will be made clear.


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.