The biggest story of 2018 for Queens is one that will shape the conversation on the role of government in attracting businesses to the borough and their impact on affordability in a city known for its high cost of living. After more than a year of examining more than a dozen cities for its second headquarters, Amazon split its choice between Long Island City and Arlington, Virginia, with each site expected to create 25,000 jobs.
“We are excited to build new headquarters in New York City and Northern Virginia,” said Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. “These two locations will allow us to attract world-class talent that will help us to continue inventing for customers for years to come.”
Much of the effort to bring Amazon to New York resulted from negotiations by Governor Andrew Cuomo that offered $1.5 billion in incentives that includes $1.2 billion in tax credits and a cash grant of $325 million. He defended the deal arguing that the money is conditional on performance, namely the creation of jobs. “The revenue-to-incentive ratio is 9-to-1. That is the highest rate of return for an economic incentive program that the state has ever offered,” Cuomo said in an interview with the Washington Post. In a rare show of agreement, Mayor Bill de Blasio shared the lectern with Cuomo, expressing his support for Amazon’s headquarters in Queens. “In New York City, we measure success by how many everyday New Yorkers benefit; and Amazon’s #HQ2 will bring us $13.5 billion in tax revenue and as many as 40,000 new jobs – the biggest move of new jobs to our city in our history,” he tweeted.
But for other local elected officials, the exclusion of the City Council and state legislature from the process felt like the voice of the public was being bypassed. In a joint statement, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris protested the incentives offered to Amazon. “If public reports about this deal prove true, we cannot support a giveaway of this magnitude, a process that circumvents community review,” they wrote. “Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong.”
Assemblyman Ron Kim of Flushing argued that if a giant like Amazon can be given tax breaks, the state can also boost the economy by subsidizing student loan forgiveness. Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that with so much money being spent on giving Amazon its waterfront office complex, more money needs to be spent on infrastructure, including transportation.
But among those working in computer programming, the arrival of Amazon is good news. “It means more technology jobs in New York and I’m sure that every college, including Queens College, would love to see its students intern there and its graduates working at Amazon,” said Kew Gardens Hills resident Michael Perlman, who works as a software developer.
For Jewish residents of Long Island City, the arrival of Amazon would mean more Jewish life in the neighborhood. “It would mean more people attending programs at Chabad of Long Island City,” said Zelig Krymko, a teacher. “With more jobs being created, the community and the city stand to benefit.” But his friend Yossi Cohen, who lives in Astoria and works in finance, expressed concern that already sky-high rents will climb to astronomic amounts. “I live on Ditmars Boulevard, and soon you won’t find any apartment here lower than $2,000 a month.”
In contrast to Seattle, where Amazon built its first headquarters, New York is a city of many industries and already has a sizable tech sector that includes local offices for Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Across the East River from the planned Amazon office is Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island.
Queens was once famous for making things and being the nerve center for world-famous brands: Ronzoni pasta, Swingline staplers, Bulova watches. Faced with the choice between an Amazon headquarters and the likelihood of more overpriced glass box condo towers, Queens would be better off with Amazon. Transportation concerns such as the overcrowded subways and congested streets will work themselves out. The state can add extra transportation options with a Long Island Railroad station at Sunnyside Yard, and more service on its Montauk Branch terminating in Long Island City. The city can add bus lanes, and increase ferry service. But one shouldn’t expect workers to drive to an area where there is no parking, and once the subway reaches peak capacity, if it has not already, Amazon may pitch in with a shuttle bus for its employees. If B&H can do it with a bus picking up its workers from Kew Gardens Hills, certainly Amazon can, as well.
By Sergey Kadinsky