An arboretum next to a parking lot for Amazon vehicles

The Morton Arboretum is no stranger to the juxtaposition of nature and suburban development. Founded in 1922 in Lisle, the Arboretum later adjusted to the construction and opening of the East-West Tollway (now I-88) on its edges:

1957

Construction of the East-West Tollway and widening of Illinois Route 53 changed the Arboretum landscape, resulting in new lakes, roads, and a staffed gatehouse.

In a recent popular exhibit, the Arboretum even leaned into the nearby development with one installment looming over the highway:

Note the large power lines, the evidence of two major highways nearby (I-88 and I-355), and office buildings.

Recently, I drove around the east side of the property. This land has had a number of office and warehouse properties for years. This makes sense: the properties have access to multiple highways and there are plenty of residents/workers nearby.

However, I have noticed a more recent addition to this set of land uses: there is a parking lot just for Amazon trucks and vehicles. As far as I could see, there was no building next to the lot; just many spaces for vans and trucks. Looking at Google Maps, there is indeed a parking lot there among some other development and some undeveloped land. There is an Amazon facility nearby – one of many in the Chicago region – but it is not directly connected to the parking lot so drivers would have to exit to the main road and then turn back into the Amazon facility.

It is hard to completely escape development when in the Arboretum. Traffic noise can be heard, airplanes fly overhead, and houses and other signs of suburbia are visible from different vantage points. Yet, the presence of an Amazon parking lot reminded me of what nature is in the suburbs: present but often in-between roads, homes, and other buildings that speak to the ways that humans have and continue to transform natural features to their own particular suburban goals.

What does it mean if the suburb of Naperville is the first US community to have two Amazon Fresh locations?

Signs point to a second Amazon Fresh store in Naperville and if it comes to reality, the suburb will be the only community in the country with two locations.

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All signs point to a second Amazon Fresh grocery store opening soon in Naperville.

While city officials haven’t been notified of definitive plans for the site at 1351 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche said Amazon Fresh recently applied for a liquor license at the location. An opening date is unknown, but the building is currently being renovated and looks similar to the city’s other Amazon Fresh location on Route 59.

Naperville would become the first city in the country with two Amazon Fresh grocery stores…

According to Amazon’s website, there are only four Amazon Fresh locations in Illinois. In addition to Naperville, there are stores in Bloomingdale, Oak Lawn and Schaumburg.

Naperville may not be the only two store location for long and being the first means something. What is so attractive about Naperville as a location? Here are a few possible reasons:

-It is a wealthy and large community: over 148,000 residents with a median household income of nearly $126,000 (both 2019 estimates). This adds up to a lot of potential customers. Naperville is known for high white-collar jobs and tech jobs. These could also provide a good customer base.

-Naperville as a community has received many accolades. It has a high quality of life, high performing schools, and a vibrant downtown. It is a high status community and companies like to associate with such communities.

-Naperville is in favor of business and growth. This dates back decades with pro-growth decisions in the postwar era, includes tax incentives for corporations, and a desire to improve the streetscape along Ogden Avenue, a major roadway.

-Naperville is outside Chicago and in the Midwest, “normal America” locations for testing new concepts and ideas.

Put this all together and Amazon finds it worthwhile to go forward with two locations in Naperville.

Amazon rediscovering department stores?

Amazon’s online empire is vast but it is also expanding its brick and mortar operations with plans to open department stores:

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What solves all of these problems—the high return rates, the cost-prohibitive last-mile freight, the logistics nightmares, the buyer frustration, and the monumental volume of consumer waste it all sends to landfills—on some level? Stores. Going to a store. In America especially, this notion was obvious for more than a century. Department stores were actually such a good idea, something that people like so much and that works so well, that the Gilded Age barons who invented them used their stores to create middle-class identity from near whole cloth and keep it going for generations.

