Industrial, Homeless Policies Clash in East New York

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This lot in East New York will soon become a six-story, 176-unit residential and community facility–a boost for low-income families, but a potential challenge to manufacturers in the area.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

This lot in East New York will soon become a six-story, 176-unit residential and community facility–a boost for low-income families, but a potential challenge to manufacturers in the area.

The backdrop along Junius Street in East New York is typical for an Industrial Business Zone in this city: a sprawling yellow school bus lot, a scrap metal yard in the distance, a steel parts factory down the block.

But step onto the street on a Sunday afternoon and you see a cluster of unexpected activity against that backdrop: families standing against a row of parked cars and church groups filing in and out of the three large homeless shelters that have sprung up in the zone in the past few years.

Factory managers in the district bristle at the shelters, and soon they’ll have another reason to complain: a nonprofit is building a six-story, 176-unit residential and community facility on an empty lot adjacent to one of their existing shelters. It will permanently house low-income adults including some formerly homeless residents. With a grandeur at odds with its surroundings and the lot’s previous incarnation as a coal dump, they will call the new building “The Glenmore.”

“We do think it’s a suitable area,” says Bonnie Stone, president of Women in Need, the nonprofit in question, which will conduct a remediation of the contaminated soil before building. “It’s a piece of property that’s been vacant for 60 years, and we think housing is the best thing for it.”

The plan sparked an outcry from the local development corporation that oversees the business improvement district in the area, as well as manufacturers who thought that moving to an IBZ meant that they’d be spared the nuisance of residents.

“Don’t tell me that you care about people and you want to put them in an industrial park,” said Bill Wilkins, the manager of the LDC, before the Board of Standards and Appeals approved WIN’s proposal last June.

But this struggle is bigger than a single neighborhood or a group of put-out factory managers. The Glenmore is the first and only residential building anywhere near its size approved for construction in an IBZ since the mayor introduced the industrial zone program in 2005 as a way to encourage the city’s flagging industrial industry. BSA’s quiet acceptance of the proposal is at significant and unprecedented odds with city policy.

But it also hits on another problem area for the mayor: his perceived inability to reign in homelessness. Many residents of the shelter complain of the difficulty of finding a permanent place. This building could address that issue, but is it at the expense of the city’s manufacturing industry?

A neighborhood’s character

Nic Cucuzza has been working at Prima Pasta, a domestic pasta distributor, for 11 years. His father-in-law started the company in 1994 on Junius Street years before the shelters sprang up across the street. Now, trucks start loading up at the warehouse at 6 a.m., and not long after, parents from the shelter rush their kids onto a string of school busses that stop on the street, presenting safety risks.

What’s already a nuisance will just get worse, he says, with the new residential building down the street, part of the reason the company is considering a merger with a New Jersey-based pasta distributer.

“There’s not many great benefits about having any business in the city anymore,” said Cucuzza, citing the cheaper rents and tax breaks in New Jersey.

Loss of industrial space in the city is not a new phenomenon. Bloomberg established 16 industrial business zones in 2005, but a 2009 report by the New York Industrial Retention Network found 39 significant non-industrial uses in seven of the IBZs, including hotels, large retail stores, and office spaces. The Glenmore, however, will be the first new permanent residential building of its size in one of the zones. The only previous residential construction approved by the BSA for an IBZ was a small, eight-unit apartment building in Red Hook.

So what may seem like small neighborhood news actually has potentially huge implications for the city. Manufacturing jobs have dwindled here by more than 70 percent since 1990, according to data from the New York State Department of Labor. Policy experts say that hanging on to the industrial jobs that remain hinges on the city adhering to land-use regulation that protects them.

“The impact of this type of development is it sends a signal to the market that the neighborhood is changing, and that has a destabilizing effect,” said Adam Friedman, the executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network and director at the Pratt Center. “It basically leads to speculation.”

Such speculation comes when building owners discover that they can rent to nonindustrial tenants who will pay more for the same space.

