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Community-Based Plan of the Month: Sunset Park Waterfront

sunset park view toward manhattan at sunset

As the recent economic slowdown gives us the opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate New York City’s planning processes, community-based plans can provide a framework for a future that works for all New Yorkers. The plans featured in this monthly column will provide examples of how inclusive planning processes work on the ground, and ideally will help inspire future community planning efforts.

Sunset Park 197-a Plan – Sunset Park encompasses a large stretch of Brooklyn’s East River waterfront, bordered by the Prospect Expressway to the north, Bay Ridge to the south, and the Gowanus Expressway to the east. The area has served as a maritime hub for over 100 years. The Bush Terminal was established there in 1895, and eventually grew to over 200 acres. During World War II, the Brooklyn Army Terminal handled nearly 80% of the country’s supplies and troops, and employed nearly 10,000 civilians. After the war, however, as the region’s shipping hub shifted from the ports of New York to those of New Jersey, many jobs disappeared and the neighborhood fell into disinvestment.

In recent years, the Sunset Park waterfront has experienced a resurgence of industry, including warehousing and light manufacturing. It is now one of the city’s six designated Significant Maritime Industrial Areas (SMIAs). Waves of immigration have also contributed to making Sunset Park the dynamic neighborhood it is today. Beginning with Puerto Ricans in the 1970s and followed more recently by Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Columbians, and Mexicans, immigration has transformed Sunset Park into a center of Latino culture in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is also home to Brooklyn’s Chinatown, which is the third-largest Chinese community in NYC.

Over the next 10-to-20 years, Sunset Park faces the potential for many changes. It is targeted for City and State projects such as a container port, a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, a waterfront park, and possible reconstruction or tunneling of the Gowanus Expressway. In addition, the neighborhood faces increasing pressure from rising housing costs caused by the gentrification of surrounding areas, particularly to the north.

In response to these and other concerns, in 1996, Brooklyn Community Board 7 began work on a 197-a plan. Since 1989, the New York City Charter has included a provision allowing community boards, organizations, and/or local elected officials to create these comprehensive plans for the future of their districts. The process began in Sunset Park with a detailed study of existing conditions created by the Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association. In 1997, Community Board 7 and the Municipal Art Society Planning Center sponsored a workshop to generate a community vision for the waterfront and establish preliminary goals.

In the coming years, the board sponsored a number of community workshops, forums, and open meetings, involving a broad spectrum of local residents, stakeholders, and, community-based organizations, including UPROSE, Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, Hispanic Young People’s Alternatives, the Center for Family Life, the Chinese-American Planning Council, and others. The City Planning Commission recently declared that the plan meets threshold review, and is now assessing its potential environmental impacts. The plan could enter the public review process as soon as the spring, and if passed, will become the City’s 11th adopted 197-a plan.

The plan’s recommendations are broad and detailed. They cover areas from infrastructure, manufacturing, and transportation to the environment, open space and waterfront access, to housing, quality of life, and job creation. The plan’s main goals are as follows:

  • To promote industrial redevelopment and job creation in Sunset Park while retaining existing industrial jobs.
  • To maximize waterfront access and open space opportunities in combination with industrial and waterfront redevelopment.
  • To preserve existing industrial, commercial and residential uses and fabric in the area east of 1st Avenue.
  • To encourage development that places a minimal environmental burden on adjacent residential communities.