On Monday, Sept. 16, New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca is expected to share his views on the controversial rezoning of Sunset Park’s waterfront proposed by Industry City and backed by their uber-rich developer owners.
The weight of this decision has mobilized and united a diverse coalition of residents and activists. Earlier this month, the #ProtectSunsetPark coalition, a grassroots group opposed to the rezoning, delivered nearly 3,000 petitions demanding that Menchaca reject Industry City’s plans for the Sunset Park waterfront.
I am part of that coalition and want to describe why the rezoning is a profound threat to the neighborhood I love.
The Sunset Park waterfront, New York City’s largest maritime manufacturing area, embodies not only New York’s industrial past but also the neighborhood’s history as a community of recently-arrived immigrants and working-class families. Industry City envisions transforming the historic waterfront into a destination for big-box retail, corporate tenants like Amazon and luxury hotels, in an economic transformation that would raise property values and bring a healthy return on the investment made by Industry City’s private owners and foreign investors.
This approach to development, already in force in other formerly industrial waterfront Brooklyn neighborhoods, is the legacy of the Bloomberg era and a lure for the type of speculative real-estate capital that has been a key driver of New York City’s affordability crisis and incentive for landlords to oust long-time tenants.
These rezonings usually begin with community activities (concerts, gourmet pop-ups, and other attractions) intended to “activate” formerly industrial areas. This programmatic strategy has been perfected by Industry City’s primary owner, Jamestown properties (the developer of Chelsea market). The Bloomberg rezonings have produced the now-familiar upscale developments of DUMBO, Long Island City and Hudson Yards, and contributed to the expulsion of minority and immigrant tenants.
One of the most egregious examples of this can be seen in Williamsburg, where between 2002 and 2013 hotels and nightlife venues replaced industry, median gross rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed from $949 to $1,603, and the area’s Latino population plummeted by 27%, while its white population increased by 44%. Similarly to Industry City, the rezoning promised to preserve some space for manufacturing uses and invest in public areas. Those promises wound up being watered down or completely broken.
If the proposed rezoning of Sunset Park’s waterfront goes into effect, the accompanying rise in property values is certain to increase rents in South Brooklyn, where the majority of residents are rent-burdened, and accelerate the displacement of Sunset Park and South Brooklyn residents, which have some of the city’s largest concentrations of immigrant families. Menchaca’s decision will not only determine the long-term fate of the diverse and working-class neighborhood; it will be an important signal to private developers accustomed to steam-rolling land-use decisions through community boards and the City Council.
Industry City argues that if Menchaca rejects their proposal, or doesn’t negotiate to modify it, the decision would stall job creation and opportunity in the community.
This is a false choice. Menchaca can both reject the Industry City plan, eschew developer-led rezoning and usher in a planning process that is community-based, equitable, and provides thousands of good-paying jobs for local residents. Work towards this vision for has already begun and was recently debuted at Brooklyn’s Community Board 7 by the Sunset Park community-based organization UPROSE, in their Green Resilient Improvement District (GRID) proposal. UPROSE’s GRID offers a compelling alternative to Industry City’s plan, and illustrates a future where the waterfront’s development can help bring about a more sustainable, resilient and dynamic future for South Brooklyn.
Its councilmember has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to steer Sunset Park away from the fate shared by Williamsburg, Greenpoint, DUMBO and their former residents — immigrants, blue-collar families, and small business owners — and strive towards a bolder, greener and more equitable future for Sunset Park. He must do the right thing.
Camarena is a former member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 7 and an organizer with the #ProtectSunsetPark coalition.