On May 24, 2019, Anastasia Kidd picked up her 1-year-old from the floor of her apartment in Red Hook, a Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood. A thin layer of dust covered his skin, hair, clothing. “He had dirt over it,” Kidd recalled a few months later during a community meeting. “I had to close the windows.” Half a block away, several bulldozers scraped the ground, excavating layers of wood, metal, and red brick that for more than a century had been the Lidgerwood complex.
Built in 1882, the two-story metalworking factory was the birthplace of boilers that warmed the prosperous city, coffee machines shipped to plantations in Brazil, and machines that stimulated the drilling of the Panama Canal. When the foundry left the waterfront in Brooklyn in 1927, the building went from owner to owner until 2018, when he and several neighboring properties were bought by United Parcel Service, or UPS, as part of a plan to build a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in its place. As steel bulls smashed Lidgerwood’s centuries-old walls and scrubbed the site clean of history, a layer of dust covered the neighborhood.
Back then, residents of Red Hook – a mix of black and Latino families who had lived there for generations and wealthier newcomers – had no way of knowing that the UPS warehouse was the first in an attack of e-commerce transportation facilities that would spreads seamlessly through. the neighborhood.
“During the dark of the night of the COVID lockdown, facilities reached the last mile,” said Andrea, a Red Hook resident who moved to the neighborhood in 2007. (She preferred to skip her last name to avoid conflicts with some her neighbors.) “That’s when everyone went, ‘What’s going on?'”
As the coronavirus swept through New York, consumer culture in the city changed. Millions of purchases moved from in-person to online, and Amazon “went on a shopping spree,” as the New York Times reported. In less than a year, the company added at least nine new last-mile distribution centers – warehouses for online retail items before their final destination – in Brooklyn and Queens, making its total four times. In Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, more than a dozen others are being built to serve companies like Amazon, FedEx, and UPS.
Nearly 10 percent of Red Hook’s total square footage now serves as, or has been approved for, e-commerce transportation facilities. Advocates fear that as facilities open, a steady stream of tractor trailers and smaller delivery trucks will block the already cracked narrow streets. Near the water line, the backdrop of ridges and diggers gaze in the background, and huge tracts of barren ground, covered with sand, gravel and dust announce the size of the future.
Community members from across the city sought help from the not-for-profit New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, or NYC-EJA. As advocates investigated the cases, it became clear that the new warehouses had three things in common: They appeared close to predominantly Black, Latino, and low-income communities. They were big — indeed, very much. And they appeared across parks, community gardens, and schools with no environmental review or community engagement process.
“[Communities] discovered when there was almost nothing to do,” said Alok Disa, senior research and policy analyst with the non-profit Earthjustice, which has partnered with NYC-EJA to push for regulation of the new transit facilities . There was “a feeling of near despair and helplessness because they felt so powerless.”
Working with zoning veteran Eva Hanhardt, a member of the consulting firm Collective for Community, Culture, and the Environment, environmental groups found the answer hidden in a 420-page text from 1961 – the latest version of a City zoning ordinance New York. The document set different rules for industries based on the amount of pollution they produced. The less dangerous the industry was, the fewer environmental regulations it had and the closer it could be placed to communal areas. The code ranked warehouses among the least damaging.
At the time when the zoning code was written, it was a pretty accurate assessment. Warehouses in the 60s were generally used to store things before they hit retailers. Freight came and went at certain hours, and the buildings were relatively small, standing, on average, less than 30 feet, or two storeys high.
But distribution centers today are “creatures of an entirely new logistics system,” Hanhardt said. During the past decade, the size of the largest warehouses has more than doubled, from 500,000 square feet to more than a million. UPS’s distribution center in Red Hook will be 60 feet high – twice the height of warehouses in the 1960s and taller than the Lidgerwood complex it replaces. The rise of e-commerce platforms, and the competition for fast deliveries, also mean that these last-mile facilities are operating all day, every day. Some estimates calculate that modern warehouses can bring about 1,000 additional daily truck trips to a nearby neighborhood. The presence of these additional vehicles can exacerbate local air quality, increasing the risk of asthma, heart attacks and premature deaths.
