Jeff Bezos vs the bridge: Rotterdam’s dilemma over billionaire’s superyacht

Jeff Bezos faces an obstacle before he can sail the world’s biggest superyacht, commissioned by the Amazon founder at the cost of $500mn: Rotterdam’s Koningshaven Bridge.

Oceanco, the Dutch maker of the 417-foot boat codenamed Y721, is seeking permission from the city to temporarily dismantle the central section of the 95-year-old bridge, known by the locals as “De Hef”. That would allow the yacht’s three 70-meter tall masts to pass through Rotterdam’s port from the nearby shipyard where it is being constructed.

The request has led to a furious debate among locals, one that has left them grappling with issues of global inequality and the power of tech billionaires. A proudly working-class city has been left with a dilemma: what is the real cost of making way for the world’s richest person?

“Are we going to bow our heads for Jeff Bezos just to give him his pleasure boat?” said Paul van de Laar, head of the history department at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. “Is this city built to make sure that the billionaires can have a good time?”

City officials insist the application process to dismantle the bridge is ongoing, adding that a permit has not been officially requested. A formal decision is expected as early as this month with the ship ready in August.

Oceanco’s back-up plan is to assemble the mast after the hull passes through — it remains unclear why Bezos does not take this option instead.

History professor Paul van de Laar: ‘This is an emotional problem. Emotions are important’ © Marco Hofsté/FT

Two people with direct knowledge of the discussions suggest that a tacit agreement is in place between the city of Rotterdam and the shipmaker. They said the city may allow De Hef to be dismantled for short periods once or twice a year so large boats get safe passage for an estimated fee of €100,000.

“It doesn’t make sense to start building a $500mn ship with no prior approval, otherwise you have a $500mn problem in your hands,” said one of these people.

Bezos’s representatives did not reply to requests for comment. Oceanco declined to comment other than saying it values ​​the “privacy and confidentiality” of its clients.

Rotterdam’s town hall said the application process was ongoing and, when deciding whether to issue a permit, the city will consider how many jobs have been created as a result of building the ship, the “possible environmental nuisance” and risks that could have an impact on the preservation of the monument.

A yacht on the wharf in Zwijndrecht, near Rotterdam
A yacht, reportedly being built by Jeff Bezos, on the wharf in Zwijndrecht, near Rotterdam © Guy Fleury/AP

There is a growing expectation that the city will accommodate Bezos’s wishes, though. That has divided local opinion.

Some view Bezos as an avatar of aggressive capitalism who built a $1tn company with a patchy reputation over its treatment of blue-collar workers. Others welcome him as a job creator, whose willingness to spend lavishly on the superyacht is seen as an endorsement of the Netherlands’ centuries-old reputation as a seafaring superpower.

“It’s becoming a question of ego and arrogance,” said Dianthus Panacho, a 55-year-old entrepreneur and Rotterdam native. Panacho said Bezos should pay double the expected fee “so that he can contribute this extra €100,000 to help out impoverished families near the bridge”.

Ellen Verkoelen, a politician campaigning for the rights of people over the age of 50 and a member of the newly elected city council, argued that the boat should be allowed to sail through. I think [some are jealous of those] who have money to do anything they want,” she said. “And they are right but when they have money why not spend it here?”

Built in 1927, the bridge was originally designed to connect the north and south parts of the city via a railway as Rotterdam’s first-ever railway bridge and a recognition of the port’s growing importance in the industrialization of the Netherlands.

Having captured the imagination of locals, it was the subject of a silent film by Dutch film-maker Joris Ivens, who explored the complexity of the vertical-lift railroad bridge. It was later decommissioned in 1993 as a working bridge, though later restored as a monument in 2017.

Piet Momofer, a school governor, said the boat showed off the nation’s status as among the world’s premier shipbuilders. “People from different countries come to work here,” he said. “It’s important for the Dutch to have an outstanding quality of making those ships.”

Dianthus Panacho
Entrepreneur Dianthus Panacho: ‘The levy only is about 0.0002 per cent of the value of the ship. So a small contribution and redistribution of wealth’ © Marco Hofsté/FT

The details of Bezos’s yacht have been kept top secret, but the design is reportedly inspired by Oceanco’s Black Pearl, currently the world’s largest and, it is claimed, most ecological sailing yacht, which can cross the Atlantic without the need for fuel and reaches top speeds of 30 knots. The Black Pearl has a spa pool, hot tub and a beach club cinema onboard. Reported early sightings of Bezos’s ship showed a white superstructure with a black hull.

Elko van Winzum, a 58-year-old industrial psychologist, said the idea of ​​a billionaire sailing his luxury boat through the city’s canals went against the “Rotterdam way of life”, which he defined as “working hard, building things, having a laugh, drink a beer and look out for each other”.

“And then there is some ultra-rich guy from abroad. OK, I created some jobs for building this ship but after the transaction is over those jobs will be gone,” he said.

Van de Laar, the history professor, said the dilemma was whether “the city is in control of its own public space”, or whether the ultra-rich “always find a way” to override popular opinion.

“There is more than lifting a bridge,” he said. “From an engineering point of view it is not a big deal. But that’s not the point. You should take your citizens seriously.”

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