Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: ‘You Can’t Just Show Up’: Alicia Glen on Amazon’s Queens Defeat

Alicia Glen is a force to be reckoned with. In her five years as New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development under Mayor Bill de Blasio, she pioneered a major new inclusionary-zoning initiative for affordable housing, built up the city’s tech startups, led an effort to upzone Midtown Manhattan, and worked to spread economic development across the five boroughs. Described by Politico as “hard-charging” and by the New York Times as a lightning rod for criticism from progressives, Glen previously led Goldman Sachs’s Urban Investment Group, and prior to that, was a housing official under former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

I recently talked to Glen about her stint in city hall (which ended in March), New York’s future, and her own next steps. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

What were your biggest accomplishments as deputy mayor?

New York, like many other cities, had a voluntary inclusionary-housing program, which is basically a density bonus, where developers can opt in. But many chose not to take advantage of it. Our basic premise was to marry upzoning and density with a requirement for affordable housing—in the building.

Our biggest success was in designing and implementing the largest affordable-housing program in the country. We set a blueprint for growth in the future by enacting a very serious and effective, mandatory inclusionary-housing program. The naysayers said, “If you really impose that strong a requirement, all development will stop dead in its tracks; it will destroy the economy.” We … [figured] out where that tipping point was. In fact, housing production has only increased.

Essentially, there are three options. Developers can choose either to provide 20 percent affordable housing for very low-income people; 25 percent affordable housing for low-income people; or 30 percent for moderate-income people, or what is called workforce housing. It’s a mandatory requirement that allows flexibility. A lot of real-estate interests fought us. But, at the end of the day, we were able to get it through, because the math worked and because the program gave developers some optionality.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (back right) cheers as Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen christens the Lunchbox, the first of eventually 20 new ferry boats, on April, 17, 2017. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

You can’t buy out of it. It’s not like San Francisco, where you can just write a check and call it a day. It’s great to have developers give you money, but it’s much more difficult to actually build permanent affordable housing. It’s working really well, and many other cities around the globe are looking at it as a potential model.

Do you think upzoning alone can solve the affordable-housing problem?

Of course not. The market left to its own devices in high-cost cities is not going to be able to produce affordable housing for people who need it. The math just doesn’t work: You have to subsidize it one way or the other.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in urban economics to understand that we are incredibly supply-constrained. So if we can increase the supply of housing in a measurable way, rents will soften. But they’re not going to soften to the point where rent will become affordable for the vast majority of people who are suffering from an affordability burden. It costs $1,200 month to run a unit in New York City with minimal debt service. But we need to build housing for people who can pay $700 a month.

Last year, then-Public Advocate Letitia James named the New York City Housing Authority [which Glen oversaw] the city’s worst landlord. You were criticized for not incorporating public housing into your affordable-housing plan. Why didn’t you?

People are fundamentally conflating and confusing two issues when it comes to NYCHA. [Our] affordable-housing plan deals with developing and preserving affordable housing—i.e., housing that is financed, regulated, or incentived by government, but owned and operated by for-profit or non-profit owners. By contrast, NYCHA is public housing, or housing that is owned and managed by the public and funded by the federal government.

We didn’t not incorporate it into our housing plan. We had two different plans for NYCHA—and we funded more than $1 billion of city money to it, despite it being a federal responsibility. We didn’t ignore NYCHA—we did more for NYCHA than any other mayor has, and we didn’t take money out of our affordable-housing programs to do it.

In his initial campaign, Mayor de Blasio famously invoked a “tale of two cities,” but New York is still pretty darned unequal. What is the major barrier to bringing down inequality in cities?

I wouldn’t have the hubris to suggest that I know the answers to all of this. But I do think a couple of things are at work. Housing affordability and economic inequality are obviously inextricably linked. To the extent that you can make housing, which consumes the single biggest piece of income, more affordable, families can have enough left to pay for life’s necessities. So you attack the housing-affordability crisis with real gusto, and couple it with economic-development strategies that create good jobs and build pipelines for less advantaged and less educated people to participate in the labor market. That is a really hard, complex thing to do.

What do you think about Amazon pulling out of New York?

I think Amazon chose New York for all of the right reasons, not for the incentive package. New York City did not offer them a special package; they got as-of-right incentives that any company would receive. The governor’s package gave them some discretionary subsidies. I don’t think they were shopping for subsidies. I think they wanted to come for all the reasons any great company wants to come to New York—great companies go where the talent is.

