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Rezoning: Not for every neighborhood | Opinion

December 6, 2019 Steve Hindy
Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane
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I moderated a discussion of the 2005 rezoning of Williamsburg/Greenpoint recently at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The panelists were Frances Lucerna, cofounder of the educational and cultural organization El Puente, Judge Adam Perlmutter, cofounder of the organization now known as the North Brooklyn Parks Alliance and Katherine Thompson, co-leader of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park.

There was general recognition among the panelists that northern Brooklyn was forced to rezone the waterfront or face undesirable developments like garbage transfer stations and power plants.

But there also was a strong feeling that the area did not get the benefits that were promised by the city in exchange — truly affordable housing, a big waterfront park and protection for the manufacturing businesses in the area.

These are issues that many newly energized community advocates are demanding in rezoning processes that are unfolding in Gowanus, Bushwick, and Sunset Park’s Industry City.

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There are significant differences between northern Brooklyn and these other neighborhoods. Unlike northern Brooklyn, none of them are facing an onslaught of garbage and power plants, for example.

In Industry City, advocates led by Councilmember Carlos Menchaca are demanding development that does not lead to rising rents and gentrification of the area. Frances Lucerna said that those factors in North Brooklyn led to the displacement of many Latinx families in her community.

Menchaca also is seeking city oversight of the economic development in Industry City and a ban on hotels in the area.

I think the hotel ban is a mistaken idea, born of the fact that allowing hotels and other commercial uses in Williamsburg’s Industrial Business Zone has led to the exodus of most industrial businesses in that area.

My company, Brooklyn Brewery, is among the few holdouts, and we will likely be forced to downsize when our leases expire in 2025.  There are six hotels within a few blocks of our brewery. For landlords, hotels are much more profitable than industrial tenants.

However, hotels are also important for industrial businesses. We lodge many visiting customers in The Wythe Hotel and we use its meeting rooms from time to time. Hotels also are significant employers: The Wythe has 70 rooms and employs several hundred people.

But six hotels in the IBZ is five too many.

Also, I think many community advocates mistakenly believe that traditional blue collar industry can thrive in Brooklyn. In my view, that dream perished decades ago. Industry City’s economic development, led by former Navy Yard manager Andrew Kimball, is a model for many communities across the country. Kimball’s worker training program at the Innovation Lab provides skills that are needed for today’s tech and artisanal industries.

I don’t think city oversight and city subsidies are going to bring back traditional industry.

In Gowanus, the key issue is the fetid canal. It must be cleaned up if Gowanus is to develop. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and NYS Department of Environmental Protection are collaborating on the canal clean-up.

But who will pay to ensure that new development resulting from a rezoning does not again foul the canal?

Also, why are the thriving industrial businesses in Gowanus not included in the rezoning?  Don’t they deserve the possibility of expanding their operations and adding jobs?

What is the point of rezoning Gowanus if not to improve the quality of life in the area?

Bushwick, even more than Gowanus, is blessed with many small manufacturers who employ many local people.  Given Lucerna’s assertion that rezoning in North Brooklyn has driven many residents out of the area, I wonder why Bushwick needs to be rezoned at all. There is no threat of a garbage transfer station or power plant.  It is reasonable that Bushwick community groups are demanding proof that rezoning will benefit existing residents.

Will the housing be truly affordable? Bushwick is starved for open space; will rezoning result in more parks? Will rezoning enable the industrial businesses to expand and employ more people?

At Industry City, the dialogue between Menchaca and Kimball seems to be moving forward. But in Gowanus and Bushwick, there seem to be many important questions with no answers.

And if those questions are not answered, why proceed with rezoning?

Steve Hindy co-founded Brooklyn Brewery in 1988. He previously served as Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press where he covered wars and assassinations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Sudan.

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1 Comment

  1. Katia Kelly

    You missed one important point about Gowanus: most of the footprint of the rezoning is in a
    FEMA Flood Zone A. Even during moderate rainfall, the area around the canal and 4th Avenue stand under water. Many Cities and communities around the country are wisely retreating from flood zones. Why are we pretending that it makes sense to build next to a Superfund site in a flood zone?