Last semester, Amazon announced its decision to build its second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. After several protests from local residents and activists, however, Amazon chose to cancel its plans, much to the disappointment of NYU’s administration. In fact, President Andrew Hamilton and Tandon School of Engineering Dean Jelena Kovačević are now encouraging Amazon to reconsider its decision by signing an open letter to Amazon published in the New York Times last week, along with many other prominent city leaders.
Several other faculty members expressed support for an Amazon headquarters when the company was still planning on settling in Queens. But this is in no way the university community’s perspective on the issue. Some students feel personally affected by NYU’s decision to support Amazon rather than listen to the very real concerns that have been brought up by New York City residents. By citing the jobs Amazon could create as the primary reason to support the company, Hamilton and other faculty members are ignoring New Yorkers’ persistent advocacy against the company. By turning a blind eye to residents, Hamilton has sided with a corporation that may do more harm than good to the city NYU calls home and he has belittled those who make up the heart of New York: its activists and its residents.
As of 2019, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth $137 billion and has grown into an ever-present figure in the media. Recently, Amazon has faced scrutiny for mistreatment of its workers. After Bernie Sanders publicly condemned Amazon — which is now America’s second largest employer — last fall for paying its workers particularly low wages, the company announced that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Sanders and Democratic Congressman from California Ro Khanna called for a plan that would require companies like Amazon to provide funds for federal assistance needed by its employees, pointing out the hypocrisy in of the world’s wealthiest man running a company whose employees rely on Medicaid and food stamps. In addition, last month, Fortune magazine reported that Amazon will pay $0 in federal taxes on $11.2 billion in profit, which means that its new campus in New York would not only cause higher rents, standstill traffic and an overall alteration of the city’s culture, but its presence would also not agive back enough to New York’s infrastructure.
To better understand the fears of Amazon’s opposition, one can look south, to Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia — the site of the company’s other planned headquarters, which is in the process of being finalized. According to the Washington Post, Arlington’s incentives agreement states Amazon will receive as much as $550 million dollars of taxpayer money over the next 15 years; its only requirement is to occupy the space allocated by the county. This agreement is in addition to the $750 million secured by Amazon from the Virginia state government. Those opposed to the agreement felt as though the county did more for Amazon than it did for the community, and that it failed to leverage Amazon into giving more back to the community.
The primary concern of local residents is that the new headquarters would cause displacement and gentrification, especially in working-class communities. Seattle, the site of Amazon’s original headquarters, is an indication of the reality Crystal City is about to face, which includes skyrocketing homelessness and rent prices. Given NYU’s role in gentrification, it should be unsurprising that the administration would support similar policies in the city. However, it is especially disappointing to see Hamilton support the deal in light of the intense opposition New Yorkers showed it.
The open letter signed by Hamilton begins by discussing all that was lost in the deal, framing Amazon’s offer like charity and not an action motivated by profit by one of the world’s largest corporations. It also states that “a clear majority of New Yorkers support this project” and statistically, this is true. However, these polls fail to address the voices of local residents that are adamantly opposed — those who will be affected most by the deal. The letter also mentions that Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio would help aid the process if Amazon were to come back, but the reality is their prior efforts in securing the deal — which included secret negotiations and billions worth of tax breaks — have done more harm than good. It’s important to note that both Cuomo and de Blasio have particularly low approval ratings from their constituencies, so maybe they should not be pointed to as an overall representation of the community.
NYU students live as part of New York City, and the city community is ours as much as the university community. As an esteemed institution integrated into a thriving metropolitan area, NYU has a real chance to invest in its environment for the betterment of all. But here, it has missed an opportunity to take a stand for the New York City community.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Mar. 11th, 2019, print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]