On the heels of the recent Amazon HQ2 announcement, important questions have been raised about how to accommodate the 25,000 new employees who will come to the Washington region. Our local housing demand far outstrips the supply, even without Amazon. So how should we house these workers and other associated residents (families, service workers, lawyers, doctors, etcetera) and minimize the impact on our already-strained housing stock?
Areas immediately adjacent to HQ2, like Arlington Ridge and Aurora Highlands, are woefully underutilized. Most of this area is zoned as R-5, R-6, or R-10, which are single-family home and townhouse levels of density. While a lot of the area is zoned for duplexes, very few duplexes actually exist there.
An important consideration about this area is that there are few low-income residents compared to nearby areas such as Del Ray in Alexandria. The median house value and the median household income for Arlington are high, at $735,100 and $117,237 respectively. In Alexandria, just south of this area, the median home value is $537,200 and the median household income is $100,530. Placing new housing in areas where there are fewer economically-vulnerable people reduces pressure in nearby areas.
Speaking purely in terms of density, we have the opportunity to house all of the new Amazon workers in this 500-acre space adjacent to Crystal City—and possibly more.
Here's where we could put the new Amazon workers
Take the general density of the Mission District in San Francisco. It's around 46 people per acre, which comes out to around 23,000 people housed. Here's an example of Mission District density, including three- to four-story apartments with ground floor retail.
This is similar to medium density spaces in DC, like Capitol Hill and Eastern Market. Upzoning the Arlington Ridge and Aurora Highlands area to the density of Capitol Hill would house 22,000 residents, a significant proportion of the newcomers.
If we zoned the area as densely as NoMa is zoned at around 70 people per acre, we could house around 35,000 people—well over the prospective number of 25,000 workers that Amazon will hire in the coming years.
Plus, the NoMa Business Improvement District says 86% of residents take transit, bike, or walk to and from work. The same could happen in Crystal City and Potomac Yards.
As you can see below, in Arlington there's already a grocery store, coffee shop, pharmacy, bank, and many other amenities within several hundred feet of each other. That means Amazon workers can accomplish many of their errands on transit, foot, or bike, thereby reducing the pressure on roads from cars. Increased density and height can even mean more park space than currently exists, if planned and coordinated appropriately.
In Columbia Heights, there are about 80,000 people per square mile (the area is around 0.8 square miles). If we zoned Arlington Ridge and Aurora Highlands in a similar fashion, we could house a massive proportion of the requisite Amazon workers and go above and beyond for housing and reducing displacement.
The images below show the current satellite picture and the current zoning for the area immediately adjacent to the future locations for HQ2 in Crystal City and Potomac Yards, collectively called National Landing.
There are two Metro stations and several highways, parkways, and expressways running through this area, and National Airport is very close by. One of the nice things about these streets is that they're mostly laid out in a simple grid, not a suburban one, which makes it easy to get around on foot, bike, and transit (if the proper infrastructure investments are made).
Even the furthest reaches of the area (Oakridge elementary school in the lower left corner by the Long Branch Creek marker) is only 1.3 to 1.4 miles from the nearest Metro station. That means that most of the neighborhood is less than a mile from the Metro. There are also a large number of amenities centered around the Crystal City and Pentagon City stops, including as a Costco and a Whole Foods on top of a large shopping center.
It's possible to manage the impact of Amazon
There are very important concerns about displacement that will likely occur as a result of Amazon (as well as this potential zoning change). Nearby neighborhoods, including Chirilagua and Del Ray, are lower-income and the residents there would suffer more disproportionately from this increase in demand.
However, if we massively increase the housing supply near the Amazon headquarters, we can significantly reduce the impact on nearby lower-income areas. Creating a transit-rich environment could massively reduce pressures on roads.
We have got to do more to house people in our region, and lawmakers and other local leaders must advocate for smarter and better growth that will serve all residents. Adding more residential spaces next to a large employment center and transit is a great way to keep cars off our roads and create deeper housing affordability. It's possible to house all of the Amazon workers and more—it’s just a question of whether we have the political will.
A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Arlington Heights. We've corrected it to Arlington Ridge.