Winds of Change

Interview with Elizabeth Yeampierre

GABRIEL LEFFERTS

Elizabeth Yeampierre. Image courtesy of UPROSE.

In 2020, a failed private application to rezone Industry City—a 16-building complex in the historically industrial waterfront neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn—sparked the most passionate public debate over the future of New York City economic development since Amazon’s infamous attempt to build a new headquarters in Long Island City. For New York City’s 520 miles of languishing coastline, the Industry City saga and surrounding events presented new realms of possibility for waterfront development, urban manufacturing, and community resistance to top-down planning. 

Jamestown Properties, the developer behind Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and Chelsea Market in New York’s Meatpacking District, purchased the buildings at Industry City (IC) in 2013 with two real estate equity partners. They faced $350 million in deferred building maintenance at the site due to years of negligent management and damages wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.1 Following building renovations through 2015, IC’s owners wanted to expand the complex’s footprint and allowable uses. Their rezoning proposal, which began the city’s seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in October 2019 but was delayed by the pandemic, would have increased IC’s current 5.2 million square foot footprint by more than 1 million square feet, removed use restrictions, and allowed for educational facilities, expanded retail, hotels, office space, and light manufacturing uses.2 Prior to the pandemic, IC’s commercial tenants numbered over 500, employing approximately 7,500 people.3 According to IC, the rezoning would have added 8,000 direct jobs at the complex and 7,000 indirect jobs in the surrounding neighborhood.4 When the land use procedure resumed in August 2020, elected officials throughout the city presented IC’s expansion as a critical step in the city’s post-pandemic recovery.

Not everyone agreed. When Jamestown arrived in Sunset Park, residents of the working-class Latinx and Chinese immigrant community expressed their concerns that the rezoning would raise local property values, cause displacement, and preclude the opportunity to build a climate-resilient future, a goal that Sunset Park residents outlined in their 2009 advisory 197-a plan. Indeed, in December 2019 local City Council Member Carlos Menchaca described IC’s rezoning as an attempt to build a “luxury mall full of retail and offices.”5 

Instead of submitting to Industry City’s moneyed vision for the neighborhood, members of the local social service group UPROSE revived a different plan long in the works: the Green Resilient Industrial District (a.k.a. the “GRID”). Founded in 1966, UPROSE (United Puerto Ricans of Sunset Park) is one of New York City’s longest serving Latino community organizations. When former civil rights lawyer and climate activist Elizabeth Yeampierre joined UPROSE in 1996, the organization took on a decidedly more environmental focus.6 Through community engagement they laid the groundwork for not only the 197-a Plan but, more importantly, a “Just Transition” to make self-determined and resilient communities with robust workforces for majority non-white working class residents. Industry City’s high-end retail and commercial uses on the waterfront threatened their vision, so UPROSE doubled-down on their efforts with the GRID. This approach to planning, which features a zoning overlay for all of Sunset Park, emphasizes a thriving waterfront manufacturing sector aligned with the renewable energy industry and reducing the community’s carbon emissions through building and streetscape retrofits. It also includes a food distribution network independent of unstable global supply chains.7

In the interview that follows, Elizabeth Yeampierre describes in more detail the role that UPROSE played in opposing Industry City’s rezoning. Perhaps controversially, she differentiates UPROSE from other stakeholders in Sunset Park, most notably powerful local nonprofits. Her story ranges from the late ‘90s to the January 2021 announcement of a new offshore wind turbine assembly site on the Sunset Park waterfront,8 and focuses less on the technicalities of urban and community planning than it does on the trials and triumphs of grassroots community organizing. Its details and open-ended conclusion can inspire and inform planners, policymakers, and organizers alike.

Sunset on NYC from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Photograph by Katie Yaeger Rotramel, courtesy Flickr, under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Urban Review: How did UPROSE’s opposition to the Industry City rezoning begin? 

