From the moment Amazon announced its plan to build a massive corporate campus in the rapidly gentrifying Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, the lawmakers responsible for the deal — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the latter of whom jokingly offered to change his name to “Amazon Cuomo” — went to great lengths to explain how Amazon’s presence in the city would be a boon for all New Yorkers.
“This is a giant step on our path to building an economy in New York City that leaves no one behind,” de Blasio said in November, when the deal was first announced.
Now the deal is dead. Amazon still plans on building its other new corporate campus in Crystal City, Virginia, as well as a “hub of operations” in Nashville, Tennessee, two cities that welcomed the e-commerce company with open arms. But Amazon confirmed it would no longer be building the Queens campus, part of a plan known as HQ2, soon after the New York Times broke the news on Thursday, citing opposition from local lawmakers as evidence that the company had no way of building “the types of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”
Some New Yorkers, particularly the many community groups who opposed the deal from the outset, were so elated they threw a late-night block party in celebration, complete with a mariachi band. Others were less pleased. Real estate developers who had bet that Amazon’s presence in Long Island City would drive up rents were stunned, the Wall Street Journal reported. David Lichtenstein, founder of the real estate company the Lightstone Group, reportedly called Amazon’s decision to back out the “worst day for NYC since 9/11.”
The day after Amazon said it was scrapping its plans to open a Queens tech hub, I went to Long Island City to ask residents and business owners how they felt about the company’s decision.
Shawn Dixon, owner of the Long Island City barbershop Otis & Finn, told me he was surprised Amazon pulled out of the deal without trying to negotiate. Dixon and two friends attended the first anti-HQ2 protest in November with a sign encouraging Amazon to pay its fair share of taxes and support local businesses or else “stay the helipad out!” — a reference to the helipad CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly requested as part of his deal with the city.
“The thing is, I actually wanted there to be a deal,” Dixon said, “but not the deal that was on the table. We thought we could get to a fair deal. I’m disappointed in the way the deal was brought about behind closed doors. I’m disappointed that Amazon didn’t come to the table. If them playing this all-or-nothing game foreshadowed how they’d be as neighbors, then [Amazon deciding not to come to Queens] is the best thing for everybody.”
One good thing about Amazon’s decision to come to New York, Dixon added, was that it brought attention to longstanding problems residents and business owners in Long Island City faced, chiefly rapidly rising rents for residential and retail renters alike. “Long Island City is a real estate bubble — everybody is sitting on these empty storefronts and they don’t want to lease anybody because they’re waiting for [speculators] to pay tens of millions of dollars for this land,” he said. “Landlords don’t want to give long-term leases because they want developers to come in and buy them up.”
Jorge Centeno, whose father owns the nearby LM Cafe, said Amazon’s presence in the neighborhood would have been good for business — but, he added, it would have likely raised rents for locals who would then be pushed out of the area. “It’s disappointing for us, but on a collective level I think it’s best that they didn’t open [an office here],” he said. “It would have been a domino effect.”
“The mayor should have done a better job of talking to Amazon about the problems that were going to exist — New York isn’t the kind of city where you can throw something down the throat of a community,” said Jason Haber, a broker at the luxury real estate firm Warburg Realty. “This was all done behind closed doors — there were no stakeholders that would have been opposed to it that were brought into the process.” But, he added, the city and state were right to give Amazon subsidies. He said that otherwise, it’s likely that the company would have chosen another city.
“There are really two sides to the coin,” Justin Farman, a Long Island resident who commutes to Queens every day, told me. “It could have been very beneficial, but it’s not like [the people who opposed Amazon coming to Queens] pulled their points out of thin air, you know? They were valid.”
Farman said he was initially wary of Amazon’s plans to expand its presence in New York City — “I was under the impression that it would cause more traffic and it would get a lot more congested here than it’s already getting,” he said — but then realized “it would bring a lot of jobs here and could probably bring a lot of money in for the city.” Amazon had repeatedly claimed it would hire 25,000 employees for its Queens campus over the next 10 years. Now, Farman said, those jobs would never materialize.
Although he sympathized with those who opposed Amazon’s presence in the city, and agreed that the $3 billion in subsidies and financial incentives the e-commerce giant would receive from the city and state were “a bit crazy,” Farman said it was “shocking” to him that progressive groups flat-out opposed Amazon, and added that its presence in Queens could have been a boon to low-income people in the area, especially tenants of the nearby Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the community.
But Queensbridge residents, too, have mixed feelings on the matter.
Back when the deal was still on, a coalition of Amazon supporters that included April Simpson, president of the Queensbridge Houses Tenant Association, staged a pro-Amazon rally to counter the anti-HQ2 protests that had been going on for months. “We’ve been representing the community for years, so what makes you think we ain’t going to represent them today with Amazon?” Simpson said at the rally, less than a week before Amazon pulled out of the deal.
Louise McMillon, who lives in the nearby neighborhood of Astoria and works as a home health aide during the day, told me she was disappointed Amazon was no longer coming to Queens.
“I was looking forward to getting a night job there, but then I found out on the news that they’re not coming here,” she said, adding that she didn’t know much about the deal but had heard that only a few dozen jobs would be slated for public housing residents.
Barby, a Queensbridge Houses resident who asked to only be identified by her first name, said she had signed an anti-HQ2 petition because the company did not seem invested in her community. “I live in the projects and they weren’t really going to help us, from what I understand,” she said. “However, it would’ve been good for people that need jobs — if they would’ve given us jobs.”
After months of heated debate about whether Amazon’s presence would help or harm New Yorkers, Amazon is no longer coming to town. Public opinion toward Amazon’s decision to back out of the New York deal is just as varied as the reaction to the news that Amazon planned to build an office in the city in the first place.
The HQ2 deal was so opaque that it was easy to point fingers in all directions, for some critics to blame the city while others blamed the state. Still others claimed Amazon’s opponents were willfully misrepresenting the facts. No one seems to agree on whether this is good or bad news for the city — and, more crucially, no one seems to agree on who to blame for the deal falling apart.