Amazon helped kill most of those stores, but that has only created a vacuum into which more Amazon products and services are ready to be inserted. If Silicon Valley has taught us anything in the past two decades, it’s that if you have a bottomless pit of money, you can remake an industry in your image. You can acquire customers so quickly that they might not realize they don’t totally love everything you’re doing, and you can embed yourself in their lives in ways that would be tangled and inconvenient to remove, largely by snuffing out competition. Which leaves the retail industry in a precarious position: Amazon, and maybe a handful of its largest competitors, will go about deciding how you get to buy the things you need, with very little meaningful pushback. They’ll set prices, they’ll set labor conditions, and they’ll decide which things are too inefficient for you to buy online. Apparently, those things will go into a store.

Amazon and the companies like it invent the solutions to the problems they created, and you pay for them to be implemented. At least in some cases, physical stores may ultimately win out. You can try on your new pants, sit on your new couch, and leave with the thing you wanted immediately, which, it should be noted, is considerably faster than two-day delivery. Yes, you have to go to the store, but doing so will likely obviate the need for you to go to the post office—the dreaded post office—next week. Work smarter, not harder. It’s what Amazon would do.

A physical location offers certain conveniences. But, do not discount the embodied experience of shopping compared to online shopping. In a building, you can:

  1. See and possibly touch the item you want to purchase. This may matter more for some consumer goods than others.
  2. Browse and bump into things – literally. You can end up following rabbit trails online but this is different than seeing something unexpected or just look around.
  3. Be around other shoppers and enjoy the atmosphere. I wrote about this at Christmas; part of the fun is being around people and activity.
  4. Physical spaces can project status and emotions in ways that online portals cannot. The size and layout of department stores can impress and invoke particular feelings. Would you rather think about a soulless and endless Amazon warehouse or a fashionable and high-tech store?

Of course, some of these things can go awry. The item might not be in stock, you do not find what you are looking for, you have negative experiences with other patrons, and the experience is off-putting rather than exciting. But, Amazon might be at the point where they can offer compelling experiences in both realms in ways that others could not.

The spatial impacts of Amazon

A review of a new book about Amazon highlights the geographic impact of the influential company:

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In some of MacGillis’s stories, the connection to Amazon is so tenuous as to be almost indiscernible; the characters’ problems seem to arise more from larger forces, such as globalization, gentrification, and the opioid crisis, than from any one corporation’s influence. A young man from small-town Ohio—alienated by his experience in D.C., where he starts college—returns home and enters Democratic politics. After scoring a local success, he runs for Congress, determined that the party not write off his opioid-ravaged, Trump-supporting region, but he fails to drum up more than a couple of union endorsements. A gospel singer who became a cultural force in Seattle during the ’80s watches as her neighbors are pushed out of the city’s historically Black Central District one by one.

Local energies may have been sapped for many reasons, yet in the coastal cities that MacGillis visits, Amazon’s disproportionate ability to further enrich and empower already thriving places and workers is glaring. Familiar though they are, evocations of the six-figure salaries and amenities available to young Amazon programmers—a café catering to their dogs, meeting space in a giant replica of a bird’s nest—acquire new salience set against Torrez’s experience. And the sense of entitlement on display in the company’s search for a second headquarters site is breathtaking. Local officials across hard-knock America prostrate themselves for a chance to host it. In the end, Amazon chooses the suburbs of the nation’s capital—already one of the wealthiest areas in the country—and walks away having amassed a great deal of useful regional data provided by eager bidders who probably never stood a chance.

In the less glamorous pockets of the country—the rural areas and small cities where MacGillis has spent so much time as a reporter—Amazon’s role in making economic hardship more entrenched is no less stark. In El Paso, Texas, Amazon has aggressively marketed itself to the city government as a go-to source for office supplies—which has pushed local purveyors to open up online storefronts on Amazon; a large cut of their sales goes to the corporation. In York, Pennsylvania, the headquarters of the once-fashionable Bon-Ton department store has been made extinct by Amazon and the broader retail consolidation it represents. The crisis of unemployment that has ensued is one that Amazon exploits, finding able bodies for its warehouses in nearby towns.