And yet despite this huge leap in size, activity, and pollution, New York City’s zoning code remains unchanged: Last-mile facilities built today still fall under the 1961 definition of a warehouse. And their construction triggers the same environmental requirements — none.
Experts argue that this is not a problem unique to New York. The United States is the only industrial country without a standard, national zoning code – meaning there is no general definition of what a modern warehouse is, how dangerous it should be considered, and where it should be installed. This has left communities from New Jersey and Philadelphia to Chicago, Salt Lake City, and the Central Valley of California struggling to reconcile old-fashioned or inadequate zoning codes with a rapidly changing e-commerce and shipping landscape.
“The next generation of the fulfillment center is already there,” urban planning expert Rick Stein recently wrote of the spread of e-commerce fulfillment centers near and in urban areas, what he calls’ Ama-zoning of America . ‘ “Existing zoning codes, many of which were written for a ‘simpler’ period, are inadequate.”
And without proper environmental regulation, the location of these new facilities perpetuates environmental injustice. A recent investigation by Consumer Reports and The Guardian found that Amazon, which opened more fulfillment centers in 2020 than in the previous four years combined, installed 69 percent of all its facilities in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of people of color . Amazon did not respond to Christ’s request for comment.
As consumers increasingly move online, the United States is expected to need about 330 million square feet of additional warehouse space by 2025. said Prologis, one of the world’s largest industrial real estate companies, which owns nearly 1 billion square feet of industrial warehouses worldwide, only in the United States, e-commerce demand represented 25 percent of new lease signatures in the first quarter of 2021. For community advocates and nonprofits, fight the unprecedented hacking. regulation feels like playing a crazy game of whack-a-mole with every new facility and every one. unique zoning code, says Ivanka Saunders, a policy advocate with Leading Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno, California, another hub for new e-commerce warehouses.
“Cities really need to wake up,” said Disa, from Earthjustice. “The evidence is there. This is a completely different animal. ”
Red Hook’s character has long been shaped by New York’s industrial policies – which in turn shaped the nation’s industrial policies.
When the 20th century arrived, New York had become the epicenter of manufacturing and shipping in the Northeast, attracting people from all over the world – including the first wave of Puerto Rican immigrants, who founded the first boricua community in Red Hook. “They came to New York by ship, por barco, so they got off the ship, and literally stayed there,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of NYC-EJA. He was born and raised in the neighborhood.
Buildings grew larger and taller to keep up the rush of new people and businesses. The Lower East Side, one of the most densely populated neighborhoods, was home to 350,000 people per square mile. People were living, the New York State Tenement House Commission found in 1900, “packed together in dark, well-ventilated rooms, many of which never get sunlight and do not fresh air is known in most of them. ” As factories grew across the city, the air outside became just as breathtaking.
In 1913, the city created a commission to propose regulations restricting the height and size of buildings. Three years later, New York adopted the first zoning decision in the country. He created strictly segregated residential, commercial and industrial areas, ending the height and size of buildings. The 14 pages of the decision marked the start of zoning planning in the US.
In 1922, by order of President Herbert Hoover, a committee of urban planners wrote a Provincial Enabling Act, or SZEA, modeled after New York City’s 1916 resolution. The act allowed communities across the US to create their own zoning sections and ordinances – but did not require standard definitions for activities or guidelines on where to install them. Instead of starting from scratch, it became common practice for cities to borrow a zoning structure, codes, and definitions, says Sonia Hirt, a planning expert at the University of Georgia who wrote a book comparing the US zoning system with others countries.
That meant that New York’s zoning code, as a first in the nation, was likely to underpin urban planning decisions in cities across the country – and with that, its designation of a warehouse as one suitable for “Unrestricted areas.” In September 1921, only 48 municipalities had instituted zoning laws. By 1923, there were 218. And by the 1930s, all but a handful of provinces had embraced local zoning laws in some form.
