Is There Room for Both Green Jobs and High-End Retail on the Brooklyn Waterfront? – Next City
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Is There Room for Both Green Jobs and High-End Retail on the Brooklyn Waterfront?

(Rendering courtesy Industry City)

With 5.3 million square feet of floor space across a 35-acre, 16-building campus, and another 1.3 million potentially on the way, you’d think there would be room for everyone’s vision for the 100-plus year-old former Bush Terminal complex on the Brooklyn waterfront — now known as Industry City. But instead, two competing visions, which have been butting heads for years at this point, are destined for what should be a final battle later this year.

On one side, there’s the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park-Bay Ridge, more commonly known as UPROSE, founded in 1966, and led by the fiery Elizabeth Yeampierre. It claims the title of Brooklyn’s oldest Latinx community-based organization, and among other activities has been working for years to bring back blue-collar jobs while simultaneously addressing environmental justice and climate change issues along the waterfront in Sunset Park. Yeampierre, a lawyer by training, also serves as the national steering committee co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance.

On the other side, there’s the Industry City ownership group of Jamestown Properties, Belvedere Capital, Angelo, Gordon & Co., Cammeby’s International and the Fruchthandler family. Lead developer Jamestown has carved out a track record for adaptive reuse of historic industrial structures. Before coming to Industry City as CEO in 2013, Andrew Kimball had spent a successful decade revitalizing the city-owned Brooklyn Navy Yard as a waterfront jobs hub.

Back in 2015, the ownership group first announced a plan to rezone Industry City, which would allow for more retail, up to two hotels, and academic uses. That rezoning was delayed yet again earlier this year, after pressure from the local council member, citing concerns over a lack of community input and potential for displacement in the surrounding neighborhood. Meanwhile, UPROSE recently unveiled its own plan for the site and surrounding areas, arguing to keep the current zoning, which it believes would preserve Industry City as a space primarily for manufacturing and industrial use where Sunset Park residents can work — without the threat of displacement they see in a major new destination retail hub.

Kimball insists there will always be a place for manufacturing at Industry City. Less than halfway through a billion dollars of privately financed renovations, there are now more than a million square feet of space leased to manufacturers of some kind, from small one-person woodworking operations to larger operations taking up tens of thousands of square feet.

“To me it’s good news that the private sector’s finally interested in investing again in industrial space,” Kimball says.

Yeampierre doesn’t buy it. “There are so many places in New York you can bring in commercial uses and retail,” she says. “I think Jamestown had an opportunity to turn Industry City into a mecca for what economic development that is addressing climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience looks like, on a lot of different levels.”

The food hall (Courtesy Industry City)

Caught in the middle of all this is the Sunset Park neighborhood, with an estimated 144,000 residents — 39 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Asian, 23 percent white, 2.4 percent black and two percent other. An estimated 45 percent of Sunset Park residents are foreign born, and 42 percent have less than a high school degree. Despite such barriers, the unemployment rate in the neighborhood is just 6.6 percent, and median household income in 2017 was $57,870, which is just 7 percent less than citywide median household income ($62,040). Like most of New York City, Sunset Park is a predominantly renter neighborhood, about 70 percent.

“There were two main messages I received in the first two years I was here as CEO, talking to the community about what they would like to see — not-for-profit leaders, elected officials, the community board — one is you better make sure you do everything you can to connect the jobs locally, and two is we want you to follow our [community-based] plan,” Kimball says.

On local hiring, one of the first things Industry City did under Kimball as CEO was create an onsite hiring center to connect residents with job opportunities. Run by Industry City at first, it’s now run by a local nonprofit. In a tenant survey, Industry City found 35 percent of Industry City workers are from Sunset Park or the surrounding neighborhoods, 51 percent have less than a 4-year degree, 22 percent have only a high-school diploma or GED, and 57 percent are people of color.

Then there’s the community’s wants, laid out in what’s called a 197-a plan. Specific to New York City, 197-a plans are community-based plans that carry the stamp of approval from the City Planning Commission and City Council. They are non-binding, and over the years developers as well as the city itself have went ahead with projects that don’t align with a neighborhood’s 197-a plan, assuming there is one at all. UPROSE was deeply involved with creating Sunset Park’s 197-a plan, which city council adopted in 2009.

“UPROSE was responsible for bringing together stakeholders to talk about how to connect the industrial sector to the community, incorporate climate mitigation and adaptation,” Yeampierre says. “Stakeholder engagements had residents, community-based organizations, faith communities, businesses.”

