Manufacturing Districts: Too Much Manufacturing or Too Little?

July 23, 2013

Notwithstanding the plethora of rezonings accomplished by the City Planning Commission (with the approval of the City Council) over the past decade—many of which erased industrial zoning—New York City continues to maintain multiple manufacturing districts throughout the five boroughs. Yet, except for certain niche industries and highly specialized manufacturing businesses, the decline of traditional industrial uses continues. Of course, key concentrations of industrial jobs do exist, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and portions of Industry City (also in Brooklyn), for example.  But it seems quite clear that these are not in the “traditional smokestack” industries, where assembly lines of people engage in round-the-clock mass production. On the contrary, a range of manufacturing sectors has actually lost hundreds of jobs over the last few decades, of which garment businesses are among the most recognizable.

Warehousing, distribution and shipping facilities (think FedEx and UPS) occupy large swaths of Manhattan’s manufacturing zones on the West side—but these aren’t “manufacturing uses” either. The Damascus Bakery continues to thrive in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn – all the while surrounded by new residential uses which have cropped up in the rezoned areas of that neighborhood. Power plants in Queens and Manhattan and the City’s sewerage treatment plants all exist—as they should—in manufacturing zones. Smaller, entrepreneurial industries (and many successful “incubator” sites where small-scale craft works are thriving) do not require the manufacturing zoning districts that were formulated in the 1960’s. These uses can co-exist with residential development.  However, many areas (like “NoMad” in Manhattan, Bushwick and Gowanus East in Brooklyn, scores of blocks just inland of the Long Island City waterfront, and Staten Island’s entire West Shore) remain zoned exclusively for manufacturing. Since these districts prohibit residential uses—and many commercial uses—such areas are increasingly developed with hotels (permitted in all M1 zones), strip malls and mini-storage warehouses.

Rezoning these areas to allow residential use may raise concerns about the displacement of remaining industries or environmental issues. Yet outside of defined “industrial parks” like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Red Hook “container port” and the aforementioned treatment and power plants, most of the remaining manufacturing zones include uses that would be completely compatible with residential use. Adopting a “mixed-use” approach to these areas—so that certain industries can remain alongside new residential use—is a strategy recently implemented approach via the Hudson Square rezoning, and one that has been used successfully in other areas, including DUMBO.

What are the consequences of rezoning these areas? Is “mixed-use” merely a fig leaf to cover up the real goal—which is to create new neighborhoods for loft apartments and high-rise residential (see DUMBO and West Chelsea)? Should we preserve these manufacturing zones for future generations of industrial uses?