By the middle of the century, urban planners were struggling to fit new technologies and infrastructure into their decades-old zoning codes. Gas stations, airports, landfills, trailer parks, nuclear reactors, drive-ins, school bus parks, refrigerator factories, TV stations, just to name a few, all appeared on the landscape. Cities were patchwork in their zoning laws, but it was hard to keep up. It was during this time that New York City overhauled its zoning laws, endorsing its current ordinance.
In 1965, the federal Ministry of Urban Renewal and the Department of Commerce sought to help cities standardize land use definitions and categories by releasing the Standard Land Use Codeing Manual, or SLUCM. Further attempts to regulate land use appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s — including federal statute — but all failed. Using the national guidelines remained optional.
Just like in the first half of the 20th century, every time a new industry is born, every town in America has to evaluate where it should be located. More often than not, says Hanhardt, municipalities choose to push new uses into old definitions rather than create new categories. That practice has included warehousing and storage. The national guidance was last comprehensively updated in 2000. The document, the Land-based Distribution Standards, contains suggested codes for mini-warehouses, refrigerator warehouses, and product warehouses, among others . Despite some recent updates, however, it still omits any mention of dispersed e-commerce fulfillment centers.
Without national requirements, not even guidance, cities are left alone in what to do with the growing logistics industry. A few, like Howell, in New Jersey, are taking the hard step of creating a definition in their zoning ordinances for these facilities to regulate. Others are expanding their industrial zones to accommodate them, perpetuating environmental injustices that are part of their local zoning codes. But most, experts say, do nothing at all, allowing these mega-warehouses to be built based on outdated or inadequate domain codes that do not account for the environmental impact of new e-commerce facilities .
In South Central Fresno, a community nestled in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, residents discovered they had been zoned out of their own homes three years after it happened. It came to light in 2017 when a few neighbors sought approval to remodel their kitchens and sell their homes and learned that the city had quietly revamped its zoning ordinance and reclassified the area as a heavily industrialized area.
That same year, the mayor of Fresno welcomed Amazon’s 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center. Just like on the other side of the country, at Red Hook, the behemoth was approved as a warehouse, which in this case required a little state-mandated environmental review to comply with air quality requirements. In 2018, the Ulta beauty conglomerate built another facility, spanning 670,000 square feet, just a mile down the road.
Although residents lacked urban water infrastructure, which instead relied on backyard wells, the new warehouses next door were able to get drinking water and pumped sewer water. In addition, some of the larger facilities were moved to a new type of zoning district that is supposed to act as a buffer between the neighborhood and the city’s heavy industrial area. How, residents argued, can a facility spanning nearly a million square feet be considered “light” land use?
Just like in Red Hook, the answer was partially hidden in the Fresno domain code. When making zoning decisions, the city looks at what goes on inside and outside buildings to determine their environmental impacts. Warehouse types are determined by the types of products they store – chemicals and minerals, industrial equipment, cars, feed, lumber, commercial goods. Warehouses that store goods sold “by internet orders” fall into the same category in Fresno as those that hold porters and restaurant supplies, despite the much higher traffic they generate.
“Many decision makers have reduced and even downplayed concerns about the effects of air quality on people in order to justify moving forward with development proposals,” said Ashley Werner, a guidance attorney for the Leading Counsel for Justice and Accountability local not-for-profit. This is the particulate matter and benzene path that heavy trucks leave in the air, the homes smog and dust cover, and the light floods inside all night.
With three provincial highways, 180, 41 and 99, the neighborhood already receives more 2.5-micrometer particulate matter pollution than 97% of the state’s counties, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. “When you look at the cumulative effects, it’s just as influential as a heavy duty slaughterhouse,” said Saunders, who works in community engagement with Lead Counsel.
Katie Taylor lives across the street from Amazon’s fulfillment center. The trucks are constantly shaking her home, their engines swinging 24 hours a day, sometimes so loud “that it sounds like someone is knocking at my door,” he wrote in a letter to the city council. The lights across the street are bright enough to disturb her sleep and the constant flashing of traffic lights has left her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome and autism, particularly anxious.
To Yesenia López López, who arrived in Fresno 15 years ago from Mexico, the worst thing about the buildings is the extra traffic. “Before, it was quieter, like living on a farm,” he said. “Now, there are people and cars all the time.” Before Ulta built its facility, which López López can see from her home, she had never been involved in a car accident in her neighborhood. Last year, she was hit by cars twice while leaving for work before dawn.
