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Tunnel Vision

What Will the L Train Shutdown Mean for Brooklyn's Industrial Zones?

The already congested areas might get even worse.

by John Surico
Jun 23 2017, 3:48pm

A warehouse in Bushwick. Photo by Richard Levine via Getty

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

Pocketed in the corners of North Brooklyn's neighborhoods, in between the ascendant high-rises, restaurant rows, and sprouting boutiques, is industrial space. One of the few vestiges of what this area was best known for at the turn of the 20th century, these factories and warehouses still provide a vital service to the city as home to smaller upstarts seeking space, distribution centers, and countless small manufacturing operations.

While most people think twee, unsustainable small business when they hear Brooklyn, these zones play an integral part of the regional economy, acting as a pipeline for well-paying jobs, and a source of goods and services for companies citywide. Created in 2006, the North Brooklyn and Greenpoint/Williamsburg Industrial Zones allowed the city to incentivize, through tax benefits and technical assistance, this sort of dying industry in regions where it used to reign supreme. Since then, the streets around the zones have ballooned with money and people, providing a double-edged sword—more activity means more congestion—to their industrial growth.

So, needless to say, the impending L train shutdown poses a serious threat to the zones, which rely so heavily on free flow of movement. On the forefront of dealing with this impact is an organization known as Evergreen Exchange, which manages the zones, as well as advocates for industrial clients. VICE spoke with Leah Archibald, Evergreen's executive director, to find out more about how the shutdown will affect North Brooklyn industry, and, by extension, the city at large.

VICE: So what does Evergreen do? What do you provide to industrial companies?
Leah Archibald: Evergreen is a local development corporation that works with businesses here in industrial North Brooklyn to help them grow, so we can keep high-quality, working-class jobs in our community. And we do this in a number of different ways—we provide direct services to the business; we help them find financing; we help them take advantage of incentive programs; we help them navigate government; and we advocate for the shared needs of the industrial community. We also own and manage a few industrial buildings that we rent out affordably to small manufacturers.

One of the things we do, too, is planning and advocacy on behalf of the industrial business community. Just last night, we had an event where we made a report to the folks who participated in our Brownfield Opportunity Area planning study, which we got state funding for, to do proactive planning for the industrial business zones' future growth. And the number one concern that we heard during the research for this plan—and this is multiple years, through over a dozen public meetings with businesses—was transportation-related issues, particularly traffic and congestion. These businesses lose real money when their delivery trucks are idling in traffic. And if you've been in this neighborhood, you know that traffic in and around the industrial zones is horrific. Parking and traffic is tough; it's difficult for trucks in and out. And the roads really need resurfacing.

So it's not just the L train that's a problem. It's a whole mash-up of transportation issues that will only get exacerbated without the L train.

That's sort of the thing—if hundreds of thousands spill out from the shutdown, it'll add a significant number of people to the streets, be it through cabs and buses.
And congestion is getting worse. I can tell you that for a fact. So there's the infrastructure, with the road resurfacing, traffic flow, and truck traffic. And the truck traffic is being stifled by an increase in vehicular traffic, frankly, and this is the thing: it's a real-world problem that's going to really affect your readers. It's easy for us to sit out at our desks, and say, 'There are those trucks going by,' but like, everything on your desk right now got to you on a truck. Everything on your fridge got there on the truck. Everything we New Yorkers consume or use got to us on a truck. We are the problem—we are consuming things that need to be brought here on a truck. I don't want to miss that segment of the food chain, because it's not like some mysterious other. We're a growing population that's consuming more stuff, and needing more stuff.

And the increasing population in that area, too.
The more people shop online, and the less people use traditional retail, even more truck trips will happen... people are getting groceries, UPS, FedEx, Amazon. [My staff]* is also on Community Board 1, in North Brooklyn, and the MTA just did a presentation for us. And they're going to be putting 200 buses on our streets, going from Grand Street, over the Williamsburg Bridge, and also, the North Side. It's going to be insane. Grand Street already is bumper-to-bumper, and we need that—it's a vital truck route for our industrial businesses. Right now, Metropolitan Avenue is completely bumper-to-bumper, too, so where are you going to put those trucks and vehicles from Grand Street? There are a lot of concerns. And in particular, the business owners are more concerned with how their employees are going to get to and from work, and what the delays will be.

