The Hot Seat: Leah Archibald


Welcome to The Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved with Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing Leah Archibald, the Executive Director of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation, an organization that promotes the development and retention of production, manufacturing and industrial service in North Brooklyn. Her photo is by Marc Koch.

Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
Leah Archibald: I live in South Slope and have since my family and I relocated to New York City from Los Angeles in 1998. My two closest friends from my hometown (Buffalo) live in Windsor Terrace and Carroll Gardens respectively, so South Slope seemed geographically equidistant. Also, we could afford it. I was working for a meager wage for a local elected official and going to grad school full time, and my husband had just completed his PhD in History and was not yet working. Out of total desperation we first moved into a complete piece of garbage apartment on 15th Street between 4th and 5th avenues — way, way too small for my husband and daughter and me. And it was next door to a creepy anti-Semite with a million dogs. The block was really awful—there was always nasty medical waste and the like illegally dumped in front of where that Harbor Fitness is right now. Of course this block is totally different now. The rum distillery and old church are now huge condo complexes.

BS: Can you explain the goals of EWVIDCO and your role there?
LA: I am the Executive Director of EWVIDCO, which is the local development corporation that serves the business community in industrial North Brooklyn. We provide a huge range of services to help local businesses grow so we can retain high-quality, working-class jobs in our community. Our tremendous staff helps businesses get financing, find qualified employees, find real estate and understand and take advantage of public incentive programs. We have recently expanded programming designed to help the many fledgling, small food manufacturers in our community continue to grow. Additionally, we advocate for the needs of industrial firms, both individually (like helping someone get a loading zone from DOT) and for the community as a whole (on shared issues like truck routes and the Newtown Creek Superfund designation). It’s my job to keep the ship moving in the right direction (along with our awesome Board of Directors), make sure that my team has the resources it needs to get the job done (fundraising!) and to manage administration, policy development and communications for the organization.

After the jump, why manufacturing is so important in North Brooklyn, looking back at the 2005 rezoning, the problem with illegal loft living and Leah’s favorite funeral home.
BS: EWVIDCO was founded in 1982, and it’s obvious the North Brooklyn landscape has changed a lot since then. Can you tell us about the evolution of the organization as the neighborhood made the shift into what it is today?
LA: Our organization was founded by a group of business owners with the assistance of staff from the St. Nicks Alliance, a large, multi-service, social service agency. Crime was the primary catalyst for the businesses to come together. (You can learn a little more about how this affected one of our founders’ businesses, Martin Greenfield Clothiers in a brief video on our homepage. Get a hanky.) EWVIDCO’s earliest services included a security patrol for member businesses. You can still see our placard on some buildings in the East Williamsburg area.

Time marches on, as we know, and our organization has had to continue to change to remain relevant to our constituents and the community. When New York City and New York State had big incentive programs designed to help businesses expand, we became experts and helped our businesses take advantage of them to save money. At present there are very few incentive programs available for businesses so we concentrate much more on advocacy with city agencies and utilities and serving as a conduit for information both from the businesses to decision-makers, and from public agencies to our constituent businesses. We have been hard at work rolling out new programming to assist the many new small, food producers in our area, and hope to develop a similar track of programming for specialty wood and metalworkers. Additionally, we jump in to help out when firms are in crisis, such as our harbor-front and creek-front businesses were after Hurricane Sandy. And we’ve had some small success preserving industrial real estate based on the affordable housing model with generous grants from the Mayor and the City Council.

We are pretty deeply involved with the community. I serve on oversight committees for several local environmental concerns, and my staff sits on the Community Board and various committees. Overall, I think we are fortunate to have a really nice symbiotic relationship between the business and residential communities here in North Brooklyn.

