April 10, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
MANY New York neighborhoods now languish in obscurity, unable to get the rezoning and deregulation they need to move forward.
Thanks to decades of such neglect, badly zoned neighborhoods stagnate even as demand for residential and commercial property soars. The city has the vacant land to supply that demand - but most of it has been zoned for manufacturing, which is no longer economically viable in most neighborhoods.
Take Brooklyn's Red Hook. The 680-acre peninsula's waterfront offers what may be New York's most spectacular views: You can see the lower Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and the Verazzano Bridge simultaneously from some spots. Without zoning, such sites would be snapped up for prime residential, mixed-use development.
But such development has long been outlawed. In 1961, the city reserved a good third of its waterfront to heavy industry. Mayor Robert Wagner expanded the already huge industrial zones into adjacent residential areas, banning housing construction in neighborhoods like Red Hook that had strong residential cores.
Suddenly, owners couldn't get financing to improve even their existing homes. The law imposed blight on the neighborhood, aborting any and all natural, private development.
Back in the '80s, with no help from government, Red Hook's residents started tentatively bringing back their neighborhood. Today, long-time owners and new investors are restoring many of the area's brownstones, row houses, wooden frame houses and funky buildings. Youngsters have been moving in, bringing the area a fresh feel while patronizing the new restaurants, bars and galleries. Violent crime in the 76th precinct is down 62 percent since 1993 - without a single murder this year, versus eight in 1993.
But the dead hand of manufacturing zoning still lies across the valuable waterfront, which - since no profitable private use is allowed - has been given over to inappropriate government uses: The NYPD's huge impoundment garage; the bunker-like headquarters and parking lot for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Port Authority's long-failed Fishport - all enjoy billion-dollar views.
The opportunities still beckon to the private sector, the source of two recent, major (though conflicting) proposals for Red Hook development:
* The further along is a 346,000- square-foot Ikea furniture store, which has an option on a waterfront site. This would be America's largest Ikea by far, and would employ some 500 locals.
* Others see Red Hook as New York's Sausalito. Baltimore-based Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse proposes a privately funded, non-subsidized, mixed-use, extremely handsome development. 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 supporter, John McGettrick, co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Association.
Neither proposal can proceed as of right. Each would require extensive rezoning, special permits and community reviews. Evaluating their merits is complicated by Red Hook's isolation: Since 1936, the Gowanus Expressway has cut off the waterfront from the rest of Red Hook and Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn.
Plus, 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. New York Water Taxi, which stores its boats in Red Hook, already offers service to the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Wall Street.
Red Hook is now the poster child for New York's peculiar brand of government aggression and indifference. It's not the Bloomberg team's fault that past mayors 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. But it takes substantial capital and patience - not to mention political backing - for any plan to proceed under current law. What other proposals would come forward if the zoning were changed? Let's get the rezoning and see what the private sector proposes.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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