Is this a concern for your clients in industrial areas, too?
Absolutely. We obviously have a lot of warehouses and distribution, but we do still have a lot of manufacturing. And the sort of stuff that's growing and thriving is definitely woodworking, speciality metalworking, and food manufacturing. Their production facilities double as a showroom, so when you've got architects and designers from Manhattan who are spec'ing out jobs that you zip out on the L train, they're concerned that their clients aren't going to be able to get to them. And that might impact their attractiveness as a vendor.

And that could lead to a serious drop in revenue.
For our businesses, it's really not about the foot traffic, like it is for food, beverage, and hospitality. It's more, 'Will the people I'm producing things for be able to come and see me, or will it be easier for them to go somewhere else?' Or, 'Will my employees be able to get to work in a timely fashion?' Or, 'Will I be able to get to work in a timely fashion?' Or, 'Is it really going to take 15 months?' Because they don't believe anything. Coupled with this, it's not just the L train shutdown; it's the, 'My trucks can't get in and out;' 'There's nowhere for me to park;' 'We can't receive deliveries;' and, 'The neighbors are complaining about the refrigerated truck idling.' It's a million, billion transportation-related issues, and this is just one of them.

They're all interconnected.
And when they hear L train shutdown, they think people are going to do Uber, or car, or take their own vehicles. And it's only going to make the congestion worse.

So, stepping back a bit: how big is the membership? And how much has industry grown in the past ten, 15 years?
Grown isn't the word I'd use. Because things are really changing. Over the past ten years, we've had a number of very large manufacturers either go out of business, or move. Those large warehouses are frequently replaced with distributors, so it's less-job-intensive use, but it's the sort of things that are getting delivered all over the city that people like me and you consume. We do have some legacy manufacturers that are doing well, and in terms of new businesses, you have the folks I mentioned earlier. And specifically for speciality woodworking and metal-working, these guys are not necessarily people with a whole product line. They're not making a whole line of furniture, and selling online. Almost everything these guys do is custom. So it's a handmade railing for a hotel, or a door and facade for a restaurant, or a stairway for a high-end apartment building. It's not like they're self-directing their work; all of their work comes at the behest of some designer and architect, largely based out of Manhattan.

The last thing I'd say, that we've seen in recent years but it's really because it's gotten so expensive here: we've seen a growth in the sort of food and beverage production that has some sort of a retail component. So think the Tasting Room at the Brooklyn Brewery. A bunch of breweries, wineries, and even noodle factories now have a hospitality component. And they can afford a little more in rent, because that component brings in more than straight up production would.

So what is Evergreen hoping to get across to the MTA going forward? Will the organization be advocating for any specific alternatives?
We're concerned about what might happen on Grand Street. There's a big push on the part of Transportation Alternatives to turn it into a PeopleWay. I like people a lot, but there are very few east-west routes that trucks and cars can travel on in our neighborhood. And that's really one of two. Plus it's the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, and a lot of trucks take that. I think if that's pulled off the table as a route for vehicles and trucks, the already unconscionably horrible overcrowding on Metropolitan Avenue will get even worse. If we're urging anything, it's to look at the big picture of traffic flow throughout the community, and not just these five blocks leading up to the bridge. It's a direct connection to the industrial zone. You don't want trucks on the side streets. These large streets exist to transport trucks, so they don't go up and down our side streets. It's safer for everybody. And because of the construction, we get a lot of complaints about trucks making shortcuts on residential streets. This is something we're trying to work on, to reduce congestion to help get truckers to and from, and avoid these residential blocks. So that'll just add to those complaints.

With transit, I don't think we realized the depth of anger on behalf of our businesses, and how much it was costing them. [My staff spends a lot of time requesting the DOT to install]* loading zones and daylighting corners within the industrial zones, so the trucks can make turns—it's exhausting, but that's what we're here for. We're here to advocate, and tell the city agencies where the businesses need help. That's where we come in. We're like a megaphone.

*Due to a transcription error Archibald was originally quoted as saying "I am also on Community Board 1" and "I spend a lot of my time installing loading zones and daylighting corners..." After publication Archibald reached out to clarify that while she is not on the community board, members of her staff are, and that her staff spends a lot of their time requesting that the DOT install loading zones, she doesn't install them herself. The article has been updated."

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