Amazon was not prepared for New York City politics

Straight to the point in Queens.
Straight to the point in Queens.
Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo
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Three months after selecting New York City as the site of a sprawling new headquarters, Amazon got cold feet. “We’ve decided not to move forward with our plans,” the company said on Feb. 14. “For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials, who will be supportive over the long-term.”

Amazon announced in November it would split its next headquarters, and 50,000 jobs, between Virginia and the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens. The decision followed a yearlong search conducted like a beauty pageant for American cities and widely criticized in the press. New York state governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio cheered Amazon’s decision, in a rare show of allegiance. Local polls showed Amazon had wide support.

In a city like New York, though, never is everyone happy. Predictably, activists showed up to protest Amazon and everything it stands for in their minds: poor labor practices, mercenary surveillance, the outsized power and influence of technology giants. A handful of local politicians joined them, as did firebrand congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Amazon is famous for its take-no-prisoners approach. In the mid-2000s, it extracted better terms from publishers by throttling their book sales until they capitulated to its demands. This past summer, Amazon halted construction on a new tower in Seattle after the city council passed a business tax to fund homeless shelters and low-income housing. It resumed once the council backed down and repealed the measure.

But New York is not easily steamrolled. When Amazon dug in its heels—on labor, tax incentives, and CEO Jeff Bezos’s helipad—so did the local opposition. What began as a secretive search process was dragged into the ugly spotlight of New York politics, and Amazon was shockingly unprepared. If the company wanted to be welcomed as a job-creating hero, it could have picked any other US city. Instead, made complacent by years atop the corporate food chain, it chose New York, a rare place that needs Amazon less than Amazon needs it.