Colossal container cranes, towering up above the waterfront in Red Hook, have long been part of Brooklyn’s landscape. But in the next decade, this visual landmark will likely disappear, say former city officials and community activists, as the port facilities are expected to eventually shift to a new location.
The Red Hook Container Terminal sits on one of the most coveted real estate properties in South Brooklyn. Red Hook’s waterfront has long been caught in a tug-of-war between competing interests that have divided the community. On one side, there’s a push to rezone the area for mixed-use, thus paving the way for commercial and residential development, and on the other, a fight to preserve Red Hook’s maritime business.
However, recent events signal a slow fade out of containerization in Red Hook, marking the possible end to the neighborhood’s working waterfront.
“I think that all parties recognize that it [Red Hook] is an inappropriate location for the container port given the lack of space and given the failure to have a rail connection. Subsequently it should be re-located to probably Sunset Park and that would be a much more efficient use of the space there, which has access to a rail service,” said John McGettrick, an influential community activist and co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Association.
The most significant event boding change for the waterfront came in September with a decision by the Port Authority, which controls the property where the Red Hook Container Terminal sits. American Stevedoring, the shipping company that had operated the containers on Piers 7-12 since the early 1990’s, had allegedly fallen into financial difficulties and the Port Authority cancelled its lease.
A new operation lease was quickly signed with Phoenix Beverage Inc, a beer distributor, but only for one year. The brevity of the lease seemed to indicate more change was afoot, perhaps in anticipation of the eventual shift of the container facility to South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park.
Chris Ward, the former executive director of the Port Authority, insists that the one-year lease isn’t just a temporary fix.
“The purpose of signing a one-year deal with Phoenix was to secure quickly a new anchor tenant in the face of American Stevedoring’s financial incapacity to meet its obligations going forward,” says Ward. “Having said that, it would have been impossible in that quick rush of time to re-negotiate a long-term, ten-year lease.”
While Ward anticipates that the one-year lease will be extended for a number of years, he also says that the Red Hook Container Terminal should be relocated to the Sunset Park location, adjacent to Industry City, in the near future.
“Clearly New York City and Brooklyn need to retain its working waterfront primarily active for containers, but the land use patterns now hinted that it is far better to locate them down in South Brooklyn than it is to continue to burden Red Hook,” says Chris Ward.
The move to South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, however, can’t happen overnight. Phoenix has poured $10 to $14 million dollars into the piers in Red Hook, and according to Ward, will need “to amortize that investment.” It will also take time to develop a plan to build and expand the infrastructure needed at 39th Street to support the relocation of the Red Hook containers.
This move, though, could benefit the development of Governor’s Island. The Red Container Terminal sits directly across from this 172-acre island and would be a natural departure point for ferries. The city began a redevelopment plan for the island in 2006 that focused on building parks and public spaces. The first phase of construction will start in 2012. Before stepping down from his position as director of Port Authority this past November, Chris Ward emphasized the need to create a connection between the piers where the Red Hook Container Terminal resides and Governor’s Island.
“More importantly it [the Red Hook Container Terminal] was going to limit growth for both Governor’s Island and restrict the utilization of the waterfront for public access. Better the containers are industrialized and everything take place on 39th Street behind Industry City.”
The ouster of American Stevedoring in mid September came on the heels of an announcement from Daniel A. Zarrili, the senior vice president of asset management at the New York Economic Development Corporation, that the NYEDC is investing over $115 million in infrastructure improvements to reopen the South Brooklyn marine Terminal in 2012.
Initially built in the 1960’s as a container port, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park shut down its operations in the 1980’s and functioned as a tow pound for the NYPD. This new investment will provide the infrastructure for the reopened port to connect rail service from the site to the national freight system, which in turn, will reduce truck traffic in the area. The terminal will house a new municipal recycling facility and import and export automobiles along with other kinds of cargo.
The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal is 22.4 acres larger than the Red Hook Container Terminal, and offers the quickest access to the open ocean than any other facility in New York Harbor, according to Port Authority. From a geographic and land-use standpoint, Sunset Park appears better situated for containerization.
Jonathan R. Peters, a Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center fellow and Professor at The College of Staten Island CUNY, says that the changes in the shipping industry will make it difficult for a small container port like the Red Hook Container Terminal to stay competitive. The size of container ships are increasing along with the amount of cargo they are transporting.
