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Sunday afternoon, as festivalgoers on Sunset Park’s Fifth Avenue maneuvered baby strollers and herds of sugar-addled kids to queue up for tamales verdes, tostadas, and dripping glasses of agua fresca, volunteers from the local activist group Uprose fanned out across the crowds. For Uprose activist Joanne Zhao and nine other leafleteers, it was an opportunity to engage locals of all backgrounds in an urgent conversation about the future of the neighborhood as it prepares to take on a possible new opponent: Amazon.
Ever since the online retail behemoth announced this month that it was seeking a location for a second headquarters — and asking cities to “bid” for its presence — Sunset Park’s waterfront has been floated as a potential contender. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has already begun the formal process of crafting a proposal, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce president Andrew Hoan have launched a “Brooklyn Prime” campaign to land the prize for their borough. One likely site: Industry City, a 6.5 million–square-foot industrial complex that Jamestown Properties, the real estate company behind Manhattan’s posh Chelsea Market, has worked to make into a poster project for developers working to rebrand Brooklyn’s southwestern shoreline as “Innovation Coast.”
For many in Sunset Park, the prospect is both disturbing and amusing. “It’s just crazy to think that such a huge company would come here, to Sunset Park,” says Zhao, giving a short laugh. “This is a neighborhood of blue-collar people, people of color, marginalized people. This isn’t Silicon Valley.” Uprose executive director Elizabeth Yeampierre says that the Amazon bid would be just the latest in a long line of uninvited changes to the community: “They’re trying to create Williamsburg in Sunset Park. They’re not involving the community in any of these decisions.”
For Jamestown and its supporters, though, there’s nothing laughable about the idea. “As the southern anchor of Brooklyn’s Innovation Coast, Industry City is certainly enthused by the opportunity to support the city’s effort to attract Amazon’s HQ2 to New York City,” says Lee Silberstein, a spokesperson for Industry City. “And as home to a growing number of innovation economy businesses, Industry City could offer a lot to Amazon.” Already, Industry City provides an array of amenities for its tenants, he notes, including an in-house athletic club and “dedicated [internet] bandwidth at the fastest speeds in NYC.” Its vendors include boutique chocolate and wine shops, art galleries, pop-ups, and a Chelsea Market–style food court complete with “the world’s first avocado bar.”
For all the criticism that Industry City caters to out-of-neighborhood crowds, its developer insists that it has done tangible good for Sunset Park. “From furniture to fashion, food to home goods, there’s more manufacturing happening at the property now than there has been in decades,” says Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City. According to Kimball, Industry City currently employs about 6,000 people, up from the roughly 1,900 employed at the time the developers moved in. According to Kimball, about 50 percent of these workers are from Sunset Park and the surrounding area.
Doug Turetsky of the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York says these claims by Industry City are difficult to verify. “None of our documentation shows whether significant job growth took place as a result of Industry City,” Turetsky says. “It’s hard to tell if the company brought anything to the neighborhood — besides $25 coffee.”
Projecting the impact on the neighborhood of Industry City, as well as of a hypothetical Amazon headquarters there, is also problematic. In its call for proposals, Amazon predicted its new HQ would bring about 50,000 jobs to its new locale, but this prospect raises many questions. “Depending upon the mix of jobs — and Amazon’s willingness to hire locally — the 50,000 new jobs could be a boon or a bust for the community, particularly many of the current residents,” says Turetsky, adding the project “could change the complexion of the neighborhood, literally and figuratively.”
This is precisely what worries Zhao. “Developers always like to say they’re bringing jobs, but the question is, what kind of jobs are they bringing? Who gets those jobs?” she asks. She also worries that rising prices around the development could force residents out of the area. Since Jamestown Properties took over Industry City in 2013, Sunset Park rents have risen 13 percent, and Zhao says she feels her neighborhood shifting.
“It’s hard to watch the place you grew up change,” says Zhao. “A lot of my old neighbors, who were people of color, are gone — and there are new, white neighbors moving in from outside the neighborhood.” Zhao’s own family’s business was forced to shutter, too, after being priced out of its rental space.
Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a national nonprofit that tracks and promotes transparency in economic development deals, cautions New Yorkers to be aware of the invisible costs of bringing in mega companies like Amazon. To lure in businesses of this size, cities will often offer major tax breaks and other subsidies, allowing businesses to keep millions that would otherwise go toward funding public services.
“These deals are almost always made in secret, often through unelected bodies, meaning most people never know all the concessions being made to these big companies,” says LeRoy. And while it’s not known yet what kind of deal New York City might offer Amazon, its track record is not promising. Since 1980, the city has made 80,976 subsidy deals for a total value of $26.3 billion, according to Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker. “New York has made more deals for more dollars than almost any other state,” says LeRoy.
Anthony Hogrebe of the New York City Economic Development Corporation insists that the city has no interest in joining a “race to the bottom.” While it’s “too early to get specific” about what kind of deals might be struck, he says, New York City’s selling point was never going to be its affordability; rather, the city’s bid will “emphasize other advantages, including our diverse economy and our world-class workforce.”
Currently, NYCEDC is accepting proposals from all five boroughs but will eventually narrow down the city’s bid to focus on “one, or a select few” sites, according to Hogrebe. He declined to comment on any specific sites under consideration, but added that “once we have a better sense of what sites we’re considering, then we will have a conversation about community concerns,” including the potential impact on jobs, cost of living, and “workforce development” — the opportunity for local community members to gain the skills needed to get hired at incoming companies like Amazon.
For her part, Zhao isn’t waiting for city officials to come calling. “We need people to be aware so they can make their voices heard before the decision is made without them,” she says. On Sunday, her multilingual pamphlets spelled out a very clear message: “DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE.” The text below warned readers of Industry City’s profit-driven goals to create “a playground for the privileged at the expense of a working-class community.”
Down the street from the corner where Zhao handed out the last of her flyers, fifteen-year-old Zuriel Garcia sat behind a folding table spread with handmade beaded jewelry from Mexico. His father, Carlos, stood a few yards down the sidewalk, gesturing to passersby to take a look. Zuriel was born and raised in Sunset Park; his father moved here from Mexico more than twenty years ago. The Garcia family began a small storefront operation about three months ago, said the younger Garcia, to supplement Carlos’s salary as a motorcycle mechanic.
When shown the Uprose flyer about Industry City, the two men shrugged. The younger Garcia has shopped at the complex once, an experience he described with ambivalence. “I just walked around, looked around,” he recalled. “I bought a drink, something with honey in it. It was OK.” Apart from this underwhelming excursion, the teen says he rarely thinks about the waterfront development.
Carlos was also surprised by the urgency of Zhao’s flyer. While he agreed the cost of living is going up — part of the reason he started a second business — he said he isn’t particularly worried about Industry City.
“This is the first time I have seen anyone talking about it,” he said. “I don’t really know if they’re changing anything for us.” He added with a smile, “I just keep working. I get by. I mean, I can’t complain.”
For Zhao, this kind of indifference is worrisome. “These companies are very strategic,” she warns. “We need to stay vigilant.”