Note: Developers and the Department of City Planning are outright lying about what they intend to build at the former Amazon HQ2 site. This 3D rendering was sent to QAGP by an anonymous source depicting the scale and scope of what developers plan to build. This article is a call to community members to get involved and help organize to stop this.
In 2018, New Yorkers successfully came together to stop Amazon HQ2 from coming to Queens, denying multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos in his attempt to steal a piece of our publicly owned land and turn it into his personal profit. However, more than a year later, the threat of development has returned to the same site, this time in its traditional form: luxury real estate. Developers TF Cornerstone, LL Mag, Plaxall, and Simon Baron, along with their consulting agencies, have presented us with “Your LIC,” a full-blown propaganda campaign operating in lock-step with the Department of City Planning. Like all other city-backed development plans, residents have been invited to participate in workshops and “visioning sessions” where community input is recorded in order to manufacture a false image of democracy and community consent for development on the site. Meanwhile, developers, bureaucrats, and politicians have been working feverishly behind the scenes to ram more than a dozen luxury buildings down our throats. Their plan is simple: to skip the legally-mandated parts of the city’s land use review process and rubber-stamp the project.
When Amazon was defeated, we knew the fight was not over. We knew that our real estate funded city council representative, Jimmy Van Bramer, who invited Amazon here in the first place, had postured against the proposal only in response to public outcry, and that once the noise died down he’d be back to business as usual. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Van Bramer has already green-lighted the “Your LIC” project. This type of behavior is precisely why we should refuse to trust or give a platform to any politician, regardless of their rhetoric. We cannot risk putting our faith in unaccountable individuals or government institutions. We must depend only on each other and the institutions that we ourselves build. While we should be proud of the Amazon win, we should not give a single inch to those in power.
What the fight against Amazon showed us is that when we work together we can defeat corporate real estate development. We have power and strength in numbers, and we will defeat “Your LIC.” But with this in mind, we must position ourselves beyond the defensive and set our sights on something more. We must work to create a city that prioritizes human development over the profits of the rich, that views housing as a fundamental right rather than a safety deposit box, that provides free transit, and guarantees a dignified life to all without harassment by landlords, pigs, and la migra. It is time for us to take direct control over the city and our lives.
The public meeting began pleasantly enough at 4:30 PM in the main cafeteria of Aviation High School. Outside, Emily Sharp and her supporters handed out anti-Sunnyside Yards development lit.
When one entered, yummy pupusas were being served in the middle of the room, and on the sides were stations that described different aspects of the project. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), directing the meeting, had complete control.
One station was devoted to how to mitigate the effects of climate change, no doubt important as its effects become more impactful especially in the form of larger storms.
Then at around 6:20 PM, local activists stormed the public meeting and shut it down. One activist got on top of a table and led a human microphone to initiate the shut down.
A coalition comprised of the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, Queens Neighborhoods United, and Centro Corona led a teach-in to discuss the history of the EDC, their previous developments in Hudson Yards, and their involvement in trying to get the Amazon HQ2 project around the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).
In the beginning, one man questioned whether they were Sunnyside natives, to which activist responded that he was one.
Tom Angotti and James DeFilippis, professors in urban planning, led the discussion and fielded questions from the crowd that had gathered. There was a question and answer session about the EDC and Sunnyside Yards led by the professors.
Later, The crowd moved into a hallway to stop a question and answer session being led by the EDC. They were racuous, shouting “let us in,” no doubt trying to take control of the Q&A session being held in the Teacher’s Cafeteria near the Main Cafeteria.
At one point, activists led by Jonathan Bailey, co-chair of Queens DSA, attempted to take control of the building’s microphone system to relay messages, but were checked by a government official.
One activist commented that the EDC’s plans were like a Disney World project and not an actual project that would meet the needs of people living in Sunnyside.
There were rumors that the project was estimated to cost around $22 billion dollars, more than the initial estimate for the Hudson Yards.
