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What a poll really said about Atlantic Yards, and what a new poll says about Amazon (it's all in the questions)

What a poll on Amazon in Queens says about the city, Crain's New York Business columnist (and former editor) Greg David wrote 12/6/18:
No one should have been surprised by this week’s Quinnipiac Poll showing strong public support both citywide and in Queens for Amazon’s plan to put a second headquarters and 25,000 jobs in Long Island City. With one exception, the public has supported controversial projects like this for decades.
More on the details of the Amazon poll below.

About Atlantic Yards

But David had a bigger lesson:
I went back and dug up a 2006 Crain’s poll of the plan to build an arena for the then-New Jersey Nets and housing at a major transit hub in Brooklyn. As with Amazon, the very loud opponents of Atlantic Yards had made it appear that the public was opposed to the plan. But our poll found it was supported by 60% of residents across the city as well as in Brooklyn.
According to David's source, pollster Craig Charney, "The meaning of the poll is that New Yorkers are broadly pro-development and that includes people in Brooklyn who are close to [the project]."

Well, not quite. I think the lesson is that polls can be manipulated, though I think the Amazon poll--while flawed--was not as misleading as the Atlantic Yards poll David references.

Looking back at the AY polls

Keep in mind that a 4/1/04 Quinnipiac University poll found that "In Brooklyn, New Yorkers oppose 59% - 35% using tax dollars to build an arena for the Nets basketball team," while they supported the arena if it were paid for privately. 

A June 2005 poll by the New York Times, with the Atlantic Yards results unreported in the accompanying article, found that at least 45% of respondents opposed the arena outright, and the opposition grew when supporters were asked to factor in direct public subsidies, a narrow estimate of overall public costs.

Then two polls found favorable postures toward Atlantic Yards. An October 2005 Pace University poll, commissioned by the New York Observer and cosponsored by WNYC Radio and WCBS-TV, found 39% in favor of the arena/project plan, with 23 opposed and the rest were undecided, while support grew--with 46% in favor--after learning more about the pros and cons.

As I wrote, I thought the questions could've been tougher and more specific, for example adding context, such as the fact that the number of office jobs were far less than once promised.

Then came the September 2006 Crain's poll, heralded by an article stating:
The colossal and controversial Atlantic Yards development is favored by a solid 60% of city residents and disliked by only 25%, according to a Crain's New York Business poll. New Yorkers cite the jobs and affordable housing that it promises for Brooklyn as the two most important benefits of the project.
As I wrote, in rebuttal to David, the questions were stunning generalities, for example claiming that
"The project will provide 2,250 low-, moderate-, and middle-income rental apartments," with 46% saying it was a very important benefit and 37% saying it was an important benefit.

Despite David's claims that developer Forest City Ratner did not formally influence the poll, the phrase "the project will provide" echoed the syntax of the developer--and the state.

The project does not provide--it's a question of subsidies. And now we know that the devil is in the details, so it's hard to see that a disproportionate number of middle-income apartments, far too costly for most households, could be seen as an important benefits.

So the bottom line is: the design of a poll strongly influences the outcome.

The meaning, and the difference

Wrote David:
Proponents of Amazon should take only some comfort from the Quinnipiac poll. The opponents of Atlantic Yards were able to delay the project for years through pressure on public officials, support in the media, and lawsuits.
The "support in the media" was pretty slight, as well as the pressure on public officials.

David suggested that there was one difference between 2018 and 2006:
A decade ago there was no racial divide on Atlantic Yards. Today African-Americans and Hispanics are more supportive of Amazon's Queens move than whites, probably an indication of the rapid increase in white New Yorkers who embrace progressive causes while other groups are more focused on jobs and economic growth.
That's interesting. After all, the Pace poll--if not the one for Crain's--did find more support among black men (59%). And the public face of the Atlantic Yards fight was more polarized, with black-led organizations like ACORN and BUILD clashing with the mostly-white leadership of project opponents, like Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

About the Amazon poll

Here are some key questions from the 12/5/18 Quinnipiac poll on Amazon, with the topline answers. They show general approval of the new Amazon project--also reflected as a majority without concerns--while there's an essential split regarding the tax breaks and subsidies.

At the same time, a large majority think New York City should be "more involved"--that's undefined--in the project review, and small pluralities disapprove of the way the governor and the mayor have handled the deal. In other words, there's a significant undercurrent of dismay.

And, of course, those with dismay have rallied, while, for better or for worse, the city, state, and company did not create or organize a coalition in support of the rollout.

3. Do you approve or disapprove of Amazon locating one of its new headquarters in Long Island City in Queens?
  • Approve 57% 
  • Disapprove 26%
  • Don't Know/No Answer 17%
4. As you may know, Amazon will be receiving roughly 3 billion dollars in tax breaks and other benefits from the state and the city as part of its deal to locate its new headquarters in Long Island City. Amazon says it will create 25,000 new jobs. Do you support or oppose the incentives that have been offered to Amazon?
  • Support 46%
  • Oppose 44%
  • DK/NA 10%
My comment: Here's where the poll question could have been more subtle. It's a hard trade-off to evaluate: that's a lot of jobs, but that's a lot of subsidies. So why not, for example, note that the benefits exceed the current cap and expiration date of a state job-subsidy program, thus suggesting that Amazon is gaining a better deal than anyone before, with an inherent promise from public officials to extend it.

5. As you may know, the Amazon deal will be reviewed by the state of New York, not by New York City. Do you think that New York City should be more involved in the process, or don't you think so?
  • Yes/More involved 79% 
  • No 13% 
  • DK/NA 8%
6. Do you have any concerns about Amazon's plan to build one of its new headquarters in Long Island City, or don't you have any concerns?
  • Yes/Have concerns 41%
  • No 54%
  • DK/NA 5%
6a. (If yes/have concerns q6) Which of the following is your biggest concern about Amazon's plan to build one of its headquarters in Long Island City: the impact on housing, the impact on transportation, or the impact on the quality of life?
  • Housing 31%
  • Transportation 25%
  • Quality of life 20
7. Do you approve or disapprove of the way New York Governor Andrew Cuomo handled the Amazon deal?
  • Approve 34% 
  • Disapprove 38%
  • DK/NA 28%
8. Do you approve or disapprove of the way New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio handled the Amazon deal?
  • Approve 31% 
  • Disapprove 38%
  • DK/NA 30%