The proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector would run 16 miles from Astoria, Queens, to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, passing through Two Trees’ Domino site, several public housing complexes and rows of glassy waterfront condos in Williamsburg. The commuter line would also traverse commercial-job centers including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City and several other designated manufacturing zones in Long Island City and Red Hook. “We privately refer to this as the ‘gentrification express,’” said one industrial advocate who did not want to be named because of dealings with City Hall.
The unease felt by manufacturers boils down to two basic concerns: Hotels, commercial offices and nightclubs are already allowed to operate in certain manufacturing districts, and those businesses can afford to pay much higher rents than industrial companies, which typically look for space under $20 per square foot. Second, if the trolley proves a quick and reliable form of transportation, commercial tenants and developers are sure to show up in greater numbers, ready to outbid manufacturing companies for the newly prime real estate.
To address those concerns about encroachment, de Blasio pledged last November to require hotels and self-storage facilities to get a special permit before moving into industrial business zones, a designation that applies to much of the manufacturing areas along the path of the BQX. But while the administration has budgeted $442 million to bolster city-owned manufacturing sites, set aside additional cash for an industrial development fund and launched an advanced manufacturing network called Futureworks NYC, officials haven’t codified any of the promised zoning changes discussed last fall. And even if they had, it would likely take at least a year to implement them.
By then, many changes will be well underway. According to one estimate, the streetcar’s design and financing mechanism will be finalized by mid-2017 and then go through a public review process. Already, developers are eyeing opportunities along the route. In July, real estate developer Madison Realty Capital announced the $40 million purchase of two buildings near a proposed streetcar stop in Sunset Park that it plans to convert to office space. That site sits just across the street from Industry City, a six-million-square-foot industrial and office complex whose owners recently put forward plans to build college housing. The dorms were envisioned to accommodate students at New York University and the City University of New York, with priority placement for manufacturing and engineering applications that would dovetail with the kinds of businesses operating in Industry City. That bid was abandoned under pressure from local officials, but the company is still pursuing plans for a hotel, which industrial supporters such as City Councilman Carlos Menchaca see as the first step toward turning the waterfront residential.
All this has convinced members of the industrial community, including those who support the streetcar, that the administration must make good on promised zoning protections before plans advance too far. “I’m really looking forward to [the streetcar] happening,” said Michael Spinner, who runs car-wash and recycling-equipment businesses in Sunset Park and sits on the board of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp. “But you’ve got to tailor the zoning laws and give manufacturing businesses the advantage.”