BS: Did EWVIDCO play a role in the Williamsburg rezoning? What has the organization learned in the aftermath of this large scale rezoning that really changed the character of the neighborhood?
LA: I was working at a different industrial nonprofit during the 2005 rezoning, but yes, our organization gathered information from businesses, submitted testimony and participated in many meetings that informed the final deal. We were certainly glad that the City created the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Industrial Business Zone, the Greenpoint and Williamsburg relocation fund and the fund to help nonprofits develop industrial space in Community Board One. However, there were a lot of sad lessons learned. Manufacturers in the city are primarily renters, just like city residents. Renters are far more sensitive to fluctuations in real estate pricing than are owner operators. We lost hundreds of firms and many hundreds of jobs in the run-up to the final rezoning. Smelling a potential rezoning, owners evicted businesses and stopped renewing their leases. After the rezoning we lost many more; we were able to help some stay in the city, but many left or simply went out of business. However, some of the industrial businesses that managed to hang on in the rezoned area found opportunities thanks to the flood of residential construction, fabricating and installing kitchen cabinets and HVAC systems. In some cases the sudden downturn in the housing market after the market crash in 2008 was beneficial to a different set of businesses in the rezoned area — a bunch of them that had no leases or were on month-to-month renewals got extensions since their landlords wisely came to the conclusion that a bird in the hand trumped two in the bush.

Remember the property cost increase map that Brownstoner published a week ago? It provides the graphic that conveys everything you need to know about the upshot of the 2005 rezoning. Property costs have risen a mind blowing 174 percent in our area since 2005. As you can imagine, that creates hardships for industrial businesses. Their margins are slim and market rental rate for industrial uses in North Brooklyn ranges from $12-$16 per square foot. Many industrial businesses are getting priced out of the market. Add to that the fact that the rezoning took hundreds of thousands of square feet of industrial space off the market, reducing supply and putting even more upward pressure on rental rates and purchase prices.

BS: Why are industrial based businesses still important in the North Brooklyn neighborhoods, as we see more and more demand for residential there?
LA: I don’t think that the importance of local manufacturing in North Brooklyn is related at all to residential demand. They’re just two concurrent facts. Manufacturing is still viable, vital and relevant in North Brooklyn. Even in this time of economic decline, there is very low vacancy in North Brooklyn’s industrial area — about seven percent. Our area is home to 11,700 manufacturing workers and 830 firms. This represents 14 percent of the City’s manufacturing employment base. A huge number of these employees, nearly 40 percent, live in the local zip codes. Over 15 percent of local residents indicate that they walk to work each day, which is double the borough-wide average. Poverty in Williamsburg and Greenpoint is still quite high; 41 percent of residents receive Medicaid or public benefits. Finally, education levels are still fairly low, with nearly 50 percent of working-age individuals possessing a high school equivalency or less.

These are good jobs with low barriers to entry. The average production wage for a manufacturing job is over $10,000 more than the average wage in retailing and restaurants. Further, these jobs are better quality — over half of manufacturing jobs have health coverage compared to 18 percent in the food service industry and 38 percent in retailing. In North Brooklyn local industrial jobs pay an average of 73 percent more than retail, with industrial average wages of $52,842 compared with $30,620 in local retailing.

There is certainly much market demand for residential uses in our industrial area, but there is also demand for industrial space, particularly from new artisan producers. When the small food producers that sell their wares at Brooklyn Flea scale up enough to need their own space, we have a difficult time finding them appropriately sized space at a price they can afford. Similarly, we hear from more and more design-oriented production shops creating props, specialty lighting, hand crafted furniture and the like that are scrambling to find more and larger space when their orders start to grow. I think that even folks that are thirsty for more residential conversion would agree that it’s important to try and harness the energy of these small manufacturers and keep them here.

Sadly, though, insatiable demand for market rate housing is eroding our ability to retain these high quality jobs in our community. Manufacturing company closure and job loss in North Brooklyn and Greenpoint and Williamsburg is significantly and disproportionately higher than losses in other parts of Brooklyn and Queens in the last decade (see related property value map). This means that there was an additional pressure –- i.e., residential conversion — on industrial firms and businesses in those areas, beyond industrial businesses in other parts of the city. There is demand for both industrial and market rate residential competing for our shrinking amount of industrial land. Unfortunately for small manufacturers and their blue collar employees, it is far more lucrative to use space for residential use, even illegal residential use.

BS: Speaking of residential demand, North Brooklyn faces the problem of many industrial buildings being used for illegal housing. The city’s passed loft laws, but what else needs to be done to regulate this type of living situation?
LA: Indeed, even though the 2005 rezoning transferred a huge amount of industrial real estate from manufacturing to residential use, there is still quite a lot of illegal conversion in our community — more so than any other industrial neighborhood in NYC.

