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Industry City Proves the Old Development Playbook Won’t Fly

September 24, 2020

BIPOC Communities Want a New Model for Truly Equitable Economic Development and We Will Fight for It

This week, Industry City Associates withdrew their rezoning application for the development in Sunset Park, acknowledging deep-seated community opposition to the proposal. Predictably, the real estate industry is trying to pin the withdrawal on supposedly naive progressives who are killing the jobs that could help New York City recover. Their narrative is about fear and austerity. But this could actually be an incredibly hopeful moment for our city.

We are in the middle of a pandemic and an economic depression that has acutely highlighted racial and class divisions in New York City. As the structural inequities on which this city was built are laid bare, New York has the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and commit to developing differently, with a real focus on community-centered and community-led projects. We should only be considering projects that forcefully address inequity; this starts, in part, by centering the needs and visions of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and low-income communities. Industry City’s application failed to do this, and ultimately that’s why the project received so much backlash and scrutiny. It was wrong on both the substance and the approach the developers took in trying to get it across, neither of which addressed the reality of our city’s increasing inequality. And Sunset Park residents fought back.

New York is facing an unemployment rate of 16%. Yes, we know the City needs good jobs. Communities of color have been demanding equitable access to employment for decades, including through the City’s most economically prosperous times. Too often developers use promises of jobs to placate politicians into support, then dodge accountability when conditions change. Industry City claimed the rezoning would bring 20,000 new jobs to Brooklyn, but they were including the 8,000 jobs that were created in the first phase of development. At the City Council zoning subcommittee hearing in September, they themselves admitted they couldn’t make a guarantee about the number of jobs. And there was no commitment that the jobs that would be created would go to the Sunset Park residents most likely to be displaced by rising rents that are sure to result from this development, or to other struggling New Yorkers.

Industry City failed to provide these commitments. In fact, they failed to provide any of the commitments put forward by the local Council Member as a reflection of the community’s needs. While the developers claimed to be listening, they continued to put forward the exact same application they’d originally proposed. As a global pandemic rages and the fabric of life in New York is categorically upended, communities are rising up to challenge the racism embedded in the social and economic status quo, and yet, this project somehow went unchanged. Industry City opted for the standard playbook of using the ULURP timeline to force last-minute negotiations rather than working with the community as good-faith partners. They opted for the argument there were two choices: their plan, or doing nothing. Residents were expected to choose the vague promise of “jobs”- without a guarantee of hours, wages, or even access to those jobs - over the reality of displacement and rising rents that the project was sure to lead to, as we have seen in countless other large development projects, including Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards. And when the local Council Member said no, developers tried to say that actually, that wasn’t an option either.

Despite countless rezonings and years of community resistance, New York has done little to nothing to ensure that communities are guaranteed the jobs or access to resources - like better public transit - that they are promised in return for loss of neighborhood affordability. This false dichotomy is indicative of the City’s failed approach to planning, one that overwhelmingly replicates and reinforces existing power dynamics and inequity. Low-income BIPOC neighborhoods are at a disadvantage because rezonings are so often tied to the promise of desperately needed investment and resources, while well-resourced neighborhoods are empowered to protect the status quo. Meanwhile, community alternatives, from the Sunset Park GRID Proposal to the Chinatown Working Group Plan, Bushwick Community Plan and the Western Queens Community Land Trust, are routinely ignored or rejected by the City in favor of developer-driven or Department of City Planning (DCP)-sponsored plans.

After years of neighborhood rezonings in which residents are forced to make concessions to developers in order to meet community needs, New Yorkers - like the residents of Sunset Park - know that enough is enough.

What has unfolded with Industry City has made clear that the old development playbook is no longer going to fly. It has never worked for BIPOC communities. And after years of concessions, New Yorkers refuse to capitulate to developers and trade neighborhood affordability in exchange for empty promises of job creation and access to resources that should have already been provided to all communities.

In order for New York City’s recovery to be truly equitable, all development proposals must include enforceable commitments, not just vague promises, to provide good jobs to BIPOC and low-income New Yorkers. We need to ask whether a developer’s job projections are accurate, whether the jobs will pay well and provide career opportunities, and whether BIPOC and low-income residents of neighboring communities will actually get the majority of those jobs. If the answer isn’t yes to all three, with clear metrics for tracking and enforcement, the project shouldn’t be approved.

We need an approach to development in which everyone operates under the same set of rules and where those rules are designed to overcome systemic injustice and power disparities rather than perpetuate them, while balancing citywide and local authority and needs. We must take this moment to create a new model for truly equitable economic development that prioritizes the needs of impacted New Yorkers over the profits of developers.

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