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You’ve Won Amazon's HQ2. Now the Hard Part Begins.

How the winning community deals with the gains and pains holds lessons for any place hosting a booming industry.

The Amazon headquarters in Seattle
The Amazon headquarters in Seattle
(TNS/Paul Christian Gordon)
No matter where you turn for news, it's inescapable: the hullabaloo over "HQ2," the frenzied competition to host Amazon's second corporate headquarters. Hungry for the infusion of jobs and investment ($50 billion, at least), communities have promised everything from big tax breaks to free hamburgers for the 50,000 HQ2 staffers. It's hard to overestimate the intensity of anticipation with which the 20 cities and regions that made the finalist list await the company's choice of a winner.

But Seattle's experience with HQ1 makes it clear: Hosting Amazon isn't all puppies and rainbows. I lived in the Emerald City for more than 20 years, serving as the city's first sustainability director for eight of them, and helped develop some of the plans and policies that lured Amazon from an old hospital building in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood into the downtown.

I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly as Amazon mushroomed from a tiny online bookstore into the world's largest internet retailer. The good includes 45,000 jobs and the transformation of Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood from a motley array of parking lots and warehouses into a thriving urban community. The bad includes jam-packed buses and roads (Seattle is ranked ninth worst in the country for traffic congestion) and an affordable-housing crisis rivaling San Francisco's. Which gets us to the ugly: Skyrocketing prices are not only rendering Seattle housing out of reach for many but also exacerbating the challenge of homelessness: Seattle now has the country's third-largest population of homeless people.

The gains and the pains of rapid growth aren't unique to Seattle and Amazon, of course. It's a familiar tale in many cities that find themselves hosting booming industries. So how can we learn from the Seattle/Amazon experience and manage big change in ways that optimize the good while eliminating (or at least minimizing) the bad and the ugly?

Just like the middle school sock hop, the dance between powerful companies and their local governments can be awkward. Corporate officials worry about government stepping on toes and public officials often sacrifice responsiveness to avoid appearing too cozy with their corporate counterparts.

But companies and cities can reinvent this partnership and pioneer a new style of collaboration -- a different dance. They can co-create solutions at the intersection of the things they both depend on and care about: clean, affordable and reliable energy and mobility; high-quality, affordable housing for all; and a healthy, diverse and well-trained workforce.

In addition, companies and their host cities can engage deeply with the community -- not just between themselves but also with social-justice advocates and leaders of housing organizations, environmental groups and educational institutions -- to encourage joint problem-solving, transparency and shared ownership.

Like HQ1, the evolution of HQ2 will be complicated and somewhat unpredictable. As companies and host communities approach far-reaching change, three frames can anchor and guide their thinking, conversation and action:

Sustainability: As we design, build and operate our places of business, how can we work together to reduce climate-disrupting pollution? Can we create a low- or no-carbon campus?

Resilience: What can a company do to make its community stronger in the face of climate impacts such as sea-level rise, increased flooding and extreme heat?

Equity: How can companies increase social inclusion and racial equity in their communities? How do we ensure fair distribution of both benefits and costs?

We already know of some actions that can advance these three goals: Locate new buildings in places that maximize opportunities for walking, biking and public transit. Design, build and operate facilities as "living buildings" that generate more energy than they use and store it to provide refuge during grid outages. Make ensuring the preservation and creation of affordable housing a major priority. Work with community-based groups to provide job training to local residents and people of color, and ensure that a significant percentage of HQ2 jobs, from construction to coding, go to those people.

Undoubtedly, Amazon and its HQ2 home can come up with more and better ideas -- if they make the commitment and create the time to do so. Working together, the company, government and community-based organizations can ensure that big changes serve both the here-and-now and the longer-term goals of their shared community.

Vice president of the U.S. Program at the Institute for Sustainable Communities
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