Nov. 21, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
The city and state say it was only until a couple of weeks ago—a month back at most—that the perception they had of Long Island City as home to Amazon’s new headquarters drastically changed from a long shot to reality.
The city Economic Development Corporation said during a joint Monday briefing with the Empire State Development Corporation that talks with Amazon about Long Island City only became “very serious” in late October and spiraled into first few weeks of November, with the company still noting even then that other cities were in the running.
“We had no credible belief that they were going to come to New York City until a few weeks ago,” said James Patchett, EDC president. “And even then it was far from certain.”
The e-commerce company’s finalized decision last week to bring headquarters to Long Island City and Arlington, Va., came more than a year after it launched its HQ2 search in September 2017.
The city had submitted its own pitch to Amazon by the company’s deadline the following month, where it identified the Queens neighborhood and three other areas around the city as places that fit the company’s basic requirements for headquarters.
In January, New York City was one of 20 candidate locations of 238 selected by Amazon to continue in the HQ2 process, which marked the beginning of confidential discussions between the city, state and the company, Patchett said.
“That was part of the process that Amazon made clear from the outset,” he said, a nod at criticism the state, city and Amazon have received from elected officials and locals over the hush-hush proceedings of the deal.
While Amazon had started to focus on Long Island City in the second half of 2018, the company initially expressed interest in all four city locations, Patchett said.
Amazon then began to intently focus on the Anable Basin sites, a mixture of city and privately-owned properties with prior development plans of their own, within the last couple of months.
Although the company will now be building headquarters on sites where the EDC had been working on its Long Island City Innovation Project, the city had identified those very properties as part of the available 13 million square feet in the neighborhood that could fulfill Amazon’s HQ2 requirements in its pitch.
The city, meanwhile, said it held a couple of meetings with local community members over the course of 2018 to discuss what could become of Amazon in Long Island City—well before there was concrete belief that the company would actually select the neighborhood.
Still, the city and state said there was no telling whether Amazon would commit to the area until recently, maintaining that things were up in the air through most of the year.
“We were still talking about multiple sites within the last couple of weeks,” said Holly Leicht, ESD executive vice president of real estate development and planning.
Both the EDC and ESD insist that New York City, let alone Long Island City, were not forgone conclusions for Amazon’s headquarters, as has been reported after the official announcement was made a week ago.
“People pretty much came to the conclusion that New York City had no chance in this conversation,” Patchett said, referencing reports that came out earlier this year.
He added: “No one took us seriously because of Amazon’s focus on cost structure…people assumed that there was no chance that they would come here.”
Howard Zemsky, ESD president, recalled several news outlets offering their takes on where Amazon would be most likely to land, and noticed that New York City was always eliminated early on from consideration.
In September 2017, for instance, the New York Times said in a report that New York City, along with other locations, would likely be out of the running because of high housing costs, cutting into the “quality of life” parameter Amazon laid out in its HQ2 search.
“For those of us who have been actively involved in this throughout the duration, it was very hard to get much encouragement from reading the articles about where Amazon would likely go,” Zemsky said.
Amazon did ask many questions about cost of living in discussions with the city and state, but were also keen on the city’s talent pool.
“The focus on New York City, we think, is really about the fact that they see…an amazing talent base that they can hire from,” Patchett said.
The city pointed to the more than 2 million New Yorkers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which they say is more than a number of big cities have combined. It also pointed to its tech sector growth, and the variety of tech workforce organizations the city has to offer.
“We brought together a number of our really impressive workforce development organizations in to the city to have a conversation with the company,” Patchett said. “They were very impressed and excited about the possibility of partnering with the organizations.”
Amazon additionally said in its official announcement that attracting top talent was the leading driver in its HQ2 decision.
And while widespread concern over Amazon’s impact on already-strained area infrastructure has dominated much of the conversation after the HQ2 announcement, which the city acknowledged as a valid concern, it maintains that the variety of transit options in the neighborhood also helped attract the company.
“It’s the most transit connected location outside of Manhattan,” Patchett said of the neighborhood. “Frankly, even inclusive of Manhattan, it’s still one of the best transit connected locations in the entire city. “
He said 1.6 million workers live within a 45-minute commute of Long Island City.
Officials said Amazon’s memorandum of agreement with the city and state is practically all they have on the table for now, and that the public will have several opportunities to engage with the project planning during the estimated 14-month General Project Plan process. The state-run plan, likely to be completed in early 2020, will seek to rezone the Anable Basin area to allow for headquarters to be built.
Amazon’s Anable Basin campus will span 4 million square feet and offer 25,000 jobs over the course of 10 years. Headquarters could expand up to 8 million square feet in 15 years-time, with a total of 40,000 jobs expected in that frame.
The company will be temporarily occupying the majority of One Court Square starting in 2019 as its waterfront headquarters are planned and built out.