“Stop Amazon!” is increasingly the mantra of activists in New York, referring to the new $5 billion campus the company is slated to develop in Long Island City, Queens. With righteous rage, city council members at a hearing demanded the company stop cooperating with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on facial-recognition software and end their union-resisting stance.
Progressives have made stopping Amazon a cause. They’re gentrifiers! (Sorry, that ship has sailed…) They exploit workers! They stifle competition!
Whatever the merits of these denunciations, spurning 25,000 to 40,000 good jobs to prevent Seattle-based Amazon from opening its so-called second headquarters in New York City won’t address them. Are such litmus tests to be applied to all businesses? We’d have to send the finance business packing along with many others.
Why would Progressives at a time of a fragile ascent on the national stage want to allow themselves to be painted as anti-business? Because anti-business this is. And this kind of thing could sink vital projects Progressives (and others) hold dear as working people see Progressives doing exactly what conservatives say they will do: kill jobs to score political points.
Yes Amazon is big and wealthy, but their entry into the city should not be seen simply as a shakedown opportunity—which is what the political fracas looks like.
Activists and elected officials should focus on the issues they can actually affect, the obscene incentives giveaway, for example. No doubt city and state officials are now mortified at offering some $3 billion in incentives—especially Governor Cuomo, whose groveling before the Internet-shopping giant was particularly cringe-inducing.
The assertion that this level of business subside is as-of-right should be questioned. If they are actually non-discretionary, then it’s time to change the rules, no?
But also they can be negotiated downward or traded off in ways that benefit the city and Amazon.
Since Amazon says it chose New York for the quality of its workforce, then the incentives should be negotiable in the interests of getting the project done expeditiously. After all, The New York Times and others were quick to point out that substantial expansion by Google, Apple and others came without demands for subsidies and tax incentives.
Amazon’s choice of New York validates the Bloomberg plan to build technology capacity in the city, including Cornell Tech, the city’s splashy icon of education and public-private collaboration. It is a stone’s throw from the Amazon site. The company could boost this effort to its benefit and the city’s.
“Social” tech in the city that won’t shut up
New York City’s workforce is valuable to Amazon because it is both huge and diverse. Native talent is augmented by children of immigrants who are ambitious and entrepreneurial but are readily stymied by the high cost of education. Even the city’s relatively affordable CUNY and SUNY system remain out of financial reach for too many.
Amazon could help with that. (Right now, the agreement with the city and state requires Amazon to pony up pocket change—$5 million—to subsidize job preparedness, to be matched by the city and state. It also must set aside about 378,000 square feet for a variety of incubators, workforce development spaces, and artist studios. Amazon could use these commitments to invigorate its own and the city’s workforce. )
Tech played a small role in New York until the rise of social media. Unlike the isolated, introverted office parks of Silicon Valley and the engineering-geek culture that predominates in Seattle, New York is “social” by any definition. It is valuable to Amazon in spite of its costs and complications because it hosts interaction in every conceivable form, from street-corner schmoozing and dog-park dealmaking to conferences and conclaves of just about any conceivable description from the hyper-local (Brownsville activists) to the hyper-global (the UN).
Amazon’s campus: Fortress or friendly?
Amazon could be encouraged to be a good neighbor by creating an exemplary development on its extraordinary site in Long Island City. Its buildings in Seattle are not isolated in suburban office parks like most tech companies. They are part of the downtown cityscape, mixed in with residential development and cheek-by-jowl with biotech companies, a university research center, and global-health nonprofits.
This is a recipe for a vital urban cauldron bubbling with ideas, but Amazon’s buildings in Seattle are relentlessly ordinary and hermetic, having nothing good to say about the company or the unique setting in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
In Long Island City Amazon has a spectacular waterfront site, adjacent to two of the best-designed parks in America (Gantry State Park and Hunters Point South Park—the work of Thomas Balsley, landscape architect (both), and Weiss/Manfredi, architect, who are among New York’s sterling talents). Stunning views of Manhattan open from Amazon’s site from what today are crumbling piers. Long Island City’s brand-new tower skyline rises as a glassy Ozlike presence to the east.
Amazon needs to make the most of these endowments which means hiring architects and landscape architects with a great deal more talent and insight than it has used in Seattle. Accommodating Amazon will require very high density with multiple towers, some of which could be quite bulky to get the floor sizes desirable for office use.
The city and state agreements commit Amazon to develop significant public access to the waterfront and about four acres of total public space. It must link these to the waterfront esplanades built by high-rise developers that now line the Brooklyn and Queens East River waterfronts.
Access to the river is among the best-loved and most remarkable spinoffs of the city’s enormous recent growth. Parkless neighborhoods of endless gridded asphalted blocks were cut off from the river for generations by industry. Now residents discover that they live in a water city, with panoramas of sky and skyline, chattering seagulls, cormorants flapping atop the water surface, the evocative smell of the ocean, and water edges that can be touched and boated upon. Amazon should set a new standard for design quality and public welcome.
