City Council Pressures Amazon For Details

By MICHAEL GARETH JOHNSON

On Wednesday, getting a seat at the City Council public hearing on the development of a new corporate headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City was almost as difficult as scoring tickets to Hamilton. People lined up at the security checkpoint and then packed the halls and the balconies for the hearing — which was quickly disrupted by protestors chanting until the City Council threatened to have police remove them.

From the start, it was evident that the hearing was going to be contentious, with lawmakers clearly out to chastise Amazon and members of the city’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) about how the deal came together. The biggest sticking point for many of the council members was the agreement between Amazon and city and state officials to develop their new headquarters using the state’s General Project Plan (GPP), instead of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure Application (ULURP).

Most construction and development projects in New York City go though ULURP, which gives more power to communities to determine whether or not a company can develop a property. It does so by forcing developers to first send their plans to community boards for a few months to review, before they then land in the borough president’s office for review. Once they move through the BP’s office, they go to an advisory panel that signs off on the plans and sends them to the City Council. If the City Council wants to, it can revise the plans and start the ULURP process all over. For companies, ULURP is a big risk because it is impossible to know how long the process will take.

This is why Amazon, naturally, prefers the GPP process, which is controlled by the state government, presenting less risk that the project will be delayed or outright stopped. GPP cannot be used in all instances, but it was created as an option for rethinking large swaths of land as will be the case with the Amazon headquarters. In recent years, GPP has been used to reimagine Times Square and develop Atlantic Yards.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson kicked off the hearing by pressing Amazon executives on whether they would still have come to Long Island City if they had to go through ULURP.

“I don’t think it is an option,” Brian Huseman, Amazon vice president of Public Policy, said, adding, “Our goal is to hire New Yorkers quickly, and the GPP is the best process for this.”

Johnson responded by suggesting that refusing to agree to ULURP was equivalent to ignoring the local community in Long Island City.

Huseman and NYCEDC president and CEO James Patchett pushed back, arguing that there will be community input through the GPP with the recently announced Community Advisory Committee (CAC).

Responding to Johnson, Huseman said, “My understanding is that through the GPP there will be public input,” at which point Johnson cut him off and suggested he was being advised poorly if he thought that GPP would involve the community in any meaningful way.

The theme set by Johnson continued throughout the hearing: Council members used their allotted four minutes of questioning to hammer Amazon on a host of issues, from Amazon’s willingness to sell facial-recognition technology; to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for locating and deporting undocumented residents; to media reports that Amazon doesn’t treat its workers well.

Some of the most-heated testimony came from Long Island City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer. He focused his questioning on a proposed $500 million in state grants that Amazon is expected to receive, tied to its development of the headquarters. Van Bramer put forth the idea of Amazon’s giving the money back to help fix four NYCHA projects in western Queens that have roughly $1 billion in capital needs.

Van Bramer finished his questioning by saying, “You should be ashamed about this deal.”

Patchett fired back, “We are not ashamed. We are proud to be a part of this project.”

Before the interrogations of NYCEDC and Amazon began, the company tried to drive home a few key points. First was that it wants to be a good neighbor in New York City, meeting with the local community to see what needs it has and then trying to address those needs. Amazon also wants to make it clear that it chose Long Island City because it wants to hire New Yorkers.

“We will hire residents from Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and across New York State for both technical and nontechnical jobs beginning next year,”Huseman said.

In his testimony, Huseman also made it clear that it is still very early in the process. A development plan needs to be made with input from the recently formed CAC, and countless other details of the development timeline must be worked out. These include committing to workforce development and addressing infrastructure needs.

“We are still in the very early stages of this process, and intend to be an active participant in the issues facing the community and make community investments that benefit New York City residents,” Huseman said.

Huseman, alongside Amazon head of Worldwide Economic Development Holly Sullivan, stressed that they had hoped to listen and learn from the hearing, and then develop specific details to address the concerns presented. That message was mostly ignored by City Council members who were hellbent on trying to force Amazon officials and NYCEDC CEO James Patchett to make hard promises about funding, workforce development and other concerns, with a rowdy crowd of anti-Amazon activists in attendance cheering them on.