Amazon Courtship Drives Explosive Hearing at NYC Council

Protesters demonstrate on Dec. 12, 2018, as the New York City Council holds the first of several oversight hearings on plans by Amazon to bring half of its second headquarters to Long Island City, Queens. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – New York City councilmembers grilled city officials and Amazon representatives Wednesday in the first of several oversight hearings about the company’s plans to build half of its second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.

New York had been in the running as an Amazon “HQ2” city since 2017. But the deal that emerged last month came largely without the involvement of City Council and was negotiated in what the council says were backroom deals by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, without much if any public input.

“This hearing is atypical,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said as proceedings got underway today.

“City Council is typically deeply involved in the negotiations and has a real seat at the table,” he added. “That did not happen in this case.”

Wednesday’s HQ2 hearing in front of the Committee on Economic Development is expected to precede others involving the Committee on Finance, the Committee on Land Use and public testimony.

De Blasio appointee James Patchett, president and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, was on hand to testify and answer questions. He was joined by Lydia Downing, the group’s senior vice-president of government and community relations.

Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, and Holly Sullivan, who helped steer the company’s HQ2 negotiations, joined Patchett and Downing at the table.

As they raised their hands to be sworn in, shouts erupted from the balcony as protesters unfurled a blue banner that said “No to Amazon.” Using a colorful example of internet shorthand, the protesters chanted, “G-T-F-O, Amazon has got to go!” 

Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, addresses a crowd on Dec. 12, 2018, as the New York City Council holds the first of several oversight hearings on plans by Amazon to bring half of its second headquarters to Long Island City, Queens. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

On the steps of City Hall before the hearing meanwhile, Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse employees announced a plan to unionize, complaining of bad working conditions including long hours, overheated rooms and broken smoke detectors.

“Between my work schedule and my commute, I haven’t seen my daughter in weeks,” employee Rashad Long said at the press conference.

Inside, Huseman said, “We respect an employee’s right to choose” to unionize.

Patchett’s testimony focused on the need to soften the economic blow to the city of an inevitable future recession. When pushed about the $3 billion in incentives to Amazon, or on accusations the deal had overridden New York City’s public land-use procedures in favor of a state-steered process, Patchett wanted to talk about jobs. 

For example, Johnson asked Patchett if he thought Amazon was “receiving a benefit” by avoiding local oversight.

“I think what we were fundamentally focused on was getting the jobs here,” said Patchett.

“Whose interests do you feel like you represented?” Johnson asked later.

“One hundred percent the people of New York City,” Patchett responded, to loud laughter from the balcony.

“I am proud to testify today,” the EDC president continued. “I think we’ve seen that New Yorkers more than 2 to 1 believe that we did our job right.”

He was referring to a recent Quinnipiac University poll of New York voters that said 57 percent of New Yorkers — and 60 percent of Queens voters — approved of the planned Queens HQ2, while only 26 percent disapproved. Black New Yorkers on board with the program came in at 63 percent, close to the 65 percent of Hispanic New Yorkers, while white voters were least supportive of the deal. 

Make the Road New York has criticized the poll for only reaching registered voters, when nearly half of Queens residents are immigrants and many are noncitizens. 

The poll indicated New Yorkers were less supportive of the $3 billion in subsidies, and nearly 80 percent think New York City should be “more involved” with Amazon’s touchdown.

Protesters demonstrate on Dec. 12, 2018, as the New York City Council holds the first of several oversight hearings on plans by Amazon to bring half of its second headquarters to Long Island City, Queens. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

At Wednesday’s hearing, however, Johnson said Patchett was putting too much stock in the polling.

“You live by the poll and you die by the poll,” Johnson quipped. “The poll said Hillary Clinton was going to be president.”

Later, City Council deputy leader and Queens resident Jimmy Van Bramer also questioned Patchett about the finances of the deal he’d helped cut. Amazon is expected to collect $500 million in capital grants in exchange for job creation. Van Bramer asked Patchett if de Blasio supported that use of funds.

“We feel very good about the deal that we negotiated,” Patchett said.

“Do you support the $500 million capital grant … to support the richest man in the world to build his headquarters here?” Van Bramer pressed.

“We support the state’s partnership to bring Amazon to New York City,” Patchett said.

A few minutes later, Van Bramer asked both Patchett and Huseman if Amazon would be willing to forego the $500 million and redirect all of that money to public housing projects in Queens.

“So we’re going to create jobs here in the city,” Huseman said, to exclamations in the gallery. Later, he explained that about half the jobs would be technical and half nontechnical; Sullivan said the company would hire 2,000 to 3,000 workers in New York on an annual basis.  

Much of the focus of the hearing was on land use and subsidies.

“If you’re worth a trillion dollars,” said Johnson at one point to Huseman, “why do you need our $3 billion?”

He repeated the question several times, citing New York’s “crumbling subways, crumbling public housing” and other problems such as crowded schools. He was nearly drowned out by clapping and cheers in the chambers.

“We believe this project will be a positive economic impact for the city and the state,” Huseman responded, again emphasizing the company’s plans for job creation.

Van Bramer later pointed out that Amazon’s presence would cost the city money, too, requiring an increase in transportation infrastructure, a need for new schools, and more police and firefighters. Patchett said he did not yet have those kinds of cost estimates.

Later, Van Bramer followed up.

“Did you need the $3 billion in order to come to New York?” he asked.

“Talent was the primary driver for our decision,” said Amazon’s Sullivan. “Incentives were certainly a part of that process.”

As the New York City Council held the first of several oversight hearings on plans by Amazon to bring half of its second headquarters to Long Island City, Queens, protesters displayed these doctored Amazon boxes in a demonstration outside City Hall on Dec. 12, 2018. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

The Amazon executives, whose company will touch down in a city with one of the largest foreign-born populations in the country, also touted what they said was Amazon’s track record advocating for immigrants, on behalf of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.

But Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander and Johnson both pressed Huseman on Amazon’s efforts to provide its facial recognition technology to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers.

“We believe the government should have the best available technology,” Huseman said.

Queens Councilman Peter Koo summed up much of Wednesday’s sentiment about Amazon when he took the microphone.

“You’re the company people love to hate,” he said.  

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