The EDC officials were at a loss to what to do. At the beginning of the teach-in, one member tried to ask them to keep it down, but he was instantly drowned out by the other activists. The EDC officials and assoicated firms stood to the side next to their stations to field questions from whomever approached them.
After being questioned, one EDC official led me on a mini-tour of the stations, not answering my question on what their reaction was to the whole proceeding. She ended up leading me to two of her colleagues to further answer questions about turning the development into high-quality public housing.
One of them told me she was happy that the teach-in happened, as that meant they were hearing from different voices in the community.
I was quite surprised by this, but then again she was probably trying to put a brave face on. After the teach-in ended, the activists regrouped outside to plan their next steps. The night was considered a success.
Community Leaders and Organizations Should Resign From the Sunnyside Yard Steering Committee
The letter below calls on community leaders and organizations to resign from the Sunnyside Yard Steering Committee. It will be mailed or emailed to April Simpson, President of Queensbridge Houses Tenants Association, Lisa Deller of Community Board 2, Melissa Orlando of Access Queens, and Sylvia White, Co-Chair of Justice for All Coalition.
Dear Steering Committee Members,
We are writing to respectfully request that you or your organization resign immediately from the Sunnyside Yard steering committee. Your presence on the committee, regardless of your position, serves to legitimize an undemocratic process, and ultimately helps to advance the goals of a small class of real estate developers and politicians against the interests of your friends and neighbors in Queens and NYC. As would have been the case with Amazon HQ2, development over Sunnyside Yard would undoubtedly lead to mass displacement, gentrification, and corporate handouts. It would put further strain on an already struggling MTA, threaten the small businesses that provide affordable goods to our communities, and create an exclusive enclave of luxury housing, high-end retail, and office space designed specifically for the rich. The developers and politicians know this to be the case, which is why Sunnyside Yard, and projects like it, require huge amounts of Public Relations work – the Sunnyside Yard Steering Committee (and your participation in it) is part and parcel to this effort.
There is a growing trend among community-based groups to reject the crumbs from the table that developers and politicians would like us to be satisfied with when they invite us to sit down. More and more, grassroots organizations are finding these crumbs offensive, and instead are demanding a full meal. It is not enough that only some of us get to eat – that this or that constituency get some perks for signing on to support a development project – this tactic has run its course and even the most opportunistic politicians are starting to abandon it (for example, when Jimmy Van Bramer and Michael Gianaris rejected Amazon’s Community Advisory Committee). By collectively refusing to negotiate with those who want to displace us we ensure that no one gets left out.
We understand that some may want to genuinely participate on the steering committee in order to serve as a voice of opposition. To them, we say: you can do this, from the outside, without legitimizing the process and undermining the efforts of other groups. There are others who might see participation on the steering committee as a career opportunity or a chance to gain notoriety. To those people, we ask: please do not use the working class and immigrant communities of Queens to advance your own goals.
We cannot rely on the good will of developers or politicians to get us what we need to survive. Historically, we’ve been able to make the most progress when we reject compromise and piecemeal solutions, and, instead, demand the seemingly impossible.
We believe that development over Sunnyside Yard will irreversibly devastate Western Queens. We demand that the City Council and the Department of City Planning recognize this basic fact and forever abandon plans to develop over the site. Until then, community groups and leaders should boycott their gimmicks and join with the growing popular movement against gentrification and displacement.
April Simpson, President of Queensbridge Houses Tenants Association, Lisa Deller of Community Board 2, Melissa Orlando of Access Queens, Sylvia White, Co-Chair of Justice for All Coalition: please resign from the Sunnyside Yard Steering Committee.
Queens Anti-Gentrification Project
(TLDR; On October 16, 2017, dozens of NYC politicians sent a letter of support to Amazon that was attached to a larger proposal, partly drafted by New York City Economic Development Corporation, which clearly stated that it is possible to go around local zoning restrictions.)
