Let’s root for Amazon to set up a 25,000-worker “campus” in Long Island City. The prospective deal — which can’t be taken for granted until it’s officially announced — would bring jobs, new development and residents to a fast-growing Queens neighborhood that still lacks a clear-cut identity despite sprouting a phalanx of new waterfront skyscrapers.
But the jubilation comes with a gigantic, reality-checking asterisk. An Amazon complex in our midst would feed the online-retailing beast that’s ravaging New York’s bricks-and-mortar shopping scene — killing off famous names from Toys ‘R’ Us to Henri Bendel and leaving iconic streets with blocks and blocks of empty storefronts and “for lease” signs.
Exhibit No. 1: Long Island City itself. Despite the neighborhood’s population explosion to 68,000 today, up 9 percent since 2000, it has almost no stores of any kind. Retail brokers blame zoning restrictions and awkwardly located buildings.
But every part of town with a depressed retail scene has a different excuse. The overarching problem is that, in any challenging environment, the growing might of online retailing is enough to tip the scale against deciding to open a store.
Online retailing, a business perfected by Amazon (which now accounts for nearly 50 percent of US online sales), is murdering bricks-and-mortar retailing — especially in “shopping capital of the world” New York.
Initially a Web-based books discounter, Amazon has grown into a powerhouse in selling food, clothing, furniture and even financial and health-care products.
Amazon and its pygmy-size online competitors account for 9.1 percent of all national sales, according to US Census data — up from 5.1 percent at the end of 2011. No breakout data is available for New York City. But online buying is surely higher here. Anyone who doubts it must not know anyone under the age of 40.
I have friends who won’t shop outside for anything, even toothpicks, if they can get it with a few computer clicks.
Desperate landlords have tried and failed to fill dark storefronts in buildings old and new. Average asking rents in Manhattan fell by 18 percent in the past year, according to the Real Estate Board of New York — and still, empty storefronts proliferate.
The falloff in sales drives decisions to close “underperforming” stores, including some of the largest and most famous. Home-improvement specialist Lowe’s is closing both its Manhattan stores. ABC Carpet is closing one of its Broadway stores.
Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship will go dark at the end of the year. So will Henri Bendel. Macy’s in downtown Brooklyn is shrinking to less than half its original size. It remains to be seen whether Barneys on Madison Avenue can survive a recent rent increase.
Even as demand shrinks, new development grew Manhattan’s retail square footage by a staggering 20 percent since 2004, according to the REBNY. No wonder dark storefronts blight Broadway, Bleecker Street, Eighth Street, East and West 57th Street, and Madison, Park and Lexington avenues.
Such is the environment in which Gov. Cuomo has offered Jeff Bezos an unspecified fortune in incentives to set up shop in Queens. Sure, if Amazon set up shop somewhere other than in Long Island City — which would have half the size and workforce of what the company originally claimed would be a “second headquarters” to its Seattle home — the city would enjoy no payback at all for the devastation it and other online retailers wrought on the Big Apple’s street environment.
Taxes the new complex would generate might eventually offset whatever tax breaks Cuomo offered. Amazon’s arrival might catalyze badly needed mass transit and infrastructure improvements.
Amazon has done the city some good turns before. Its planned, giant fulfillment center in Staten Island will employ 2,250 workers. More jobs will be created at a smaller facility at the old Bulova plant in Queens.
Amazon even opened a few actual bookstores. But they don’t make up for the carnage inflicted on Barnes & Noble, which is fighting for its life and has closed many stores around town — including one at Sixth Avenue and West Eighth Street that’s stood vacant for years.
Yes, let’s welcome Amazon to Long Island City. It’s wrong to demonize a visionary company for pursuing a game-changing business model. We should be glad that Bezos has confidence in our city for all its wobbly transportation, political corruption and terrible public schools.
But we’re hailing a conqueror who first laid waste to something we held precious — store windows filled with goods on display rather than signs (falsely?) promising “prime retail opportunity.”
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