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After decades of decline, Sunset Park’s waterfront is currently dealing with an influx of billions of dollars of investment.
After decades of decline, Sunset Park’s waterfront is currently dealing with an influx of billions of dollars of investment.
All Photos by Nathan Kensinger

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Developers Compete to Shape the Future of Brooklyn's Sunset Park

What does the wave of new projects mean for the neighborhood?

It was only a few years ago that the waterfront of Sunset Park seemed to be in its final days, its empty cobblestone streets a dumping ground for abandoned cars and sofas, many of its historic warehouses deteriorating and empty, and the shipping industry long gone. Nearly every one of the piers that had made the neighborhood into an industrial powerhouse had been destroyed—either demolished, filled in with toxic waste, or left to collapse into the New York harbor, and a walk through the neighborhood could end in a wild forest, a derelict power plant, or a hollowed out shipping terminal. Today, however, a real estate land rush and development boom is reshaping this neglected landscape, with competing visions for the future of the waterfront and nearby residential communities.

"I would say that the investment that we are seeing is unprecedented in this community. We are talking billions of dollars," said Jeremy Laufer, the District Manager of Sunset Park’s community board. "Not just Industry City but the entire waterfront. It’s just amazing the investments that are coming." All along the waterfront, as development groups continue their renovations in different warehouse complexes, a series of independent fiefdoms is growing, each with its own goals and tenants. From the Sunset Industrial Park in the north down through Liberty View Industrial Plaza, Industry City, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, Bush Terminal, the Whale Building, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal, each campus has taken a different approach to the future of Sunset Park’s waterfront, and the transformation has moved beyond the typical narrative of gentrification into a more complicated mix of mall-ifaction, chocolatization, and re-industrialization.

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As this tidal wave of wealth sweeps over the neighborhood, many of the forces reshaping Sunset Park’s waterfront could be seen at a recent event at Industry City, where Russian oligarchs, Brooklyn development tycoons, New York politicians, and local real estate agents helped launch the Brooklyn Nets' new practice facility, an opulent $50 million penthouse created by raising the roof on one of Industry City’s historic warehouses. Mayor Bill de Blasio was on hand to bless the occasion, and spoke after being introduced by the Nets' billionaire owner, Mikhail Prokhorov. "What’s happening in Sunset Park—this is really an amazing moment," the mayor said in his remarks. "This facility as a flagship, everything that is happening at Industry City, the investments we are making at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the incredible businesses, cutting edge businesses, technology, fashion, all sorts of businesses coming into this area."

The array of new businesses coming to Sunset Park’s waterfront is indeed staggering, and it includes everything from outlet mall chains like Bed Bath & Beyond and Saks Off Fifth to a recently opened Design Within Reach showroom, a West Elm "makers studio," and a slew of big name office tenants, including 330 employees from Time Inc. An important facet in each developer’s plan also seems to be investing in a chocolate factory, and so far, Kopper Chocolate, Li-Lac Chocolates, and Jacques Torres Chocolates have found homes at competing complexes. Complicating this already tangled mix of retail, office space, and fine food manufacturing are the plans to re-open the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal as a shipping port, to create an Amazon distribution center at the Liberty View Industrial Plaza, and to build a brown grease recycling facility at Bush Terminal, all of which could add hundreds of trucks to streets already busy with new traffic for the Sims recycling plant, which opened in 2013. And of course, all of these newer arrivals will be sharing sidewalks, roads, and fences with a diverse mix of pre-existing businesses along the waterfront, including a Federal penitentiary, Sanitation Department garage, oil storage facility, sewage processing plant, strip clubs, auto body shops, train yards, and more.

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This winter, the biggest draw to Sunset Park’s increasingly crowded waterfront has been the indoor version of the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, leading to increased concerns about gentrification in the nearby residential community. But as hordes of new visitors are lured to the area by developer-supported food fairs, arts exhibits, film festivals, and warehouse parties, it is interesting to reflect back on how the waterfront here, along First and Second Avenue, was cut off from the nearby residential neighborhood in the first place, 75 years ago. The decline of Sunset Park’s waterfront can be traced back to at least the 1940s, when Robert Moses decided to build the Gowanus Expressway along the old elevated subway tracks above Third Avenue. Up until that point, the avenue had been part of a Scandinavian cultural stronghold and was lined with "seven movie theaters, dozens of tiny restaurants…scores of small, friendly ‘Mama and Papa’ stores’," according to The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses. It was "the heart of the neighborhood—the focal point that gave it unity and a sense of community."

