As the sun sets over the peninsula of Red Hook, the streets become dark and desolate, making it hard to envision what this quiet waterfront community would look like if filled with an endless flow of motorists. What makes the idea of bumper to bumper traffic seem almost anachronistic is the narrow cobblestone streets. They appear like a remnant from another era, as do the area’s historical homes and its massive warehouses all along the water. The proposed opening of an Ikea threatens to alter the character of Red Hook in every way.
Many local residents feel that Red Hook has literally been viewed as a dumping ground for the rest of New York City. The threat of traffic, and all that comes with it, is just another battle some residents have taken upon themselves to fight. Beyond just congested streets and pollution, many locals fear that heavy traffic could forever alter the character of the area. Some take pride that, as compared to other parts of New York City, there is a rugged feeling of isolation in Red Hook. No subway lines are to be found and only a couple of city buses pass through the area. This sense of separateness has created an unusual bond of community not found in less isolated neighborhoods. Whether young or old, working class or professional, ethnic born or native, area locals share a keen awareness of place.
Ask an elderly woman walking down the street where to find Sunny’s, a local bar where young writers hangout and read their work, and she will, more than likely, elaborate on its whole history. Or talk to a group of teenagers playing basketball who have never set foot inside an art gallery where to find the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC), and they will know. In light of the continuing changing landscape of New York City, it is the familiarity that most residents share about their neighborhood that gives this community an almost small-town feel. This sensibility lays at the heart core of why some residents believe big development is bad for Red Hook.
It has been well over a year since Ikea made plans to its newest location in Red Hook and the tensions have not abated between those who are against it, and those who are for it. If anything, both sides have grown more rigid and their convictions stronger. Opponents see Ikea as a 346,000 square foot behemoth, while proponents see it as a force that will not only revitalize the neighborhood but also make good use of an abandoned waterfront. It’s a fight between preserving a way of life versus an acceptance of a new pragmatic reality.
It isn’t a matter of each side looking out for their own self-interest, as both pro and anti Ikea forces have a genuine commitment toward making their community a better place to live for all. Everyone wants to work toward improving the schools, supply more affordable housing, attract businesses, and lower the high unemployment rate. Both Ikea opponent John McGettrick, an activist with an impressive resume of community involvement, and Ikea proponent Ray Hall, a security guard who started a 14-year program dedicated to helping youth, show a sincere drive to work for the betterment of the neighborhood.
When locals with opposing viewpoints express their positions, the one phrase one hears most often is “keeping the balance.” However, as the conversation continues, the definition of the word “balance” differs depending upon who is speaking. For McGettrick, “balance” means maintaining a quality of life; for Hall, it means giving opportunity to a neighborhood with an unemployment rate of 20 percent.
In the days before the Fairway development, and now the proposed Ikea, long-time residents banded together often. They worked to reduce the number of waste treatment plants, stopped a proposed sludge plant from operating, and fought against making Red Hook the new Fresh Kills landfill of New York City. But while it’s easy to rally around something as unpopular as waste and debris, the prospect of having a mammoth superstore on a piece of property the size of two football fields is another thing altogether. For some, it means jobs; to others, it spells disaster. In many respects, the Ikea proposal is the biggest turning point this community has faced since the loss of the shipping industry in the 1950s.
Directly across from the proposed Ikea site, McGettrick sits with a stern expression sipping beer at a back table in Lillie’s, a local watering hole. McGettrick gives a slow and systematic rundown on why Ikea is wrong for this neighborhood. He maintains that the new motorists alone, not including existing traffic, would generate well over a million pounds of air pollution a year. This would potentially yield a rising number of asthma cases, not just in Red Hook, but also in surrounding neighborhoods. The multiple problems that could result from the excess traffic help explain why McGettrick has garnered the support of local organizations including the Sunset Park Business Improvement District and the Park Slope Chamber of Commerce.
