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City Council Rips Into Amazon in First Oversight Hearing, Questions Public and Private Gains

Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer at the Dec. 12 Amazon oversight hearing (via Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer)

Dec. 12, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez

Amazon faced a litany of hard questions and criticism from the City Council during its first oversight hearing held earlier today that aimed to uncover how the tech giant’s controversial headquarters deal between the city and state came to be.

The hearing, attended by Amazon executives and representatives from the city and state, saw tense exchanges and fiery comments at times from legislators, who insisted that the campus project should be moving through the city’s land use review process as opposed to the state-run plan.

They also questioned the public gains that the company, along with city and state, is promoting as part of the deal, like improvements in area infrastructure and new initiatives to bolster local workforce development.

Most of the line of questioning came from Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who made no secret their disdain for the closed-door negotiations between the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Empire State Development and Amazon that led to the current deal on the table.

Van Bramer especially took the time to criticize Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo in his opening statements, and said that the two are directly responsible for the outrage felt after Amazon’s official headquarters announcement.

“We should all be concerned that [de Blasio and Cuomo] were eager to promise Amazon that they would bypass local land use review and agree to sign non-disclosure agreements while doing so,” Van Bramer said.

“The memorandum of understanding,” he added, “is shocking and shameful in how much it gave to Amazon and how little it extracted from them for the community.”

Anable Basin today, where Amazon will build its headquarters. (Photo: Nathaly Pesantez)

Johnson questioned the reasoning behind the headquarters plan moving through the state’s General Project Plan, and whether Amazon would have still wanted to come to New York City if it had to go through ULURP instead.

James Patchett, president of the EDC, said the state approvals process is a more powerful tool than the city’s, and that a project of this magnitude requires this method.

“What we are fundamentally focused on was getting the jobs here, I believe that it was necessary to achieve that and I believe it’s a totally appropriate tool,” Patchett said, who noted several times that he and the EDC are proud of the deal they reached with the company.

Amazon, meanwhile, did not directly say whether it would have avoided the city if it were forced to go through ULURP, but did say that the state process made the most sense for the company, given the scale of the project.

“Looking at the General Project Plan, that was the process that would actually be able to meet our timeline,” said Holly Sullivan, head of worldwide economic development for Amazon.

Sullivan, additionally, noted that the company has yet to come up with development plans for the Anable Basin campus.

Van Bramer’s questions focused on how the deal and eventual headquarters will impact Long Island City and the western Queens neighborhoods he represents, and on what he regards as a failure on behalf of government to strongly advocate for New Yorkers at the bargaining table.

He said, for instance, that the $5 million Amazon is putting toward funding workforce development initiatives is a dismal amount, and that New York officials should have pushed the trillion dollar company for more concessions.

He directly asked Amazon and the city, furthermore, if the company needs the $500 million grant it is set to receive as reimbursement for headquarters construction, and whether it would make the decision to direct those funds toward the four NYCHA projects in the district in need of an estimated $1 billion in repairs alone.

While both Patchett and Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy at Amazon, did not directly answer the question, they said the company’s incentives package is tied to performance metrics—if Amazon does not deliver on its job figures and other commitments, it will not receive the benefits.

Van Bramer also spoke about Plaxall, the owner of some of the waterfront properties Amazon will build its headquarters over, and its role in the GPP.

While there are several parcels of land that make up the Anable Basin area set to be rezoned under the state-run process, one of the parcels, belonging to Plaxall, will actually not form part of the company’s headquarters, and will instead likely be a private large-scale development.

The council member questioned why this parcel, belonging to a private developer, has been thrown into the GPP mix when it doesn’t make up part of Amazon’s campus, calling the decision to do this “fundamentally unethical.”

The roughly one-hour meeting wrapped up on a sour note after Johnson asked Amazon several times whether it would commit to showing up at future hearings.

Huseman said repeatedly that he would like to touch on that topic in conversations with Johnson, seemingly appearing to dodge the question.

The tense exchange, where Johnson said the City Council would work around Amazon’s schedule in arranging future hearings, resulted in Huseman at last directly agreeing to attend future hearings.

Johnson, however, said he was taken aback at how long it took Huseman to agree to a hearing, especially after sitting through one that touched on the company cooperating with the public on the process.

“It’s insulting. it’s unacceptable,” Johnson said. “It’s not how you be a good neighbor.”

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31 Comments

Bad News Barnes

I’m no fan of JVB nor Amazon, but it seems like I’m the only one who can admit that I really don’t know whether all of this will be good for LIC, as well as Queens and the city and the state. Who can really say at this early date? My bet is that it will still be very debatable 20 years from now. In the meantime, I’d really like to hear more about practical matters, rather than the ill considered opinions and rhetoric in these posts. Thanks to the LIC Post and JVB for introducing a new question at the end of the article. Does anybody know which “parcel” Plaxall is withholding? Can anyone comment on whether the inclusion of another luxury residential tower, a separate commercial enterprise from Amazon, under the GPP (presumably bypassing zoning regulations) is “fundamentally unethical”? (as I’m sure that to JVB, 90% of NYC fits that description)

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Young LIC

Bramer give up the act! There are two different letters out there proving you were in favor of this deal. In fact, the most recent leaked letter you wrote to Deblasio shows that you strongly supported the Amazon move to LIC. Now you’re claiming that you didn’t know about the tax breaks. The same tax breaks that existed before the Amazon announcement. You obviously changed your mind to avoid the backlash. You are a fraud!

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Lisa Kaplan

The Amazon “deal” is getting audited. There could be a long drawn investigation as this has now become political fodder for Cuomo and DeBlasio opponents. In the end, we might see Amazon moving into just a few floors in Citi building without building a campus in LIC! Then again as per ESD plans, no developments were to begin before 2021.