Unfortunately, like many other communities throughout the city, this version of Sunset Park was sacrificed to make way for one of Robert Moses’ highways. "If Third Avenue was the heart of the neighborhood, Moses tore it out," wrote Caro. "The construction of the Gowanus Parkway, laying a concrete slab on top of lively, bustling Third Avenue, buried the avenue in shadow, and when the parkway was completed, the avenue was cast forever into darkness and gloom, and its bustle and life were forever gone." The Gowanus Expressway was opened in 1941, and to this day, the stretch of Third Avenue beneath it has remained a dirty, dangerous, difficult-to-cross obstacle to the waterfront, its six lanes of traffic bordered by wrecked cars, sex shops, liquor stores, and scrap yards. "It was something to stay away from. It was a physical barrier," wrote Caro, and as a result of Moses’ handiwork, "the vicious gyre of urban decay began—and widened."

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The next blow to Sunset Park’s industrial waterfront came fifteen years later, as shipping technology evolved away from long piers and tall warehouses. "The introduction of the shipping container in the late 1950s really dramatically transformed the industry," said Andrew Gustafson, who leads historical tours of the Brooklyn Army Terminal for his company, Turnstile Tours. "Basically, these enormous facilities like the Bush Terminal and the Brooklyn Army Terminal became totally obsolete for their original use….And then you also have the decline of manufacturing spaces," said Gustafson. "Vertically oriented manufacturing facilities become less and less desirable, and more and more companies were moving out. So around the same time that shipping industry is going into decline, you also have all these big manufacturers that are in this area leaving." By the 1970s and 1980s, many of the industrial complexes along the waterfront had been closed down and abandoned, and their piers left to decay.

Against this historic backdrop, the current redevelopment of Sunset Park’s waterfront infrastructure is in some ways a more positive outcome than the wholesale demolition that occurred along the industrial waterfronts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. At least developers here are repurposing most of the old historic warehouse complexes, as opposed to ripping them down and building new glass towers in their place. However, as these buildings are renovated and leased to new types of tenants, and as thousands of new visitors and employees cross under the expressway for the first time, the destructive forces of gentrification and economic inequality may soon become unstoppable. Rents throughout the neighborhood are already on the rise, and new businesses catering to wealthier clientele are beginning to creep into the vibrant retail strips of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue. As billions of private dollars are spent along the waterfront, how much investment will reach the middle-class residents living uphill, who are struggling to withstand this wave of change?

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The Sunset Industrial Park, which stretches from 19th to 22nd Street along the Brooklyn waterfront, is a 690,000-square-foot complex which was purchased for $91.5 million in 2013 by the 601W Companies. The developers are now making plans for its buildings and docks.

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"It could go a number of ways. It could become residential, it could be more commercial," said Peter Thorsen, a representative of the owners. "It’s a total of 2,000 feet of linear waterfront. This could be a marina, or waterfront access for the community."

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The Sunset Park Materials Recycling Facility, run by Sims Recycling, opened in December 2013. Part of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, this 11-acre facility is located on the waterfront at the end of 29th Street.

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The facility cost $110 million to complete and processes truckloads of New York City's curbside recycling. It also features a wind turbine, education center, and solar panels.

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The Liberty View Industrial Plaza, located between 30th and 32nd streets, was purchased for $10 million in 2011 by Salmar Properties. A former Navy warehouse, the building was constructed during World War One, and had been left empty since 2000.

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After a $35 million renovation, the first business open to the public here is Micro Center, an electronics and computer store, but the 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse will soon be home to a Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks Off Fifth, and Amazon, among other tenants.

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At Industry City, the Brooklyn Nets opened their new practice facility, the HSS Training Center, last week. This 70,000 square foot facility is located on the eighth floor of a warehouse along 39th Street.

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The center includes a basketball court, players' lounge, barbershop, treadmill pool, cryotherapy chamber, and rooftop garden, completely transforming the warehouse space that once was here.

