When Amazon announced in September that they were seeking to construct a second headquarters, it set off a frenzy among cities in the United States, big and small. Amazon would be constructing a facility identical in size and with 50,000 jobs. These jobs aren’t the low-wage variety, either. These are engineering and computer science jobs that would be accompanied by $100,000+ salaries.
With that type of a white collar influx all at once, a city such as Pittsburgh could re-define itself. It’s no surprise that Mayor Peduto is positioning Pittsburgh as a possible destination. Pittsburgh has already dipped a toe in the nationally-known high-tech sector with a Google office and an Uber self-driving facility. The presence of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh would help create a sustainable source of future Amazon employees.
The most obvious destination for Amazon would be in the nascent Almono complex. As per the list of requirements that Amazon is looking for, chief among them is 500,000 square feet (11.4 acres) for its headquarters. The 178-acre Almono complex more than meets that. As Almono is poised to become a mixed-use development, the residential aspect of it would be quickly filled. The adjacent neighborhood of Hazelwood would be instantly re-invigorated by a large portion of the remaining 50,000 employees. Naturally, housing stock prices would skyrocket and most likely gentrify Hazelwood to an alarming degree.
But I can’t get the “close to an international airport” requirement out of my head. Of course Mayor Peduto is going to want Amazon in the City, but he also wants what is best for Allegheny County in a broader sense. For years, the County has been trying to develop the surrounding areas around the Pittsburgh International Airport. There’s an office park where Dick’s has located their headquarters directly adjacent to the PIA runways, off of Business-376, on a road called International Drive. They’re currently the only occupant. Amazon would quickly consume many of the available parcels with their headquarters and parking.
Now, Moon Township may not be the most glamorous of living areas for young Amazon employees, especially compared to the lure of being close to the City of Pittsburgh in Almono and Hazelwood, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine huge swathes of land being developed for new housing, perhaps even of the mixed use variety that would have residential and commercial all in one, similar to the Village of Pine in Pine Township.
Business-376 is already capable of handling the presumed 50,000 vehicles that would travel it to reach the Amazon headquarters at the potential International Drive location. After all, it was the route to get to the previous Pittsburgh International Airport. Through the use of PENNDOT’s traffic volume maps, you can see that at the split from I-376 (to the current Airport) to Business-376, there are currently 33,000 vehicles per day. By the time you get to International Drive, that number has thinned down to 15,000. But even though Almono is most likely Mayor Peduto’s #1 choice, the Airport location would allow him to potential unlock another one of his stated goals — a mass transit solution that finally connects downtown Pittsburgh to the Airport.
In July, my wife and I took a trip to Minneapolis. We never considered taking a cab or Uber or other form of transit from the airport to our downtown hotel, because Minneapolis (and St. Paul) have a fantastic Light Rail system in place. For only $2.25 per person each way, we rode for about 25 minutes on a clean, modern LRT straight downtown and through Minneapolis. Pittsburgh does not currently have that luxury, which undoubtedly has hampered some companies from wanting to do business here. Relying on taxis or shuttle vans is outdated and inconvenient.
When Steve and I met with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and then-Councilman Peduto’s staff to present our Light Rail North option, they liked the concept, but felt the priorities for mass transit should be to connect Pittsburgh and Oakland, followed by a line out to the Airport. Port Authority is moving forward with a Bus Rapid Transit option for the Pittsburgh-Oakland link. Plans have been drawn up for years, with multiple alignments, for the Pittsburgh-Airport link but they’re collecting dust currently.
Mayor Peduto and County Executive Fitzgerald could pitch to Amazon in their proposal that they will waive taxes on Amazon, in lieu of direct payments to fund the local share portion of funding on the federal grant program to construct the mass transit line from Pittsburgh to the Airport area, with there naturally being a dedicated series of stops for Amazon HQ. The cash-strapped Port Authority gets a windfall of cash, Peduto and Fitzgerald get to stamp their legacies on moving the region forward in transit on a major project, the public gets a viable mass transit option to commute from the City to the Airport, and Amazon can allow their employees more freedom of housing choice and less commuting stress. Everyone wins.
If the City and County pitch the Almono site as the preferred location for Amazon and they select Pittsburgh, it would be easy to see Mayor Peduto pushing a similar transit-in-lieu-of-tax concept for his pet project on a connector mass transit link from Hazelwood to Oakland. He dubbed it ‘The Brain Train’ in a conversation with me at one point, as it would link CMU and Pitt to the nascent tech development of Almono. This would be fine as well and it’s not hard to see the Mayor putting his stamp on this development by making Almono the preferred destination.
At the end of the day, if Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to be selected by Jeff Bezos to be the “next HQ”, Pittsburgh’s profile on both a national and international scale gets raised exponentially. Not only does the metro region have the cachet of being associated with Amazon, but the metro region gets a boon of 50,000 new residents that will have plenty of money to spend. Considering that from 2000 to 2016, the metro region has lost almost 89,000 people, the Amazon influx will staunch the flow of that loss significantly. And once Amazon stakes a claim to a city, ancillary businesses may suddenly find Pittsburgh more attractive, as well. In short, the Mayor and the County Executive have the rare opportunity to instantly transform the region with one proposal.
Pittsburgh will go on with or without Amazon. But if the announcement is made, it will re-invigorate the City to a degree not seen in decades.