On his home turf of Baltimore, MacGillis explores most intimately the ebbing of human fulfillment that has accompanied Amazon’s promise of high-speed customer service. He profiles Bill Bodani Jr., who spent most of his working life at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point complex, outside the city. In the early 2000s, a serious injury forced him to retire in his mid-50s, around the time that foreign competition and other factors pushed the company into bankruptcy. Eventually, the Sparrows Point plant shut down and Bodani’s monthly pension payment was cut from $3,000 to $1,600. Now 69 years old and back at work as a forklift driver in a 22-acre Amazon warehouse, he returns every day to the exact same piece of land. The peninsula has been rebranded—it’s called Tradepoint Atlantic now—and has become what MacGillis calls an “all-purpose logistics hub” that houses, among other facilities, an Amazon fulfillment center.

While Amazon is not the only major corporation that could claim to have a a large impact on so many places in the United States (think Walmart, McDonald’s, and a few others), it’s particular reach and impact might just be unique. With an ability to reach millions of customers in their homes, tech workers in a lot of locations, and fulfillment centers spread across the country, Amazon reaches across multiple sectors and job segments.

This means that its impact on particular places could be quite disparate. Take the Chicago region as an example. Like many places, Chicago wanted Amazon HQ#2. This would add to both office workers in downtown Chicago as well as many more in fulfillment centers around the region. Yet, Amazon’s locations received more money from some poorer suburbs.

Each of these Amazon locations, high-tech or not, has the potential to shape the character of communities. Consider the fate of places like Elwood, Illinois that rely on warehouses and distribution centers. Is an Amazon fulfillment center a good trade-off in the long run? Does the chase for a new headquarters or some higher-quality jobs in corporate offices encourage communities to offer tax breaks and more? What kind of local citizen is Amazon – does it participate in and contribute to local activities, do its buildings and its footprint positively contribute to civic life?

Amazon my be global but it is local for many communities. How it interacts with these numerous local contexts may help decide its long-term fate.

An on-trend Amazon HQ2

Many plans are made for large buildings in cities and metropolitan regions. Not all of them are built. But, when Amazon releases plans for their HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, people take notice because of the company and the design.

AboutAmazon.com

The centerpiece will be the site’s fourth and tallest tower, a 350-foot structure dubbed the Helix because it will feature two spiraling outdoor walkways with trees and plants from Virginia that twist to the building’s top…

Amazon’s new campus is the latest in a growing line of outdoorsy office projects, as companies try harder to offer a pleasant work environment and appeal to eco-conscious employees.

The Helix “will be an opportunity for people to literally go on a hike in the city,” said Dale Alberda, a principal at architecture firm NBBJ, which is designing the development across the river from Washington, D.C.

Plans for inside of the building also call for plenty of greenery, along with meeting space, offices and studios for artist residency programs. “You feel like you’re in a lush garden in the middle of winter in D.C.,” Mr. Alberda said of the interior design.

As someone who teaches Urban Sociology, this is right on trend in multiple ways.

  1. It is just outside the central city of the region but within a business district. (The Washington D.C. region has some unique features due to the government buildings at the center but the multinode region is found throughout the United States.)
  2. The building has numerous green features, both visible (such as lots of trees) and invisible (planning for efficiency).
  3. The design is more whimsical and playful compared to the more common glass and steel box. The structure will certainly stand out and attract visitors just to see it.
  4. The architects and the company say it is designed with people and well-being in mind, not just efficiency or costs.

Perhaps the only trend missing is a mixed-use component where the office space is combined with residential and commercial space.

All of this is for a tech company – perhaps the tech company right now – within an industry that hundreds of American communities would love to attract. Does this building work in the same way if it is built by an insurance company or as a municipal structure?

It will also be interesting to see how this interacts with surrounding buildings – including the other planned Amazon towers – and the broader community. Amazon says the grounds will be open to the public yet how many community members will be able to take advantage.

