Amazon Headquarters Left New York, but Will Other Developers?
Marcela Mityanes, a resident of the Sunset Park neighborhood in south Brooklyn, can’t leave her apartment without seeing signs of rapid change. The deli on the corner is closing; a coffee shop is opening next door. Luxury mega-developments are rising over full blocks. Even the Key Food is selling different products. Passing a building undergoing gut-renovation, Mityanes, a tenant organizer with the local group Neighbors Helping Neighbors, can’t help but wonder about who was living there before and where they went. She’s heard increasing complaints of tenant harassment, rent hikes, and evictions throughout the working-class, predominately Latino and Asian neighborhood. “I feel like it’s been sporadic and spaced out. But now it just seems like it’s happening on every other block,” she says.
Sunset Park has historically been one of New York City’s largest walk-to-work communities—a hub for manufacturing jobs in the factories and warehouses along the water. Before it was bought by private developers and rebranded as Industry City, Bush Terminal—which spanned 200 acres along the waterfront at its peak—was home to a busy port and railyard, and, more recently, to one of the highest concentrations of garment manufacturers in the city.
As climbing rents pushed most of these factory jobs across the river to New Jersey or upstate—between 2006 and 2016, median rent in Sunset Park increased by 20 percent adjusted for inflation—the stable working-class life the jobs made possible has disappeared too. In the early ’90s, the manufacturing sector employed over 250,000 people in the city, plummeting to less than 80,000 today.
The future of its post-industrial waterfront has long been one of New York City’s most pressing urban-planning questions, its urgency intermittently exploding with high-profile proposals like Amazon‘s new headquarters, which would have been located just 10 miles up the river from Industry City in Long Island City, Queens. The development, sited at Pepsi-Cola’s old bottling plant, threatened to accelerate gentrification and displacement and to divert over a billion dollars of city funds away from essential public projects, like subway repairs. The outcry over the plan achieved the seemingly unachievable: Amazon dropped the plan, citing backlash from state and local politicians.
Amazon‘s withdrawal appeared as a harbinger of a new era of development in New York—one of heightened scrutiny and community involvement. The city council already seems to be embracing the moment: in a January report to the city’s charter revision commission, the council called on the charter to create a comprehensive plan every 10 years—a citywide framework that developers would have to adapt their plans to, rather than the other way around. Community participation would take place throughout the process, rather than once the plan is already essentially finalized.
In the meantime, though, developers are clinging to the status quo. Since it purchased a 32-acre plot centered around a complex of former manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution buildings on Sunset Park’s coastal edge in 2013, Jamestown Properties, the same developer responsible for the high-end Chelsea Market in Manhattan, has deviated little from this norm. The voiceover in one promotional video for the property asserts: “We come here to make it. To look out over the landscape and transform it. We are the makers, and the box is empty. This is where we fill it.” With the help of a consortium of joint owners—Belvedere Capital; Angelo, Gordon & Co; Cammeby’s International; and FBE Limited—the warehouse has been filled so far with a smattering of gourmet restaurants, stores, and event spaces.
But much of the complex remains empty, awaiting the more momentous transformation that Industry City’s owners have long promised: a massive rezoning. On March 4th, Jamestown Property’s application finally arrived at the office of the city planning commission, proposing new hotels, big box retail, and other commercial and classroom space totaling 1.5 million square feet.
The owners say that the $1 billion redevelopment would generate 15,000 on-site jobs. But, in a clash reminiscent of the one that erupted in November when Amazon promised to bring 25,000 jobs to the area, many neighborhood residents say that the number of jobs is meaningless if they’re not the right kind of jobs. According to UPROSE, a community group leading the resistance against the rezoning, the jobs are likely to be the kinds of high-skilled, high-paying ones that aren’t meant for the mostly immigrant, working-class residents of Sunset Park. “How many of the [new employees] will just have to take an extra train to Industry City from Manhattan?” asks Ting Ting Fu, an organizer with UPROSE, whose mother worked as a seamstress in one of the factories on the waterfront when she immigrated to Sunset Park from China in the ’90s.
