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Sunset Park Redevelopment Proposal Misses the Mark


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On a recent Sunday afternoon, an impressive array of leaders from Sunset Park's tenant advocacy, environmental justice, small business, and community-based institutions, and their citywide allies gathered to announce their participation in a coalition to monitor and raise concerns about Jamestown Properties' $1 billion dollar redevelopment and rezoning proposal for Industry City.

Of key concern is the incongruity of the Industry City proposal for a hotel, university facility, and retail in one of the city's few remaining industrial, working waterfront neighborhoods. In addition to an extensive industrial building stock, Sunset Park has an inter-modal infrastructure and is anchored by two massive city-owned facilities - South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and Brooklyn Army Terminal. As one of the speakers noted, the last time a New York City waterfront neighborhood faced a similar scaled development proposal was in 2005, when Greenpoint-Williamsburg was rezoned with devastating consequences for the area's Latino community.

Sunset Park is a vibrant, working class, immigrant Latino-Asian neighborhood with a much-lauded walk to work population. Recent media accounts, however, describe a derelict, moribund, and gritty industrial waterfront. This skewed representation is similar to the New York Times coverage of Queens's pan-Latino, immigrant Roosevelt Avenue as a "corridor of vice" in order to rationalize a controversial proposal for an expanded Business Improvement District. These characterizations help prime a neighborhood for transformative private sector interventions such as that proposed by Jamestown Properties and their partners.

There is no question that deindustrialization and private and public disinvestment have taken a heavy toll on Sunset Park, but some businesses – not just storage and warehousing – have long co-existed in a manufacturing-maritime ecosystem. These include garment cutters, sewing subcontractors, furniture makers, auto repair shops, construction material suppliers, moving companies, and food manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributers. They may not be part of Jamestown Properties' vision of an artisanal and hip innovation-maker economy but these small businesses are an important part of Sunset Park's local economy and immigrant employment base.

In 2010, I met with two Chinese garment contractors who relocated their factories from Manhattan Chinatown to 39th Street in Sunset Park due to rising rents and real estate instability. One produced evening gowns for a Midtown Garment Center manufacturer and he was optimistic about the future since he had secured an affordable space for his business. A short three years later, the building 353 Fashion Inc. occupied was sold to a real estate investment company that has recently obtained a Department of Buildings permit to demolish the 7 story building. According to my review of the NYS Department of Labor Apparel Industry Taskforce data, the number of garment contractors at Industry City was halved from 39 to 20 in the year, following Jamestown Properties' acquisition of a 49.9% ownership share.

This past August, I met with a few Bush Terminal tenants including the owner of a furniture and cabinet manufacturer, Dean & Silva, who were concerned about their tenancy amid a growing buzz about transformative waterfront redevelopment. Given the spectacular views of the Upper New York Bay and the drumbeat that NYC's manufacturing future is premised on an innovation economy, these businesses may not be deemed the "highest and best" uses for Sunset Park's waterfront.

The Industry City proposal claims to generate 20,000 jobs but there is little detail to substantiate this projection. So far, the proposal and design renderings focus on the proposed hotel, retail streetscape, and bicycle path. What we do know about job creation in the innovation economy is based on a 2013 Pratt study of the Brooklyn Navy Yard which found that 60% of Navy Yard tenants employ fewer than five employees. Given the realities of modern manufacturing that innovators typically require small spaces and hire few employees, this leads one to wonder whether most of the projected jobs for Sunset Park residents will be generated by the planned hotel and expanded retail.

On a recent tour of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the guide lamented the threat posed by "residential creep" in industrial districts but the immediate concern for Sunset Park's waterfront may be more appropriately described as "retail creep." Several years ago, then Federal Building #2 designated developer, Times Equities Inc., was unabashed in naming their proposed project: Sunset Marketplace. While the 2008 financial crisis doomed this project, the current owner of Federal Building #2 (renamed Liberty View Industrial Plaza) just announced that a Bed Bath and Beyond will lease more than 100,000 square feet for four of its retail outlets.

The threat of displacement due to rising property values is real not only for industrial businesses but also for the sizable residential population in Sunset Park's manufacturing zoned area. Grandfathered by the 1961 Zoning Resolution, Sunset Park's waterfront bounded by 65th and 15th Streets, 3rd Avenue, and the Upper New York Bay represents four census tracts which according to the most recent 2013 American Community Survey includes about 10,000 residents. Living adjacent to the Gowanus Expressway and the industrial waterfront, this population has been on the frontline of neighborhood environmental justice struggles. Now, they face another type of threat. Among this population, 66% are Latino and a third have incomes below the poverty line. The educational attainment level for an overwhelming majority (63%) of the adults is completion of high school at most. These are families at imminent risk of displacement.

Community stakeholders are right to raise concerns about Williamsburg in part because the city largely dismissed the Greenpoint-Williamsburg 197a plan in its 2005 rezoning of the industrial waterfront. After a 13-year planning process, Sunset Park's 197a, which focuses on protecting the manufacturing and maritime waterfront, was adopted by the New York City Council in 2009. That same year, NYC EDC designated Sunset Park a "sustainable urban industrial district" in its Sunset Park Waterfront Vision Plan.

UPROSE also recently completed a NYS Brownfield Opportunity Areas planning process which engaged community residents, small business owners, and local non-profit organizations in developing a plan for the remediation and redevelopment of waterfront sites. All three plans emphasize shared goals to protect and grow industrial employment, promote green manufacturing and climate resiliency, and increase the efficient movement of goods.

Along with UPROSE, organizations represented at the recent press event include Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Trinity Lutheran Church, So.Biz, Working Families, Association of Neighborhood and Housing Developers, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, SEIU 32BJ, Teamsters Local 812, Pratt Center for Community Development, and ALIGN. It is a broad coalition with important demands.

Recent news that Mayor de Blasio is considering a ban on hotels as an "as of right" development in light manufacturing zones is a small but positive step towards protecting Sunset Park's industrial waterfront. We need all our elected officials to affirm Sunset Park as a working waterfront, to honor the years of hard work and good faith in community planning, and to advance developments that truly support a sustainable industrial district that is job intensive for local residents.

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Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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