On October 16, 2017, dozens of New York City politicians, including 30 City Council members, signed a letter asking Amazon to set up shop in NYC. Now, one year later, they claim to be leading the fight against it. City Council representatives like Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris, in an effort to set the narrative, argue that they got “duped” by Amazon when they allegedly got cut of the negotiation process. If it were up to them, they say, Amazon would not have gotten such a big tax subsidy, nor would they have been permitted to evade city zoning law. This posturing has allowed them to create the appearance of opposition by criticizing the process through which AmazonHQ2 is coming to NYC, while, at the same time, refraining from rejecting the deal in its entirety – a demand many grassroots groups have been making.
Given that those who occupy City Council are notoriously untrustworthy, however, can we really believe that they didn’t know about the proposed tax subsidies and the desire to circumvent the city’s zoning process, known as ULURP? Most likely not. As we shall see, members of City Council were almost certainly informed, directly or indirectly, of what de Blasio and Cuomo were going to offer Amazon.
Fact Check: City Council Knew Amazon Would Try To Circumvent ULURP
The letter by City Council and other elected officials, referenced above, was dated the same day (October 16, 2017) that Governor Cuomo sent a lengthy response to Jeff Bezos regarding Amazon’s HQ2 proposal. Cuomo’s response included a section, prepared by NYCEDC, that had a letter from de Blasio, a list of various benefits (economic and social) of locating in NYC, and a description of 4 sites that could accommodate Amazon’s new proposed headquarters. On page 25, the document refers to an appendix including “letters of support”. Although the released document did not include any of the appendix items, it is reasonable to assume that a letter of support, dated the same day, and signed by 77 NYC politicians, would have been among the items sent to Jeff Bezos that day, since it would have shown that the Cuomo/NYCEDC response had strong political backing.
The Cuomo/NYCEDC response document was not drafted in a vacuum and clearly went to great lengths in engaging various parties during it’s preparation. One such party must have been Jimmy Van Bramer, council member of the district where the HQ is now slated to be built. Indeed, one month prior to the support letter and Cuomo/NYCEDC response document, Van Bramer sent de Blasio a support letter of his own, indicating the degree to which he supported the proposal.
Therefore, it is clear, that during the months of September and October of 2017, a concentrated effort was being made by city and state politicians, and entities like NYCEDC and the state version Empire State Development (ESD), to convince Amazon to come to NYC. The final result of this effort was the Cuomo/NYCEDC response document mentioned above. An excerpt from this document CLEARLY states that ESD “can also override local zoning, offer tax subsidies while holding title to a property, and provide lower cost financing or grants to economic development projects.”
One would think that politicians would read or, at least be briefed, on a proposal for which they are indicating their support, but maybe that’s asking too much from elected officials. (Even if they did not read the Cuomo/NYCEDC document, however, the process of circumventing city zoning for large projects has been used as recently as the Atlantic Yards project, so City Council cannot claim ignorance – they are literally paid to know these laws). In any case, perhaps at the next sham City Council hearing on Amazon, Van Bramer and others can clarify the degree to which they were aware of what was being offered. We aren’t holding our breath waiting for these politicians to come clean though.
We will leave you with an excerpt taken from a Queens Chronicle article, which we quoted in a recent post “Liars Don’t Represent Us – Van Bramer: Say NO to Amazon or Resign“:
“I am excited to see the New York City Economic Development Corporation recognize in their proposal what thousands of New Yorkers have been recognizing for years now: that Long Island City and Western Queens as a whole are among New York City’s most dynamic and innovative neighborhoods,” Van Bramer said in an emailed statement. “I am an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal, and of any plan to bring good paying jobs to my district. I think it is clear that Amazon HQ2 would be an ideal fit for Long Island City and for the entire borough of Queens. I look forward to working with the Economic Development Corporation in the months to come to support Long Island City’s proposal.