Elizabeth Yeampierre: In late 2012, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, UPROSE created the Climate Justice Center to steer forward a bottom-up climate adaptation and community resilience planning project. We were starting our block-to-block organizing when [Industry City developer] Jamestown came to Sunset Park. We at UPROSE respond to what the community tells us is a priority, and people in the community were concerned about Jamestown’s presence, so the first thing we did was we met with [Industry City CEO] Andrew Kimball a few times. He wanted a lot of information from us so we gave him a copy of all the different planning initiatives that UPROSE anchored. We asked him what exactly he was proposing—what kinds of jobs, and how many? Were we going to be able to turn Industry City into a place that would address food sovereignty, climate adaptation and mitigation? Would we be able to bring in businesses that would address our local needs for jobs and the region’s need to address climate? He didn’t want to share anything. 

I think that because he worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard he wasn’t used to opposition. He didn’t know what he was in for and really took us for granted. You know, you’re talking about a grassroots organization made up of women of color. I’m pretty certain he thought we got this.

UR: How did things progress from there? What roles did other stakeholders in the community play, and how did they differ from UPROSE’s? 

EY: After we found out from Andrew that there was no possibility for a conversation about what the development would look like, we called for a meeting with all of the executive directors from Sunset Park to discuss the problem. [The point was] to share the articles coming out of Industry City that were promoting displacement and calling the complex a destination location for the privileged. Not one organization sent an executive director to meet with me. 

The organizations that we invited were power brokers in Sunset Park, [and] really part of the nonprofit industrial complex in every sense of the word. These were mostly white executive directors who didn’t live in the neighborhood. Industry City dropped an enormous amount of money in Sunset Park, and all of these white-led organizations were having meetings without us where they started coming up with recommendations that suited their organizations but didn’t suit the community. 

[The local nonprofits] decided to create another group that was going to negotiate an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Industry City, but an MoU has no teeth. The owners of these corporations sell off the shares and all of a sudden you don’t have an agreement. It’s not enforceable.

UR: What did UPROSE do instead? 

EY: We created a coalition called POWWA (Protect Our Working Waterfront Alliance) made up of Trinity Lutheran Church, a few local organizations, and some of our allies citywide to look at what the proposed changes meant for Sunset Park. One year, Industry City had a summer full of performing artists and we called each of the artists and said, “I just want you to know what you’re supporting by being there.” Some artists let us get on stage, and others rescinded their contracts. We marched right in and disrupted their events.

And when we were talking to people in the community, passing out leaflets, we kept hearing “There’s no choice.” Regular folks from the community were thinking that it was hopeless—that this was not something that could be won. They have a lot of money, they own the property; there’s no way that we’re going to be able to win this. 

The big question became: What would the alternative be? 

UR: Is this how the plan for a Green Resilient Industrial District [GRID] came about? 

EY: We had to look at what the community had said was its priorities and determine what pieces of legislation would support an alternative vision. And so that’s what we did for the GRID. We brought in the Collective for Community, Culture, and Environment, a small women-led consulting firm, to look at all of the different planning processes that exist in Sunset Park and the relevant pieces of legislation [for an alternative approach to future development]. For example, we had helped pass the CLCPA (New York State’s 2019 Community Leadership and Climate Protection Act) and other pieces of legislation that would fund and support operationalizing a just transition. It’s not like you have a vision and you don’t create the teeth that are necessary to get it done.

Those long-held community plans—like the 197-a Plan—then, and different pieces of City and State legislation—the New York City Climate Mobilization Act, Freight NYC, and the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act included—are integral to the GRID. Totally. When UPROSE moved to the space that we’re in now I found a flyer from 1998 that talked about making the waterfront a “green port.” That long ago the community was talking about infrastructure, rail, food sovereignty, and the fact that, as a waterfront community, it was possible for us to bring food from upstate down to New York and connect it to other communities nearby. There are all kinds of ways industrial waterfront communities can support their local economies, benefit the region, create jobs, and prevent displacement. We felt like it was a win-win. 

UR: How did this impact the Industry City rezoning proposal? 

EY: Coming up on the rezoning hearing [in the fall of 2020], we had an advisory group working non-stop on the GRID to make sure that we were going to win this thing. I also had a moment where I forgot that, because I am part of the national leadership of the climate justice movement, I had access to other people and resources. I had to think about how to leverage those national resources for local power in Sunset Park. I thought, these people [IC] never even asked what the interests of the community are, so if they’re going outside of this community to get support, I’m going outside of this community to get support. They basically opened the door for me to do that.

