Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Amazon is coming! Amazon is coming! — and New Yorkers are welcoming their robot overlords with clenched fists and a nasty snarl. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, newly empowered members of the Democratic legislature in Albany, the just-elected congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are all competing to see who can heap more scorn on the deal. The reactions come in various shades of negativity: shock at the size of the gift that the city and the Empire State are bestowing on an imperial company; contempt for the company’s warehouse-labor policies; anger about Amazon’s extortionate campaign to pit cities against each other; rage that Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who never agree on anything, got together to fill a secret loot bag for Jeff Bezos; fear that Queens real estate prices will launch into the stratosphere; anxiety that the move will flood the area with more people and money than it can comfortably absorb. There’s an apocalyptic tone to some of these complaints, a lurking sense that Amazon will scrub away what’s left to love about New York and send it into a death spiral of affluence.
It’s important to separate the deal, which stinks, from the long-term effects, which don’t. At bottom, this is not a fight over taxes, but a debate over what Amazon represents for our metropolitan future. And if you think that one company can single-handedly own, save, or ravage the city, then you underestimate New York.
Opponents are wise to suspect that Amazon’s lawyers out-negotiated ours and walked out of the meeting rooms exchanging glances of incredulous glee. The process was secretive and sleazy because our democratic leaders don’t trust our democratic process. There’s a reason for that. Most projects this big have to wade through years — decades! — of lawsuits, hearings, meetings, votes, more lawsuits, appeals, renegotiations, and yet more lawsuits, all of which can dramatically increase costs, kill good ideas, and turn bad ones worse. Democracy is a messy potholed road, but it’s what we’ve got, and Amazon should not get squired into the city through a separate VIP entrance.
The numbers are big. Amazon plans to spend $3.7 billion to build 4 to 8 million square feet of office space — the equivalent of One World Trade Center two or three times over — for 25,000 workers in ten years, and possibly another 15,000 in the following five years. The state will kick in up to $505 million toward construction and forgo $1.2 billion in taxes. The city is ponying up another $1.3 billion in incentives, mostly in the form of tax breaks that apply to any company (not just Amazon) that moves jobs into the five boroughs. Faced with these immensities, opponents zeroed in on tiny, more comprehensible piece of the deal, and got it wrong anyway. Taxpayers would be buying Jeff Bezos a helipad!, some outlets trumpeted, and City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer picked up the tune. Nonsense: The state and city agreed to help secure permissions — if possible — for a helipad in Long Island City, but Amazon is footing the bill.
What does New York get out of the deal? Cuomo and de Blasio rely on a report they commissioned, which claims Amazon’s presence will pump $186 billion into the state economy over the next 25 years, generating $13.5 billion in new city taxes and slightly more for the state. It’s hard to know whether business in the city would have grown by that much anyway, without the need for $3 billion worth of giveaways. Lots of companies (including Google) come here for the same reason that Amazon was always going to choose a prosperous city and jilt the struggling ones: because that’s where CEOs and employees alike want to be.
The agreement does bring some concrete benefits. Although politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Van Bramer complain that the deal will siphon money away from Long Island City’s urgent needs for better schools, parks, and transportation, it actually creates a fund to provide exactly those benefits. Amazon and the city have also pledged to start a fund to train high-school students and NYCHA residents, among others, for jobs in tech. By all means, let’s agitate for more. Claw back some of that cash, make the company pay for a school or two. Renege on the damn helipad. But let’s not flush the baby.
Setting aside the costs and the exchange of perks and goodies, many opponents hate the idea of Amazon’s presence at all. There’s a nativist ring to that rejection. Some look at the phrase 25,000 jobs and they see a caravan of entitled, overeducated outsiders arriving on the island’s shores with their obnoxious fistfuls of money. They will (goes the theory) bring their suburban cultures with them, have children who will need to be educated, and demand new things to spend their earnings on. They will take over, driving up rents and crowding the subways.
Others fear the opposite of a zero-sum game: endless development. The newcomers will, they believe, cause the Queens skyline to sprout more office towers and apartment buildings — to become more Manhattan-like. Of course that will happen; it has been happening for 20 years. As a new Municipal Art Society report points out, when the Bloomberg administration rezoned the area in 2001, it anticipated 300 more apartments, totaling 300,000 square feet of living space. We got 10,000 new apartments, adding up to 8.7 million square feet. Amazon’s employees will need yet more housing, which developers will build, and thanks to a zoning provision that Mayor de Blasio pushed through, a significant portion of it will be affordable (though probably not affordable enough).
New York can’t simply hang up a No Vacancy sign. It’s true that here, even more dramatically than most everywhere else, economic vibrancy is an engine of inequality. Prosperity brings gentrification and changes a neighborhood’s racial and demographic mix. But the essence of New York is churn: People move in and out all the time. Besides, would it improve the social fabric if Amazon capped pay at a $75,000? Or if it brought fewer jobs? If it didn’t come at all? Excluding successful businesses does not seem like a winning strategy. This is New York, the world’s great city of commerce: We don’t tell anyone to get out of town.
Amazon’s arrival confirms once again that we’re in the middle of an accelerating cycle of economic self-reinventions. New York evolved from a mercantile city in the 18th century to an industrial metropolis in the 19th and a financial center in the 20th. Each of these metamorphoses was beneficial and traumatic at the same time. The sugar trade that fueled the city’s early growth depended on a supply of black slaves working and dying in the Caribbean cane fields. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 turned the city into a trade and shipping node, showering it in wealth. But if you were a Queens farmer, it meant that the market for your wheat and barley vanished overnight. More recently, the parks, greenways, and luxury towers that have reshaped the waterfront sprouted on land scorched by deindustrialization. There is no growth without pain.
The best way to hedge against these spasms is to avoid relying on any one sector. After 9/11, when banks and investment firms threatened to flee, Mayor Bloomberg lured Goldman Sachs back to lower Manhattan with, yes, $1 billion in tax breaks if it would build a new headquarters there. But Bloomberg also saw that the city needed to diversify its economy — specifically, to build up health care, education, and tech. Cornell Tech built a campus on Roosevelt Island partly because of its proximity to Long Island City, one of the few neighborhoods that still had space for a fast-growing industry to put down roots.
Tech should be in the city. When Apple built itself a giant suburban fortress, urbanists rightly chastised the company for locking in car-dependence and sprawl. Amazon is doing the opposite, embedding itself in the borough’s fabric, making it possible for many employees to walk or bike or take public transit to work. (The helipad is a different story.) Opponents are worried about the strain a big new cluster of office buildings will place on public transit, but, as my colleague Josh Barro has pointed out, creating a class of employees who commute from Manhattan to Queens, instead of the other way around, can help redistribute the subway’s loads. We should, in any case, be far more worried that the city’s transit woes will cause companies to give up on New York: If Amazon had concluded that the MTA will never get its act together or its employees to work on time, that would be an excellent reason to panic.
Amazon is a monopolistic behemoth that has infiltrated every corner of our lives, from books to television drama to vacuum-cleaner bags. It could have turned a midsized city into a company town, but instead it’s moving to a place it can’t monopolize. By coming to Queens, the company can only prepare a niche for itself in the urban ecosystem, and then collaborate and compete. New York could survive without Amazon, and it can damn well survive with it.