By Lea Khayata.
Jay Amato thought he had it all planned. He was going to build his own house on a piece of land he bought at the corner of Van Brunt and Conover streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn. But the city rejected his construction permit for not complying with the zoning requirements. Amato’s property is zoned M (manufacturing). His construction plan called for workshops and offices on the ground floor of the building, with his apartment on top of it. But the residential part of the building was considered too important to comply with the requirements of an M zone.
Amato’s struggle is one of many identical fights over zoning in the neighborhood, a battle that has been going on for years. In 1961, the city zoned the five boroughs for the first time and designated almost all of Red Hook for manufacturing.
Historically, it had always been a mixed-use neighborhood with factories and houses standing side by side. Coffey Street, for example, is zoned manufacturing even though one side of the block between Ferris and Conover streets is lined with 19th century brick houses.
But manufacturing has been on the decline in the area for decades and the demand for housing is growing in the city, leading to a growing movement to revitalize Red Hook around a core of new housing. The advocates in the community and allies like the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research are pushing for rezoning to convert the M zones to residential or MX (mixed-use).
Part of the community has been advocating for decades for more housing as the key to redevelopment of the neighborhood and their voices are getting stronger. The Red Hook Civic Association paired with local businesses and proposed a plan with guidelines for developing the area around the creating of 2,600 housing units.
During the first half of the twentieth century, maritime industry was thriving in Red Hook. The Erie Basin was a major shipping hub and the Atlantic Dock Company was the most important employer in the neighborhood. Longshoremen would live in Red Hook and walk to work every day.
Containerization in the 1950’s ended Red Hook’s status as a major harbor. Big shipping companies preferred to move their business to New Jersey’s larger harbor. The land on the waterfront was abandoned and seized by the city, which undertook major reconstruction projects, demolishing some warehouses and renovating others. Maritime workers left the neighborhood, unable to find a job.
The neighborhood then went through a dark period plagued with crime and drug. New Yorkers didn’t go there, it was considered too dangerous.
In the last twenty years, Red Hook has undergone a revitalization process. Local businesses have flourished on Van Brunt Street, from restaurants to clothing shops, and the number of people moving to Red Hook is increasing every day. People come to the waterfront during the weekend, whether by car, by bike or by ferry. They go to the Ikea and the Fairway supermarket, which both opened in 2004, visit the farmer’s market and enjoy the sun on Valentino Pier, watching the fishermen set their lines on the dock facing the Statue of Liberty.
Despite this renewed interest, Red Hook’s population is still only half of the 20,000 people who lived there in the 60s.
“It means that Red Hook has the infrastructure to accommodate a much more bigger population.” says Mitchell Korbey, an urban planner and land use attorney in New York City and a former director of the Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn office.
The movement to redevelop Red Hook around the twin pillars of rezoning and new housing began in 1994 with Plan Red Hook.
Red Hook, a Plan for Revitalization, identified guidelines to turn Red Hook into a dynamic neighborhood where light industry and mixed-income housing could cohabit harmoniously.
In addition to the extra 2,600 housing units, the plan identified thirteen blocks on Van Brunt Street down to the waterfront to be rezoned from manufacture to mixed-use, precisely to reach this balance between housing and industry. The plan only enunciates recommendations in the hope that they will be followed when decisions concerning the neighborhood will have to be taken by the City or the Community Board. The City approved a lighter version of the plan in 1996, but it isn’t binding in any way.
For example, only a portion of those thirteen blocks was rezoned in 2004 as a private zone change. It belonged to Greg O’Connell, Red Hook’s biggest landowner. He was consequently able to turn the Civil War era warehouse he bought into a Fairway supermarket, adding rental housing units on top of the building. A member of the Community Board, O’Connell first opposed the plan advocating for this area to be rezoned.
One of the main arguments in favor of keeping zoning as it is in Red Hook is that there is still some unused land in the residential zone and that no change should be made before this space is occupied. Tom Angotti, an urban planning professor at Hunter’s college who worked on the plan, refutes that idea: “It’s strictly a market approach. It’s logical from a short planned point of view but if the Department of City Planning were real planners, they would see beyond that to what is needed for Red Hook’s future.”
For John McGettrick, a member of the Red Hook Civic Association, the math is simple: “More housing means more workers for the area, and more customers for local businesses.” It also means replacing industry with houses, and raising the value of the land, if one takes the other point of view on the question.
Officially, the Department of City Planning keeps an “open door policy” to any zone change request. But Red Hook’s waterfront has been identified as an Industrial Business Zone (IBZ). According to the mayor’s office website, “the IBZs represent areas in which the City provides expanded assistance services to industrial firms in partnership with local development groups. In addition, IBZs reflect a commitment by the City not to support the re-zoning of industrial land for residential use within these areas.”
Manufacture is not dead in Red Hook. “It is certainly changing, and niche manufacturing, particularly in the food industry and design, is still on the rise. “ says Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC) executive director, Josh Keller. Those activities are compatible with M zonings, and even protected by them, because the zoning designation ensures low rents. If it was to be switched to MX zoning, the price of rent would rise and small manufacturing businesses might get pushed out by commerce or housing.
Jay Amato, the unlucky owner of the corner of Van Brunt and Conover Streets, thinks his construction permit was rejected to avoid “setting an example” in the neighborhood. According to him, a lot of people expressed interest in his project and in reproducing it in Red Hook.
Amato didn’t want to build just one more building in Red Hook. He wanted to build a house that wouldn’t consume any energy, a project he labeled “Red Hook Green”. Renewable technologies were to provide the house with the energy it needed, making it completely independent from the traditional energy suppliers.
Amato has been blogging about it for a little more than a year, and now considers attracting too much attention on the project might have been a mistake after all. He is considering going for a variance – an appeal that would take between one and two years and cost him as much as $100,000 in various fees, with no guarantee of succeeding. It would allow him to build his house despite the zoning, a process many people decide to go through in the neighborhood to get around the zoning issue.
But some disagree with this strategy. Greg O’Connell, who built the Fairway and owns more than 80 properties in Red Hook considers zoning in Red Hook as the chance to keep it as a balanced neighborhood. “People want to live here. I can understand why and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the small business owners are happy here and it’s productive for them. If you lose the working waterfront, if you give it up to residential development, you never get it back.” said O’Connell to the Center for an Urban Future in 2005.
The zoning issue is at the heart of Red Hook’s future. Keeping the dominant M zoning on the waterfront would preserve and supposedly bring back industries to the neighborhood, a prospect about which there is much skepticism among developers like Amato.
“It’s like waiting for Santa Claus to come,” he says.
On the other hand, allowing for more residential zoning has its own risks. It would bring more people to Red Hook, but some fear the threat of high-rise building being erected on the waterfront and pushing away manufactures.
For Mitchell Korbey, Red Hook is a very complicated area, with a lot of history and undergoing changes. “It is hard to strike the right balance.”