Amazon to City: Drop Dead

New Yorkers were stunned by Amazon’s announcement Thursday morning that the giant online retailer would no longer proceed with plans to build its second headquarters in Long Island City.

“After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens,” the company said in a statement. “For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive and collaborative relationships with states and locally elected officials who will be supportive over the long term.”

The company met with opposition from some New Yorkers, including at a City Council hearing in January (Francesca Regalado/NYCityLens)

The company’s decision to move to Queens had long drawn mixed reactions in New York City, with many cheering the potential for some 25,000 or more jobs, plus local spending and taxes paid by the people who would hold those jobs, which would in turn support city services. But a number of locals resented the some $3 billion in tax breaks the city and state gave to the wealthy company, and what they saw as a lack of local input about such subjects as infrastructure and transportation.

(Dan Rudy/NYCityLens)

The company said it will not be reopening the search for a second headquarters. Plans for a new headquarters in Crystal City, Va., are still underway.

Early reactions from New Yorkers, including city and state leaders, demonstrated the mix of attitudes toward the bargain Amazon had struck with the city:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who worked with Governor Andrew Cuomo to reach an agreement with Amazon, was clearly upset at the company for pulling out. He released an official statement and tweeted: “You have to be tough to make it in New York City. We gave Amazon the opportunity to be a good neighbor and do business in the greatest city in the world. Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity.”

Cuomo, however, aimed his wrath at the politicians who fought the deal and who have clearly irritated Amazon. In a statement, he said “We competed in and won the most hotly contested national economic development competition in the United States, resulting in at least 25,000-40,000 good paying jobs for our state and nearly $30 billion dollars in new revenue to fund transit improvements, new housing, schools, and countless other quality of life improvements. Bringing Amazon to New York diversified our economy away from real estate and Wall Street, further cementing our status as an emerging center for tech…

“However, a small group politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community —which poll after poll showed overwhelmingly supported bringing Amazon to Long Island City… They should be held accountable.”

Some of those opponents of the deal, meanwhile, celebrated its demise:

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York District 14 tweeted: “Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.”

Senator Jessica Ramos of New York District 13, which includes Long Island City, echoed Ocasio-Cortez: “Today we have seen the power of grassroots community organizing. Together, we are fighting for a New York that prioritizes affordable housing, small businesses, and union jobs…What we, the people, did in Queens was finally draw the line in the sand.”

At a rally in Long Island City, Queens City Councilman James G. Van Bramer focused on Amazon’s nonunion policies. “I believe the beginning of the end happened when we got them to admit they would not let workers organize,” he said.  “The biggest organization in the world with the richest man in the world and they would crush people working for $18 per hour.”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer addresses a rally in Queens after the announcement.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer addresses a rally in Queens after the announcement (Emma Vickers/NYCityLens).

New York State Senator Michael Gianaris spoke at a press conference, saying in part: There was no conversation about whether the infrastructure could handle Amazon’s presence here. The news for Amazon is that they are not bigger than NYC. At least not yet. They may think they are able to dictate terms to governments, but thankfully we are not to that point….

“This should be a launching point to discuss the corporate subsidies plaguing this country,” he continued, arguing that there are “examples after examples of public dollars being wasted and given to giant corporations, and disaster after disaster follows. There’s a reason Europe bans subsidies like this. If we could inspire this nation today to have that conversation we would have done a good thing.”

The debate over Amazon in some sense became a debate over Whose New York Is It?.

As Cuomo noted, many in the city have been in favor of the deal. A poll from Quinnipiac University in December 2018 indicated that 57 percent of New York City voters approved of “Amazon locating one of its new headquarters in Long Island City in Queens,” while only 26 percent did not approve.

In Queens itself, support for the Amazon deal was even higher—at 60 percent approval and 26 percent rejection.

Participants in the Quinnipiac poll were somewhat less warm to the projected $3 billion tax subsidy in “city and state incentives” used to attract Amazon to the city. While 46 percent of New York City voters supported the tax breaks, 44 percent were opposed.

Kenneth T. Jackson, a Professor of History at Columbia University, wrote in support of the Amazon deal in an op-ed published in The New York Times just days ago, on Feb. 12. If the deal falls through, he wrote, “New York will lose its reputation as a center of economic opportunity, and the city will sink in status and importance.”

Jackson pointed out that New York has lost an increasing number of manufacturing jobs and seen the departure of Fortune-500 companies dating back to the 1970s. He says the loss of Amazon would cost 25,000 jobs directly and 82,000 indirect jobs.

Queens will also lose four million square feet of office space, Jackson pointed out, plus additional spending in construction, and more than $27 billion in taxes over the next 25 years. “Amazon’s opponents should take a longer-term view,” he wrote. “If there is no economic opportunity, there are no jobs. If there are no jobs, there is no tax revenue. And without taxes, jobs and opportunity, New York will no longer be first among cities.”

Some people in Queens feared that Amazon’s new headquarters would bring rising rents as well as  overburdened infrastructure and transportation, and some neighborhood associations in Queens celebrated Amazon’s announcement. Queens Neighborhoods United, which has fought the company’s arrival, argued that the city’s tax incentives and the company’s “track record of relying heavily on short-term contract-based jobs without long-term security or benefits” would not help improve quality of life for Queens residents. The group called the announcement the “Best Valentine’s Day break up EVER.”

But April L. Simpson, President of the Queensbridge Houses Tenant Association, which is just north of where Amazon was going to build, and where residents hoped for jobs, was clearly taken aback. She told NYCityLens, “I’m just so disrupted right now. I’ve got to get my thoughts straight. This was a great opportunity for the city and the state. This could have been an historic opportunity for the residents of Queensbridge Houses and public housing in general.”

Her message to Amazon: “Don’t leave. Stay. Come back and sit at the table. We can work this out.”

April Simpson, President of the Tenant Association for Queensbridge Houses, stands outside a residential building the in the neighborhood.

April Simpson, President of the Tenant Association for Queensbridge Houses (Emma Vickers/NYCityLens).

Ordinary New Yorkers reacted to the news on Twitter, where the announcement was trending by the early afternoon. Their comments were often in reply to their elected representatives’ statements. While some were positive, many were critical. And while city politicians tried to blame Amazon, not all citizens agreed. Many expressed their disappointment at the loss of jobs and revenue, and blamed leaders for Amazon’s decision to withdraw.

In reply to Corey Johnson’s statement that referred to “vulture capitalism” Andrew Fine, a Manhattan real estate broker, was critical, as was Joe Hall.

On the other hand, Dashiell Eaves, a New York artist, agreed with the council speaker’s frame:

Brian Scollard, an infrequent tweeter, nevertheless went online to comment on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statement that Amazon didn’t cooperate with the City and threw away an opportunity:

 

This story was written and reported by Jennifer Doherty, Francesca Regalado, Lizzie Mulvey, Emma Vickers, Lucas Manfield, Daniel Rudy, Morgan Hines, and Alice Chambers. We will be updating it. 

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