A proposal to rezone more than 1 million square feet of the Sunset Park, Brooklyn waterfront appears dead after the local city councilmember, Carlos Menchaca, rejected the plan on Tuesday, bowing to pressure from neighborhood activists.
In an Instagram post, Menchaca, a term-limited Democrat, said he “strongly opposed” the rezoning because the developers at Industry City didn’t meet his demands for specific community benefits and, most likely, refused to remove hotels from the application.
“I made it very clear that I would not support Industry City’s rezoning unless certain conditions were met. Those conditions were not met,” Menchaca said. “Industry City’s rezoning will make it more difficult for working people to live in Sunset Park. And our city’s land use process? Well, it favors corporate developers as they profit off the displacement of working class workers.”
For more than a year, plans to rezone and redevelop Industry City, a sprawling waterfront hub of retail and manufacturing, have been in the works, with Menchaca vacillating between embracing the rezoning with conditions and wanting to forestall it altogether. In March 2019, shortly before it was revealed Industry City was courting Amazon for its second headquarters, Menchaca demanded a six-month delay on the rezoning of the 35-acre complex, which sought to allow more retail, offices, and a pair of hotels.
At the heart of the clash were the promises Industry City offered up—potentially thousands of jobs, which Mayor Bill de Blasio desperately needed to hit his once lofty job targets—against what could have been another economic development project that sent real estate speculators swarming across what is still a working and middle-class Latino and Asian-American neighborhood.
Gentrification fears drove much of the opposition to the project, along with those who wanted to see the waterfront reimagined for green manufacturing and a blue collar workforce.
Industry City, led by a trio of real estate heavyweights—Jamestown, Belvedere Capital, and Angelo Gordon & Co—finally had the City Planning Commission certify their rezoning application in October, which would have begun the rezoning process in the City Council. All 51 members vote on whether to approve a rezoning, but custom dictates that lawmakers follow the wishes of the local member. It’s extremely rare for the City Council to act on a rezoning that isn’t backed by the lawmaker representing the district where it’s taking place.
Last September, Menchaca was booed off the stage at a neighborhood town hall for attempting to offer his counterproposal to Industry City’s rezoning, which would have included a difficult-to-enforce community benefits agreement. Left-leaning neighborhood activists demanded Menchaca reject the rezoning altogether, a step the lawmaker didn’t seem willing to take at the time.
Menchaca demanded last year that Industry City include a public technical school and fewer retail outlets in their proposal and scrap the hotels altogether. For the developers, removing the hotels appeared to be a nonstarter, as they threatened to pull out this week before Menchaca publicly shot them down.
But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was unclear whether hotels would be economically viable anyway. Lee Silberstein, an Industry City spokesman, the door open to more negotiations, hinting that the city’s staggering job losses could make the rezoning more essential in the coming weeks.
“It is abundantly clear that New York City is being challenged by the combining impacts of the greatest crises the city has ever faced: a pandemic that the city was not prepared to fight; a staggering loss of jobs leaving by some estimates more than one in five New Yorkers without work; and a revenue shortfall that will cripple government’s ability to fully provide essential services for decades,” Silberstein said in a statement. “Often, in times of great crisis, great leaders emerge. We are hoping that will be the case in our effort to work with city leaders to fully implement a plan to create 20,000 jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.”
Part of the change in Menchaca’s thinking may have been consistent neighborhood opposition that manifested itself in direct political change. In June, Marcela Mitaynes, a local tenant organizer strongly opposed to the rezoning, unseated longtime Assemblyman Felix Ortiz in Sunset Park. Jabari Brisport, who like Mitaynes was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, won a commanding victory in an open State Senate district that includes the Sunset Park waterfront. Each replaced lawmakers who were never meaningfully opposed to Industry City.
Jorge Muñiz, an organizer with Protect Sunset Park, the neighborhood group that marshaled opposition to the rezoning, said he still had lingering concerns that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson could seek to override Menchaca and force the plan through, though he was optimistic it may be dead in its current form.
At least two members of Protect Sunset Park are running for City Council to take the seat Menchaca will have to vacate at the end of his second term in 2021.
“Industry City’s plan has been rejected so many times, it’s time to close that chapter,” Muñiz said.
Organizers in the area are hoping more attention is paid to alternative plans for the waterfront, including a proposal from UPROSE, a longtime Latino-based community organization. The UPROSE plan calls for a return to full-scale manufacturing while building wind turbines and solar panels as part of a national Green New Deal.
“In the end, with the economics of the situation, I don’t think they’re going to be filling Industry City with office space or big box stores in the next year or so,” said Jeremy Kaplan, a documentary filmmaker who has been organizing against the rezoning. “Climate change is the next big problem we have to deal with.”