National News

Can New York City’s Mayor Be an Amazon Booster and Still Be Progressive?

Posted November 16, 2018 5:45 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — For parts of his tenure, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been criticized for straying from his progressive roots, with some of his loyal supporters accusing him of failing to deliver on promises to help the homeless, or advance criminal justice reforms.

Those grumblings turned into a full-throated roar this week, with the mayor’s enthusiastic backing of a billion-dollar incentive deal to bring Amazon to Long Island City, Queens.

How could the liberal mayor of New York City who vowed to end the “tale of two cities” — one rich, the other poor — support this sort of development?

The short answer, said some real estate developers and former political aides, is that he almost always has.

When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pushed forward a contentious plan to build taller buildings along a thoroughfare in brownstone Brooklyn, he found support from de Blasio, then the local councilman.

De Blasio also backed Bloomberg’s development over Atlantic Yards, a project that spawned years of loud battles, court fights and drew active neighborhood opposition.

“He really seemed unmovable in his support for it,” said Eric McClure, a Park Slope neighborhood activist who met with de Blasio in 2005 and presented thousands of signatures opposing the project. He failed to change de Blasio’s mind.

The mayor’s stance on Amazon is even more firm.

“I get the angst, I get the questions,” de Blasio said in an interview Thursday, but blocking it would be a “huge mistake.”

“I think this deal should be respected because of all it would bring,” the mayor said, pointing to the “staggering” number of jobs involved — some 25,000 or more when Amazon is fully moved in to Long Island City.

The cost in city and state tax incentives and a state grant would total roughly $3 billion, a figure cited Thursday by Howard Zemsky, head of the state’s economic development arm.

Yet de Blasio’s positions on real estate development, including his efforts to rezone large areas of New York City, have often put him in direct conflict with his political base, and stretched the distance between his rhetoric and the reality of governing.

Advocates for the poor, who helped secure his re-election last year, still chafe at his housing plan, which critics say does not provide enough housing for the poorest New Yorkers.

Several City Council members are pushing a bill that would require any rental housing project that receives taxpayer subsidies — such as tax abatements, loans, tax credits or reduced-cost land — to set aside 15 percent of its created or preserved units for people living in the city’s shelter system.

De Blasio’s housing policy calls for a 5 percent set-aside, and he has said he is strongly against increasing that number.

But the deal for Amazon, for some, was the last straw.

“I expected this mayor to be a stalwart of deeply income-targeted affordable housing,” said Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn councilman who is running to become the city’s public advocate. “Every day it’s something else. This Amazon deal took the cake for me.”

He added: “You give away $3 billion? $3 billion? To the richest man in America? For a company that will most likely come here anyway?”

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, fumed at Amazon and expressed friction with de Blasio. “The mayor is a great ally, but on this issue, we differ on whether or not Amazon belongs in New York,” he said.

Examples of de Blasio’s pro-development and pro-growth stance are numerous. As mayor, he supports a sprawling redevelopment project to be built over the Sunnyside rail yards in Queens, next to Long Island City; a public hearing was held last month.

He has advocated zoning changes in some areas of the city, such as East New York, Brooklyn, that could lead to large increases in density and the construction of both affordable and market-rate housing. He has also relied on the campaign contributions of developers.

Indeed, de Blasio’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen, is eager to increase the amount of building in New York City, believing along with the mayor that the key to providing more housing for low-income residents is to provide more housing for everyone — and then require some of it to be affordable. In her office, she has a photograph of a Shanghai skyline densely and haphazardly packed with apartment towers mixed with older structures — a caution about unplanned growth but also a vision of possibility.

It is an outlook that de Blasio has long embraced.

“We believe there is a type of development in communities that can be good, but it has to come with the public sector driving a hard bargain on behalf of the people,” de Blasio said Thursday.

At the same time, the mayor has also taken swipes at “greedy landlords” and has sought the support of community groups that oppose gentrification. That has landed him in trouble when he has tried to pass zoning changes because opponents perceive that his rhetoric does not match his actions.

As one former city official observed: The people who have protested outside the home of Glen are also his base.

It also makes it easier for critics to paint him as hypocritical, with the Amazon deal in particular, because he has also railed against the retail giant, while defending small, locally owned stores.

“We were very surprised to see him sitting at that table at that press conference,” said Deborah Axt of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy organization that has backed de Blasio. “The subsidy package is disgusting. As details come out, we’re more and more depressed about it and outraged.”

She added that the deal “is absolutely not all on the mayor,” pointing out that he sat alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

But she said she was “substantially less surprised” by the governor. “Our sense is that the governor has long supported this kind of corporate giveaway,” she said.

De Blasio defended the city incentives, which could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, as available to any company and not tailor-made for Amazon. The company’s presence in the city was not in contrast with his efforts to reduce income inequality, he said, but would ultimately subsidize those plans and programs.

“There’s a whole left position that says you need development to help people achieve their potential,” he said, a tradition that stretches back to the time of Karl Marx. “A major international corporation has their own agenda,” de Blasio said. “Meanwhile the strongest city government in America is basically a European social democracy that somehow broke loose from the continent and came here.”

“Using the power of government,” he added, “we dictate the terms in as many ways as we can. And in this case, we did that.”