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

Thinking about the Brooklyn Waterfront

Julia Vitullo-Martin, December 2004

With an unobstructed view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, Governor's Island, Ellis Island, and the Verazzano Bridge, the neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, may have the most gorgeous waterfront in New York. But that same view from the Valentino Pier also includes a panorama of the detritus of New York's industrial past—the cone of the derelict Revere sugar refinery, for example—as well as the new construction of New York’s wasteful, insensitive present. The NYPD has sited its hulky car impoundment facility on a lovely spit of land to the south of Valentino Park, and the federal government has put its fortress-like office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on an equally lovely spit of land directly to the north. Because ATF replaced a far worse use—a grossly polluting cement plant—the neighborhood accepted it, though ambivalently. And though residents successfully fought off the Giuliani administration's destructive plan to place a waste transfer station on the piers, Red Hook could easily be named the poster child for New York neighborhoods damaged by misguided government programs, wanton subsidies, and destructive zoning.


Now the city government is actually proposing something productive—the conversion of the Port Authority-owned Pier 12 into a cruise terminal for the Carnival and Norwegian lines. The beauty of the plan is that it would maintain Red Hook’s working waterfront with a maritime use that is actually in economic demand. The booming cruise ship industry generated $600 million in local economic activity and some 3,300 jobs in 2004, according to the city's Economic Development Corporation. Far larger ships (designed for 3,000+ passengers), improved marketing, and better New York-based routes should continue to spur cruise industry growth, generating nearly $1.2 billion in economic activity by 2014, says EDC.

The city's expansion and upgrading of Manhattan's West Side terminals will not be sufficient to handle either the growth in cruise business or the gigantic new ships, which cannot readily maneuver into the existing perpendicular berths. Pier 12 will allow the ships to sail up Buttermilk Channel, slipping in parallel to the bulkhead.

But here's the catch: neighborhood amenities. Cruise ship line executives have long complained that Manhattan's West Side lacks the nearby restaurants, shops, theaters, and museums that passengers and crew members expect. The amenities exist—but they are a hefty cab ride away. Yet they don't even exist in Red Hook, although they're starting. The main commercial corridor, Van Brunt, has a few destination restaurants, delis, bars, and galleries that attract patrons from other neighborhoods. But the truth is that the cruise line terminal will only succeed if Red Hook is allowed to come back economically—which is not going to happen if the ironically named Red Hook-Gowanus Chamber of Commerce has its way. The chamber has sued to stop the conversion of a nearby abandoned warehouse to luxury condominiums, arguing that a residential project so close to the waterfront will inevitably erode industrial uses. The suit urges the judge to overturn last January's decision by the Board of Standards & Appeals granting a variance to the residential project, which is in an area zoned for manufacturing. The suit contends that the developers failed to show economic hardship. Brooklyn Judge Yvonne Lewis issued a temporary restraining order in late November and again in December halting all construction work.


The project halted by the judge, 160 Imlay Street, is a virtual paragon of good planning principles. It is taking a massive, unused warehouse and converting it to an architecturally handsome residential building. It destroys nothing, displaces no one, and rehabilitates a historic building. It does all this without government subsidies or tax abatements. Much of the surrounding property looks derelict, even though the Chamber of Commerce insists that it is all part of Brooklyn’s "last working waterfront" and therefore must be preserved as maritime, however unproductive.

But this particular building hasn’t had a maritime use within the memory of any witness. Its previous owners, the Goldstein Brothers who bought it from the DeLorenzo real estate empire, had used it for book storage since 1960. John McGettrick, head of the Red Hook Civic Alliance, recalls the book storage as an inefficient operation that used only half the building. "It was a pick-and-pack operation, mainly for stuff that was sold to museum stores," says McGettrick. In the late 1970s he had encouraged the Goldsteins to consider other uses. "They brought me up to the sixth floor and showed me that the upper floors were unusable," he recalls. "The leaks had done a lot of damage." The Goldsteins employed some 60-70 workers, and perhaps as many as 120 at high season, says McGettrick.