Working with McGettrick is Elizabeth Ernish, a resident and former Senior Transportation Planner, who, coincidentally, was trained by Sam Schwartz, the traffic expert and Daily News columnist. Schwartz was hired by Ikea as a consultant to study the traffic impact patterns on Red Hook and surrounding areas. Ernish gleefully admits that Schwartz taught her everything she knows. At a conservative estimate, Ernish says, Ikea will attract about 50,000 cars per week, not including additional car trips motorists might make.
Rustling through papers laid out on her table, Ernish finds a map and goes over the three main routes to get to the proposed Ikea site. Choosing Ninth Street will take drivers right through a residential community, making it difficult for residents and motorists alike. Another route is down Van Brunt Street, which runs right through the center of Red Hook along an old cobblestone street, giving motorists a less than smooth ride along the way. The third main route is through Hamilton Avenue to Smith Street. Although this route is not residential, there is already a lot of vehicular traffic, to which would be added about 9,000 cars a day. The Gowanus Expressway is in poor condition and parts of the B.Q.E. are expected to close for repairs that could take years to fix, only adding to the traffic problems.
Ernish gets exasperated, saying Ikea is not thinking this situation through. “Ikea,” she says, “needs to locate near a large highway or arterial, not in a setting like Red Hook. I just don’t see how they’re going to do it.”
Ikea is very much aware that traffic is the most serious and contentious issue among residents, and the company is not taking it lightly. Officials from Ikea are working with the M.T.A. to get more bus service to Ikea, originating from Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn. Ikea’s private busses also would shuttle shoppers back and forth from the Jay Street station as well as the Fourth Avenue subway stop. The store’s most novel plan is to lessen road traffic through a ferry service that will pick passengers up in lower Manhattan and drop them off at the Red Hook waterfront.
Ikea spokesperson Pat Smith maintains that the proposed Ikea in Red Hook will not create a situation that will dramatically increase traffic in the region. Smith points out that 58 percent of residents in Brooklyn are without automobiles, while 80 percent of Manhattanites are car free. Ikea, Smith says, expects 90 percent of New York City residents to take bus service to Ikea. That number is obviously quite high, and doesn’t account for the suburbanites coming in to fill up their SUV’s with Ikea goods.
Sitting in his weather-beaten pickup truck near the waterfront, local developer Greg O’Connell agrees that traffic will be a problem. But he believes the opportunity for more jobs in Red Hook will act as an agent toward bridging the social gap in the community. O’Connell says he is withholding his final judgment on Ikea until the Environmental Impact Study is complete, and maintains that critics are not looking at the entire picture and are too quick to judge.
“Until you get the facts can you make a decision,” says O’Connell. “I think it’s still an early stage. I look forward to reading this environmental study so I can evaluate it and be able to make a better decision on what’s good.”
An issue unclear to many is the fate of the historic cobblestone streets that line much of Red Hook. Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning, says as proposed by Ikea, the only cobblestone street that would be affected is on Beard Street, which runs by the Ikea site. The cobblestones would be removed and the street widened. No other streets would be touched, says de Bourbon.
Ikea still has several bureaucratic procedures it must pass through before obtaining final approval. The company is currently in the early stages of trying to get an Environmental Impact Statement. This lengthy process will take a comprehensive look at the issues that many of Ikea’s critics are most concerned about, including traffic, air quality, water pollution, noise control, and non-interference with maritime activity. Smith said an application was filed with the Department of City Planning to begin the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Because the Ikea site is zoned for heavy manufacturing (M-3), Ikea must try to get it rezoned for light manufacturing (M-1).
In addition, since Ikea plans to use well over 10,000 square feet of space, the company must apply for a special permit to do so. After the Department of City Planning certifies the application, the process will then open up for public review.
It is not hard to figure out why Ikea is willing to go through so much red tape to operate in Red Hook. Pat Smith says that while opening a new store there is one of the greatest challenges Ikea has yet faced, the fight is well worth it, since management expects the Red Hook location to generate more sales than any other store in the U.S.
Confident in its ability to jump through the hoops, Ikea is anticipating being able to open in 2005. Locals like McGettrick and Ernish, however, vow that the Red Hook opposition will continue to fight the project every step of the way.
Richard Myers is a writer based in Brooklyn.