The Shared Experience

The experience of auto-repair businesses displaced by the redevelopment of Willets Point in Queens has made the industry's defenders leery of plans to relocate firms displaced by a rezoning.

A report released Tuesday by the Pratt Center for Community Development finds that Mayor de Blasio’s proposed rezonings have the potential to exacerbate the real-estate pressures facing the city’s auto-repair industry, which is a source of good-paying jobs to immigrants and people with low levels of educational attainment. With less and less space zoned to allow auto-repair shops, the city should examine how its land use policies could affect the industry, the report argues.

The report follows criticism from Bronx community groups who say the city underestimates the value of the cluster of auto-shops lining the Jerome Avenue corridor, which the city wants to rezone to promote housing and retail development. Auto-repair shops function best in clusters, which allow businesses to exchange products and attract customers to one spot, according to the report.

The Pratt Center finds that de Blasio’s rezonings would affect a number of auto-repair shop clusters. Of the 15 Council districts that contain more than half the city’s auto repair shops, six of them have been targeted for a rezoning.

“While these [rezoning] actions are pursued district by district, collectively the industry is poised to face massive displacement if steps are not taken to plan for the sector,” says the Pratt Center in a press release for the report.

It’s not a coincidence that de Blasio’s rezonings overlap with high concentrations of auto repair shops. Areas where the zoning permits auto businesses have less residential density, and are thus seen as capable of handling population growth. In addition, rezoning from a non-residential designation to a residential one can significantly increase the market value of land, spurring development—exactly one of the de Blasio administration’s goals.

Though the administration has not laid out a clear strategy for auto shops, Bronx critics have complained that the City’s off-hand statements in policy documents are disparaging toward the industry. In the draft scope of work for the Jerome Avenue rezoning, the Department of City Planning (DCP) says the current C8 and M zoning encourage uses that “produce extreme levels of noise” and “are generally incompatible with a strong pedestrian experience.”

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Read more on the Jerome Avenue Rezoning* * * *

While DCP notes its intention to preserve some of the original rezoning along Jerome Avenue—the so-called “retention areas”—to protect auto businesses, ultimately its rezoning would lead to a decrease of 98,000 square feet of auto space along the street. In East New York, the City’s rezoning is expected to lead to a decrease of more than 128,000 square feet of auto-space; in East Harlem, a decrease of 10,000 square feet is expected. The city has not provided estimates for other proposed rezonings.

“We are committed to working with communities, and creating affordable housing and jobs across all sectors,” said Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration, in response to City Limits’ questions about the concerns raised by the Pratt Center’s report. “Postponing action won’t solve the housing crisis or help us protect and create jobs that sustain New York families and neighborhoods. These concerns will be fully aired as we move through the public review process.”

Elena Conte, co-author of the Pratt report, recognizes the city must balance different priorities, but argues that a legitimate discussion can only take place when the public understands the importance of the auto industry as a source of employment for impoverished communities.

“Let’s have a conversation about balancing needs, but let’s have it be informed from a perspective where one side of the equation isn’t the only valued one, but where all sides have value,” she says.

According to the report, autoworkers—of whom 75 percent are people of color, 68 percent have a high-school diploma or less, and 64 percent are foreign born—make an average annual wage of $44,000 a year, significantly higher than the average wage of food preparers, $25,000.

The Pratt Center also says that while it supports the goal of increasing mass-transit use and making the city more sustainable, auto-repair services still provide an important service for the city, especially considering the number of registered vehicles in the city increased from 2013 to 2014, the last years for which data is available.

Furthermore, the report argues that while auto clusters may be associated with a lack of pedestrian safety and pollution, these problems could be addressed with improvements to the physical infrastructure and without displacing businesses.

“The lack of investment in facilities that have adequate space and proper environmental controls have made tenant auto businesses an easy target to blame for what is actually the consequence of poor planning,” the report argues.

