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Amazon's Holly Sullivan: Worker 'Enthusiasm' For RTO Means HQ2 Phase 2 Could Start Next Year

Holly Sullivan, Amazon's vice president of worldwide economic development, scanned her badge into the company’s second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, for the first time last month, a moment half a decade in the making.

Holly Sullivan, Amazon's vice president of worldwide economic development

Sullivan guided Amazon’s high-profile selection process, from the release of its request for proposals in 2017, through assessing the 238 jurisdictions that submitted bids, to announcing its choice of a dual Arlington and New York City headquarters in 2018 — before rescinding the NYC portion in 2019 — and now, opening the first half of the project.

"Fast-forward over five years of development plans, review, of listening to the community and now opening our first phase of a million square foot Class-A office building, it's been extremely rewarding," Sullivan told Bisnow in an interview Tuesday morning.

Some 2,000 employees are now working out of the new headquarters; the company is ramping up staffing over the summer hoping to relocate all 8,000 employees working in leased office buildings in the area by Labor Day. Amazon eventually expects employee occupancy to hit 12,500.

Metropolitan Park, the first phase of Amazon’s new National Landing headquarters, includes two 22-story office towers, totaling 2.1M SF of office, 50K SF of ground-floor retail and a 2.5-acre public park. The development is completely powered by reusable energy, the company said in a press release.

The second phase, PenPlace, planned as three 22-story office buildings and a helix tower, was put on pause in March. Amazon says it is committed to finishing the project, and still expects to bring 25,000 jobs by 2030.

Sullivan told Bisnow that the team is moving ahead with some pre-construction work and is still determining exactly when it aims to break ground on the project.  

"I don't have a crystal ball, but I think given the fact of the enthusiasm of our employees returning to the office and our continued hiring that's taking place at Amazon, we would anticipate revisiting that early next year," Sullivan said. 

In this interview, Sullivan discusses how Amazon is welcoming its first employees to HQ2, why the company decided to mandate three days a week in person and the plethora of dog amenities throughout the new development. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bisnow: Let's just start off with the most recent development. The first phase of HQ2 is open and employees have started working out of the buildings. It has been a five-year process to get here, and I was wondering what it's like for you, seeing this project come to fruition?

Sullivan: Well, as you can imagine, it's very rewarding. When we made the decision to locate our second headquarters and in Arlington and National Landing, one of the things that we did was really engage with the community — at the Arlington County level, within Alexandria, the D.C. metro area — and kind of understand what does it mean to be a good community partner and be a good community neighbor. Fast-forward over five years of development plans, review, of listening to the community and now opening our first phase of a million square foot Class-A office building, it's been extremely rewarding.

And I can highlight a couple of things that I'm most proud of: I would say the sustainability features of the new building and we can dive into those. And then what we want for Arlington County and what it means to be a community partner. As part of that, we've committed more than $88M to local nonprofits, community groups and schools around the region.

And one of the items that kept bubbling up in our conversation before we even made our announcement, we were just talking to Arlington County along with you know, 20 other major metros, and it's something that's been more of a national issue and that is affordable housing. And we've partnered with Arlington County and other areas in the D.C. metro area to contribute more than $800M to affordable housing.

So I think there's several things I'm proud of — a) the physical delivering of such a fantastic building, but also how we've developed and evolved our partnerships and our relationships with the community at large.

Bisnow: What have the first few weeks felt like on campus? What has the vibe been? 

Sullivan: An excitement — so much enthusiasm. For me personally, when I first walked in the building, I was like, OK, where do I badge in? So I think what’s really neat is how we’ve had a lot of welcoming events. We have people stationed to kind of help people wayfind. And then when you walk up right past our badging area, there is what we call the 'center of energy,' and it's three floors of communal space, whether it be if you want to grab a coffee, or you want to have lunch, grab a snack. We also have an area called the expressions lab. So if you want to do a team event, or if there's something that interests you that we're offering that week, you can take an hour or so of your day to take a cooking class or an art class.

There's also a lot of outdoor spaces, and I think you know that we are a dog-friendly campus. So I will say for me, seeing all the pups coming into the office has continued to be really fun and exciting. We have multiple dog parks either off the ground level, which are open for the community and then within our buildings.

One really interesting feature is at our cafés, we have this little kind of stall where you can pitch your dog on their leash while you're running to get your food and then come back and get your dog. It's your dog underneath our wall of other dogs, so of course the dog feels comfortable.

An aerial view of Metropolitan Park, the first portion of Amazon's Arlington, Virginia, HQ2.

