Despite all the parkland covering the piers and the repurposing of the great old warehouses of the Brooklyn waterfront, it’s hard to approach it without still seeing traces of Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic On the Waterfront fluttering through the temporal lobe—without being reminded of a burly Marlon Brando in a bomber jacket, longshoreman’s hook around his neck. Way before the modern-day hipster or stroller-pushing young couple replaced the old-school dock hustler—well before the flood of high-tech startups and the hastening sense of “Brooklyn cool”—the borough was a place where men walked home to their walkups drenched in the sweat of hard work on the docks or in the many warehouses and factories at their feet, receiving and pushing out goods from the ships that headed back out to sea often as full as they were when they arrived.
It’s especially true of the former South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, hugging the harborside of Sunset Park.
But as those districts found new uses and a new purpose, as the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Navy Yard up the coast had started to thrive as mixed-use facilities; as the Red Hook Container terminal clung to its last bit of history, surrounded by the waterfront gentrification of Ikeas and Fairways, there has been until recently a vestige of the old Brooklyn waterfront that looks simply abandoned.
New York Harbor is still abuzz, with the ports at Newark and Elizabeth working to capacity to receive goods and distribute them by truck or rail throughout the region; but across the water stands sleepy Industry City, used mostly for storage, and at its feet the former South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, all but abandoned.
Today, the buildings of Industry City have found that new promise: The private owners that took a stake in the massive property in 2013—Belvedere Capital, Jamestown and Angelo Gordon—harbored hopes of turning them into a premier location for New York City’s innovators. That means everything from wholesale food preparation to video distribution to design and light manufacturing. In just 18 months, the owners have managed to lease 850,000 square feet and add 1,500 jobs, chief executive Andrew Kimball says. The businesses are thriving and growing there: the 3-D printer company MakerBot, for example, is expanding to 250,000 square feet.
And the group plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years to build on that. They hope to get a rezoning, turning a long-time manufacturing area into a mixed-used hub for the businesses of the future. There will be retail added, meant mostly to serve tenants, but also the surrounding and still ungentrified community. They envision academic facilities for tech-oriented college programs. There are plans for two hotels that are, again, mostly meant to serve tenants of these giant buildings, which are known as the “finger buildings” because from above they look like boxy letter-Us. The facility is enormous, spanning six million square feet, 5.3 million of which is leasable.
“There’s no other privately owned industrial site like this anywhere in New York City—not even close,” Kimball, the former head of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, told me as he gave me a tour last month. “And it’s probably—I haven’t been able to find a bigger one—it’s got to be one of the biggest privately owned industrial sites in the country. And, you know it’s different from the vast majority of other industrial areas because of the nature of the buildings. They’re six to eight stories. Big footprints. And it’s a whole sort of small city of them.
Tenants say, so far, it’s a good fit. I watched in one building as commissary-style kitchens prepared food in large quantities that will supply restaurants elsewhere. At Industry City’s request, several have opened retail windows to give tenants food options. Many tenants can start in small spaces, knowing they can grow if needed. In one such office, the company DOOB uses 3-D printers to make custom dolls that look like actual people. Customers are scanned in booths—they were setup in Chelsea Market over the winter—and those images used to design life-like action figures.
In another building, the company FilmRise acquires and distributes digital movies to companies like Amazon. Three years ago they had three titles and now they have 5,000, said Bob Jason, a vice president. A big deciding factor in moving to Industry City was the broadband, he said. It’s one of just two places in Brooklyn that has fiber (dark and lit fiber run along Third Avenue). The other is the Navy Yard. But the other factor was the feel.
“There’s already creatives here,” Jason told me. “It’s state-of-the-art manufacturing here. There’s artisanal manufacturing. It’s just a real—you could sense the creative hub here. And that’s where we wanted to be.”
Now, here is the twist on this innovation-driven plan for the waterfront: Right next to the finger buildings—between Industry City and the waterfront—the de Blasio administration is planning to reactivate the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and give it a very traditional use. In theory, officials say, there would be actual roll-on, roll-off cargo operations. Imagine cranes and cargo containers and hundreds of men and women offloading ships, perhaps importing new cars from Asia or hauling in construction materials that must be laid down on the ground in large pieces.
The city’s Economic Development Corp., which has struck a deal with local Councilman Carlos Menchaca after an earlier disagreement, plans to sign a 39-year master lease with the city and will then release requests for proposals. The deal must first go through the council. The agency will have 72 acres to sublet, possibly to one big tenant, maybe to several.
E.D.C. president Kyle Kimball—who is not related to Andrew—says city officials clearly see Sunset Park as a place where the so-called innovation and maker economy, with its headphone- and beard-clad young executives, can meld with a more traditional approach to the waterfront, one that will likely require heavy equipment and could drive growth in union jobs. “We’re working to make room for both,” he told me. “A working waterfront is an increasingly scarce resource across the city.”
He says that, despite the slowing use at other port areas in New York, there is still a need for maritime facilities, and Sunset Park is an ideal location. The water is deep there, able to accommodate taller ships. And there’s no need to send freight across two rivers and through Manhattan to reach New England and Long Island. New tenants for the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal will, it is hoped, be able to take advantage of railroad tracks radiating from the site to move freight, reducing the strain on already clogged highways, he said. Already, a recycling facility, which takes up 16 acres of the full 88-acre property, is using those tracks. Success there could truly, once and for all, end talk of a cross-harbor freight-rail tunnel.
