Restauranteur Dario Wolos, who operates a taqueria from inside a VW bus in Nolita, spoke excitedly earlier this month as he told Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 about plans to bring the taco bus to Bushwick. But then came their response.
“Is there a community need for a restaurant there?” SLA Committee member Tom Burrows asked, with obvious dissatisfaction. Wolos looked confused. “Is it forcing out small industrial businesses?” Burrows continued. “That’s an industrial business zone. It’s meant for industry.”
Wolos hadn’t expected this. After all, he pointed out, there was already a Japanese and an Italian restaurant on that block and the adjoining one.
But things were different now, said Burrows. North Brooklyn’s industrial business zones, he said, would no longer be a playground for hipster tenants and restauranteurs and hoteliers under this administration. Mayor Bill de Blasio made protecting industrial areas a central part of his campaign, saying far too many manufacturing jobs had been lost from New York City. And the message has begun to trickle down. Brooklyn’s new deputy borough president, Diana Reyna, has said she’s deeply focused on stopping industry from being pushed out of North Brooklyn. And now the community boards are, too.
After years of industrial decline in Williamsburg and Greenpoint — and an influx of luxury housing, hotels and restaurants in formerly industrial areas — there are signs the fortunes are reversing. But the future of industry in these areas may not look just how it used to.
When Mayor Bloomberg established 16 industrial business zones, or IBZs, across the city in 2005, it was with the intention of protecting industrial tenants from rent hikes and encroaching commercial businesses. Manufacturers who moved into these zones were offered tax credits and direct business assistance as incentives. The zones could not be rezoned for residential use.
But as Curbed reported in a on the loss of New York’s industry last month, the sprawling redevelopment of Williamsburg and Greenpoint has transformed even its IBZs. Industrial employment has declined across the city, and in one Williamsburg zip code that employment has even halved, Curbed reported. Recent newcomers to North Brooklyn’s IBZs, meanwhile, have included the Wythe and Box hotels (at the edge of the zones), as well as a number of residential lofts that were until recently factory spaces. A 2012 map from the Pratt Center for Community Development depicts just how many hotels and lofts have popped up inside the IBZs in the last few years.
“The challenge has been that even high-scale industry are never going to pay as much rent as residential use,” says Adam Friedman, executive director of the Pratt center. “So how do you preserve some space for real commercial scale production, or for smaller scale production?”
The new administration thinks it has an answer. De Blasio has said he will tighten restrictions inside IBZs going forward, preventing hotels, superstores, storage facilities and gas stations to open in those areas. Illegal loft conversions, he said, would have to stop. Reyna said in a January speech that she was deeply opposed to residential construction inside North Brooklyn’s IBZs. And New York City Council Member Stephen Levin, who represents Greenpoint and Williamsburg, wants more stability in zoning, saying that industry needs to be “100 percent aware that the IBZs aren’t going to be flipping over in five years, that they are here to stay.”
The East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corp, or EWVIDCO, the nonprofit that manages North Brooklyn’s two IBZs, is hopeful the current crop of elected officials can slow down Brooklyn’s industrial decline.
“I have been doing economic industrial development since 1999,” says EWVIDCO executive director Leah Archibald, “And I have not seen the sort of energy around the importance of manufacturing as I am seeing right now.”
That doesn’t mean funding for manufacturing has returned, however: EWVIDCO’s budget from the city was cut in half over the last few years, and that money has yet to come back.
But Archibald says the new energy around North Brooklyn manufacturing also has to do with something else entirely: the rise of Brooklyn’s “makers.” She’s talking about the food artisans, the designers, and the makers of custom cabinetry that populate Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Bushwick. The makers of products for which people today are willing to pay a premium. These people, she says, may just be the future of manufacturing for North Brooklyn.
When Mayor De Blasio made a campaign promise to better protect industry, he cited several models, among them the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center. The nonprofit industrial developer, which owns six manufacturing buildings in North Brooklyn, most recently acquired a 72,000-square-foot factory space at 221 McKibbin Street — which is inside an IBZ.
The factory, once home to a rope and a furniture maker, is still manufacturing. But its products are decidedly more arty. On its website, the GMDC says an “influx of designers and artisans in recent years” to East Williamsburg has allowed the space to become home to “food producers, printers, plastic manufacturers, garment makers and woodworkers.” The nonprofit received two tax credits from the city to develop the factory inside an IBZ.
At Pratt, Friedman said the new energy around artisan manufacturing in North Brooklyn is simply “an idea whose time has come.” He cited national trends including buying local, rejecting homogenous superstores, and technology changes that allow for smaller-scale production.
But Archibald at EWVIDCO said the shift is also very much about North Brooklyn — and about the beloved artisan products being manufactured there. “People have now tried Brooklyn Brine pickles, and Brooklyn kombucha, and they love them. They love the idea that it’s made here. They love the idea that creative risk-taking entrepreneurs are getting their start here. And they understand the value of keeping it here.”
Some are pushing the boundaries of what artisan manufacturing inside an industrial zone means. The Brooklyn Night Bazaar, a new night market and concert space at 29 Norman Ave., which is inside an IBZ, hosts vendors each weekend that represent a wide range of makers. On a recent Saturday, the bazaar hawked industrial jewelry, custom-built furniture, hand-printed iPhone cases and a slew of artisan food products. Most of the products were not manufactured at the bazaar itself, but in the homes and apartments of its vendors in North Brooklyn, according to bazaar co-founder Belvy Klein.
“GM is not about to come here and build a big Chrysler plant in North Brooklyn anytime soon. Those days are gone,” he said. “But what we can do on our end is more a micro thing. Between the vendors we have, the bar staff, and production staff, we’re upwards of around 500 people a week that we are more or less employing. One jeweler sells 200 necklaces or rings. It’s gotta be thousands of products here [every weekend].”
That argument doesn’t convince Archibald at EWVIDCO, who says if the goods aren’t made on site, it shouldn’t be considered manufacturing. She would rather have seen a food manufacturing facility take the place of the old bakery that was in the space, a bakery that was priced out months before the bazaar opened. The bazaar is, however, subleasing its space to several food distributors, including a pretzel bakery, Sigmund’s. “I am gratified to hear that,” said Archibald, though she sounded unconvinced.
One taco spot in North Brooklyn has already shown it can do both: Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, a Bushwick tortilla factory, opened a small cantina on its delivery dock in 2006 where it now sells popular $2.25 tacos filled with steak, chicken, pork or chorizo.
Back at the Community Board 1 meeting in Williamsburg, Dario Wolos tried to do some convincing of his own. “I totally respect the need for manufacturing in the community,” he said, “but there are other Mexican artisanal products made on site.” The board wasn’t impressed.
“You need to go meet with EWVIDO, you need to go meet with the IBZ Zone,” said Burrows. “You need to have them sign off that this is not a threat to local businesses.”
As Burrows made his decision, the other four board members nodded their heads approvingly, and Wolos put down his head.