HQ2 cancelled: Amazon pulls out of Queens campus
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 20, 2019 | 2882 views | 0 0 comments | 211 211 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Amazon shocked New York City officials and communities on Valentine’s Day by announcing that it is backing out of building a campus in Long Island City.

On its Day One blog, the company wrote that creating a new headquarters requires positive and collaborative relationships with supportive elected officials.

What the technology giant received instead was fierce opposition from many community groups, unions and local officials, which ultimately doomed a project that would have brought 25,000 jobs to the area.

“While polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence,” Amazon wrote, “and will not work with us to build the types of relationship that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”

With more than 5,000 of its employees already working in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, Amazon said it will continue to grow their team, just not at the scale it originally planned.

Although the Queens project is cancelled, the company does not intend to reopen its HQ2 search. Instead, it will proceed with its campus in Northern Virginia and operations center in Nashville.

How Amazon HQ2 plan fell apart

Amazon announced its search for a second headquarters in September 2017, launching a nationwide competition. In November 2018, the company made it official, announcing that Crystal City, Virginia, and Long Island City had won the HQ2 search.

The company would invest $2.5 billion to create 25,000 jobs in New York City over 10 years, with the potential to create 40,000 jobs in 15 years. The average salary of these jobs would have been $150,000 per year.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the deal, which they said would have generated $27.5 billion in revenue over 25 years. Other benefits included funding for infrastructure improvements, a new school, new green spaces and a tech incubator for businesses.

The company was set to receive nearly $3 billion in performance-based tax subsidies.

But the announcement sparked immediate resistance from progressive organizations and labor unions, which cited rising rents, Amazon’s anti-union history and collaboration with ICE as main reasons for their opposition.

Among those who opposed the project were Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris, both of whom represent the neighborhood. Both initially signed a letter asking Amazon to come to Queens, before coming out against the deal once it was announced.

“When our community fights together, anything is possible,” Van Bramer said in a statement, “even when we’re up against the biggest corporation in the world.”

“Today’s behavior by Amazon shows why they would have been a bad partner for New York in any event,” added Gianaris in a February 14th statement. “Rather than seriously engage with the community they proposed to profoundly change, Amazon continued its effort to shake down governments to get its way.”

Over the next three months, the anti-Amazon forces rallied and protested against the company in Queens neighborhoods and on the steps of City Hall.

During two City Council hearings on HQ2, activists repeatedly interrupted and heckled Amazon executives during testimony. They unfurled banners that read, “Amazon Delivers Lies” and chanted, “GTFO Amazon has got to go!”

When City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who opposed the deal, asked Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, if he would remain neutral if workers sought to unionize, Huseman said, “we would not.”

Huseman later added Amazon believed their “direct connection” with workers and “open-door policy” was a more effective way to respond to workers’ concerns

“I look forward to working with companies that understand that if you’re willing to engage with New Yorkers and work through challenging issues, New York City is the world’s best place to do business,” Johnson said in a statement. “I hope this is the start of a conversation about vulture capitalism and where our tax dollars are best spent.”

In addition to the negative criticism of Amazon, the HQ2 project received another huge blow when the State Senate appointed Gianaris to the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), a state committee that could have blocked the deal from moving forward.

According to published reports, Amazon executives had phone calls with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who didn’t back down from asserting the chamber’s role in the project.

By February 14, Amazon apparently had enough and pulled the plug on its project.

Anti-Amazon groups celebrate their win

After hearing the news, community organizations and elected officials that opposed HQ2 immediately organized victory rallies. They celebrated at Gordon Triangle, the Long Island City site where they first announced their opposition in November.

“New Yorkers have a Valentine’s Day message for Amazon: it’s not us, it’s you,” said Sasha Wijeyeratne, executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. “They sauntered in here and said HQ2 was inevitable. Communities across Queens and New York City rose up and we proved Amazon wrong.”

Wijeyeratne continued slamming Amazon for its practices, calling the company a “threat to our democracy.”

“Amazon’s headquarters don’t belong anywhere,” they said. “Amazon, you can’t buy New York.”

Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), credited the victory to “people power and organizing.”

“The tide is turning,” he said. “We say no to real estate and corporations running roughshod over New York City.”

Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya CDC, added that while Amazon’s announcement is a “great gift for Valentine’s Day,” their work isn’t done yet.

“We commit to stay together and build our collective power to ensure that our vision for a better, more equitable and inclusive New York City starts now,” she said.

Who is to blame for Amazon’s departure?

While the anti-Amazon contingent claimed victory, Cuomo, de Blasio, business groups and public housing leaders who all favored the deal were left to figure out what happened and who is to blame.

“No words at this moment can convey the sadness and dismay at the loss of this historic opportunity,” said Thomas Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce. “An entire generation will look back at these last few months and ask us why. I hope those that opposed this Amazon deal have the answers to what we lost.”

Still, Grech maintained that Queens is still one of the best places for a tech firm, or any forward-looking business, to expand into with its diverse talent, entrepreneurial spirit and thriving arts scene.

“It is a shame to lose the opportunity, investment and jobs that Amazon offered,” he said, “but there are many more ways for businesses in Queens to thrive, and we will be welcoming them with open arms.”

The Long Island City Partnership called Amazon’s departure “a tremendous disappointment” and a blow to the neighborhood. But in a statement, the organization said the world has now seen why LIC was the first choice for one of the largest companies in the world.

“Before Amazon’s announcement, the Long Island City Partnership was advocating for investments to our infrastructure, workforce development, schools and mass transit,” the group said, “and we will continue to do so.”

Some elected officials blamed Amazon for leaving. Borough President Melinda Katz, a supporter of the project, said after the City Council hearings it became clear that the company “had no intentions of being good neighbors.”

“They rejected our values of supporting working people and were unwilling to work with our local communities toward a mutually beneficial resolution,” Katz said. “If Amazon wants to take their jobs somewhere else with a lesser workforce so they can undercut wages and workers’ rights, that’s their choice.”

De Blasio said he was “flabbergasted” by their decision. The mayor said he had a conversation with a “senior Amazon official” just 48 hours before the announcement, but there was no indication they were going to back out.

“It’s clear they made up their mind on their own,” he said. “And if that’s the way they thought they could be part of our community, it probably wasn’t going to work out anyway.

“There wasn’t a shred of dialogue,” de Blasio added. “Out of nowhere, they just took their ball and went home.”

Cuomo, meanwhile, put the blame squarely on the Democratic-controlled State Senate for naming Gianaris to the PACB. In a statement, the governor said a “small group of politicians put their narrow political interests above their community.”

“The New York State Senate has done tremendous damage,” he said. “They should be held accountable for this lost economic opportunity.”

As for the public housing leaders whose residents could have benefitted from the jobs in the project, they blamed their local leaders, Van Bramer and Gianaris.

In a statement, they accused the “grandstanding politicians” of spreading misinformation to “whip up the small band of opponents.”

The leaders of Queensbridge, Astoria, Woodside and Ravenswood houses, all of whom signed the statement, said Van Bramer and Gianaris didn’t talk to NYCHA leaders or ask what they wanted from the Amazon deal.

“The grandstanding politicians will try and blame Amazon and anyone but themselves for this disaster,” they said. “Nobody should believe them, they let us down.”
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