The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Rezoning Red Hook

Julia Vitullo-Martin, March 2004

As top city officials concentrate their development efforts on glamorous projects with presumed big pay-offs (the Bloomberg administration is pushing two major sports arenas at the moment) many city neighborhoods languish in obscurity, unable to get the rezoning and deregulation they need to move forward.

Such neglect enables the decades-old degradation of improperly zoned neighborhoods to continue even as demand for residential and commercial property in New York soars. The city has the vacant land to supply the demand. The problem is that since 1961 most of it has been zoned for manufacturing, a use that is no longer economically viable in most neighborhoods.

Many New York neighborhoods were injured by the Zoning Resolution of 1961-but perhaps none so gravely as Brooklyn's Red Hook, the 680-acre peninsula whose waterfront offers what may be New York's most spectacular views. The lower Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and the Verazzano Bridge can be seen simultaneously from sites that would, without zoning, call for residential, mixed-use development.

But residential and even mixed-use development has long been outlawed. Believing that New York's industrial future could be secured by zoning, the Wagner administration reserved a good one-third of the city's waterfront to heavy industry, which had been in steep decline in New York since World War II. The new resolution expanded the already huge industrial zones into adjacent residential areas, prohibiting housing construction in neighborhoods that had been-and often still are-primarily residential. The immediate effect was to damage the residential neighborhoods, where owners could not get financing to improve their homes, without strengthening industrial uses. The long-range effect was to prevent any natural, private development from occurring. Thus the residential and commercial demand that should have spilled over to the waterfront from thriving inland neighborhoods simply halted at the outskirts of the industrial zones. And because no profitable private use was allowed, deleterious government uses took over. Today, instead of the elegant mixed-use developments that have been proposed over the years by planners and architects, Red Hook's waterfront is littered with the corpses of failed government projects, such as the Port Authority's infamous Fishport from the late 1980s.

Even worse are the wildly inappropriate ongoing government uses enjoying billion dollar views of New York harbor, such as the NYPD's impoundment garage, where thousands of cars wait for their luckless owners, and the bunker-like headquarters and parking lot for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Despite Red Hook's blight, two major though conflicting development proposals have recently been put forward by private entities. The further along is a 346,000-square-foot Ikea furniture store, which would draw customers from surrounding states and promises to employ some 500 residents. The Ikea, which would be highly subsidized by the benefits and tax abatements available from the state's Empire Zone, has an option on the waterfront site.

The competing proposal, which envisions Red Hook as New York's Sausalito, is for a privately funded, non-subsidized, mixed-use, extremely handsome development from Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse.

As a construction and development company SBER has overseen the reconstruction of such legendary undertakings as Baltimore's Fells Landing and Boston's Fenway Park. They have no option on any property but "are hoping for an open hearing in New York," says one of their neighborhood supporters, John McGettrick, co-chair of the Civic Association. Their experience, he adds, is in the "imaginative re-use of waterfront and polluted sites."

Neither proposal can proceed as of right. The Ikea site, now restricted to heavy manufacturing (M-3), must be rezoned to M-1 to accommodate the store. SBER's mixed-use proposal would need rezoning to residential. Both proposals would probably also need various special permits. Both will be required to produce Environmental Impact Statements and go through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. In other words, the road to actually building anything is strewn with huge obstacles.

Evaluating the merits of the proposals is complicated by Red Hook's isolation. Red Hook is bounded on the northeast by the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Gowanus Expressway. Built in 1946, the Gowanus cuts off the waterfront from the rest of Red Hook and Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. The other boundaries are water: Buttermilk Channel on the northwest, Upper New York Bay on the west, and Gowanus Bay on the south. Only the F train comes close to serving the neighborhood, with a stop outside its boundaries. Express bus service bizarrely goes to Long Island City in Queens rather than Manhattan, which is only 15 minutes away through the tunnel.

Thus Red Hook lacks the excellent public transportation that serves New York's most successful high-density neighborhoods. Some transportation deficiencies can be worked out-particularly for a mixed-use development profitable enough to supply its own ferry service to Manhattan. A tentative service has already started: New York Water Taxi, which stores its boats in Red Hook, now delivers passengers to both Brooklyn Army Terminal and Wall Street.

Ikea, which always sites itself on highways, also faces transportation problems. While Red Hook is bounded by what's called an expressway, the jammed Gowanus would be regarded as a road in most of the country. It's at capacity now for most of the day. Ikea claims that doesn't matter because it anticipates that 90 percent of New Yorkers will take buses to the store. But the store intends to market equally strongly to suburbanites, who will surely be driving to Ikea using Red Hook's ancient, narrow, cobblestone streets. Carter Craft, program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, pointed out last year that Ikea's 2003 big-box proposal for the former U.S. postal facility on the Gowanus Canal had fallen under serious traffic concerns.

With no help from government, Red Hook residents started tentatively bringing their neighborhood back in the 1980s. Today the residential core of brownstones, row houses, wooden frame houses, and funky buildings is being restored by both long-time owners and new investors. Youngsters have been moving in, bringing the area a fresh feel while patronizing the new restaurants, bars, and galleries. Overall, violent crime in the 76th precinct is down 62% since 1993-without a single murder this year, versus 8 in 1993.

Yet the dead hand of manufacturing zoning lies across the valuable waterfront. The Bloomberg administration's admirable proposals for rezoning the Brooklyn waterfront to the north-Williamsburg-Greenpoint-should be extended south to Red Hook.

The administration's overall rezoning principle is the coexistence of mixed uses. Light industry would be permitted alongside residences, much like the existing historic pattern in Red Hook-a pattern that had been outlawed by the 1961 zoning. "Light industry" includes wood working shops, bakeries, breweries, and warehouses-current uses regarded by the city as compatible with residential. Noxious uses would be prohibited.

Red Hook is now the poster child for New York's peculiar brand of government aggression and indifference. It's not the Bloomberg administration's fault that previous regimes have used Red Hook as a dumping ground for every undesirable use rejected by stronger neighborhoods, but it is their fault that Red Hook seems not to be on City Hall's radar screen.

Two private proposals have come forward. That's good. But under current circumstances only entities with substantial capital and patience-not to mention political backing-throw themselves into the ULURP breach. What other proposals would come forward if the zoning were changed? Let's get the rezoning and see what the private sector proposes.

March 2004
Department of City Planning
Red Hook: A Plan for Community Regeneration
Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, proposed waterfront developer
New York Water Taxi
NYPD’s 76th Precinct
New York State’s Empire Zone tax benefits and abatements
Red Hook Community Justice Center
Gotham Gazette’s info on District 38
Red Hook Civic Association
Still a beacon, Parkchester climbs back, says New York Times
Head of Administration for Children’s Services says lead paint bill will cost agency $10 million
Arson suspected in DUMBO lofts
Mayor Bloomberg announces plans for 75,000-seat sports arena & expanded Javits Convention Center on West Side
City Planning meets on transforming Fresh Kills on Staten Island
“We've been desperately trying over many years to get zoning changes to allow for a residential population. Red Hook once had a mix of incomes, thousands more jobs, and excellent retail facilities. So much government attention has gone into planning Governor's Island. We're 800 feet away and not even given the time of day. We look like a rundown waterfront village in the most powerful city in the country.”
John McGettrick, Co-Chair, Red Hook Civic Alliance
“There are just so few rentals. The people who want to be here, really, really want to be here. Red Hook has a similar feeling to what Williamsburg had several years ago. Similar types of people. A lot of artists.”
Linda Williams, Red Hook real estate broker, Speaking on New York Voices, WNET, Channel 13