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As Industry City gears up for rezoning, locals question who will benefit

A rezoning proposal seeks to create 1.3 million square feet of new commercial and industrial space

Down on the waterfront of Sunset Park, billions of dollars in public and private investment have slowly reshaped one of Brooklyn’s last industrial strongholds. Over the past decade, warehouses have been emptied out, artists have been evicted, small businesses have relocated or closed, and a slew of chain stores have moved in. It has been a period of enormous change, which may soon be overshadowed when the next phase of the neighborhood’s redevelopment begins.

In 2017, Industry City, a collection of 16 massive warehouses located on the neighborhood’s western edge, announced a proposal to rezone its campus, which at six million square feet is already the largest privately owned industrial complex in New York City. As part of its ongoing $1 billion plan to reshape the property, Industry City’s rezoning proposal seeks to create 1.3 million square feet of new commercial and industrial space by allowing its owners to erect several new buildings that will also house hotels, an academic campus, retail spaces, and parking.

Many community members in Sunset Park have been alarmed by this rezoning proposal. After being acquired by Belvedere Capital and Jamestown in 2013, the initial phases of redevelopment at Industry City have helped to spur a wave of real estate speculation throughout the neighborhood, where rents and home prices have skyrocketed. Local residents are fearful that these new proposed changes would supercharge the gentrification which is already threatening to engulf the neighborhood.

Against this backdrop, Brooklyn Community Board 7 invited Andrew Kimball, the CEO of Industry City, to a public meeting at their headquarters in Sunset Park this past Monday. Kimball was greeted by a standing-room-only audience, overflowing into the lobby outside. The energy in the room was tense, with protestors encircling the crowd holding anti-displacement banners. It was a remarkable opportunity to see the head of one of Brooklyn’s biggest commercial properties confronted by a diverse array of local stakeholders, including immigrants, artists, families, and small business owners.

To begin the meeting, Kimball introduced a panel made up of several Industry City tenants, and gave a overview of some of the changes that have taken place. “We spent two years at the beginning, chipping away at $350 million of deferred maintenance—15,000 windows to replace, 144 elevators to upgrade, $50 million of electrical work,” said Kimball. “It’s a big place, as you all know—35 acres, 16 buildings. We have now grown in the last five years, from 150 businesses to over 450 businesses, 1,900 jobs to over 7,000 jobs. That’s the equivalent of 100 new jobs a month.”

As Kimball’s presentation progressed into describing the rezoning proposal, he was frequently interrupted by derisive catcalls from the audience. “You are accelerating displacement! Nothing innovative about displacement!” “$18 cups of coffee is not anything!” “Tell us about the hotels!” “Avocado toast!”

Much of the counter-narrative was orchestrated from the back of the room by Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of Uprose. As the borough’s oldest Latino community-based organization, Uprose has been one of the staunchest opponents of Industry City’s redevelopment plans, and for every statement Kimball offered, Yeampierre and her team had a corrective. Each time Kimble mentioned his vision of an “innovation economy” at Industry City, Yeampierre would interject, “You mean, displacement economy!”

“Listen, I get it. I get it. Everyone is upset,” said Cesar Zuniga, the chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 7, attempting to calm the crowd. “This is controversial, there is no question … This is messy, this is democracy, and this is what it is all about.”

After Kimball’s presentation, audience members were invited to line up and directly address him about the proposed rezoning. Their concerns were manifold, but mainly focused on how the plans would amplify the ongoing gentrification of their diverse community. Sunset Park is currently 39 percent Hispanic and 33 percent Asian, according to Business Insider, and is home to one of Brooklyn’s fastest growing Chinese immigrant communities, according to the New York Times.

“I raised my family here, I was born and raised here. I want to live in this neighborhood … but I can’t afford to buy a house here,” said Jose Aleman, a lifelong Sunset Park resident. “There is a correlation between the innovation that is happening, the development that is happening, and the increased prices, the increased rent.”

“You are not looking at us, you are not looking at our kids,” said Claudia Galicia, who attended the meeting with her young daughter. “A big part of the Mexican community is undocumented, so we will probably not get any benefits from Industry City. But we know that the rents are going to go up.”

