Eve of Construction


The peace treaty that was announced last spring between the sachems of Greenpoint-Williamsburg and City Hall pledged $4 million in reparations to help the manufacturing companies that soon would be driven from their land by a rush of so-called pioneers. But like other such pacts from frontier days of yore, the treaty hasn’t been much help to the natives.

Herb Engler, owner of Penn State Fabricators, 124 Newton Street in Greenpoint, found that out. For 36 years, he has run his business in a 25-by-100-foot, one-story brick machine shop that is thick with the smell of grease and metal. It is a place where people work with their hands. They cut big discs out of half-inch-thick sheets of aluminum to create a buffer that cushions the jolt from the business end of a pile driver.

Now, his business is set to meet the wrecking ball, and the promised buffer of aid for factory owners has turned out to be about as solid as a press release.

Engler said the land beneath his business will be sold out from under him to a developer who made ever increasing offers to the owner. The machine shop will become a parking lot for two adjacent housing complexes, he said.

It is no surprise that the modest block in Greenpoint, with its mix of shingled frame houses and low-rise factories, is suddenly real estate gold. As part of the peace treaty signed into law on May 2 in City Hall, it was rezoned to induce construction of upscale housing. Existing companies could have stayed, but the peace treaty is accelerating the market forces that are driving them out, along with jobs for people who know how to work with their hands.

Even before the property was sold, Engler said, the development company sent a letter saying he had to be out by June 1. Then there was a letter saying his water and sewer service would be cut off. Engler said he went to court and got an extension until the end of the year. But still, he had no place to go because, he said, his business couldn’t survive the $50,000 cost of moving so much heavy equipment.

But Engler learned that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council had agreed to put up $4 million to help companies that might be displaced because of the peace treaty. So Engler contacted the Brooklyn borough president’s office for information. On July 20, he got an e-mail telling him that “the Council and the Mayor’s office have not fully worked out the details of the program and how businesses like yours can access the relocation services.” The borough president’s staff forwarded the matter to the Mayor’s Office of Industrial and Manufacturing Businesses.

The bottom line, Engler found, was that, as he puts it, “they have $4 million set aside. Nobody knows what to do with it.”

Said Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network: “It would have been better to have put this safety net in place.”

The Bloomberg administration has broken some ground in paying attention to the plight of manufacturing companies and their workers, but that can’t compete with its drive to accelerate the gentrification that is sending the poor and working
class packing all across northern Brooklyn. First things first.

City planning officials had given the impression that they had every angle covered in their bid to rezone Greenpoint and Williamsburg; displaced factories would simply be relocated to industrial parks, with city assistance. It doesn’t look so easy now, with an Oklahoma-style land rush sweeping across the northern Brooklyn waterfront.

City officials said they would try to help Engler. “We’re going to work with the guy under existing programs,” said Ethan Davidson, spokesman for the city Department of Small Business Services.

“What guy is this?” Engler said last week, adding that after months of trying, he was still getting nowhere with the city, which gave him a list of real estate agents. After 36 years, he has to get out on December 31. He has nowhere else to go.

Penn State Fabricators is a small business; Engler employs four other people. But he said there are many others like his in the neighborhood that are under pressure. “It’s a feeding frenzy,” he said, adding that he understands property owners will sell their land because the profits are so large—he’d do the same.

But, he said, “What kind of incentive are they giving the small guy?” His answer: “Nobody’s paying attention to the other end of what’s going on”—the people being forced out.