Amazon officials on an HQ2 tour of the Triangle focused on only two areas

Source: The News & Observer
Author: Zachery Eanes

RALEIGH - When the Triangle first submitted its bid to become the second home of Amazon, it highlighted seven potential sites, spread across the region, for a potentially massive corporate campus.

But when Amazon officials visited the Triangle in late March, they were only shown sites in two areas: downtown Raleigh and Research Triangle Park.

In an interview last week in Pittsboro, Julian “Bubba” Rawl and Tim Smith — the co-owners of Preston Development and the backers of the ambitious Chatham Park project — said that its massive conglomeration of land in Chatham County was not shown to any Amazon officials.

Instead, company officials only visited sites in downtown Raleigh and RTP, Rawl said.

The N.C. Commerce Department had asked Rawl and Smith to create a proposal for HQ2 in Chatham Park for the region’s bid, the two said, but the 40-year project is too early in its development.

Currently, in its first phase of construction, Chatham Park is one of the region’s most significant developments. Around 30 minutes south of Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the entire Chatham Park development will eventually be home to 7,100 acres of housing, offices, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Chatham Park wants to attract businesses to its development, so that the project doesn't just become a bedroom community to its bigger neighbors to the north. Rawl and Smith said Apple is also considering the Triangle — though Chatham Park is not currently being considered as a possibility.

The N.C. Commerce Department, which handles economic development for the state, declined to speak about Amazon’s visit to the Triangle.

“We don’t comment on project discussions with particular companies until a site decision has been publicly announced,” said David Rhoades, communications director for the N.C. Commerce Department.

Rawl said he had no further details about the areas that were toured by Amazon.

Raleigh developer John Kane, who was part of the regional partnership that helped sell the region to Amazon, said he was not part of any tour of the region and doesn’t know what they were shown.

But Kane has floated the idea of creating a "Prime Corridor" in downtown Raleigh to create an urban campus for Amazon.

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. The corridor would stretch from Dix Park to the bustling warehouse district, cross to Peace and West streets, include Capital Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, and eventually reach North Hills, his 100-acre development of shops, offices and apartments. Connections could be made by bus.

Amazon has said it would need 500,000 square feet of space initially, before it eventually builds up to 8 million square feet of space for a potential 50,000 employees. It would be a massive amount of office space for downtown Raleigh, which is already experiencing a building boom, to absorb.

Downtown Raleigh currently has 3.7 million square feet of office inventory, with around 262,000 square feet of office space under construction, according to real estate services firm JLL. The Six Forks/Falls of Neuse submarket, which includes North Hills, currently has zero square feet under construction, though another tower built by Kane could break ground later this year.

The roomier Research Triangle Park is currently building a lot more office space than those two submarkets. It currently has 994,000 square feet of office space under construction, according to JLL.

Speculation about what parts of RTP could conceivably house Amazon often center on the 100-acre Park Center property and parts of the former GlaxoSmithKline campus. 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

The Parmer complex has been mentioned repeatedly as a potential site for both Amazon and Apple, particularly California-based Apple. That's, in part, because Parmer has a connection to Apple, as it leases office space to the company in Austin.

“We would love to be considered for the opportunity,” Bart Olds, Parmer's director of asset management, said in a recent interview with The News & Observer. “We don’t have any insight into that right now. We’re hearing the same rumors everyone else has.”

If — and it's a big if — the Triangle were to land Amazon, the project would likely cause a strain on the region's transit infrastructure and housing supply: two factors the company is reportedly keenly focused on.

According to a recent report in The New York Times, Amazon officials have made public transport and housing affordability important topics on its trips to the 20 finalists for HQ2.

But another report in the Washington Post said the company was limiting its final choice to states with protections for LGBTQ people, with Amazon officials asking North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper “pointed questions” about state policies and HB2, the law that restricted transgender people’s use of public restrooms.

Speaking before those two reports came out, Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland said in an interview that he doesn't think any city has a "lock" on getting HQ2 yet.

“I think North Carolina offers any and everything that Amazon would want,” Copeland, said, adding that he doesn’t think the current state of the region's mass transit infrastructure would be a deal breaker for Amazon.

People forget “that (50,000) employees are not going to fall out of an airplane in one day, it’s over 16 years,” he said. “So, the infrastructure here, with the right of ways that have been built, the runways that are planned and starting at the airport, we are going to be adequate there in infrastructure.”

Geobanni Ramirez