Politics & Policy

Industrial, Homeless Policies Clash in Brooklyn

The subway stop on Junius Street, Brooklyn, an industrial area where a nonprofit wants to build housing for the homeless. Ed Yourdon on Flickr

This is an excerpt from a longer piece that originally appeared on The Brooklyn Bureau in conjunction with City Limits.

The backdrop along Junius Street in East New York is typical for an Industrial Business Zone in this city: A sprawling yellow school bus lot, a scrap metal yard in the distance, a steel parts factory down the block.

But step onto the street on a Sunday afternoon and you see a cluster of unexpected activity against that backdrop: Families standing against a row of parked cars and church groups filing in and out of the three large homeless shelters that have sprung up in the zone in the past few years. Factory managers in the district bristle at the shelters, and soon they’ll have another reason to complain: A nonprofit is building a six-story, 176-unit residential and community facility on an empty lot adjacent to one of their existing shelters. It will permanently house low-income adults, including some formerly homeless residents. With a grandeur at odds with its surroundings and the lot’s previous incarnation as a coal dump, they will call the new building “The Glenmore.”

“We do think it’s a suitable area,” says Bonnie Stone, president of Women in Need, the nonprofit in question, which will conduct a remediation of the contaminated soil before building. “It’s a piece of property that’s been vacant for 60 years, and we think housing is the best thing for it.”

The plan sparked an outcry from the local development corporation that oversees the business improvement district in the area, as well as manufacturers who thought that moving to an IBZ meant that they’d be spared the nuisance of residents. “Don’t tell me that you care about people and you want to put them in an industrial park,” said Bill Wilkins, the manager of the LDC, before the Board of Standards and Appeals approved WIN’s proposal last June. But this struggle is bigger than a single neighborhood or a group of put-out factory managers. The Glenmore is the first and only residential building anywhere near its size approved for construction in an IBZ since the mayor introduced the industrial zone program in 2005 as a way to encourage the city’s flagging industrial industry. BSA’s quiet acceptance of the proposal is at significant and unprecedented odds with city policy.

But it also hits on another problem area for the mayor: His perceived inability to reign in homelessness. Many residents of the shelter complain of the difficulty of finding a permanent place. This building could address that issue, but is it at the expense of the city’s manufacturing industry?

A Neighborhood’s Character

Nic Cucuzza has been working at Prima Pasta, a domestic pasta distributor, for 11 years. His father-in-law started the company in 1994 on Junius Street years before the shelters sprang up across the street. Now, trucks start loading up at the warehouse at 6 a.m., and not long after, parents from the shelter rush their kids onto a string of school busses that stop on the street, presenting safety risks.

What’s already a nuisance will just get worse, he says, with the new residential building down the street, part of the reason the company is considering a merger with a New Jersey-based pasta distributer.

“There’s not many great benefits about having any business in the city anymore,” said Cucuzza, citing the cheaper rents and tax breaks in New Jersey.

Loss of industrial space in the city is not a new phenomenon. Bloomberg established 16 industrial business zones in 2005, but a 2009 report by the New York Industrial Retention Network found 39 significant non-industrial uses in seven of the IBZs, including hotels, large retail stores and office spaces. The Glenmore, however, will be the first new permanent residential building of its size in one of the zones. The only previous residential construction approved by the BSA for an IBZ was a small, eight-unit apartment building in Red Hook.

So what may seem like small neighborhood news actually has potentially huge implications for the city. Manufacturing jobs have dwindled here by more than 70 percent since 1990, according to data from the New York State Department of Labor. Policy experts say that hanging on to the industrial jobs that remain hinges on the city adhering to land-use regulation that protects them.

“The impact of this type of development is it sends a signal to the market that the neighborhood is changing, and that has a destabilizing effect,” said Adam Friedman, the executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network and director at the Pratt Center. “It basically leads to speculation.”

Such speculation comes when building owners discover that they can rent to nonindustrial tenants who will pay more for the same space.

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Tags: new york, east coast, governance, michael bloomberg, manufacturing, homelessness, department of labor