Nov. 23, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
After a whirlwind week following Amazon’s official announcement to locate half of its second headquarters to Long Island City, Community Board 2 is now on the offensive, deliberating on how it can steer the project viewed by many as a done deal.
Members of the board’s Land Use committee mulled over the ways during its Nov. 20 meeting, after a representative from the city’s Economic Development Corporation presented an outline of Amazon’s future Anable Basin campus, and facets of the deal the company struck with the city and state.
“We’re very happy that Community Board 2 is one of our first stops for some information about the project,” said Nate Bliss, EDC senior vice president of development, later adding, “Certainly, a lot of ink has been spilled on this in the past week.”
Many of the committee members, however, first took the opportunity to express their bewilderment at the secrecy of the negotiations, despite the EDC’s constant attendance at land use meetings over the past year.
The waterfront properties where Amazon is slated to build its 4 million square foot campus were both set for significant rezonings for mixed-use developments by the EDC and Plaxall, respectively, and were a constant source of discussion among the board.
The EDC had appeared multiple times before the committee in the past year to give updates on its 44th Drive project, then called the Long Island City Innovation Center. It even held a scoping meeting in September before Amazon’s bombshell announcement just months later that it would build on that very site.
Plaxall also appeared before the committee for a preliminary presentation on its massive project.
“Trust is a little compromised at this point in time,” said Lisa Deller, land use chair. “I just want to put that out there.”
Committee members also made clear that they were fed up with the agency, which they say has a history of failing to collaborate with the board on projects and for lacking transparency.
Bliss, however, insisted that the 44th Drive projects were being worked on in earnest, and that much of the talks with Amazon were up in the air until only weeks ago.
“That was not pursued under false pretenses,” he said of the prior waterfront project.
While committee members raised questions during the presentation about the project’s likely layout, the conversation shifted to strategizing at the end of the three-hour meeting—well after city officials left the building.
“How do we really have meaningful community input?” Deller asked the committee.
But she, like other board members, now felt torn between the impact participation would have on validating a process many locals considered a farce from the start, and pulling out from a chance to try to guide the development to work for the neighborhood, which residents have also expressed interest in.
Even within the committee was a mix of positions on Amazon that made it challenging for the members to nail down how to best serve residents within the district on the matter.
Some pointed to the widespread opposition they’ve heard to the company being in Long Island City regardless of the city-state mechanisms that brought it, while others said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the plan.
“It’s probably a bit naive to think that you can redirect the flows of the waters of Niagara,” said Pat O’Brien.
O’Brien was also wary of what position the board should take at all during this point, given the limited information available on Amazon’s project besides the features written in the non-binding MOU.
“There’s nothing to support right now,” he said. “We don’t support concepts and ideas.”
Questions were also raised on the Community Advisory Council and the other methods officials tout as ways the public can engage during the next 14 months that the state’s Amazon’s General Project Plan is drafted.
Denise Keehan-Smith, chairperson of the community board, vowed to not shy away from engaging with Amazon, the city, and state on the development, affirming that she will take a seat on the Community Advisory Council formed as part of the GPP process.
“I’m not going to shut them down,” she said. “I’m not going to close my ears to them.”
Her stance came moments after both Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris, vocal critics of the Amazon deal, announced that they had turned down participating in the CAC—their own strategy against the corporate giant.
After pitching ideas ranging from requiring Amazon to commit to an internal steering committee, to having a town hall in the middle of the holiday season, or doing nothing at all and avoid misrepresenting constituents, the committee decided to first draft a letter and then hold a town hall some time in January.
The letter, to be sent to the city and state, will identify concerns across the spectrum on Amazon in Long Island City, and the fact that the board cannot embrace or support the project given its early stages and community response.
The committee will then organize for a detailed presentation on Amazon and where the project is and isn’t during its next full board meeting in December to get the board and attendees up to speed.
A town hall with be held some time in January, with enough time to notify locals. The board will also independently reach out to Amazon to begin direct conversations with the company, which has already gotten in touch with the board and provided a contact point person.
The committee’s deliberations come as advocacy groups, elected officials, and more are also figuring out how to gain more control over the conversation on Amazon, and even put a complete halt to the company’s Long Island City move, through rallies, legislation and new opposition campaigns.
“I just don’t want to be co-opted,” Deller said. “I feel strongly about that.”
Update 11/27 – A earlier version of this article referenced a statement made by Lisa Deller, who said during the meeting that the LIC Partnership asked Community Board 2 to sign a letter of support for Amazon. Deller’s statement, however, was erroneous.