In 2000, the building was bought by Industry City Associates, the New York area's largest owner of industrial space—including the successful Bush Terminal just down the waterfront from Red Hook. Their original intention was to lease it to WorldCom, which shortly declared bankruptcy. "The building would have worked for a telecommunications use," says ICA spokesman Bob Liff, "But then the whole telecommunications market collapsed."

When the telecommunications market died, Industry City tried unsuccessfully to lease the 100-year-old warehouse, before forming a partnership with residential developers Bruce Batkin, based in New York, and Stuart Lubin and Ruben Moreno, based in Boston. Batkin says, "We determined that the configuration, waterfront location, and views made it suitable for residential. It's not really suitable for much else, particularly the upper floors. The building has a long, narrow floor plate and virtually no loading docks. The surrounding streets are narrow, with no turnaround area for large trucks. Other than the first floor, the building doesn't work for industrial use. My partners at Industry City know the industrial market better than anyone in the city, and if there were industrial demand for this building they would know."

In granting the variance the BSA imposed a couple of conditions that makes the development a little harder financially. It turned down architect Cetra/Ruddy's proposal for a three-story glass penthouse that would have commanded extraordinary views. And it mandated that the first two floors be commercial—a requirement that will probably fit well with the proposed cruise terminal. All of this is moot at the moment. The building is now standing completely open to the elements, as the developers wait.

Judge Lewis has given herself until January 18 to decide whether to impose a permanent stay. Michael Hiller, attorney for the Red Hook-Gowanus Chamber of Commerce, accused the developers of "trying to get a de facto rezoning of the area, building by building. This will halt manufacturing in Red Hook." But Batkin and his community allies, such as McGettrick, say that not only has the building never had manufacturing, its only current economic use is residential. What's more, says Batkin, "The opposition has caused us to halt construction, not only costing us millions of dollars, but also costing hundreds of construction and service jobs, including many local union jobs."

Over 15 months of testimony from all sides, the BSA compiled 700 pages of testimony, which the judge must now review in making her decision. For her to rule against the developers she must conclude that the BSA acted capriciously.

Meanwhile Pier 12, on the waterfront behind 160 Imlay Street, has been discussed at several public hearings before Brooklyn Community Board 6. It will be put out for bid in the next few months with the goal of having the cruise ship terminal open by fall. But the success of the terminal depends ultimately on the successful resurgence of the neighborhood of Red Hook.

December 2004
Community Board 6
Brooklyn Community Board 6’s WaterfrontMatters
Red Hook: A Plan for Community Regeneration
New York City Economic Development Corporation
Board of Standards & Appeals
Port of New York & New Jersey
Judge Stalls Brooklyn Condo Warehouse
Red Hook Luxe Condos Put on Hold
Red Hook Piers 6-12
Oversight: The Future of the Cruise Line Industry in New York City
New York Cruise Facilities Master Plan
Community Working Group for Brooklyn Piers 6-12
Red Hook Maritime Heritage Trail
The Transoms of Red Hook
Waterfront Museum of Red Hook
"Gotti Art Hangs in Red Hook Restaurant"
Red Hook Container Terminal
American Stevedoring Inc.
"Environmental Review Stirs Doubt about Stadium Plan"
"Bloomberg's Development Strategies: Who Benefits?"
"Mike Touts Co-ops All Can Afford"
A New Yorker earning minimum wage must work 121 hours weekly to pay for 2BR FMR apartment
2004 in Review: The Year in the Rebuilding of the WTC Site
Affordable Housing and the Hudson Yards Rezoning
“There is a great opportunity in Red Hook because a lot of the properties are underutilized and a number of them have vacant lots. It's in close proximity to Manhattan, to Brooklyn Heights, to Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, all up-and-coming neighborhoods. But there hasn't been an influx of new residential construction or new retail. If additional housing were built, I think there would be additional retailers interested in going to Red Hook to service the local community.”
Barry Fishback
Retail Specialist,
Robert K. Futterman & Associates
“The city intends to bring in passenger ships to the piers behind our building in 2005. If construction doesn't resume shortly, travelers will be greeted by a vacant construction site, not by a vibrant, architecturally stunning, mixed-waterfront development.”
Bruce Batkin, principal
160 Imlay Street LLC