The continuous flow of vehicles has also devastated the cracked and dusty streets of the community, and the neighborhood has lost its only recreational space: an unpaved plot running along the street where last-mile facilities emerge. “We used to go out with the neighbors, the elderly,” said López. “The girls with their husbands were getting into exercise, we walked or rode bikes. We can’t go out there much more. ”
In 2019, advocates and residents prevented a 2 million square foot industrial park, with seven huge warehouses, from rooting out next to the Amazon facility. But developers didn’t give up, and another company applied to build a 420,000-square-foot facility to expand the Amazon mall.
He pushed about two dozen residents, some of whom were represented by Lead Counsel, to be heard in the planning process. After two years of talks, residents reached an agreement with developers and the city, asking for a paved path, safe pedestrian crossings, and up to $ 10,000 dollars for each affected family so they can protect their windows twice, installing air filtration systems, and “basically strengthening their homes in any way you can when you have heavy trucks passing less than 30 feet in front of you,” Saunders said.
Residents and advocates also managed to convince the city to re-evaluate its 2014 overhaul of the zoning code. Under the proposal, homes and several religious buildings will go back to being classified as residential and public use. But even if accepted, people in South Central Fresno will continue to be surrounded by industrial plots.
This one-on-one approach has left community advocates and activists exhausted, Werner said. Instead, they challenge the environmental review of the city’s new zoning ordinance, which did not analyze the environmental impacts of the new fulfillment centers. For Werner, a proper definition of e-commerce facilities in the Fresno zoning code is useless if the city does not address the “bigger picture”: how through zones, cities and counties direct land use routinely toxic to underserved communities of color. Today, the 97,000 people living in central, southeast and southwest Fresno – areas with the lowest incomes and the highest intensity of industrial activity – are 67 percent Latino, 23 percent more Black and Asian together, and only 8 percent white. In contrast, more than half the residents of affluent Fresno areas are white. The Fresno Planning Commission did not respond to Christ’s request for comment.
“Regardless of the current economic development trend, the most effective harmful uses are always going to these neighborhoods,” said Werner. “That’s not just a fact of nature. That is intentional. And that’s by design. ” A solution needs to target the underlying prejudices and be comprehensive, he said.
One hundred and ten miles north of Fresno, a small community in Northern California called Morgan Hill may have an answer.
The rumors first appeared on Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social media platform for neighbors to connect. In May 2019, a user posted an aerial photo of the Morgan Hill city limits with the message: “Emergency alert !!! A horrible project on the way! ” The post then explained that a developer by the name of Trammell Crow was planning to build a 1.1 million square foot “technology park” that apparently resembled an e-commerce distribution center.
The building would stand 55 feet tall, with 199 loading and unloading docks, and 752 employee parking spaces. The site would be located near a high school, an older living community, and a health center. A small group of residents came together as Morgan Hill’s Responsible Growth Coalition, or MHRGC. For months, they distributed leaflets, sent emails, and went door-to-door to inform the community about the project. By October, hundreds of concerned residents showed up to a personal meeting of the city Planning Commission where developers presented their design.
At the heart of the discussion was the city’s zoning code definition of a warehouse, adopted in 2018. “It’s very broad. It’s very vague. It enables a lot of interpretation, “said Jennifer Carman, who works in the planning department, 13 minutes into the meeting. Then, looking directly at the commissioners, she explained:” Our zoning ordinance does not define a fulfillment center right now. Should it be regulated differently than warehousing and distribution and, or, be banned? “
For nearly three hours, dozens of people spoke in front of the commission against the project. In the months that followed, the pressure continued to rise. In October 2020, Morgan Hill City Council approved an amendment tabled by the planning commission that included new definitions for fulfillment centers and parcel hubs.
