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Greenpoint Tomato Importer Hopes for Expansion as City Rethinks Zoning

By Gwynne Hogan | February 23, 2016 11:54am


GREENPOINT — For years the owner of Lucky's Real Tomatoes, a Greenpoint-based distributor, dreamed of building a rooftop greenhouse, having space for a small cooking school or room to make salsa or tomato sauce.

But since 1978 when Lucky Lee first started selling Florida tomatoes to New York restaurants like Peter Luger Steakhouse and Danny Meyer's from her warehouse at 29 Meserole Ave., the city's zoning code in the industrial area has prevented her from building up.

"We'd be making Lucky's Tomato Sauce. We'd be making salsa, we'd be doing sun dried tomatoes," Lee said. "There's just millions of things we could do."

The zoning restrictions that keep Lucky's Tomatoes from expanding were written decades ago and were designed to protect manufacturing areas. But in practice in North Brooklyn, they've ended up paving the way for an exploding hotel, bar and nightclub scene.

In recent weeks the city, working alongside two developers, has begun the process of changing zoning in an area just a block away from Lucky's warehouse to pave the way for a massive eight-story office complex at 25 Kent Street that includes two public parks and a pedestrian plaza.

If the changes are approved, landowners less than a block from Lee will be able to double the size of their buildings if they agree to set aside some portion of the building for manufacturing uses.


Much to her chagrin, Lee's warehouse falls just outside the designated zone. 

"25 Kent looks like a great project and we're thrilled for them," she said. 

"[But at the] end of the day it's still the same issue, that we've been there for decades and other companies are able to come into Brooklyn and grow and build.

"We're limited."

While Lee said she's been frustrated to watch new businesses come into the neighborhood and have the opportunity to expand, it seems her chance may be on its way too.

Leah Archibald, a small business advocate for North Brooklyn's Evergreen Exchange, said that since 2008 in a handful of conversations with the Department of City Planning, representatives from the department consistently said that zoning districts, like the one where Lee's tomato warehouse is located, are designed to serve as a buffer area between residential and industrial areas.

For the past six months, Evergreen Exchange, City Planning and small North Brooklyn businesses have had more than a dozen conversations about concerns of feeling stifled by zoning restrictions.

"There's a newfound willingness," to consider zoning changes, Archibald said.

Anna Slatinsky, the deputy director of Brooklyn Office Department of City Planning, confirmed that the department is looking for ways to better address the needs of smaller businesses in industrial buffer zones.

They're starting with a study of the North Brooklyn industrial area to figure out what's working and what isn't and how they can make policy and zoning recommendations to improve it, she said. 

"[The] study is allowing us to better understand the needs and challenges of businesses like Lucky's and we hope to propose approaches to addressing their needs as part of the study report due out at the end of the year,” she said.

Meanwhile Lee said expanding her business is not just a dream, it's a necessity.

Her warehouse, just a few blocks from the East River, flooded with 18 inches of water during Hurricane Sandy and she had to borrow money from the federal government to rebuild. 

"We owe the government a million and a half dollars," Lee said. "Do you know how many tomatoes you have to sell to pay [that off?]"


Lee's family founded Lucky's Real Tomatoes back in 1978 when they first moved to the city from Florida, she said.

Their father floated the idea of bringing a truck load of tomatoes to sell along with them, Lee said.

"We arrived in New York in the middle of winter with fresh, juicy, flavorful tomatoes, something that they'd never seen before," Lee said. Chefs wanted more. "We just kept renting bigger and bigger trucks." 

The fact that the city seems interested in engaging with businesses like hers is a hopeful sign, Lee said.

"Dreams are dreams until the timing is right," she said.tomatoes