Amazon announced a national contest for the location of its second headquarters a mere six weeks ago. But Philadelphia's best and brightest shifted immediately into overdrive and have cobbled together a compelling pitch — a new kind of "Prayer for the City."
The fruits of all that talent and effort were on full display at the Barnes Foundation last Thursday morning, as Mayor Kenney unveiled Philadelphia's $1 billion proposal, which is also available online. The mayor is right to feel the pride he expressed: as a city we've shown some real smarts and some real hustle.
But still there's a sense in which we're not being smart enough, and even a particular sense in which we're being a little sluggish.
We're not being smart enough because we seem to be under the impression that once Amazon accepts the deal and moves to Philadelphia, the negotiations are over. But you don't need a Ph.D. in game theory to realize that the flow of concessions will just be getting started.
Picture this: It's 2025. There's Amazon sitting on top of the Schuylkill Yards, employing 50,000 people, who in turn buy their coffee, soap, and seared foie gras throughout the city. They're on us like an octopus. And then Amazon says they want something — an extension of their tax bennies, parking for their buses on the Market Street bridge, brand new bigger better tax bennies, East Fairmount Park, the indentured servitude of city valedictorians. Mayor of the Future says, "No way, A. Your got your gift bag on the way in." Right? Wrong. Mayor of the Future is not going down as the mayor who lost Amazon.
Amazon isn't just 50,000 jobs and an office complex over the tracks. It's 50,000 jobs and an office complex over the tracks controlled by a single negotiator. Write in all the legal protections you want: Amazon over the tracks will have Philadelphia over a barrel.
Amazon is a great company, but it has become too big. How to tell "too big" when you see it: Too big is when you can start a bidding war — on your own terms, with your own deadline — among most of the greatest cities in the most powerful nation on Earth. Too big is when the mayors and governors who keep that nation going stop what they're doing to send you love videos.
Which gets us to sluggishness. No one, not even the president of the United States, can accuse Philadelphia of being low-energy in the usual sense. Philly's video pitch to Amazon is top-flight stuff. What Philadelphian wouldn't get a little choked up?
My point is that we're being a little mentally sluggish. We've limiting our thinking and attention to blockbuster and celebrity: If it's not happening in the headlines, it's not happening.
Philadelphia Parks and Recreation says on its website about street trees that it "chooses a variety of species so that they don't create a monoculture." Presumably, if we're in the business of planting businesses — and apparently we are — similar considerations ought to apply.
But what could be more boring than a regional development program to bring a diversified portfolio of small- to medium-size businesses to the Schuylkill Yards. Where's the contest? Where's the triumph? Where's the tragedy? Where's the final scene with the perspiring contestants lined up on stage?
Here's a new rule of thumb for urban planning: Boring is better.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to use the excitement. As Drexel president John Fry said in his remarks at last Thursday's unveiling, "Let's keep this momentum going." If we don't win this thing with Amazon, let's cut the spotlight, take the $1 billion we were going to throw at Amazon, along with the talent, energy, and political will that generated our Amazon proposal, and direct all of it toward building a diverse ecosystem of new businesses — over the yards and elsewhere. Let's target an array of businesses, none of which will have us over a barrel, each of which will sink or swim on its own, and not all of which will simultaneously threaten to, or actually, leave en masse.
Sure, there are already plenty of these programs in place. But they are subterranean, underfunded, stuck in low gear. If luring businesses with benefits is the order of the day, let's use the Amazon spectacle as a mutual teaching moment. Let's create a vital, poly-cultural business environment like no other in the country, and then announce a bidding war for that spot over the Schuylkill Yards.