Amazon confirms New York and Virginia for HQ2, sparking protests

Amazon has confirmed that it will split its major HQ2 between Arlington County, Virginia, and Queens, New York, triggering a major backlash from residents and local politicians in the latter.

The retail giant revealed it will divide its second headquarters between Long Island City – a burgeoning riverside neighbourhood in New York’s largest borough – and the Crystal City area close to Washington DC, on 13 November 2018.

Known as HQ2, the project promises to provide each with $2.5 billion (£1.92 billion) and more than 25,000 new jobs. The announcement was met with elation by New York governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio, who championed to secure Long Island City during a highly sought battle between cities across North America.

“This is a giant step on our path to building an economy in New York City that leaves no one behind,” said de Blasio in a statement. “We are thrilled that Amazon has selected New York City for its new headquarters.”

“New Yorkers will get tens of thousands of new, good-paying jobs, and Amazon will get the best talent anywhere in the world,” he added.

Local politicians oppose development in Long Island City

However, several local officials have criticised the major incentives that Cuomo and de Blasio have agreed with the multibillion-dollar company, founded by Jeff Bezos. These are expected to total $1.525 billion (£1.17 billion) – nearly triple the $573 million (£440 million) offered by Arlington County.

State senator Michael Gianaris, who represents Queens neighbourhoods including Long Island City, and city council member Jimmy Van Bramer are among those who have publicly spoken out against the Amazon LIC Deal.

The duo organised a protest on 14 November 2018, and issued a joint statement outlining their “serious reservations” about the project.

“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” said the statement, which was posted onto Van Bramer’s Twitter.

“The burden should not be on the 99 per cent to prove we are worthy of the one per cent presence in our communities, but rather on Amazon to prove it would be a responsible corporate neighbour.”

Gianaris and Bramer argued that the breaks could be better spent elsewhere. “Corporate responsibility should take precedence over corporate welfare,” they said.

Among the agreements of Amazon’s deal with New York City is that it will received tax credits equalling $48,000 (£36,921) for each of the 25,000 jobs – each estimated to have an average salary of $150,000 (£115,380).

The major retailer is also in line to receive a $325 million cash grant from the Empire State Development Corporation – a New York organisation that aims to promote business investment and support local economies. This will depend on the area of buildings it occupies with the development over the next 10 years.

Tax breaks and grants for Amazon “could be spent better elsewhere”

Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez – the US representative-elect for New York’s 14th congressional district, which includes Queens – backed up Gianaris and Bramer’s on Twitter, also suggesting that funds could be spent better elsewhere.

“Amazon is a billion-dollar company,” she tweeted. “The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”

Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City Council, also highlighted the controversial planning procedure of the project and its lack of community involvement. LIC’s half of HQ2 will be exempt from the New York’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, sidetracking the City Council and public input, to speed up construction.

“Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world, but you can’t put a price on community input, which has been missing throughout this entire process,” said Johnson in a statement issued after the announcement.

“I find that lack of engagement and the fact that the negotiations excluded the City Council – which is elected by New Yorkers to guide land use projects with communities in mind – extremely troubling.”

Officials question if jobs will go to locals

Having originally planned to settle on one location for HQ2, Amazon chose to split the headquarters in order to spread its opportunity for finding talented tech employees. But whether these will be local to New York City, among many other conditions, has not been confirmed – as highlighted by Ocasia-Cortez in a series of tweets.

“When we talk about bringing jobs to the community, we need to dig deep. Has the company promised to hire in the existing community? What’s the quality of jobs + how many are promised? Are these jobs low-wage or high wage? Are there benefits? Can people collectively bargain?” she asked.

The impact of employees with an average wage of over $150,000 could also elevate the cost of housing and rent in the Queens borough, raising concerns that current residents will be out-priced.

Cuomo and de Blasio champion the idea that HQ2 will boost the surrounding area, including spurring on thousands of new jobs. Amazon has also promised to include spaces for a tech startup, and artist and industrial businesses in its development, as well as a primary or public school.

Its other initiatives include improving infrastructure and adding green spaces.

Announcement ends closely fought race between North American cities

Amazon is rumoured to be developing an area known as Anable Basin and is among a number of companies that have chosen to set up camp in Long Island City, including fashion brand Madewell.

Amazon’s hunt for the HQ2 site to accompany its first in Seattle began in September 2017. The aim was to find a metropolitan area with over one million occupants, within 45 minutes of a major airport and near to a highway.

A shortlist of 20 cities vying for the project was announced at the beginning of this year. Shortly after, Aaron Betsky raised concerns that HQ2 might not offer as many benefits as competitors originally thought in an Opinion column for Dezeen.

Rumours emerged that Amazon would split it between Long Island City and the recently revitalised Crystal City, before the news was confirmed this week. In a surprise twist, the company announced it will also create a new operations centre in Nashville, providing an extra 5,000 jobs.

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