Real Estate Market in Sunset Park Faces a Diversity Dilemma

By Zoe Weiner

Photo by: Zoe Weiner

First, it was the Barclay’s Center, which brought Nets games, Taylor Swift concerts and eleven subway lines. Then, it was “Smorgasburg;” the weekend destination for artisan cheese, $12 ice cream cones and trendy young Manhattanites flocking to Brooklyn to live out their real-life Girl’s fantasies. Now, it’s Industry City.

Industry City, a cluster of abandoned factories on the Gowanus Canal in Sunset Park, is being touted as the next frontier of “The Brooklyn Renaissance.” Last month, one of the real estate companies involved in the project, Commercial Observer, hosted a breakfast and panel discussion to discuss its future plans. The six members of the panel, and an overwhelming majority of the attendees, were white. This raised concerns among the community, which is over 80% non-white, that their interests are not being taken into consideration as the development progresses.

“Obviously we would have welcomed more diversity,” said Max Gross, a representative from Commercial Observer. “Maybe we should have thought harder about it.”

When beginning new projects in diverse neighborhoods, like Sunset Park, it is important for developers to consider the needs of the community. According to many experts, when a group of decision makers is made up exclusively of a certain type of person; in this case, white males; it runs the risk of having a myopic view of these needs. Without the capacity to influence those who make the laws and those who pass the bills, their interests are not considered,” said Ron Hayduk, author of Political Rights in the Age of Migration: Lessons from the United States, in a telephone interview. By not including members that reflect the ethnographic makeup of a community, in Sunset Park’s case Latino and Chinese, the board runs the risk of ignoring voices that need to be heard.

So far, what’s been built inside Industry City has done nothing to quell the concerns of the community. None of the tenants who currently lease office or factory space in the building are local businesses, and the recently opened food hall has recruited all of its restaurants from elsewhere. “It’s a lost opportunity,” said Rachel Meltzer, a professor of Urban Policy at the New School. “To have this opportunity for jobs and for business development and to not have it serve the community seems, just, a waste.”

After seeing photographs from the Commercial Observer’s “Renaissance Breakfast,” the community’s private Facebook group was outraged. Almost immediately, they noticed the lack of diverse faces in the pictures. “White people breaking white bread over white tablecloths,” posted one user. “I would think that Hispanics, African Americans and Asian American’s would first have to be ‘power players and top dogs of real estate to exercise power and/or influence the changing face of Sunset Park,” remarked another.

Commercial real estate, as a whole, is a predominantly white male industry. Juan Barahona, one of only a few Latino real estate developers in New York City, points to the need for diverse viewpoints on the development side of the industry. In his opinion, this would help determine the appropriate and necessary end results for projects in communities like Sunset Park. “If we included people who have had different life experiences and can bring different things to the table, it would help figure out what depths we want to reach, what sort of services we can provide and what sort of outreach we can do before we start the project to see how it’s going to be perceived,” said Barahona. Often, by the time community members find out about the details of a project, it is too late for them to change anything, so it’s important that they are represented in the decision making process from the beginning.

“There’s something we can do about this to help arm local people with knowledge so that they can know enough about what’s going on and shape the conversation and add to it,” said Raphael Bostic, head of the University of Southern California’s Ross Minority Program in Real Estate, in a telephone interview. [The only way for that to happen is to help them understand the right questions to ask their elected officials and the appropriate language in which to voice their concerns. He points to the fact that it’s their community, and they are the ones who ultimately have to live with the changes being made, said Bostic.

Emily Reb lived in Sunset Park her entire life and was forced to move four years ago because she could no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood. Reb is vocal in her concerns that the local businesses she knew as a child will soon be entirely pushed out, as she was, and replaced with big money. She feels that the best interests of the community are being ignored, and the Latino and Chinese voices of its members are not being heard.

“The color of their skin doesn’t matter to me as much as how green their eyes are and how black their souls are,” she said. “Capital has become more important than people.”