Amazon got a healthy dose of New York brashness Wednesday as city councilmembers grilled company executives and their economic development partners over the plan to build a 25,000-person office in Queens.
Amazon’s appetite for incentives was a key concern raised by the Council, along with frustration over the bid’s lack of transparency and the bypassing of the traditional land-use process. Total incentives from New York City and the state could amount to $3 billion.
“You’re worth a trillion dollars,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, citing the company’s massive market value. “Why do you need our 3 billion dollars when we have crumbling subways, crumbling public housing, people without healthcare, public schools that are overcrowded?”
The Council pulled no punches during several hours of questioning that covered everything from Amazon’s facial recognition technology to its head tax battle in Seattle. But the focus of the meeting was Amazon HQ2, the search for a second headquarters launched by the company more than a year ago.
In November, Amazon announced plans to split the headquarters between New York and the Washington D.C. area, ending a remarkable competition that had cities bidding against one another with government subsidies to lure the tech giant.
“We got played,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Three billion dollars we’re giving away and we’re avoiding the public review process and giving away public land. I don’t look at it as a competition. They were able to pit city after city against each other to see who would give them the best deal in corporate welfare to a trillion dollar company.”
Amazon public policy and economic development executives Brian Huseman and Holly Sears Sullivan fielded the questions. With help from New York City Economic Development Corporation CEO James Patchett, they made the case for the job creation and community benefits the company says the project will bring.
“We want to give back to the community and we want our employees to become a part of the fabric of our new Long Island City neighborhood,” Huseman said.
Many on the Council were not convinced. “I recommend the panel increase the fiber in your diet to help out with some of the stuff that I’ve heard here today,” said Councilmember Jumaane Williams.
Despite the tough talk, the deal doesn’t need approval from the New York City Council to go through. The state’s Public Authorities Control Board does have the authority to block the project but the governor’s office has indicated that it may go around the board.
It was clear from Wednesday’s meeting that New York officials have studied the complicated relationship Amazon has with its hometown, Seattle. Amazon’s rapid growth has put a strain on Seattle’s housing and infrastructure and the tech giant has resisted some of the city’s efforts to mitigate those growing pains.
“We’re obviously aware of the challenges that Seattle has faced with the growth of Amazon which were, frankly, unanticipated,” Patchett said. “I don’t think Amazon even knew the degree to which they were going to grow when they came to Seattle. The advantage here is we have the ability to plan in advance.”
But Councilmember Brad Lander is concerned by the strongarm approach Amazon has taken in response to the Seattle City Council, particularly when fighting a short-lived “head tax” on big employers that would have raised money for homeless services and housing.
“We have the capacity to manage the growth that 25,000 jobs would represent and to do what’s necessary to share them fairly but we can only do that if we’ve got a strong local democracy,” he said. Lander later added, “How can we possibly believe that Amazon will not continue to abuse its monopoly power to erode our democratic capacity to govern our city?”
Lander and others on the Council are working on legislation that would prevent New York City officials from signing non-disclosure agreements like those involved in the Amazon deal. The goal is to avoid opaque economic development agreements going forward.
Although the deal appears likely to go through, Amazon has launched a charm offensive to mitigate the backlash from New Yorkers. The company hired SKDKnickerbocker, a public relations firm that has worked on high-profile political campaigns to get New Yorkers on board with the project.
New Yorkers are split on the merits of the deal. Most of the Council showed up Wednesday to express frustration over Amazon’s plans, a sentiment echoed by many of their vocal constituents. But a poll by Quinnipiac University released last week showed 57 percent of registered New York City voters approve of the deal.