One of the ironies is that because we cared so much about building a five-borough economy, we worked very hard to convince Amazon that they should do something important on the Queens waterfront and build that as a great center for innovation with an amazing waterfront park and whole new mixed-use neighborhood.

I do think some significant blame needs to be put on Amazon. I don’t think they took seriously that when you come to a city like New York, you have an obligation to engage with community stakeholders in a transparent and authentic way. Amazon made a mistake in not really understanding that. They picked a neighborhood that is undergoing a tremendous amount of transformation. You can’t just show up. It takes more than that. I don’t think they acted as honorably as they should have, quite frankly.

You said Amazon bears significant blame for the collapse of the HQ2 deal. But opponents were upset about the subsidies on offer, and the fact that Amazon was allowed to bypass local land-use review. Doesn’t the city bear some blame for that?

There were two subsidies: as-of-right [subsidies] that the city has for any company coming to western Queens (real-estate tax exemptions for new buildings, and a per-employee credit), and state subsidies that were discretionary—Excelsior credits and a capital grant. I do think the opponents have started a legitimate discsssion around as-of-right subsidies, and I welcome that. I had wanted to re-look at the geographic boundaries and the sectors for a long time, and now there will be more will to do that.

On land use, the mechanism we all chose to use, a General Project Plan, is designed exactly for this kind of project: fractured property ownership, city and state involvement,  a real tenant with a real project that needs to be done [on time]. It doesn’t circumvent the land-use process. There is a process; it just doesn’t require the local councilperson to be the ultimate decider of what the land use and disposition entitlements look like. GPPs require the same environmental review, input from the community, and the consent of city planning as well as the Empire State Development Corporation board and the [state’s] Public Authorities Control Board.

This is not designed to be a secretive process, but to deal with highly complex large-scale transactions that have a broader impact on the city than on just one district.

Any other thoughts on your tenure and New York’s future?

New York City has always been a place that has thought forward and wanted to grow. That requires big, large-scale planning efforts that transcend any one administration. The greatest gift you can give to New York is making new land, [like] the work we did in East Midtown, large-scale planning to really support a growing city. [Or] how we reshaped the Willets Point project [in Queens], and activated the Brooklyn waterfront, particularly the sites near Sunset Park where we’re investing in modern manufacturing.

These things take decades; they take political will. That’s not easy work. But it has to get done. We’re always paying it forward. I didn’t start Hudson Yards, but I helped finish it. I hope that 15 years from now, somebody says, “Alicia was really right to fight tooth and nail to put together a master plan for Sunnyside Yard and make a deal with Amtrak and the MTA,” because now we’re going to build 10,000 units of workforce housing and have a whole new innovation center here. You’ve got to walk and run at the same time.

Why do you think New York has been able to scale up in a way that other cities and metros have not?

It sure as shit isn’t the transit. We did amazing things setting up a ferry system and getting Citibike. But improving and investing in the MTA and thinking through the mass-transit issues in the region is the number-one most important thing we need to be working on.

Why is it, despite our very challenged mass-transit system, that the city and region have continued to grow? It’s because we have the most diverse economy and population on the globe. It’s not a one-company town, never has been. Even the elites are diverse. It may not be as diverse as it should be, but the people in power here are more diverse than any place else. The diversity of neighborhoods, our chutzpah, our openness. Even with all of our warts, we’re the best.

Tell us about, an online platform that’s part of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and which you launched and will now chair.

I’m sick of hearing that there should be more women on [company boards] and there should be a diversity committee. New York City should do everything it can to be not just hospitable [to women in their careers], but to provide capital, resources, legal protections, and a whole array of services for great, smart women—whether they’re already in New York or trying to decide where they want to go.

[In New York,] you can send your kids to pre-K for free. We have your back on pay-equity issues. You’re not allowed to be asked how much you made in your last job. We have the only women’s venture fund ever sponsored by a municipal government. We put this all together under one umbrella and branded it.

We’re using crowdfunding to give women entrepreneurs the ability to actually raise their first $10,000. A lot of women get screwed and lose their intellectual property or lose in the equity in their companies because they don’t know how to structure their company, and they’re too busy doing their day job and their night job. So we put together the top 15 law firms in New York City to offer women IP and structuring advice from the get-go.

Do you think at some point there will be a woman mayor of New York?

Inevitably. We’ve had 100 years of being able to vote and allegedly being equal. At some point it’s going to have to happen. It’s just a matter of when.

Will you consider running?

It hasn’t been historically where I put my energies, but I wouldn’t shut the door on it.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.