Neighbors of Industry City are particularly distrustful of the developer's plans to seek a city rezoning to allow for a hotel and other new uses.

Adi Talwar

Neighbors of Industry City are particularly distrustful of the developer's plans to seek a city rezoning to allow for a hotel and other new uses.

On a recent Saturday afternoon on the Sunset Park waterfront, the Industry City warehouse complex was a hive of activity. On the first floor, the food court bustled with visitors scarfing down chicken tinga tacos and gourmet cookies. One floor up, the combined Brooklyn Flea/Smorgasburg had arrived for the winter, offering more food, vintage vinyl, and crafty trinkets. And on the higher floors, a one-weekend-only open studio tour offered the curious a chance to check out the artworks on display from the building’s resident painters, photographers, and sculptors.

Sure, the activity filled only a small section of the Industry City buildings, an imposing and underutilized leftover of Sunset Park’s days as a shipping hub. But the number of people was less important than the image they conveyed of a burgeoning “Williamsburg South”: In a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly Mexican and Chinese, local faces were far outnumbered by those who had clearly arrived via subway or car service from trendier, paler regions of the city.

Whether this is a mark of Industry City’s success or of its looming threat is an increasingly touchy topic.

Jamestown Properties, the Atlanta-based developer behind the project, has promised to bring new life to the old manufacturing buildings via the new “innovation” economy — as Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball described it to Fast Company last year, “the physical, digital, and engineered products, being driven by this creative class who wants to make things again.” Jamestown has pointed to space it’s recently leased to the 3D printing companies MakerBot and DOOB, alongside the arrival of more traditional high-profile businesses: Time Inc. cut a deal this summer to move 300 of its technology and advertorial workers to Industry City, while the Brooklyn Nets have announced plans to open a $50 million practice facility atop one of the complex’s buildings next February.

Yet some Sunset Park residents, wary of what they see as the colonization of their neighborhood by outsiders, are less enthused by the new development. And they’re particularly distrustful of the developer’s plans to seek a city rezoning to allow for a hotel and other new uses, plus $115 million in taxpayer money for expanded parking, upgraded roads, and a new water taxi service to serve day-tripping shoppers. “We are not against the development,” says Marcela Mitaynes of the housing advocacy group Neighbors Helping Neighbors. “But we want to make sure the development that’s coming is respectful of the community it’s coming into.”

After dock work disappeared …

The Industry City buildings date back to the 1890s, though the name is a relic of a more recent attempt at reinventing the Sunset Park waterfront. Originally the Bush Terminal — named for Irving Bush, who built the seven massive buildings on the site of his family’s former oil refinery — the complex was at the heart of the local shipping economy for much of the 20th century. When dock work was largely relocated to New Jersey by the Port Authority, the complex was rebranded with the Industry City moniker, drawing garment manufacturers in the 1980s, and more recently an influx of artists to the buildings’ 6.5 million feet of high-windowed floor space.

The latest turn in Industry City’s trajectory came in 2013, when Jamestown, the same developers behind Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, partnered with other investors to buy a controlling interest in the site from its previous owners, who had defaulted on the mortgage in the wake of heavy damage from Hurricane Sandy. Under Kimball, who’d previously helmed the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the new owners immediately recast the buildings with a hipper edge, courting small clothing-design firms like Rag & Bone and Lankka, and installing a Chelsea Market-style food court. A newly installed midblock public walkway joining the seven Industry City buildings was dubbed “Innovation Alley.”

If the millennial-courting rhetoric is a bit over the top — it’s hard to picture a stodgier tenant than Time Inc. — it’s also clearly starting to work: On weekends, Industry City has become a popular destination for the kinds of New Yorkers who might more normally be found prowling the streets of north Brooklyn. (As Fast Company put it, tongue only slightly in cheek: “You get on the subway, heading for the depths of the borough, someplace no one you know lives—yet.”)

Jamestown officials have argued strenuously that this can be great news for Sunset Park residents, pointing to the jobs the new development could bring: Employment at Industry City has already doubled to 4,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the past two years, they say, and is projected to hit 13,300 if the buildings are ever fully occupied. The developer has opened an “Innovation Lab” to connect neighborhood residents with jobs, eagerly partnered with neighborhood groups like the South Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp. to outreach to locals, and sponsored such feel-good activities as movies in the park and other public events featuring giveaways of pencils and balloons with the Industry City logo.

“There is nothing innovative about displacement”

If Industry City’s new owners are hoping to paint themselves as the saviors of Sunset Park, though, it’s a message that has backfired with some of its neighbors.

“It broke my heart to see our community accepting trinkets that were going to result in the displacement of our families,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, director of the Sunset Park environmental justice group UPROSE, which has become increasingly prominent in anti-gentrification organizing. In response to the pencils-and-balloons event, Yeampierre and other local groups under the umbrella of the Protect Our Working Waterfront Alliance organized a Columbus Day rally in the park with the theme “There is nothing innovative about displacement,” accompanied by a banner that featured Columbus arriving in the Americas while hoisting an Industry City flag.

