Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Many Arlingtonians view Amazon as a distant online sales giant soon to upset housing and wage markets when it settles in as Crystal City’s anchor tenant.

But the Seattle corporation knows the value of putting a human face on its presence. So in August it hired Facebook external affairs veteran and 20-year Washington-area resident Brooke Oberwetter as communications head at its HQ2.

On Nov. 13, I heard her good-citizen pitch for Amazon presented at a lunch with the Kiwanis Club of Arlington — hosts savvy enough to invite realtors and leaders of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, the Arlington Food Assistance Center and the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network.

“When you have children, you start to learn about a community,’ said Oberwetter, a Crystal City homeowner who walks to Amazon and “has driven the streets” as a school and Little League parent. Her job is to build relationships that “help us get good information on how to be a better neighbor.”

Crystal City lost 32,000 jobs over the past two decades, in part due to the Pentagon BRAC departures. So Amazon’s plan to lease 4 million square feet should stimulate development and “breathe new life” in the glass-tower neighborhood that has suffered from an identity crisis. She is hip to “the Arlington Way” of thorough consultation. And she touts the corporation’s plan for $2.5 billion in development that could “drive additional billions for diversification of an economy heavily dependent on federal contracting and create another Northern Virginia tech hub.”

Amazon’s plan to hire 25,000 full-time employees is spread over 10 years. “Our goal is to hire people already here.” She pushes back against expectation of “a shock to real estate market,” saying many of the home asking price rises are “speculative activity.” Yes, Amazon has given $3 million for an Arlington plan to create 2,200 affordable housing units in Crystal City, but that represents “our role in a very large regional challenge.” Her new employer’s arrival is “shining a spotlight” on existing problems in traffic, housing, education and technology. There will be costs and tradeoffs.

Amazon’s three-phrase plan between now and 2023 began with retrofitting two empty buildings on the eastern side of Route 1, she said. Metropolitan Park (near Costco at Eads and N. 12th sts.) is being upgraded and doubled in size.

Amazon envisions it as neighborhood shared space for a farmers market and festivals. The ground floors of Amazon’s buildings will be local retail, not chains like 7-11, Oberwetter said, “to develop a sense of place.” The large meeting rooms inside Amazon buildings will be available after hours for community groups. “We’re not having a walled-off corporate campus.”

Asked about Amazon’s handling of community relations in Seattle — “a different culture,” where Amazon’s growth was fast and surprising — Oberwetter said her approach is to “build relationships from the beginning rather than waiting for trouble.” While the existing “Amazon in the Community” program focuses on homelessness, STEM education, disaster relief and employees’ volunteer projects, the Arlington “hyper-local” approach expands to consulting with civic associations on needs, be they financial or human resources.

After mentioning the planner’s term “National Landing,” Oberwetter said it was a product of planners in the Crystal City Business Improvement District (working with Alexandria). “We have no plan to replace the names of Crystal City, Aurora Highlands or Arlington Ridge.”

This Veterans Day, county historians erected five more weather-proof placards at the Clarendon War Memorial.

Having modernized the presentation a year ago on the centennial of the end of World War I, the new displays honor World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Global War on Terror.

The texts and photos highlight the Arlington community’s response during the wars as well as individual participants.

Example: Pictured for making the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam in 1967 is Washington-Lee High School (now Washington-Liberty) Class of ’59 member Nicholas Krimont.