Hiroko Masuike / The New York Times

Workers advocate for the addition of an Amazon Headquarters in hopes that it will bring more job opportunities to New York City.

February 18, 2019

Cornell Tech Loses Neighbor as Amazon Scraps N.Y.C. Headquarter Plans

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Much to the surprise of Cornell Tech, Amazon announced Thursday morning that it planned to pull out from New York City, citing “a number of state and local politicians [who] who made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us” in a statement Thursday. 

Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus is located less than 2,000 feet from the planned headquarters, which the University believed to be a factor in the company’s decision to build in Long Island City, a rapidly gentrifying Queens neighborhood. 

“Although I have no insights into the Amazon board, it seems like it’s very likely that Cornell Tech is one of the reasons that [New York City] is such an attractive site,” President Martha E. Pollack told The Sun the day after the company’s Nov. 13 announcement that it had planned to construct in New York City.

Founding dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, Daniel P. Huttenlocher sits on Amazon’s board of directors, though Huttenlocher recused himself from Amazon’s headquarters search, according to Pollack.

After Amazon’s initial announcement, Cornell Tech students expressed hope that proximity to the world’s largest company by market capitalization — combined with Huttenlocher’s lofty board appointment — could lead to a groundswell of further academic and industry opportunities for the newly minted campus.

“Amazon bringing 25,000 jobs to New York City will help establish [the city] as a mecca for tech development in the future, and the more people are attracted to the area, the more entrepreneurial it will be,” Sarah Le Cam ’16 M.Eng ’18 told The Sun in November.

After the project was pulled Thursday, Le Cam reflected that while the tech scene would have been bolstered by Amazon’s presence, there were also trade-offs that called the project into question.

“There’s definitely a balance of yes, it would have been great for the tech scene, but it also could have been bad for the general cost of living and quality of life,” Le Cam said. “There’s … an understanding of the Democratic views of ‘it was a big tax break, it’s a billion dollar company, do they really need a tax break?’” 

Amazon is currently a partner company in Cornell Tech’s Product Studio — a course in which students are paired with a company and required to respond to the challenges the company posed with new products or strategies — Le Cam said, and that Amazon’s affiliation with the program will continue for the time being.

Michele Hoos, a Cornell Tech spokesperson, said that Cornell Tech declined to comment on what implications Amazon’s withdrawal might have for the school.   

Much of the public outrage centered on New York’s decision to lure Amazon, which reported over $10 billion in profits last year, with a generous set of tax breaks — galvanizing debate as to whether a company of its size should ever receive public concessions.

In private negotiations leading up to the initial headquarters announcement, city and state officials secured an incentive package — the fourth largest ever — that would offer the company up to $3 billion in tax abatements, grants and subsidies, according to the Wall Street Journal

In exchange, Amazon promised to bring in at least 25,000 new jobs averaging $150,00 in salary over the next 25 years.

That deal — called “vulture, monopolistic capitalism at its worst” by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-N.Y.) in a January hearing — almost immediately sparked the ire of some local protestors and politicians, who worried the arrival of Amazon would exacerbate the city’s deepening affordability crisis.

“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose district borders the planned site and has been one of Amazon’s most vocal critics, celebrated the tech giant’s retreat. “Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers and their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world,” the freshman Congresswoman tweeted last Thursday.

Tompkins County’s representative, Tom Reed (R-NY), also opposed the build, telling Fox News that “what we should be doing is improving the business climate for all of New York and stand with our existing businesses and our existing residents first and foremost.”

A number of Cornell undergraduates struck a similar tune in the wake of Amazon’s sudden departure.

“I felt joy for the marginalized communities of New York City threatened by Amazon, amazement at the power of grassroots organizing and confident in the raw strength of New Yorkers,” Daniel Bromberg ’20, a Brooklyn native, told The Sun.

Katayrna Restrepo ’21 similarly celebrated the company’s withdrawal as “a major win for local grassroots organizing,” saying “the next fight concerning Amazon would be to fight the prospect of the headquarters moving to another area as Bezos has no intention of leaving this project.” 

“Why are we picking one business over another? Why don’t we let all the boats rise from an economy in New York that is based on lower taxes, freer regulations,” Reed said in an interview with Fox News. “Rather than what we see right now, which is the old school politics of picking winners and losers.

But despite the high-profile backlash, a broad majority of New York City residents approved of the Seattle-based company’s expansion, with support strongest among Hispanic and black respondents, according to a recent Siena College poll.

And backers of the now-dead deal argued that revenue generated from the addition of 25,000 skilled workers would have significantly outweighed the cost of government subsidies. A state report asserted that Amazon would generate $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years — over nine times greater than the $3 billion promised in tax breaks.   

“Bringing Amazon to New York diversified our economy away from real estate and Wall Street, further cementing our status as an emerging center for tech,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), a staunch Amazon supporter, said in a statement. “However, a small group politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community — which poll after poll showed overwhelmingly supported bringing Amazon to Long Island City.”

Maryam Zafar ’21 contributed reporting to this article.