This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "An Amazon Correction: The City Won – and the Company isn't Going Anywhere."
The Amazon brouhaha needs clarification: the company is not “pulling out of New York.” It’s simply canceling the construction of a physical campus in Long Island City, the fastest growing neighborhood in the city for almost a decade. The fate of that neighborhood reflects the outsize development trend of the larger city and the erroneous assumption that construction means growth. But let’s leave the bigger picture aside for the moment.
An Amazon “campus”—a self-contained, university-like setting, replete with its own helipad—does not belong in a city, at least not in this city. Corporate campuses are what companies across America created when they fled cities in the 1950s, ’60s, and ‘70s. That served them well until they discovered what William H. Whyte so brilliantly documented: self-contained campuses are dead and sterile, without the messy, crowded, vibrant, artful, pulse of the city. For years, campuses tried to add amenities to keep workers happy. It was never enough. Companies and workers have been flocking back to the urban experience, and, on a negative note, bringing the forces of gentrification with them.
Amazon should take heed of Google, a company that has grown exponentially in Manhattan without creating a suburban campus. In fact, Google now so dominates the West 20s that one might say it has created a campus of sorts, but in a more urban-appropriate way.
If Amazon really wants to be in Long Island City, for more than the opportunity to create an isolated, suburban campus, there are plenty of empty floors in the Citibank tower where they had reportedly already leased one million square feet of space as their temporary quarters. One might suspect, however, HQ2’s appeal was the “campus” and “helipad” (and three billion dollars in tax breaks).
Long Island City has been emerging as a collection of architecturally featureless but affordable residential towers for more than 10 years. This was the dream of the city’s planners four decades ago when rezoning after rezoning successfully chased out the manufacturing companies that formed the heart of industrial New York. (I should know: My family’s 100-year-old manufacturing business was one of them. Come visit us and many other thriving New York refugees, in Philadelphia.)
In this ongoing transformation, a wealth of new small businesses have emerged to serve a residential community. It’s richly diverse and growing, befitting the new character of the neighborhood without totally displacing the old. This fragile but valuable ecology would have been shattered by the Amazon tsunami. This was not the kind of reasonably-scaled development that would have fit in and enhanced the neighborhood; instead, it would have led to the kind of cataclysmic change that Jane Jacobs taught us that engulfs and erases a neighborhood, its people and its local economy.
To be sure, Amazon could have won a campus setting—appropriate or not—in Long Island City, if the company and our mayor and governor had learned the lessons of the few mega-projects that failed because of appropriate vociferous citizen outrage. They should have listened, learned and respected the citizens and local leaders first, before retreating to the back room to make a deal.
The public already subsidizes Amazon. The company’s federal tax rate last year was negative 1%. Many of its lower-paid workers depend on publicly subsidized food stamps to make ends meet. Those employees use publicly supported emergency room hospital care because they can’t afford adequate medical insurance. And, of course, we pay for the physical infrastructure that Amazon’s absent taxes don’t pay for. This makes them a poster-child for the abuse of the free market.
But, never fear. Amazon is growing in NYC, including in Manhattan office space. For one recently closed deal, Gov. Cuomo offered the company $20 million in performance-based tax credits. This is about office and tech jobs, beyond Amazon’s thousands of employees fulfilling orders or working in other divisions of the company.
Last September, Tanay Warerkar reported in Curbed that Amazon signed a 15-year lease for 360,000 square feet on two floors at Brookfield Properties’ Manhattan West “mini-mega project.” This 16-story retrofitted mid-century building with a new glass exterior has been renamed Manhattan West, as befitting the latest Manhattan fringe neighborhood with an expanding new life. Hard to know how many jobs this will bring but the important thing is that they will be now, not over 25 years.
The technology sector in this city has been evolving, first slowly during the 1990s in the Flatiron District and in scattered loft sites. Google, Apple, Facebook, and others are already mining this creative workforce. Surely, Amazon is not going to leave the field entirely to others, even without a helipad.
The public’s outrage over the Amazon deal can’t be isolated from the enormous citywide fury over the proliferation of tax-subsidized supertall towers made possible by contorted zoning and building code interpretations. The de Blasio and Cuomo Administrations have cheered this trend. The City Planning Commission, Board of Standards and Appeals, Buildings Department, and other agencies have all approved one insanely out-of-scale tower after another as “business-as-usual.” The silence from the City Council—many members don’t want to jeopardize real estate campaign contributions—is deafening. The current meager response from the Planning Commission is too little, too late. But, a resistance movement is underway, first with a couple of strong lawsuits in various neighborhoods. It’s about time. Empty sky-high apartment trophies owned by the international super-rich add nothing to the city economy and, in fact, suck energy and life out of it. Amazon in Long Island City is just the largest and most successful citizen effort to block over-scaled developments backed by corporate giveaways. Let’s hope it’s not the last.
Featured image via CNBC.