UR: What did you do? How did it work? 

EY: I reached out to 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, the Climate Justice Alliance, Indivisible, PCM (People’s Climate Movement), New York Renews—all people that I had had long and deep relationships with through the climate movement. I told them that we were talking about a densely populated community of 130,000 people and a Significant Maritime and Industrial Area that [has the potential for] a regional impact. I said, If you’re talking about a just transition, if you’re talking about a Green New Deal, this is where that happens. 

UR: What is the importance of Significant Maritime and Industrial Districts?

EY: New York City has very limited space, and the Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs) are the only places we have to build for a climate future. [SMIAs are formal district designations introduced in the 1992 Comprehensive Waterfront Plan meant to “protect and encourage concentrated working waterfront uses” throughout the city.9 – The Eds.] If we lose them to high-end needs or to small businesses that could be placed anywhere else, we lose the ability to build. 

You have to think about Superstorm Sandy and how the subway was submerged, how we need permeable surfaces, and how we need to use local cement companies and different procurement practices. The SMIA is where that happens. You’ve got all of these high-rises going up on Fourth Avenue; where do you think the materials are coming from to make sure those buildings are carbon-neutral or carbon-negative? They should be coming from the Significant Maritime and Industrial Area. 

I see [the waterfront] as this gem that’s being overlooked and snatched by old-school private developers who use catchphrases like “innovation economy” and “maker economy.” We’re like, “This [the GRID] is innovation right here. That [the Industry City rezoning proposal] is old school stuff.” 

UR: A term that you use in the context of the emergent renewable energy sector is “green colonialism.” Can you unpack this term’s meaning?

 EY: Today, companies in the Climate Leadership Council—BP, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips—are going into the Global South to provide resources to these communities so that they can engage in sequestration. To me, that’s green colonialism. You basically have these companies that are responsible for creating the conditions the Global South is enduring now benefiting from this. 

Another example is when we fought to bring offshore wind to Sunset Park. We talked about climate justice. Not a single organization in Sunset Park stood with us. But now that there are resources available, they’re all lining up and submitting proposals so that they can get access to funding. They don’t know the first thing about what a workforce that’s engaged in a just transition looks like, but they’re lined up because they’re transactional. I’m assuming now they’re going to start talking about caring about climate change. We [UPROSE] have been here for a minute. What concerns me is that we become the “tree-shakers” and they become the “jelly makers,” and that’s a form of green colonialism. We built it and they benefit from it. 

Another example of green colonialism is what happens to a community when you have invested in environmental amenities, like doubling the amount of open space, expanding the median on Fourth Avenue, reducing emissions—doing all the things to make the community more environmentally sound. All of a sudden the community can’t afford to live here anymore. The people that benefit are not [from] our community.

UR: What’s your take on British Petroleum’s involvement with the offshore wind turbine assembly site at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal (SBMT)? 

EY: There is a small coalition in Sunset Park that’s raised the issue of BP. What we said to them was that, look, all of these companies come from histories of extraction on the backs of our communities. But if we’re working with a company that is moving away from fossil fuel extraction to renewable energy, we have no choice but to support it because literally our lives are at stake. And in doing that, we will negotiate agreements [that benefit the community]. 

UR: What kinds of agreements are you aiming for? How might the Sunset Park community and the region at large maximize the benefit from the emerging renewable energy sector? 

EY: One of our big concerns [about SBMT] is that the wind turbine parts will come from Europe. We feel that the manufacturing should be done here in the United States. I talked to EDC (the Economic Development Corporation) about this long before Equinor came into the conversation—about how EDC had to create the market, not follow the market. We talked about how they had to identify American companies involved in building wind turbines so that we would develop the skills and the knowledge to be able to build them ourselves. That would generate an enormous number of jobs and it would be an economy that would last for a really long time. We’re not there yet. 

Another concern was that the climate solution would become an environmental justice problem—that the ships would drop NOx and SOx (nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide pollutants) and PM2.5 (a fine particulate matter air pollutant that can pose severe health risks at high levels) into our community while the workers help construct something that reduces carbon. My environmental justice background said “No, that’s the justice piece. We can’t do it that way.” We wouldn’t be able to accept it if the ships were going to be operating on diesel and parking right outside an aging community.

