Free Red Hook!

Many cities have split personalities when it comes to sprawl. On the one hand they scorn sprawl and turn to urban rail and subsidies to attract development, on the other hand outdated zoning ordinances often stifle New Urbanist developments that would take root naturally. 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. You can see the results of outdated zoning all over Brooklyn. In Williamsburg, for example, there are lots of apartments, hip restaurants and all sorts of things that embody that word that planners are so fond of, “eclectic.” However, all this great stuff halts at the waterfront where big gray boxes peer across the river to Manhattan. (I wonder if locals would be so complacent if the big boxes had Wal-Mart signs out front.) Let’s see if New Urbanist design will be allowed to grow in Red Hook: 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. Perhaps SBER would have a better shot if they lobbied for subsidies.