$741 million in tax incentives for Amazon in NE Illinois – with a bigger price tag for economically challenged communities

Amazon has constructed 36 facilities in the Chicago region since 2015. And they got a lot of help from taxpayers in disadvantaged communities:

WBEZ

To help pay for its vast expansion, the company and its developers have won at least $741 million in taxpayer-funded incentives in northeast Illinois alone, according to a Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation…

Amazon collected less than $100 million in public incentives for the 15 warehouses it built in predominantly white communities but won more than $640 million in taxpayer incentives for the 21 projects built in communities with larger nonwhite populations, the examination found. Many of those communities are either mostly Black, mostly Latinx or have higher concentrations of low-income residents, and with municipal budgets already short on cash.

Records show the three largest incentive packages Amazon received — totaling $512 million — all came from predominantly Black suburbs. By contrast, the company built warehouses in at least seven mostly white communities that reported offering no public incentives at all…

While many of the communities may get more jobs, experts interviewed say the lost revenue from taxpayer incentives will strain public resources to rebuild crumbling roads from the truck traffic, mitigate pollution from the exhaust fumes and noise and to pay for other services such as police protection and fire prevention.

That big companies seek out tax breaks and local incentives is not new. Amazon played the game on a grand scale with its proposed second headquarters.

But, this illustrates one of the problems with tax breaks in general: it is a race to the bottom. Companies look for communities that will have a hard time saying no. What mayor or local official wants to turn down local jobs? Or, turn away a big company with the status like Amazon? Once they have such a company in town, communities often build on this when marketing land and facilities to other firms by saying they are home to Amazon.

Yet, the deal may not be a good one. Jobs are not the only factor that matters in a community. As the story above notes, traffic, pollution, noise, the strain on local budgets and services, and the quality of the jobs also matter. Does the addition of Amazon or another large company make the community as a whole better down the road?

The system could be improved in multiple ways. All the communities in a region could stop competing in this way; that Amazon locates within one municipality could also have spillover benefits for other communities. One community’s gain is not necessarily one community’s loss; the region operates as a whole. If revenue was shared across a region, then tax breaks in a particular community would matter less. Or, communities could just commit not to offer tax breaks at all. If companies cannot play the game, they would have to locate places for other reasons.

These possible solutions do not solve the underlying issues: jobs and capital in a metropolitan region are not evenly distributed. Patterns by race and class continue for decades as companies, residents, and other seek out particular locations and not others. That some communities have to pay more for Amazon to locate there just compounds the problem.

Filling empty shopping mall space with Amazon

Amazon might be coming to a shopping mall near you:

group of people walking inside building

Photo by Laurentiu Robu on Pexels.com

The talks have focused on converting stores formerly or currently occupied by J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears Holdings Corp., these people said. The department-store chains have both filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and as part of their plans have been closing dozens of stores across the country. Simon malls have 63 Penney and 11 Sears stores, according to its most recent public filing in May…

Amazon fulfillment centers wouldn’t draw much additional foot traffic to the mall, though some employees could eat and shop at the mall. That is why landlords have preferred to replace department stores with other retailers, gyms, theaters or entertainment operators. Yet many of these tenants are struggling to survive during the pandemic and aren’t in expansion mode.

Simon would likely rent the space at a considerable discount to what it could charge another retailer. Warehouse rents are typically less than $10 a square foot, while restaurant rents can be multiples of that. Depending on when the leases were signed and their locations, department-store rents can be as low as $4 a square foot or as high as $19 a square foot…

Malls’ strategic locations often make them attractive as distribution hubs. Many are near main highways and residences. Amazon has already acquired the sites of some failed malls and converted them to fulfillment centers. FedEx Corp. and DHL International GmbH have done the same.

Dying shopping malls need businesses willing to rent space. But, as the article notes, Amazon is an odd choice: they are partly responsible for the decline of traditional retailers, they may or may not bring in customers for other businesses, and they can ask for lower rental rates. But, what choice do many malls have?

I am trying to imagine former shopping malls that become Amazon centers with more life to them than the typical warehouse setting. The former department stores and other retail spaces can mimic large warehouse spaces while the walkways, fountains and other features, and occasional other tenant provide variety and recreational space for employees. Think tech campuses with a warehouse/shopping mall feel. Or, go further: as shopping malls consider adding residential space, why couldn’t Amazon convert some of the mall space into living quarters for workers? (Perhaps this also lends itself to dystopian visions.)

