After a yearlong fight pitting various elected officials, community groups, business groups, and developers against one another, the controversial Brooklyn Industry City development project has been shelved as the project’s owners withdrew their rezoning application. Coming on the heels of the killed Amazon HQ2 project many New Yorkers are concerned about the political climate in the city hindering economic development. Particularly, given the devastating financial situation, NYC faces as a result of Covid-19 and the long road to recovery ahead. The plan was expected to see $1 billion in private investment and create an estimated 20,000 jobs.
“If a project like this can’t succeed, it concerns me very much about the future of New York City, a place I’ve spent my whole life,” Industry City CEO, Andrew Kimball said. Of course, there is another side to this story. According to Antoinette Martinez, a neighborhood resident and organizer with Protect Sunset Park. . “Instead of prioritizing racist rezonings seeking to replace working-class communities, we need a public waterfront plan to uplift working people throughout New York, from Sunset Park to Flushing!”
This area has always been a working-class immigrant community. It is now home to the largest Chinatown in Brooklyn as well as strong Mexican and Dominican communities. The publicly operated space is known as Bush Terminal, in 2018, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) announced a $136 million investment to transform it into a film and television production campus. Industry City refers to the privately-owned commercial complex which was purchased by its current owners in 2013. Up until 2012, the neighborhood remained one of New York City’s primary clothing manufacturing sectors. Over time the complex grew to include over 500 businesses, such as a food hall, a film production company, and a training center for the Brooklyn Nets. Despite those marque tenants, most businesses are micro with less than 5 employees. There are around 8,000 current workers across the 500+ businesses. Under the rezoning, the developers wanted to expand it further, by adding space for offices, retail, manufacturing, art studios, schools, and parking. There were plans to add hotels, but they were scrapped to appease City Council Member Carlos Menchaca (whose rejection signaled the beginning of the end for the project). The additional development and related growth in the surrounding area were projected to bump the workforce up to around 20,000.
Of concern to neighborhood groups is the amount of jobs that would be available to members of the community, around 40 percent of whom do not have a high school diploma. One of the lessons that must be taken from Covid is that industrial businesses are essential businesses. Manufacturers and distributors rushed into action pivoting to provide the necessary tools and equipment while ensuring that the supply chain held strong. From making PPE and hand sanitizer to stocking pharmacies and supermarkets, when things were at their worst the industrial sector was at its best. Many of these jobs do not require degrees and are available to immigrants so people genuinely concerned about losing industrial and manufacturing space should be listened to. Such places continue to serve the Sunset Park community. Furthermore, rising housing costs pushing out working-class people and increasing homelessness is a major problem. As is the fact that too often sweetheart development deals fail to provide adequate housing and employment options.
Hence, why this deal was controversial. Let us be clear though, this fight highlights so many of the larger problems facing this city even before Covid hit. When the City Council wants something done, they will push it through, community input be damned. When they don’t or if an issue is “too controversial” then they will allow for local involvement or plea with federal or state officials to bail them out. There is absolutely no economic development plan from City Hall or the Council, there is no meaningful housing plan, and there is little more than lip service to revitalizing manufacturing and industrial development while providing decent working-class jobs and advancement for immigrant communities. Given the amount of private money pledged as well as the already significantly developed space it seems like there was a compromise available here. But in the age of all or nothing and political pandering and with no leadership to speak of that was never going to happen. And so, New York City loses another big project, and though the groups that killed it raised legitimate concerns, what exactly do they have to show for it? As an epilogue, Industry City is likely to lease space to Amazon for a warehouse/distribution center, something that the city needs. But watch the protests start up again for everything from Amazon’s employee practices, to increased truck traffic (The BQE is already a contentious issue) Because right now in New York City when the grand projects fail, the lesser projects also fail.