Hundreds protest Amazon deal for Queens
by Benjamin Fang
Nov 20, 2018 | 2040 views | 0 0 comments | 110 110 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It didn’t take long for opponents of the Amazon deal to mobilize.

One day after the e-commerce giant announced a new headquarters on the Long Island City waterfront, hundreds of elected officials, union members and community organizations protested the agreement.

Amazon plans to invest $5 billion to open a new campus that will house more than 25,000 new employees. The headquarters will be up to 8 million square feet.

As part of the deal, the company will reserve space for a tech startup incubator, donate a site for a new school, and invest in a new green space.

But the behemoth will also receive nearly $3 billion in performance-based tax credits, opponents said, including $1.2 billion through the New York State Excelsior Program and $325 million from Empire State Development, to construct its facilities.

More than a dozen elected officials, led by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris, spoke out against the state subsidies last Wednesday.

“Folks who consider themselves progressive Democrats have seen fit to throw $3 billion at the richest man in the world,” Van Bramer said, referring to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. “That is wrong and we should all be outraged.”

Protesters also blasted the deal for including a helipad that will be built on top of Amazon’s headquarters for Bezos to use.

Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents Roosevelt Island residents who are “scared to death” about the deal, even went as far as comparing Bezos to a Bond villain.

Van Bramer added that given the city’s crises in mass transit, public housing and infrastructure, the $3 billion should have been used to fix many of the city’s problems. Earlier that day, the councilman said, residents of nearby Queensbridge Houses informed him they had no heat.

“There was never enough money for that,” Van Bramer said. “But when Jeff Bezos needed $3 billion, the governor and the mayor found it sure damn quick.”

Gianaris, who has also been vocal against the deal, said the city and state should be embarrassed by the agreement. He vowed to do everything in his power to block it from moving forward, including taking it to court or through legislation.

The state senator said Long Island City still faces many infrastructure issues. The 7 line is so crowded that during the morning rush commuters at the Vernon-Jackson stop have to wait on the sidewalk.

Parents from Court Square and Hunters Point are fighting over limited kindergarten seats, and rents in the neighborhood are “going through the roof.”

According to reports, speculators have already started buying up apartments by text message.

“Take that welcome mat that was rolled out for you, put it back in the package it came in and send it back to Seattle where it belongs,” he said. “We are not giving up until we scuttle this deal, scrap it, throw it in the garbage and start the conversation all over again.”

In addition to the considerable tax breaks, officials expressed outrage that the deal doesn’t have to go through any true public review process.

Ordinarily, land use changes would have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), which gives the community board and borough president the ability to hold hearings, before a final vote by the City Council.

Instead, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to run the Amazon deal through the state General Planning Plan (GPP), which requires an environmental review, but public input would only be advisory.

It remains to be seen if the Public Authorities Control Board, which reviews state grants, would need to approve the deal, according to reports.

“Why didn’t they go through the ULURP process?” asked assemblywoman-elect Catalina Cruz. “Because it’s not good for us.”

“A sidewalk cafe will get more public review than this Amazon deal,” added Councilman Stephen Levin of north Brooklyn.

In a statement, Speaker Corey Johnson said he found the lack of engagement and exclusion of the City Council from the negotiations “extremely troubling.”

“When the process is done behind closed doors, with zero community input and nearly $2 billion in subsidies to a global behemoth, I am going to be skeptical,” he said. “For now, all I can say is I am very concerned.”

Community groups and unions who participated in the rally focused on Amazon’s history of treating workers poorly and the effect their presence has on the real estate market.

Maritza Silva Farrell, executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), said Amazon has not proven to be a trustworthy actor.

“They have destroyed communities across the country,” she said. “We’ve seen what happened in Seattle with the housing crisis there.”

“Today is a horrible day to be a tenant struggling to make rent in Long Island City,” added Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “Not only is this going to affect the immediate neighborhood of Long Island City, but look at neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Flushing right next door.”

Westin noted that when Seattle’s City Council tried to pass a tax to help house the homeless, Amazon “fought back and defeated” the measure.

“That is what Amazon is contributing in our communities,” he said. “We don’t need them here without subsidies, and we definitely don’t need them here with $3 billion in subsidies.”

Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, said Amazon’s “empire” has destroyed small businesses and jobs, leading to boarded-up storefronts. She also said Amazon has sold facial recognition technology to ICE, which has frightened immigrant communities.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union also spoke out against Amazon’s arrival in Long Island City. Camille Rivera, the union’s national political director, accused the e-commerce company of having a “shady history of treating its workers poorly.”

That doesn’t just include its high-tech workers, but also low-wage workers as well, she said.

Some local activists also attended the rally, but did not appear on board with the elected officials leading the charge against Amazon.

They brought up the 2017 letter than dozens of the city’s officials, including many who spoke at the rally, signed prior to the deal, urging the company to considert New York for its second headquarters.

Kallos explained that he only signed thinking it was the “start of a conversation” about Amazon coming to New York City. Other officials said if they had known there would be billions of subsidies behind the deal, they would have never given their signature.

Jonathan Bailey, a Woodside resident and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), said the rally was all “smoke and mirrors.”

“For those of us who are activists, socialists, it’s our responsibility to not allow that kind of deception,” he said.

Bailey said his neighborhood of Woodside is “so fantastic,” and predicted that residents in nearby Sunnyside, Jackson Heights and Corona will also be impacted by the worsening gentrification.

Josselyn Atahualpa, a member of the group Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), said local leaders shouldn’t even negotiate to bring Amazon to the borough.

“If any one group makes these concessions, we’re all going to fall down,” she said. “We want it out of here.”

She pledged to “make their lives impossible,” and urged other anti-gentrification groups to join them in opposition.

“We’re going to do this by any and all means,” Atahualpa said.
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