In Sunset Park rezoning, questions surface over efforts to engage immigrant neighbors

July 8, 2019 Scott Enman
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Members of Sunset Park’s immigrant community expressed concern on Monday that not enough was being done to engage non-English speakers in a redevelopment process that has broad implications for one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, citing a lack of meetings and literature in their native languages.

Residents and members of Community Board 7’s Immigration Committee challenged the board to do more to bring non-English speakers into the discussion of the Industry City rezoning, a proposal that seeks to transform the waterfront industrial site into an “innovation economy” hub characterized by makers, creatives, retailers and academic spaces.

The board encompasses both Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace, where more than 47 percent of residents are foreign-born, and 48 percent identify as having limited English proficiency. Seventy-three percent identified as Asian or Hispanic, according to data from the New York City Planning Department.

Though translation services are provided during meetings and town halls, and the plan’s promotional website is in multiple languages, some critical documents that detail the size, scope and potential impact of the overhaul are available mainly in English — and even then, laden with jargon and buzzwords that do not translate well, attendees said.

Board chairperson Cesar Zuniga told attendees, many of whom were using translation equipment, that his organization is committed to brainstorming ways of getting non-English speaking residents more involved.

“Immigrant families have not historically been represented in these types of engagements, so we need to figure out ways that go above and beyond the way that we traditionally do business to engage the community,” Zuniga said.

Anita Bulan, vice chairperson of CB7’s Immigration Committee, said that “robust forums” should be held in Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, enabling immigrants to have in-depth conversations — prior to public town halls — so that they could come informed and prepared to ask questions.

“Unless we have people who this is going to impact directly in the room, we’re talking in circles,” Bulan said. “Rather than having a vacuum and a silo, let’s spread the word.”

Industry City filed its 135-page application in March. Its backers want zoning changes and special permits to build two hotels, academic space and large retail stores as part of a 10-year, $1 billion redevelopment that would increase its size from roughly 5.3 million square feet to 6.5 million.

The initiative became the focal point in neighborhood tensions over gentrification, with critics suggesting it would accelerate immigrant displacement and backers saying it will create new economic opportunities through job training and placement programs.

With neighbors asked to weigh the claims and provide feedback as part of the land use review process, Jimmy Li, chairperson of the Immigration Committee, said that an important first step is to have all documents relating to the rezoning translated into several languages.

He contended that despite the fact that CB7 has been discussing Industry City for several years, pockets of non-English speaking residents have not provided much input.

Li also said that providing live translators was not enough, arguing that complex concepts often get lost in translation. For example, residents said that ornate words used in Industry City’s advertising like “innovation economy” should be simplified and explained.

While no one from Industry City attended the July 1 meeting, a representative for the complex later told the Brooklyn Eagle that Industry City’s website is available in English, Spanish and Chinese, and that the organization is “certainly willing to make arrangements to accommodate other languages.”

Bulan, however, said that “the onus” to do outreach to specific immigrant populations is the responsibility of the community board and its members.

That call to action appeared to be well received with Karen Low, a Sunset Park resident, who stood up and vowed to mobilize the Chinese community in the coming months.

The certified rezoning from the city’s Department of City Planning will likely come before the community board in the fall, according to CB7.

The borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council will then have an opportunity to review it.

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