Displacement of existing residents is a recurring worry in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, and those at the rally said they’ve already seen changes since Industry City set out on its new course. “Definitely we’ve seen a surge in harassment on the part of property owners trying to get immigrants out of their rent stabilized apartments,” said Mitaynes. “Baseless lawsuits, withholding repairs and maintenance.” One apartment dweller at 60th Street and 5th Avenue, she said, has seen her landlord launch construction on her apartment even while she was living in it: “Her whole apartment’s been gutted except two rooms in the back.”

Locals also worry about the fate of the bodegas and auto shops that cluster along 3rd Avenue beneath the Gowanus Expressway if commercial rents rise in response to Industry City’s popularity. One longtime business, a sports complex with batting cages, was already priced out earlier this year; several Industry City tenants say that local (if often unlicensed) food vendors have disappeared from the building’s common corridors as higher-priced dining options have increased. Even some of the artists that Industry City has touted as the new creative class have been informed that their leases would not be renewed; others have been told they’ll need to relocate to less-desirable corners of the complex.

As for the promise of new jobs, Yeampierre argues that while the industrial waterfront traditionally provided well-paid union jobs — Sunset Park, as she’s fond of noting, remains New York’s largest walk-to-work community — the kind of industries being courted by Industry City are more likely to be entry-level. A Jamestown spokesperson replied that entry-level workers in “the innovation economy” earn 57 percent higher wages than their entry-level service sector counterparts; it’s less clear how this compares to traditional manufacturing.

It’s also unclear how many jobs will go to current Sunset Park residents as opposed to commuters or new transplants. And startup companies are notoriously volatile when it comes to employment: Yeampierre notes forebodingly that MakerBot laid off almost 40 percent of its workers this year — a turn of events that resulted in the 3D printer company ditching half its Industry City lease.

If the economics of abrupt gentrification are worrisome, though, it’s the language of Industry City’s boosters that seems to have raised hackles the most. Renderings of the project as filled with young shoppers arriving by bus and car may help boost the development’s image with investors, but it doesn’t dispel fears that locals will be shut out; in September, the Commercial Observer hosted a breakfast panel at Industry City that touted the project as an example of how “Brooklyn’s dynamic new residents now demand a borough where they can work, shop, eat and sleep,” as if its old residents never thought of doing such things.

“What did Columbus say?” Yeampierre asked onlookers at the park rally, over the sound of neighborhood kids thronging a packed playground a few yards away. “We made ‘fine servants.’ I think Industry City thinks that we make fine servants too — to their economy, and to the people that they’re bringing into Sunset Park.”

Calls for a citywide policy

Turning industrial buildings into upscale food courts is allowable under current zoning, meaning most of the planned Industry City expansion can be done “as-of-right.”

A few elements of Jamestown’s plans, however — such as a hotel in the heavy-manufacturing M-3 zone — would require zoning changes. And so Jamestown is pursuing what it calls a “special innovation zoning district” through the city Uniform Land Use Review Process. It’s also hoping for $115 million in city money to provide infrastructure upgrades, though the specific mechanism hasn’t been identified yet.

It’s a common tack for developers: Ask to bend the zoning rules to make way for more profitable uses, plus seek city aid to sweeten the pot. But some advocates for maintaining industrial jobs would prefer to see the city start doing the reverse, pursuing the first broad revisions to city zoning laws since 1961 to put a brake on conversions of increasingly scarce manufacturing space to residences or shops.

“Ideally there really should be a citywide reconsideration of the zoning designations and use groups,” says Emily Goldstein, an organizer with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a POWWA ally. She notes that a City Council report last fall specifically called for more special manufacturing districts — as well as “creative economy districts” that would require special permits for converting industrial buildings for such uses as hotels or athletic facilities.

With neither of those options currently on the table for Industry City, development experts warn that the fate of the Sunset Park waterfront may hinge less on Jamestown’s intentions than on the nature of the private real-estate market, in which higher-rent uses tend to drive out all others. “This is not the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” says Pratt Center director Adam Friedman, who sits on that project’s board. “In the Navy Yard, you do have a mixing of legacy companies and manufacturers, and then some higher-end designers.” That is a model, he says, that can actually create synergies for both the developer and the local community — especially since the Navy Yard, built on city land, is controlled by a nonprofit whose mission statement requires it to boost both manufacturing and local employment, using higher-rent leases to subsidize lower-rent industrial uses.

The counterexample, he says, is none other than Chelsea Market, Jamestown’s reworking of Manhattan’s old Nabisco factory centered around a ground-floor food court that is a clear inspiration for Industry City’s warren of upscale foodstuffs. That project, says Friedman, originally boasted a similarly synergistic vision: “You’d have retail on the ground floor, and everything would be made upstairs. And what happened over time is that space became so valuable that it all flipped.”

Both Friedman and Goldstein say that Industry City’s pending ULURP request could be used as a hook to create gains for Sunset Park residents — perhaps by carving out a special industrial district within the site, creating in essence a mini-Navy Yard. (Goldstein suggests this could also provide a way to test out new zoning rules if the City Council is hesitant to revamp them citywide.) Without it, they say, all the good intentions in the world can’t guarantee that a Williamsburg wonderland can benefit Sunset Park.

“You can disagree with the vision or love the vision,” says Friedman. “If you love the vision, though, that’s not enough. You’ve got to get it embedded in the law.”