On Tuesday afternoon, as New Yorkers continued to process the news of Amazon's coming takeover of Long Island City, and the billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives dispensed for the privilege, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio held a rare joint news conference in Manhattan. The mood was ebullient, with the two Democrats gushing over what they say is the largest economic development project in New York history. But their moment of unified triumph stood in sharp ideological contrast to the reaction of the city's progressive politicians, community advocates, and residents.
Throughout the briefing, both governor and mayor insisted that the arrival of Amazon's so-called HQ2 should only be viewed as a positive for New York. "This is a big money maker for us," said Cuomo. "It costs nothing—nada, niente, goose egg—we make money doing this. To get Amazon did we have to win the competition? Yes. We had to win the competition."
Cuomo following up the Buffalo Billions corruption scandal by giving $1 billion to Amazon oligarch Jeff Bezos is almost too on the nose, even for the Dickensian parable that is New York politics.
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) November 13, 2018
When asked about the justification for offering $1.5 billion in state subsidies to a company owned by the world's richest man, Cuomo said there was no choice but to play by Amazon's rules in order to beat out the 54 other states vying for the headquarters. Such is the competitive spirit of New Yorkers, he noted, and also the late Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee.
"Excelsior is the state motto. I've been trying to introduce it to the younger generation. It says everything," Cuomo explained. "Ever upward. Excelsior. Ever upward. Ever upward is aspirational. That's what New York is all about. And that's what Stan Lee meant when he signed off Excelsior. And today is an ever upward day." The governor went on to compare reporters to dentists who operate without anesthesia, and then abruptly left the dais.
The mayor, at least, hung around a bit longer. While he has previously decried economic subsidies as "corporate welfare," de Blasio told reporters he was comfortable with the arrangement because it would bring an "unprecedented" 25,000 jobs to the city. Asked whether he was worried that the massive influx of tech workers might have negative impacts on working-class New Yorkers—as has been the case in both San Francisco and Seattle—the mayor explained that's only a problem in cities "that don't have substantial affordable housing."
A Tale of Two Progressives pic.twitter.com/uOykqQiHyO
— Eliza Shapiro (@elizashapiro) November 13, 2018
As the mayor sees it, Long Island City's inevitable transformation will be in service of an economy "that leaves no one behind"—a group that he believes will include the more than 6,000 NYCHA tenants whose Queensbridge apartments will soon neighbor Amazon's sprawling campus. "One of the biggest companies on earth next to the largest public housing unit in the country—the synergy is going to be extraordinary," the mayor said. "We're going to get a lot done together."
The mayor emphasized that Amazon has pledged to hold job fairs, but said that none of the promised positions will be guaranteed to public housing tenants or any other local residents, for legal reasons. All residents, however, may soon have access to shuttle buses that will make it easier to access the mayor's ferry system, which also happens to be on the receiving end of a controversial subsidy.
Low key moment that says it all from today's Amazon press conference: member of the press asked Cuomo what would be done about transit in Long Island City, he handed the question off to the Mayor, who mostly talked about ferries.
— Aaron W. Gordon (@A_W_Gordon) November 13, 2018
In terms of other potential neighborhood benefits, the company has agreed to "payments in lieu of taxes,” or PILOTs, ostensibly equal to the property tax they would've otherwise paid. But only half of those PILOTs will wind up in the city's general fund. The other half, about $300,000 a year, will go toward an "infrastructure fund" dedicated to transit and other improvements in Long Island City, de Blasio said.
Several times throughout Tuesday's briefing, the mayor assured reporters that the fund did not qualify as a corporate subsidy, because the money would be used to benefit the neighborhood as a whole, rather than just Amazon workers. Government watchdog groups say that claim is misleading.
"You're supercharging the redevelopment of that area by showering it with additional infrastructure funds in expense of everything else the city might spend that money on," said Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First. "It's absolutely a subsidy."
Moreover, LeRoy warned that there were likely other hidden subsidies—including a city relocation incentive worth up to nearly $1 billion—that were not included in the initial presentation to the public. "We don't think all the costs have been accounted for," he told Gothamist. "Our mission right now is to make sure the books aren't cooked on the cost-benefit analysis."