No thanks, Amazon

Take your proposal for the Greendale Mall and throw it in the trash please

Well, after catching up on the Planning Board review of the proposal to put an Amazon warehouse at the Greendale Mall last night, I had to toss the initial draft of this post. Here’s what I had.

It’s predictably boring and depressing in the way that most things this year have been that the Greendale Mall would be torn down and replaced by an Amazon warehouse. 

The Amazon proposal is going to the Planning Board tonight and it looks like they have all their ducks in a row, I don’t see anything that would hold the project up. I’m no expert on zoning law but it’s a fitting use for the space and the traffic impact may be negligible if we’re to believe a traffic study that accompanied the proposal, keeping in mind that the developer paid for the traffic study, but you get it. 

Of all the interesting things we could have seen done with that space, it’s just going to be a monolithic white and blue warehouse building with Amazon trucks and vans weaving in and out and workers inside who are underpaid and overworked and all but shot in the street if they get caught trying to unionize. 

The Greendale Mall has been dead for many years and I’m not here to eulogize it. It was just a mall but it did have two Bling Bling stores facing each other and I always thought that was pretty cool. I’m partial to the Bling Bling on the left side of the mall, personally. I don’t care for the right side Bling Bling. 

The real bummer is in what could have been. You can fit a whole lot of affordable apartments on that site and if we were to do that, we would be far from the first. Dead malls are rehabilitated all the time into housing and I don’t know if you’ve looked around but rents are going out of control and Worcester desperately needs more apartments especially at the lower end of things.

But I would be very surprised if the project does not get the approval of the Planning Board. Even if they were ideologically opposed to the idea, they’re not an ideological board. If the project follows the rules it gets approved, basically. You can’t say no I just don’t like it and shoot it down though I’ve seen small town planning boards try it many a time in my career as a local reporter. Usually when it’s Apartments For The Poors though not when it’s the company hiring the people who need those apartments. 

The only fight left here to my mind is to make sure Amazon doesn’t get any tax breaks from us. 

But guess what! The Planning Board sort of told Amazon to kick rocks last night, which I was not expecting at all. A long and passionate discussion last night with dozens of Worcester residents raising hell led the Planning Board to schedule another meeting before they vote to approve or not approve the project.

So you’re saying there’s a chance.

This from Steve Foskett over at the Telegram

Residents said they didn't believe the traffic numbers, and said an Amazon facility was not the highest and best use for the property. They also criticized Amazon's labor practices, accusing the company of engaging in union-busting, and said there are safety issues at Amazon facilities across the country. They said there are places Amazon has set up facilities right here in Massachusetts that haven't worked out well for host communities, including Milford. They said the company comes into communities with hiring promises that don't always end up panning out.

But still, it’s only a chance. The Planning Board could reflect the clear will of the community and vote the project down. Even City Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson came to the meeting to talk some trash on the proposal and she’s basically a Republican so that’s how unpopular this project is. But the city opens itself to a legal challenge. When the developer’s lawyer last night told the board that their purview was limited to the mundane problems of traffic, environmental impact and site use, he was right. The proposed warehouse is technically a fitting use for the location. Amazon’s long track record of union busting (they hired Pinkerton for christ sake) and prison-like work conditions are not the purview of the Planning Board. The poor pay and long hours and reliance on even more vulnerable contract employees for deliveries are not the purview of the Planning Board.

Planning Board member Ellie Gilmore put it best, I think, when she said that she has concerns about environmental issues and traffic issues, but “the regulatory framework we have to work in is outdated. It underscores the need for comprehensize zoning chance and long range planning.”

Translation: I wish I didn’t have to vote in favor of this and I don’t think it’s the best use for the space and I wish this board could do more.

If we can straight run Amazon out of town, that would be amazing. The Planning Board might be bound legally to approve the project, but that doesn’t mean they have to make it easy. Amazon is building these sort of warehouses all over the place, they could just give up on this one if we make it too hard for them. I still believe it will inevitably go through, and that’s a real shame given what could be done with that space to help with the city’s housing crisis, but wouldn’t it be great to make a little splash as the city that told Amazon to suck it along the way?

A lot was made of traffic concerns at the meeting, both from board members and from members of the public. Those concerns aren’t unfounded. Looking over to Milford, where Amazon has already built one of these things, we see a lot of anger from town officials. Selectmen there are petitioning the state Legislature to act on a law that requires Amazon to comply with community impact plans because the Amazon vans are making the traffic such a nightmare.

