The nomination of Queens State Senator Mike Gianaris to a post with veto power spelled the beginning of the end for Amazon’s HQ2. His next target: New York’s vast system of corporate tax breaks.
THE CITY: What would you say if you had five minutes alone with Jeff Bezos?
Senator Mike Gianaris: I would ask him why this process had to be in secret and why he feels it was necessary to shake down all these cities and states in this country since he clearly doesn’t need the money. It’s one thing to have incentives that are necessary for an industry to succeed, or incentives to direct investment in distressed areas. This was none of that.
Did you expect that Amazon would cancel? Did its announcement come as a shock?
It was a surprise. But I was acting in the most responsible way for someone representing this community. I was presented with a done deal which I had nothing to do with, and when I raised my hand to ask questions about it, they got upset and left. So that really says more about them and their tactics than it does about anything that this community did.
Had Amazon reached out to you?
Not recently. Starting at the end of 2017, I could not get a phone call returned (from state officials). Three or four times I tried. I was trying to get information and express myself as to what might be necessary to be part of this thing before it was too late, and there was no willingness to engage.
Virginia, by contrast, had a very different process. It’s instructive to look at what they did. They established a committee that included members of the legislature, stakeholders; it wasn’t just the governor and the mayor. They were involved in creating the bid, in proposing the bid, and so there was a lot more buy-in with the relevant people in that state all along the way. That did not happen here. This was a deal done in secret that was then presented as take it or leave it.
You came out aggressively against Amazon and said New York should “scrap” and renegotiate the deal. Did you think that was actually a possibility?
They could have said, we’re going to put a billion into this, a billion into the subways or into the schools; the sewer system in Long Island City is a mess. There are things they could have done to prove themselves a responsible corporate citizen, and they never expressed an interest in doing that in any real way.
Wouldn’t it have been fruitful for you to have been a part of the community advisory council?
No. I’ve spoken to many advisory council members who confirmed my fears that it was merely a PR effort. All the reports I got back was that nothing substantial was coming out of that committee. [Amazon] never seriously understood that a computer class at LaGuardia Community College, or semiannual job training, was not nearly enough to help this community maintain its identity and not be crushed by their presence.
So, what’s going to happen now to the office tower One Court Square? Amazon was preparing to move in a bunch of people there.
I don’t know how empty it’s going to be. Long Island City is vibrant. All you gotta do is walk around there and take a look around. There is construction going on, there is activity going on, there is economic strength to that part of New York and I’m sure that will continue. And I will do what I can to make sure it does.
Are you confident you represented the community and what they wanted? How do you know you weren’t just responding to some of the loudest voices?
Because I live here, I walk these streets, I attend meetings here, I do reach out despite what misinformation is out there, and I’m very confident that there was tremendous fear among the tenants of western Queens about what this would mean for them. This is not occurring in a vacuum. Long Island City is already subject to massive gentrification. The number-one complaint I got in my office before Amazon came to town was people being priced out of their homes because of increasing rents. This was like dropping a bomb in the middle of that. I’ve had people stop me on the street crying and hugging me because this went away. So there’s a deep-seated feeling that people in western Queens had about this that other people don’t.
Do you think that opposition would have continued to grow?
I do. I’m certain of it.
What do you say to the people in your community that wanted Amazon here?
I respect their viewpoint. People are entitled to come out with different conclusions based on their own needs and thoughts. But I did not think that this was a responsible thing to do without protections for the community and it was clear that Amazon had no interest in discussing that. Now that this is done, I look forward to engaging with everyone to make sure that whatever concerns they had, whatever we can do to help support our local business community and people that had legitimate reasons why they wanted it, it can be addressed.
Prior to the announcement of HQ2, you’d been touting LIC as a tech hub. So after HQ2, how do you pitch tech companies to come into the area?
New York pitches itself. There’s a reason Google is growing 20,000 jobs with minimal subsidies at the same time.
Well, that’s mainland Manhattan. This is Long Island City.
Which is about a ten-minute train ride away. By the way, tech in Long Island City has been growing. There are 3-D printing shops, there are all sorts of innovative businesses and start-ups that have come there and they will continue to come there because the talent is there. That’s what Google knows, that’s what Facebook knows. I don’t know what was so special about Amazon relative to all those other companies that they needed $3 billion in incentives to do what those other companies are doing already.
What should happen with the HQ2 site now?
Before the Amazon issue presented itself there was a development that would have included substantial affordable housing and two schools. Whether now that gets reinvigorated, that’s up to the land owners.
But that was a project that was moving in a more constructive direction than this was. We certainly need affordable housing in that community.
How is Amazon worse than all the other companies getting city and state benefits, like Excelsior tax credits?
This package was larger in size by great magnitude. This is about three times as big as anything that has been done before. So you could start with that: We may want to consider capping these at some point. In my view, incentive programs done right serve one of two purposes: They’re given either to an industry that would not succeed in New York without them, or are targeted at regions of the state that are economically depressed right now. This didn’t qualify as either of those. This was an area that’s booming and developing, and Amazon did not need the money to come here.
Do you have plans to rejigger automatic, as-of-right benefits?
Yes. I and many of my colleagues are taking a holistic approach to economic development reforms — for example, an interstate compact to say that we won’t participate in these contests that end up pitting states against each other. I’ve already introduced bills dealing with banning the nondisclosure agreements that were required in this case, or looking at insider trading in real-estate markets. And there’s a lot more to come because there’s a lot to dig into. We learned a lot over the last year about what’s wrong with our economic-development process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.