Industry City does house an “Innovation Lab”—a workforce-training center to help neighborhood residents find work, often at Industry City, but it’s a small solution to an existential problem. As a landlord to the 500 businesses it houses, the owners of Industry City have little influence over whether they accept workers from the community.
The Bush Terminal renovation is a bullet point on a long and growing list of private waterfront developments that have profited off the trendy image of post-industrial dereliction, leaving workers to fend for themselves: luxury condos line Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo, the new Domino Park in Williamsburg, Hunter’s Point South Park in Long Island City. “The way the market has been set up is that residential users pay higher rent than commercial, which pay higher than industrial,” explains Ben Margolis, executive director of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, which advocates for businesses in Sunset Park and the surrounding waterfront neighborhoods. Repeated commitments by the mayor’s office and the Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit designed to promote economic growth in the city, to protect and expand industrial zones have done little to slow the pace of change. According to Margolis, “Industrial always seems to lose the battle in the long run.”
This is not the future that Sunset Park residents envisioned. In its development of Industry City, the owners have all but scrapped a years-long community-planning process for the area that sought not only to defend the residents and workers of the neighborhood against gentrification, but the environment against climate change. The 197A plan—a non-binding guide which the city council adopted in 2009—proposed designating a “Sustainable Industrial District” to address the two in tandem: encouraging growth of businesses like green materials manufacturers and offshore wind farms, as well as greening the infrastructure of the neighborhood itself.
“We need to be able to build climate mitigation, adaptation, resilience, we need to be able to talk about how we’re protected for the next extreme weather events that are coming our way,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE. “It’s the dual crisis of displacement and preventing us from building for a climate future. We can’t separate those two.”
At a protest against the rezoning at Industry City in mid-March, speakers made repeated calls for a return to this dual vision, cheered on by chants of Sunset Park is not for sale! / Sunset Park no se vende!
Industry City’s owners claim that the rezoning “aligns broadly” with the 197A plan, but many familiar with the original plan disagree. According to one protester, Maria Roca, a long-time Sunset Park resident who helped devise the 197A plan: “It’s not like we just sat there and said, ‘We don’t know what we want, whatever comes, comes.’ It took time, it was deliberate. It wasn’t something we threw together in the spur of the moment. But this,” she says, pointing toward the central courtyard of Industry City, decked out in strings of fairy lights, “is all just quick fixes, giving away stuff.” Like Amazon‘s HQ2, Industry City stands to profit handsomely off of generous developer-oriented tax incentives: The development is located in one of Brooklyn‘s opportunity zones—a set of neighborhoods, designated by the 2017 federal tax bill, where developers can defer capital gains tax.
The specter of the Amazon deal has also, though, been working in activists’ favor. On March 6th, two days after Industry City’s owners filed their rezoning application, the district’s council member, Carlos Menchaca, penned a letter to Andrew Kimball, chief executive officer of Industry City, calling on him to halt the rezoning process, specifically citing the failure of the Amazon deal as evidence that the evaluation process the developers hope to kick off through their rezoning application— called ULURP—is too short and too obscure for effectively “evaluating displacement, gentrification, and the effects of climate change.”
Two days later, the district’s representatives in the congress and senate echoed Menchaca’s concerns in a letter to Marisa Lago, director of the Department of City Planning, asking her to pause the rezoning process to allow more time for ongoing community engagement processes, arguing that ULURP is “clearly a developer-led process.”
Industry City’s owners agreed within days to delay their rezoning application.
The success of the resistance against Amazon has also given new energy to activists in Sunset Park, who’ve been organizing protests against Industry City for years. “It really incentivized us and gave us life—it made us feel like, yeah we can do this thing, and we have to do it,” Yeampierre says. “There has to be a different vision, the backbone and the political will to say to developers: ‘You can’t be developing the same way, we’re living in a different time. Our communities are in crisis and development doesn’t look like that anymore.'”