Rezonings pose multiple types of risks

While existing auto shops can in theory stay put even if the underlying zoning changes, in practice, auto shops are likely to get pushed out as property owners sell their lots to be redeveloped as housing or higher-value commercial space.

Relocation is increasingly challenging, the report says. Rezonings over the past decade have decreased the amount of land where auto-repair shops are permitted as-of-right. Today, only 1 percent of city land is zoned C8 and 14 percent is zoned M, the two zoning designations under which auto-repair shops can open. In addition, auto shops can only relocate to buildings that have a special auto-related certificate of occupancy from the Department of Buildings. This regulation has made the relocation process complicated for Willets Point auto-workers infamously displaced by a Bloomberg-era redevelopment project.

Furthermore, the report argues that even if the city does not rezone an auto strip to allow housing, but rezones an area adjacent to auto repair shops, it can still have detrimental effects on the cluster as higher-value commercial entities begin competing with auto shops for space in C8 and M zones. For instance, retail businesses are also permitted under the C8 and M zoning, and they have an average market value about 5.5 times as high as auto shops, the report says.

While the Pratt report does not propose an alternative rezoning strategy, it does note that the city’s proposed “retention areas” along Jerome Avenue already have a low vacancy rate and 70 percent of the buildings do not have the correct certificate of occupancy, suggesting that the city’s strategy won’t be enough to protect the avenue’s auto repair cluster.

Ultimately, the report recommends that the city undertake its own study of the auto-industry, and that the Department of Buildings launch a program to help property owners obtain the correct certificates of occupancy. Jerome Councilmember Vanessa Gibson is also taking steps to address the issues surrounding certificates of occupancy and other groups have proposed their own ideas.

The administration, however, points out that despite the decrease in space zoned for auto uses over the past decade, employment in the auto repair industry actually grew by 11.5 percent between 2010 and 2015—implying that land-use changes might not be as detrimental as the report makes them sound.

Maps show clusters in other rezoning areas

Of the 27 Council districts with the most auto repair shops, 12 are currently affected by one of the city’s proposed rezonings, including Long Island City, Bay Street, Southern Boulevard, East New York, Gowanus, Jerome, Bushwick, East Harlem and Flushing. Maps in the report show that some of these auto businesses are located directly in the proposed rezoning areas, while others are located in other parts of the district outside of the rezoning.

The highest concentration of auto shops in the city is in a proposed rezoning neighborhood where auto shops have so far not been a major discussion point in public discussions: Long Island City, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer’s district, with 303 auto businesses. A map in the report shows that some of these are located within or directly adjacent to the Department of City Planning’s rezoning study area along Northern Boulevard, while some are located elsewhere in the district.

Elder Diane Brown of the Justice for All Coalition, a community group in that area, told City Limits that auto-businesses “hasn’t come up prior to this but it definitely is an area that we probably should look into.” But Andrew Hausermann of Faith in New York, a veteran of the battle to prevent the displacement of auto repair shops in Willets Point, expressed concern that not only the rezoning but also the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar project that might run through another part of the district could displace Long Island City’s auto-shops.

“We are reviewing the report and its findings. I am certainly aware of the significant number of auto businesses which employ people and provide a service in my district. Any rezoning would have to take this into consideration,” said Van Bramer in an e-mail to City Limits.

Bill Wilkins of the Local Development Corporation of East New York said that while the needs of the auto industry were not discussed in great detail prior to last April’s rezoning, the city’s District Needs Assessment of East New York, completed in the fall, revealed that the area has a high concentration of auto businesses.

“We’ve identified an opportunity to assist this population,” Wilkins says, explaining that strategies are being developed to fortify the industry. “There’s a sensitivity by community stakeholders and also the administration to see what we can do to assist and preserve them.”

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Councilmember Gibson will join colleague Councilmember Fernando Cabrera tonight at a forum with the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision about the proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue. The meeting is from 6-8 p.m. at 1501 Jerome Avenue and will be broadcast live on City Limits.