The Fallacy of “Industry City, Our Way”
City Councilmember Menchaca’s September 16, 2019 Public Meeting on Industry City
Photo by Tarry Hum
Sunset Park, Brooklyn is a vibrant racially diverse and majority immigrant working-class neighborhood. As one of the city’s largest waterfront neighborhoods, it is a frontline community in confronting the existential threat of climate change. Numerous academic studies including by New York University’s Furman Center substantiate that Sunset Park is undergoing gentrification. Located on Sunset Park’s waterfront is Industry City, a massive 16 factory building complex owned by a consortium of “innovation hub” developers and global equity investors. They are seeking a special district designation and zoning text changes to allow the new construction of 1.3 million square feet of destination retail, hotels, academic and commercial art space such as galleries or a museum. The rezoning is currently undergoing New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) which is a seven and half month public review process by the local community board and Borough President whose recommendations are advisory, and the City Planning Commission and City Councilmember. If approved, the Special Industry City District will catalyze transformational change and displace the area’s long-time Latinx and Asian immigrant-owned small businesses and working-class residents.
Since Industry City CEO, Andrew Kimball, announced their “$1B Brooklyn hipster mega-project”, Sunset Park stakeholders such as UPROSE, POWWA, and the 4,000 signatories on the Protect Sunset Park petition, have organized and participated in numerous rallies and community board town halls; written opinion pieces and articles; and spent days analyzing and commenting on the public scoping and Draft Environmental Impact Study documents. We did this to protest city land use actions and public infrastructure expenditures that will augment the hyper-gentrification unleashed by transnational real estate investments (and Industry City’s rezoning is necessary to catalyze more investment) and to advocate for an alternative vision detailed in UPROSE’s GRID plan for a just transition, green manufacturing jobs, and environmental sustainability.
Sunset Park stakeholders will continue to express their opposition to the Special Industry City District application at the Brooklyn Borough President’s public hearing but their testimony is merely part of the political theatre that is ULURP and will, ultimately, have no impact on the foregone conclusion that this transformative rezoning application will be approved. For example, in advance of the Borough President’s public hearing, his deputy penned an opinion piece, “In Sunset Park, the problem isn’t Industry City. It’s affordable housing.”
City Councilmember Menchaca’s first and only public meeting on the Industry City rezoning application was this past September 16, following critical media coverage of his request for a certification delay to allow for substantive community review. Menchaca’s decision was highly anticipated, in part, because a Crain’s article published a few days earlier, reported he had agreed to the rezoning with conditions. About an hour into the Councilmember’s presentation detailing “Industry City, Our Way”, the packed Sunset Park High School auditorium erupted into a unified and prolonged chant of “No Rezoning, No Conditions.” While the press portrayed “an unruly crowd,” community members became increasingly impatient when his presentation began to sound like an Industry City marketing pitch. Despite the expressed frustration, Councilmember Menchaca chose to stick to his script prompting an attendee to shout out “We voted for you, not Industry City!” A sustained “No Rezoning, No Conditions” chant ensued and several minutes later, the building trade union members left followed by the Councilmember.
Facebook ad of Industry City’s false claim that hotels were removed from their rezoning application.
His departure did not end the convening as community members continued to discuss their concerns. About fifteen minutes into the community speak out, the auditorium lights were shut off but folks were undeterred by the darkness, and held up cell phones to provide light including a child who held up his lit toy saber. I was told a school safety official was instructed by “the lady that works for Menchaca” to turn off the lights. At a CB 7 executive session debrief the next day, members expressed surprise at the community’s behavior which members described as rude and threatening. I’m surprised no one mentioned that leaving dozens of community folks, including elders and children, in a darkened auditorium for 15 minutes, is reckless and dangerous.
Councilmember Menchaca rightly described Industry City’s investor-owners as “capitalistic animals.” Industry City exemplifies how industrial capitalism centered on manufacturing has been replaced by finance capitalism with investment in assets such as land and real estate properties as a primary strategy for capital accumulation or profit making. One of the world’s largest private equity firms and predatory lenders, Blackstone, has now joined one of the world’s largest (and state-owned) banks, Bank of China, along with co-owner, Angelo Gordon, (a hedge fund enriched by Puerto Rico’s debt crisis), to underwrite Industry City’s transformation into an experiential retail and cultural destination. One of the repeated statements to cow the community to accept the massive rezoning is that current land use rules allow Industry City “as of right” to develop its underutilized spaces for office use which may entail a tenant company such as Amazon. Despite Industry City’s failed effort to lure Amazon, developing office space is not the economic model that will generate the highest investor returns. Industry City needs the special district and rezoning actions to accommodate premium rent tenants in high-tech, destination retail, and private institutions such as universities and art museums. If Industry City’s owner-investors were able to achieve the “highest and best use” given current zoning rules, they would not bother with this drawn out political theatre.
Banner “Tokyo Without the Jetlag” on the side of an Industry City building exemplifies the type of experiential retail the complex investor-owners want to expand with a rezoning.
Photo by Tarry Hum
Immediately after the September 16 meeting, Councilmember Menchaca issued an official statement that he “Got it” and assured the Sunset Park community that he would reject Industry City’s application if certain conditions were not met: one, removal of hotels from the Special Permit and restriction of the total amount and location of retail use; two, city commitment of funds for a public technical high school and adult educational center, and tenant organizing and legal advocacy; and three, a legally binding community benefits agreement (CBA). Even though Industry City agreed to a second certification delay (until a CBA was formulated), without any notification, Industry City’s special district and rezoning application (without any of the modifications requested by Menchaca) was added to the Department of City Planning’s October 28 special meeting and certified “shocking local leaders.”
Councilmember Menchaca’s appeal to the Mayor for meetings with top advisors including the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, President and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and Director of the Department of City Planning and Chair of the City Planning Commission, was also rejected which leaves only one remaining condition, a CBA that will delineate “Industry City done our way.” There is little appetite for a CBA because community members are aware of their uneven outcomes and “unfulfilled promises”. More importantly, a CBA is toothless in mitigating secondary residential and small business displacement that will certainly result from more private real estate development. Last week, CB 7’s Land Use Committee held a marathon meeting to hammer out recommendations for a conditional approval on Industry City’s application for consideration and a vote by the full community board. The Committee chair instructed his members that this was an opportunity to generate a “Christmas list” of concessions that Councilmember Menchaca can leverage to “steer (the rezoning) in a direction that benefits our community.”
To use Councilmember Menchaca’s terminology, the ball will soon be in his court. While he has rightly criticized the ULURP process for not providing sufficient time for community review and engagement, this is not the only structural problem with the city’s land use process. Recent articles have raised concerns regarding the planning and development priorities of the Department of City Planning and New York City Economic Development Corporation. Community groups are mobilizing to discuss reform of the city’s land use review and decision-making because these processes are heavily skewed in the interest of maximizing private property rights and development profits for owners, developers, and their global financial partners. While a No vote on Industry City’s rezoning application will not stem gentrification, it is a false claim that a No vote is equivalent to “doing nothing”. A No vote is a principled position to represent and protect Sunset Park’s racially diverse, immigrant working-class. A No vote rejects changes in land use rules that would grant Industry City’s consortium of owners “flexibility” to implement an expansion plan that advances hyper-gentrification and maximizes investor returns. As an elected representative of one of the city’s remaining working-class waterfront neighborhoods, Councilmember Menchaca needs to accept the fallacy of “Industry City, Our Way”.
Tarry Hum is Professor and Chair, Urban Studies Department at Queens College, City University of New York. Her family moved to Sunset Park in 1974 where her dad continues to reside.