A Brooklyn City Council member’s decision to oppose an expansion of Industry City that promised 20,000 new jobs and up to $100 million in tax revenue sent shockwaves through the business community amid the economic pandemic plunge.
Councilmember Carlos Menchaca’s announcement buoyed opponents, who feared the project would displace longtime residents. It also gave new urgency to an effort by some former city officials to devise a plan for inclusive growth aimed at changing the political dynamic that sees development efforts as leading to more gentrification and inequality.
Meanwhile, developments at the Sunset Park site turned the spotlight on Council Speaker Corey Johnson, bruised by a fight over the budget as a series of land use proposals head to the Council over the last 18 months of the de Blasio administration.
Earlier this week, Menchaca declared he would oppose the proposal to add more than 1 million square feet of commercial space and up to 600,000 square feet of classrooms to the district he represents. He said in an Instagram video that Industry City failed to meet his conditions as he denounced the city’s land use process as stacked against everyday New Yorkers.
“It is clear to me that the displacement and gentrification our city is combating today is a result of giving private developers free reign,” said Menchaca. “We must learn from our mistakes…. We must not let corporate interests develop our way out of this crisis.”
The original plan included two hotels, although Industry City officials maintained they had agreed to eliminate them in a deal with Menchaca. The 16-building complex has emerged with the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a hotbed of the city’s expanding creative economy.
‘Let’s Sit Down’
Andrew Kimball, chief executive of Industry City, said the project includes no subsidies and would provide an economic boost when the city is losing hundreds of thousands of jobs and facing multi-billion-dollar budget gaps. He also made a plea, echoed by a Daily News editorial, for Johnson to jump in to save the project.
“It would be my hope that the Council leadership steps forward with a perspective that with a project of citywide importance, this is too important to lose,” he told THE CITY. “Let’s sit down and figure it out.”
The unwritten rule of the Council is that lawmakers defer to individual members on projects in their districts.
But on some occasions previous speakers have pushed through development proposals over local member opposition. In 2009, then-Speaker Christine Quinn won approval of a mixed-use project in Dumbo over the objection of the area’s representative, David Yassky.
Early in his tenure, Johnson suggested he was open to doing that, but has not followed through. Johnson did not comment on Menchaca’s decision as business leaders backed Kimball.
“After four months of economic devastation, the borough urgently needs forward-thinking projects that will stimulate economic development and create jobs and opportunities in our neighborhoods, especially in communities of color,” said Randy Peers, CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Kathy Wylde, chief executive of the New York City Partnership, noted the Industry City site had long been a symbol of the city’s failure to develop its waterfront. Jamestown Properties, the major owner, has turned the complex into a hub for tech, retail, artisan manufacturing and sports.
“They have breathed new life into an area that was dead for the past half century and created a destination that supports Brooklyn’s small business sector,” she added. “Opposition to this expanded project, especially as Brooklyn suffers Depression-era job loss, is completely irresponsible.”
Amazon Legacy Looms
Opponents praised Menchaca’s decision.
“After years of community push back, Councilmember Menchaca finally picked a side,” said Antoinette Martinez, an organizer with Protect Sunset Park, which formed to fight the plan. “Now we need Menchaca to start doing his job and prioritize the public waterfront plan due later this year to activate our manufacturing waterfront to help Sunset Park and New York justly reopen and recover.”
Another organizer for the group, Jorge Muñiz, said it would be unwise for Johnson to intervene and that the speaker should instead work toward a comprehensive waterfront plan.
Opposition has been growing in the Council against large developments, with elected officials blocking rezonings of Southern Boulevard in The Bronx and in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer recently came out against a 12-million-square-foot proposal for Anable Basin where the Amazon headquarters was supposed to be built. An effort by the developers to involve the community has generated some support for the project.
Still, Councilmember Brad Lander supports moving ahead with a controversial rezoning of the Gowanus Canal area in his Brooklyn district.
Call for ‘A New Model’
Business leaders argue the alternative to growth is economic disaster and fiscal crises.
Dan Doctoroff, the architect of the extensive growth-oriented rezonings of the Bloomberg administration, has been making the rounds of webinars, to argue there is no alternative.
“My whole view about the city is that ultimately the success or failure of a city is determined by its capacity to grow in number of residents, jobs and visitors,” he told THE CITY following Menchaca’s decision.
But Doctoroff conceded that the pre-pandemic increase in housing costs, the lack of affordable housing and rising inequality makes the Bloomberg approach out of date.
He said a new approach would take the proceeds of new development to invest massively in affordable housing, possible city-run universal health care and environmental measures.
“We have to do a new model and it has to be inclusive,” he said. “That is particularly true because of COVID. How do you reinvest the profits of growth that is perceived to be more fair than before?”
The Industry City project was in the middle of the city’s land use approval process, known as ULURP, when pandemic froze development plans. The process will resume in September, giving supporters a little more than a month to pressure Johnson for action.
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