Resisting the retail apocalypse
Amazon has learned much from the impressive retailers that have grown up in Seattle. Its “grow big fast” ethos owes something to Microsoft; its obsessive focus on customer service comes from Nordstrom; its pricing strategy (including Prime) learns from Costco’s membership model, and its (belated) improvement in the lot of its low-wage workers owes a debt to practices pioneered by both Costco and Starbucks.
Amazon no doubt will benefit from New York City’s deep resources in creative services, advertising, media, and retail. New York has much to teach Amazon about selling real stuff in real stores to real people passing by. Amazon’s 4-Star store in SoHo looks like a popup where everything fell off a truck. Amazon Fresh sites in Seattle, where people can pick up groceries and prepared food ordered online, are lifeless.
Amazon is blamed for unleashing a “retail apocalypse” as “for lease” signs multiply along New York’s great shopping streets.
Amazon may be on a quest for world retail domination, but keeping the retail giant’s offices out of New York will do nothing to address its monopolizing tendencies. New Yorkers may compete better if they come to know the enemy more intimately. Amazon arrives in the midst of a pitched battle by stores against both homogenizing online shopping and homogenizing chains. It’s a battle that is Amazon’s to lose. Publishers and bookstores—the company’s first target—appear to be making a halting comeback. Amazon’s hegemony may be done-in by increasingly savvy stores learning to compete both online and off, and the fact that Amazon may someday conclude that it can’t make money delivering one-click diapers.
Talk to us
Amazon, for its part, needs to learn to engage with New York. Why is Amazon too grand to speak to the press? It issues statements and rarely persist actual people to address the many legitimate questions raised by its expansion. Do they think they can get away with this in the media capital of the western world? If they do, they are getting very bad advice.
Extolling the company’s goodness by mailing pamphlets around is pathetic. New York’s “gorgeous mosaic”—vastly more diverse than the population of metro Seattle—expects to be engaged in projects of such wide-ranging impact. Amazon needs to stop touting its virtues and solicit peoples’ concerns, learning from locals how to be a good neighbor.
Company representatives seemed to be non-plussed by the inchoate rage of the City Council. Councilpeople are naturally infuriated that they were cut out of the process, and those fences will be difficult to mend. Yes, some of the grandstanding is embarassing and some of the demands are ridiculous, but that comes with the territory. Failing to appropriately work with the council is the fault of the Governor and the Mayor. They need to step up to the plate.
NYC’s Amazon ask
New Yorkers should not forget that it is in Amazon’s interest to be thought a good corporate citizen. Though Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder, is a bully and a cutthroat competitor seemingly inured to the collateral damage caused by Amazon’s anti-competitive behavior, he believes himself to be a missionary and that his “everything store” makes the world a better place. His position may be deemed delusional, as are the do-gooder proclamations of once-admired tech companies now hoisted on their own petards by privacy violations, security breaches, and relentless exploitation of personal data.
New York could find common ground with Amazon by looking at the wide ranging qualities that the company sought in its competition brief. Amazon defined its quest for a good place to do business broadly, with a major focus on quality of life. What little leaked out about the bids during the competition process suggested that the company took the criteria seriously, since many cities found themselves wanting—especially in transit access, quality of local universities, recreational and cultural amenities, and the nurturing of a diverse local workforce. These are elements of well-being and economic health that many states and localities have chopped, supposedly in the interests of luring businesses interested only in lowering costs to themselves.
Amazon has shown it was well acquainted with what it takes to truly create a healthy urban economy. Common ground could be found in shoring up the city’s diverse advantages. After all, Bezos, a New Yorker before he founded Amazon, chose Seattle in no small part because it had nurtured—not purchased from elsewhere using incentives—among the world’s most influential companies, from Boeing to Nordstrom, from Costco to Starbucks, and from Microsoft to global health.
New York should not have sold out to Amazon, but it could get a lot more savvy in the development of potentially transformative investments.
Marion Weiss says
Very interesting article Jim – you have thoughtfully articulated New York City’s opportunity to leverage Amazon’s capacity to contribute to rather than extract from the urban community it will be joining.
Barbara Fleischman says
You are right on point and I valued your cogent comments.
We give in too readily to the blandishments of these tycoons!
Keep up the good work and Happy New Year to you and Steve.
Jeremy Hawker says
That tall, thin building in your top picture is ridiculous. I hate it.
James S. Russell says
That’s NYC’s current tallest, 432 Park Ave., by Rafael Vinoly. As with everything about NYC these days ridiculousness is relative. It’s skinny and would be worse fat; it’s far from the worst-designed of the new crop of “supertalls.” Cheers,
Jeremy Hawker says
… On the other hand, Brooklyn looks better with a few skyscrapers. You can sort of figure out where everything is when there are a few vertical landmarks.
Jack Viertel says
A really cogent and important (and balanced) piece. Thanks for representing the thoughtful New Yorker in a world of noisy ones.
James S Russell says
Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I’ve gotten others in other venues that think I’ve succumbed to the Amazon (etc.) hype. So be it; we’ve entered an era when so many urban successes that people have long prayed for have come true–but at an extraordinarily high price. It shouldn’t be that way, and I will be writing more about these issues. Thanks for reading!