Bisnow: I read and saw photos of your dog features. Do you personally have a dog that has stopped by?

Sullivan: I have two Labradors and one of mine is an old guy but Ruby will be going into the office next week — that’s my chocolate Lab. 

Bisnow: Is Ruby on the Wall of Dogs?

Sullivan: Not yet. Buck and Ruby will be on the Wall of Dogs. We are working on their photo now. 

Bisnow: For that Wall of Dogs, are they portraits that Amazon has done or do employees submit them? 

Sullivan: So we do this a couple of times a year and I think we have another event coming up where you can come in and do dog portraits. So for this, we sent out an email to our employees that are assigned here, 8,000 employees assigned to this office building, and we invited them to come in and do a dog portrait. So they are Amazonians, and you'll see the name of the dog and then also the position of the employee.

Bisnow: And so what's the occupancy rate of the buildings that are open at this point?

Sullivan: So right now, the way we're doing it is we're phasing in and welcoming our employees. Obviously, we’ve had a return to office going on since May. The first phase of Met Park, this first building, which we call “Merlin” or “WAS17” is 22 stories high, floors one through 14 are open right now for occupancy. So what we're doing is we want to bring employees in over a multiweek process to phase that in.

So the first couple of weeks we've welcomed about 2,000 employees, and then we'll continue with bringing teams in throughout the summer. A couple of reasons for that: One, the upper floors are not complete yet and they will be finished over the summer months, through I believe Labor Day.

Two is we want to make sure that all of our partners, our café partners, are ramping up as the employees are ramping up and we don't want to overwhelm anything. And of course, with new construction, there's always little tweaks that need to be made and we want to make sure our facilities team has ample time to be able to do that.

And one note on that, we do have a few cafés within our building. We have three within the first phase that's open. But we intentionally only construct our eateries to accommodate 30% of our employee population so we can push our teams out into the community, into the neighborhood to spend with small businesses. And as part of that we will be offering within our two buildings 50K SF of retail and that's 14 new small, minority-owned businesses within our first-floor retail. 

Bisnow: I did want to ask about your retail and public space. Tell me about how you designed the campus to feel like part of the community as opposed to an isolated campus.

Sullivan: So we looked at the existing infrastructure and the layout and there were some tall buildings already there, and there was sort of an open space that was not curated within the middle of the buildings. So what we wanted to do is bring our buildings as part of that perimeter of taller buildings and then create a curated common space for the neighborhood and the community at large and of course, our employees also. 

So within the 2.5-acre park, there is a playground, there's a dog walk, there's other just kind of green space and walking trails. There’s also art installations, three different art installations throughout the park.

And then, when we were thinking about the retail, we went to a lot of community meetings and we heard a lot of feedback about wanting more food opportunities. One thing that also came out of there is having an early childhood daycare center. And so we've partnered with Celebree that will be offering childhood education from 6 weeks through 12 years. And that's not only full-time daycare, it's also part-time daycare and they also do summer camps.

I think everybody knows Conte’s Bike Shop. We are a biking community at Amazon and we have over 600 stalls for our bikes, including a bike shower and bike maintenance facility. So Conte’s Bike Shop, which has been around since 1957 in the community, will have a home at HQ2.

The "Wall of Dogs" at Amazon HQ2's Metropolitan Park.

Bisnow: As employees are starting to move in and get settled, have there been any surprises on your end? Any lessons that you've learned as the process has gotten underway?

Sullivan: I think what we've learned is people are excited to come back to the office and the enthusiasm — I was there the first couple of days and sitting in the lobby and somebody would sit down next to me and I would just ask them, I’d be like, “welcome to Met Park” and [there was] overwhelming enthusiasm about not only the space, the ease of getting there — I talked to people who took the Metro in, I talked to people that biked — and they really liked the amenities that the building offers and the location.

Bisnow: Do you have a sense of how your employees are getting to work? You talked about biking and Metro. With the majority of employees, what methods of transportation are you seeing?

Sullivan: I wouldn't be able to say what the majority is yet since we're just continuing to offer people back. But it does appear to be a high percentage of Metro and biking use. I walked down the biking lockers the other day, midday, and I can’t say they’re full — there’s over 600 of them — but there were a lot of bikes. There's the hallways that the bikes go in.

And then, of course, we also offer electric vehicle charging and all, I can’t say all because the parking garage is still under construction, but a large majority of our EV charging stations are full too. Let me also add that as a company we offer commuter benefits, so we encourage our employees to use mass transit or other modes of transportation than single-occupancy vehicles.

