Here Comes the Neighborhood

On Brooklyn's Waterfront, Condo Towers Are Replacing Historic Dockyards and Factories.

Several buildings at Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Refinery, which date to 1883, are under consideration for landmark status. The site's developers have been agreeable to preserving some buildings for affordable housing.

Credit: Municipal Art Society of New York

"To get a true feeling of New York's industrial, 19th-century waterfront, you really have to go out to Brooklyn—specifically, Red Hook.  One is privileged to see the little canal, the fishing boats, the warehouses, all as it must have been forever, or at least the past hundred years. The factories and warehouses on the canal have that brilliantly additive, piece-by-piece, higgledy-piggledy look of tropical green stucco alongside corrugated aluminum that Frank Gehry works so hard to achieve."

—Phillip Lopate, Waterfront

It wasn't long ago that Brooklyn's East River coastline, from the Newtown Creek on the Queens border to Red Hook, was considered no-man's land, with aging infrastructure and unsightly power stations marring its shores. After their heyday during the early 20th century as the nucleus of the manufacturing and shipping industries in New York City, these riverside areas were largely ignored by developers and city officials. The seven-mile sliver, just a stone's throw from Manhattan, became home to artists and a handful of intrepid, out-of-the-box thinkers.

Then, in the 1990s, real-estate prices in the borough climbed to mesmerizing heights and a debate ensued, no longer over whether the area had potential, but how to extract the most bang for the buck. All along the waterfront, it now feels as if a ship is setting sail and no one wants to be left behind.

"We're headed toward a rapid takeover by everyone who wants a piece [of land] for themselves," says David Sharps, owner of the Waterfront Museum since 1994, housed on a historic barge docked in Red Hook.

Should the historic warehouses and docks, many of which date back to the Civil War, make way for big-box stores (a relatively new trend in Brooklyn), high-rise housing or parks? Should they be repurposed or preserved? The city's answer is a complicated balancing act between the needs for jobs, housing, and preservation.

A new condo tower in DUMBO

Credit: Municipal Art Society of New York

"There has been a failure to protect the maritime infrastructure," says Lisa Kersavage, historic preservation fellow at the Municipal Art Society of New York. "So much development is happening; historic resources need to be considered." Because of these changes, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in June named Brooklyn's industrial waterfront one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America.

Buildings that may have been abandoned or underutilized for decades are now facing intense scrutiny to meet Brooklyn's growing demand for housing and shopping. Some city officials boast that almost every stretch of the borough waterfront will be completely different in 20 years. "We want a new and interesting skyline viewed from the Manhattan side of the East River," Amanda Burden, director of the department of city planning, told New York Magazine.

Brooklynites, of course, aren't really worried about pleasing Manhattan's aesthetics. What they are concerned about is having affordable places to live and work. Vicki Weiner, director of Planning and Preservation at the Pratt Center for Community Development, says one way to achieve this is to maintain as many of the manufacturing zones around the waterfront as possible.

Communities like Red Hook know what ill-conceived planning can do. The area thrived during the first half of the last century, when thousands of longshoremen loaded and unloaded barges transporting grains, raw sugar, coffee beans, and other goods. Then, after World War II, Red Hook was cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by a super expressway and tunnel which bypassed the small neighborhood. The ultimate blow landed when the shipping industry changed to containerization, eliminating jobs and requiring more space. Thus began an exodus of people to search for more favorable areas, leaving Red Hook in a time warp. Enter IKEA. Read more >>

The Swedish home furnishings company is building a store with a parking lot on the Red Hook waterfront. The parking lot will pave over a Civil War-era graving dock, a facility that allowed ships to be pulled in and water to be pumped out, exposing the hull for repair. The graving dock was one of a handful still in use on the East Coast. Many people, including Sharps, took their protest of the parking lot all the way to the city council to no avail. Some feel the parking lot will ultimately benefit the community more than an old ship repair dock due to the additional jobs the store will create.


The view from Red Hook, Brooklyn

Credit: Municipal Art Society of New York

It's true that city officials lament the jobs going across the Hudson River to New Jersey. This is one point not many people in Brooklyn would argue: the desire to keep workers, and their money, in the borough. But it is hard to reconcile this with recent events: the rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront, which allows 30- and 40-story condominium towers, replacing industrial infrastructure such as the beloved Old Dutch Mustard building; the cruise ship docks in Red Hook, originally touted as a boost to the local economy (instead, passengers disembark, only to be whisked away in buses to spend money in Manhattan); and the 100-year-old Revere Sugar Factory, also in Red Hook, demolished to make way for six luxury housing buildings.

Of course, preservation groups say, park esplanades and residential conversions are not a bad thing. Green spaces are always welcome in a concrete jungle, such as the ones in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. While their goal to maintain the area's maritime and industrial infrastructure, "there is a financial reality," Weiner points out. Luxury condominiums bring in more money per square foot than manufacturing facilities. "But if the waterfront is to retain the character of what drew people to these neighborhoods in the first place, enough of the buildings should be preserved as to understand what went on there," Kersavage says.

Adaptive reuse is the catch phrase to describe what is going on at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The 300-acre complex near the Williamsburg neighborhood, once dedicated to building and restoring warships, now houses 230 companies which make everything from Sweet 'n Low packets to recycled-glass countertops. Another example: Greg O'Connell's historic warehouses in Red Hook, with a more than 95 percent occupancy rate, that have been revived as artists' studios and small businesses such as Key lime pie bakery.

Preparing for an estimated one million additional New Yorkers by 2030 while preserving the integrity of the communities has proven to be more of a tightrope walk than anyone could have imagined. "Cities are growing, living things, and change is a necessary component." Weiner says. "But we want to preserve the things that are important."

Jacquelin Cangro is the editor of The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York, a collection of essays about the New York City subway system. She recently completed her first novel and is now at work on a new book about 15 of America's most beloved places. 

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