Obviously, this indicates there is continuing demand for affordable housing that is not being met by other methods. I understand that folks want an affordable place to live, but many of these converters complain incessantly about manufacturing businesses that are operating legally and as-of-right on their sites. Manufacturers that you would consider non-noxious (suit manufacturer! fortune cookie maker!) are subject to endless 311 complaints about noise, smells and vibrations from their regular work. When enforcement comes out to write tickets, the businesses are cited for violating codes for residential zones since the people who are phoning in the complaints are living there. Complainers are living illegally, and the businesses are conducting business legally, and they still get stung. Of course, if the city had enforced its own zoning codes in the first place years ago, we wouldn’t have illegal conversions at all. It’s maddening, as you can see.

Needless to say, I was not a fan of the extension of Loft Law to the industrial business zones in North Brooklyn. All the other IBZ’s in the city except for a very small portion of one Queens IBZ were exempted. You know what they say about “laws and sausages,” but whatever. It’s here, and there is nothing I can do about it at this point. I think that the Loft Board was overwhelmed with the expansion, and are just now coming to grips with all the applications for inclusion in the expanded areas. At last, after many, many years of vacancy, they finally appointed a manufacturers’ representative on the board. Of course they did this after the rules for the expansion were promulgated. I would like to see the loft board notice businesses in nearby properties when there is an application filed or a hearing scheduled, not just the businesses inside the building filing the application.

BS: Finally, your favorites: favorite BK neighborhood, favorite building in North Brooklyn, and favorite Brooklyn businesses.
LA: I have a lot of favorite everythings. You know, I have to say that Park Slope, especially South Slope where I live is the best neighborhood to live in. We have made wonderful friends, and have great neighbors. It’s a great place to raise kids. And a great place to hang out — I’ve made half my friends (and met one of my bandmates) in 5th Avenue bars. Commonwealth has the best jukebox, but I really like Freddie’s, Der Kommissar and Sea Witch, too.

It’s hard to choose my favorite industrial neighborhood. Over the past 13 years I have worked with some really wonderful people and companies in Sunset Park, Red Hook, Gowanus, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, East Williamsburg and Bushwick. Each is really cool and unique. But North Brooklyn has been really good to me, so I gotta go with the combined industrial neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Greenpoint and East Williamsburg.

I have a lot of favorite buildings, too. I love the Central Library because it’s beautiful and really well utilized, always thronged with people. I love the Brooklyn Army Terminal because it’s elegant and historic and home to so many small businesses now. And Elvis shipped out after WWII there. But I think I’ll go with 260 Meserole, the site of the former Hittelman Brewery, and currently home to the Wick, the Well and Main Drag’s Bushwick Supply. You can tell it was a brewery — there are beer barrels carved into the façade! Just a few years ago it was filled with squatters and jammed with debris, and now it’s really turning into something cool. Fun fact: it was the site of Brooklyn Brewery’s first warehouse in the city.

Favorite Businesses… This is a hard one, as you can imagine, because, like snowflakes, here in industrial Brooklyn all are beautiful and no two are alike. My favorite tool and die fabricator is Linda Tool in Red Hook. My favorite fish smoker is Acme Smoked Fish. My favorite specialty lighting manufacturer is Remains Lighting. My favorite hair dye manufacturer is Jos. Lowenstein. My favorite fortune cookie manufacturer is Wonton Foods. My favorite kitchenware store and cooking lab is Brooklyn Kitchen. My favorite dumpling manufacturer is Twin Marquis. My favorite prop design/fabrication shop is TwoSeven. My favorite funeral home is Senko Funeral Home on Bedford. My favorite evening wear manufacturer is Jovani Fashions. And my favorite suit manufacturer is Martin Greenfield Clothiers. My favorite miracle metalworker is Milgo/Bufkin. My favorite sun-ripened tomato distributor is Lucky’s Real Tomatoes. My favorite pizza place is Roberta’s when I’m at work, and Peppino’s when I am at home. My favorite plastic bag manufacturer is Rainbow Polybag. My favorite housewares design/fabrication team is Hable Construction. My favorite kosher candy manufacturer is Joyva Foods. My favorite record pressing plant is Brooklynphono. My favorite movie studio is Broadway Stages. I have a lot of favorite local breweries, but my heart belongs to the Brooklyn Brewery. And really, I could go on…