According to a presentation on “Brooklyn’s Waterfront Economic Base and Future Trends” prepared by Peters and his colleagues for a waterfront conference in October, the ships coming into Brooklyn today are 600 feet long and the ships in the future will be 1300 feet long. Right now, ships servicing Brooklyn carry 300 to1300 40 foot boxes of cargo, but soon, the number will increase to 7500 per ship. The container terminals will eventually need to undergo renovations in order to handle the scale of these new ships.
“You want to prepare Brooklyn for the next 20 years. You want to look forward and adapt the port,” says Peters. “Even if you were going to keep Red Hook, you would have to refit it.”
If the Red Hook Container Terminal is not equipped to handle these changes in the shipping industry, Peters, along with community activists and developers are suggesting alternative ideas for the piers.
Peters is skeptical that containerization is the best use for the Red Hook waterfront and recommends focusing on ship repair and maintenance instead, with some residential and commercial development.
“It [development] has to fit with natural character of community. I don’t think you have to definitively go to commercial or residential. I think you should try to think about the maritime commerce that fits in that area,” says Peters. “Maybe it is not large commercial freight, but maybe it moves from being a freight facility to supporting construction materials with some area for housing and some for maritime use.”
Even as the containers remain stationed along Columbia Waterfront, residential development and parks are sprouting up in the areas adjacent to the piers—an indication that developers are anticipating that the Red Hook Container Terminal will be gone sooner rather than later.
The Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, a non-profit organization working to plan and implement a 14-mile greenway along the Brooklyn waterfront, just created a bike path along the Columbia Street waterfront. The organization also is pushing to turn a 1.7 acre parcel of land that sits abandoned next to the containers into what they call “an open space node” or public access resembling a park.
Across the street the Red Hook Container Terminal, developer, Louis V. Greco, has started construction on an 11-unit luxury condo development that he says “will have harbor views until someone builds on the piers.”
And this might not be the only residential development taking shape right now. Two weeks after news spread about the abrupt departure of American Stevedoring, the owners of 160 Imlay Street, the crumbling warehouse once in line for condo development, were issued a permit for a sidewalk shed, a structure designed to protect pedestrians from any rubble while construction is underway.
This is the first permit filed in the last two years since the plan to convert the property into luxury condos was abandoned in 2008. The developer Bruce Federman first faced resistance from the community when he won a variance to change the use of the building from manufacturing to residential in 2003. The Red Hook-Gowanus Chamber of Commerce took him to court and delayed the renovations until 2008. By the time Federman was able to move forward, the recession had set in and the housing market was in bad shape.
“There are plans,” says Federman. “Now we’re reexamining it and doing what we need to do to make it safe and make a proper decision of whether to make it a residential property again. It would probably be rentals if it would go in the near future.”
Federman is also a partner at Industry City Associates, the group that owns Bush Terminal, which happens to be located in Sunset Part directly next to the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal.
“Imlay Street going residential would be a good thing for Red Hook,” says Lou Sones, member of Brooklyn Community Board 6. “We need more housing in Red Hook in general.”
The potential end of containerization elicits different reactions from residents in Red Hook.
“If anything were to happen, I would want retail stores—more infrastructure for Red Hook,” says Dhrubo Mazumdar, a resident and employee at the restaurant, Fort Defiance.
Barry O’Meara, the owner of the bar, Red Hook Bait and Tackle, who has lived in Red Hook since the mid 90’s, is ambivalent about the possible shift to commercial and residential.
“It would be great to keep the history as it is—what this part of the world was at one point in time, but money is money.”
“There is no doubt that housing is a sexy thing, especially when you’re looking for waterfront, but there needs to be a balance,” says real estate developer, Greg O’Connell, who has played an integral role in Red Hook’s revitalization. “What makes Red Hook unique is that you do have a good balance of working class people, small businesses, and you have artist people moving into the area. It is a constant revaluation of what the needs are and how to balance them.”
No one can say with certainty what is in store for the piers where the Red Hook Container Terminal currently sits, but most would agree that change is on its way.
“I do say that you really have to take a hard and fast look at the Red Hook container port or any [area] that has a working waterfront because once you lose it, you’re never going to get it back,” says Greg O’Connell.