Bisnow: How have employees been engaging with local businesses? Is there an Amazon happy hour bar that's been established yet?

Sullivan: Not yet. Again, our retailers are not open on our first floor yet, so that is forthcoming. But there are several places that they can go out into the community and have lunch, and I would say you know the area along Crystal Drive has continued to see momentum. You go out there between 12 and 2 p.m. and all of the eateries, particularly with the beautiful weather we've been having, are at capacity.

Bisnow: So we've been talking about this first phase, MetPark. I wanted to ask about Amazon pausing the process for HQ2 Phase 2. Why did Amazon make that decision to pause?

Sullivan: One, I think it's not well known that Met Park, which will offer over 2.1M SF of space, will be able to accommodate over 14,000 employees. So we have plenty of room to grow beyond the 8,000 that are already assigned to the two towers.

And one of the things that we want to do is make sure that the space that we plan within Met Park continues to meet our business needs. And we want to get feedback from our employees to make sure that the spaces that we've created inside the buildings, which include much more conferencing space, more space for collaboration and that three stories of 'center of energy' that I've described, we want to make sure that we're doing what we should be doing.

But I will also add that we're already moving ahead with the pre-construction work at Pen Place and working with our development partners on that. So there is action taking place and our commitment remains unchanged to Arlington and Virginia.

Bisnow: What's a realistic timeline to expect that to come to fruition — for Pen Place?

Sullivan: I don't have a crystal ball but I think given the fact of the enthusiasm of our employees returning to the office and our continued hiring that's taking place at Amazon, we would anticipate revisiting that early next year.

A staircase inside Amazon HQ2's Metropolitan Park.

Bisnow: And I did want to talk about your return-to-work policy. As of May 1, employees were required to come back to the office three days a week. Why did the company decide to put that requirement in place?

Sullivan: We believe that there is benefit to collaboration and bringing our employees back to the office: the watercooler conversations, the opportunity to meet in person and collaborate and innovate. As a company we are a team of builders and innovators and we believe that it's best to be done in person. Of course, we remain flexible as a company but we believe three days a week helps continue that building of innovation and collaboration and the culture of our company.

Bisnow: What response have you seen from employees with this policy?

Sullivan: I think if you were to go over to Met Park today, you would see the response and that is people are coming back to the office; they're excited for the facilities — and this is globally this isn't just specific to Arlington or Met Park. I've been in Seattle in the last couple of months; I've been at a London office, and there's a vibrancy and there's an excitement and renewed enthusiasm about that opportunity to collaborate in person.

Bisnow: You mentioned Seattle. I did see that there was a walkout and some of the employees involved in that walkout were frustrated by the office requirement. How widespread have those complaints been?

Sullivan: I personally have not heard any of those complaints and I have a fairly sizable team. We support our employees; we want to listen to our employees. And so we'll continue to listen and monitor and take their feedback into consideration.

Bisnow: Have you had any pushback at HQ2 or Nashville or any other of your office buildings?

Sullivan: None, and I can speak specifically to Nashville and HQ2: none. And you know, the Nashville building has been open for two years and that building has had good occupancy and people have been coming back to work for months there.

Bisnow: I want to talk about the future of Amazon's office footprint. You've said you remain committed to occupying all of the office that's been planned for HQ2, but beyond this project, has the pandemic changed Amazon’s strategy around its future office footprint?

Sullivan: I believe every company is going to have to take a you know a kind of a deep dive and look at what works for them. For Amazon specifically, we believe that that in-person collaboration is important to what we do as a company. And so we're going to continue to look forward to welcoming our teams back. We'll continue to be a flexible employer, as we've always been. And so I look at the pandemic as an opportunity for us to bring more tools for that global collaboration. But there's no replacement for bringing our teams back to the office.

Bisnow: Going off that, does Amazon expect to sign any new deals for office expansions in the coming years?

Sullivan: Well, we never speculate on our future plans, so stay tuned on that. But let me re-add, specific to Arlington and the D.C. metro area, Met Park is going to deliver us 2.1M SF, and I'm not aware of any other company in the United States, maybe beyond the United States, that is delivering 2.1M Class-A corporate office square feet right now.

Bisnow: And then with the space that Amazon already occupies, is Amazon looking to give any space back that it currently occupies in any of its markets?

Sullivan: We are always evaluating our real estate needs. Obviously, specific to the D.C. metro, we own the 2.1M SF at Met Park. We have leased other facilities that were intended to be a bridge when we took the five years to build Met Park. But we’re always evaluating our real estate needs.