Not mentioned here: how local governments would like the conversion of retail or restaurant space – good for sales tax revenue – to warehouse space.

Welcome in Amazon, look for other businesses to follow?

Amazon will soon open a new facility in Palatine, Illinois and get a tax break to do so. That is normal. This other part caught my attention: the suburb hopes Amazon’s arrival helps spur more development.

Amazon will move into a warehouse and distribution facility under construction off Hicks Road south of Northwest Highway, and Palatine officials hope the online retail giant’s arrival sparks more development in that industrial area.

“This is a good bit of news for us, for sure,” Mayor Jim Schwantz said Monday. “It’s the right kind of use for that area. It’s a light draw on our services. It’s not going to take a ton of water. It’s not going to take police or fire calls. We know Hicks Road is built to be able to handle the additional traffic.”

Lots of communities want Amazon to move in. They bring jobs, they fill warehouses, and they bring a big name. Just remember all the cities that put together plans to try to allure Amazon HQ#2.

But, this is another dimension of having a successful company move into your community: it could lead to further growth. Having Amazon puts you on the map. Companies could choose from dozens of warehouse or manufacturing locations in the Chicago region. But, if Amazon is already there, this may attract other firms. Success begets success, growth leads to more growth.

Another example, perhaps two decades in the making: suburbs and neighborhoods all wanted a Starbucks. Not only would this bring in sales tax revenue and more shoppers. It put a place on the map. It suggested the place was cool enough, was up and coming or had an established set of well-off residents. Starbucks could pave the way for other similar businesses that would bring in or provide for a certain crowd.

Or, think about headquarters. These facilities may not have that many employees or may just be an office building but being home to headquarters, as opposed to branches or locations, is something special. Headquarters attract headquarters. They signal something.

A typical Amazon facility is not going to be flashy. It is not going to attract many visitors or shoppers. However, it will add to a community’s tax base, provide jobs, and help the community say they are home to one of the most important companies in America. That Amazon distribution center may be the start to something greater.

Amazon wanted a really big tax break with HQ2

When Amazon went on a search for a second headquarters, it was motivated in part by looking for a big tax break:

When Elon Musk secured $1.3 billion from Nevada in 2014 to open a gigantic battery plant, Jeff Bezos noticed. In meetings, the Amazon.com Inc. chief expressed envy for how Musk had pitted five Western states against one another in a bidding war for thousands of manufacturing jobs; he wondered why Amazon was okay with accepting comparatively trifling incentives. It was a theme Bezos returned to often, according to four people privy to his thinking. Then in 2017, an Amazon executive sent around a congratulatory email lauding his team for landing $40 million in government incentives to build a $1.5 billion air hub near Cincinnati. The paltry sum irked Bezos, the people say, and made him even more determined to try something new.

And so, when Amazon launched a bakeoff for a second headquarters in September 2017, the company made plain that it was looking for government handouts in exchange for a pledge to invest $5 billion and hire 50,000 people. The splashy reality-television-style contest generated breathless media coverage, attracted fawning bids from 238 cities across North America and ended with Amazon deciding to split the so-called HQ2 between New York and Virginia. Then progressive politicians attacked the $3 billion in incentives offered by New York, and Bezos pulled out. Amazon was widely ridiculed for its failure to court New York politicians. To understand why that happened, Bloomberg interviewed 12 people familiar with Amazon’s effort. Their story, outlined here for the first time, depicts a team that became the victim of its own hubris. Bezos’s frustration with what he deemed meager government largess prompted executives to scrap lessons learned through the years in favor of an unapologetic appeal for tax breaks and other incentives.

This news came just as we finished introducing the concept of growth machines in my urban sociology class. In this theory, coalitions of political and business leaders drive development decisions with profits and growth in mind. In this particular case, Amazon looked to cut a deal with the city that was willing to give them the most. If Amazon chose their city, political and business leaders could claim they won because of all the new jobs plus the prestige of an Amazon headquarters while Amazon would profit from massive tax breaks. As I noted then, let the race to the bottom begin.

