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New Jersey and Brooklyn offer glimpses of what might have been for Amazon in Queens

Erin M. Calabrese
Key Points
  • There was plenty of finger-pointing from Albany's state house to New York's city hall after Amazon bailed on Queens on Valentine's Day.
  • Everyone involved might have taken a lesson in economic development from Queens' neighboring borough Brooklyn and some inspiration from a hamlet in New Jersey that struck its own deal with Amazon.
  • Amazon's arrival in Robbinsville, New Jersey, brought three straight years of tax reductions — something that rarely happens in a high-tax state.
  • The Amazon deal's death also stirred memories of another epic development battle in Brooklyn years earlier.
Demonstrators shout slogans and hold a banner during a protest against the planned Amazon.com Inc. office hub in the Long Island City neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

It was a chilly Valentine's Day when Amazon broke up with New York City.

In a flash, the Jeff Bezos-led, Seattle-based giant packed up its offer of 25,000 potential jobs once it became clear that opposition to its second headquarters plan in the Queens neighborhood of Long island City wasn't buckling.

There was plenty of finger-pointing from Albany's state house to New York's city hall after Amazon bailed on Queens. Yet everyone involved might have taken a lesson in economic development from neighboring Brooklyn and some inspiration from a hamlet in New Jersey that struck its own deal with Amazon.

Sixty miles west of the Hudson River drama, the mayor of Robbinsville Township, David Fried, is still seeing green.

Fried recently said that the Amazon warehouse that opened in 2014 continues to rake in profits and has created positive impacts in the lives of its 14,000 or so residents.

"We built a new municipal building in the same year we cut taxes," he said. "Our economy has grown."

The online retailer's arrival in Robbinsville helped his constituents benefit from three consecutive years of tax reductions — something that rarely happens in a high-tax burden state like New Jersey.

The mayor praised what Amazon calls its Career Choices program, which uses partnerships with educational institutions to provide college, technical and vocational classes, and prepays up to 95 percent of the tuition for the students. In Fried's township, Amazon says about 500 people have used the program, with 200 taking advantage in the last year.

"They bring the school to them," Fried said. "I've never seen anything like it."

"There's an entire segment of the population who cannot go to school," he added. "It's a game-changer for them."

The Brooklyn Case

Job seekers register before interviews during an Amazon jobs fair at the Amazon Fulfillment Center on August 2, 2017 in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Getty Images

To be sure, Long Island City is far more populous, with nearly 50,000 residents amid a borough of 2.3 million, but seeing Robbinsville's economic rise leaves one wondering what could have been had Amazon followed through with its plans for Queens.

Small business owners were left bemoaning the Queens economic boom that got away. Perhaps the biggest losers were average New Yorkers, who polled 56 percent in favor of the deal.

No doubt, many stakeholders share the burden in the deal's death — which stirred memories of another epic development battle in Brooklyn years earlier.

Beginning in 2003, developer Forest City Ratner ran into interference from countless interests when attempting to break ground on a huge plot known as Atlantic Yards, now named Pacific Park Brooklyn. It had to draw big stars in the arts and the NBA to fill the seats at Barclay's Arena and promise to build affordable housing along with the luxury residential towers that would surround the arena.

Side by side, the Amazon deal and Pacific Park Brooklyn bear striking differences. There are also some similarities, though. Each saw the city sweetening the pot with multibillion-dollar tax breaks and subsidies. In the case of the Pacific Park Brooklyn, Forest City was embroiled in a local turf war and eventually conceded 2,250 affordable housing units. Construction on the arena began in 2010.

Former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a Democrat who presided over the nine-years-long Pacific Park Brooklyn negotiations, lamented over Amazon's "Fuhgeddaboudit" posture toward the deal in Queens.

"I do think it would've been a positive development for Long Island City and the city as a whole," he said.

There are some indicators that Markowitz is right. The NYPD's 78th Precinct, which patrols the Barclays Center area, has seen a drop of over 25 percent in the seven major felony crime categories from 2003 to 2018. However, a number of those affordable housing units haven't been built yet. It is also still unclear whether all of the jobs and other benefits promised to the city for its tax breaks and subsidies came to fruition.

The gentrification argument

But what they say about most relationships can be said about economic development: It's complicated. What is seen by some as economic development in the city's fastest growing borough is seen by others as whitewashing and gentrification.

Firebrand freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx in Congress, came out against Amazon's HQ2 plan and rejoiced in its exiting.

As did Brooklyn state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, whose district sits just on the outskirts of the Atlantic Yards development. He wants to see fewer "promises unfulfilled," noting that New Era, a company that received tax incentives to move into upstate New York, has since pulled up stakes. He'd also like to see more transparency in the bidding process.

As the son of a small business owner who was priced out of her storefront due to rising rents, Myrie thinks the discussion should turn to how government can help support small shops — but he is not opposed to big businesses coming to town.

"If a large corporation wants to come to New York, please do come," he said. "We want you here but if you do, you have to go through this process."

An Amazon oasis in New Jersey

A truck drives past the Amazon.com fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

New Jersey offers a glimpse at other outcomes that could have been. The average selling price for a home in Robbinsville, for instance, climbed from $366,897 in 2014 to $409,269 in 2018.

It's not an astronomic jump in value, like what was hoped for by some and feared by others in Long Island City. Rather, it is a sign of a steady, growing local economy.

Crime in Robbinsville is down, too, mirroring what happened in Brooklyn after Pacific Park Brooklyn took root. In 2014, there were 163 violent/nonviolent arrests made in Robbinsville. By 2018 that number dropped to only six nonviolent crimes, according to New Jersey State Police numbers.

In terms of tax incentives, the town agreed to a 20-year PILOT agreement, meaning it would receive payments in lieu of taxes. Since 2014, the town has received over $2.5 million in payments directly as a result of Amazon's agreement.

Fried said the only nuisance the warehouse created was traffic problems. But Amazon responded, the mayor added.

In order to ease traffic woes, he said, Amazon changed the way it scheduled employee shifts — which evened out traffic around the area during key transit times.

"They were a victim of their own success," Fried said. "They had to change the way they do business, and from a government perspective, that really was something. They are good corporate citizens."