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At first City Council hearing over Amazon HQ2, venting but few answers

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The hearing did little to shed light on what, if anything, will change in Amazon’s deal with New York

Dave Colon

The first of a promised series of City Council hearings on the deal to bring Amazon’s second North American headquarters to New York City was at times contentious, but did little to shed light on what, if anything, will change regarding the subsidies Amazon is getting for locating its offices in Long Island City. Representatives from the NYC Economic Development Corporation and Amazon were also criticized for the decision to cut the City Council out of the process, forgoing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in favor of the state-led General Project Plan (GPP).

“If you’re proud of the deal, if you’re proud of coming to new York City, you should want to answer every question New Yorkers have,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told a panel made up of James Patchett, the president and CEO of NYCEDC; Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of policy; and Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s head of economic development. “It should not be a two-step tango to meet with us.”

Johnson’s opening would be oddly prescient, as the hearing ended in less of a two-step tango and more of a slamdance when Huseman turned the usual “see you next hearing” platitude into an argument as to whether Amazon would send a representative to future hearings at all.

Before that, the trio sat through a grilling from Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer (who represents the area in question), Paul Vallone, Carlina Rivera, Brad Lander, Inez Barron, and others, in a round of questioning that seemed to leave everyone unsatisfied.

Johnson suggested the anger seen in Queens over Amazon’s arrival was because the company chose to “avoid the land use process.” Patchett and Huseman argued that even without ULURP, plenty of community input that would happen under the Community Advisory Committee, announced the day before the hearing. (As Johnson noted, this will have no legal authority.) An hour into the hearing, Huseman told the Council that it was the company’s view that the GPP was “the most efficient” route to taking care of the land use and design issues around the project.

Some of Patchett’s testimony took aim less at the Council itself and more at the people who’ve decried the deal at all. Bringing up the city’s economic downturns in the late 1980s, post-9/11, and at the peak of the Great Recession, Patchett said the addition of Amazon to the city’s economic portfolio would help the city weather the next financial storm whenever it happens, echoing a recent Times op-ed which argued for the city to rely less on Wall Street.

Despite a note at the beginning from the Council’s sergeant-at-arms that “There’s no screaming, there’s no booing,” protestors in the gallery chanted (“GTFO, Amazon has got to go”) and unfurled a sign that read “NO TO AMAZON.” After the second round of chanting drew a warning from Johnson that the entire gallery would be cleared if there was one more interruption, the anti-Amazon activists stuck to theatrical laughter in response to the answers given to City Council members.

The hearing was ultimately less about oversight than venting—a chance for both sides to stake out their positions, ask ridiculous questions, and give ridiculous answers. Would Amazon give back its incentives? (No, but don’t worry—this is a 9 to 1 return.) What’s with the helipad? (We were looking at safety and security issues.) Did Amazon leak my wish list? (There was no answer here, though wish lists are public.)

Amazon posited itself as just your friendly “customer-centric company,” not a trillion-dollar corporation whose warehouse workers routinely describe awful working conditions and are kicking off a union drive locally due to said working conditions. Pitching a government hellbent on deportation schemes some facial recognition software is just making sure the government “has the best technology available to them,” not amoral profit seeking.

Van Bramer did see some positives from the afternoon. “By putting this pressure on and shining a bright light on this, we’re having an effect on all of this,” he told Curbed. “We’re putting a lot of pressure on them to answer for what they’ve agreed to in the deal. I think that’s a good thing and I do believe that will produce some changes here.”

But if the hearing was the opening round of a boxing match, it would be one fighter marching around the ring furiously windmilling their arms and the other one choosing to run for their life just out of range from the windmilling. Round two will be in January.