The biggest problem with all of this is not that there is competition between locations for headquarters and business activity. This has gone on for a long time and for a variety of organizations; read about the bids to land the United Nations headquarters. The issue is that the large tax breaks mean that some of the benefits of a business moving to a community are offset by tax breaks. And who benefits more in the end? The corporate leaders, not the community as a whole.

I can imagine a television game show format with all of this: a corporation says they want to expand and help a community or region along the way. Bidders/communities bring their pitch to the show, showcasing the best of their community (and the money). The corporation narrows it down and in the end names the one winner. Everyone else loses out (outside of making a public pitch regarding the best aspects of their community). It could be very entertaining.

Three possible solutions to “American cities and states spend[ing] up to $90 billion in tax breaks and cash grants” to companies

After discussing why American communities spend so much money and effort to attract companies, Derek Thompson proposes four solutions:

First, Congress could pass a national law banning this sort of corporate bribery. Mark Funkhouser, a former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, envisions the law as the domestic version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for Americans to bribe foreign officials.

It’s not entirely clear whether that would pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled decisively on whether the Commerce Clause gives Washington the authority to ban interstate bidding wars. In the 2006 Supreme Court case DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, Ohio taxpayers sued the state after it paid the automaker DaimlerChrysler about $280 million in tax exemptions and tax credits. The Sixth Circuit Court sided with the taxpayers, striking down Ohio’s subsidy as a violation of the Commerce Clause. But the Supreme Court avoided a final judgment on the matter by finding unanimously that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit.

Second, Congress could make corporate subsidies less valuable by threatening to tax state or local incentives as a special kind of income. “Congress should institute a federal tax of 100 percent” on corporate subsidies, Jack Markell, a former governor of Delaware, wrote in The New York Times. “This would not include investments in public infrastructure, work force development or other investments that can attract employers while also providing a significant long-term benefit to taxpayers.” Taxing subsidies would hopefully force cities to change their economic-development strategies, from importing other states’ companies to building their own—through investing in research universities, building more housing, and welcoming immigrants, since foreign-born Americans have the highest rates of entrepreneurship.

Finally, the federal government could actively discourage the culture of corporate subsidies by yelling, screaming, and penny-pinching. As Meagan Day wrote in Jacobin, “The federal government could withhold funds from governors and mayors who threaten to poach jobs from other states, or who won’t disclose their incentive packages.” Washington tends to look on quietly when cash-strapped states break the bank to welcome glitzy tech firms. But an attitude change at the top could trickle down to the local level. Donald Trump, or another president, could have made a national address after the HQ2 announcement slamming Amazon for soliciting taxpayer funds in a silent auction. He could have called a summit to encourage the nation’s mayors and governors to offer the same tax subsidy for HQ2—zero dollars and zero cents. Even a tweet could suffice: “7 BILLION FOR BEZOS?? Trillion-dollar companies in America don’t need our welfare! Bad!”

Interesting options. I have argued before that this practice leads to a race to the bottom between communities. They can even pit suburbs and cities within the same region against each other.I wonder if both businesses and communities would complain. Businesses would want to get the best deal they can. Why shouldn’t they be able to compare different offers? They may go as far as to argue that the tax breaks help them be more profitable which means they can then spread more wealth to workers and investors. Communities might prefer to keep competing because it gives them a chance to entice a business that otherwise might not move there. If tax breaks became less valuable, would certain industries and kinds of firms gather in a limited number of attractive locations? Open competitions for companies gives communities a chance to get their name out there and build a brand. Furthermore, these tax break opportunities allow local officials to show that they are making a concerted effort to bring jobs to an area.

I do not see this practice stopping soon even as we see the fallout of the Amazon race. While it may take time for the federal government to step in, communities could decide to opt out from such competitions. What would happen if in a situation like the Amazon one, the major contenders refuse to pander to the corporation?