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In the year since Amazon scuttled its deal to build a new headquarters in Long Island City, supporters and opponents of big development have zeroed in on new projects that raise some of the same tensions over Queens’ future.
Prior to Amazon’s sudden breakup with the borough last Valentine’s Day, its proposed arrival etched a faultline dividing the borough’s communities and local elected officials. Arguments raged over issues that included Amazon receiving billions in city and state tax credits and incentives, and the potential for the project to accelerate gentrification.
Activists and grassroots groups representing neighborhoods along the No. 7 train corridor celebrated the tech giant’s departure as a testament to the power of community organizing. Meanwhile others, including in the real estate and business industries, said they mourned the loss of new jobs and opportunities for Queens.
Both sides appear to agree on one thing — that Amazon provided a lesson in how to navigate the conflicts around the borough’s growth.
“I think that what’s become clear with the Amazon fight is that people expect more transparency and that their community concerns need to be addressed up front,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of RWDSU, one of the key unions opposing the deal. “I think part of the lesson was that these things cannot be done in secrecy while ignoring the needs of communities.”
Motivated to Mobilize
Representatives of grassroots groups involved in the Amazon HQ2 opposition said their members have felt more empowered since the deal’s demise.
“Before, they didn’t even think they were part of the community,” said Ivan Contreras, a tenant organizer for Woodside on the Move, a housing advocacy group he noted had many Hispanic members. “When you get a victory, then your members feel motivated to actually work for more, they feel they have a voice and they have decision-making power within their community.”
He added, “It gives us the strength to continue mobilizing and knocking on doors.”
Contreras noted that groups like his are channeling this energy into a series of localized battles targeting big development projects across Queens.
The New Battlegrounds
The four developers with prime waterfront properties around the Basin, in partnership with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, announced a public engagement push in November called “YourLIC” to “collectively develop an inclusive, equitable plan” for the waterfront, according to their website.
The listening tour was designed to avoid the accusations of lack of community involvement that plagued the Amazon deal, which the city and state had hammered out in secret as part of a national competition. The outreach includes online discussions and multiple rounds of public meetings focused on issues such as environmental resilience and career development.
“These are wealthy developers. They can buy whatever land. This property, they already own it and can do whatever they want with it, they don’t have to ask us,” said April Simpson, the tenant association president of Queensbridge Houses, who’d supported the Amazon HQ. “But they’ve been coming constantly wanting to know our input and what they would like to see. That hasn’t been done in years.”
Contreras and others said it seemed as if city officials have taken a page from the opposition to Amazon’s HQ2, and heard the criticisms that the community had been presented with a fully formed plan lacking any genuine interest in feedback.
“It seems like they have realized they cannot ignore certain communities anymore,” said Contreras.
Other developers-vs-grassroots flashpoints are now simmering across neighborhoods in Queens.
In Flushing, groups such as Minkwon Center For Community Action, in alliance with unions including 32BJ SEIU, say they’re in for the long haul against a pending 28-acre development proposal along Flushing Creek. Plans call for more than 1,700 luxury apartment units and roughly 100 that would be set aside for affordable housing.
“This is like massive scale. It’s not like the scale of one or two blocks,” said Seonae Byeon, a tenant organizer with Minkwon, noting parallels between the Flushing project and Amazon’s proposed LIC headquarters. “Whatever it takes, we are going to fight back against this plan.”
At a Monday hearing at which Community Board 7 ultimately voted to approve the project, representatives for developers warned that the bulk of the development could be built as-of-right without a zoning change — and that if it went unapproved, “none” of the community benefits, such as environmental remediation and a waterfront pedestrian path, would materialize.
‘They’ve Had to Put On a Show’
In Sunnyside, local politicians and groups are already signaling concerns about the city’s proposal to spur development on top of a massive 180-acre railyard roughly six times the size of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. A city Economic Development Corporation spokesperson previously told THE CITY that a plan would be ready in Winter 2020.
Emily Sharpe, who founded the group Stop Sunnyside Yards even before Amazon cancelled its HQ2, said members have heeded lessons learned last winter. She added that the city seems to have changed its methods of interacting with residents.
“They now know that they have to talk to the community to make it seem like we gave them the buy-in,” Sharpe said. “They’ve learned they’ve had to put on a show.”
Nestor David Pastor, a member of Queens Neighborhoods United, called the fight against Amazon a “moment when everyone came together” but that development plans hadn’t paused in the borough.
Pushback against new projects will require the same joint effort, he added.
“One year later, it’s kind of wild to see how much is going on around the borough from not only the coastline but all the way deep into eastern Queens too, from LIC to Flushing and everything in between,” Pastor said.
“It makes people have to work together because there’s no one singular entity in Queens that can solve all these problems.”
A spokesperson for the EDC did not respond to a request for comment.
Investors Still Believe
Meanwhile, members of the business and real estate industries in Queens who contend that Amazon’s exit dealt a major blow to Queens said that the past year hasn’t been as dismal as they anticipated — and that they are hopeful about development projects to come.
In April 2018, the Kaufman Organization, a commercial real estate firm, acquired the Cardinal Building, a 65,000 square foot tower in Hunters Point, through a 99-year land lease. Nearly two years later, the building is still lying vacant.
Grant Greenspan, the firm’s principal, concedes it would likely have been leased had Amazon remained in the picture.
“I was feeling very much like a genius for picking that building in LIC,” Greenspan said, adding that he was now “guardedly optimistic.”
Eric Benaim, the CEO of Modern Spaces, a Queens-based real estate firm, said that while the residential business “was like a gold rush” in the months following Amazon’s November 2018 announcement that it had selected LIC, that the market hadn’t fallen dramatically.
“I was a lot upset after the news came out. … I was also worried. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but things picked up surprisingly,” Benaim said. “Investors said they still believed in LIC after Amazon.”
When Amazon turned its back on 1 million square feet of office space in the Citi Tower at One Court Square, Savanna, the building’s owner, was left to fill substantial vacancies. It has since secured new tenants including a St. Louis-based health care company to occupy 500,000 square feet.
Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, described what he called the “Valentine’s Day Massacre of 2019” as one of the saddest days of his life but said he believed that the borough had “clear skies ahead.”
“Listen, 25,000 jobs would have been a home run,” Grech said. “We are all going to work together to make sure it never happens again by holding people accountable for their thoughts and actions, and making sure the welcome mat is out for companies that want to relocate here and established companies to grow here.”
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