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The fight to stop Amazon’s huge new New York office starts now

Amazon announced its “second headquarters,” and New York City politicians and locals began to mobilize against it–and the $1.5 billion in tax cuts it will receive.

The fight to stop Amazon’s huge new New York office starts now
[Source Photo: Osman Rana/Unsplash]

Amazon’s months of bread crumbing the reveal of its second headquarters came to an end on November 13: The mega-company officially named Long Island City, Queens, and Arlington, Virginia, as the joint recipients of HQ2. There’s a lot to unpack in this conversation. After the long bidding war that had cities like Newark groveling before Amazon with billion-dollar tax-break offers and mayors offering to rename their jurisdictions after the tech giant, the most powerful company in the U.S. announced it will be headed to two of the most powerful cities in the U.S.: New York and Washington, D.C. (It’s also setting up a much smaller operations outpost in Nashville.)

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Most small businesses, when they look to establish themselves in a new place, are shown a number of hoops through which they have to jump. They have to secure licenses (that cost money) from the city and state. They have to go through the often-arduous process of community approval where they want to take root. And they have to pay ongoing taxes to the state and city in which they operate. This is certainly what will happen to the businesses in the ecosystem that the Amazon offices will create around them. But Amazon is getting a special deal, as often happens when big companies–like Foxconn in Wisconsin or Boeing in Chicago–dangle jobs and economic development in front of elected officials. New York State is giving Jeff Bezos’s behemoth a total of $1.525 billion in direct incentives; Arlington will hand over $573 million. Its justification for securing these tax breaks from some of the wealthiest cities in the country: The presence of Amazon will create jobs–it’s saying 25,000 each in New York and D.C.–and attract new investment in the area.

But if Amazon thought it could just waltz into New York City and set up shop unopposed, it was sorely mistaken. Sure, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are saying that Amazon could bypass the city’s notoriously stringent land-review process because, according to Politico reporter Dana Rubenstein, they are democratically elected officials who can make decisions like this when the stakes are high enough. But local elected officials–many of them just taking up seats after last weeks’ midterm elections–are not having it.

Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents part of Queens, announced that he will introduce legislation to slash the types of subsidies that Amazon will receive, and funnel the money instead toward alleviating student debt. That, Kim told Splinter, would provide a bigger economic boost to the state than the arrival of Amazon.

Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City Council, issued a statement the morning of November 13 blasting Amazon–and by proxy Cuomo and de Blasio, who ushered it in–for its lack of engagement with local needs before selecting its perch. “Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world, but you can’t put a price on community input, which has been missing throughout this entire process,” Johnson wrote. “I find that lack of engagement and the fact that negotiations excluded the City Council–which is elected by New Yorkers to guide land use projects with communities in mind–extremely troubling. I also don’t understand why a company as rich as Amazon would need nearly $2 billion in public money for its expansion at a time when New York desperately needs money for affordable housing, transportation, infrastructure, and education.”

Johnson’s colleague, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district comprises Long Island City, is similarly concerned. Van Bramer and New York State Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents western Queens, issued a joint statement echoing Johnson’s concerns, but adding that Amazon’s promise of jobs in New York is a hollow one: “We are witness to a cynical game in which Amazon duped New York into offering unprecedented amounts of tax dollars to one of the wealthiest companies on earth for a promise of jobs that would represent less than 3% of the jobs typically created in our city over a 10-year period,” they wrote. What’s particularly galling to these politicians: Amazon is receiving a subsidy of $48,000 from the state for each job it creates with a salary of over $150,000, and the average annual income in the nearby Queensbridge Houses, one of the nation’s largest public housing developments, is around $15,000.

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Both Van Bramer and Gianaris were initially supportive of Amazon coming to Long Island City and signed a letter to the company indicating support, but the process over the last year changed their minds. “At no time were any of us told that Amazon would receive a billion-dollar package of subsidies and tax breaks,” Van Bramer told the New York Times. “And I never would have signed on to a process that seeks to evade meaningful and binding review by community and elected officials. Everything has changed since we allowed our names on that letter.”

Nothing about this, however, should have surprised Van Bramer and Gianaris. The entire HQ2 search was predicated on Amazon extracting as much as they possibly could from cities and states, before deciding to land in places that would offer them the most. In the discussion around where HQ2 should locate, there was a noticeable dearth of talk, beyond high-paying jobs, of what benefits Amazon would bring to the communities in which it located. That’s on local politicians to interrogate–before deals are inked.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently elected to Congress in a district that touches the Long Island City community, tweeted out that all morning, her office has been fielding calls from Queens residents, outraged that their voices had been eradicated from the planning process. “Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of million of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here,” she wrote. When companies want to expand into communities, Ocasio-Cortez added, they need to establish a partnership with working-class communities that ensures stability. Amazon has not pledged to hire local talent, nor has it pledged to train locals for jobs at the company. It has said nothing of injecting any money into preserving long-term housing affordability.

To be sure, Amazon will face pushback in the coming months as it solidifies its plans. Van Bramer and Gianaris have already organized an opposition rally with two well-established community-based local nonprofits, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY, and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, for November 14. As a new and powerful progressive voice in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez will continue to be a player in the opposition fight. The question remains, though: Will any of this have an effect? In keeping the HQ2 search as secret as it did, Amazon effectively silenced the communities and residents who would have been able to mobilize against the arrival of Amazon, or at least to demand more out of the company. Now that Amazon has made its decision, they can begin, but the tech giant (with perhaps, the exception of its recent minimum-wage hike) has not exactly shown itself to be receptive to public pressure.

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At the very least: Amazon can expect an earful upon arrival in Queens. Welcome to New York.

We’ve asked Amazon for comment and will update this story if we hear back.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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