As part of the deal with Menchaca, who declined through a spokesman to talk to me for this article, the E.D.C. will reinvest some of the site’s revenue into a community fund. It also agreed to add a second entrance and make improvement to nearby Bush Terminal Park. Previously the city spent $115 million renovating the marine terminal for an auto company but had leased the site, as well as $20 million to extend the rail tracks, but the company went bankrupt three years ago.
Despite Menchaca’s reluctance to discuss the vision for the waterfront, I’m told he and city officials were not very far apart on the issues when they restarted talks about the site. Both sides agreed on a heavy marine use for the area, and Menchaca’s issues were said to be more about ensuring the community would have input and get a return from the facility. “How to be better neighbors in that district, and how we can use our own assets to really drive economic development,” Kyle Kimball said.
The deal was brokered by Manhattan councilman Dan Garodnick. “I think that the city and the local council member worked hard to deliver a plan that will activate this site for short and long-term uses,” Garodnick said. “It is an important economic development site for the local community and also for the whole city.”
The two approaches to Sunset Park and the waterfront disclose two distinct points of view about how to build for the borough’s, and the city’s future. And some in the community are plain-spoken about which they support.
In March, a group gathered one Sunday to raise issues about gentrification, saying they worried Industry City could accelerate displacement, pushing up rents, pulling in more wealthy people and leaving locals with fewer jobs they could secure. After their rally, they sent out a press release with the subject line “Sunset Park Should Not Become the Next Williamsburg.”
Sunset Park might sound like it’s deep in Brooklyn, but the steps of the march of gentrification are measured not in miles but subway stops; and Industry City is just one stop past the Barclays Center on the N train.
It’s too early to tell how a vastly expanded Industry City along the lines Andrew Kimball envisions will mesh with the residential neighborhood along its eastern edge. Kimball said Industry City has been working with nonprofits that do similar training to place locals in entry-level positions at companies run by his tenants. It’s both a service for the tenants and a way to do community outreach.
The E.D.C. is planning its own jobs task force that will provide community input and help train locals for work at the marine terminal.
There’s no denying that industrial Brooklyn is fading fast, and some wonder privately if it was a failure to not move Red Hook’s marine operation to Sunset Park years ago if we wanted to preserve the legacy of shipping in Brooklyn. Regardless, there is certainly a lingering need for some kind of marine activity in Brooklyn. The waterfront near Industry City already has the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility, and there’s plenty of room for a port terminal. On the other side of it, there’s also a clear demand from the innovation and tech sectors for space where light manufacturing can be done.
Can these two be done together, or does each have the potential to upset the goals of the other?
“The industrial waterfront of New York was designed to accommodate both an era when we had a vast shipping industry and a manufacturing sector. And they had to be near each other on the waterfront,” Mitchell Moss, an urban planning professor at New York University, told me. “But that era is over. One of the challenges is to reinvent the waterfront for the 21st century. You can’t plan for the future by looking backward.”
Moss said he isn’t necessarily taking a position on the viability of either use, or saying they can’t happen at the same time. But full success on the water, and full success in renovating and leasing out the old buildings, will bring the waterfront to a level of activity it’s never really experienced—at least not with such a wide array of uses. Can a major container yard really operate with a campus of makers looming overhead?
Kyle Kimball at the E.D.C. sees it all fitting together. “A lot is said about what Industry City has planned,” he said. “Our vision for Sunset Park is really a vibrant, live-work community, really with an invigorated set of both modern and traditional employers. And we think there’s room for both.”
And the other Kimball, at Industry City, while a bit more reserved in his prognostication, also sees the two as potentially complementary: “That’s our hope,” he told me as we stood in the courtyard of one building, looking out at the water. “I think that there can be synergies. It remains to be seen. I think there’s going to be enough competitive process, and our hope would be that whatever ends up there is complimentary—synergistic with what’s happening here.”
He says his is a privately owned facility with massive, multi-story buildings, and the marine terminal is publicly owned and virtually vacant. “I think in industrial areas, you can have a mixture of these uses and be successful,” he says. “Look at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We had ship repair. So there are big cranes that are repairing ocean-going tugs and barges, mid-size ships. And you had that right next to big, multi-story buildings with innovation businesses—and Steiner Studios right next door. And it became part of the charm, the dynamic, the inter-play between them.”
But some experts say it’s clear questions need to be asked, and a broad and coordinated planning discussion is warranted. Is this still a city where things get made, given how expensive real estate has become? Or, once the innovators have gotten their products off the ground, do they head elsewhere to do the manufacturing? Conversely, does the Big Apple still need to be a place where ships are berthed, unloaded and sent on their way?
“One says that things haven’t changed as much as people think they have,” Richard Barone, the director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, says of the vision of having a port terminal in Sunset Park. “One’s betting that there’s still places in New York for these heavy, industrial uses. I’m not sure that’s the case. But I don’t [know that that] is completely wrong as well. One thing we do know is New York City requires a diverse economy. Either one is better for New York than the direction we were on.”
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