“If you have not noticed, we are not happy. We are getting angry,” said Marcela Mitaynes, the chair of CB7’s Housing Committee, who has lived in Sunset Park since 1979. “We made this the thriving community that you are now trying to cash in on.… This is our neighborhood, and if you want a piece of the pie, you need to come to us, and we expect something in return for the billion dollar investment that is happening. Because in 10 years, when you are fully operational, the brown folks in this neighborhood, the brown folks that are sitting here, the Latino community and the Asian community, will no longer be here.”

It is not difficult to see why the longtime residents of Sunset Park are worried about the future of their community. Visiting the Industry City campus, it is immediately clear that the redevelopment offers up a much different vision for the future of the neighborhood, a vision has little to do with the cultures, businesses, and restaurants that currently exist.

Upon entering Industry City’s Food Hall on 36th Street, visitors are handed a map of its campus, spelling out its priorities: Food & Drinks, Shops & Services, and Signature Spaces. Wandering through its hallways, past its highly curated selection of businesses, feels like entering into a developer’s fever dream of what “Brooklyn” means today: conspicuous consumption set against a sanitized post-industrial backdrop, luxury goods masquerading as craft items, and exorbitantly priced food experiences.

To create a buzz around the property, Industry City has spent the last five years wooing some of the best-known “Brooklyn” brands around, providing spaces to organizations including the Brooklyn Rail, the Brooklyn Flea, Rooftop Films, and the Bell House. Tourists can now visit the Brooklyn Brine Pickle Shack, the Brooklyn Kura sake distillery, and, coming soon, Sahadi’s and Hometown Bar-B-Que, two well-known Brooklyn food businesses that will be opening outposts within the complex.

All of this was enough for Lonely Planet to declare Sunset Park one of “the world’s coolest neighbourhoods to visit right now” in 2017. And this, in turn, has led to coverage in publications like Business Insider, which touted Industry City’s “outdoor film screenings, sunset yoga classes, and co-working spaces,” and the New York Post, which encouraged New Yorkers to relocate to Sunset Park for its “affordable prices and low-key vibe.” It is little wonder that local residents are worried about Industry City’s proposed expansion.

At the same time that Industry City has been curating its collection of “Brooklyn” businesses, it has also been steadily working towards becoming a self-sufficient community-within-a-community, separated from the businesses that already exist along Sunset Park’s busy streets. The Industry City campus now has its own butchers, bakers, and coffee shops, and its own barbershop, fitness center, and yoga studio. A private security force endlessly circles the property, there’s a complimentary shuttle service to the Financial Distruct, and an “Industry City General Supply” recently opened, which is stocked with essentials like hemp seeds, protein powder, and 16 different types of organic granola.

Industry City’s future plans would increase its isolation from the surrounding community. One of the major elements of the rezoning proposal is to create at least two hotels, as part of three new buildings that would replace several smaller properties throughout the complex. These hotels, Kimball explained, would be focused on serving business clients visiting Industry City, so that they would not have to stay further afield, despite the fact that there are numerous new hotels nearby in Sunset Park, Gowanus, and Downtown Brooklyn.

“These hotels are business hotels that are linked to the site. They are only going to succeed because the businesses want them there,” said Kimble during his presentation. “They ought to be able to stay right there. They ought to be able to have conference room space, meeting room space.”

“Oooh, nice and bougie,” countered Yeampierre, causing a ripple of laughter throughout the room. “Oooh, so exciting.”

As the meeting began to wrap up, many in the audience expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of new details, facts and figures offered up by Kimble’s truncated presentation. “What do your number crunchers forecast, for the existing community residents, in two, fiv, 10, and 20 years? Their income—will it go up, will it go down? The coast of living, rent, food, utilities—will it go up or will it go down?” asked María Roca, one of the organizers of Friends of Sunset Park, whose family has has lived in the neighborhood since 1964. “Because if everyone is not able to benefit and enjoy a better quality of life, then what you are building is a ghetto, beginning from Third Avenue down to the water, where only some people will benefit.”

In the rezoning proposal, this collection of small businesses and apartments on Third Avenue between 36th and 37th streets would be replaced by a new “Gateway Building” rising up to 170 feet high.

