The Robert Moses Nexus to Amazon's Cancellation of Queens HQ2

Last week, Amazon abruptly canceled its decision to invest about $2.5 billion and bring 25,000 high-paying jobs to Queens. A scholar blames their abrupt decision on an arcane state bureaucracy tasked with preventing Robert Moses-like takings.

3 minute read

February 21, 2019, 9:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid


Robert Moses

C.M. Stieglitz / Wikimedia Commons

As noted in a New York Times analysis of Amazon's cancellation of HQ2 on Valentines Day, "Amazon could have worked with the deal’s biggest champions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, to push past the limited public hostility," writes Marc J. Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and the author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community."

However, even if a deal had been reached between the governor, the mayor, and Jeff Bezos, Dunkelman writes that "no amount of leverage is capable of overcoming resistance from a small star chamber in Albany known as the Public Authorities Control Board. Without unanimous support from the three voting members of the PACB, Amazon’s plan was dead in the water." 

More specifically, Dunkelman points to an appointment to the board earlier this month.

"On [Feb. 4], the New York state Senate announced that it was appointing state Sen. Michael Gianaris [D] to represent the legislative body on the Public Authorities Control Board, reported Annie McDonough for City & State New York on Feb. 5. 

Gianaris, whose Queens district includes Long Island City, has been one of HQ2’s most vocal critics, and his appointment to the PACB has been seen by some as an attempt to stop HQ2 in its tracks

How did this board acquire so much power?

Public Authorities Control Board and Robert Moses

"After roughly 40 years as New York’s master builder, Moses was shown the door by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller [from 1967-1968]," writes Dunkelman.

By then, the public was seething and New York seemed to be on the decline. The PACB is one of a raft of new tools established in the wake of Moses’ reign to check the power of government to build new public works and other redevelopment projects.

To be sure, the board was created by Gov. Hugh Carey [D] in 1976 "in the aftermath of a state fiscal crisis in which the New York state Urban Development Corporation and the New York state Housing Finance Agency were thought to have overstretched themselves and incurring too much debt in building projects, according to a former member of the board," wrote McDonough for City & State 

Included in Dunkelman's "raft of new tools" to check government power are:

This is really the meat of Dunkelman's essay – that laws and boards have been given so much power in the aftermath of the physical destruction caused by Moses' projects that even good development can be halted too easily.

Moses’ mark often left a scar. But for policymakers—and particularly for progressives whose aim it is to use public power for the public good—the hurdles erected in his wake make the process of doing great things next to impossible. The scar tissue built over the past 50 years to prevent the second coming of Moses stops good projects as well as bad.

For example, "[f]ormer New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans for a West Side Stadium were dashed in 2005, when then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver [and now-convicted felon] – who sat on the PACB – voted against the project," notes McDonough.

Similarly, Dunkelman writes that a "lone state senator had the single-handed power to kill the deal altogether. On this one issue, Gianaris’ 'no' was more powerful than every 'yes' standing behind the deal."

However, McDonough pointed out in her comprehensive article on the PACB and Giarnaris' appointment that the board had control over only $500 million, or one-sixth of the controversial $3 billion incentive package offered to Amazon. While the senator and the board no doubt figured into Amazon's decision, it may be a stretch to blame, or credit, depending on one's perspective, the outcome on them.

Friday, February 15, 2019 in Politico Magazine

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