In the days since Amazon dropped its plans to build a corporate campus in Queens, the company has met with increased opposition to its planned expansion in Virginia, led by activists and community residents who say they’re galvanized by their counterparts in New York, and even working with them.
“What happened in New York was a great thing,” said Evelin Urrutia, the executive director of the Alexandria, Virginia based Tenants and Workers United. “It gave us hope.”
The issues driving the For Us, Not Amazon campaign in Northern Virginia are broadly similar to those that united opponents in Queens: concerns about gentrification and displacement as well as Amazon’s business ties to ICE and what that means for immigrant communities.
The impact on residents of Northern Virginia is an open debate. While one report, from the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University’s Schar School of Government, said the effect on local home prices and rents would be “dispersed and gradual,” a competing report issued by New Virginia Majority argued that Amazon’s expansion would result in “mass displacement of nearby low-income communities of color in Alexandria and Arlington.”
The authors estimated that 3,000 apartment units in the area can expect “significant rental increase as Amazon grows its presence,” and noted that home prices in Seattle near Amazon’s headquarters have risen by 350 percent since 2012, resulting in “massive displacement of African American residents.”
Jon Liss, a co-author of the New Virginia Majority report, said that in the wake of what happened in Queens, “there is new momentum about challenging” Amazon’s Virginia expansion, namely in terms of local incentives. These include $23 million in incentives from Arlington County. A vote on that package was originally set for this month but has been pushed to March under community pressure.
In addition, the state of Virginia is offering up to $750 million in incentives, depending on how many jobs Amazon creates locally. On a per-job basis, that works out to less than half of what New York was willing to offer the company. According to Amazon, the "National Landing" campus would comprise 4.1 million square feet of office space in Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard, just outside of Washington DC. The plan also accommodates upwards of 25,000 employees as well as retail and entertainment.
Danny Cendejas, an organizer with La ColectiVA, called Amazon’s withdrawal from Queens “a victory for all communities of color” and noted that “the vast majority of people” his group has engaged with in Virginia are either opposed to the deal or want a greater say in the process.
In recent weeks, his organization had been in direct contact with groups in New York, including DRUM, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and New York Communities for Change, all of which vigorously fought Amazon.
“Having a sense of the way that folks organized around these issues and support community members is really helpful,” Cendejas said.
Fahd Ahmed, the executive director of DRUM, which represents South Asian immigrants in Jackson Heights, said “It does seem like the success of New York to win what seemed like an impossible fight has opened up the possibilities” in both Virginia and Nashville, where Amazon is also planning to expand.
Thursday night, Amazon officials attempted to address concerns and the lessons of New York at an event organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. While members of the public were not invited, WJLA noted that they could watch the discussion and ask questions online.
Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s Head of Worldwide Economic Development, told the audience that the company was serious about “community engagement” but was moving forward with the project.
“I think the first thing I want to say is nothing will change for Virginia,” said Sullivan. “We are committed to the 25,000 jobs here in Arlington.”
Parker Nolen, a government contractor in Arlington who lives across the site from the proposed HQ2 site, attended a community meeting earlier this week and was inspired by the turnout, which he estimated at “over 100 people and every network affiliate and local radio affiliate covering it. All of that has happened, and it’s in the span of a week.”
“The level of awareness had been so low for so long about this project,” said Nolen. “I think that New York’s action has certainly created a catalyst for us to pay more attention to this.”
Nolen said his landlord proposed a 15 percent rent increase after he’d occupied the apartment for just one year. Although he managed to negotiate the hike down, Nolen said many of his neighbors “have been walloped with huge increases.”
“And the Amazon employees aren’t even here yet.”
Although opponents are sounding encouraged, many are quick to point out the differences between Northern Virginia and New York City. For one, there aren’t nearly as many activists organizing communities in Virginia. Labor has a much smaller presence and much less political clout. And elected officials in Virginia have been largely reluctant to challenge Amazon. There is certainly no one of the stature of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tweet out critiques of the company.
“New Yorkers, they did have support from politicians,” said Urrutia.
Still, organizers in New York are happy to see a national conversation on corporate subsidies and gentrification. If nothing else, said Sasha Wijeyaratne, the executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, the pushback to Amazon demonstrates that there isn’t an “inevitability” to these deals.
“Organizing within communities can make a difference,” she said.