Port Morris manufacturers endangered

By Joe Hirsch. Workers making military hats at Sam Bonk

By Joe Hirsch. Workers making military hats at Sam Bonk Uniform Civilian Cap Co. 

City’s proposed sale of building threatens 75 local jobs

When Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to protect manufacturing jobs from the dangers of real estate speculation in the city’s industrial areas in November 2015, it was presumably businesses like the Sam Bonk Uniform Civilian Cap Co. at 131 Walnut Street that he had in mind to rescue.

But critics contend that the city’s announcement earlier this summer that it wants to sell off the six-story building in red hot Port Morris for $14.3 million shows that the mayor’s vow to preserve manufacturing jobs is insincere.

Since the early 1980s the city has leased the building to the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. (SoBRO), which has in turn subleased to businesses like Sam Bonk, a manufacturer of military huts that employs 75 minority and immigrant workers from the South Bronx, and Transcon Art Storage, which stores art works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. SoBRO has 20 years left on the lease on the building, which has fallen into significant disrepair.

At an Aug. 17 hearing at the New York Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ downtown office, SoBRO’s president Philip Morrow told officials that the high price the city is asking for the building is evidence that it is “taking advantage of market speculation in an area where fears of business displacement are widespread.” If the sale goes through, he warned, it “threatens the livelihoods of over 75 local union employees.”

“It appears that anyone who pays this price will be determined to evict SoBRO and our subtenants and convert the property to other uses,” Morrow cautioned, adding that the organization is “prepared to fight such actions.”

131 Walnut Street.

131 Walnut Street.

Rents from the building pay the city about $200,000 annually and $400,00 to SoBRO, money the organization says helps fund its economic development programs in the borough. Although real estate prices in the Bronx’s five Industrial Business Zones range between $15-17 per square foot, some landlords in the Port Morris IBZ are now asking for double that amount.

Harry Bonk, who opened Sam Bonk Uniform Civilian Cap Co. with his father Sam in lower Manhattan in 1963, says he will have to move the company out of state if the city sells the building.

“There’s no place to go in the city,” said Bonk, 73, who runs the company with his wife and daughter. He recalled that when they moved into the building in 2002, it was near collapse, until SoBRO restored it.

“It was a complete disaster here,” he recalled. Even so, he was determined to do business in the neighborhood after being forced to leave the building he had long occupied in Longwood, at a time when manufacturing in Port Morris was still vibrant.

“It’s a city building,” he remembered thinking at the time. “I’m going to be here till I retire.”

Even when things looked bleak, Bonk said he chose to remain, because New York is home for his family and his workers.

“Even with the minimum wage going up, I was willing to stay here,” he said.

Walking into the Sam Bonk Uniform Civilian Cap Co. on the second floor of 131 Walnut Street feels like stumbling into a bygone era when the garment industry played a major part in the city’s economy. It is one of just a few military hat manufacturers left nationwide. Bonk’s daughter, Sarah, pointed out a worker cutting fabric at a U.S.-made pneumatic cutting machine she says it is nearly impossible to obtain parts for.

Cutting Machine.

A machinist works a pneumatic cutting machine.

“They don’t make these anymore,” she said.

The mayor’s office and the city’s Economic Development Corp. declined to comment for this story on their plans, or on their reasons for putting the building up for sale. But in the November 2015 press release, the EDC’s president Maria Torres-Springer stated that “a critical part of our mission at NYCEDC is to create good jobs that provide a pathway to the middle class – the exact kinds of jobs supported by our industrial and manufacturing sector.”

That coincided with the mayor’s vow to “protect core industrial areas from encroachment,” “curb speculation,” and  to keep those areas available for “industrial and manufacturing businesses that create a density of quality, middle class jobs for all New Yorkers.”

Morrow worries that the city may soon consider rezoning Port Morris’ IBZ into an MX zone, which would call for combining housing and industry.

A May 2015 report by Brooklyn’s Pratt Center for Community Development observed that “there are industrial businesses that can only thrive in an area that is free of housing and other uses that conflict with industrial uses and bid up the cost of real estate.”

The report challenged the city to “secure the space in which these jobs can grow,” by reclassifying IBZs as “Industrial Opportunity Districts,” and “limiting the type and size of non-industrial uses that are allowed in these areas.” Additionally, it says the city should refrain from rezoning to MX because “displacement of industrial businesses and jobs is a likely result.”

The Pratt Center’s executive director, Adam Friedman, said in an email that, “ownership and management by nonprofits is a proven strategy in both affordable housing and industrial development,” pointing to what he said are “several very successful nonprofits” in Brooklyn, that own and manage buildings and manufacturing jobs.

“The zoning does not require or incentivize a mix so the city has to use other tools including leasing city-owned land and supporting land ownership by non-profits that are committed to keeping the space for jobs and maintain the mix,” he said.

Morrow worries that the mayor’s current direction may spell the end for industry in Port Morris.

“I think he’s lost touch with what his policies are,” he said in a phone call, and added, “The MX zone is the death knell for industrial property.”