Queens biz owners haunted by Amazon loss amid pandemic
In Long Island City, it’s the scar that won’t heal.
Two years after Amazon pulled out from a proposal to build a massive headquarters along the Queens waterfront, the site is a vacant eyesore — and, to many locals, the squandered economic opportunity is even more painful amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The site just sits there empty. It’s terrible,” said Donna Drimer, owner of the Matted LIC art gallery and gift store. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. People say, ‘If we only had Amazon.’ We got nothing.”
The world’s largest e-tailer abruptly cancelled its projected 25,000 job-producing campus after being taken aback by ferocious opposition from the local pols — including democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Mike Gianaris.
Nearly two years later, the massive site remains a desolate reminder of wasted potential, while COVID-19 has ravaged the city’s economy, including the LIC-Western Queens area that would have benefitted from the influx of potential customers into the area.
Seething LIC merchants and residents grappling to survive during the pandemic told The Post the loss of Amazon haunts the community even more now.
“It’s really crazy what’s going on. The city has no solutions. We have a do-nothing mayor,” fumed Eric Benaim, CEO of Modern Spaces realty, who resides in the neighborhood and whose office is near the fallow site.
“I’m watching AOC selling ‘tax the rich T-shirts’ for $58 while businesses are leaving New York. That’s AOC’s solution. Who is going to pay $58 for a T-shirt when you’re out of a job?” Benaim said.
An alternative project called “Your LIC” that included residential-commercial towers at the site was also recently shot down amid not-in-my-backyard opposition and lack of support from City Hall. The plan claimed it would create 26,000 jobs, open space and cultural amenities.
The Your LIC consortium included manufacturer Plaxall, the major property owner on the waterfront site along with the City of New York.
It wasn’t to be.
“Their plans weren’t going to offer enough benefits to the community, and we’re not going to let private developers ignore their obligations to New Yorkers,” said Mitchell Schwartz, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Drimer directed her fury at the local pols for letting down the neighborhood.
“AOC, Giannaris, Van Bramer [local councilman Jimmy] — wake up!” she said. “People are leaving. Businesses are closing.”
Gianna Cerbone, owner of Manducatis Rustica restaurant, whose family has deep roots in LIC, said “delusional” Democratic Socialists and anti-gentrifiers have hijacked Western Queens — and not for the better.
“I’m angry at the stupidity. Everybody fears AOC, who has no idea what she’s doing. Opposing Amazon benefitted other communities. Imagine if AOC did something positive with her big mouth,” Cerbone said.
She said Sen. Gianaris, whom she’s known for years, was the most surprising betrayal.
“I believed in Gianaris. Mike believed in the community until he went so far up AOC’s ass she couldn’t s–t him out,” the salty restaurateur said.
Bishop Mitchell Taylor, pastor of the Center of Hope International Church near the Queensbridge Houses, said the Amazon debacle followed by the pandemic is a double whammy to LIC’s poorest residents.
“It’s like we’re living in the 1970s. Things are worse for poor people now,” Rev. Taylor said.
“The Amazon project provided a ray of hope to a lot of people. We didn’t want a handout. The largest public housing project in the country wanted the opportunity to do business with the largest retailer in the country,” he said.
The head of the neighborhood’s business group said it’s time to develop the waterfront site.
“Coming out of COVID-19, it’s going to be more important than ever to activate this area to help the surrounding community. Because of the scale, you could really create significant new opportunities for jobs, housing, culture and open space, and link the whole Western Queens waterfront, bringing all of our neighbors closer together as a community,” said Elizabeth Lusskin, president of the Long Island City Partnership.
The biggest complaints about the Amazon project among critics was that it was hatched in secret with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio, that it offered $3 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies to the wealthiest company on the planet while claiming the campus would have priced people out of the neighborhood.
Gianaris, the state Senate deputy majority who used his power in Albany to help scuttle the Amazon deal in his district, and Ocasio-Cortez — who New Yorkers said outmaneuvered Cuomo — stood by their opposition.
Gianaris said he’s been vindicated — alluding to Amazon leasing space in Hudson Yards and acquiring the Lord & Taylor building in midtowns to create city jobs — after withdrawing its planned headquarters in LIC.
“In the last two years, Amazon has already added and announced more white collar jobs in New York City than were called for in the HQ2 plan, all without massive public subsidy,” the senator said.
He also claimed there are “several good proposals” being discussed for the waterfront site that the city should consider, including the shelved Your LIC plan.
AOC spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, “Both our primary and general election challengers ran multi-million campaigns largely on this issue, in the middle of the pandemic, and both lost decisively.”
The Amazon project “would have given [residents] their hard-earned tax dollars to one of the wealthiest men in the world, in exchange for a campus that made no promises about hiring local residents or contracting with local businesses,” the spokesperson said.
The congresswoman also claimed housing costs have increased in the D.C. area where Amazon located a new campus and slammed the company’s labor and safety recording during the pandemic.
The aborted Amazon remains a divisive issue — even among merchants in the LIC neighborhood. Not all were on board with the project.
Shawn Dixon, owner of Otis & Finn barbershop on 44th Road near the waterfront site, said he opposed the Amazon project because he leases his space and feared getting priced out when his lease was up for renewal.
“We could have had the double whammy of COVID and market speculation,” Dixon said.
The barber also said infrastructure improvements haven’t kept pace with development in LIC and asserted that issue wasn’t adequately addressed in the Amazon plan.
Dixon had his own idea: “Why doesn’t Gov. Cuomo offer merchants a tax holiday to get through the winter?”