Boston is not prime for Amazon
The most popular governor in America is basking in his 34-point reelection victory, but one key figure rendered a very different verdict on Governor Charlie Baker’s first term this week, and he didn’t even vote here.
That person is Jeff Bezos, who appears to have passed over Greater Boston as Amazon’s second headquarters despite this area’s brainpower, its proximity to an international airport, and its lifestyle amenities — all criteria Bezos cited when Amazon began the search for a host city over a year ago. Now Amazon is said to be eyeing two communities on the outskirts of Manhattan and Washington, D.C., splitting the prize so both can better cope with the transportation and housing impacts of the move.
Transportation and housing: precisely the areas where Boston can’t compete.
That’s a comment on Baker and, to a lesser degree, on Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston. Neither man has moved fast enough to correct decades of neglect and disinvestment in public transit and housing. Boston is the third least-affordable city in the US (after New York and San Francisco), and a breathless pace of new development — especially in the luxury market — has made only a dent. An omnibus zoning bill that would make it easier for all communities to build creative new housing types died on the vine in the Legislature, despite being one of Baker’s priorities.
Meanwhile, daily commutes have become ever more grueling: The share of Boston-area workers who spend more than 90 minutes getting to and from their jobs increased by 50 percent in the last decade, according to one research firm. Of course, these twin demons feed on each other: workers who can’t afford a Boston mortgage keep moving farther out – a trend known as “drive til you qualify” — and the lack of dependable bus and commuter rail keeps demand (and prices) high on housing closer to town.
After the MBTA collapsed from the pitiless winter of 2015, Baker pledged to transform the system into something “reliable, predictable, dependable, and affordable.” But four years later the felt improvements are rare, while Baker stubbornly refuses to seek new sources of revenue, experiment with congestion pricing on the roads, or increase a gasoline tax that hasn’t been raised since the release of Super Nintendo (1991). The most effective jab Baker’s Democratic opponent, Jay Gonzales, struck in his campaign was a variation on the old Ronald Reagan trope: Is your commute better off than it was four years ago?
The 160-acre defunct racetrack at Suffolk Downs was offered to Amazon as the ideal site for its headquarters: zoned for mixed-use development, managed by a single owner. Instead of a massive tech city there, why not rethink the site to address Boston’s liabilities? Build a real community of attractive, affordable homes for ordinary working families. Make good on the long-delayed promise to extend the Blue Line to Lynn. Connect the Blue and Red Lines. The new Silver Line route from Chelsea into Boston is a fickle friend, because frequent drawbridge openings can add 20 minutes to any trip. The region needs dedicated bus lanes for the Silver Line and other transit. Everett and Arlington are moving ahead with them while Boston takes experimental baby steps.
I am tempted to say good riddance to Amazon and its 50,000 high-paid “bro-grammers” crushing code and sucking up all the craft brews in Boston. Most reports out of Seattle say Amazon hasn’t made that city more livable; quite the contrary. Gentrification has priced out blue-collar residents and provoked a homelessness crisis among the poor. Based on Amazon’s current employee statistics, siting the company’s new headquarters here would have meant the arrival of roughly 37,500 men, median age 31, all earning at least $100,000. You have to wonder if we ever could have accommodated such an influx.
Still, Amazon’s likely decision is an orange flag of caution for a state that tends to be smug about its achievements. We need to fix our housing and transportation crises now, or we may choke on our own exceptionalism.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.