Elation and Anger Over Plan Costing New York More Than $1.7 Billion

Posted November 13, 2018 9:32 p.m. EST
Updated November 13, 2018 9:36 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — To attract Amazon, New York’s leaders agreed to remake plans for the Queens waterfront, move a distribution center for school lunches and provide a sweeping package of $1.7 billion in incentives from the state and hundreds of millions more from the city.

They even agreed to allow a helipad for Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive.

Under the plan, within 15 years the company could occupy as much as 8 million square feet of office space, the rough equivalent of three Empire State Buildings.

An image of what life will be like with the arrival of Amazon became clearer on Tuesday, even if many questions remain unanswered.

The company has agreed to follow city guidelines for the design of its outpost in Long Island City. But gone is the city’s vision of a mixed-use community filled with apartments, some of them for residents of more modest means. In its place will rise office buildings that will house 25,000 or more workers. The kayakers bobbing on the East River will now be joined by helicopters overhead.

In some quarters of Queens, opposition was quickly building.

“Ask not what we can do for Amazon. Ask what Amazon can do for us,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood.

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed relieved to be able to finally discuss the long-secret negotiation and appeared jovial on Tuesday as they spoke about the economic benefits.

Yes, it is among the state’s largest-ever incentive packages, the governor said, but the return on investment would be 9 to 1.

Yes, they were circumventing the usual land-use process and essentially eliminating any veto power by the City Council. But, de Blasio said, the project was so large, Amazon “needed a certain amount of certainty.”

The two Democrats, who have clashed on everything from the subway to how to handle a wayward deer, were all smiles as they shook hands. They congratulated the top executive from Amazon who had joined them, John Schoettler, a vice president for real estate. Together, they parried the many questions about the subsidies.

“Welcome to New York,” de Blasio said after the first skeptical question from a reporter to the Amazon representative.

“The New York City press corps: You can either do this, or you can go to the dentist,” the governor added.

The location of the new headquarters is now certain — around what is known as Anable Basin.

Amazon will take about 1 million square feet in the 50-story Citicorp building, long the only tower on the Long Island City skyline. City officials differed as to whether the company would decide to replace the large Citi sign atop the tower — visible from Manhattan — with a commanding Amazon logo.

James Patchett, the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said in a telephone interview that Amazon is not interested in a sign.

“They have signage on their Seattle building,” the deputy mayor for economic development, Alicia Glen, interjected during the same call. She added, of the Anable Basin location: “I’m guessing they’re going to call it Amazon Basin.”

Whatever signs or nicknames are given to the site, some Queens residents and many elected officials expressed anger that the costs — in crowded subways, rising home prices, strained sewers and actual state and city tax dollars — could far outweigh the benefits of at least 25,000 new workers, making an average of what the company said would be $150,000.

Local politicians were promising protests, objecting to the incentive package that could far exceed $2 billion, including existing city tax breaks.

Others, however, including local business and technology groups and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, praised the deal.

“Amazon’s decision to locate to Long Island City is an affirmation not only of N.Y.C.'s growing tech talent,” Bloomberg wrote on Twitter, “but also of all the investments — in housing, schools, parks, transportation and culture” made in Long Island City.

Amazon said in a statement that, as part of the deal, it would donate space on its campus for a tech startup incubator, artists, industrial businesses and a new school. It also said it would make investments in infrastructure and green space.

The company also offered another sweetener: $5 million for training and internship programs and a promise to participate in “job fairs and résumé workshops” at the nearby Queensbridge Houses, the county’s largest public housing development.

The ability of the governor and the mayor to work together was a key factor in persuading Amazon to split its new office space between Long Island City and the Washington suburb of Crystal City, Virginia.

“We’re both pragmatists,” de Blasio explained, adding that he and the governor spoke several times during the yearlong negotiation. The governor went on to praise the mayor’s new ferry system.

Indeed, as part of one tour of New York City this year, Amazon executives were taken around the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island — an innovation incubator and a legacy of Bloomberg’s tenure — and then to Long Island City, using the city’s ferry system.

At the moment, the site is little more than a series of low-slung buildings: a furniture warehouse, an armored car company, artist studios and a casual waterfront food spot, Anable Basin Sailing Bar and Grill. Some belong to the city; others belong to a private company, Plaxall.

“They should be allowed to build but they have to take into consideration the whole neighborhood,” said Veselko Buntic, who owns the grill and rents from Plaxall. “I don’t want to see somebody big come in and destroy the community feeling we have here.”

Richie Wissak, an owner of 55 Stan, a yellow cab company reminiscent of the 1970s television show “Taxi,” said he welcomed the arrival of Amazon. Next to the cab company was a shuttered strip club that Wissak said had been operating for 80 years and had only closed down six months ago.

“The community’s not going to dig it too much, but I think it’s going to be great for this area,” Wissak said of Amazon’s arrival.

Still, the agreement, reached behind closed doors and so far without local input, has angered officials.

Part of the reason is that, according to the broad contours of the plan, the state and the city will bypass the City Council, which has the power to block rezoning and land-use measures. They will instead employ a state-level process previously used for large-scale development projects, such as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan.

The price tag in city and state tax breaks appeared to exceed those of other projects. “It has the potential to be a deeper subsidy for Amazon as a percentage of the total project cost than at either Hudson Yards or Atlantic Yards,” said George Sweeting, the deputy director of the city’s nonpartisan Independent Budget Office.

The process being followed by the state and city left critics with few options to alter or derail the deal. But some have vowed to fight.

“We’re going to mobilize and protest and claim that democracy is still alive in Queens and in New York City and New York state,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the councilman whose district includes Long Island City. “It’s unacceptable and we’re going to fight.”

Opponents were planning to hold a demonstration on Wednesday in Long Island City.

Van Bramer and Gianaris were not always against the idea. In October 2017, they signed on to a letter, along with the Queens borough president and other elected leaders, imploring the company to come to Long Island City.

Asked about the letter on Monday, Van Bramer and Gianaris said they object to the steep subsidies offered the company.

“I welcome the jobs if it means Amazon investment in LIC infrastructure, without us having to pay a ransom for them to be here,” Gianaris said.

Cuomo insisted that it was a sound business deal.

“You have to spend money to make money,'’ he said in a telephone interview. “You’re betting on a winner.”