What does sudden halt to Amazon’s HQ2 showpiece signify?

It was lauded as an exemplar of sustainable and community-oriented office design. But now construction of Amazon’s Helix tower near Washington DC has been put on temporary hold

Amazon’s announcement that it is calling a temporary halt to construction of its US $2.5 billion HQ2 programme at National Landing in Arlington County, Virginia, is just the latest plot twist in the tech giant’s long-running saga to build a second North American headquarters for its workforce.

But pressing pause on one of the world’s highest-profile workplace projects has implications beyond Amazon’s backyard and even beyond the currently beleaguered tech sector. Real-estate experts are now asking the question: is the era of the big, expansive, money-no-object US headquarters now on its way out?

Fraught with controversy

The soul-searching around Amazon HQ2 seems appropriate, as the programme has been fraught with controversy from the start. First, in 2017, there was a super-demanding tender document setting out Amazon’s requirements for any city or community to host its new office complex. Then, an unedifying urban beauty parade with more than 230 North American cities offering tax breaks and other incentives to try to lure Amazon to their neck of the woods.

In 2018, Amazon announced a plan to split HQ2 between Arlington County and Long Island City in Queens, New York. Fierce local opposition then took the New York option off the table, leaving HQ2 to consolidate its plans in Virginia with a new three-tower precinct designed by NBJJ close to Washington DC.

Spectacular plans

Those plans were spectacular, with a futuristic plant-covered building, The Helix, modelled on a double helix, forming the centrepiece of a community campus uniting 2.8 million square feet of offices, public gathering areas and street-front retail. With plans to reduce embodied carbon, cut water usage, use bird-safe glass in all its buildings and offer regular public walking trails up the Helix tower, this was an office campus with serious sustainability credentials and significant community outreach.

Construction on the project began in January 2020 and the first phase with two office towers is set to open this June. But now the bigger Helix development across the street, known as PenPlace, has been put on hold. Nobody can say for how long, putting the anticipated 25,000 new jobs associated with HQ2 potentially at risk.

‘Could this be the first big casualty of hybrid working?’

As the building works go quiet, some commentators have suggested this is just a temporary set-back as Amazon consolidates its strategy and finances. Others suggest it could be the first big casualty of hybrid working – a mega-office scheme that ticked all the boxes in 2019 but now looks out of joint with the rise of flexible work patterns. One thing is certain: with PenPlace, the Amazon HQ2 story still has more chapters to write.

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