At the end of a long, neglected block in the heart of the Broadway Triangle stands the Shanghai Steel Factory. A weathered sign marks its presence, a sign of life on a seemingly abandoned city strip. But upon closer inspection, Shanghai Steel is a bustling business—shiny ice cream trucks pull in and out of the garage for tune-ups and service while workers armed with blow torches sculpt steel beams into frames for mobile food vending vehicles.
“There are at least 4,100 mobile food vending trucks on the road in New York City and only four factories like us,” said owner and manager Ernie Wong, who inherited the business from his parents. “You do the math.”
But, arithmetic aside, the fate of Shanghai Steel adds up to just one thing: eminent domain. Wong is one of a handful business owners located in the Broadway Triangle who will be displaced as a result of the Broadway Triangle rezoning plans, which were approved by the Community Board just last month. If HPD’s plans are approved by the Borough President and subsequently the Community Board, the almost exclusively industrial 31-acres of the Broadway Triangle will be rezoned as R6A and R7A, primarily for affordable housing. The plan, which will ultimately create nearly 900 units of new affordable housing stock, and the process by which it was negotiated has been criticized by a myriad of community groups for its failure to take into account the fate of businesses like Shanghai Steel. At this juncture, there is no specific relocation fund to speak of, and according to Wong, he has been all but left in the dark.
“I feel like I’m in limbo. I don’t know what’s in store for me right now. HPD hasn’t presented anything to me. They say they are putting together a fund, but I haven’t seen anything.”
Like the other businesses in danger of displacement due to the rezoning, Shanghai Steel has been in operation for decades. Wong’s parents first launched Shanghai Steel in 1979 in Manhattan’s Chinatown before relocating to Gerry Street in the Broadway Triangle ten years later. Shanghai Steel employs approximately 20 full-time skilled workers, and services the vehicles of thousands of mobile food vendors that rely on them for tune-ups and repairs. Wong took over the business six years ago—after a short stint at Lehman Brothers—when he made the decision to be a part of the legacy of the family business.
“This business is almost as old as I am,” Wong said. “For my parents its like a second child; they’ve raised it for 30 years. These days, you don’t get an opportunity to do something on your own very often, and that’s what owning your own business is like. There’s so much involved here—it’s not just numbers and figures, there are people involved. We’ve worked so hard for this, you just can’t put a monetary value on that. Everyone here has a family, and together we are a business family. This would mean the loss of skilled labor jobs with good pay. I don’t want to lose that.”
Though the notion of relocating is daunting for Wong, having grown up in Queens, he emphasized the fact that he is sympathetic to the dire need for affordable housing in New York City. But for Shanghai Steel, relocation is no easy feat: transporting high-tech equipment and mammoth amounts of heavy metal will be laborious, difficult—“you can’t just throw a steel factory into a box!”—and extremely costly. Wong also explained that operating out of The Broadway Triangle is advantageous to his business due to its close proximity to the Williamsburg Bridge, providing easy road access to his customers, the majority of whom work in Manhattan.
Another major concern for Wong is maintaining his status as a business owner, a question that remains unanswered. If he is relocated, it is unclear as to whether he would be given the opportunity—and the funding from the city—to purchase a new piece of land in exchange for his parcel of the Triangle.
“I am a business owner AND a property owner, and the city needs to take both into account,” Wong said. “If I had to pay a mortgage right now, if I didn’t own my property, I would be out of business. I just want what I have now to be able to continue. I work together with the Department of Health all t he time. We have always worked with the city—our business relies on it. We just hope that this time, the city will work with us.”
In accordance with City regulations, if federal funds are used for development from which displacement results, commercial relocates are eligible for moving and related expenses, as well as reimbursement for some reestablishing expenses. However, specifics are hazy, and Wong is concerned.
“Right now I feel like I’m fighting a brick wall,” Wong said. “I just want to know if we can scale it somehow.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 in next week’s Greenpoint Gazette, featuring Service Smoked Fish.