Among many other recommendations, the Sunset Park 197-a plan called for creating more industrial jobs and retrofitting older industrial buildings with modernized infrastructure in the neighborhood. Kimball says everything Industry City has done so far has been in the spirit of that plan, though the plan does not explicitly call for — in fact in warns against — a major new destination retail hub for Sunset Park.

Bringing in more retail tenants for the lower floors of the complex is Kimball’s answer for how to pay for the billion dollars of deferred maintenance and modernization Industry City plans to undertake. The ownership group has put $400 million into the work so far. It’s halfway to replacing 15,000 century-old windows with new, energy efficient ones. Fifty-million dollars have so far went to boiler replacements and electrical upgrades, moving everything they can to the roofs of the buildings after Superstorm Sandy destroyed what was in the basements. Another $10 million has gone to building elevated sidewalks and loading docks at the site — improving pedestrian safety as well as traffic flow. To finance the work, Industry City has taken out nearly $650 million in loans from the Bank of China and SL Green Realty so far.

“We’re asking for certain things that we think will create the economic conditions that will allow us to get to the rest of the buildings,” Kimball says. “The rationale for the rezoning is it creates the economic conditions that allow us to do that, and to take jobs from 7,500 to 20,000.”

Yeampierre has a different view on what the retail component of the project means for the neighborhood. “What [Jamestown] did in Chelsea, people in public housing in Chelsea became like second-class citizens as a result of Chelsea Market,” she says. “They can’t afford that food, and then there’s the level of security and policing that comes with bringing in wealthier, whiter people into communities of color.”

Yeampierre argues that marketing Industry City as a destination for retail and recreation has already changed the broader market in Sunset Park, as landlords speculate on turning some of Industry City’s new shoppers and workers into new Sunset Park tenants. The median asking rent for a Sunset Park apartment has gone from $1,600 in 2010 to $2,400 in 2018, according to the NYU Furman Center.

“They’re not taking responsibility for how they’re promoting their space and how they’ve been sending the message that this is the destination location,” Yeampierre says. “The minute they started doing that, we saw the spike, all of a sudden it was accelerating displacement, it accelerated and exacerbated what is already a problem everywhere.”

From 150 businesses employing 1,900 people in 2013, there are now 500 businesses employing 7,500 people at Industry City. Kimball admits they’re not all net new jobs — some have fled higher rents in other neighborhoods like Manhattan’s SoHo, once an industrial hub. The onsite hiring center has placed 340 people so far in jobs with Industry City tenants.

Yeampierre believes that the level of job creation and local hiring would be the same or better under UPROSE’s plan, which stresses green manufacturing jobs like fabricating or assembling wind turbines or solar panels, as well as restoring Industry City’s role as a key link in the food supply chain by connecting upstate farmers by boat to distributors at Industry City.

Instead of paying to renovate the property through private financing and retail, the UPROSE plan would rely more on intentional investments by the public sector to support newer industries like wind turbine manufacturing, as part of a broader strategy to prepare the city — if not the rest of the country — for the future in a changing climate. The Green New Deal could be born in Sunset Park.

“It’s so big, it’s right on the waterfront, it really could have been that place, a model that could have been replicated across the United States, and that would have drawn media and resources,” Yeampierre says.

Some of those public sector investments have recently come through, thanks in no small part to advocacy from UPROSE and its allies. In July, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which includes the largest offshore wind agreement in the U.S. The European firm selected to supply and build those offshore wind turbines is now eyeing the city-owned South Brooklyn Marine Terminal as its staging and assembly ground for the project. The Industry City complex nearly surrounds the terminal site.

The two visions do not seem to be entirely incompatible. Last year, the city selected a partnership including Industry City to operate the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal itself, which will include negotiating the lease and working with the state’s selected wind turbine manufacturer to build out and manage the facility. The UPROSE plan calls for the wind turbine assembly and staging ground, while also calling on the city to work with the wind turbine industry to figure out how to move more of the supply chain — not just assembly — into Industry City. Kimball isn’t opposed to that.

“If there are other large green manufacturing companies out there looking for space we would love nothing more than to lease to them at Industry City,” Kimball says.

Industry City expects to re-file its rezoning application later this year. After a period of non-binding feedback from the community, only the City Planning Commission and the City Council can deny an application, and the rest of city council usually defers to the local council member for the site in question. It’s a flawed process that needs a lot of work, Yeampierre says.

“What these processes do is they manage us, they manage expectations, and at the end the plan is going to be what the plan is going to be,” Yeampierre says. “There needs to be meaningful engagement, and by that I mean it wasn’t somebody saying ‘this is what we’re going to do, do you like it,’ it was where the ideas for what to do came out of a community process.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi Community Development.

Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.

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