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NYC Council speaker Corey Johnson lays out Amazon HQ2 strategy




Corey JohnsonCorey Johnson is the speaker of the New York City Council.Getty/Drew Angerer

  • Amazon has chosen a site in Long Island City, Queens, for half of its HQ2 project.
  • The decision, announced in November, immediately became controversial among some New York politicians. In December, the New York City Council held a contentious hearing with Amazon, where members asked, among other things, why it was left out of discussions. 
  • In an interview with Business Insider, the council’s speaker, Corey Johnson, laid out his plan to stop Amazon from coming to town — or to at least work with the company to be a “better corporate citizen.”

It’s likely that Amazon didn’t get the response it expected in New York City.

After Amazon announced that part of its HQ2 project would land on a parcel of waterfront property in Long Island City, Queens, politicians were quick to condemn both the process for the agreement, which netted over $3 billion in potential tax breaks, and its potential implications.

Amazon received criticism from elected officials in the immediate aftermath of the decision’s announcement, including from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, and New York City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer.

“We got played,” the council’s speaker, Corey Johnson, said during a contentious council hearing in December, where Amazon was forced to defend itself against questions from members for hours. Topics ranged from the HQ2 deal’s secrecy to Amazon’s involvement with ICE photo recognition software.

Holly Sullivan, the Amazon executive who led the search for HQ2, and Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, were in attendance and responding to questions.

Read more: ‘I was not elected to be a cheerleader for Amazon’: New York officials rail against Amazon’s HQ2 deal amid shouts of protesters in a wild hearing

“I think [the Amazon executives] were surprised. I think they thought they were going to be welcomed with open arms,” Johnson said in a late December interview with Business Insider. “I think they thought, ‘Oh my God, when this is announced it’s going to be, you know, like a birthday party.'”

Instead, they were largely met with skepticism.

“25,000 jobs doesn’t impact our local economy here in the same way it impacts a local economy, say, in Pittsburgh or in Scranton or in Crystal City,” Johnson said.

It’s not over until it’s over

Long Island CityLong Island City, Queens.AP/Mark Lennihan

Johnson has a warning for Amazon and its elected-official allies: this fight isn’t over yet.

“I don’t think anyone should assume that this is a fait accompli, and that this is a done deal,” Johnson said. “This is the beginning of a process where the public and the City Council and other elected officials are going to continue to seek answers and understand whether or not this is a good deal for New York City, or if we got played.”

Several more hearings are scheduled: one each in the months of January, February, and March. The final one will be a public hearing.

“I assume hundreds, or maybe even thousands of people will come out wanting to have their voice heard, since the public was cut out of this,” Johnson said.

The hearings are in advance of a vote by the New York State Public Authorities Control Board, which has final say over the “approval of the financing and construction of any project proposed by state public benefit corporations,” according to state law. 

The board is composed of five members, with representatives from the governor and legislative majorities of both the state assembly and the state senate. Representatives selected by the speaker of the assembly, the senate majority leader, and the governor all have veto power on the board.

There is precedent for the board rejecting plans, cancelling large, ambitious projects or throwing their future into great uncertainty. In 2005, the board rejected a $2.2 billion plan spearheaded by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a redevelopment that would have included a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side to be used by the New York Jets and, possibly, for the 2012 Olympic Games.

amazon protest nyc 7609Protesters outside the City Council hearing in December.Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Johnson anticipates a vote on Amazon’s HQ2 project in the spring, though the board has not said when it plans to hold it. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointee on the board, Robert F. Mujica Jr., told the New York Times in November that a vote would not necessarily be held on the $500 million state grant itself, though it’s unclear whether the board is able to vote piecemeal on parts of the plan.

Johnson is more confident, however.

“This still has to go through that process, which means that we have to continue to ask questions before the Public Authorities Control Board meets and makes a determination,” Johnson said.

Stopping Amazon — or not

Johnson also said he doesn’t necessarily want to stop the Amazon deal from going through, if Amazon would be willing to make some concessions.

“If Amazon would agree to labor peace agreements, if Amazon would agree to investing in our infrastructure, our subways, if Amazon would agree to treating their employees a certain way, if Amazon wanted to be a good corporate citizen in New York City,” Johnson said, he and other critics would be more amenable to the HQ2 project.

He said the currently announced plans, which include a school and its payments in lieu of taxes going to an infrastructure fund, don’t cut it.

“Amazon [is] throwing us crumbs and expecting us to have a Thanksgiving feast,” Johnson said.

In the meantime, Johnson continues to be critical of Amazon and its plans for the city. Those plans include a helipad for the proposed headquarters, which he called the “putrid rotten cherry on top of a Sundae with old ice cream that’s gone bad.”

Read more: ‘Do you realize how out of touch that seems?’: NYC lawmakers rail against Amazon for HQ2 helipad demand in heated hearing

Johnson said he doesn’t see the anger subsiding on the part of the public, which he expects to “remain engaged.”

I think that the more people talk about this, the more people understand the impact that this is going to have on our city and state,” he said.

“I think Amazon themselves made a tremendous mistake, whoever was advising them, which is coming to this city. It’s going to be an issue for them.”

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