New York City

The New York City Council didn’t mind being cut out before

The state has bypassed the New York City Council many times before for large development projects.

Local politicians like New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer calls the arrangement unnecessary corporate welfare.

Local politicians like New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer calls the arrangement unnecessary corporate welfare. Photo by William Alatriste

The backlash to Amazon’s plans to open a major office in Queens – and the revelation of up to $3 billion in city and state subsidies for the massive online retailer – has been quick and loud, with local politicians like New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, state Sen. Michael Gianaris and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling the arrangement unnecessary corporate welfare. They also complain that key stakeholders will be marginalized from the process because Gov. Andrew Cuomo will bypass the City Council and circumvent the city’s land use process, which other members of the council have also decried.

However, this is far from the first time the state has bypassed city law to complete a project. Any project undertaken by Empire State Development utilizes a general project plan, or GPP, which by its nature circumvents local laws. In the case of New York City, this means avoiding the sometimes-laborious Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, in which the City Council plays a key role.

Cuomo said the decision was made simply for expediency – Amazon needed to know whether it could build in Long Island City and a ULURP would take too long to provide an answer. So he decided to go through the state ESD, which will allow him to move forward without input neither from the council, nor from community members. The GPP has not yet been drafted.

There are no set regulations for how a GPP gets approved. Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny suggested that GPPs exist at the opposite end of the spectrum from ULURP applications. He said the city's process is “about as transparent and participatory a large-scale land use planning process” as possible, since it involves all level of local government and community input, and the status can be easily tracked. ESD, on the other hand, is quite different. “There’s no public mandate on them, it’s an opaque process,” Kaehny said. “It’s up to them, up to ESD, to decide how open and transparent the process is.”

ESD did not respond to a request for comment about the approval process for GPPs.

This was still true of other major projects that ESD has undertaken in New York City, but the council hasn’t always pushed back. One example that has been mentioned recently is the controversial Atlantic Yards redevelopment, which includes Barclays Center and a number of high-rise apartment buildings. This was approved as a GPP by the state and received considerable opposition from members of the community. Then-City Councilman Bill de Blasio, who represented an adjacent district, supported the project even as community groups did everything in their power to slow down or halt the process. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James was then the councilwoman from the district that included Atlantic Yards, and she opposed the development.

But most of the city’s political class lined up behind then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg in support of the deal, which involved the threat of taking homes and businesses through eminent domain and the paving over of a street into a superblock. Several community board members who voiced opposition to the plan were actually removed from their posts by then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Kaehny suggested that the blowback to Amazon from local elected officials has been so bad because it seems that Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio secretly negotiated the plan without ever consulting the City Council or other local lawmakers – Van Bramer said he learned of the deal through the news like everyone else.

This appears to be at the crux of council anger. Van Bramer, as well as Gianaris and City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who is running for public advocate, had actually supported the idea of Amazon building its second headquarters in New York City. Each had signed a letter months ago urging Amazon to do so.

But none had a say in what was offered to the company. The enormous size of the incentives being thrown at Amazon seems to be the main source of criticism. And since the project is not going through a ULURP, there is no way for stakeholders to negotiate the price down.

Reaction to Amazon’s HQ2 announcement suggests that perhaps the outcry is not actually about circumvented city laws or even bypassing public comment: The backlash seems more focused around the fact the state cut the City Council out of the process and it made a deal that many New Yorkers consider overly generous.

In contrast to the Seattle-based Amazon, Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner had long been active in New York City and he had political allies such as Assemblyman Roger L. Green, who represented the area. With their help, Ratner negotiated a community benefits agreement with local nonprofits to ensure the project would provide job training and affordable housing.

New York City of 2018 is also a different place than it was in 2003, when the Atlantic Yards proposal was first announced. The city has so many highly paid newcomers that economic development projects – especially without the housing component that Atlantic Yards has – stoke fears of exacerbating the housing crisis.

Another project undertaken by ESD is the Moynihan Train Hall, which involves transforming the old Farley Post Office across the street from Penn Station into a new waiting area replete with restaurants and retail. This project was first approved in 2006 with the sign-off of the New York City Planning Commission. Advocates, along with lawmakers, had long called for action to improve the decrepit Penn Station, so they welcomed action by the state. Although it did not file a ULURP, there was no outcry from the City Council about bypassing it.

In another instance, when Columbia University expanded its campus, a ULURP was filed in addition to the GPP from the state. Although there was considerable community blowback for the state’s use of eminent domain, the ULURP was approved by the City Council.

A spokesperson for the City Council pointed out that unlike in past projects that may have involved considerable amounts of state land, almost none involved in the Amazon deal belongs to the state. And the sheer size of Amazon and the amount of money being offered to the company is unprecedented in the state, especially since Amazon might have chosen Long Island City even without the subsidies and tax breaks.

Still, city and state legislators' main complaint about the Amazon deal may be that they weren’t given a voice – and a chance to claim credit.