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At a nearby warehouse on 37th Street, Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea have taken up a winter residency at Industry City, bringing hordes of new visitors to the neighborhood each weekend.

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Empty warehouse spaces can still be found throughout the Industry City complex, which is slowly completing a 12-year, $1 billion renovation, including upgrading elevators and windows throughout the entire 16-building complex.

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Some warehouse spaces in the complex have remained abandoned for years and have yet to be renovated. This warehouse, when visited in 2015, had been left open to the elements, with all eight floors taken over by graffiti artists.

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Industry City's history dates back to 1895—it was originally part of the Bush Terminal, an even larger complex of piers, warehouses, and freight trains that fell into decline with the advent of containerization.

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The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, at the end of 39th Street, is a largely vacant 95-acre complex of waterfront warehouses. Up until at least 2000, it was "the busiest center in the United States for importing and distributing cocoa beans," according to the Times.

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On a visit in 2009, a large portion of the warehouses were being demolished, though the complex was mostly empty. The previous tenant, Axis, had gone bankrupt. By 2015, the complex was mainly being used as an enormous party rental hall, with events including "a German underground techno party" and a "mosh pit with thousands of Hasidic rabbis."

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The interior of the empty warehouses, as seen in 2009. The NYC EDC issued a new call for proposals to redevelop the warehouses in November 2015, seeking to return them to use as a waterfront port. The responses to the RFP are due next week, according to Jennifer Sun, the director of the NYC EDC's Sunset Park division, with "a very high level of interest" already.

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The Bush Terminal campus, which currently stretches from 40th Street to 51st Street, is also managed by the NYC EDC. "We are just developing the vision, and thinking about the tenant mix for Bush Terminal," said Jennifer Sun. "The overall concept is to really support it as a hub for manufacturing activity."

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Bush Terminal Park opened in 2014 on the abandoned, polluted piers behind the Bush Terminal warehouses. The park, not yet complete, is one of the only public access points to the New York harbor along the entire Sunset Park waterfront.

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An abandoned powerhouse sits along the waterfront nearby, a reminder of the decline of Sunset Park's industrial infrastructure, although the plans for Bush Terminal's future include building a new brown grease recycling facility later this year, according to Sun.

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The Empire Electric building, at 52nd Street and First Avenue, is another reminder of Sunset Park's faded industrial heritage. Dating back to 1892, this was the power plant for the Brooklyn City Railroad Company.

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Abandoned for many years, the stately warehouse was a gutted, roofless canvas for graffiti artists and overgrown with trees and shrubs when visited in 2009. It is currently being prepared for demolition, as part of a State Superfund cleanup.

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The Whale Building, at 53rd Street between First Avenue and the water, was sold to the Madison Group for $82.5 million in August 2015. The new owners of this 400,000 square foot warehouse, which was once the offices of the Whale Oil Company, would like "to fill it with creative-office tenants that have increasingly streamed into Brooklyn," according to Crain’s NY.

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The Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT), at 58th Street and First Avenue, is a 97-acre complex of warehouses built in 1919. It was acquired by the city in 1981 and is currently managed by the NYC EDC, which is still renovating hundreds of thousands of square feet that have been "abandoned since the 1960s," according to the Times.

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A $15 million renovation was recently completed at the BAT Administration Building, a 55,000-square-foot space which had not been used for over 40 years. "It had fallen into complete disrepair," said Jennifer Sun. "It was a complete gut rehab of the building to bring it into a usable condition."

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The building has been renamed the BAT Annex, and its 12,000-square-foot floors are currently for lease, as "modern quality light industrial office space," according to Sun. "They really lend themselves well to providing affordable smaller spaces that are in high demand from light industrial companies and startups."

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The BAT is currently home to more than 100 businesses, from electronics manufacturers and knitting companies to a new Jacques Torres chocolate facility. The intent of the complex is to allow businesses to "grow in place," according to Sun. "We provide a range of space, so that we can accommodate businesses at different stages of growth, or of their life cycle."

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Down inside the atrium of Building B, a ghostly reminder of Sunset Park's long industrial history. As for the future, "I am envisioning it as a mixed-use industrial, commercial, retail location that is a hub for high quality jobs," said Sun. "It has been really interesting to see how these buildings have been reactivated for different uses."

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012.

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