New York City council members expressed their frustrations at the first Amazon hearing on Wednesday over the behind-doors process for HQ2 in Queens, the non-disclosure agreements officials signed and the company’s failure to directly address many of their concerns on housing, jobs and transportation.
The Amazon hearing kicked off with Speaker Corey Johnson saying it was unusual that the council wasn’t involved in the Amazon HQ2 negotiations, specifically for a land-use project of this size.
“There’s a reason that the council is so deeply involved in land use — the whole process was designed to protect the people we represent,” he said in his opening statement. That process, called ULURP, is “designed so communities could figure out what’s needed to accommodate the kinds of changes that development can bring, be it new schools, transit upgrades or infrastructure improvements.”
Transit upgrades and infrastructure were a common theme, with many council members lamenting the crumbling subway system and the lack of any offer from Amazon to aid its improvement.
“The only transportation piece of this project I’ve seen involves a helipad,” Johnson said. “I’m serious. This is like something out of the Onion.”
Protesters also voiced their frustrations early on in the hearing, unfurling a “No to Amazon” banner and chanting “G-T-F-O, Amazon has got to go!” Johnson noted that some attendees are upset, “understandably,” but asked protesters not to interrupt so that they could finally have a conversation with the tech company and city officials from the Economic Development Corporation.
City Council Amazon hearing: just the beginning?
Council members’ frustrations weren’t limited to what happened before the hearing, but extended to how Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, seemed to answer, or avoid, many questions.
When Council Member Brad Lander asked if Amazon threatened to halt construction as a way to kill a Seattle tax on big businesses meant to fund affordable housing, Huseman skirted the specifics.
“I respectfully disagree with the premise that Amazon is a growing monopoly,” he said. “As to the issue of the head tax in Seattle, we’ve been a leader of fighting homelessness in Seattle.”
Lander cut him off to ask again and then said, “you know you did” threaten to stop construction, because Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener confirmed it to the press.
Amazon executives said they will hire New Yorkers, but to questions about specifics and for what kind of jobs as well as others on the impact of HQ2 in Queens, Huseman began many answers with the caveat that “it’s very early in the process.”
“We were brought in at the end of the process,” Johnson told Huseman. “The beginning started with negotiating in private, signing NDAs, avoiding the land use process. It doesn’t feel like the beginning of the process to me.”
City Council will hold two more Amazon hearings. The dates have not yet been set, but Huseman did not initially say that he and his fellow Amazon executive, Holly Sullivan, would be able to attend.
“What you’ve said before is that you look forward to engaging with us on issues that matter. You can’t say that … in the course of a hearing, and then at the end of a hearing, if asked if you’re going to come to future hearings, not give a straight answer,” Johnson said. “It’s insulting.”
Huseman responded that they will participate in future hearings, to which Johnson said the dates will be set around the Amazon executives’ schedules.
“We will find a date that works for you,” Johnson said, “since you’re going to come to New York City with 25,000 jobs, getting $3 billion in taxpayer money and getting public land. [There’s an] expectation that you’re going to be at those hearings.”