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Proposed zoning targets 21st century jobs in industrial North Brooklyn

The de Blasio Administration wants to open North Brooklyn for business.

Zoning changes may soon be coming to the borough’s industrial northwest corner to better align the area with the needs of two opposite segments of the modern workforce: heavy industry and creative office.

Much of the target area has been designated as an investment tax shelter through the federal Opportunity Zones program, potentially making them more inviting to capital.

“This will allow businesses – from construction and distribution to custom manufacturing and food production, to creative tech and media – to build more jobs in this [Industrial Business Zone], for the benefit of all New Yorkers and especially for local residents,” City Planning Director Marisa Lago said.

In its North Brooklyn Industry & Innovation Plan, which was released this week, the City Planning Department identified a large swath of the borough—stretching from the tip of Greenpoint across East Williamsburg and into Bushwick—as being in need of zoning tune-up.

Most of the land in question, which hugs the heavily polluted Newtown Creek, has been classified as a core industrial area. The Planning Department recommends upzoning the district’s floor-area ratio and increasing density allowances for multistory developments while blocking non-industrial uses and adjusting parking and loading requirements.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of the area in question, especially along the L-train subway line, the city wants to shift zoning from uses from industrial to office, encourage the development of loft-style buildings and roll back parking requirements to align with the preferences of the technology, advertising, media and information, or TAMI, sector.

In both areas, the city would eliminate the FAR preference for community facilities. It also calls for infrastructure improvements, such as the replacement of the Grand Street Bridge, improved pedestrian safety measures and access to expanded broadband service.

“Supporting job growth within the industrial and commercial sectors is critical to diversifying New York City’s economy and making it more resilient,” NYC Economic Development Corporation President and CEO James Patchett said in a statement. “The North Brooklyn Industry and Innovation Plan is an important step towards critical land use improvements that will create jobs and ensure New York City continues to grow its 21st-century economy.”

Much of Greenpoint and Bushwick have been designated as Qualified Opportunity Zones by the state, making them eligible for Qualified Opportunity Funds to back projects in the area using tax-deferred capital gains. Through the program, investors can roll their gains into these funds, which then invest in properties or upstart businesses, and receive significant tax breaks in return.

The program requires funds to make substantial improvements to any properties they acquire. With an investment deadline at the end of next year, many in the industry expect a flurry of development in these designated areas in the coming years.

While the waterfront areas of Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been flooded with investment and new construction in recent years, transforming the neighborhoods from working-class enclaves to hipster havens, the areas to the east have drawn less commercial attention.

North Brooklyn has historically been a hub for industrial activity as well as city services, with as many as 50 refineries once lining Newtown Creek’s 3.8 miles. Though less heavily trafficked by commercial vessels, the estuary is still home to several factories and the city’s wastewater treatment facility.

Various other warehouses and transfer centers populate the area, known as the Industrial Business Zone, which the city estimates is home to almost 20,000 jobs.

The plethora of labor opportunities that drew migrants from Italy, Ireland, Poland and elsewhere in the early 20th century have waned over the years as manufacturing has largely left New York City. However, North Brooklyn has seen an uptick in employment recently, albeit in industries of a different kind.

Between 2010 and 2016, the studied area gained 2,270 jobs, more than half of them in office, retail, the arts and entertainment, according to the report. Before that, from 2000 to 2010, the area saw a net loss of 1,570 jobs.

“For decades, industrial jobs have served as critical pathways to the middle class among historically disenfranchised communities in my district and across the City,” Council Member Antonio Reynoso said in a statement. “The North Brooklyn Industrial and Innovation Study proves what we in North Brooklyn have known all along – our manufacturing areas are hubs of economic activity that provide quality jobs and opportunities for local entrepreneurship.

“However, this report notes industrial businesses are facing increased competition for space from non-industrial uses, such as offices, nightlife, and retail,” he continued. “The recommendations outlined in this report to protect core industrial areas in the North Brooklyn IBZ will go a long way towards ensuring this area continues to serve as an economic generator for generations to come.”

On the south side of the zone, there are two large transitional zones where the city wants to retain as much heavy industry presence as possible while also making zoning friendlier to offices. On the west side of the zone, the zoning changes target new residential development.

Moving forward, the Planning Department will work with business, residents and other community stakeholders to iron out the details of the zoning change.

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