Neighborhoods

Williamsburg’s Industrial Businesses Are Fleeing

While City Hall works on a plan to preserve manufacturing in East Williamsburg, the gentrification buzzsaw is already taking its toll

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The Radutzky family has been making halvah, tahini, and jelly rings at their factory in East Williamsburg since 1918. But rising utility and property tax costs, combined with the soaring value of their property — a full three city blocks in the designated industrial zone that sits on the eastern edge of Williamsburg and Greenpoint — are making the family consider leaving Brooklyn behind for the first time in the company’s nearly 100 years.

“We’re not in the real estate [game]. We make candy,” says Richard Raduzky, grandson of Joyva’s founder, on a recent tour of the impressive factory, which is equipped with much of the same machinery they’ve used for decades, including a massive underground tunnel system that funnels tahini between buildings. His small office inside the sweet-smelling brick building is decorated with decades-old wooden boxes in which the company once delivered candy bars.

At the same time, “we’ve been approached about our real estate — the market has come to us,” says Raduzky. “It’s on the table because it never was before.”

The North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone, a 721-acre swath of land stretching from Newtown Creek to the northern edge of Bushwick, was established in 2013 (as an expansion of the East Williamsburg Industrial Park that had been in place since 1982) to help protect what remained of what had once been a hub for breweries and other industrial uses. Like other manufacturing zones across the city, its zoning designation allowed for a broad array of uses that includes not only light and heavy industry, but also hotels, department stores, and office buildings, though for many years the area remained predominantly industrial.

As of 2015, according to the Department of City Planning’s analysis of state labor data, the district was home to around 20,000 jobs, 15,000 of them industrial, including jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and warehousing.

While North Brooklyn has been bleeding industrial jobs for decades, a transition which sped up along the waterfront following Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2005 residential rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, it’s just begun to kick into high gear as East Williamsburg and Bushwick have grown increasingly attractive to residents and businesses alike. East Williamsburg’s first new office building opened up on Bogart Street in August, and a handful more are in the pipeline. Three massive music venues — Elsewhere, Brooklyn Steel, and Avant Gardner – have opened this year, all on former industrial land.

The renewed interest in East Williamsburg has actually led to a slight uptick in industrial jobs, which rose 15 percent between 2010 and 2015, the first increase in the area in decades that included spikes in jobs in the wholesale trade, waste management, construction. But jobs in offices, as well as in retail, entertainment, and hospitality, have increased at a far greater clip — up 27 percent and 58 percent respectively, according to the Department of City Planning.

Leah Archibald, head of Evergreen Exchange, an advocacy group for the area’s industrial businesses, says that since 2015, the transition from industrial to other uses has kicked into high gear. She cites several office buildings under construction, as well as the departure of a handful of industrial businesses in the last two years, including printing company Alvin J. Bart and Sons and food packers Trans-Packers, which is leaving East Williamsburg at the end of the year.

“If the city does nothing, the entire East Williamsburg industrial area will no doubt turn into an attractively distressed office park, replete with reused timber and Edison light bulbs,” warns Archibald. “Is that what we want?”

The city has acknowledged these concerns, and says it plans to address them. In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a commitment to bolster jobs in the industrial sector, and the Department of City Planning began a study of the North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone, with the goal of finding ways of “preserving and growing industrial jobs, as well as other compatible jobs in the creative and innovative sectors.”

But a year has passed since the final study was supposed to be released, with the Department of City Planning now saying it expected to have the report out by the end of the year.

Advocates like Archibald, who suspect the delay is related more to slow-moving bureaucracy than to intentional ill will, are hoping that the city’s recommendations will include a zoning mechanism to slow non-industrial development. “Things that are not compatible should have some sort of speed bump to slow their development like hotels or very large venues or homeless shelters,” she says. “We’re not even saying they should be forbidden. Just put in some sort of public review process.”

A draft of the report released this summer proposed splitting the industrial zone by transit access, restricting use of the land farther away from L train stops to heavy industrial use, while creating higher density for mixed office and industrial use closer to the train stops. Once the official recommendations come out, they’ll have to go through a formal land use rezoning process, which will take months; during that time, there’s the risk that pressures from the real estate industry could alter or impede them from being implemented.

Real estate mogul Jamie Wiseman of Cayuga Capital, which has redeveloped a handful of plots of industrial land into commercial and residential buildings across Williamsburg and Bushwick — including 321 Starr Street, on track to becoming a climbing gym — argues that the trend toward offices and nightlife venues isn’t some nefarious land grab by developers. Rather, he says, industrial business owners are making a calculation to cash in on the value of the land they own and relocating to areas where it’s cheaper for them to operate.

“Industrial businesses need to go where their labor is cheap and their power is cheap and their space is cheap,” says Wiseman. “And unfortunately in New York, none of those things is true.” Of Evergreen Exchange’s opposition to redevelopment, he says, “Leah Archibald is putting up the good fight, but she’s kind of fighting gravity.”

While the area’s new uses may not be industrial, says Wiseman, “at least these businesses are growing and employing a lot of people.” Though, he adds: “It may not be the same people.”

Indeed, the majority of the new jobs created in offices and nightlife cater to younger, tech-savvier millennials. The area’s industrial businesses have offered a foot in the economic door for many first-generation immigrants, who may not have higher education or English language skills, but who do have craftsmanship. About half of the workers in the North Brooklyn industrial area come from the surrounding neighborhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Maspeth, Ridgewood, and Middle Village, according to an unscientific survey of local businesses, says Archibald.

Some property owners are listening to the concerns of the community and are undertaking creative solutions on their own to bridge the gap.

The owners of a plot of land at 79 Bogart Street say they plan to set aside part of their forthcoming office building for manufacturing businesses at below market rate, similar to a model put forth by Williamsburg developer Toby Moskovits, whose 25 Kent Ave. building near the waterfront is under construction.

But relying on the goodwill of individual property and business won’t be enough, says Tod Greenfield, second-generation owner of Martin Greenfield Clothiers, a hand-tailored suit factory that’s been located in East Williamsburg since 1917. Standing on the roof of his Varet Street factory, Greenfield gestures to massive apartment complexes and hotels under construction all around. “It’s under attack from all angles,” he says.

Back on the factory floor, amid the whir of Singer sewing machines, Greenfield points to employees who hail from nations including Poland, Haiti, Italy, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.

Ana Sanchez, 61, moved to the city from El Salvador in the 1980s. A few days later she found a job at a women’s clothing factory in Long Island City. While her English was shaky, she was an expert seamstress, having perfected her craft designing and hand-sewing dresses for her friends in El Salvador. When the factory she worked for closed in 2001, she ended up at Martin Greenfield Clothiers a few months later.

Sanchez didn’t like the work at first, she says. Menswear was much simpler than the ornate and intricate women’s clothing she was used to sewing, but she got used to it, she says, and was able to raise three kids on her earnings.

“I never asked for help from the government, even now,” she says in Spanish, looking up from the hem of a woolen pant leg. “Here, I survived.”

While Sanchez isn’t at risk of losing her job, and the Greenfields are determined to stay put and continue operations in the building they own, Greenfield worries that the more time passes, the less there will be left to fight for.

“People need freshly baked bread; school buses need a place to park,” he says. “The city could die if it doesn’t have these areas protected.”

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