The council defined a fulfillment center as a building at least 100,00 square feet, 24 feet high, and where e-commerce products are stored and distributed either to consumers or through a parcel hub, the final stage in the e-commerce. distribution network – or so-called last-mile facilities. Not only did they define the new land use — they effectively excluded delivery centers from Morgan Hill. Council members continued to work with the Morgan Hill Responsible Growth Coalition and in April 2021 enacted even tougher definitions: prohibit buildings greater than 75,000 square feet; 34-foot-high ceilings over more than 25 percent of the building; and more than one door from dock height per 25,000 square feet.
Closer to New York City, several boroughs are trying to pass similar changes to address zoning gaps. Howell, a New Jersey town council, recently approved an ordinance separating warehouses – defined as “facilities relating to the storage of bulk materials and products in the short to long term … and distributed in bulk with little repackaging, repurposing or cutting out material ”- and delivery centers, receiving, storing, separating and distributing products to individual consumers.
Experts, however, argue that while changing definitions is essential to fixing the baked code inequalities, it is not a silver bullet. Such changes will not address the pollution that communities are already experiencing from existing e-commerce facilities and other polluting industries close to their neighborhoods. They point to the Inland Empire, an area that covers Riverside and San Bernardino counties close to the Port of Los Angeles, where e-commerce warehouses arrived 20 years ago.
Last May, the Southern California Air Quality Management District approved the first legislation in the country regulating indirect sources of pollution – trucks and cars – produced by huge warehouse facilities. The legislation requires warehouses and fulfillment centers of more than 100,000 square feet – covering about 3,000 facilities in Southern California – to report their air pollution impact, which then scores the impact of each facility . Those companies that score high impact numbers can then choose from a list of mitigation options to improve their ratings, such as electrifying part of their fleet or installing solar panels. If they don’t want to comply or can’t reach zero, they can pay a fee that will help clean up communities.
Bautista, of the NYC-EJA, said many frontline communities are not opposed to all industrial activities, as a certain level keeps property prices low – shielding neighborhoods from further gentrification. In Red Hook, this is especially urgent. Ten years ago, Superstorm Sandy completely changed the composition of the neighborhood. As long-time residents who were unable to repair their homes left, richer people came in, raising house prices. Developers began to pay attention, anticipating a similar fate as other Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods. Red Hook soon became one of Brooklyn’s most expensive areas to buy new properties.
“What these waterfront neighborhoods really want is to be job centers in the new Green Deal economy,” said Thaddeus Pawlowski, an urban planner and resilience expert at Columbia University, during a panel discussion about the spread of facilities e-commerce in the neighborhood.
Bautista dreams of blue-collar jobs to build the wind turbines needed for one of the country’s largest offshore wind projects, identified for Long Island Sound. But the distribution center crisis has shown him that growth must be done carefully. That’s part of the reason why NYC-EJA, Earthjustice, city assembly member Marcela Mitaynes, and the grassroots organizations UPROSE and The Point launched a coalition CDC urging the city to include a definition of last-mile trucking facilities in the zoning code based on the size and number of vehicle trips per day.
“We would like to see a special definition or category made for e-commerce facilities, which would allow for special permissions, public review, and / or additional mitigation,” said Disa, of Earthjustice. Ideally, the amendment would define last-mile truck facilities based on the size and number of vehicle trips per day, allowing regulators and communities to fully understand the effects.
Rebecca Weintraub, spokeswoman for New York City’s Department of City Planning told Christ that the department is currently working with several city agencies, including the departments of transportation and health, “to better understand where e-commerce distribution centers are located. locating, and even congregating, and their effects on the health of surrounding neighborhoods. ” He did not indicate whether there are plans to review zoning regulations in the city.
Bautista remembers what it was like growing up in Red Hook in the 1970s and ’80s. The city’s bankruptcy left the renovation of the neighborhood’s sewer system unfinished for months. A building in his block fell into disrepair, killing a man and his daughter. During the ensuing decades, Bautista led the way in the fight to keep power plants and other industrial activities away from the community. Red Hook eventually won a definitive fight against a slate waste transfer station next to one of the neighborhood’s largest parks.
Today, a 311,796-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center is being built in the same space. For Bautista, that reality is bitter.
“You know, I didn’t win that fight so that Amazon or Ikea or whatever companies could build warehouses,” he said.