In downtown Raleigh, Amazon's HQ2 choices are limited
The Metlife buildings in Cary loom impressively over the edge of Crabtree Lake.
You can see them in the distance while driving down Interstate 40, two completed and another one currently coming out of the ground. The three 213,500-square-foot buildings are home to more than 1,000 employees.
But that pales in comparison to what Amazon could potentially bring to the Triangle.
It would be 50 times that, said developer Gregg Sandreuter of HM Partners.
That’s a dizzying scale to consider, especially in downtown Raleigh, which is an area the company toured when it visited the Triangle in March. Downtown has been getting increasing attention ever since the mayor of Arlington, Texas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Arlington was out of the running because it was too suburban. Mayor Jeff Williams said Amazon was looking for a more urban environment.
"I think it was looking for a more downtown, urban environment," Williams told the Star-Telegram.
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 at a second headquarters.
Put another way, that would be the equivalent of 19 FNB Towers — the 22-story tower currently being built on Fayetteville Street that will become the fourth-tallest building in downtown when it is completed.
It would be a massive amount of office space for downtown Raleigh, which already is experiencing a building boom, to absorb.
“It would all have to be brand new construction. There’s no rehab opportunity for that number of square footage,” Sandreuter said.
If Amazon were to choose downtown Raleigh — one of 20 cities still vying for HQ2 — it would be a complicated maneuver that would lead to skyrocketing valuations for real estate and would likely expand the concept of what is considered downtown Raleigh.
"We are already seeing ... skyrocketing prices, and there isn’t an assemblage for an HQ that I am aware of," said Chester F. Allen of CBRE's Land Services Group.
"Unlike RTP or other submarkets, it is hard to get (land) without involving multiple owners. Whereas in RTP for example, you could buy 100 acres with one owner. Something like that seems much more practical and logical to me than trying to assemble several blocks in or around downtown Raleigh."
But if that was where Amazon insisted on going, there would really only be two options for finding enough land, Allen said.
Either the company would have to takeover vast amounts of government-owned property in the Capital District, similar to what was proposed for a Major League Soccer stadium, or look south of downtown, possibly between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and I-40, he said.
That's an assessment that Sandreuter agreed with as well. The city of Raleigh currently has 11 city-owned sites scattered throughout downtown that it considers surplus, according to a presentation from last year, and the state government might study how it could lease or sell government buildings to reduce costs and improve efficiency, the N&O recently reported.
"There are larger parcels owned by the city and state that are possibilities," Sandreuter said. "But even then this would be such a transformative project it would cause downtown to leapfrog to the south and to the east" of what we consider downtown today.
The area south of MLK Boulevard today is mainly made up of historic neighborhoods and old industrial buildings.
It's an area that has drawn more interest recently, as downtown Raleigh continues to grow. Several former industrial sites have been targeted for redevelopment by local developers and an old Cargill plant near I-40 is considered by city planners as part of a potential "southern gateway" to downtown that could be revitalized. So far, Cargill has not said what it would do with the site.
Another area that might offer an intriguing possibility to Amazon would be 308-acre Dorothea Dix Park, which the city is hoping to develop into the equivalent of its own Central Park.
Dix Park has the land "but as I understand it, Dix is not supposed to be a corporate park," Allen said. "Obviously there is plenty of room for something like that to go there — and I think it would be a logical place for it — if that were the vision for the future of the park."
But any development on Dix Park would likely be contentious. There is a lot of debate around the future of the park and how much development the park should have going forward, especially as there are nearly 100 buildings currently located within it. More than 1 million square feet of space already is built in Dix Park, though they're mainly historic buildings.
Myrick Howard, president of Preservation NC and a member of the Dorothea Dix Park Master Plan Advisory Committee, said the future of those buildings is still up in the air.
But, he said, the hope is that 600,000 square feet of the buildings — a size equivalent to one of the largest skyscrapers downtown — is retained for mixed use.
Howard added that he thinks Amazon's needs are much too large for the park, though he said that there is land adjacent to the park, especially parts owned by N.C. State University, that could be developed.
"The land in the park is about being a park," he said. "But there are questions about trying to do things around the edge of the park."
Raleigh developer John Kane has also floated the idea of creating a "Prime Corridor" in downtown Raleigh to create an urban campus for Amazon that would stretch from Dix Park to the warehouse district and eventually reach North Hills, his 100-acre development of shops, offices and apartments. Connections could be made by bus.
Kane has said previously that he wasn't part of Amazon's tour of the region and that he doesn't know what sites they were shown. Efforts to reach Kane for this article were unsuccessful.
But despite the complications of finding room for that large of a project, landing Amazon would be a "terrific opportunity" to change the way we currently envision downtown Raleigh, Sandreuter said.