At the watery edge of Sunset Park, a working-class neighborhood of Chinese, Latino, and Indian immigrants in Brooklyn, lies the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, a vast plot of warehouses and docks managed by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). The terminal is part of an ambitious plan to generate new industrial jobs, innovation, and economic development serving local residents and the city more broadly. The plan, which has been a top priority for the administrations of both Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, involves efforts to invest in infrastructure and create incentives for new manufacturing businesses while creating new parks for local community members.
But in early 2015, a brewing dispute over the management of the project threatened to derail it. City Council member Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park, raised concerns about EDC’s role in managing the land and project, blaming the agency for insufficiently involving the local community in shaping the vision for Sunset Park’s future. This 11th-hour snag led to an unusually public war of words between Menchaca and the EDC. After months of further negotiations, the administration agreed to create a planning-and-jobs task force to engage community members, in addition to reinvesting 5 percent of the site’s revenue into a community fund and improvements to the nearby Bush Terminal Park.
While that task force has engaged local residents in a series of town-hall meetings, private investment has rapidly poured into the area as developers snatch up property for new industrial and commercial uses. The influx has left local residents fearful that, despite the new task force, they are still being left out of the conversations about the neighborhood’s future. While many say they welcome the influx of investment and jobs, they worry that, without a voice in the process, they might be displaced or left out of the economic gains.
In the midst of our national conversation about economic inequality, these questions of local-level economic development are critical. Although easily overlooked in favor of more sweeping policy issues, the reality is that cities have a disproportionate stake in the inequality crisis. Urban areas house more than 80 percent of the US population—and within these urban areas, policy decisions about how to attract investment, development, and jobs play a defining role in who gains from the resulting benefits and who loses, often for years to come.
But, as the debate roiling Sunset Park suggests, the concerns over development go even deeper than job-creation numbers and zoning. Beneath the surface is a new and more persistent anxiety about governance—about who makes decisions and how those decisions get made. If economic policy is to address inequality, it must not only be the right policy; it must also be formulated and driven by the right people.