The Real Deal New York

Could AECOM actually pull off its plan to transform Red Hook?

Proposal calls for a $3.5B subway improvements

September 13, 2016 06:15PM
By Kathryn Brenzel

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Chris Ward and a rendering of Red Hook waterfront redevelopment (credit: AECOM)

Many great real estate projects start out as abstracts — but whether or not AECOM’s vision to transform Red Hook’s waterfront has legs hinges on several crucial details.

The company on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to build up to 45 million square feet of residential space in Red Hook, a plan that would add as many as 45,000 new apartments, 25 percent of them affordable. As part of the proposal, the company also suggested extending the No. 1 train into Brooklyn and adding three subway stops, an undertaking that it estimates will cost $3.5 billion.

Chris Ward, chief executive of AECOM’s TRData LogoTINY Metro New York, is the first to admit the vision is extremely preliminary. During a panel Tuesday organized by the New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, Ward repeatedly stressed that the company’s study of the area was in no way a plan, but rather a “framework” designed to inspire conversation. The next step is for AECOM to take the proposal to residents.

“It really is for the community to embrace,” Ward said. “If not, it’ll just be a series of ideas that won’t get realized.”

Other factors also potentially stand in the way. For one, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would need to allow its 80-acre Red Hook Container Terminal to be used for the development. The agency has floated shutting down the terminal as part of its efforts to shed its non-core real estate assets, but has not yet embraced AECOM’s vision. A spokesperson for the agency said they were currently reviewing the proposal.

AECOM would likely also need the blessings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and City Hall. Ward said both are currently focused on their own projects.

“Sounds like this is in the very preliminary stages of an idea,” Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the MTA, said in an email on AECOM’s proposal. “We look forward to hearing more about it, especially details regarding funding.”

Representatives for City Hall did not immediately respond to messages seeking additional information.

Then there’s the cost of the entire project, which remains unclear. The proposal includes three scenarios for residential development, 25 million square feet, 35 million square feet and 45 million square feet. The biggest option would pay for 45 percent of the proposed subway changes — the extension from Rector Street in Manhattan to Red Hook and three additional stops — work that AECOM reckons will cost $3.5 billion. One official told The Real Deal that $3.5 billion for a tube under the river and three stations is a “remarkably low estimate.”

Ward said that the city is currently focused on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, but feels the streetcar alone won’t do enough to address the neighborhood’s growing density. He noted the subway extension would take five years, whereas the BQX is expected to take longer (the city’s estimate is 2024). He acknowledged that subways have become associated with massive cost overruns, especially the East Side Access project, which is linking the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal. The Second Avenue subway expansion — on which AECOM is a contractor — is another notorious example of a long-delayed subway project.

“That [Second Avenue subway] has cast such a pall over whether or not we can build subways efficiently, on time and on budget,” he said. “I hope we haven’t given up on subways. It’s what made America great, they are the best way to connect neighborhoods.”

Ward said that redeveloping Red Hook could help address what he said was a critically low housing vacancy rate (just 3.45 percent in 2014) and help connect public housing to the waterfront.

Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a South Brooklyn-based nonprofit affordable housing developer, countered that encouraging growth in the neighborhood without first addressing existing inequalities — like the lack of a public high school in Red Hook — would only exacerbate problems of access.