Worries about safety, and rent

The ENY IBZ is already home to a mix of uses. The southernmost stretch on Sutter Avenue has a variety of retail spaces, nail salons, and takeout restaurants, all permitted as-of-right for construction in an IBZ. With its three large shelters and handful of apartment buildings and single-family homes that predate many of the factories, there is already a significant low-income population within the IBZ, and transitional housing like the shelters is a legal use of manufacturing land.

But manufacturers in the area fear that the Glenmore, and the major residential influx it entails, will mean operational difficulties like lack of parking and the possibility of noise complaints from new residents. They also fear that one building will make room for many. And, like established residents in many neighborhoods when they hear the word “homeless” attached to a proposed project, they fear the effects of poverty on the area.

“With a residential development, you don’t know if you will have drug dealing going around here,” said Havinder Paul, president of United Steel Fabricators located across the street from The Glenmore site. “It may well increase the crime.”

The BSA’s main stipulation in granting variances is that the proposed development would not “alter the essential character of the neighborhood,” which is why The Glenmore was scaled down from the original 10-story, 284-unit proposal. Still, the building will be the largest single permanent apartment building inside the 40-block zone. WIN argued, and the BSA concurred, that the physical conditions of the lot, involving over $800,000 in environmental remediation expense, and its location next to train tracks and the above-ground L train makes it unsuitable for industrial development.

Women in Need will receive funding from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for 105 units catering to people with special needs, as well as financing from the Housing Development Corporation, and are seeking funding from other city and state agencies, which they expect to secure because of the dire need for affordable housing in Brooklyn.

Residents have fears, too

Sephronia, who has lived in one of the 200-unit WIN shelters with her 20-year-old daughter for seven months, hates the neighborhood. (She asked that City Limits withhold her last name because she and her daughter are both victims of domestic violence.)

When she leaves the building, it’s only to venture two blocks to a soup kitchen run by a local church (once a diner catering to the work lunch crowd in happier times.) She echoes the factory owners who bemoan the crime in the area, including prostitution, drugs and fights, but she chalks it up the deserted surroundings.

“I’ve never lived in an industrial setting like this,” she said. “I’m still adjusting. It’s shocking to my system.” She describes the area as “too abandoned, too pulled apart, too isolated.”

Though the L train is nearby at Atlantic Avenue, many homeless residents fear taking it alone, especially after dark. The nearest grocery store is only a few blocks away, but involves a walk past sprawling factories and abandoned, dilapidated buildings.

Sephronia doesn’t think living in the area permanently, even with low rent, would be ideal for her or her daughter. But some residents who have been there longer disagree.

Omecca Parker lived in a single room in the Junius Street shelter with her three sons for a year and a half before she qualified for city subsidy program and was placed in an apartment in the Bronx.

Now that the city has ended that subsidy, called Work Advantage, Parker is unsure how long she will be able to hold on to her Bronx apartment. And she wouldn’t sneeze at moving back to East New York if The Glenmore offered an alternative to a shelter.

“I think it would be a good thing because there are a lot of working people who live in the shelter who can afford to pay some type of rent,” she said last spring, when she was still living in the Junius Street shelter. “Low income housing here would be helpful to a lot of people.”

Both women said that finding affordable housing is incredibly difficult, and The Glenmore’s apartments will be roughly $600 to $1000 a month, much lower than market rate. Meanwhile, it’s hard to deny that rising homelessness is a problem in the city. In October 2011, the homeless population living in shelters climbed to over 41,000, the highest in decades, according to Coalition for the Homeless.

In the end, the demands and interests of many of the homeless residents in the neighborhood and the businesses are not far apart. Each wants space and safety to live and work freely in the neighborhood.

“Imagine if you have a creative, community approach and could connect housing people with access to jobs,” said Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs at Hunter who sees both the placement of the shelter and the existence of IBZs as different sides of the same debate. “Imagine finding a way to integrate industrial development into neighborhoods, where this wouldn’t be an issue.”

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