We know that the Triangle made it to the second round of cities and regions across the country competing to win Amazon’s second headquarters. We know that economic development officials here submitted seven potential sites.
We don’t know much more than that, as discussions are being kept confidential for now. But we do know a few things after interviewing local developers and officials and reviewing documents, and have come up with a list of five likely sites and two others worth noting.
There is a lot of focus on the sprawling Research Triangle Park, with its undeveloped and available 300 acres, and vacant offices. Major highways intersect there, and a freight and passenger train already runs along its eastern side. We have identified three possible sites in RTP.
Two other locations bear serious consideration: the massive Chatham Park project that will create an entire new community near Pittsboro, and developer John Kane’s proposal to scatter Amazon operations from South Raleigh along the warehouse district and up to North Hills.
Wherever the Amazon project goes, it will need room to eventually spread out to 8 million square feet with 50,000 employees – far more than the SAS campus in Cary, for instance.
Research Triangle Park
RTP has the space but also some negatives. The foundation that manages the park, which straddles Wake and Durham counties, has been criticized for not keeping the 7,000-acre park up to date, as some of its corporate tenants have left empty buildings amid layoffs and transfers.
“What we hoped, which hasn’t happened, is that the park would work on amenities and use their money on that,” said Joel Marcus, CEO of the California-based Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which owns about 1.2 million square feet of rentable space in the park. “We haven’t seen any progress. I think the park needs to re-imagine itself and become urban.”
But Raleigh developer Gregg Sandreuter sees opportunity in that blank slate: room for Amazon to grow in the way it wants, developing its own city grid along the way. “They could create a welcoming new front door for both Amazon and RTP,” he said. “Amazon could take a leadership role in remaking Research Triangle Park for the 21st century.”
Here are three possible spots in the park for Amazon:
▪ Park Center: Redeveloping this aging office park on 100 acres along N.C. 54, N.C. 147 and Davis Drive is a top priority for the Research Triangle Park Foundation. Plans include turning it into a mixed-use project. It could be turned into a campus-like atmosphere like Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. Other pluses: It is 8 miles from Durham and 16 miles from Raleigh, right off major highways and about 6 miles from Raleigh-Durham International, all well within Amazon’s criteria.
▪ Parmer: GlaxoSmithKline, once the largest real estate owner in RTP, last year sold 20 buildings, the remnants of its campus, to Los Angeles-based Parmer Innovation Centers. Parmer announced last year that it would spend $80 million to renovate the site, and will bring in amenities such as permanent food trucks. The 500-acre property also has a new amphitheater, trails and tennis courts. It also meets Amazon’s transportation specs.
▪ IBM: The company has been an integral part of RTP from the beginning. Layoffs across the company have followed declining revenue. IBM doesn’t talk about how many employees it has there, and didn’t respond to a question about whether it would have room to spare. Site selection expert Frank Quinn of Colliers International in Raleigh says there seems to be enough spare space on IBM property to accommodate Amazon.
This massive undertaking is already looming as one of the region’s most significant developments. Planned are 7,100 acres of housing, offices, restaurants and entertainment venues in a community where residents can work and play without the commute. A planned commercial section will focus entirely on the arts. The project will incorporate advanced and sustainable technology, such as a solar farm, energy-efficient houses, voice commands for lights and thermostats, and built-in internet access throughout.
The development, which is in the early stages of construction, has not been widely seen as a potential Amazon host, but Chatham Park’s commercial developer John Fugo told The N&O that he had been told it was one of the locations submitted to Amazon. “It’s a realistic, viable site,” he said. “Chatham Park will probably be the most advanced technological development in the Triangle if not the state.”
It might be too far from an urban center, although Raleigh is 45 minutes away and the airport just half an hour. Nearby Pittsboro could satisfy any cool vibes that might be lacking. Since it’s in the early stages, changes could still be made.
Developer John Kane’s vision to create an Amazon presence in downtown Raleigh is entirely different from the wide-open spaces to the west. It would be the most urban setting the Triangle could offer but it would have to be spread out in mostly disconnected segments at sites controlled by his company and by others. His plan, which ticks off all of Amazon’s requirements, would stretch from Dix Park to the bustling warehouse district, cross to Peace and West streets, include Capital and Atlantic boulevards, and eventually reach North Hills, his 100-acre development of shops, offices and apartments. Connections could be made by bus. Amazon says it will consider buildings that can be retrofitted or expanded within the project’s time frame.
▪ PNC Arena: The sports and entertainment landmark presides over an area that has long been seen as a western gateway to Raleigh. Much of the land is owned by the state for N.C. State University, which has moved some of its research operations elsewhere. It meets most of Amazon’s requirements except, potentially, for space. The question is how densely could it be packed with buildings to meet Amazon’s needs? There might be enough room for a campus setting, and it’s just 7 miles from downtown Raleigh and less than 9 miles to the airport, and right off of I-40.
▪ Gateway Station: This is the long shot in our analysis. Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce officials have already said it wasn’t big enough to accommodate Amazon; however, the Durham County Commissioners are still advocating for this site. It’s next to a potential stop on the Durham-Orange Light Rail project near I-40 and U.S 15-501. A recent study estimated it could accommodate 5.1 million square feet of office, more than 400,000 square feet of retail and about 4,000 residential units; but that would require radical redevelopment of the big-box shopping center at Patterson Place station across I-40. The light rail funding is still in question, and it won’t be finished for a decade at the earliest.
WHAT AMAZON IS LOOKING FOR
▪ Metros with more than 1 million people.
▪ Stable, business-friendly.
▪ Urban or suburban sites that can attract strong technical talent.
▪ Creativity in coming up with sites and real estate options.
Amazon would consider
▪ Urban or downtown campus.
▪ Similar layout to its Seattle campus.
▪ Development-prepped sites. It will prioritize shovel-ready sites that provide opportunities for in-fill development and for sites that aren’t constrained by their prior uses.
Ideal site and building requirements
▪ Within 30 miles of a population center.
▪ Within about 45 minutes of an international airport.
▪ One or two miles from major highways and arterial roads.
▪ Direct access to rail, train, subway/metro, bus route. Travel time and logistics between population centers and its buildings.
▪ Square feet requirement: Initially, more than 500,000 in 2019. Then up to 8 million square feet beyond 2027
▪ Existing buildings of at least 500,000 square feet that can be expanded.
▪ Sites don’t have to be contiguous, but in proximity to each other to foster a sense of place and for being pedestrian friendly.