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Van bramer needs to go

Totally agree with you. and Van bramer has the audacity to ask Amazon what they intend to do about the crumbling conditions of the NYCHA as if they were part of the cause. My God he is totally not connected with reality or of the government he is so part of. Van Bramer if you are reading this. Piece of advice. The reason the NYCHA is crumbling is because residents don’t care about the property they live in and abuse it & Government officials like you who have no accountability on where the funds go for the maintenances of the buildings. Jimmy- you would not last one week in the Private sector.

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Jake Hyland

I see Amazon is paying a lot of commenters trying to spin HQ2 into a good thing and not the worst possible thing that could happen to Queens.

Ask anyone in San Francisco what they think of all their hot new tech jobs now.

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Anonymous

25,000 Amazon tech jobs plus 5,000 union trade jobs sounds sooo horrific that I must be a paid commenter to want it instead of a 24 year old from Sunnyside that’s happy about all those jobs…

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MRLIC

Jake Hyland, Well said . People in NYC are clueless about heir own city, never mind other cities. Look who they elected again, Bill DumBlasio and his wife along with Gov. Corruption Cuomo.

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LIC Direct

Cory Johnson and Jimmy Van Bramer, two men so out of touch with the reality of raising a family in NYC and the struggles of the working class. We want Jobs, and progress. Amazon welcome to LIC!

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O

Perhaps another highly paid or real estate profiteer commentator, LIC Direct above also alleges Van Bramer, Sunnyside resident family man, does not know our reality. The shade of old fashioned homophobia is also contained in the comment. How low can you go….

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Maria

O you’re accusing people of homophobia because they don’t agree with you. You must be a JVB cheerleader.
I am NOT for Amazon but I am 100% against the flip flopping Bramer. Did you read the letter he wrote the mayor strongly supporting Amazon for LIC? He is a spineless politician and you have been deceived. WAKE UP!!!!!!

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The truth

Amazon is not hiring the “everyday person” on NYC. Your cheerleader statement is short sighted.

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Anonymous

If the current city review process had existed in the past, there would be no such thing as New York City

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Rocking&Roland

It really doesn’t matter at this point what we say. I’m still in shock how this deal was put through.

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Anon

I don’t know of anyone who is for this, because they see right through it. There is an article in The NY Times about what Amazon can learn from Google in Chelsea. The article said the Google employees don’t contribute much to the small businesses in Chelsea because all of their office food is free. There’s so many things no one is thinking of with this deal. And Google is a good neighbor, I doubt Amazon will be.
Can we block the real estate shills from posting here?

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LICfly

All of their office food is free… free to employees, but the company spends money to provide the food. Are you trying to say they have an in house kitchen staff to provide all this “free” food and some outside caterer is not being paid?

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Jimmy Van Bramer never met a drama he wasn't fond of

Obviously JVB doesn’t understand the people who live in the area. The majority is for the project, not against. JVB is all about publicity. What ever it takes to get his name mentioned. Soon he’ll announce what his next political career move will be.

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Jake

What appeals to you about it? Is it the overcrowding? The skyrocketing rents? The looting the state treasury for a company that doesn’t pay taxes? Or the displaced residents and businesses?

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Henry

I am amused by the lead photo where JVB looks as if his head is surrounded by a halo. What a joke! JVB is crying bitter tears because he was left out of the negotiations. It is easy to see why after his performance in yesterday’s City Councils hearings. He is nothing more than a grandstanding politician. He has yet to make certain, by not putting forth any type of proposals, that would give Queens residents first considerations for job HQ2, for example. I support Amazon’s arrival in NYC and I believe that JVB will be aged out of being on the City Council due to term limits. Good.

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Jane D'oh

Why is that private helipad not mentioned? It’s gross–a giveaway of waterfront rights that rightfully belong to the public. Can you hear Charles Montgomery Burns cackling?

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brooklynmc

Agreed. The helipad really pushes the jerk monitor to max. I would like to know where it will be exactly. I sit near helipads often on the bike paths. The air and noise pollution is really bad for a couple blocks. Helicopters are obviously noisy but I am not sure most people realize just how bad they stink.

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Voter

Let’s be VERY clear here. JVB is upset for one reason and one reason only. The non disclosure and direct negotiation kept him out of the deal so that he couldn’t lay claim to it and use it for financial and political gain. He was all in on this before, and now just upset that he can’t take credit for it and it won’t result in more influence for his political ambitions.

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D.

“Voter” represents the preemptive cynicism I read is gung-ho Amazon posters meant to stifle reality. “Voter” reminds me, with the vitriolic pro-Amazon club, of those Russian funded posters who tore at anyone anti Trump. The new guilded age of multi billionaires taking down working people and professionals is personified by these toadies, “all in for slavery.” They are getting their cut, we get pushed and shoved away. Forget small newspapers.

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MRLIC

To Voter: I vote also. I don’t think JVB is a GOOD Politician, I think JVB and all the others who wanted it did not know about the $2.8 billion in incentives and the Tax breaks along with the helipad , along with the BACK ROOM DEAL bypassing the Land Use review of the City Council.

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Luis

HA! Do you honestly believe that Bramer didn’t know about the tax incentives???? You are either simple minded or a liar like JVB.

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LIC resident FOR HQ2!

Thank God the LIC Amazon HQ2 will go through a NY State managed planning and approval process, AND NOT A NY CITY ONE! These politicians ARE NOT representing the majority of LIC residents. Their clueless opposition to the LIC Amazon HQ2 is being impelled more by the ideological division in the Democratic Party, than what they truly believe will be good for our community and NYC as a whole.

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