Amazon take note: Irvine earns A’s in this civic test
Proposals from cities, states and regions across the U.S., Canada and even Mexico reportedly poured into Amazon in hopes of landing the company’s second headquarters, dubbed HQ2.
The Seattle-based company says its HQ2 will bring 50,000 high-paying jobs and billions of dollars of new investment in whichever city it chooses, so it’s no surprise that some 238 proposals were submitted in response to Amazon’s request, including one dubbed One Click HQ2, touting Irvine and Orange County.
The process of seeing how well a place fulfills what Amazon is seeking makes for an interesting exercise in civic analysis and promotion, for those officially charged with answering Amazon’s query as well as those many in the media and other observers who opined on what place would best suit the parameters Amazon seeks.
As the Harvard Business Review put it, “Amazon’s selection criteria, as described in the company’s request for proposal, sets out a compelling list of the attributes cities must have if they aspire to be a serious part of America’s growing digital economy.”
That criteria includes much at which Irvine clearly excels, rivaling any city or region in the nation, including a strong research university, a high concentration of well-educated knowledge-based workers, proximity to airports and highways, and an inclusive and diverse culture.
While reading the Amazon RFP and the list of civic attributes it sought for a host city, we were reminded of a similar list we read last year.
The piece in The Atlantic was written by Deb and James Fallows and titled “Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed.” It was a sidebar to a longer piece based on the writers’ 54,000-mile, three-year journey around America traveling by a single-engine plane.
While writing the larger story “Can America Put Itself Back Together,” the authors “developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work,” they wrote in the March 2016 issue of the magazine. So while others examined the Amazon criteria in Irvine’s proposal to bring the HQ2 here, we pondered how the city does in the Atlantic civic success test:
1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern.
“Overwhelmingly the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.” The story was written before the 2016 election, of course. But having been to several city council sessions since the election, we think it’s safe to say Irvine scores fairly well on this. In fact, at the recent session finalizing the new Southern California Veterans Cemetery, councilmembers and state representatives who spoke commented on how the discourse and decision reflected well on the city, in contrast to the turmoil in Washington, D.C.
2. You can pick out the local patriots.
“A standard question we’d ask soon after arrival was, ‘who makes this town go?’” We think a clear choice for Irvine patriot is quoted in this issue: that’s Bill Cook, the Marine Corps veteran who has championed the veterans cemetery issue that’s now settled: there will be one in Irvine. We also think the three civic leaders who came together to vote to make sure veterans have a cemetery in the city, Councilmember Christina Shea, Councilmember Melissa Fox and Mayor Don Wagner, have emerged as clear civic leaders in the city. The sad thing is that if you’d asked that question a decade ago, the person who made the town “go” was Larry Agran. Now, it seems he’s more interested in making important projects like the cemetery stop.
3. Public-private partnerships are real.
“In successful towns, people can point to something specific and say, this is what a partnership means,” the authors say. Well, that one’s easy. Irvine earns an A here. The original creation of the city’s masterplan, UCI, and the historic open space agreements were made possible because of partnerships with the Irvine Company. And today, schools in the Great Park Neighborhoods, the growing Great Park Sports Park, the Great Park Ice & Sports Complex and the FivePoint Amphitheater were made possible thanks to the partnerships among and between the city, IUSD, the Ducks and the Samuelis, FivePoint and Live Nation, among other partners.
4. People know the civic story.
“Their value is in giving citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope for tomorrow.” This one gets an “incomplete.” While most know about the original masterplan, the great schools and Irvine’s past reputation as a “beige” place, there seems to be the need for a unifying and forward-thinking civic story that helps connect yesterday and tomorrow across the generations and cultures who live here.
5. They have a downtown.
“This seems obvious, but it is probably the quickest single marker of the condition of a town.” Hmm. As much as we’d like to make the argument that we’re a post-urban place, an edge city without the need of a downtown, this one is still a work in progress. Perhaps in coming years the Great Park and Spectrum area will feel like our downtown. Right now, the Irvine Business Center is probably as close as we get.
6. They are near a research university.
Well, that one’s easy: A+, thanks to UCI.
7. They have, and care about, a community college.
Ditto, thanks to Irvine Valley College, though perhaps we should care more about the excellent institution.
8. They have unusual schools.
“Early in our stay, we would ask what was the most distinctive school to visit at the K–12 level. If four or five answers came quickly to mind, that was a good sign.” Though reasonable minds might differ about which schools are most distinctive and “unusual,” the overall excellence sets Irvine Unified School District apart.
9. They make themselves open.
“Politicians, educators, businesspeople, students, and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people.” Historically, Irvine has been a welcoming place to immigrants and newcomers, and that’s been one of the great strengths of the city. We believe it still to be so, and yet sense some friction to that welcoming spirit among the no-growth factions in the city.
10. They have big plans.
“Cities still make plans, because they can do things.” For this we only need look to the approved Veterans Cemetery and the vision for the cultural terrace, the growing Sports Park, and other aspects of the Great Park.
11. They have craft breweries.
“A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception,” the writers say. Well, the exception may be Irvine. We are a bit lacking in this important category. There’s Backstreet Brewery at Lamppost Pizza, TAPS Fish House and Brewery, and Evans Brewing Co., which doesn’t have a tasting room in the city. Left Coast Brewing Company will open a new brewery and tasting room off of Sand Canyon in coming months, too.
We’ll know soon enough how Irvine measures up to Amazon’s criteria in competition against all the other entrants. Using The Atlantic’s test for civic excellence as a guide, we’re already a winner. We expect Irvine has a real chance at the Amazon HQ2, too. Now let’s build some more breweries!