Here’s a dream request-for proposals, if ever there was one: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently kicked off a site search for a 5 million-square-foot “second headquarters” for his fast-growing e-commerce, newspaper publishing, luxury food, and film production concern. (Can you believe this guy got started selling books?)
To qualify as the future home of Amazon, Mr. Bezos is asking for a community with a population of at last 1 million people, good public schools, a major airport, and a decent public transit system. The game is afoot.
Insofar as no city in California can meet all three of these criteria (indeed, Slate writer Henry Grabar says no city in America can fill the bill) we suggest waiving all the requirements. By so doing, we can throw open the door to an otherwise deserving future home of Whole Washington Ama-Bezos Inc. and offer a dazzling array of landscapes and cityscapes from which to choose.
Among Mr. Bezos's 482 choices in California -- not counting unincorporated county land where he might build his city from scratch -- here is a sample of some hidden gems he might want to consider.
This small city in Kern County serves as a historic marker for the oil business that flourished here and in nearby Bakersfield decades ago. Tiny Taft has many points of interest, such as a number of working oil derricks. And the traffic court. Much of the town, sadly, has a kind of beaten-down look. A landscape ravaged by the oil business has never been repaired, and no new core business has moved in to fill the gap.
If the oil derricks of Taft symbolized 20th century industry, the same town could symbolize 21st Century business: a consumer economy in which is every store in the world is owned by a single company. The derricks, with their non-stop pumping, could be made over as public art: with each pump decorated to depict the arm of an Amazon worker stuffing a book into an envelope over and over again. And no need to worry about CEQA suits. The land in Taft isn’t exactly pristine, and oil pumps don’t file lawsuits.
This Orange County community is the home of the South Coast Plaza shopping center, a sprawling, high-end retail complex containing nearly 3 million square feet. Buying an existing building is much cheaper than new construction, so I suggest Mr. Bezos simply acquire the entire complex and occupy the space vacated by stores he has already put out of business . With the proverbial handwriting on the wall for brick-and-mortar retail, the current owners should exult in the chance to exchange their mortgages for shares of Amazon.
And don’t worry about displacing the remaining merchants: Bloomingdale’s et al can stay in place and become on-site amenities for tech workers accustomed to nice things. (“No need to leave work for a day of mad, impulsive shopping,” goes the recruitment brochure. “You can suppress your feelings of rage by overspending during lunch, and suppress your feelings of shame by over-achieving in the afternoon.”) Amazon should also buy the nearby Orange County Center for the Performing Arts, a great venue for Mr. Bezos to announce the release of, say, Kindle 17.3 or the acquisition of the German auto industry.
This car-friendly tourist town in Merced County is the ultimate expression of freeway-oriented urbanism: Lots of fast food and cheap motel rooms, gasoline and impulse retail, with very little urban design to get in the way. It would be tacky and wrong to say that Santa Nella is a glorified pea-soup pit stop along Interstate 5, but a little bit of that DNA would show up if the town took a geneaology test. So why would Amazon locate here? With the laissez-les-bon-temps-rouler attitude toward freeway-oriented development in this city, the company could build here any which way it wanted, without so much as a dirty look, much less a protracted approval battle. As for the transit requirement, well, please observe Santa Nella is right on the freeway. If that’s not enough, Mr. B. could buy a fleet of touristy charter buses to shlepp in folks from Los Banos. This service can be supplemented by high-speed rail, which is expected just in time to celebrate the retirement of your grandchildren.
This Fresno County city is, regrettably, “the unemployment capital of California,” according to McClatchy News Service. At the height of the recent drought, joblessness hit 40 percent in a community heavily dependent on seasonal farm work. The poverty rate hovers around 60 percent. Here, the selling point for Amazon is a motivated workforce. Forget the sulky brats in Seattle or Silicon Valley, who interrogate you, during their own job interviews, about the number of ping-pong tables to be found on the barbecue deck with the ocean view. Folks in Mendota are willing to work, period. Any company should be willing to hire them, give them fair pay, and share the California dream.
This ocean-front hub of tech and entertainment would be a common-sensical choice for Amazon’s HQ No. 2. Of course, the arrival of 50,000 workers to Santa Monica to a city with an inventory of 95,000 dwellings might make an already expensive housing market even more exclusive. Imagine a line of people standing on Wilshire Boulevard, wearing imported knit clothing and staring off in the distance like refugees. “I sold my home before realizing that I couldn’t afford anything else in Santa Monica, even after making a profit,” bewails Lindsay Gwyneth, a personal assistant.
The hyperinflation of Santa Monica real estate would also bring about a cataclysmic eastward shift to the entire LA housing market. Downtown would become the new Culver City, East LA would be Larchmont and Victorville would be Riverside. While benefiting homeowners and investors, this eastward march in value may be less helpful for young renters in search of affordable digs. I hear there are some great saguaro catcti in the Arizona desert just waiting to be converted into Santa Monica’s newest bedroom community.
Dialogue overheard between two young non-homeowners in the high desert:
First Young Person: “Hey! I know a large saguaro cactus where you can live!”
Second Young Person: “Is this one of those co-housing situations where I have to share the cactus with eight other people”?
First Young Person: “Actually, you’ll be subletting from one of nine other tenants. She works at night.”
Second Young Person: “Done!”
Who are we kidding? Even Jeff Bezos can't afford to live in San Francisco.