While I’m pleasantly surprised by the resistance from the Planning Board, I’m nervous the City Manager’s Office might be cooking up some sort of tax deal to ~incentivize~ Amazon to ~rehabilitate~ the space. 

It’s unconscionable that we would give Amazon any money or relief or assistance at all to encourage the company to open a warehouse here. How could we possibly convince ourselves that a company as big as Amazon needs any help from a city as small and as cash-strapped as Worcester? How could we be excited enough about a warehouse that pays poverty wages to spin the tax deal as a boon for the community? 

Now, I haven’t heard of any proposed tax relief package, but we’re still early in the process here, and Amazon has a long and rich history of squeezing money out of its host communities. 

In North Andover, where the company plans to build a massive distribution center, city officials and Amazon negotiated a $27.3 million tax deal. The deal is what’s called tax increment financing and it’s something I’ve written about before with Table Talk Pies. What it means is that North Andover city officials chose to forfeit millions of dollars to ensure that Amazon builds in its town and not some other town. It’s a process that essentially pits towns against each other for the benefit of the company and Amazon ruthlessly abuses it. Remember when they made every town make them a tax relief offer and they would pick the best one for them (and the worst one for the city in question) and they would build there? Worcester made an offer and that offer was something like $500 million in tax relief lol give me a break. 

Couple that with the fact Amazon paid federal taxes for the first time in four years this year.

We have the richest man in the world leading one of the richest companies in the world and city governments the land over are willing to get absolutely reamed for the chance to get some new property taxes eventually and a few hundred very low-paying jobs. This is neoliberalism at work as a core tenant of the operating principle of Worcester as well as every other city. The government is subservient to the market and must do everything it can to facilitate it. Private investment is the primary goal. It’s always “we need to get projects built” and never “how does this project benefit us?” or “what do we get in return for letting you build here?” 

And how could you blame one city or town in particular. If they stop playing the game, they lose out on everything because there’s going to be a town over that’s willing to fork over all the money. That’s how we got stuck with the PawSox. We were all worried they were going to go to New Bedford or something so we gave them as much money as we possibly could and they said uhhhhh you sure? Cool. You’ll notice how there was never any public negotiating of the price, it was just the PawSox going “you’ve got yourself a deal buddy!” and rolling out the red carpet.

I’m ranting again but I just can’t stand it. It’s such a torqued way to run a city. 

So the Amazon story is going to be one to follow. The Planning Board and other city leaders are talking about hosting some sort of community forum on the project before the next meeting, so that’ll be something to pay attention to, and then it will inevitably go back up for a vote. Also need to keep an eye on the City Council for any rumblings of a tax deal. The Chamber of Commerce sent one of its guys to the meeting last night to speak in support of the project, and what the Chamber of Commerce wants they’ll usually get from the Augustus administration. 

I texted the city spokesman to see if he’d say anything about a tax deal in the works. I asked if the city is working on one and he said “no we are not.”

So let’s see if that holds true. 

~/~

I really love writing this newsletter and every dollar helps me keep doing it. I’m down to one shift a week at the restaurant pretty much and that’s half because there are no shifts to be had in this COVID-induced nightmare and half because I can pretty much live off this thing. Not very well but nothing I’m not used to but hey consider subscribing at this discounted rate to help me make rent thank you!

I don’t know if you saw this but the chief of the Becker College police force got arrested this week after trying to literally run away from a DUI crash, so that’s pretty funny. If he was a real cop and not a school cop, though, do you think they’d have pressed any charges? I don’t.

Earlier this week the Human Rights Commission gave it to the Worcester Police Department and gave it good. Following the lead of the Board of Health, the HRC blasted police officials for lack of transparency, lack of response to the community, and an unwillingness to discipline officers with lots of complaints. Community organizer Kevin Ksen has a good rundown of the highlights on his Facebook. This part right here jumped out at me.

1. Officer Davenport who is head of the Bureau of Professional Standards acknowledged there is currently a WPD officer with 26 complaints against him/her.

After investigating the WPD has only “sustained” 4 of those. The Officer remains in good standing. [BPS has stated in the past they only justify about 17% of complaints.

2. The WPD refused to release the name of the Officer with 26 complaints.

Twenty six complaints!

It’s also worth noting that the chief bailed on that meeting the same as he did to the Board of Health which is an obvious and petty power move. The HRC ended its meeting by voting to request that the chief show up to the next one.

That’s all for now friends bye bye!