Packing Its Bags, Amazon Abandons Plan for New York HQ

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)

QUEENS, N.Y. (CN) — In a Valentine’s Day breakup for the books, Amazon pulled the plug Thursday on its embattled plan to build a headquarters in New York, citing opposition from local politicians.

The popular online retailer said it has no plans to look for another location but will continue growing existing offices in Arlington, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee.

“After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens,” the company said today in a statement.

For the past several months, Amazon had faced massive protests and regulatory pushback over its plans to build in New York, which had promised the company $3 billion in tax incentives in return for its business. 

Though the incentives seem consistent with what another large company would receive in the city, Amazon faced pushback in particular because of its status as the world’s largest online retailer. Founder Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world, with a net worth of about $135 billion. 

The issue has fiercely polarized New Yorkers, particularly New York Democrats. Last week, two Amazon officials told the Washington Post the company was reconsidering the Queens location because of local opposition.

Negotiations had been fraught from the start: In a rare show of teamwork by the two Democrats, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and state Governor Andrew Cuomo embarked on a quiet negotiation process with Amazon without the involvement of New York City Council.

Led by Democratic Speaker Corey Johnson, the City Council volleyed in early 2019 with a series of oversight hearings that put Amazon executives in the hot seat. A third hearing was set for Feb. 27.

Proponents for the deal did little to show or prove how it could benefit the community, city and state, while the minority protesters — including union leaders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens, were loud and well-organized.

At the first City Council oversight hearing, employees of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse announced plans to unionize, citing poor working conditions and long hours. During the hearings, Amazon reps refused to agree to neutrality.

“New Yorkers made it clear Amazon wasn’t welcome in our city if it would not respect our workers and our communities,” George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16, said in a statement Thursday. “Apparently, the company decided that was too much to ask.”

Jimmy Van Bramer, the council member representing the Queens neighborhoods of Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria and Dutch Kills, made similar remarks at the most recent hearing. “It’s a union-busting deal from the beginning,” he said.

Van Bramer criticized Amazon for throwing around the figure that the new headquarters would bring 40,000 jobs, while only setting aside 30 customer-service jobs at the offset for New Yorkers who get housing subsidies.

On Twitter today, Van Bramer celebrated Amazon’s announcement.

“Defeating an anti-union corporation that mistreats workers and assists ICE in terrorizing immigrant communities is a victory,” he wrote. “Defeating an unprecedented act of corporate welfare is a triumph that should change the way we do economic development deals in our city & state forever.”

State Senate Deputy Leader Mike Gianaris, who represents Long Island City in Albany and also opposed the deal, had started using the hashtag #Scamazon on Twitter. Earlier this month he was recommended to an obscure state board that could have reviewed and possibly blocked the project. 

“Today’s behavior by Amazon shows why they would have been a bad partner for New York in any event,” Gianaris said in a statement. “Rather than seriously engage with the community they proposed to profoundly change, Amazon continued its effort to shakedown governments to get its way.”

The office of Cuomo, who famously labeled himself “Amazon Cuomo” in November, criticized lawmakers Thursday for torpedoing the deal.

“The New York state Senate has done tremendous damage,” Cuomo said in a statement. “They should be held accountable for this lost economic opportunity.”

Other politicians lamented the opportunities lost for the city.

“Disappointed that NYC won’t be home to 25K+ new jobs from HQ2 & that LIC will lose out on infrastructure improvements that would have accompanied this project,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat. “This is not the Valentine that NY needed.” 

Maloney represents New York’s 12th District, which includes Long Island City. 

“The deal could have been improved,” she continued. “There were legitimate concerns raised and aspects that I wanted changed. I was ready to work for those changes. But now, we won’t have a chance to do that and we are out 25K+ new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments.”

Mayor de Blasio also expressed disappointment in a statement Thursday.

“We gave Amazon the opportunity to be a good neighbor and do business in the greatest city in the world,” he said. “Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity.” 

Another issue that riled protesters was the refusal by Amazon executives to say whether the company would refuse to provide facial-recognition software to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Amazon statement continues:

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”

Polls do show broad support for bringing Amazon to Queens, but polling methods have been criticized and opponents of the deal, though in the minority, have been loud and vehement.

A Siena College poll released this week showed 56 percent of New Yorkers approved of bringing Amazon to Queens, while 36 percent disapproved.

City-dwellers supported the plan to the tune of about 58 percent, but white voters had been skeptical: 70 percent of black residents and 81 percent of Latinos polled were pulling for HQ2, while just 51 percent of white voters were in favor. 

A December Quinnipiac University poll of New York voters revealed similar majorities: it found 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.

Voters were less sure about the incentives their state offered the global behemoth, and 79 percent said the city should be more involved in bringing HQ2 to Queens. 

The polls have been criticized for surveying only registered voters. Queens boasts a robust immigrant community: nearly half of its residents are immigrants, including many who are undocumented.

At the first Amazon City Council hearing, Speaker Corey Johnson told de Blasio appointee James Patchett of the city’s Economic Development Corporation that he was putting too much stock in the polls.

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

Both hearings were marred by protesters, who heckled and hissed inside City Hall chambers and demonstrated outside against working conditions at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has been sharply critical of the deal, said in a statement Thursday:

“I look forward to working with companies that understand that if you’re willing to engage with New Yorkers and work through challenging issues New York City is the world’s best place to do business. … I know I’d choose mass transit over helipads any day.”

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