Red Hook's Red Light
January 11, 2005
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
RED Hook, Brooklyn, could easily be named the poster child for New York neighborhoods damaged by misguided government programs, wanton subsidies and destructive zoning. But now the city government is proposing something productive: the conversion of 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 city's booming cruise-ship industry generated $600 million in local economic activity and some 3,300 jobs in 2004, according to the Economic Development Corporation.
Far larger ships (designed for 3,000-plus 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 huge ships also need more space, which they can get in Red Hook.
But there's a 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 in Midtown.
Yet such amenities have barely begun in sparsely populated Red Hook. The main commercial corridor, Van Brunt, has a few renowned restaurants, delis, bars and galleries that attract patrons from other neighborhoods, but the neighborhood itself is not yet a destination.
The truth is that the cruise-line terminal will only succeed if Red Hook is allowed to come back residentially and economically — which is not going to happen if a local chamber of commerce has its way.
The chamber has sued to stop the conversion of a nearby empty warehouse, 160 Imlay Street, to luxury condominiums, arguing that a residential project so close to the waterfront will inevitably erode industrial uses. It contends that the Board of Standards and Appeals should not have granted a variance permitting a residential development in a manufacturing zone.
Brooklyn judge Yvonne Lewis agreed, issuing a temporary restraining order in late November and another in December, halting all construction work on the conversion. She has given herself until Jan. 18 to decide whether to impose a permanent stay.
The building is now standing unprotected and open to the elements while its developers lose millions of dollars and workers lose hundreds of construction and service jobs. Yet the project, a paragon of good planning principles, is exactly what the waterfront needs. It destroys nothing, displaces no one and rehabilitates a historic building. It does all this without government subsidies or tax abatements — and in an area that looks derelict and needs investment.
What's more, 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. In 2000, the building was bought by Industry City Associates, the New York area's largest owner of industrial space, which intended to lease it to the telecommunications industry. When the telecommunications market collapsed in 2001, the owners approached a partnership of residential developers, who concluded that the configuration, waterfront location and views made it suitable for residential.
And because the building also has a long, narrow floor plate and no modern loading docks to accommodate today's large new trucks, it can't handle most industrial uses. The surrounding streets are narrow, with no turnaround for truck deliveries. Developer Bruce Batkin says that 160 Imlay just won't work for much other than residential, particularly the upper floors.
"My partners know the industrial market better than anyone in the city," he points out, "and if there were industrial demand for this building they would know." Yet if the suit prevails, this building will languish once again, as it had for years.
New York has a stupendous resource in its underutilized, virtually empty but spectacular Brooklyn waterfront. Are we just going to let the waterfront continue on its downward spiral? Or are we going to permit the redevelopment and rehabilitation of old warehouses and factories that have reinvigorated the waterfronts of other American cities — and that private investors here are so eager to undertake?
Red Hook should be our Sausalito.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2005 New York Post
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