Strengthen Brooklyn with Industry City

By KATHRYN WYLDE | October 30, 2019


This week, Industry City in Sunset Park will begin a rezoning process for the second phase of Brooklyn’s most exciting new center of industrial, retail, and creative artisan activity. Despite opposition from anti-development activists, the project merits prompt approval by the City Planning Commission and City Council.

Formerly known as Bush Terminal, this six million square foot redevelopment of underutilized industrial land and buildings is long overdue. Industry City will bring more than 20,000 new jobs, job training for community residents, and affordable workshop, manufacturing and retail space for hundreds of diverse entrepreneurs and artists. It is already the headquarters and practice center of the Brooklyn Nets and home to an NYU-sponsored business incubator focused on veterans. Its community spaces feature entertainment and enrichment programs for all ages, making for a unique destination that showcases the best of Brooklyn.

Industry City is, in many respects, a privately financed version of the city-owned and much-acclaimed Brooklyn Navy Yard. Over the past fifteen years, the Navy Yard has been transformed from a long-derelict ship-building facility into a global center of advanced manufacturing and other entrepreneurial activity. It is no accident that Andrew Kimball, the Brooklyn resident who led the early redevelopment of the Navy Yard, was selected by Jamestown Properties to manage Industry City’s development.

Bush Terminal and its surroundings were a largely wasted urban asset for fifty years. I moved to Southwest Brooklyn in 1968 and witnessed an overnight exodus of major industrial employers, including American Can, American Machine & Foundry, Bethlehem Steel, Revere Sugar and many more. Companies that anchored Brooklyn’s economy gave their buildings to the city for the tax write off, relocating their offices to suburbia and their factories overseas. Brooklyn was left with rotting piers and deteriorating loft buildings where tenancies shifted to warehousing, storage, a federal prison and other sub-optimal uses.

In 1970, Brooklyn’s population peaked at 2.6 million residents, but by the end of the decade the borough had lost 400,000 people and its economy was gutted. For the next half century, Brooklyn was essentially a bedroom community for Wall Street and Manhattan’s growing service sector.

It is only in the last decade that things have turned around. Thanks to a combination of public incentives, private investment and rezoning to allow mixed use development, job growth in Brooklyn has been triple the rate of the other boroughs and average wages have increased 30 percent. Since 2008, more new housing has been built in Brooklyn than in any other borough and the population has climbed back to 2.6 million, or 31% of the city’s residents.

Growth, however, is a two-edged sword: it has resulted in rising residential and commercial rents and unprecedented demands on the borough’s aging infrastructure. The provision of more truly affordable housing, schools and better transit has severely lagged the rapid pace of growth. The consequence is a political climate that is increasingly, often mindlessly, anti-development of any kind.

Many long-time residents and small business owners in this “new” Brooklyn fear displacement and gentrification. Their families are not well prepared to secure the jobs and other benefits of a technology-driven economy. Political activists and advocates are capitalizing on those fears, pressuring elected officials to demand unrealistic concessions or to outright reject even the worthiest development proposals. Such was the case with Amazon’s plan to bring 24,000 jobs to Queens, and the same could happen with the planned expansion of Industry City.

Without privately financed projects like Industry City, New York will not have the tax base required to provide the necessities and amenities that make for a great, well-functioning city. Industry City is a model for the type of project that balances community interests with market realities. It illustrates how the private sector can finance space that is affordable to Brooklyn’s “maker economy” without the government subsidies that make a Brooklyn Navy Yard possible.

It took only a few years for Brooklyn to slide into urban decay, and more than forty years to fully recover. Brooklyn is strong today because government, business, labor and civic leaders worked collaboratively and constructively to promote its renewal and growth. This is the same spirit in which the development of Industry City can and should proceed.

Kathryn Wylde is President & CEO of Partnership for New York City.