The proposed new building would house an 11-story hotel, with one floor of retail. Its construction would demolish several buildings, including the one-story Cafe La Morena, a bodega that doubles as an inexpensive coffee shop and lunchtime spot for workers from Industry City and other nearby businesses.

As it plans its rezoning, Industry City is also opening up several new shopping destinations. The largest is the 20,000 square foot “Japan Village” along Third Avenue between 35th and 36th streets. When it opens, it will “actively imitate other gourmet food halls in Manhattan,” according to The Real Deal.

Tourists can already visit stores like the Brooklyn Brine Pickle Shack on 35th Street, a “seasonal vegan cafe and pickle shop.” It will soon be joined by a new next-door neighbor, Red Hook’s Hometown Bar-B-Que.

Longtime Brooklyn favorite Sahadi’s will also be joining the Industry City team, with a new food store that will soon open inside one of the campus’ renovated courtyards.

“We have created five acres of new green space at Industry City,” Kimball said during his presentation. “Open space for the privileged!” countered Yeampierre. “You are doing that for the privileged and the colonized!”

Visitors to these courtyards can stroll through manicured spaces, with a piped-in soundtrack of new country music, on their way to Brooklyn Kura, a new “American craft sake” distillery operated by a transplant from Portland, Oregon.

Just off one courtyard, Industry City has created its own yoga studio and private gym as part of its amenities for tenants. Employees in their complex can now join the Industry City Athletic Club for $35 a month.

Across the hall from this private gym sits Camp David, “the Chicest Workspace You’ve Ever Seen,” according to Harper’s Bazaar. This co-working space opened in 2017, and “prices for an assigned desk begin at $700 a month,” according to the New York Times.

The new General Supply store in Industry City expands on the idea that this complex is a self-sufficient community, away from the rest of Sunset Park. The store is an upscale, organic version of a bodega, and offers up Industry City-branded coffee.

The food hall at Industry City, another bustling destination for weekend tourists. “Industry City has shone a light onto one of Brooklyn’s most exciting under-the-radar neighbourhoods,” according to the tourist guide Lonely Planet.

Inside the Industry City games hall, where $5 gets you unlimited ping-pong. “What’s happening when those people are coming to shop at those businesses, to buy the $18 cup of coffee… is that they are seeing how wonderful our community is, and they want to be a part of it,” explained Mitaynes during the public meeting. “And these landlords are seeing that, and they are cashing in.”

Empty, unrenovated warehouse spaces have been left wide open throughout the complex, allowing visitors to wander through and contemplate its former life as a manufacturing and industrial hub.

Inside the Box Factory, one of Industry City’s “signature spaces,” and another reminder of the past that has been left open to visitors. Industry City was once a part of Bush Terminal, an enormous manufacturing, warehousing and distribution center that employed “nearly 25,000 workers per day.”

Those days are long gone. “Industry City was 60 percent underutilized when we got there,” according to Kimball. “30 percent vacant, nobody in it, and 30 percent boxes—no jobs.”

At the northern end of the campus, where 32nd Street meets Second Avenue, another new building has been proposed as part of the rezoning. It would include eight floors of academic space, three floors of parking, and two floors of retail space.

The building would replace Industry City’s iconic powerhouse, another relic of its forgotten past. “We are adaptively reusing all of the Industry City buildings,” said Kimball. “We are one of the largest historic preservation projects going on anywhere.”

Further south in the sprawling Industry City campus, a third new building has been proposed as part of the rezoning plan. Located at the corner of First Avenue and 39th Street, this building would include a five-floor hotel, three floors of “innovation economy,” three floors of parking, and two floors of retail space.

The landscape of First Avenue is still largely industrial, with active train tracks, poultry slaughterhouses, and car repair shops. Placing a business hotel here would alter the street’s identity and impact the existing local businesses.

Kimball denied any correlation between the new developments at Industry City and the gentrification happening in Sunset Park. “You could slice off Industry City and send it into the river, and the same issues would be happening in Sunset Park,” said Kimball. “Rents have been going up since before Industry City got there, and will continue to go up.”

“I have to say, there has been two stories of Industry City,” countered Claudia Galicia, during her remarks to Kimball, describing how her friend’s thriving manufacturing business inside Industry City had been evicted. “We were in Industry City before. We are not in Industry City today. We are not there.”

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. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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