May 4, 2018

The Reckoning: Amazon stops development of its “Block 18” project in downtown Seattle, as the city mulls a new tax


Then the third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star burning like a torch fell from heaven and landed on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter like wormwood oil, and many people died from the bitter waters.…

Seattle, like many cities in the United States, is experiencing a crisis of homelessness. The problem is so severe that in 2015, mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency in order to grant the city “more administrative authority and flexibility in contracting for services and allocating resources in response to the homelessness crisis.”

Since then, the city has increased its annual budget for managing homelessness by fifty percent, up to 80 million dollars in 2017, and just last year, the Seattle City Council representatives Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley introduced the “HOMES” proposal—“Housing, Outreach, and Mass-Entry Shelter”—funded by a progressive tax on the city’s largest employers. According to a press release announcing the program, HOMES has three main goals: to increase the number of twenty-four-hour shelters, to expand municipal outreach to the homeless population, and to address the severe shortage of affordable housing, which sends many into homelessness.

Surprising absolutely no one, Seattle’s largest, most tax-avoiding-est employer, Amazon, is throwing a shit fit.

According to reporting by Brier Dudley at the Seattle Times, and by Nick Wingfield at the New York Times, Amazon has halted construction on their proposed “Block 18” development project, pending the results of a HOMES vote, which could come as soon as May 14th. Members of Seattle’s business community are worried that, if Amazon does indeed cancel construction of the seventeen-story office building and elects to move the 4,500 employees who were scheduled to occupy it elsewhere, there could be a painful effect rippling through other developments planned acroos downtown Seattle, which has seen explosive growth over the last decade, largely due to Amazon’s own terrifying expansion.

Many observers have noted that Amazon’s HQ2 plans—which we’ve covered several times—may give the company a credible alternative to Seattle as base of operations, and that if the city holds the line Amazon may abandon it. But as has been noted amply here, and by Kevin Schofield on his blog, Amazon needs cities to support its psychotic growth regimen — the other way around, not so much. And really, threatening to sabotage ten years’ worth of urban growth and development over a paltry $31 million in payroll tax (0.00072093023% of Amazon’s revenue), doesn’t sound like particularly appealing behavior in a potential roommate.

What’s most depressing about all of this is that, in the midst of elaborate tax wonkery, corporate shibboleths about dynamism and job-creation, and the brutish utilitarianism of “objective” journalism, it’s far too easy to lose sight of what’s really at stake here. Not thousands of imaginary jobs, but thousands of actual lives, actual children, and actual families who are being fed to the thresher and pushed onto the street because Jeff Bezos wants to beat Elon Musk to the fucking moon.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.