Equinor agreed that when the ships get to the Verrazzano [Bridge] they become electric. So those are the kinds of conversations that we’ve had with them.

UR: How about BP? 

EY: We’re not in conversation with BP; we’re just in conversation with Equinor.

UR: Let’s take a step back to envision your ideal Sunset Park in 10, even 20 years down the road. What do you see? 

EY: What I envision is an industrial waterfront that’s teeming with life and is a modern-day version of the past. Freight boats coming down from upstate strengthen social cohesion between New York City and white, economically-depressed farmers upstate who somehow think that we’re a threat to them and don’t realize that we need each other. Because of the storm surge and extreme weather events, building a streetcar or investing in the subway system is not going to be sustainable over time, so in my vision we’re rebuilding for mass surface transit, looking at eco-hubs for renewable energy, and [producing] building materials that are sustainable and carbon neutral. I envision a state of the art and futuristic industrial waterfront that addresses the needs of the region and benefits the local community. 

UR: How do you get there? And what is UPROSE focused on now? 

EY: We have already mapped where throughout the entire neighborhood we can put solar panels on roofs and replace street lamps with lighting operated by wind and solar energy. We have mapped people’s backyards to see where they can grow and share food and engage in stormwater harvesting. We’ve done all of that. 

Industry City took the breath out of us because it took so much of our time and our resources. We could have been in a better position when COVID happened. What people don’t realize is that recurring extreme weather events are going to disrupt the food supply chain, so we need to figure out how we grow food locally and take care of each other independent of the supply chain. That kind of community autonomy or ability to take care of itself will help us survive by strengthening social cohesion and making it possible for people to have access to the things that they need: energy, water, and food. Those are our focuses.


Notes

1. Caroline Spivack, “Industry City Kicks Off Long-Awaited Rezoning Process,” Curbed NY, March 5, 2019. https://ny.curbed.com/2019/3/5/18250597/sunset-park-industry-city-begins-rezoning-process.

2. Sadef Ali Kully, “Debate Over Contentious Industry City Rezoning Resumes, As Local Councilmember Opposes Plan,” City Limits, August 13, 2020. https://citylimits.org/2020/08/13/debate-over-contentious-industry-city-rezoning-resumes-as-local-councilmember-opposes-plan/.

3. Working Group Convened by Council Member Carlos Menchaca, “Understanding Industry City’s Rezoning Proposal,” July 11, 2019. https://council.nyc.gov/carlos-menchaca/wp-content/uploads/sites/39/2019/10/Industry-City-Working-Group-Session-1_ENG.pdf

4. Emma G. Fitzsimmons, “Progressives Defeat Brooklyn Project That Promised 20,000 Jobs,” The New York Times, September 23, 2020, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/nyregion/industry-city-rezoning-nyc.html.

5. Carlos Menchaca, “What the Industry City Rezoning Is Really About | Opinion,” Brooklyn Eagle, December 13, 2019. https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2019/12/13/what-the-industry-city-rezoning-is-really-about-opinion/.

6. Boehm, “United Puerto Ricans of Sunset Park,” The Brooklyn Rail, May 2003. https://brooklynrail.org/2003/04/local/united-puerto-ricans-of-sunset-park.

7. Collective for Community, Culture, and Environment, “Sunset Park Green Resilient Industrial District,” September 9, 2019, https://www.uprose.org/s/GRID_UPROSE-EDITS.pdf.

8. Sydney Pereira, “NY Expands Offshore Wind Projects, Bringing Wind Hub To Brooklyn,” Gothamist, January 17, 2021. https://gothamist.com/news/ny-expands-offshore-wind-projects-bringing-wind-hub-brooklyn.

9. “Appendix B: Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas.” The City of New York, 2000, 7.


Gabriel Lefferts is an MUP candidate at Hunter focused on land use planning and economic development. He spent summer 2021 as a Planning intern for the Municipal Art Society and will begin a 10-month Morgan Stanley Community Development Graduate Fellowship with Evergreen Exchange, which supports industrial businesses in North Brooklyn, in September. He worked previously as the managing editor for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review magazine.

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