Is NYC Manufacturing (Zoning) Dead? New Zoning Plans May Continue A Trend

January 21, 2010

The City’s industrial zoning districts are increasingly being lost. So-called “M-zones” (M1, M2 and M3 zoning districts) – where everything from Glue to Auto Manufacturing are permitted – have been modified or eliminated in such diverse places as Chelsea, Williamsburg-Greenpoint, the southwest Bronx, Long Island City and DUMBO. Over the past 10 years or so, new “mixed use districts” have emerged in waterfront sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx – and inland areas such as Hudson Square, Bed-Stuy, Gowanus and Long Island City. (These join the already established mixed-use zones in DUMBO and Hunt’s Point.) Now – and here’s the real news – M-zoned areas of Hudson Square are under consideration for rezoning.

Clearly, glue and hat manufacturing no longer exist in the 5 Boroughs. Establishments such as Grumbacher – the artist’s supply manufacturer (everything from watercolor paint to brushes) – formerly of Long Island City, and Faberware (you still have their last-a-lifetime pots in your kitchen cupboard) – formerly of the South Bronx, have left the City years ago. Heavy and light industrial businesses of all types continue to flee – leaving NYC with a fraction of the industrial jobs it once had. Hence, some have argued that the City no longer needs manufacturing zoning. Countering this, however, is another side of the tale. Small and mid-sized craft industries, breweries, specialized garment uses and jewelry-making are among the many “manufacturing” uses that remain and thrive in the City. Local “incubator” buildings in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, as well as the Brooklyn Navy Yard contain scores of small woodworking and metal fabrication businesses. These low-tech industries share space with higher-end, modern manufacturing uses. However, in light of the nature and type of these remaining industrial establishments, do we continue to require the expanse of manufacturing zoning that remains? For example, the entire West Shore of Staten Island is zoned M3 – for heavy manufacturing; Chelsea still has M1 districts, as does Hudson Yards and areas just West of Madison Square; and many blocks along the Queens waterfront and inland West of Long Island City area are zoned for light manufacturing. Indeed, good chunks of Brooklyn (Sunset Park, Red Hook and Gowanus) continue to be zoned for industrial use. The list goes on.

Turns out, NYC’s manufacturing zones allow more than just traditional and today’s custom and high-tech industries. M1, M2 and M3 zones also allow most retail uses (although there are size limits on many) and hotels. They also permit office buildings. And, the new mixed use zoning districts allow housing! If the rules are sufficiently flexible to permit a wide variety of uses, is it sound zoning policy to keep all of the M-zones? Or, does the continued trend away from traditional industrial operations in NYC mean that we should fess-up and shed the nostalgia for manufacturing jobs and do away with most of the remaining manufacturing designations — keeping only those in discreet areas where business remain? Additionally, will the elimination of M-zones prevent a potential reemergence of manufacturing in NYC in the future? Certainly heavy manufacturing, as we have known it, will not return, but who knows what the future holds? Perhaps a new, high-tech manufacturing industry will emerge, but will not be compatible for NYC zoning. Is it possible to plan for this?

And, what about Hudson Square? And, the Meatpacking District? Far as we can tell, there’s no manufacturing in these areas at all. If zoning is changed, what new Districts will emerge? Residential or commercial (still allows hotels)? Keeping M-zones in place avoids addressing the difficult choices… We will watch the current, still-conceptual plans for Hudson Square carefully — and, will keep you posted.